USR Wednesdays: Zombies

What better way to mark Halloween than with the most popular horror creature of all (right now)? In a game where the heroes are survivors of a zombie apocalypse, there’s several ways to approach central threat:

  • The zombies are an endless horde that’s easy to kill; the trick is to get away before you’re overwhelmed.
  • The zombies are a scary surprise as you try to come to terms with the new rules of living day by day. They’re easy to avoid — if you see them coming.
  • The zombies are a part of the environment around you, like having to try and maneuver through a heavy snowstorm. These stories take place several months after the apocalypse, when everyone is used to dealing with zombies, and a new world order is sorting itself out. The real danger isn’t the living dead; it’s other humans who don’t like that you’re not under their control.

I’m sure you can think of movies and books with each of these kinds of zombie settings, and more. Any of them can be a great zombie RPG setting — an action-oriented one, if the players are in the mood to slay zombies; a suspenseful story where the existence of zombies might be a plot twist; or a tale heavy in negotiation and tough combat, fighting off both the undead and the very much alive.

They're coming to get you, PCs!
As I’ve said before, the classics never go out of style. (image: refinedguy.com)

Hordes

The ever-present threat of zombies can be represented in USR with a simple rule for hordes. When the story begins, as the first zombies appear (unless you’re starting in media res, with an enormous mob of zombies), there’s 2d6 somewhere nearby. As the plot advances, or whenever the heroes make too much noise, or whenever the gamemaster sees fit, add zombies equal to (1 + the number of players)d6.

Zombie stats are usually low — D6 or even D4 for every stat, with no Specialisms or equipment. Maybe even use the mook rule, where a zombie has only one Hit Point (an attack total of 7 against a zombie’s total of 3 doesn’t mean a single zombie lost 4 Hit Points; it means 4 different zombies were destroyed). Don’t forget that zombies move slowly, and are unable to move past obstacles or think their way out of simple traps.

Survivors

The two big rules for survivors in a zombie story are searching, where a successful Wits roll against a target number of 4 means the survivor found food, medical equipment, a working car, or a weapon. A failed roll means nothing turned up. And a die result of 1 means something was knocked over during the search, or a window shattered: the perfect time for more zombies to join the horde.

The second rule is for “horror saves,” or resisting the shock and fear of a close encounter with the dead. It can be a Wits die roll (for characters trying to rationalize their way out of the encounter) or an Ego die roll (for characters who can bluff and bluster their way through anything). Use the higher stat for a high action or comedy-type game, and use the lower stat for characters in a traditional horror story. Failing a horror save means the hero just wants to get away from the zombies, maybe at the cost of his or her allies. And rolling a 1 on a horror save or an Action roll when in battle with zombies means the worst: an infected bite that transforms the hero into a zombie, whenever it’s dramatically appropriate.

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