Zombies! Brains! Chainsaws! Mayhem in the Mall, Horrors in the Hall, Chaos in the Churchyard. Need I say more? The Zombie Apocalypse is a tried and tested trope in modern culture and Zombie games have been around for a while now but didn't really have a presence until 1999, with the groundbreaking rpg "All Flesh Must Be Eaten" by George Vasilakos, published by Eden Studios.
This post isn't a review of any particular game or a rules set or a specific setting guide, more a collection of musings and advice for anyone delving into this aspect of our collective unconscious.
There are a lot of questions in it.
The first of which is... which rules set should you use for a Zombie Apocalypse game? The obvious answer is the easiest- just choose one of the already published Zombie roleplaying games. But this article isn't about that. These thoughts are for folk who are home brewing or modifying a generic rules set. Personally, I'd go for the OneDice system by Cakebread and Walton (this piece was originally drafted with that system in mind) but the Core d6 system would work as would adapting Swords & Wizardry White Box. Just go with whatever you are happy with, bearing in mind the rest of this post.
So, you have decided which rules to use. Let's get on with the main business. The following steps will help you gather your thoughts when creating your very own Apocalypse. Have fun...
Step 1: decide your setting. This is the first important decision to make. Where in the world your story is set will dictate the availability of things like weapons, vehicles, power, water and sources of food etc during/after the Zombie Apocalypse. It will also affect skill choices for your characters. For example, in the UK, gun ownership is less than 5% of the population. In Scandinavia it is closer to 40% and in the US it is 75%. If your everyday heroes are in rural Vermont or windswept Cumbria at the time of the Apocalypse, you'll have a very different kind of game to one set in Paris or New York. City maps and guides are available on the internet for all major cities as are lists and photos of important buildings etc. You can also make great use of the maps available of the floors of major department stores, museums and even public buildings such as town halls. All great for mad chases or hide and seek zombie style. Having a few of these, and some floor plans of typical houses or apartments ready at hand (Estate Agents/Realtor websites are good for these) means that improvising as you go will be a lot easier. After all, we can all map a few dungeon levels but a whole city is different ball game. Not that a dungeon type area isn't a bad thing. Download maps of the Underground or Subway systems and while you are at it, take a look at the maps of London or New York's sewage systems, fascinating. There is also another option of setting your Apocalypse in another time period. There are some excellent miniatures available for your own remake of Pride Prejudice and Zombies and similarly, space zombies.
Steep 2: decide how the Apocalypse began. There are several models for this in film and literature: a new/alien virus sweeps the world causing people to become blood-crazed, unfeeling and hate-filled but slow and a bit dim before they finally die. Or, an other worldly invasion of microscopic brain manipulating aliens, possibly controlled centrally or even possessing a hive-mind, who take over and slowly kill their "hosts". Or, an ancient evil has been unearthed and is spreading its malign influence over the planet one person at a time. Or, a criminal or terrorist or enemy nation has launched a bio-weapon which has had disastrous and unpredicted effects (or maybe not unpredicted:Twelve Monkeys). Or maybe, it actually is THE Apocalypse and the Big Guy Upstairs really has had enough this time. With each of these choices, decisions will need to be made about how the zombie making process will occur:- infection, transfer, mutation, mind control or magic? Infection is the classic here and raises lots more interesting questions:- Does the disease progress quickly or slowly? Can infected people be cured? Can the infection be stopped before it takes hold? Is there a vaccine? (We've all been forced in these COVID ridden times to think about this type of thing- a lot). Mind control takes us into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory (another rich genre I'd like to tackle). Is there an implanted device which is turning people into zombies? If so, can it be removed or neutralised? Are the zombies truly dead? If so, there's obviously no going back. The question to sort out as Gamekeeper is then: how do your adventurers make the zombies stay properly dead? (See step 5 for more on the biology of zombies).
Step 3: decide at what point you are going to set your story- at the very beginning where everything seems normal until... Or, as the Apocalypse is in full swing and characters can't even open a cupboard without a zombie falling out. Or, Post- Apocalypse where the few true human survivors are holed up in out of the way places where no one/thing can find them (like Rhyl or Dudley). Plotting out a rough timeline will help... Z-Day +1, +28 days/weeks/months etc. What will the streets of the cities look like after a month, six months, a year? (A fantastic book: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, explains what might happen to our human artefacts if one day we all just disappeared). Have the survivors built a refuge somewhere or fled to the countryside? Did the Government send in the army, surround and "quarantine" the city leaving the survivors to fend for themselves? On Z-Day plus 30, did your survivors huddle around a dying radio only to hear that their city was due to be nuked to cleanse the zombie infection from the country? There's nothing like an impending nuclear explosion to inject some pace into your game! Will your characters get out of the city in time? Did the blast fail to happen? If so, why not? Why did the radio go silent?
Step 4: decide on what kind of characters you want. Ordinary everyday folk or a more militarised group such as armed forces or police or even a specialised zombie disposal squad? I would suggest that more fun is to be had by playing very ordinary people with few specialised skills and no weapons skills whatsoever. It may be prudent for each player to create two or three different characters, the mortality rate is likely to be high. Whatever game system you use, if it is skills based, you might want to add a 'Profession' Skill. This would be used to describe the work skills for the everyday professions your Average Joe characters might have: butcher, car mechanic, vet, hairdresser whatever. This skill may be more important than you might at first think as it could be a fun source of oddball ways to survive the Apocalypse: that City Hall Maintenance guy might just have the skills to fix the lift just in time to escape the shambling horde of undead in the lobby. The sports coach is deadly with a 4-Iron golf club. Also, as zombie games are really survival games they often feature resource management systems. How far you want to go with this is another question to answer as you set up your game. But if you do decide to go down this route I would suggest using as simple a system as possible (and a fun one): use Nerf Gun bullets as records of shotgun rounds, pistol bullets etc and have the players hand them over as they are fired. Use individual sweeties/cheesy snacks/biscuits etc to represent a meal for your character, when they eat, your players do. Finally, use shot glasses with your beverage of choice, when your characters drink, so do you. Other visual aids can be fun also: a sticking plaster to represent a first aid kit or single shot of medicine, a ten sided dice used to indicate the percentage which the disease has taken hold of an infected character, slowly climbing each day/hour whatever until it reaches 100%. Gulp.
Step 5: decide on the ecology of your zombies. What is their "life (death?) cycle"? I have already mentioned the possibilities there might be for the progression of the zombie disease (if a virus is your chosen zombie maker) but there are other things to consider. Will your undead slowly continue to decay so that in the end there is nothing left? If so, how long will this take? Do your zombies need to rest/sleep or are there dormant periods or times of the day they avoid? If so, where do they go? Or are your zombies simply normal folk controlled by something/someone else. If so, is this effect permanent or can it be reversed? What effect does this control have on the zombie's body whilst they are "under the influence"? Will colleagues rescued from zombiedom be fatally dehydrated or brain damaged? This brings us the issue of what your zombies eat. Brains of course! Or something else? (not truffles, that would be silly and we don't that do we?). But actually this does need thinking about as it is really a question of motivation. Why exactly are the undead chasing the living? What do they want from us? What do my brains taste of? And how will your zombies finally die?
Step 6: plan some scenarios. Here I would suggest looking at the classic list of the "Seven Basic Plots", a concept our brothers in arms, fiction authors, use in various combinations to craft almost any kind of story. These are:
1. Overcoming the monster.
2. Rags to riches.
3. The quest.
4. Voyage and return.
Let's look at each in order. Firstly: Overcoming the monster. The classics here are Theseus and the Minotaur or George and that pesky dragon. In our context it could be simply destroying all of the zombies to put an end to the plague but it could also be a battle against the mastermind who started it all: fight your way through the "dungeon" and defeat the "boss". Classic simple stuff. A twist? The "monster" is in all of us.
Next: rags to riches. The classic tale a poor boy made good, Arthur or Conan fit into this space in a mythic/fantasy setting. In our zombie scenario perhaps more a tale of losing everything to building up a safe position of power in a new world order. Your heroes will create an island of sanctuary for their fellow survivors from which to re-start civilisation. Think "I am legend/Omega man" or "Day of the Triffids". Plots might revolve around the gathering of resources, insurgencies or raids by zombies, the captive zombies you have been experimenting on (to the find a cure) all escape inside your base, lightning raids out of your camp to rescue newly discovered survivors. A twist: the characters make a living by interacting between the zombies and the remnants of civilisation.
Then there is: The quest. Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Dwarven hunt for the Arkenstone, the need to destroy the One Ring. In our game a desperate search for the cure, for a weapon to wipe out the zombie plague, a place of safety, a person who's blood contains the anti-bodies from which to create a vaccine, or perhaps just a safe way out of the city. Stories here might involve sub-plots: you can't locate X without first finding Y and Z. The gathering together of an expert team could be a series of games in itself. A twist: one of the team is attempting to thwart our heroes' plans for reasons best known to themselves.
Voyage and Return: Odysseus, Kirk and his bold crew, The Hobbit. Our heroes must venture out into a much changed world to seek fellow survivors, to carry a cure to another enclave across a zombie filled post Apocalypse landscape (anyone read Damnation Alley?). What will they discover? Is the whole world affected? Will they find themselves alone? Are there worse horrors "out there"? Plenty of opportunity here for side adventures and sub-plots as our wandering band come across strange groups of survivors- religious orders, would-be fascist dictators, cannibals, quasi-military institutions, half-zombie hippy communes! Who knows?
Here's a fun one: comedy. Think Ghostbusters, Dark Star, Bill the Galactic Hero and most of all, Shaun of the Dead. Actually, in my experience, comedy is the hardest genre to roleplay. We all have lots of laughs when we play (I hope) but actually trying to make it funny is really tricky. Games based completely on silliness and puns are great but only for a very short time! So, dark humour works best here. For instance, Denis Jones loves his wife Maureen. When the Apocalypse comes and Maureen is bitten on the hand by an infected child in the supermarket, Denis tries to keep it quiet from his neighbours. As she slowly turns a sickly grey colour and speaks to him less and less, Denis locks her in the bedroom when he goes to work. In the evenings as the alarming news on TV gets worse and worse Maureen begins to get hungry. Denis starts to slip out at night to bump off his neighbours to feed his wife-thing's craving for... brains. A twist: comedy sometimes turns to tragedy.
And so to Tragedy: King Lear, Oedipus, in a sci-fi/fantasy context stories like the original I am Legend novel by Richard Mattheson, Moorcock's Corum or even the Rogue One Star Wars storyline. But Tragedy isn't just a whole lot of terrible stuff going down. Not everyone has to die. The tragic story is one where the flaws of our hero influence the events with sadly ironic outcomes. There is a certain inevitability about the conclusion. Tragic heroes can be a bit irritating. You just know they are going to make the wrong choice somewhere down the line. In this type of game the Gamekeeper needs to give the characters the opportunity to act heroically whilst getting killed in the act of (just) saving the day. If players have identified a character flaw then the Gamekeeper must work in opportunities for them to role play these out. This kind of game can be very rewarding but needs a skillful referee who can change/create lots of stuff on the fly. A twist: the character's flaw actually saves the day (very tricky to pull off).
And finally: Rebirth. Think Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White, think Tony Stark to Iron Man, think the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. This one links nicely with Rags to Riches but our hero doesn't necessarily come out rich or a king etc. Just, a better person. So, a coward who turns out to be brave, a greedy hoarder who ends up feeding hundreds of fellow survivors. Like the Tragedy game, players would need to identify a flaw or aspect of their character which would change during the game or perhaps the referee should give them one, after all, we don't exactly choose our personality do we (expensive therapy aside)? Moral choices are what is needed here. As far as an rpg goes, this last plot option is probably better integrated into one of the others. We can't realistically have all of the players turning themselves around from murder hobos into truly decent human beings, that sounds too much Little House on the Prairie and not enough chainsaw wielding brain drinking mayhem!
So there you go. Lot's of questions as promised.
Have fun children and stay away from the Mini-Mart on Romero Boulevard.