Monday, July 30, 2012

Contact With The Enemy, Zombies, and "Detect Plot"

As they say in the military, no battle-plan survives contact with the enemy Player Characters. I'm running a home-brewed zombie game called Death Warmed Over, and week after week, it has repeatedly proven that old military axiom. To be clear, I'm enjoying it greatly, but it's not at all the campaign I imagined it to be.

My favorite zombie films include quite a few where the characters are holed up somewhere, turning a house or shopping mall into a fortress.  Classic Romero stuff. They're nailing boards over the windows, improvising weapons, and finding clever ways to sneak in and out of the property without getting grabbed by the thousand arms of the nameless horde. These sorts of films tend to be slow-burning character dramas where the zombies are the external source of tension that occasionally kills characters but mostly serves as a backdrop for the inevitable collapse of the social unit. These sorts of films appeal to the parts of my brain that really appreciate greek tragedy as well as problem solving.

I've always wanted to play a game that catches that feel, but no one's ever been interested in running it as anything more than a one-shot. Two main mechanical hurdles traditionally stand in the way of this sort of campaign:
  1. Such a game requires eventually the GM must play out scenes with hundreds of zombies, and most games just can't do that elegantly. No game I've seen really has the rules for the makeshift barricades. The handful of games that have rules that could be used for determining how many zombies it takes to topple a home-made wall are either so detailed you can't run 50 zombies in a scene without every turn taking an hour, or so abstract and random that one bad roll will result in a single zombie toppling your house.
  2. Items, and resource management. You don't particularly want to make a list of every single item in every single house or business, as that takes far too much time and effort from the GM. Yet to stay faithful to the genre, scrounging for equipment, ammo, and food needs to be important. There needs to be a balance, where the presence or lack of an crucial item is meaningful, but you don't have to constantly define what's in every room of every location.

You can hand-wave that sort of thing for a session or two, but any sort of lengthy campaign needs a solid foundation of rules that reinforce the genre. Based on that, I decided my best bet was to custom-build my own set of rules, and run the darned game myself.

My design goals were as follows:
  • Fast and light combat rules, because zombies really aren't that dangerous unless they show up in numbers. At the same time the rules had to be tactical enough that players could make meaningful decisions.
  • High base odds of success for the PCs, so I can throw in some big swingy penalties for psychological trauma whenever things go more wrong than they had been before, without it completely nullifying the players ability to accomplish something.
  • An abstract system for resource management so I didn't have to stat out every single item everywhere or dink about with encumbrance, but could still give both in- and out- of-character motivations for the players to make scavenging forays outside their makeshift fortress.
  • Timelines as well as a few simple random charts for figuring out how bad the zombie infestation is from block to block and building to building, so that if the players suddenly decide to make a supply run to the sporting goods store in the middle of a session I can run that on the spot without having to pause the game for 20 minutes.
  • A system for handling how likely zombies are to smash down or climb over a makeshift barricade. This needed to involve as little randomness as possible, because if the system was "roll a die per zombie" that would be wretchedly painful to play through when the zombies were in quantitity.
  • Emulating a large number of classic zombie-genre tropes, but yet still having a few surprises and curveballs to throw at the players.
  • Suspension of disbelief. The idea of the dead rising up to devour the living is far-fetched enough, the players shouldn't be scoffing at any of the details that come up later, so I really needed to think things through and do some research.
  • In-character mystery in the beginning as the players are trying to figure out how the disease propagates, leading into a gradually unfolding understanding of the new state of the world.
  • A flowchart or simple rules for zombie behavior, not just so I can run dozens of zombies at a time, but also so that they really come across as beasts of instinct and behave with a herd mentality. Additionally, this means that once the players figure out how the zombies "work" they can out-think and out-maneuver them.

I feel like I hit all of those goals. Not that there weren't any hiccups along the way, and I recently had to make some props/tools to simplify the tracking of the psychology modifiers because it was a little fiddly and opaque in my first draft. Overall, I'm pretty pleased. I did a lot of research to figure out how the infrastructure would fall apart, on what day the power goes off, when the food rots and the bugs move in, etc. I came up with a fantastical yet logical progression for my virus that would allow it to spread quickly and not burn itself out.

I started the PCs out as neighbors in a gated apartment complex that was initially a bit vulnerable to zombie infiltration, but which could be readily fortified as long as the PCs were willing to nail a few tables over their windows and what not. I used a complex I'd once lived in so that I knew the layout and the neighborhood intimately and could answer any questions that might come up. I printed off floor-plans and maps for the apartment buildings at combat-map scale and laminated them. I was ready to dig in for a siege. This was going to scratch my itch just perfectly.

And that's exactly where I come back to the first sentence of this post… no plan survives contact with the PCs. While I love the tragic siege sub-genre of zombie film, it's a forgone conclusion that things fall apart, the center does not hold. Staying in one place always gets you killed, and while very few zombie films end happily, those that do usually involve escaping to somewhere else. My players are, of course, motivated by survival. From session one, they just wanted to get the heck out of the populated areas and head for places with fewer potential zombies. Even though I set the game in the middle of a desert (Albuquerque, NM) so there's really nowhere to flee too, they just had to head out of town at the first opportunity. Trying to head them off, I throw a military quarantine up as one more obstacle in between them and anywhere else, but of course this just encourages the players to try to sneak past soldiers as well as zombies. I cut off every escape route and leave them a brightly lit Tram back down to their fortress, and they instead choose the arduous overland trek in the opposite direction, across mountains and deserts where there are, of course, no zombies.

Silly me. It should come as no surprise, as that's just how gaming works. Players cast "detect plot" and then take a hard left to steer clear of it. :)