Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium’s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic RolePlay. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so far the quality of entries in the series have varied widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, Rise of the Dead is far from dreadful in terms either editing or layout, but unfortunately, is dreadful in terms of storytelling and writing.
The setting for Rise of the Dead is one year into the future. Within the last twelve months, the world has gone to hell in a handcart. Mass sacrifices have been discovered around the world; the planet suffered a near miss with a red comet; and as fragments of the comet fell to Earth, causing earthquakes and tsunamis, world leaders were assassinated. As the scenario opens on this new post-apocalyptic future, the red comet now orbiting our planet ominously, a group of survivalists have arrived at one of the recent meteor strikes, their geologist wanting a sample. These are the player characters, and I stress “player characters,” for Rise of the Dead involves no investigation whatsoever.
Designed for four to eight players, Rise of the Dead is described on the cover as “A Post-Apocalyptic Scenario for Call of Cthulhu,” and in the frontispiece as the first part of a series and as “A Complete Scenario Kit.” All of which is mostly true. Mostly true in that it does describe a post-apocalyptic scenario for Call of Cthulhu; that it is part of a series – the second part, Rise of the Dead II: The Raid is already out and the full title of this part, Rise of the Dead Part I: The Arrival, is also given in the frontispiece; that it is complete as is; and that it is a kit in that the author gives everything to build one thing only, and that one thing in exact, unerring detail sans modification or deviation. Where it is not mostly true is that it is not a scenario in that it does not present a complex situation which the players have to apply any thought to solving its problems. Instead, the solution lies in the application of good old fashioned iron, or rather, firearms. Right from the start, the player characters are presented with one combat situation after another, and out of the scenario’s six scenes, just one of them will absolutely not be resolved by the application of force. Unless the player characters – or even the players – decide to shoot each other.
The last untruism is that Rise of the Dead is a scenario for Call of Cthulhu. Whilst it is true that it is written for use with the Call of Cthulhu rules, the Mythos is completely absent. The only threats faced by the player characters – other than that of their players having to essentially sit through this affair – consist of other men with guns and zombies. Now there is an alien entity mentioned in the scenario’s introduction, but given the fact that the author tells us nothing about him, he might as well have been named “Debbie” for all of the effect that he has on either the scenario or the player characters. Otherwise, Rise of the Dead is not a Call of Cthulhu scenario, but a zombie apocalypse scenario. To be honest, the clue – and I say clue in its loosest possible sense, because that title is about as subtle as a dead giveaway -- is in the scenario’s title.
Even so, am I wrong to have expected something more than a linear exercise in nose leading? To have expected something that demands more of the players? Either way, Rise of the Dead offers neither and nor does it provide anything out of the ordinary when it comes to the zombies. Arguably, Rise of the Dead should have been offered for the Basic RolePlay system rather than for Call of Cthulhu whilst also being offered as a standard horror scenario. Had that been done, then the purchaser’s expectations might not have been raised with it being for the wrong game.
Physically, Rise of the Dead is adequately done. It does not help the Keeper that there is little explanation prior to the scenario’s beginning. There are no illustrations, but there are maps and these are nice and clear. What few hand-outs given in the scenario really only set the scene for its opening scene despite the fact that they are actually more interesting than the supposed adventure to come. Eight pre-generated survivalist player characters are given, each ready to play. They are quite detailed, but not all that interesting, and it does not help that their backgrounds are written in the third person, so fail to engage the reader. It would have been better had they been written in the second person so that the reader and thus potential player could better identify with them. Also, several of the potential player characters identify NPCs important to them. Unfortunately, none of these NPCs appear in the scenario. So that is one potential set of character motivations completely ignored then.
Throughout the scenario the author gives staging advice, suggesting what lighting, music, and sound effects to use, and at the end, explains its origins as a campaign that had been adapted into a series of convention scenarios. This is as about as much Keeper advice as the scenario provides. Then again, how much advice does the Keeper need to have if all he is expected to do is point guns and the undead at his player characters? Oh hold on. There is piece of dialogue that needs to be read out to the players. This is about as demanding as it gets, so all the Keeper has to do is emote his best William Shatner impersonation, roll the dice, and cross off the numbers.
If Rise of the Dead is a convention scenario, and it is, then it should say so on its cover. That it does not is misleading. Just as saying that this scenario is for Call of Cthulhu is misleading. It is a horror scenario and nothing more, one that is hindered by its lack of depth and detail, and hampered by its linear structure. There is though, a potentially interesting campaign to be found in the pages of Rise of the Dead. Unfortunately, it is only described in the scenario’s hand-outs, and we have to make do with this dull sequel instead.