Although the C.J. Carella-designed Unisystem debuted in Witchcraft, and the Cinematic Unisystem version powered the likes of the Buffy and Angel RPGs, the former never caught the world on fire whilst the latter two, as licensed RPGs, could only last on the market as long as Eden Studios held onto the licence.
The perennial hit for Eden Studios as far as Unisystem goes, by all appearances, would seem to be All Flesh Must Be Eaten, the iconic zombie apocalypse RPG. Perhaps in part it was the beneficiary of good timing; originally released in 1999, it managed to hit the market just as the Resident Evil games were reminding people of how fun zombies are, and sufficiently soon before the likes of 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead put the zombie revival into high gear that when that cultural wave hit, there was already a healthy support line out there for the game.
Still, you can’t ascribe all its success to good timing – if it were a poor game there’s plenty of horror competition out there that could have happily knocked it off its perch. Luckily, the Bundle of Holding a while back offered an All Flesh bundle, so let’s take a look at the offerings there and see how well-preserved the meat here is…
All Flesh Must Be Eaten
The game itself is a fairly no-nonsense affair. The core Unisystem principles – having previously debuted in CJ Carella’s Witchcraft – is a functional but not especially exciting system by itself; where the game excels is in the tools it provides for you. For character creation purposes, you get three tiers of power – Norms for your high-fatality just-ordinary-folks games, Survivors who have a bit more survivability, and Inspired who are about on the same power level ae Survivors and get some divinely-inspired powers for those whose imaginations are so miserably broken that they cannot enjoy a game where they can’t get some sort of magic. You also get a nice brace of sample characters of each type, useful for both quick NPCs and fast replacement PCs.
From the refereeing perspective, you get two really important sections. The first and by far the most important is the nice and simple bespoke zombie design system which allows you to easily cook up walking dead according to a set of parameters (level of intelligence, weaknesses, feeding habits etc.) and eyeball how much of a threat they’d be to the characters. Even with the baseline parameters given here, you can pretty much design more or less any movie zombie out there.
The other component is a brace of different settings, each with its own type of zombie and its own rationale for the zombie rising. Even if “stop the zombie plague” isn’t really a viable thing for the purposes of the game you want to run (it isn’t in any of George Romero’s stuff, after all), it’s still nice to have illustrations of how the particular origin of zombies can shape a setting accordingly. It’s also nice that none of the concepts are “it’s actual Haitian folk religion!”, though the one where “It’s an STD with an absurdly long gestation time before it zombs you” feels like it’s slightly judgemental in its implications and could be just awful in the wrong hands.
In the revised edition of the rulebook there’s also an appendix offering D20 Modern conversion rules. This is greatly preferable to the clutter involved in dual-statting stuff, especially since I am 99% sure that almost nobody is going to find that appendix useful these days, now that the D20 boom is over and D20 Modern is basically forgotten.
All Flesh first came out in the late 1990s, comfortably before movies like 20 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake prompted a major resurgence of zombie movies, and it was perfectly placed to ride that wave. It also makes a nice baseline presentation of the Unisystem for any modern-day game where you are playing reasonably ordinary characters, which is a nice bonus. It’s a solid release which really nails its core concept.
One of the Living
This expansion book by Ben Monroe essentially adds more of everything to the game – more character creation options, more quick PC templates, more sample settings, more zombie-building options.
It doesn’t do this altogether blindly, however. The specific thrust of the supplement is to better support long-term campaigns, or at least games based around the premise of long-term survival after the rise of the zombies. Welcome additions therefore include a system for jury-rigging equipment out of scavenged pieces, notes on what bits of technology a small group of survivors might viably be able to put together and maintain, and a fully fleshed-out mini-setting – a prison that has become the fortified stronghold of several groups of survivors.
Notably, so far as I can make out this would have been written before the prison idea was rolled out in the Walking Dead comic series and became a major plot point there, and to be honest I do wonder whether the book was an inspiration to Robert Kirkman in writing his endless zombie soap opera. Either way, it’s a valuable supplement for fleshing out a style of play which, whilst viable with the core All Flesh rules, really comes into its own with the suggestions given here.
Book of Archetypes 1 and 2
These two thin volumes give you exactly what they offer on the front cover: stacks of archetypes to use either as NPCs or quick replacement PCs in your All Flesh game. The first book focuses mostly on vanilla All Flesh, with a range of Norm, Survivor, and Inspired archetypes; the second book features a mix of generally useful archetypes and ones suited for more offbeat settings. Both are sufficiently useful that you’ll want to have them handy for when half the party gets eaten and the survivors need new buddies.
Atlas of the Walking Dead
Written by Graeme Davis, this offers a close look at various “walking dead” depictions from folklore and pop culture across the world (with many entries including further examples of far-flung legends fitting similar niches). Whilst care would have to be taken with the handling of many of these to avoid demonising the cultures they hail from (and particular care would have to be taken with the “femme fatale” category), the book neatly expands the possibilities of All Flesh by giving ample examples of gravewalkers other than Romero zombies. (Some could potentially make interesting special adversaries in a conventional All Flesh game too.) As such, the Atlas is a very useful resource indeed.
Enter the Zombie/Dungeons & Zombies
These two supplements are part of a series of genre releases for All Flesh Must Be Eaten which adapt the system to very different genres from its survival horror baseline. In some respects, it’s a rather clever way to put out adaptations of the Unisystem to these different genres without taking the risk of producing an entire standalone game – simply package it as a supplement for the popular All Flesh line and make sure you include some genre-appropriate zombies and off you go.
However, the risk aversion involved in the strategy points to the big issue with these supplements – they’re really tackling genres which other games have already more or less nailed. As far as generic systems go, the Unisystem is OK, but it’s not going to set the world on fire. Enter the Zombie does a serviceable conversion to the Hong Kong action movie genre, but it’s not going to match Feng Shui; Dungeons & Zombies tries to shift it over to D&D-style fantasy, but if you want D&D-type fantasy you probably are going to play D&D to accomplish it, and if you are not there are scores and scores of alternatives and Unisystem isn’t really hot enough to compete with them.
I guess these supplements (and others in the same vein, like Pulp Zombies or Fistful O’ Zombies) are handy if you want to make the Unisystem your go-to generic system for absolutely everything. I’m not sure why you would, though.
Worlds of the Dead
A supplement by various hands, offering a wide range of alternate settings for the game ranging from the historical to the science fictional. Interesting, perhaps, if you want something rather different from the standard Romero Zombies thing where it’s essentially the modern day, the origin of the zombies matters only to the extent that it affects how they operate, how they make more zombies, and how they can be killed, and the main point of proceedings is survival.
On the other hand, I kind of feel like if you’re going to All Flesh and not doing the Romero Zombies thing, it’s kind of like playing Ars Magica but not touching the magic system or basing it in medieval Europe: sure, you can do it, but you’d be passing over the game’s main selling point.
The Waking Dead
Free quickstart rules for a system simple enough to not really need them, plus an adventure that resembles a tired mashup of 28 Days Later and The Stand with a side order of “oooh, watch out for the spooky femme fatale!” nonsense. It’s free and that’s about what it’s worth.
Zombie Master Screen Booklet
A simple but not particularly impressive adventure (with one of the pregenerated PCs being a wannabe spree killer for a dose of unneeded edginess), an uninsightful essay, some system bits. Nothing to get excited about.