"Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?" – Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: A Reader’s Discussion Guide.
In a Nutshell: Renaissance Italy zombie apocalypse setting for Savage Worlds. 210 page PDF, $25 but discounted to $15 at time of writing. To paraphase Jeff Rients: I’m Machiavelli, you’re Da Vinci; we team up to fight zombies. In clockwork powered armour.
Introduction (18 pages)
Ultima Forsan feels more like an alternate history than a fantasy setting, so I’ll talk about it in those terms. On this timeline, the zombie apocalypse begins in 1345 AD, with a plague of the risen dead spreading from the east of the known world. Two centuries later, the player characters are people of 1514 AD, living in small, fortified fiefdoms, and ever so slowly starting to push back the zombie hordes.
This section first defines how the contagion works and spreads, then extrapolates from that to how society reacts to those known to have contracted it, and how humanity itself is changing in reaction to constant exposure to the undead.
There’s a dungeon-equivalent in the Cities of Sorrow; places infested by undead and worse, but with valuable loot for those with the skill and courage to recover it – relics, books, weapons, or the traditional gold and jewels.
New Kingdoms (30 pages)
Unsurprisingly, since the authors and publisher are Italian, the focus of the setting is on Italy – but Renaissance Italy, even without the zombies, was full of city-states, wars, intrigue and adventure, so it’s a good choice. This section describes the principal Italian city-states, then provides a map of Europe showing civilised and wilderness areas, before describing the other nations of the day: The Holy Roman Empire, the Teutonic Federate, Hungary, the Hanseatic League (not strictly a nation, I know) and many others.
This is not a period of history I know well, but it looks like the authors have blended actual people and events into their setting as well as zombies. Although I’m pretty certain one of the NPCs is a Renaissance version of Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man.
We have several different kinds of undead, necromancers and others trying to use them for their own ends, and even some quislings who work for the undead, for various unwholesome reasons. Out in the wilderness between walled cities, animals and undead devour each other indiscriminately, and thus other abominations are created.
Character Creation (24 pages)
We start with character concepts, or archetypes if you will; in addition to the usual mercenaries, rogues, witches and alchemists, we have the obligatory Far East martial artists, Muslim berserkers (there are places in the setting where the Norse adopted Islam, you see), members of monastic orders military and otherwise, and so on.
There are two playable races: Human and Tainted – these are more-or-less immune carriers of the undead plague, shunned by most for obvious reasons. Character generation follows Savage Worlds Deluxe, with the Multiple Languages setting rule; there are dozens of new Edges, most of them Professional ones aligned to specific character archetypes.
Then there is the Sardonic Grin edge which those infected with the plague develop. With nothing left to lose, and little time left before he dies, such a hero becomes more effective in fighting the undead.
Gear (14 pages)
You should know by now that I have little interest in Gear chapters, so you will understand if I skip gaily ahead, pausing only to mention augmented armour and mechanical prostheses in passing. Imagine powered armour and cyberpunk implants designed and built by Leonardo da Vinci.
Setting Rules (20 pages)
The standard setting rules "switched on" in Ultima Forsan are Gritty Damage, Multiple Languages, Blood & Guts, and No Power Points. Fear checks use Spirit, and are less frequent than you might expect – the heroes grew up with hordes of undead outside the city walls, they’re used to stuff like that.
There are additional setting rules for variable lethality, plague exposure and what to do about it, and hit location for undead attacks, because what you need to do about being bitten depends on where the bite is. Often, what you need to do is amputate the bitten part, which leads us to the need for setting rules for amputation and prosthetics. I am not usually a fan of hit location, but in this case it supports the genre and the rest of the mechanics.
The Variable Lethality setting rule allows the GM to dial the heroes’ chances of survival up or down to suit the group, much like difficulty levels in a videogame. The further up you turn up the dial, the more likely the heroes are to die if bitten by zombies, but the more experience points they get per session.
There are two new Arcane Backgrounds: Alchemy and Witchcraft – these and Weird Science are the only Arcane backgrounds permitted, and they each have a drastically reduced set of available powers.
Optionally, you can use Tarot cards for initiative, and there are rules for doing that; essentially each player picks one of the major arcana as his personal joker (the GM gets Death as his), and the Fool is a normal joker.
Game Mastering (20 pages)
There are a few additional rules here, chiefly that in mass battles the undead consume the fallen living, so they can get more tokens as the battle progresses! Of course they are largely mindless, so they do not often win the battle roll.
There are expanded random encounter tables – always of interest to me because I often play solo, and that is greatly assisted by such tables. There’s a random table for which language that book you found is written in, too.
We are also introduced to relics the players may find, or be commissioned to recover from a City of Sorrows; things like St George’s spear, or bits of saints. These are drawn from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Pagan faiths, and are complemented by marvels, which are the Weird Science equivalent; books of useful knowledge, enhanced armour and so forth.
Then there are GM’s secrets, including additional details on the plague – suffice to say that there are several layers of complexity beyond anything the players initially know.
The Secret of Marco Polo (34 pages)
This is an introductory campaign of four linked scenarios, each of 4-5 scenes, with the unifying theme that the PCs have been hired to find Marco Polo’s treasure, and return a particular book to their patron – anything else they find, they can keep. No spoilers, but using my usual yardstick of a couple of sessions per month and 3-4 scenes per session, this would keep my group entertained for 3-4 months.
Adventure Generator (8 pages)
It’s traditional for Savage Worlds settings to include a random adventure generator, and this one is no exception. Unusually, though, it’s all done with dice – no card draws here. You roll for the mission, enemies, destination, resources provided by the patron, and difficulties to be overcome.
Bestiary (30 pages)
Statblocks and descriptions for opponents; animals, fell beasts, undead, abominations and chimeras, stock NPCs.
…and we close with a map and a character sheet. The map is of a Renaissance city, and is particularly interesting as it has alternate keys, one key which describes the city of Lucca and one key which describes a generic period city. Nice touch. I assume Lucca is intended to be the PCs’ base town, but that wasn’t completely clear to me from the text.
Two-column, black text on yellow-green parchment-effect background (which can be suppressed to save ink). There are illustrations every few pages, a mixture of period woodcuts and new illustrations, usually black and white with a single spot of colour. It’s astonishing how many of the period pieces show humans and undead together, actually.
To judge from the PDF properties a printed copy would be approximately A5 size.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
None worthy of the mention. But, if you want to check out the setting, there is a free primer including pregen characters and an adventure on RPGNow – search for "Ultima Forsan – A Taste of Macabre".
I’m impressed with the way the authors have built a consistent clockpunk alternate history (“Macabre Italy”) around the undead, and seamlessly merged historical characters and modern tropes into it. Like many Savage Worlds campaigns, it takes a common type of setting, gives it a twist, and adds zombies.
So, what is Ultima Forsan? It’s a 16th century version of Attack on Titan; it’s Leonardo Da Vinci: Zombie Hunter; it’s Left 4 Dead meets Assassin’s Creed. It aligns with the current wave of movies set in the 16th century, but with anachronistic technology and supernatural monsters – the most recent one I can recall is Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which you could do quite handily in this setting.
And the title? It has been 45 years now since I studied Latin, but I think it means something like "perhaps the last". That fits with the refrain in the book that for the heroes, each day may be their last. Especially with variable lethality turned up high.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and a number of ideas I shall quietly make off with and use elsewhere; but the Renaissance is not for me. Although if it was, this is what I would use.
Disclaimer: GG Studio provided me with a copy of Ultima Forsan for review purposes. Grazie mille Mauro!