Tuesday, 27 May 2014

GM Musing, How would I: Zombocalypse

Zombies, the walking dead, infected...Done and done. And yet, I still can't get enough of that stuff, despite the genre being flooded from all side for the past decade of so. How would I do this in an actual RPG campaign?

When seeing such Zombocalypse from a GM perspective prepping a campaign, it's, I think, one of the hardest genre to get right and to actually play meaningfully (properly?) in an RPG. 
In my mind, it's unique in that there is no need for plot, no grand story to tell. There isn't a big bad that, by his death or demise, will solve all problems. No cure, no "big evil". No exploring, no money to be made. There is no reasoning, no victory either. Zombies are brain dead stupid (literally) and they don't give a damn about anything. They're not even really monsters to fight or overcome in any meaningful way. They're just the inevitable, never in front of the camera, but always lurking just out of sight, ready to end you as soon as you make a mistake, stop paying attention, become bored or careless, weak or desperate. All you can do is fight tooth and nail to delay this inevitable, to survive just another day, another hour...and that's what makes it awesome.

That's my premise when I think about a campaign for this genre. Zombies are NOT important...until you screw you somehow. As a GM, I'd just keep them in the background, like describing the wind and weather outside. But as soon as you fuck up, they'll be there and make you pay, no matter what.
  • You didn't check all rooms before scavenging or didn't lock that door behind you? They're here!
  • Didn't reload or clean your gun? They're here!
  • Decided to push on to avoid camping in the valley and broke your ankle? They're here!
  • Taking a piss alone in the woods or sleeping unprotected in the open? Oh yea, they'll be here too!
But otherwise...they're just..around.

What's the dangers then? 
People...dangers to others, dangers to themselves.

This genre in RPG, to me, needs ultra pro-active players (and GM of course) who know how to fill the shoes of their PC properly and understand the core concepts of what it means to create and manage drama.
By that I mean players who understand that expressing little things such as your PC body movement, expressions, side looks, little grins, even clothing, hygiene or cooking and whatnot, serve a greater purpose within the drama happening. Pro-active doesn't mean you spam meaningful actions all the time or are hyperactive per se, but that you can express properly, interestingly and constantly who your PCs is and how he's developing within the given situation, even if he's a blind introvert mute or a seen-it-all military veteran who doesn't give a shit about anything anymore.

That's the basics...
Now let's dig into some of the specifics. For now, it'l be the Where and the Who. Tomorrow, I'll see about the When and How.

As a note, this whole thing was "thought" through the lenses of using GURPS as the system used in the campaign.


The US are done, out, kaput. 
Nearly every single zombie related stuff out there happens in the US and while it's good because of the common references it generates, it's bad because of the restrictions and expectations these same references bring to the table.
So no, I can't do this in the US, but then where. Well, as a GM, I need to bring some knowledge and realism to the table, so I'll use Europe, mainly France, as a starting point.

Now, France brings many very interesting things to the table in contrast to the US and that can and must have real consequences in the campaign, which will help a lot in keeping the genre fresh and exotic, despite it being over-done already.

First: guns.
According to Gun Policy.org, The US has a rate of civilian firearm possession per 100 population of 101. We're used to this right? There's always TONS of guns everywhere in Zombocalypses. France? 31 per 100! On top of that, these guns in France are not military grade, but just hunting rifles and handguns.
yea...not here, sorry...
Just taking that into account, this means that out of military structures, no assault rifle/modern big shotguns anywhere, and 1/3 of what you usually "expect" to find when thinking Zombocalypses in terms of firearms and barely any stockpile of ammunition of any kind.

Immediately you just changed the entire narrative of the genre.
I mean, I live in a city of 350.000 people and from what I could find out, there are two gun shops, both 100% hunting related with very little actual stock. I'm sure it varies from region to region but still, that's something to take into consideration when planning such campaign.
French police force isn't hardcore either, so while it might offer some basic weaponry, it's not gonna be what you'd expect, even in Paris, compared to what the New York police force is using.
Military wise, France seem to have some crazy stockpile of weapons for some reason, maybe 2nd world war stuff. Seeing our current military force, I'm assuming that most of these stockpiles are really hard to find however, probably buried bunkers everybody forgot about by now, or too costly to get rid of. Finding such would be a big deal, but I don't expect it'd be top of the line weaponry.

Second: population density.
The US has a population density of 34/km². France? 116/km².
Of course there are wide variations between cities and countryside but overall, we just don't have huge stretches of land with barely anyone in it in France. Taking as is, that means you'll encounter at least three times more zombies for any given zombie encounter than you'd think you'd get, based on our common references of things happening in the US.
This also means there is no real "safe remote area" anywhere. The most remote places in France are barely 100km from big cities usually. If you look in GoogleMap, The Alps or the Pyrenees are just 100km from Marseilles, Grenoble, Perpignan and Barcelona and whatnot. At best, that's 4-6 days away from random walking zombies.
This confirms what I mentioned previously: they're everywhere potentially.

Third: cultural differences and details.
I have to admit, this one is really hard. We all know the clich├ęs of what "Americans do in a zombie apocalypse", but I have no clue what "French do" or what "Italians do". Beyond just the firearm thing (which is huge in itself when you think about it, even culturally), we have different histories, different political tendencies, different religious debates, different social issues. It MUST impact a campaign, but how...
...I'm not sure, I have almost no references. This is really the hardest thing to brainstorm about. I'll come back to it at some point in studying the WHEN, but for now, I have no real idea for that yet.

There are also little differences that are still important however. 
For example, France doesn't really have a "survivalist movement", or "preppers". Sure, they are a couple but it's not really a thing anywhere. This has an impact I think on what you can find at your local sports goods shop and personal houses, etc.

France also has different system for Animal Husbandry and Agriculture. Bretagne is a bit hardcore like in some parts of the US (mass production, etc) but otherwise, lots of old school stuff. Same for Agriculture in many ways. Bretagne is also quite polluted (same reason), but otherwise, France has somewhat strict regulations and, to some extend (I could be wrong on this) less soil and water pollution. This isn't really important per se, but it could be if you play the long game. No real GMO agriculture (pretty much outlawed in France) may also have some kind of importance somewhere, somehow. Overall however, this is fluff to bring some exoticism to the setting, not core.

Another thing is that we have pretty much no animal predators whatsoever in France. Well, didn't until we started re-introducing one or two bears in the Pyrenees and some wolves from Italy migrated in the Alps some years ago. We also got a couple lynx and pumas I'm sure but really, this isn't even a thing in France, at least not for the first couple years or even decade after the Z day.
We got tons of dogs however and to me, the "leftovers" of all our domesticated animals could become a MASSIVE threat to survivors. I've seen videos of the packs of abandoned dogs in the streets of some Eastern Europe city and a pack of 50 roaming around is way scarier (and potentially more dangerous) than zombies, that's for sure. Since officially there is about 17 dogs to every 100 people in France (yep, that's 10 million dogs!), that's either a lot of food, a lot of problems or, seeing how differently and emotionally people react to and connect with dogs, lots of drama :)

Overall, I think France is a good and interesting setting for a Zombocalypse in a RPG. Brings novelty and unknown, differences and yet similarities as well. It removes some expectations, and frees everyone from the binds of tv-shows, movies, novels and comics, while still respecting the genre.
As a GM, I can use what I know (being French) to paint the world properly, even if players never set foot in France. This introduces, on top of the zombie and survival layers, an interesting social aspect, as well as simple exploration and discovery of a foreign land.


Almost immediately, I realized that if there's one thing that must not happen to keep things interesting is to not let the players take their PCs as simple representations of themselves...in a Zombocalypse. They must play roles, otherwise it can not only get really personal, but it also limits the PCs to their own moralities and taboos.

he did it, he took my teddy!
Next, I realized that unless you get caught in the initial outbreak when crazy shit happens or get really unlucky, anyone with half a brain and his health can survive for a very, very long time. There are INSANE amounts of canned and dried/powdered food reserves, plenty of materials to really keep the dead at bay pretty easily, tons of land and animals. There are rivers big and small everywhere and as said previously, not that polluted. A very temperate climate that does not really bring any extremes, tons of woodlands. France also has a very stable and robust infrastructure, mostly underground and therefore protected to some extend. All in all, not the worst place for when the dead come knocking.

To make things more interesting and to emphasis this disconnect between the player and the PC, I decided that the WHO would be kids between 13 and 15, doing a Euro-trip of various historical sites with a couple of adult teachers, hiking along the Napoleon's Way for a week when the shit hits the fan (South East France, between Cannes and Grenoble pretty much). 
This group would have about 25-30 kids and 2-4 adults. The PCs would be kids themselves (from the US or other countries) between 13 and 15 with existing connections with other kids and among themselves. They'll also all be at "broken" in speaking and reading French by default.

This gives:
  • No one man army, more emphasis on group play. Even a tough kid is still a kid in an adult world.
  • Careful planning and wits are more important than blunt force overall.
  • Personalities that will need to develop in game, more than before the game.
  • PCs (stat wise) will also develop during the game, not that much before. What the PCs do, practice, learn and study will matter a LOT during the campaign.
  • Lots of potential drama, I mean, what's better than adolescents to go full scale drama from nothing right? :)
  • Suitable for the very, very long game.
Aside from that, I'd ask the following from each PCs at Character Generation:
  • One "sense of duty" toward another PC and two other NPC kids in the original group. 
This can be "feel the need to protect him" or "I owe him for something" or "he's like my little brother", etc. It doesn't have to be reciprocated either but it must be strong, people you will not left behind easily.
  • One "secret" toward all other PCs and NPCs. but known by one PC and two other NPC kids in the original group.
This can be "I'm the one who put ink in his trousers last year when everyone laughed at him" or "I kissed her boyfriend" or anything that matters socially within the group. Likewise, it must be strong, though these are kids so it's relative of course.

The exact who and what will be up to them, but this will, via game mechanics, form bonds between some PCs and, also via mechanics, form tension between PCs. How they develop all that afterwards however, is all up to them.

There you have it. 

"Bunch of adolescent kids and their history teachers, far from home and country, travelling through Europe for a couple weeks, and who happened to be hiking in the low Alps of France along the Napoleon's way, when the big Z day happened."

This should be fun to GM. More of the same, more of the totally different and unexpected, though you need proper role-players for that or it'll all fall flat very quickly. That's my kind of style anyway, so it's all good :)

Tomorrow, I'll brain-storm more into this "what if" campaign, especially regarding the How of a Zombocalypse in France and it's development and consequences, and the When of it as well, studying what would be required to make it both more realistic and relevant, while keeping it interesting.

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