Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today, we’re taking an economist’s view of the zombie apocalypse with Red Markets!
The definition of a “wonk” is someone who studies a subject in minute technical detail. The term is most commonly used as part of phrases like “policy wonk” or “economics wonk”, because politics and economics (especially macroeconomics) consist of many interlocking pieces working together in a complicated system. While RPGs are not as complicated as the economic system they also deserve studious attention, which is why I coined myself the “Level One Wonk”. I was also an economics wonk in a past life, however. These two worlds have come together into beautiful chaos with Red Markets, a self-styled “game of economic horror”. What author Caleb Stokes has created is a brilliant bit of very deliberate design that may look like a zombie game at first blush, but is really about capitalism.
Red Markets takes place after a zombie apocalypse has decimated the Earth’s civilization, leaving vast swathes of the countryside as part of “The Loss”. What’s left of civilization is called “The Recession”, named both after the need to recede back to defensible borders as well as what’s happened to the economy there. While humanity is struggling to rebuild, they’re also plotting how to take back all the territory of “The Loss” left to the zombies. Of course, The Loss isn’t uninhabited; many people were unable to make it past the frontiers of the Recession into safe territory. This is where the PCs come in. One of the priorities of the reformed government is to reestablish property rights as they existed before the zombies came, but that requires knowing who owns what. As a result, proof of death has become incredibly valuable to the government, to the point where identification cards taken off of zombies has become the de facto currency, called “bounty”.
The PCs’ motivation for collecting bounty is clear: get back over the border to the Recession and stop living in constant fear of zombies. The problem is that to simplify the process of reclaiming The Loss and killing zombies, the reformed government has declared everyone left over the border to be legally dead. This makes crossing back over into civilization a difficult and expensive endeavor. The game also makes saving money more difficult, since every piece of gear, every contact, and even your body itself requires constant upkeep. In other words, your character is working their whole life until they finally save enough to retire . . . did I mention this game is actually about capitalism?
The mechanics of the game are fairly simple and almost entirely player-facing: other than encounter and job generation, the GM (known here as “The Market”) never rolls. Each player has a red die and a black die, and if the result on the black die is higher than the result of the red die, the roll succeeds; skills modify the black die. Natural ties are criticals (either success or failure depending on whether the die is odd or even) but modified ties are failures for PCs. Combat is a pretty standard affair, except for the player-facing aspect: instead of zombies (or any other opponent) getting an attack roll, the player gets a defense roll. This is a mechanical way to emphasize the danger of the world; unless the character does something to stop it an opposing action succeeds. This gets really interesting with some of the more unique rules in the game, the negotiation rules. Red Markets is mission-based, and every job the characters go on is either offered to them by an NPC or invented by the PCs. The majority of jobs are offered (i.e. written by the GM), and require a negotiation roll to establish. The rules provide a simplified supply/demand curve, and for each phase of negotiation the two opposing sides try to push each other either up or down on this curve. If the PCs are good at negotiation and take advantage of NPC weaknesses in a shrewd way, they’ll push the NPC up the curve and make more money on a job. If they flub the negotiation, the NPC will push them down the curve and they may not even be offered enough to cover their expenses. It’s an economics lesson disguised as a game mechanic: markets at equilibrium produce no profit; to profit you need to push the market out of equilibrium either through information asymmetry or monopoly. In the game, information asymmetry comes through digging up dirt on who’s offering the job, and monopoly comes from sabotaging your competitors. The negotiation rules emphasize teamwork (it’s the other PCs who are out digging up dirt or sabotaging competitors on behalf of the lead negotiator) and shrewd use of resources even before a single zombie headshot occurs.
Resource management is key in this game. Every item comes with a set amount of “charges” that denote how often it can be used before it is refreshed. Refreshing gear costs money, though each PC has a finite number of refreshes they can use in the field. A lot of money each mission will go back to upkeep, and since there are very few items that are either “static” (using them requires no charges) or “sturdy” (the item can be upgraded to use no charges), this upkeep is absolutely essential. In addition to upkeep on items, characters have to spend a certain amount for upkeep on themselves (food, water and shelter aren’t free), as well as their dependents. Each PC has the option to have dependents, and while it may seem at first glance to not be worth the extra upkeep, dependents are the cheapest way to heal humanity damage acquired from the horrors of the post-apocalypse. Humanity is no joke, either: as you start accumulating humanity damage, your character’s mental state begins to break down, starting at maybe going catatonic during combat or snapping and running away, all the way up to having a complete mental breakdown, at which point the character is out of the game. Humanity can only be healed down to the last break-point you hit, so keeping your dependents happy is often a small price to pay for your continued sanity.
In the GM’s section, the game is described as a hybrid between old-school games and story games, and the description is apt. A game starts with a session zero where the players collaborate on designing the enclave their characters operate out of, and determine what other major players and threats are around that will drive the story. Once all the setup is out of the way, the game is pure survival horror. Zombie hordes show up randomly, and the mission designs are such that the GM develops the basics and the game helps fill in the threats and obstacles through random tables and more dice rolls. The game’s mantra is “high risk = high reward”, so whether you run the game as a high-powered splatterfest or a slower going psychological horror campaign, the characters should always feel danger commensurate to the potential rewards. While the game is certainly about in-game challenge as opposed to straight storytelling, it’s not intended to be oppositional. In the game manual the stated split in storytelling responsibility is ⅓ players, ⅓ GM, and ⅓ dice.
I will state right now that I’m not much of a horror guy, and I’ve never been much of a zombie guy either. That all said, I really want to run this game. The notion of a hybrid story game/old-school game perfectly encapsulates something I’ve been looking for, and this game feels similar to Torchbearer in that it does not see sharing narrative control with players and providing players with wicked challenges as mutually exclusive. Failure is an essential part to interesting narrative, so the best “story games” are always the ones where the characters face challenges. The mechanics also shine; the negotiation system is something I could see being ported to many other genres, and I hope Caleb and Hebanon Games look closely at other opportunities to use the system beyond what they have already created. That said, Red Markets is a gem and the mechanics are only part of that equation. If you’re looking for a horror game that also includes strategy, tough choices, and a few econ lessons, Red Markets is for you.
Red Markets is currently available to pre-order if you missed the Kickstarter.