Culture

Everything is Better With Zombies. Including Roleplaying Games

So you want to put some zombies into your roleplaying game (RPG) for Halloween.  I’m going to do you the courtesy of assuming that you’ve made this decision freely, and of your own will; and that you know that you’re risking being trite, trendy, and maybe even a little tendentious to people who are currently ‘over’ the entire zombie thing.  I will not judge: after all, it is Halloween season.  But what you’d like to also do is maybe incorporate zombies in a way that’s not entirely stale and overused.  Let’s see if we can get you there.

One note: for the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that zombies are dead, infectious, and implacable (I’ll call this ‘Romero mode’).  I do this, fully understanding that doing so implies that zombie movies like Twenty-Eight Days Later or Shaun of the Dead are not zombie movies, which would of course be self-evident nonsense.  But what I’m doing here is focusing on one, fairly well-known, subset of the genre in order to give RPG advice, not declaring that that specific subset has the Only True Zombies.  I’m further going to break it down by particular genres of games…

…starting with classical Fantasy.  You get Undead all the time in the classic dungeon crawl, of course; but they’re rarely Romero-mode zombies. It might seem interesting to use Romero-mode zombies: of course, you may not want to simply throw a zombie apocalypse into your campaign, either. One way to get around that would be to limit the zombies’ favored prey to something manageable.  What if the zombies only hunger for Elven brains?  Or Orcish ones?  The second scenario might be even more interesting than the first: even a party that typically casually kills Orcs or other ‘monster’ species might be a little reluctant to let the zombies rip through the entire Orcish population. Especially if infection is still a risk.

Moving along: Horror may seem redundant for this essay, but there are still a few ways to play with the zombie concept in order to make it a bit fresher.  One immediately obvious ploy is to keep Romero-mode zombies dead, infectious, implacable… and self-aware. A zombie that knows that it needs living brains to survive — and is willing to go get those brains anyway — is pretty much an instant villain with a easy-to-grasp motivation.  That can be very useful for a gamemaster (GM).  Another, similar trick might be to make the zombies organized, somehow.  A scenario where hordes of zombies are instinctively herding uninfected humans in a demented form of animal husbandry would certainly make for an interesting game session or three.

Steampunk and Noir both allow for using zombies as symbols for social or political conflict.  Perhaps the rich and powerful can afford to keep zombies as workers, buying their obedience with poorly-understood control mechanisms and a steady supply of corpses.  Or perhaps there is a zombie plague that is barely being kept under control; there is a cure or a vaccine, but it’s effectively for the middle class and above only. Or flip it entirely: the Revolution is here, and it’s specifically targeting the non-working classes with zombiehood as a ghastly metaphor for The Struggle (this works best if the revolutionaries are serving a particularly nasty ideology).  In any case, gamemasters (GMs) can play on the fear of becoming a zombie just as much as they would play on the fear of encountering one.

And then there’s Pulp.  While Two-Fisted Adventuring Against The Undead (Wear Gloves, Please) has its points, there’s another avenue: all-zombie adventures!  Have the entire campaign take place in the Hollow Earth, which is full of various zombie nations and cultures.  Maybe some of them snack on human slaves; maybe some of them… eat gorilla brains, or have a Mega-Salt that lets them subside on cow brains, or something like that.  Anyway, the party still goes out and fights the Bad Guys in improbable ways with convoluted justifications, only now the question “How do you kill something that’s already dead?” applies to everybody.  The answer is, of course, “You probably can’t.”  Which is fine: pulp villains are traditionally unkillable anyway.  It’s just that now, so are the player characters…

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