Monday, April 2, 2012

Herding Zombie Cats

Yesterday I ran the second session of Death Warmed Over, a rules-light zombie RPG I've been writing. Our first session covered just a couple hours at the start of the outbreak, so I couldn't blog too many details because there were a lot of surprises to spoil. There's still a number of things I have to keep close to the vest, but I can talk a little more about it.

First session started around sunrise in-character, with the PCs all neighbors living in the same gated apartment complex. I chose this because it would allow for a number of possible starting backgrounds, yet still give the players some justification for knowing and trusting each other. Plus, it gave them a fall-back location to keep returning to between excursions outside the gate. Just the same, while most of us recognize our neighbors, and some of us are social enough to know our neighbors, most apartment dwellers don't really know our neighbors. So the party isn't exactly a cohesive group with a clear leader. More on that later.

As mentioned in my previous post, my zombies look more like victims than traditional zombies, at least in the earliest stages of the illness. They've got rashes and blisters, and are compulsively scratching themselves. They aren't trying to hurt anyone, but their thinking clearly isn't normal. They seem almost childlike and easily distracted, have an oral fixation, and don't really comprehend spoken words. Most of them are covered in blood or pus from all the scratching.

In the opening hours, the news wasn't really covering what was going on. There were several infected NPCs in the apartment complex, though, so the players had a good notion that bad things were afoot.  Something similar was going on in another city (our PCs are in Albuquerque, the other city with an infection is NYC) several hours ahead of them. So the media is mostly focused on the Big Apple at the start of the day, as it's had more time for people to realize there's a problem.

In the course of the whole first day (which has taken two sessions), the PCs have seen only a handful of obvious infectees, and only one of them was behaving violently aggressive. While the disease has a wide distribution and high infection rate, it doesn't seem immediately infectious in the same way that most zombie films would do it. None of the NPCs who are clearly infected have teeth-marks on them. The one NPC who was bitten and had early symptoms seems to have recovered. Three of the player characters have had direct contact with infected blood, and are not yet exhibiting any symptoms. 

As the day went on, the news reports first got more dire, and then more hopeful. Eventually the reports came in that the NYC disaster response teams and the national guard were having good luck getting the victims contained, and that once people stopped panicking and started doing as the CDC asked, things were mostly under control in New York. Therefore the people of Albuquerque, NM, should hold tight and stay indoors, and eventually the authorities would get things well in hand.

Of course that would never stop PCs from taking action. They visited four stores in the first two sessions. One was a little gas station / convenience store where the clerk was clearly infected. There was a grocery store that opened late and jacked up the prices, but otherwise was unaffected by the plague as far as they could tell. There was a 24-hour department store type place where clearly some sort of incident had happened, complete with blood-streak and an employee carrying a shotgun from the sporting goods section. Despite usually be open 24 hours, it announced it would be closing in 20 minutes. Lastly, PCs swung buy a hardware store to get materials to reinforce their gate and fence, but by the store was locked up and they couldn't get anything. They packed into the car all the food and supplies they could at the places that were open, but were not yet willing to stoop to breaking and entering or outright theft.

There was a little bit of drama where one of the PCs had to rescue his girlfriend from the bloody creep outside her window, but he was able to engineer this without resorting to violence. Another PC was organizing his congregation to survive the end of the world, and that included some hands-on interaction with the infected that he may later regret. A couple of NPC relatives tried to get to the hospital and found that to be a bad enough idea that they broke into a deserted liquor store on the way home. Largely, though, this day passed without much obvious danger... just a lot of anxiety and speculation about how the illness is transmitted.

Trying to keep such a slow boil going is hard. In general, as a GM, my instinct is always "if the plot isn't already racing, throw some action at them!" However, that doesn't necessarily fit with what I'm trying to do here. As mentioned in the other post, once the police or army decide they can ethically blast away at the infected (because they're not infected people, they're just bloodthirsty zombies), the outbreak should wrap up quickly. So I needed a slow sinking sense of impending disaster instead of a wall of murderous undead, at least until the authorities are too compromised to do anything about it.

That pacing and lack of immediate personified threat meant giving the players plenty of time and freedom to do whatever they wanted. As I said, the PCs visited multiple businesses this session. They also went to a church, the girlfriend's house, and nearly another church. They also knocked on every apartment door in the complex, to make sure all the neighbors knew what was going on, and to check that there weren't more infected to worry about. However, they did not do any of this as a single large group. It was like herding cats, plus the occasional zombie. The whole "party" wasn't assembled except once very near the end of the session, just after sunset. After some debate and planning, they were just about to split up again (due to a disagreement), and it wasn't going to be easy to reunite them if that happened.

So that's when a military HMMWV rolled through the neighborhood. Sticking out of the port on the top was a soldier in full NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) gear, using one of those lovely LRAD (Long-Range Acoustic Device) units to convey a message to everyone in the area. Something to the affect of:
  • "Remain indoors. Stay calm. Stay at home. A curfew is in effect. 
  • If you have infected, quarantine them to a separate room. 
  • Do not kiss, hug, or shake hands, even if you do not exhibit symptoms. Wave politely instead. 
  • Doctors are on their way. Emergency crews will be delivering supplies tomorrow. 
  • If you have infected people with you, hang a sheet out your window. Use paint or markers to write on the sheet how many infected you have in large, easily read, numbers. This will help us assess your need. 
  • Remain indoors..."
That kept the PCs all together, though it gave them plenty more to disagree about.

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