With Hallow'een just around the corner, it's convenient that John Wick just released a zombie survival game. The Shotgun Diaries is 18 pages of exactly what you need to play a story that feels just like a movie by Luchio Fulchi, Dario Argento, or George Romero.
Whenever Tom Waits releases an album, I'll buy it, even if I haven't heard it. I know that Tom will deliver the goods. He's constantly exploring, inventing and reinventing, taking risks, revisiting and expanding old territory. Tom Waits has never put out a bad album, and even the ones I didn't really dig at first (like Blue Valentine) grew on me to become favorites. When I listen to Tom, something about the world changes, or is revealed.
I feel the same way about a handful of role-playing game designers: Vincent Baker, Julia Ellingboe, Graham Walmsley, and, of course, John Wick. I know whatever they create will run on innovative and thoughtful mechanics, create provocative fiction, and challenge my notions of what a role-playing game can be. When these artists (and they are artists) release a game, I'd skip lunch to buy it.
I could write a chapter about John Wick. He's a strange and interesting guy who doesn't apologize for his controversial political or religious beliefs. His opinions on gaming and game design are just as strange and interesting as he is, and whether or not you agree with his politics, you should definitely familiarize yourself with his role-playing philosophy. Play Dirty is a good place to start.
The Shotgun Diaries is written with a very conversational tone and designed with a large handwritten font with generous leading, so those 18 pages could easily be condensed to half as many. Aesthetically, the layout isn't brilliant, but it doesn't look like crap either. There is no art, but the headings are set in a somewhat dystopian distressed typeface which conveys the proper atmosphere.
I'm not going to do an in-depth review of all of the sections of the game, but there are a number of very novel and useful rules and concepts which I'll be stealing for my own game designs. I'm amazed by the amount of quality content Wick can fit into such a tiny game.
Character creation is simple: just choose a survivor archetype (Clever, Sneaky, Helpless, et cetera). Each archetype gets a minimum number of dice to roll whenever acting in a way that is appropriate to the character, which is augmented by a shared dice pool which represents diminishing supplies.
The mechanic is simple, and is inspired by The Pool by James V. West, another of my favorite narrative game systems. Roll a 6, and you narrate what happens to your survivor. Otherwise, your survivor becomes a Zombie. This isn't character death as much as character transformation. If your character is infected, you still get to play her as a Zombie. Awesome.
Every character has a Fear score of at least one. Fear is gained whenever a character fails a check when she has experienced something frightening, like, for instance, recognizing a friend who has been infected. Fear dice sneak into your pool, and if they are the only success in the pool, instead of being infected, you do something horrible and cowardly.
John Wick is brilliant at fixing problems at the table with mechanics. A great example of this is the rule he created for keeping the group from splitting up. Whenever a character rolls for a risk, he gets a bonus die for each character he is with.
Another issue that might arise from the system is the group's acceptance of shared narrative authority. In The Shotgun Diaries, as in many small-press games, the distinction between the Game Master's authority and the players' input is heavily blurred. Those used to more mainstream games might be uncomfortable with this; the player might not want to be put on the spot, and the GM might not want to relinquish complete control of the plot and setting.
On the other hand, this game is no prep, and the shared narration can at times let the GM just sit back and watch the game run itself. This is great for the busy, preoccupied GM. Many of John Wick's games are designed like this, and are well worth exploring if you, like me, want a high return on investment for your gaming time.
Although this game will probably be used primarily for the odd one-shot, there is an advancement system which would work well for more extended play. The character must write a diary entry of at least one page in length. This decreases the Fear score and allows the player to declare a fact about the game which awards a bonus die in specific circumstances.
If you're looking for a game with lots of stats and skills and setting information, this isn't it. The rules are very streamlined, and this might be a turn-off for some people. On the upside, your group can probably begin playing the game 5 minutes after downloading the PDF.
Even though this is a very small, focused game, it's worth every cent of the $5 I paid for it. I highly recommend this game for a Hallow'een one-shot after your group gets back from the Haunted House and watches a choice zombie flick.