World War Z opened this weekend, the Walking Dead series seems to still be going strong, and more and more zombie related fiction seems to be coming out in increasing numbers. I thought Zombies might have reached saturation with the less than stellar Marvel Zombie series but the craze seemed to survive that. I admit I enjoy the Zombie craze. I even watch those bad SyFy movies about zombies along with reading many different Zombie novels (almost 90 at this point). Most of them are not worth talking about but even in the bad ones comes the occasionally cool or clever idea. I doubt I’ll ever get to run a Zombie Apocalypse game but as most gamers know the next best thing to running on is planning one.
A number of questions need addressed in planning a zombie apocalypse game. In many of the RPGs that follow this theme they answer them for the reader but don’t really address the questions well. All Flesh Must Be Eaten is the one RPG I recommend for this as it is more of a toolbox then a firm setting like the others I’ve seen.
I think the first thing needing done is defining the setting. The assumption is usually modern day but I’ve read some cool settings that deal with near future a few decades or a century after the Zombies first appear. There have been some cool super heroes zombie settings but I’d advise staying away from Rotten Capes RPG. Even setting it back ten or twenty years can severely impact the game as communication has really become a lot easier in that time.
While in many cases the cause is not revealed I believe a GM needs to have an idea for it to help the game. It is very possible that the PCs will eventually take the game from just survival to something more and discovering the cause is a likely mystery to attempt to deal with. Now that doesn’t mean it has to be possible for the PCs to ever learn the cause. And as a GM I would include call kinds of rumors from alien spores to natural pandemic and everything in between. Knowing the cause can help define how it is transferred, if there is a cure, and other likely characteristics of whatever is causing the Zombie Plague.
The big question though is fast or slow zombies. On the big screen the zombies have become faster and faster because it looks better on the big screen that way. It is more difficult to make people feel threatened all the time by slow zombies, but they should be no less scary. I think World War Z the book did a great job of showing how they can be frightening. I like a good mix though. In one series I read slow zombies were actually herded by the faster zombies who used them as distractions. It was cool to see pack tactics being used by zombies. I also like the settings showing reasons for the different kinds. Fast zombies might be charged by radiation from nuclear bombs that failed to kill them. Or they just might be bodies that are less decayed or damaged.
GMs can spring the apocalypse on the PCs or give them time to prepare. Some good novels have shown that the outbreak starts on one nearby city and gives the characters a day or so along with everyone else to prepare or panic. Also, a GM can take the PCs through the start of the chaos or just spring them in the middle like Walking Dead does. I almost feel it would be a good bait and switch scenario allowing the players to think it is one type of campaign and then surprise them with the walking dead showing up. That can help so all the PCs are not ex-military survivalist. Showcasing more normal characters and how they deal with the onslaught is one of better aspects of the games then just making it well armed militia men ready for the end.
One of the bigger complaints I see is that in the books and movies there has to be tension between characters. Some of these actually seem more like soap operas with zombies and I think it comes from writers not fully embracing the conflicts that can happen. There doesn’t need to be infighting to create drama. It can be challenging enough just trying to find food and shelter and stay safe. Sure it is good to have rival gangs of people or even other groups that are not evil but don’t agree with the PCs. But too often it seems aside from the main characters most of the humans they run into are worse than the Zombies. It just happens way too often that it becomes boring and predictable.
The most important aspect that I think many of the novels and movies lack but I feel is more important for an RPG is hope. If the game seems hopeless and there is no chance for improvement I think players get bored and frustrated. It’s not fun anymore even if it might be completely realistic. I would allow the PCs to build a community or gather in a caravan. That is why I would give hints of a cause and a possible cure. It allows the PCs to work towards something.
Chris Gath. I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then. In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6. My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game. On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out. I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times. Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.