Friday, April 20, 2012

Zombies at the Gates

Session three of Death Warmed Over (my home-brewed zombie apocalypse) went pretty well.  Society is cracking and going out with a whimper, and the most of the infected still look more like victims than threats. I've got the creepiness dialed in just right. The despair and worry is coming along fine. The writing's on the wall.

Pacing is still a little slower than most RPGs, but it will pick up as society crumbles further and more of the undead transition from "sympathetic infectee" to "flesh-eating monster". So far we've only had 2 low-key chase scenes and 1 real fight scene, which was a very short PCs with guns vs a single zombie.

None the less, we've had our first player character death already. Mark was playing a compassionate man of faith who put altruism and generosity above his own safety a bit more than can really be advised during a zombie epidemic. He got himself exposed to zombie fluids repeatedly in the process of helping get infected people to shelter at the Kingdom Hall.

When he turned, I didn't tell him right away. He was up most of the night, and I described a few early symptoms as sunrise was approaching. Itches and rashes, a slight fever, and some distortions to his field of vision and light sensitivity. He knocked on the door of his neighbor the doctor (another PC), so I cut to her player and told Laura (playing the doctor) there was a pawing at her door. She looked out the peephole to see Mark's character, covered in blood and self-inflicted scratches. For the rest of the scene, I let Mark tell me what his character was trying to do, and I then I spit it back out to Laura through this filter of how the infection was influencing his perceptions and actions.  Much as the other infected have been easily distracted, I narrated to Mark that random objects and sounds would just suddenly get brighter or more beautiful and really capture his attention. It took most of the party to get him contained without killing him. They lured him with noise, knocked him over, wrapped him up in blankets, and then locked him in a spare bedroom. Incoherent and obviously infectious, his "word salad" included a few bits that were mostly intelligible, and a number of biblical references. Clearly the zombies are not entirely mindless, nor in all cases immediately violent. Those facts complicate the days ahead.

Mark took his demise really well. I've been keeping a lot of the mechanics under cover, which is probably frustrating to the players. To keep things mysterious, as they should be in the opening days of an epidemic, I avoided letting anyone know exactly what their Exposure Rating was.  I did eventually reveal that Mark's character had an Exposure Rating of 6. Which meant he needed to roll a 6 or better to not contract the disease. I'm using some elements from the "Night Zero" graphic novel series, specifically the notion that a high blood-alcohol content can help keep the infection from taking root. So exactly what dice you roll vs your Exposure Rating is determined by how drunk you get. Of course, at this point the PCs had no way to know that in-character, and Mark's PC in particular was very religious and not likely to imbibe. So he was pretty much screwed.

Mark's new character entered the game just a couple scenes later. That's one of the benefits of the rules-lite approach, you can cobble together a new character in just a couple minutes.

His new character is a Cop. He'd been on the job for over 30 hours and was finally returning home on the second day of the outbreak. It's not that they'd let him off duty. It's that while out on yet another call responding to looters, he lost contact with the police dispatch office. Around sunrise, they stopped answering the radio or phone. When he drove to the police station he was based out of, he found it full of infected, many of whom had been fine when he'd last seen them just a few hours before. Being the last living cop in the substation of the damned, he decided it was time to retire.

So the other characters are standing around the apartment complex courtyard arguing about what to do with Father Gil and the infected and quarantined NPCs they've got locked up, when Officer Ray pulls his police cruiser up to the gate and rushes inside, shotgun in hand.

Since then, the PCs have raided the apartment manager's office, which was inside one of the other gated areas on the property. They've got all the spare keys from the lock box, some billiard balls from the clubhouse to use as thrown weapons (you know how gamers are), and all the chips and chocolate they could carry from the vending machine in the office.

On the return to their own part of the complex, they ran into a one of the bonafide zombies. She looked like the other infectees, covered in her own blood and strange blistery rashes. However, instead of acting like a newborn or simpleton as most of the infected have, she got right up and started chasing them. Her jerky motions weren't quite up to a running pace, but she could keep up with a fast walk. The PCs tried to stay ahead of her, but had some delays at the gate.

The game has psychology rules, and while they're simple and elegant, they're pretty punishing. So getting the gate unlocked while a zombie lurched towards them took a die roll and some delays.  Eventually, the infectee got close enough to try grabbing Officer Ray, so he blasted her with the shotgun at point-blank. Took most of her arm off. Instead of doubling over from the pain and trauma, she just stopped to look at her arm. Waved the stub around a bit, pawed at the dangly bits with her other hand. That's when another PC arrived (from the side of the gate that doesn't require a key) and let them in.

The PCs have had a few other encounters with the undead in the hours since then. There's half a dozen milling about outside the gates of their courtyard. One slipped it's head between the bars, but luckily didn't have the clarity of mind to twist it's shoulders in. So the latest project is the reinforcement of the fences with lumber, book shelves, spare furniture, etc. One of the PCs also built a barricade in front of their own stoop and door as an extra obstacle in case something gets past that outer fence. The game has Resource Points instead of strict inventories, so you can purchase items on the fly and narrate that they were in your closet. In the case of makeshift barriers, each point spent increases the Barricade Rating on one section of the wall. However, the players don't yet know for certain what zombies roll to try to beat the Barricade Rating, or how often, so they can't feel too secure behind those fences. Basically, the players get to know all mechanics pertaining to their own actions, but have to figure out how the zombies work in-character.  (Note-to-self: I should probably make a point next session of expressly stating what a PC would have to do to get over such a barrier, because they could probably judge for themselves whether or not the wall they've built is sturdy enough to keep themselves out.)

There's more to say, but I think I've hit the most salient points from the latest session. Sometime soon I'll post the character sheets here so you can see what the PCs look like.

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