"Zero," Lester Smith, Archangel Entertainment

Pros: Interesting artwork; some interesting system and society innovations
Cons: Lack of internal consistency; scope and scale problems; lack of information
Rating: 2 out of 5

First published 3/15/1998
Previously published on RPGNet
Review copy courtesy of Archangel Entertainment

“Zero” is a game with problems. The major ones that came up during the playtest were these: it lacks internal consistency; it has problems with scope and scale; and it’s very short on information.

In “Zero”, everyone belongs to a hive mind called “the Equanimity” and Queen Zero rules all. The player characters are rogues; they’ve been dropped from the hive mind for some unknown reason, and are being hunted by Queen Zero as a threat to the Equanimity. They’ve lived in the Equanimity their entire lives and have never known anything else.

I. Internal Consistency

Zero” says the characters should be terrified of leaving the Equanimity. They should be lonely, afraid. They want to go back. Then suddenly they’re supposed to want freedom, and revenge upon Queen Zero and the Equanimity. No explanation. No in-between. No path from point A to point B.

“Zero” suffers from what I call the “Star Trek: Next Generation” syndrome: the belief that if you once show a being a taste of freedom and individuality, they are instantly and forever converted (in 90 seconds or less) and will never want to go back to what they knew before. The author would do well to do some research into psychology, specifically behaviorism and conditioning, to see why there is very little chance of this happening. (“Obedience to Authority” would be a good resource.) In the sample adventure (which we ran in one hour and ten minutes), there’s a point at which Queen Zero contacts the rogue characters, says there’s been a mistake, and offers them rewards if they will come back to the Equanimity. Not a single one of our four players could reject that offer without having to stretch their logic for doing so very thin. (Note that the continuance of the adventure, and the continuance of the characters’ lives, depended on their rejecting the offer.) It almost entirely defied the internal consistency of the characters, their world, and their world-view for them to survive their expulsion from the Equanimity. Perhaps with more information given on the physical and psychological effects of dropping from the Equanimity, the author could provide the characters with a consistent reasoning for the observations he ascribes to them.

On page 9, the book says “it’s pretty obvious that Queen Zero has used [the members of the hive] as little more than machines.” This shouldn’t be obvious at all. The characters have lived in the Equanimity their entire lives; they’ve never met an outside civilization. They have no concept of minimum wage, unions, set working hours, or comfortable living conditions. The book does a lot of this: telling you what your characters are supposed to think and feel. This might not be so bad if it didn’t tell you things that didn’t make much sense. As it is, the author ascribes great leaps of logic to the characters with little explanation; without that explanation, his conclusions often seem very wrong.

II. Scope and Scale

This may be my personal preference, but I like game systems that give me a world to play with and set me loose, maybe with a few ideas for what sorts of plots might be going on. “Zero” gives us a story. Every campaign is supposed to start almost the same way, with the characters going rogue from the Equanimity. That might be interesting once, perhaps even twice, but three times? Four? The book says, on page 48, “There is an epic story arc for “Zero”, as well. It is a story begun within the pages of this book, and continued in its expansions.” This book has the feel of a one-shot, not a world in which you can run campaign after campaign.

The section of ideas for adventures aren’t really ideas for adventures at all: they’re ideas for scenes, and they’re simplistic at best.

I predict that this game, as a money-making product for the company that sells it, will ultimately fail. If the supplements are as low on information as this main book and only give you enough material to continue their story arc, then there is no reason for more than one person in a gaming group to ever buy these books. And they won’t turn around and introduce more people to it by running other campaigns, because there aren’t any other campaigns to run.

III. Lack of Information

One thing our playtesters liked was the simplicity of the rules and the swiftness and ease of character creation. But given that simplicity and ease, why do the rules of the system take up most of the book?

There isn’t enough story and there isn’t enough information and background; at least one or the other is necessary here. The basic concept is pretty interesting, but there isn’t enough meat to it. All of the information given is on the Equanimity, which the characters are supposed to be trying to get away from. There’s plenty of information on Queen Zero and those who are close to her, but if she has half a brain cell the hapless rogues won’t get near her – at least, certainly not at this stage of the game. There is almost no information on the outside world; you can make it up, but since there’s supposed to be a continuing story arc you risk making later supplements useless to you. There’s something wrong when you exhaust the information they’ve given you after an hour and ten minutes of play.

You can of course use your own creativity – take what you like and build your own game around it. In this case, the useful information in this book could probably be condensed into about 20 pages, at most, and that isn’t worth $25, no matter how many pretty pictures they give us. (Hell, the full book isn’t worth close to $25.)

This book would benefit greatly for having introduced and described other societies (and/or races), both known and unknown to the Equanimity.

IV. A Few Other Comments

There are a number of details in the book which make sense for the society as it is described, but which don’t necessarily make for a good roleplaying game. The characters have virtually no background at all, and they have a very limited set of abilities from which to choose. It can be hard to play a character that’s really nothing more than a caste and a few stats. Also, the castes attempt to regulate personality, appearance, and the like too much.

Some of the system is rather good. Again, the simplicity was lauded. The stun and wound arrows are nice. The dice system was fairly good and simple, although it was tough to judge the effects of modifiers without a time of game play to get used to them, and the only suggested modifiers have a huge effect on the outcome of the rolls. The experience system was called “not very useful”; the conclusion reached was that it mostly resulted in a lot of shuffling around, with very little ultimate improvement of the characters. The rule on using experience points to soak damage is too easy to abuse unless the game master keeps a tight rein on it. For that matter, a lot of the game is easy to abuse if you don’t have a good, strong-willed GM to control the rules-lawyers (and for that matter, you’d be better off making sure you just don’t play this game with rules-lawyers).

“Zero” also suffers from what I like to call the “Dungeons & Dragons” “okay, who’s going to play the Cleric?” problem. The castes are restricted enough that you really need to make sure you have someone from every caste available in order to have a decent spread of abilities.

I suspect that part of the problem with “Zero” is the marketing. It’s in the roleplaying game section, and it’s marketed as an rpg. However, if you look at the very last page, you find out that to a large degree it’s a showcase for the artist’s work. Maybe those glossy, full-color pages explain the outrageous price. If that’s what it’s supposed to be, then it should probably market itself as such. It might attract more people who would be willing to pay the price for what they’re getting.

I will say that we honestly enjoyed playing “Zero”, although probably not in the way in which the author intended us to enjoy it. Here’s one of the more memorable player quotes:

“It’s like ‘Paranoia’, but at least ‘Paranoia’ expects you to laugh at it.” – Nick

Posted in Gaming, Reviews

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