It Came from Toronto After Dark: Deadheads

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

Deadheads

Deadheads mashes together the unlikely genres of zombie, comedy, and road-trip movies to tell the story of Mike and Brent, two strangers that awake one day to find that they have become sentient zombies in the middle of a mindless zombie outbreak.
The two team up and set out on a cross country trek to find Mike’s girlfriend and carry out the marriage proposal he was planning before he died.  Along the way the duo tries to cope with undead life and is pursued relentlessly by the shadowy organization that created them.

The Zom-Com With Heart

Toronto After Dark kicked off ‘zombie appreciation night’ (discounted tickets were available for those in costume – a great bit of cross promotion with the Toronto Zombie Walk) with Deadheads.  The preview I had seen was pretty funny, but I was wary, as comedy is one of those things that can easily land way off the mark.  Co-writer and director Brett Pierce was in attendance and introduced the film as a ‘zombie movie with a lot of heart’, and after seeing it, I have to agree.
There’s so much to like about Deadheads that it makes me want to overlook the film’s rougher patches, which, if you ask me, is the hallmark of something special.  The low budget meant that some of the effects weren’t that great (I’m thinking of the digital fire in particular), but the zombie make-up was excellent (a sign that the Pierce brothers knew what was important to spend their limited budget on).  Similarly, there were a few slow moments in the middle of the film, but there are enough laughs in the intro and finale to make up for it.
The immediate comparison will be with Shaun of the Dead, which is appropriate since Deadheads works for many of the same reasons its predecessor does (it even uses a similar font for its movie poster).  Both films make excellent use of their romantic comedy trappings, poke fun at sometimes ridiculous horror conventions, and feature a hero who must find direction and evolve beyond a life as a directionless loser in the catalyst of an apocalyptic crisis (that last one carries a lot of traction with guys like me).
But what sets Deadheads apart is what it does differently.  With the protagonists being zombies instead of fighting them, it’s sort of an inverse version of Shaun of the Dead (and if Romero-esque zombies are code for our consumerist society, finding a way to exist as a conscious zombie might ultimately be a more hopeful message).  Also, while Shaun slips its romantic comedy into a survival horror plot, Deadheads uses the road trip movie as its primary plot device… which got me thinking about another Simon Pegg film, Paul.
Now Paul isn’t very good, but its shortcomings highlight what made me like Deadheads so much, and nothing demonstrates the difference between these movies more than a comparison of their respective sidekicks.  While the self-titled alien of Paul is hard to look at, irritating and lacks any emotional depth (I’m being a little strong here, but I’m, trying to make a point), Cheese in Deadheads (a regular zombie Mike and Brent bring along in an attempt to train him to stop eating people) instantly connects with the audience with nothing more than a few grunts and facial expressions and has you rooting for the monster from the moment he appears on the screen.  Seriously, if a film is able to make me care about the well-being of a mindless flesh eating zombie it’s doing something right.
Deadheads is recommended, and is a must-see for fans of Shaun of the Dead.  It isn’t highbrow stuff, but it isn’t supposed to be, and it accomplishes what a good romantic comedy should – it gives the audience what they want and leaves them feeling uplifted.

RPG Goodness

The inversion between protagonist and monster that Deadheads plays with is not new territory for role-players.  From early in D&D’s history, players have wanted to use nonstandard races and monsters as PCs (a style of play fully embraced by D&D 3.5’s Monster Manual).  It could be that rpgs in general attract people that are a little on the margins themselves, who identify more with the monsters of film and literature than with the heroes.  Or it could be that monster PCs just look cool and get a bunch of neat powers to play with.  I don’t exclude myself from these observations, as my long running Minotaur gladiator (from 2e D&D) and piano playing vampire (from Rifts) can attest to.
Deadheads is a great example for role-players of the friction between living as a monster and dealing with everyday problems.  Deadheads plays this for laughs, and truth be told that’s how these difficulties will probably manifest on most tabletops with monstrous PCs – that is when the party isn’t running from a disgruntled militia or a bunch of angry peasants with torches and pitchforks.
In spite of the popularity of monstrous PCs, the transformation into an NPC monster via infection (through lycanthropy or level drain for example) is still something every player avoids like the plague (zombie plague anyone?).  I think the real in-game horror of such transformations has nothing to do with who is a monster and who isn’t, and everything to do with loss of control and agency in the game world.  In that spirit I present disease rules modified from 4e for the Gamma World game and the Zed virus (also compatible for D&D games).  For the carrier of this plague, the Romero zombie, see my review of Exit Humanity.

The Zed Virus

Disease in Gamma Terra

The laboratories of the ancients are a breeding ground for a cornucopia of genetically engineered super viruses, every bit as dangerous as the radiation and mutant horrors of the wastes.
When a creature is exposed to a disease – whether through a spray bottle of weaponized anthrax or the bite of an infected zombie – they risk contracting the disease.  The transmission and effects of a disease follow three steps: exposure, infection and progression.

Exposure

A creature that is exposed to a disease risks contracting it.  A creature is typically exposed to a disease through a monster attack (such as the bite of a Romero zombie), or environmental exposure (such as an ancient CDC lab).  Unless the disease inducing attack or environmental description states otherwise, an exposed creature makes a saving throw at the end of the encounter to determine if exposure leads to infection.  If the saving throw fails, the creature is infected.
If a creature is exposed to the same disease multiple times in the same encounter, it makes a single saving throw at the end of the encounter to determine if the exposure leads to infection.

Infection

Each disease has stages of increasing severity along a track.  The effect that exposes a creature to a disease specifies the stage of the disease that applies when a creature is infected (if no stage is specified start with the initial stage).  As soon as a creature contracts the disease, the creature is subjected to that stage’s effects.
Unless the disease is removed from the creature (through an origin power or Omega Tech), the disease might progress at the end of the creature’s next extended rest.

Progression

Until the disease ends, unless the description states otherwise, the creature must make a Fortitude check at the end of each extended rest to determine if the disease’s stage changes or stays the same.  To make a Fortitude check, roll 1d20 and add your Fortitude score minus 10.  A disease typically specifies two DCs.  A check result that equals or exceeds the higher DC means the disease is getting better (and moves 1 stage left on the track).  If the check result equals the lower DC, or is between the two numbers, the disease remains at its current stage.  A lower check result means the disease is getting worse (and moves 1 stage right on the track).
An ally can attempt to care for a diseased patient (using ancient pharmaceuticals, alien nano-tech and whatever else they can scrounge together), substituting their own Science check in place of the patient’s Fortitude check.
When a creature reaches a new stage of the disease, it is subject to the effects of that stage right away.  Unless the description states otherwise, the effects of the new stage replace the effects of the old one.
When a creature reaches the final stage of the disease, it stops making checks against the disease.  The effects of the final stage are permanent, although a cure might be found in an ancient computer databank, a crashed alien mothership, or growing in one of the seedpods of the sentient mega plant Columbia.

Notes

First I have to give props to Erik Fry, whose blog Dear God What Have We Wrought?! got me thinking about the mechanics of a zombie plague in Gamma World.  I went in quite a different direction than he did, but it’s worth checking out if you want a ‘second opinion’ (does this thing look infected?).
While combing through the Gamma World books for mention of disease, I noticed that a few of the character origins (Plaguebearer and Reanimated) have immunity to disease as a character trait.  Either designers Richard Baker and Bruce Cordell assumed Gamma World referees would hack the 4e disease rules, or the expansions Famine in Fargo and Legion of Gold were originally intended to have rules for disease.  Either way, it makes it a lot easier to introduce disease into the game since the designers already paved the way by giving it consideration.

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6 Responses to It Came from Toronto After Dark: Deadheads

  1. Erik Fry says:

    Nice version of the Zed Plague here, Vic. I read through it, and your treatment of it was much more in-depth than mine, which was meant for more meatball play given that it is based in Gamma World. I may, however, be pulling this apart to remake for D&D4E, and possibly some of the other games I routinely run. Best of luck to you, and keep at it!
    EFry, Blogger, Dear God What Have We Wrought?!

    • Thanks. It should work fine for D&D, just use Endurance checks as normal instead of ‘Fortitude’ checks (which I went with in Gamma world since there is no Constitution based skill, and the defense rating seemed to be at about the level that a skill should be rather than a straight ability modified roll).

  2. KaosEleQtric says:

    Cool idea on the disease. I wanted to point out though that extended rests in Gamma World seem to be few and far between (it only makes sense for leveling up since there are no healing surges or dailies to recharge). I would suggest something more regular like everyday or every encounter (think how often that person who got bitten in the movies turned into a zombie within a few hours).

    • Good point, with how spread out the extended rests are in Gamma World it would take something like four or five sessions for a PC to be transformed… which doesn’t really give it the same sense of urgency it has in the movies.
      I think I’ll keep the general disease rules at a check per extended rest for slow, persistent conditions (like radiation poisoning), and modify the zed virus to be a check per short rest (and use that method for other acute diseases).

  3. Adam Lopez says:

    Dear MENAGE A MONSTER, all of us at Toronto After Dark Film Festival are just loving your fantastic film reviews with a D&D spin! Please keep them coming through December, and we’ll add them all to our public Collection of Reviews at the festival website here:
    http://torontoafterdark.com/2011/page/film-reviews-from-the-2011-festival
    We’ve already added the ones you’ve done and would love to add more, and then we will send all the review links to filmmakers for their press clippings in January! They *really* appreciate any coverage they can get, let alone write-ups as original and brilliantly written as yours, cheers!
    - Adam Lopez, Team After Dark

    • Awesome man, that’s really cool! Thanks for the links – I should have the rest of the reviews up by the end of December, so that should work out nicely.
      I’m a long-time fan of the festival, but this was the first year that I bought a pass and I had an absolute blast. I haven’t really touched on it yet, but beyond the great lineup of films, the people (fans and staff), shorts, and filmmaker participation were all top notch.