People seem a little embarrassed about zombies these days. Lots of media that is ostensibly about zombies seems to go out of its way to avoid using the dreaded Z-word. Maybe it's because zombies have become a bit passe. For a brief period, it seemed like every movie and game that came out was about zombies. Still to this day, it seems like you barely have to wait a single moment for a new zombie something to be released. Sins: Dead City is a taster for the full Sins RPG, and as you might have guessed it's sort of about zombies but not really.
Sins: Dead City was created by First Falling Leaf, a gaming studio operating out of Sheffield in the UK. The small 31-page booklet was, presumably, created to allow people to dip a toe into the full-blown RPG without having to sink the full price into buying the rulebook. It presents a 3-5 hour adventure which can be played by up to 5 players, which introduces the world, mechanics, and backstory of the Sins RPG. Though it does use a slimmed-down version of the HOPE engine to speed up the learning process and make the game easier to play through without too much set up.
Sins: Dead City presents a really easy-to-use package, from start to finish. You can read through the whole thing really quickly if you happen to be running the adventure yourself which is a great start. More than that, it also gives you the 5 playable characters as already completed character sheets, meaning that you don't have to try and figure out building a character before you truly understand how the system really works. It also provides you with weapon profiles, and an easy to navigate, modular encounter system which makes actually running the game as easy as possible.
The story of the adventure, as you might expect, deals with the beginning of an apocalypse. Sins is an apocalyptic RPG after all. You and several of your friends meet up in a bar to celebrate surviving a mysterious event thought to end all life on earth. The event itself, known as the Black Rain, surrounding odd crystals which apparently fell from the sky. While you're celebrating having survived, an apocalypse happens for real, and the dead start to rise and take over New York. You and your friends must now try to survive and get out of New York while you still can.
Now I know what you're thinking. 'That sounds like a zombie apocalypse' and I have to agree that it basically is one. There are some key differences, especially surrounding the full-blown version of Sins. However, in Sins: Dead City, the current situation very much resembles your standard zombie apocalypse. People who die are coming back to life and attacking the living. There are some differences, such as the fact that being bitten or scratched doesn't seem to cause the infection, but for all other intents and purposes, it might as well just be regular zombies.
The only reason that I mention this is that it sort of felt quite misleading for the players who I ran the game for. While I was fully aware of where the full RPG took the storyline, my players weren't. So I feel like it's very important to bear in mind going into this taster that this is not a zombie apocalypse RPG. It's more of a fantasy apocalypse. Otherwise, when the big twist comes at the end of the game it can be pretty jarring. It's a shame too because realistically Sins: Dead City was really interesting and exciting for me while I was reading through it. My players, on the other hand, reported that they had been interested until these weird elements came out of nowhere right at the end.
Moving on from the story of Sins: Dead City to the system there is more good news. The HOPE system, or rather the slimmed-down version of it presented here, is really simple to use and understand. You have a certain amount of attributes that define your dice pools for different rolls, then you have different skills that define what number you need to roll to count as a success. So if you have a 5 in body, you roll 5 dice for body checks. Then if the body check revolves around athletics and you have a 4+ in athletics then any dice which shows a 4 or above counts as a success.
Not only is that streamlined and easy to understand, it means that writing stat blocks for NPCs and enemies is really quick. Basic stats are two numbers in a bracket, (4/5+) for instance, which makes it easy to quickly reference an enemy's skills and understand what sort of numbers you're looking out for. This whole system means that you get to roll a decent number of dice for most checks, which is always a genuinely enjoyable experience.
Another great mechanic is the health system. There are 3 health pools for different levels of damage. If you have 3 health points in each pool your total health will be 9. The reason that the health is split like this is so that you can be debuffed as you get increasingly injured. Once the first pool is used up you have to roll one fewer dice on tests. Then when you get to the last pool of health each test gets harder on top of having less dice to roll. It's a much easier system for tracking severe and minor damage than something like Vampire 5th Edition.
The only slight downfall for Sins: Dead City is that there is a bit of information that is either missing or difficult to find when you want to quickly reference something. During our first combat, it took us a while to find the information behind how you roll initiative because the places you might expect to find it just mention that rolling initiative was something you had to do, rather than stating how you did it. Other than that there were one or two items that weren't statted for some reason. Sort of annoying when the game gives you a baseball bat at one point but the reference fails to tell you what damage it does or anything like that.
The Bottom Line
Sins: Dead City is a decent introduction to the full-blown experience for a fair price. It is, however, let down by several key issues that make it hard to get people excited to try out the full thing. While at one point I would have considered dropping the full price for a hardback copy of the core rules, with my players now sort of turned off to the full system I might have to put it off. If you go in with a clear impression of what to expect from the full piece then you shouldn't have too much trouble. Just don't be shocked when your zombie apocalypse adventure goes completely psychedelic towards the end.
Get this game if:
-You want a taster of Sins without the heavy investment.
-You want a game which is sort of a zombie apocalypse but not really.
-You're looking to trial a new game with your TTRPG group but don't want to dive in completely yet.
Avoid this game if:
-You're looking for an actual zombie apocalypse.
-You don't like games that do a narrative 90-degree turn towards the end.
-You're annoyed by missing information and hate having to improvise.