Monday, March 26, 2012

The Careful Timing of a Zombie Apocalypse

Zombie Apocalypses: We've all been through them a few dozen times. There's these painfully slow, utterly mindless critters who spread a terrible infection only if they bite someone. No worries. I mean seriously, how hard is it to avoid being bitten by a slow-moving dim-witted attacker that looks patently unnatural at first glance?

Even if you do get bit, that victim usually has to die immediately in order for them to turn instantly, and when we do get to see that happen in a zombie film, it usually involves the zombie-to-be being ripped apart limb from gory limb by a horde of shambling undead. Otherwise if they escape with just a small bite, it takes hours or days of dramatic agony for them to become a monster.

So, realistically, that first day should be rough going for a zombie plague. Sure, humanity's not ready for you, but once we do see you coming, we've got the advantages of speed, firepower, and brains. Brains...mmm.  Seriously, any city big enough to have a SWAT team should have the whole zombie thing under control on day one.

Yet despite those obvious truths,  within no more than one in-character hour of the first zombie sighting, most films have the undead outnumber the living by a factor of 100 or more to 1.  Sometimes, that's hard to swallow (unlike all those tasty brains, they go down easy).  Unless absolutely no one at the police department has ever heard of a zombie before. But I'm interested in gaming on planet earth, usually in the post-Romero world where everyone knows that a pale dead-looking thing with blood pouring from it's mouth probably isn't friendly, long before it ever shambles into biting range.

Now, if you've got fast-moving zombies with rapid-onset zombie infections you might logically be able to go from patient zero to full-blown zombie apocalypse in a day or two. But even 28 days later, the movie that started the whole "fast zombie" revolution, realized that the apocalypse doesn't happen over night, it takes 28 days or so to get to the stage where most zombie films start.

Problem is,  fast zombies with instant-conversion is really hard for table-top gaming, and this is after all a tabletop gaming blog.  Players just generally don't care too much for an endless stream of "save or die" effects that would be required for a "1 drop of blood on your face and you go zombie" scenario. How do you get attached to a character who's that expendable?

So for my recently started zombie RPG, I turned a critical eye towards how I could make a slow-zombie apocalypse happen on a time-frame that was still interesting to play out. I didn't want to jump ahead four weeks past the end of the world, I wanted to game in the last days of mankind. Nor did I want my players to have to invest hours in a character creation process that might have to be repeated every three combat rounds.

Here's a few things that I figure any slow-zombie virus needs to get it's self up to the world-threatening stage before the CDC and US Army can shut it down.
  • Densely Populated Epicenter: There needed to be some event at which a large group of people were gathered, and all exposed. There can't be one Patient Zero who personally bites every other zombie, there has to be a Ground Zero mechanism for a large group to be exposed all at once. Could be contaminated food or air, could be a deliberate act of bioterrorism, but it probably can't be one dead guy and his dentures.
  • Delayed Conversion Allows For Dispersion:  All those people at Ground Zero need to head home, or at least flee at human speeds. They need at least a few hours to disperse before they convert to undead status.  That first wave have to spread out, and not even realize they're a danger to themselves or others. Ideally, the early infected need to be able to travel by plane and land in other cities before they know they're sick.
  • Compromised Police Response: I'm sure we've all read tragic news reports that suggest that Police under pressure tend to get trigger-happy even when there's nothing about the suspect any more threatening than the color of their skin. Now put those same cops responding to the hordes of shambling dead. Yeah, it's a 6-gun massacre writ large and gory. So if the slow zombie apocalypse wants to have a chance in the big city, something else has to distract the police, or at least complicate things for them. Such as...
  • Sympathetic zombies or carriers: The zombies can't be immediately distinguishable from humans. They can look sick, they can look hurt, but they can't look like flesh-eating monsters in the first hours of the outbreak. When the healthy see the infected, their response shouldn't be "shoot it!", it should be "OMG are you okay?!" A zombie plague that makes you want to bandage or medicate the early-stage zombies, and doesn't provoke the knee-jerk reaction of heading for the hills with gun in hand, has a much better chance of catching the most flies. After you've hit critical mass, you can have the zombies enter a bloodthirstier stage, but in those fragile opening hours there probably needs to be some doubt and moral ambiguity.
  • Reason not to Nuke: Dropping in a daisy cutter, tac nuke, or the like is of course a cold and calculating solution to the zombie outbreak scenario. So the zombie plague has to be damn subtle, or leave some hope for a cure. Or else it needs to strike places too valuable to nuke, and too many of them. There's a number of possible solutions to this conundrum... or the GM can just let the PCs know the nuclear option is inevitable and suggest they go hide on the other side of that mountain. You've got options.

I started my game with the President being in town, and things getting ugly at the big protest/counter-protest/counter-counter-protest rally near his speech. 8 hours later, all those protesters, and the cops they wrestled with, start turning. They aren't monstrous yet, their brains are clouded, they've got fevers, and they're scratching at pus-filled rashes.  In the meantime, there's news of some other(?) disease outbreak in another major city far away. Just enough confusion and uncertainty to let things get out of hand.

My original plan was to start with sympathetic zombies, and only show the first bloodthirsty one as the final image of the first session. It seemed like a natural cliff-hanger. However, my early sympathetic zombies were _really_ successful. There was a point where I was going to have to bridge the gap from disease victims to murderous zombies, or else the rest of the party was going to nursemaid themselves into terminal infection.  Despite springing the predatory undead ahead of schedule, we still ended the session with one PC covered in zombie blood and driving a car full of infected to the church full of survivors.  This does not bode well for that PC.

Oh well, at least there'll be no nuclear option until the motorcade makes it back to Air Force One.


SiderisAnon said...

I like what you've set up for a zombie plague spreading. It's a good foundation for a "realistic" spread of the infection, especially allowing it time to spread to other cities.

Something to consider adding to your list of zombie logic is that one can never underestimate human stupidity and stubbornness. There are three common zombie movie tropes that cover this fairly well.

The first is the, "Uncle Bob would never hurt me," problem. No matter how dead someone looks, some people refuse to believe that the person, especially if it's a loved one, is really dangerous to them. Small children zombies are particularly good at evoking this reaction, even from complete strangers.

The second is the, "This is just a media stunt," folks with their heads in the sand. Some people will simply refuse to believe that the whole thing is real, or refuse to believe that if it is real it can ever have an effect on them. Humans do it all the time with important issues in the modern world, even when they can see them in full color on the news.

The third one is the whole, "That looks human. I can't kill it," issue. Many people, no matter how much their life is threatened, can never break out of their civilized mold and so will die to zombies they cannot bring themselves to fight. There's a reason the military has to spend time breaking a new recruit down and reshaping them before sending them into battle. Of course, some people can flip the intellectual switch that says, "That's not a human anymore," and some people will simply break out of the mold by pure shock and horror, which should present some interesting roleplaying with the survivors.

I'm looking forward to seeing what your final rules shape up into. I've been thinking of running a short zombie interlude when some campaign ends. (I know my current group well enough to know that any zombie game will be short. They will get themselves killed off fairly quickly.)

Philo Pharynx said...

One method is to say that the "Zombie virus" is highly contagious, and progresses in stages. The average healthy person won't progress beyond stage 1. Stage 1 are carriers. Living people may have syptoms like a mild flu or have no symptoms at all. A corpse at stage 1 won't rise, but will eventually progress to higher stages over a couple weeks. Embalming will slow this progression, but preserves the tissues so the zombies have less rot when they reach stage 2.

Stage 2 is where things get interesting. Living people will usually only get to stage 2 if they have a high load of the zombie virus. This comes from being bites or blood contact by a stage 2 host, or having a compromised immune system and not getting treatment. Most treatments for a compromised immune system will prevent the zombie virus from going to stage 2. Stage 2 living people are crazy with hunger and do not have the normal pain/fear/self-limiting responses. They are very active. With no self-preservation instinct they will push themselves to their limits to get food (non-infected flesh, especially brains). Because of this they often get injured and will die from their injuries. Stage 2 dead people are walkers. They are your typical zombies. They will not progress to stage 3.

Living people that survive stage 2 will become stage 3. They regain some semblance of intelligence, but retain the hunger and the ability to ignore pain. These are your ghouls.

Living Dead
Stage 1 Carriers Future Zombies
Stage 2 Fast Zombie Slow Zombie
Stage 3 Smart Zombie

This would meet your needs. The virus would spread widely for several weeks or months. This timeframe allows the virus to spread globally. The symptoms won't be bad enough to trigger the CDC to do the massive investigation needed to identify the virus. Some of the infected population would die, but they won't rise immediately. You might have a few isolated incidents of zombies, but many of these won't be reported. Who wants to be known as the guy who saw a zombie?

The apocalypse would be triggered by flu season. The added load on the immune system will weaken people's immune systems to become zombies. Fast zombies are aggressive attackers and will spread the infection fast. This is also complicated by the fact that people who died earlier are now rising. Since a lot of the population is changing at once, this will include a number of the police, military and medical response teams. At this point, people in hospitals will start getting less effective treatment, and they will go to stage 2.

Advantages: You get all types of zombies. You get a big and widespread surge of zombies that all seem to come out of nowhere.

Disadvantages: The PC's are infected. They can become zombies even without being bitten.

SiderisAnon said...

If you're looking to spread the zombie infection without notice, another option is that the actual "zombie" disease doesn't really kill you. It can be spread fairly easily and has already spread far and wide across the globe. The zombie invasion starts because people die of other things while infected, turn, and then kill others.

Imagine a car accident where one of the people taken to the hospital dies and turns. They attack the others in the ER, many of whom aren't really capable of defending themselves. The zombie is spreading the "zombie" disease to others by air, so people dying in other parts of the hospital will start to turn too.

Really, the zombie disease doesn't need to turn you. The human bite is already full of germs. If zombies are spreading other diseases as well -- since they're nothing but big incubators for everything they catch without it slowing them down -- a bite from a single zombie could give you six or seven nasty diseases and infections, any one of which could kill you.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Thank you both for your comments. Indeed, elements of what you wrote here were already in place before the first session, I just didn't want to spoil the surprises before the players found out in-character. I ran the second session yesterday, so I'll be able to post more about it this week.

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Property Management Fees said...

My original plan was to start with sympathetic zombies, and only show the first bloodthirsty one as the final image of the first session.