Archive for January, 2013

Here are zombies. What do you do?

Here are zombies. What do you do?

The great inspiration for this campaign happened as we were sitting around the table towards the end of one game night and we started talking about what we wold do if there were a zombie apocalypse, like right now. Of course, many of us have had similar conversations, and when they happen around a gaming table, it is natural to take it to the next level: well let’s play it and find out. that is exactly what we set out to do.

This article, in lieu of a session retold in story form, will focus on what has gone wrong so far, of which a huge ruined pile grows ever larger week by week. However, to be fair, that is consistent with my style of sub-par dm’ing. It is only the resilience and fortitude of my long-suffering players that have enabled us to stagger on this long. This game is beginning to strain even those strong bonds, for completely ridiculous reasons that I probably should have thought of in the beginning.

1 — Pixel-bitching the real world

Look if you will, dear reader, at the above map, or if you can find it on google earth, zoom in to ridiculous levels, and try to find an escape route through a zombie infested wasteland. Yes it could take all night, and it did. Players at my table are always breaking out their electronics (going against the Luke’s Diner rule) and so I wanted to turn their evil to good, by allowing, nay, expecting the use of their tablets, laptops, and cell-phones. One of the ways in which they could utilize them was by using google earth to pinpoint their position in the real world. There are so many problems with this that my head threatens to explode just recounting them. The result of actually dealing with them was far worse.

First off, it takes forever to actually accomplish something direct on the internet as opposed to random browsing to amuse, so that the game ground to a halt for reasons such as page not loading errors, and mis-clicking, to name just a few of the headaches that go along with using a computer. The delays and confusion were unacceptable, and more distracting than playing facebook games while role playing.

Along with time consuming, the arguments and discussions that arise over particular land formations can completely derail the game in such a way that the humble ZM is not able to account for in real-time. For example, in the above map there is a railroad following a stretch of highway to the north. One would think that if the highway was full of zombies, it would be impossible to follow that railroad, but one would be wrong, if one were to discover that there is a chain link fence separating the two. It took a long time and a lot of arguing before it was settled that the fence and the steep embankment separating the road from the highway would make it a possible escape route.

The fact that it was a possible escape route was awesome, but it had the dual problems that it took forever to get there, and that it was far enough out of the scope of what I had planned that it was difficult to improvise. Half of my arguments about the fence were based on the issue of scrambling to cobble together an interesting night of adventure when all of my plans were about to be moot. Improvising is half the fun of dm’ing to me, but when they depend on real world data, it becomes unmanageable. Other examples of unamageability include using real world personalities; equipment, like what is in an ambulance; and how real world physics work, like the turning radius of a small plane. Sure these things can be looked up, and stuff like that was continuously looked up, but what I envisioned being a nice little sidetrack, became the all-encompassing focus of the game. What is the thickness of the road bed? How wide is the lane? Are there any breaks in the fence. At what temperature does dead flesh freeze? The list is endless.

People play games set in the real world all the time, and so this is an issue in any “modern” type of game, but for some reason, it has become an obsession that is hard to shake. Possibly the fact that the game is set in our home town at the current time (Dec 21st close enough) that it led to a sense of hyper-realism. It is an issue that seems to be fixable, by first setting the game world in a universe that is almost exactly a reflection of our own, but not quite (which is exactly how the default New World of Darkness game world is describe.) Im sure this is a cheat many game masters use to explain why certain inconsistencies pop up:

Player: Granny’s blanket was red, why are you describing it as green? Something must be wrong with granny!

GM: (who doesnt have a flying fuck clue as to what color was granny’s blanket): Nope, it is red in our world, here it is green, next.

Issue Solved. Here is another.

2 — Play as yourselves!

Nobody wants to picture themselves, or their friends and family, torn apart by zombies. No one wants to have it described to them either, and even though I, as an evil and wretched dm, get a kick out of describing the most awful of disembowlments, players are apparently discomfited when it is their own guts spewing forth. Understandable. The solution to this is to either play a more “heroic” type of game rather than a gritty tale where lots of disemboweling happens, or to play “throw-away” characters with little personal investment.

It seems to be an irrevocable conflict of interest, in which we are attempting to play a realistic game of zombie apocalypse, yet the characters cannot in good conscience be harmed if they play themselves, and if they play other characters (after they themselves die or instead?) then the character creation process, which favors personality and complexity, becomes too arduous to keep throwing them away as the corpses pile up and then come after you.

Playing as super successful SWAT team members might be one fun type of apocalypse scenario, but the inspiration for this one was to be normal people trying to make it as est they could, and that has a much different vibe than tradition “heroic” games, which we always played in the past. There are many adjustments to be made, but one of the main difficulties will be for the players and the ZM (me) to accept and really appreciate the different type of game we are going for. It is a zombie apocalypse, after all, so there will be zombies to fight, and there will be much bloodshed. The many zombie movies, comics, and television shows upon which this campaign game is based inform us of what to expect. The best solution to this problem is to have a continuous cast of pre-made characters ready to insert into the game.

Issue: hopefully solved with ready to go characters, and an on-going understanding of exactly what type of game we are playing, with a focus on keeping it fun. I love describing people being torn apart by zombies, that is why i am a dm, but the players need to decide if they have the stomach for a game where they are not invincible heroes, but just regular people, yet still trying to do great things (like survive) and then get on with it.

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Broadway Bridge at night

Broadway Bridge at night

Dec 21, 2012

The day has been hectic as planes try to evacuate as many people as possible from the city before the impending arrival of the meteorite. Dubbed Meteor Z by the media, it was expected to safely pass by the earth until it passed between the earth and moon and gravitational forces caused a chunk to break off. Now its trajectory has changed, and it is projected to skirt the upper atmosphere right above a swath of the united states from Washington state to Washington DC. Evacuations are being attempted in the affected areas with only twenty four hours before the meteor streaks across the night sky. Chaos and anarchy ensue.

The midtown airport is just across the river from downtown and it is choked with people trying to leave. Every little plane and jet is being crammed full. Other planes fly in to take on passengers, but never enough. It is chaos, no security, but people can only take small handbags with them, no luggage.

A small galaxy class passenger jet with a big Google splash painted across the side is the next to be loaded. It holds 30, with 10 on one side and 20 on the other. The players all end up on the same single seat side. The other side quickly fills up. There are 2 first class seats, facing toward the rest of the cabin. after take off, the lead character Bunny McGunny realizes that the seat in front of her is taken by none other than bill gates. (weird story that) Suddenly another 20 people cram into the aisle and the pilot pulls away from the van-stairs before the plane can be swamped with more. It has trouble gaining altitude and the pilot comes on to say that now would be a good time to start praying. everyone else, buckle your seat belts. do they? they do.

It makes it into the air, but just barely, and points its nose on a steep trajectory as it banks towards east, giving the players a view of the nightime city: emergency lights at every corner, streets congested and crowds everywhere. Then there is a flash a green flash, so deep, yet so bright, the same instant the plane seems to drop 50 feet. More flashes in a strobe-like affect lasts a few seconds as the chunk of meteor bashes its way through the upper atmosphere, emitting a sickening green light as it twists and spins across the vault of the night scar leaving a dark expanding scar in its wake.

The people in the aisle crash towards the player characters, knocked out, bleeding, and in pain. Rolls for bashing damage. Miraculously the plane tries to regain altitude, heading towards the broadway bridge. The twenty passengers on the right side of the plane all appear unconscious or dead, while most of those who were not strapped down are knocked out or crying out in extreme pain. Bill gates is speaking quietly to himself, his lips moving, his face serious and still as he grips the chair with all his strength. a single google employee/stewardess was in the other first class seat, and she and somehow switched her loyalty from google to microsoft the instant she finds out who he is.

Then the wing clips the bridges first span and is torn off, the plane crashes into the second span and slide across and down into the valley between the second and third span, cables and beams snapping, tearing gouges in the walls and shattering the windows. Miraculously no player character is injured, but a beam slashes into bill gates thigh, injuring him severely.

The plane is 10 turns from crashing into the surface of the bridge, nose first from where it hangs a hundred feet above. Every turn more cables and beams snap and it shifts. anything not held or strapped down has a chance of falling towards the front of the plane. the door is closed and it is near the tail. the windows are too small for any but a child to fit through. lights are flashing, a fire in the cockpit and in the engine on the remaining wing. The bodies of the previously standing passengers are piled in phantasmagoric motley of limbs,bodies, and heads, sealing the cockpit.

What do you do?


The first thing that happens is a round of triage. The hardboiled ambulance driver takes one look at bill gates gashed leg and decided he had 5 minutes to live. meanwhile, the dead passengers were beginning to writhe and grasp out with their insanely strong hands. Their eyes glowed a pale green. The charcters each began climbing over seats, towards the rear exit. Italia the cat burgler was able to open the emergency door, and a rubber slide deployed fifteen downward towards the deck of the bridge fifty feet below. She then supplied a rope which allowed them to climb down to the bridge.

Once they got down, they had to decide to run north or south. The downtown area was jsut south of the bridge, or they could go along the south side of the river towards a firestation. To the north, one side was the airporst they recently departed, still with thoudands waiting for evacuation. On the other side was a trainyard. They chose the trains, but had to spring between two hundreed feet of cars clogging the bridge.

Each of them was sujected to a zombie attack when they ran between the lanes of cars towards freedom. The first to be grabbed was the spunky reporter known as the scarlet harlot, whose upper-arm was wrenched in a painful bruising death grip. Dr Zara Zar in her trainers attempted to leap from car to car, but a zombie, I mean crazed, green-eyed car occupant who may just be tripped out on angel dust, grabbed her by the foot.

The singer/songrwriter Zooey grabbed her daughter Ambers arm and together they rthreaded their way,but Zooey was grabbed. She tol her daugter to run,but A,ber tried to stomp the arm grabbing her mother with her doc martin boots (are those still a thing?) The video store clerk and the ambulance driver each pulled out their pieces and blew a couple heads to pieces, saving the women, and they rushed to the edge of the bridge.

For some reason, throughout the whole of that escape, the only morality check I enforced was the one against Bunny McGunny the ambulance driver, who, after seeing the arm holding the reporter get shot and still maintain its vicelike grip, and who watched as the man in the car pulled her arm towards its head, she took her hunting knife (cause everyone carries a knife like that one since the crocodile dundee movie) and literally purlverized this dudes head, with six successes. His head popped like a melon. So yeah, she passed a manslaughter roll, but I dont know why, thats the only one time I called for a morality roll. I should be more enforceful of that.

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nightmare-hill-manorIn a hi-rise apartment building in Kansas City one group of friends were riding out an unusual January thunderstorm with their usual Friday game night. The storm became increasingly fierce, but the television was tuned to the national news channel which showed never-ending footage of an upcoming near miss with an asteroid.

Zooey and her daughter Amber lived on the sixth floor, as did the video store clerk Jay and the paramedic Bunny. Besides these four, Zooey had invited her friend, the legendary Jazz singer to the game, and Amber had invited her best friend Italia.

Then there was Janice. (think annoying new jersey accent, Chandler’s girlfriend in Friends). She heard that Zooey played dungeons and dragons and “Wanted to know what all the hoopla was about.” Aside – given the chance to role play characters who are role playing characters in a game, in a game, who could resist the temptation? I stopped short of actually having their characters roll up characters, and instead had them explain to Janice what she should do.

Soon she left to get food from her apartment on the 5th floor. While she was gone, Bunny tried to get the elevator to return to the 7th floor without Janice. She heard the elevator start to return then they all heard two gunshots, from above, followed by a pause, then another gun shot. Then the elevator door opened and it was Janice saying something about the fifth floor.

Everyone reached for their cell phones, but there was no reception. They tried the emergency phone in the elevator, but no dial tone. It could have been the storm, or interference from the asteroid, but when Bunny could not get her emergency radio to work, she knew something was wrong

Jackson and Amber stayed in the apartment while the rest went towards the stairwell. first they came to Jay’s room, and he picked up his matching pistols, and then they noticed an open door further down the hall. It was Keenan’s room, a quiet unassuming fellow, but his room was a mess with crazy things written in the walls in blood. Obviously the room of a madman. His bedroom was empty but for a bed and a dresser. on the dresser was a small shrine to something with candles and a little velvet stand, but whatever once sat there was now gone. They left the apartment and continued to the stairwell.

They bypassed the 7th floor and continued to the locked steel door to the penthouse. Janice had suggested that the maintenance men on the 5th floor had a master key, but they had Italia d’Italia, master thief. even though it was a difficult lock (-3) the high class thief managed to open the door.

Italia’s story. she is the daughter of wealthy, snobby parents. one day Italia became disgusted with her parents and told them she didnt need their wealth, she was going to strike out on her own. She then began staging daring cat burglaries against her parents wealthy friends. She had a lockpick, and sprung the door to the 8th floor.

The hallway was marble tiled and nicely decorated, but dusty with age. It was bare, but for the man slumped against the wall, with brains and blood dripping down behind him. It was Keenan. There was a blood trail into the open penthouse, which turned out to be the apartment of Brian Sullivan, the eccentric old man. He lay in a pool of blood with two bullet holes in his chest. again Bunny rushes forward to detect a pulse, and this time is surprised to detect the faintest flutter. blood is pumping from a hole in his heart,and she reaches in and pinches closed his torn aorta.

Old Man Sullivan opens his eyes and whispers “there isnt much time.” Looking at his wound, Bunny grits her teeth and mutters agreement. “No,” he says, “never mind me, the ghost.” Zooey is like “the what who now?”

He gasps out that a ghost of Jonas Hill haunts the place and he has escaped and is bent on destruction and his watch must be destroyed by attaching it to the lightning rod and that Keenan stole it. He is a pretty good last-gasper, but eventually the spurting heart slips out of Bunny McGunny’s blood-slick fingers and he croaks. Searching Keenan reveals no watch. Not even pulp fiction style. Though he has been dead less than an hour, rigor mortis is already setting in.

They search the penthouse for liquor (finding wine) and more information, finding books full of old newspaper article. They all hear a scream on the 7th floor, and taking the info, head down to investigate. Upon entering the 7th floor, it feels strange, like vertigo. the hallways are very long and narrow, with ceilings almost 18 feet high. suddenly Bunny, in the lead, spots a prone body on the floor. she sees a big bowie knife embedded in his chest, and blood dripping upward to form a pool on the ceiling. After a few seconds of vertigo she shakes her head and realizes the body is pinned to the ceiling and the blood is pooling on the floor beneath it.

The five meet back up on the sixth floor, where Amber has made survival bags for everyone in case the power goes out. The droning news report anounced that the gravitational forces between the earth and moon had caused a part of the asteroid to break off, changing its trajectory which scientists were scrambling to predict.

Janice mentioned that Keenan was friends with Orlando, the son of the maintenance man, on the fifth floor, so they head down. Upon opening the door to the fifth floor, a madman comes rushing at them with a knife, another bowie knife. Bunny holds the door closed while he slams into it, then she lets him get an arm through, taking a grazing slash with the knife, before injecting him with a powerful tranquilizer from her medkit. The man falls unconscious and they drag him into the first open room to tie him up, where they find another mad man beating at a bedroom door. It was Orlando while a voice from the other side screams “I’ll kill you zombie fucks!” Orlando has three long bloody gashes and the room is a mess.

Italia leaps in with a karate chop, but fails to take him down, so Amber swings at him with a baseball bat, and also misses. Jackson Jackson steps forward with a left and a right hook, and finally they knock him out and find the pocket watch in his back pocket.

We had to end, so I quickly narrated how they went to the roof and Italia stepped out into the fierce storm to fasten the watch to the constantly struck rod, but a ghostly figure of a man in burning clothes rose up before her, so they fought and eventually she managed to get the watch hung up. It was destroyed and soon after the storm abated and the skies lightened with dawn. Most of the carnage from the night before was gone, just a hallucination, but for three dead bodies, Keenan. Sullivan, and Orlando, who it was said afterwards, were caught in a sick love triangle.

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This upcoming game night debuts a new campaign, set in our own world and time, and even our home town of Kansas City, in which a zombie apocalypse threatens to destroy all humanity. This is the tale of one band of unlikely survivors.

Zooey Zubizu, almost famous lounge singer — She wears a sequin dress and heels, and carries a .38 in her clutch. She loves to sing and to drive fast cars. Her heart is full of charity, but her vice is sloth. She is addicted to alcohol and cigarettes.

Jackson Jackson, legendary horn player — With a suitcase and his sax, Jackson j came to Kc looking for a place to crash. He found it and the crash found him. He wants only two things, a good time for him, and for those around him.

Bunny McGunny, alcoholic paramedic — Talented, level-headed and disillusioned, she keeps getting pulled back into the world of people, a world she cant stand.

Dr Zara Zhar, University astrobiologist — a curious line of research for this aloof, egg-headed wonder woman who also knows kung-fu. She has a greed for knowledge, and for a bigger lab, and more test subjects, and more field studies…

Jay Jambunathan, video store clerk — with a video camera, the complete DR Who box set, and a pair of .45 calibur pistols, Jay is ready for anything. He cheats at gambling.

Amber Zubizu Zass, first year art student — Daughter of Zooey, Amber turns everything she touches to gold, except for rotting corpses. She is full of hope, and of pride. She also has a book-bag and a tablet computer.

Italia D’Italia, high class thief —
This young woman is the daughter of rich parents who struck out on her own and became a cat burglar for the thrill of it. She always has her cell phone, and a silk rope.

Donna Belladonna, goth chick —
She can sense the spirits of the dead. Now more than ever. With the power of wrath and an evil eye, and occasional hallucinations, Donna has faith that destiny will find a way for her to survive.

Buzz Lombardo, party FREAK — He is addicted to all drugs and desensitized to most, immune to others. He lives to party and has a lust for the ladies. Oh and when he has to do something useful, he knows computers, IT whatever that means. Chicks dig his bike.

Scarlet Marlowe spunky reporter — This gal always knows the scoop or where to find it. Scarlet has contacts, allies, and resources in every city in the tri-state area.

Ripley, lost little girl —
This poor girl has seen the worst, her parents killed, but her deadly curiosity drives her on a never ending search for her mommy and daddy. She can sense the dead and hide anywhere.

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WalkingDeadAs the last game session of 2012 wrapped up on Dec 21st, we discussed as a group what we would like to do in 2013. Perhaps the apocalypse was in the air, for it was the end of a baktun, and we all agreed a zombie apocalypse survival campaign would be great.

The excellent TV show (and comic) The Walking Dead was the original inspiration for this. additionally, the idea occurred to me to slowly introduce supernatural elements into the game, via events and learned or acquired abilities, akin to superpowers, gained by the survivors. The TV show Heroes was the inspiration for this, which featured regular people realizing they had superpowers, only instead of suddenly having far-reaching powers, the player characters (or “cast members”) would discover glimmers of something special, developed over time, by surviving through the apocalypse.

The campaign would be “save the world” and would include all manner or surprises along the road to ultimate salvation or destruction. It would begin as a gritty survival horror, where instant death was waiting around every corner, and actions had far-reaching, often fatal consequences. The objective of the campaign is in no uncertain terms to gather as many survivors as possible and rebuild society. An impossible task, to be sure, but anything less noble would descend into anarchy and nihilistic destruction in short order.

The original idea was for each of the players to create an “idealized” version of themselves, and the game would begin as we were seated around the table one Friday night for our usual game night. However this received some negative feedback from a few players, whom I suppose do not relish the idea of having to visualize themselves being torn apart by ravenous ghouls. There could be a high turn-over of “cast members” during the first few sessions, as the apocalypse unfolded in gory detail. After that, survivors would tend to keep surviving. the game will begin in our home town, and in a dramatic departure from my “Luke’s Diner Rule”, which states that no electronic devices are allowed around the table, the players will be able to use devices, like google street view, to inform their choices, so long as the cast members have access to such devices in good working order.

Those survivors would begin to uncover the causes of the apocalypse, and hopefully find or discover a cure, or at least a way to end or diminish the rising dead from overwhelming the planet. The plan is to allow players to play themselves, or to pick a pre-made “archetype” to use. This “normal person” will be their player character until such time as they choose another amongst survivors, or create a character to use.

The first question as the game master, was to decide on a game system. It was quickly apparent that no version of dungeons and dragons could quite capture that level of horror and danger that the genre required. rules for wounds, fatigue, both mental and physical were required. Nor was the alignment system appropriate. An over-arching goal (save and rebuild civilization) allows a base-line for judging characters actions. This game was going to be as much about the interactions of the survivors, as it was about defeating mindless hordes. Having a cast member’s “personality” become a factor in the role playing is an important part of a character driven story. to that end, d&d just didn’t cut it, unfortunately.

A benefit of this campaign is that we get to try out a new game system. Having only played the last three editions of dungeons and dragons, our focus has been pretty narrow. For the modern zombie apocalypse I was looking into three game systems: D&D Modern D20, a modern take using the same rules we are familiar with, with the same drawbacks described above, as well as being very technical and excessively rules-oriented; The World of Darkness, a storyteller game about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves amongst us normal folk; and All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a zombie survival role playing game.

allfleshRuling out Modern D20, left two great choices, each with plenty of reasons for choosing it, and I was lucky enough to acquire the core rulebooks for both systems. At first glance, it seems like All Flesh is the natural choice, because it deals with the subject matter directly. It even has rules for minor supernatural abilities, or “miracles,” which align well with some of my own ideas on gained abilities. It presents a number of game-worlds, from the traditional Night of the Living Dead, to aliens, to an undead crusade in the dark ages. The ideas presented in the book are well though out and well presented.

I have only perused the book and will more than likely devote more time to going over all its wonderful qualities, but in short, it has almost everything I am looking for in this game, except for a complete lack of rules for morality and personality, two areas of focus for the upcoming campaign. It also has very little in the way of character advancement as play progresses. I do not think the leveling system pf D&D would be a good fit, but something more robust than adding a few skill or attribute points is definitely needed.

wodFinally, we come to the third game on the list, and the one i finally chose to use. Having realized I actually own the World of Darkness Quickstart adventure Nightmare on Hill Manor, and have the core rulebook arriving in the mail any day, I realize it has the perfect element of morality (consisting of the virtue and vice that every character possesses) and personality merits and flaws, the game is geared to run a horror styled genre, which is exactly what a zombie apocalypse would be. it is not a perfect fit, and to that end I will attempt to convert as much from All Flesh Must Be Eaten as possible.

So what do we know about the campaign so far. Well, I have the introductory encounter planned out, as well as a prelude, both of which I hope to present on the opening night of the campaign. Here is what we know. A sudden, fast moving comet is approaching the earth. its velocity, as well as its trajectory made it impossible to discover until it is a week away from bisecting the earth’s orbit and blazing through the upper atmosphere before skipping back out into space. The comet is on a ten thousand year orbit around the sun, and is filled with all manner of nasty gamma rays and such.

The Nightmare at Hill Manor is a ghost story/horror move adventure that deals with being trapped in a haunted apartment building. The wonderful beginning casts the characters as a group of friends meeting at one friend’s apartment for poker night. As a prelude to the zombie apocalypse it will be modified to fit into the larger campaign, and will take place one day after the comet is discovered, and six days before the near miss.

After the introductory adventure, the players will have the option of keeping their pregenerated chaacters, or of making their own, and then we will continue on to the main kick-off. once the prelude is done, and the weird night in the apartment is over, the group sets off together on a vacation, a trip to a gaming convention. The tickets are already bought, and so even though pandemonium is happening as the world awaits the arrival of the comet, the cast of characters are busy fulfilling their gaming duties.

The next scene is six nights later. returning from the convention the night the comet is supposed to arrive, the plane has difficulty landing at the main airport due to freak electrical storms. it diverts to the tiny municipal airport and while banking, the comet is seen above as a bright flash as it slams through the air directly above the city. the pilot is blinded or killed, as are all the passengers on one side of the plane as it overshoots the landing strip and crashes onto the main bridge connecting the airport to downtown.

Mayhem ensues.

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