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.

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.