A couple of days ago I finished watching the remake of the classic TV series The Prisoner (you know, the one where Patrick McGoohan declares that he’s not a number but a free man in the beginning of every episode). While the remake had some interesting ideas and a great cast, the original series remains unsurpassed as an allegorical tale of anti-authoritarianism and pro-individualism.
The Prisoner and especially McGoohan’s catch phrase actually remind me of a short game I once found in the top shelf (aka where games go to die) of a small FLGS not far from where I grew up in Athens.It’s a little interesting game where not only you start as a number, but your entire character capabilities are also summed up in a single number.
As a game, Zero has been clearly inspired by Star Trek’s iconic Borgs. The central premise revolves around a technologically advanced society of biomechanical humanoids (yep, Borgs), each forming part of a greater telepathic collective similar to an ant hive (still Borgs) that is ruled by the ruthless
Borg Queen Queen Zero. The players take the role of biomechs belonging to one of the different castes of the hive, until something goes wrong and they lose their connection to the rest of the collective. Is it a glitch in the system or possibly sabotage by an unknown enemy? The exact reason matters little, because this is the beginning of self-awareness, as the player characters start to regard themselves as individuals for the first time. It is also the beginning of their troubles, for they are now not only outcasts but a threat to the rest of the colony and Queen Zero and her minions will do anything it takes to bring them back to the collective or terminate them. Zero then becomes a game of escape and survival, and perhaps a quest for the meaning of individuality if you want to explore such themes.
Zero is a rather thin, 80-page long book. 12 pages in the middle are devoted to the artwork, showcasing some impressive full-page, full-colour illustrations of the game’s biomechanical dystopia. The rest of the pages go to the simple rules system, the game’s setting and an introductory adventure detailing the player characters’ awakening and escape from the colony.
The game system is an exercise in simplicity. Each character has only one attribute score, called Focus. This is determined by the number of skills picked by the player; the more skills a character has, the higher his Focus will be. Because you have to roll over your Focus to successfully use a skill, the more skills you take the less proficient you’ll be in any of them. On the other hand, you have to roll under your Focus for unskilled actions. The choice you’re faced with boils down to whether you want t be really good with just a few skills or follow a more jack-of-all-trades approach. This dilemma is not so different from what happens in other games, but here it is based on a single number. Incidentally, dice rolls in Zero are handled by rolling 2d6 and multiplying them together, wielding a score between 1 and 36. This dice mechanic is a bit different from most other games, so it may take some time to figure out mean values and your chances of succeeding in something.
As mentioned before, player characters belong to different castes, like soldiers or engineers. These castes will determine the skills available to a character as well as the equipment he starts with. Because players characters will be expected to operate in a world of scarce resources and numerous enemies, it’s probably a good idea to have a well-rounded party with as many different castes present as possible.
An interesting by-product of Zero’s premise is that characters begin the game pretty much as a blank slate. Backgrounds and personality concepts are meaningless for a being that discovered individuality just a few moments ago. A Zero character is a tabula rasa whose personality will only be determined by his actions in the game. Starting as a drone and growing to be an individual with unique aspirations and quirks may be a challenge for players who like to have a character concept planned before play begins, but has the potential for some really interesting character development.
The introductory adventure included with the game is not the greatest and is mostly straightforward with few twists or surprises, but is sufficient to establish the game’s main themes. There is a point in the adventure where Queen Zero appeals to the player characters and asks them to re-join the collective, even offering extra privileges if they take up her offer. Some reviewers thought that refusing the Queen’s offer (the only way to keep the game moving forward) was a real stretch of logic for their players. I disagree on many levels with this view. First, I think that freedom as a good is underappreciated in the western world (where most RPG reviewers come from) due to its relative abundance. For many of the people who fought and died in national liberation wars or against totalitarian regimes, freedom was not a means to an end, but the end itself. Secondly, even if we discount the value of freedom for our biomech characters, let’s not forget that re-joining the collective would mean that their newfound persona would cease to exist. It would be perfectly logical to turn down the Queen’s offer simply on grounds of self-preservation.
Zero’s mysterious underground world is ripe for exploration, but unfortunately it is also quite empty. As a consequence of the book’s short page count, there is not a dearth of background, features or other information on the world surrounding the hive. I feel that some of the pages detailing Queen Zero, her cohorts and the other inhabitants of the hive could have been better spent on more details about the outside world where the players will spend most of their time. As things stand, if you want to make a campaign out of this game, you have to be prepared to answer a lot of questions and put in quite a bit of work. Zero essentially offers you some groundwork and a blank map, which you’ll have to fill by yourself.
Conclusion: Zero is a short, well-made game that offers some exceptional artwork and very simple but elegant mechanics. Its main downfall is the lack of world detail, but that shouldn’t discourage you if you are the type of Gamemaster who enjoys world-building from scratch.