A Fistful O'Zombies is a sourcebook which presents a fusion of zombies with classic Wild West themes. Chapter 1: Go West opens with a standard but well-told tale of a bounty-hunter in Texas, a tale that turns south when he bites off rather more than he can chew... then comes an Introduction that explains that zombies are all very well when you have a Uzi or a flame-thrower, but when all you have is a six-shooter, well, that separates the men from the boys. Indeed, that's what the Wild West is all about (fictionally, at least, and like previous sourcebooks, we're sticking to the cinematic): personal achievement, standing up against the odds and either surviving or going down in a blaze of glory. 'The West' is defined not only by that but by geography - North America west of the Mississippi (with Mexico thrown in for good measure) and the 19th century as a time-period. This is the Wild West of the movies, not the Old West of history, however, it's worth bearing that in mind. Of course, even in the movies, there were different styles, from the 1920s white-hatted singing cowboys, through John Wayne-style gritty heroes to spaghetti westerns Clint Eastwood-style - and each of these is presented as a possible setting for your game, along with briefer notes on several themes from the 1980s onwards.
First, though, Chapter 2: The Good, the Bad, and the Dead presents an overview of Western history and the game mechanics necessary for creating appropriate characters, along with sample Archetypes. There are three eras of history to consider, firstly the Old West (1830-1865) where the land is unexplored never mind unsettled, with many strange creatures and only black powder muskets to hold them at bay. Then there's the Wild West (the main focus of this book, 1865-1900), with an explosion of settlers and the advent of more advanced weaponry; and finally the New West (1900-1930), where Indians are less of a problem but gangsters still rob banks and trains - even if they chase them with a Model T Ford rather than a horse! Towards the tail-end of this period, Prohibition kicks in with the inevitable booze-smuggling. There's an overview of history, with the Gold Rush, a war with Mexico and the American Civil War featuring large. Continuous skirmishing with American Indians, the advent of the railways and the growth of the cattle business also made their mark. The law and those who enforced it, the feuds between cowboys and sheep herders and more are also covered here. Then there are a whole bunch of rules to cover particularly Western characters and the skills they need - including using a lasso, riding a horse, fanning your revolver, engaging in showdowns (at high noon or any time of your choosing) and even getting hanged... and there's an array of appropriate weapons to choose from as well.
Chapter 3: Singing Cowboys draws its inspiration from early Hollywood depictions of the West, where implausibly good cowboys never cussed or even shot each other much, and burst into song at the drop of a (white) hat. These are the days of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Dale Evans... and Champion, the Wonder Horse. In this setting, the player characters - indeed the players themselves - are encouraged to sing, and singing does grant additional effects a bit like a Dungeons & Dragons Bard's does. The party must also abide by the Law of the West, written by Gene Autry himself. There are a few other rules modifications and additions to help capture the flavour of this setting. We also learn the reason for the plague of zombies... and it's one that will bring the campaign to a juddering halt once the party figure it out, so this is a setting for a one-off game or very short campaign. Plots are based on the movies, and four are provided for you to use (and reuse). While the underlying comcept is a neat trick, it will annoy some players and bore others: consider your group with case before using this setting.
On to Chapter 4: True Grit. This setting is Westerns, John Wayne-style. Men are tough, standing no nonsense and hard to kill, they also drink hard and tend to look down on women as a 'weaker sex'... although they do get on with American Indians, at least those who are ex-Army scouts or similar. Set around 1880, there's a plausible reason for the presence of zombies and a campaign outline that starts with a normal Wild West game and introduces supernatural elements carefully, quite neat especially if you don't let on to your players that you are running All Flesh Must Be Eaten to begin with.
Next comes Chapter 5: Spaghetti with Meat, a setting that takes its inspiration from the so-called Spaghetti Westerns (think Clint Eastwood). Typical characters are hard-bitten drifters with a shady (although often unrevealed) past, the odd preacher or wise American Indian won't go amiss either. Decide for yourselves who is the good, who is the bad and who is the ugly. Set in about 1865, the reason there are zombies again is a plausible one; and this is coupled with a well-developed campaign outline to involve the party and enable them to deal with the problem - complete with notes on how to extend it beyond the specific instance of zombies that has just been dealt with.
Then, Chapter 6: Dances with Zombies is an intriguing setting in which the player characters are all American Indians, members of the Sioux tribe just after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 (Custer's Last Stand). Starting with a detailed account of the events leading up to and during the battle, the setting then diverges from history with Sitting Bull conducting a dark ritual that raises the 7th Cavalry (Custer's outfit) from the dead... that wasn't quite what he was aiming for, of course, and once he realises that they are as much of a danger to the Red Man as they are to the White Man, the race is on to deal with this menace. There's plenty of background on Sioux life and customs to help you set the scene, and a detailed campaign outline to get you started.
Finally, Chapter 7: Other Settings provides just that: several other settings complete with brief notes on what sort of adventures you might run there. Perhaps Bloody Muddy, set on a 1870s paddle steamer full of gamblers... or perhaps you'd rather be a bunch of US Cavalry in Here Comes the Cavalry. Adventurous types who don't mind the cold can go North to Alaska. Each has its own rationale for why there are zombies around. There are also conversion notes if you want to use the material herein with Deadlands (or the other way around) - an interesting touch bearing in mind that the creator of Deadlands also wrote this book!
Another great sourcebook, a fusion of two cinema staples, zombies and Westerns, that should appeal to fans of both. Explore new horizons and kill anything that doesn't have a pulse, pardner!
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Reviewed: 9 June 2017