You Should Be Playing…
The world ended in 1905, but life continued on. The dead began to rise from their graves, and science was at a loss to explain it. The animated dead surged forth across civilization, and the lights of the world winked out, one by one. With the risen dead came a terrible plague, causing the victims of their bites to sicken, die and rise to join them in rapid succession. With plague came blight upon the earth, turning farmland to ruin and threatening starvation across the world. Humanity withdrew to its last few bastions, armed with weapons of every type they could manufacture, and they fought.
It has been two hundred years since the end of the world. but humanity survived and has managed to take back many of its lost cities. However, the animated dead are not the only danger in the world; many new and strange things dwell in the smog-choked streets of London, circa 2105.
Unhallowed Metropolis is an action horror role-playing game written by Jason Soles and Nicole Vega, and produced by New Dark Age. Originally published by Eos Press in 2007, it has been revised and republished under Atomic Overmind. Unhallowed Metropolis is set in an alternate future London where the zombie apocalypse occurred in 1905. It is heavily influenced by a gas mask chic, and it incorporates several elements more common to steampunk. The steampunk association is somewhat misleading, however, as the game is not actually about the embrace of the nostalgic utopias of steam power and difference engines that are common in steampunk.
Indeed, Unhallowed Metropolis is a game that embraces a neo-Victorian aesthete, with strong elements drawn from the gothic novels of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley and a DIY dystopia that is one part Frank Miller, one part Hammer Film Studios. In short, Unhallowed Metropolis is more Tesla-punk than steampunk.
Nevertheless, the setting of Unhallowed Metropolis is extraordinarily researched and thought out, if a little bit overreaching in the sheer scope of the monsters it includes. The revised book opens with an extensive map of London, and the default setting of that city is virtually inextricable from the game. Every aspect of Victorian life, from clothing, to class divisions, to hygiene, is explored within the game in a starkly honest method. While the Victorian society of England is often held up as an admirable example of human civilization, the neo-Victorian world of Unhallowed Metropolis is a dark mirror to that time of history. It brings the flaws of Victorian society into sharp contrast and challenges that admiration.
The city of London is presented as an overcrowded nest of human misery, choked with smog of the vast charnel houses that burn the dead and the power plants that keep the Tesla towers running. The wealthy enjoy a comfortable, if bleak, existence, while the poor can only be considered better off dead if they are not rising from their graves or becoming food for the things that live in the sewers below. Crime is rampant, exploitation is the norm, and the threat of death at the hands of a horrific creature is around every corner. As with any good game, however, what makes a world a terrible place to live makes it a fantastic place to play.
A player chooses their character’s “Calling” from several options, such as a Criminal, a Doctor, or Aristocrat. The setting also includes unique Callings, such as the Undertakers, mercenary monster hunters who kill monsters for the money, or Mourners, a guild of highly trained killers who specialize in making sure the dead sleep peacefully by any means necessary.
The game itself uses a fairly simple system of “Attributes” and “Skills” that depict a character’s base competence and training in fields of expertise. Each Calling has “Stunts,” which are special actions and abilities tied to a Calling’s central Skill. The game is rounded out by a set of “Qualities” and “Impediments” to show unique traits of a character that are not covered by Attributes or Skills.
Finally, every player character possesses a “Corruption,” which is a particular character flaw they can tap into to drive them to extraordinary ends. Corruptions can be an addiction, a disease, an insatiable lust for killing, emotional atrophy, or any number of other flaws. By feeding into this Corruption and allowing it to grow, a character can gain re-rolls on failed actions or even stave off certain death. Should a Corruption grow too strong though, it will consume a character and they will no longer be suitable for play.
Combat in Unhallowed Metropolis is swift and deadly. As with any game featuring zombies as a common enemy, the rules for called shots to the head and other areas are clear and precise. Melee combat is differentiated from ranged combat through a variety of modifiers, with the latter typically being preferable to the former when dealing with the dead. Any attack that lands has a potential to be crippling to a living creature, and it is very easy for a character that is not built for combat to be overwhelmed and killed through sheer numbers. While a character that is built for combat can easily handle themselves in many situations, all it takes is a single lucky hit to kill nearly anyone or anything in the game. No combat, no matter how simple or seemingly harmless, is truly safe. This is a high point of the game, as it captures the dread and hopelessness of the horror genre: no matter how powerful a character can get, or how unstoppable their enemy seems, a single lucky attack either way could spell the end of the fight.
It is understandable, then, that Unhallowed Metropolis is a game that benefits from an extensive section of equipment, and it allows for a great variety of choices. Several different types of armor are available to a character, as well as a great many unique firearms and melee weapons. The equipment in the game covers everything from hold out knifes to giant, electric-powered tower canons for point defense against armies of the dead.
There is also an extensive section on drugs and alchemy, with special attention given towards how such substances can lead to their abuse. Drug addiction is a very common thing in a setting as bleak as Unhallowed Metropolis, and there are always the unscrupulous ready to take advantage of the weak and the wounded. Still, the section on alchemy shows examples of how to combat the plague and the blight, as well as how to extend the human lifespan. Substances which make a person young again are highly sought after, but are available for sale in a variety of ways.
For a game nominally about zombies, Unhallowed Metropolis includes an extensive bestiary of other gothic horror staples. Vampires came as a second plague after the zombies, as well as various ghosts and spirits. Half-living ghouls dwell under the city of London, feeding on the refuse and the dead. Super soldier projects lead to the creation of “thropes,” which are a cross between a werewolf and Mr. Hyde.
Humanity has also explored various means of creating new life or artificially resurrecting the dead without the plague, leading to the creation of “anathema” and “mercurials.” Anathema are artificially created humans created through alchemy, while mercurials are cobbled together human bodies reanimated through electricity and science. The world has become a much stranger place than it was in 1905, and it is filled with a variety of monsters, many of whom are indistinguishable from normal humans.
Unhallowed Metropolis is a brilliant deconstruction of neo-Victoriana and zombie horror, while still remaining a highly compelling and fun game to play. There is a very poignant sense of realism at work here. Player characters are not larger than life heroes, the threat of death is always present, and it is unlikely that life will get any better for them or anyone else as time goes on. Every story of Unhallowed Metropolis is a tragedy, drawing the player into being party to their own character’s inevitable destruction in the face of a callous and brutal world. London of 2105 is a terrible place to live, but for the right sort of character, it can be an amazing place to feel alive.
And that is why you should be playing Unhallowed Metropolis.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he is always on the lookout for creative tabletop games. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo Credits: Undertaker v animated by Melissa Uran.