Let's go camping in zombie infested woods
This last week I’ve been binge watching The Walking Dead. I generally find the zombie subgenre overwhelming, like a hoard of pseudo-horror unliving products sent to consume my money/brains. There’s just too much of it for me to want to be into it. But The Walking Dead, with its longer plot arcs, hits me where I live in that it’s more about human interactions. Those I get. Those will never go out of style with me or get over saturated.
The show can be used as a guide to running survival horror campaigns, since it lets us see just how long-term survival might work in a z-pocalypse or whatever. Problems arise from a combination of foolishness, bad luck, and the stresses of human interaction as each person looks out for their own interests (including the welfare of loved ones). Again and again the plot is moved forward by a confluence of problems. The zombies create for a tense lifestyle, in which any issue can endanger you and your community. But you still need to go out and find food, water, ammo, medicine, and other supplies.
There’s something familiar about what I’m describing here. Sudden danger when problems compound. Attacks that happen at exactly the wrong time. In most RPGs we’d describe this as the GM being a dick. In Cypher System we call these Intrusions. In fact, the compounding nature of zombie attacks fit nicely within the Horror Mode optional rules introduced in the Horror genre section of the Cypher System Rulebook. As more dangers and complications come up, more are likely to follow, as the Intrusion chance rises. This particularly fits with zombie attacks, as characters begin to panic or get emotional about the stakes, and start to get sloppy.
The Horror Mode rules are divided into two styles, essentially timescales by which you might track the level of danger. One is meant for longer term activity and one for during combat. The latter sees the Intrusion chance go up every round no matter what, and the former simply has it go up with each rolled Intrusion. In a dangerous world, like the zombie apocalypse, there’s no reason not to have horror mode going on the slow side in every scene. Your character is doing a little farming? If you “botch” maybe you knocked down a fence post. That might let in a few of the dead. If you roll an Intrusion again while taking them out you might have made enough noise to attract a few more. Pretty soon you’ve got a real problem on your hands.
Here we come to the problem with Intrusions, which I think is actually quite fixable. If survival horror is largely about characters working to secure their safety, and Intrusions are breaks in that security (sometimes paid for with XP), what’s the point of working towards safety in the first place? If I spend hours scouring a line of cars for antibiotics only to roll an intrusion and drop the bag as I run, what was the point? If I work and work to set up a secure area, and an Intrusion opens a hole in that safety, why should I continue to do that? We lose realism and motivation if we give up on seeking survival, but we lose tension and danger if we don’t get hit by attacks. Where’s the middle ground?
In essence, what we’re bumping up against here, is at the root of all survival gaming. At what point have I achieved survival and become a boring character? The solution is often to escalate the threat. Once facing zombies in one-on-one combat is easy, make the foe be a large group of zombies. Once that’s not an issue, make the enemy become a traitor in your midst or the leader of a rival group. While I think escalation is an important way of moving the story forward and making accomplishments move beyond simply making it through the night, I think the basic question of "why work towards safety if it’s impossible" needs to be addressed.
My solution is simple. Some of your gear, in fact most of it, should be classified as resources. You have a nice gun with a decent amount of ammo; that’s a resource. You have a bag full of granola bars; that’s a resource. You’ve found a spot of high ground surrounded by a barbwire fence; that’s one, maybe two resources. When an Intrusion is rolled, you have the option to take whatever the GM comes up with, reroll by spending an XP, or sacrificing one of your resources.
In effect, all we’re really doing here is giving the player the option of choosing the result of the Intrusion. But think about how this plays out. I work hard to set up a nice camp, giving me a resource. I’ve also worked hard to construct a way to gather water, which is a resource too. If I roll an Intrusion, I could let the GM decide that my safe space isn’t so safe or that I go out sleepwalking and run into some zombies. Or I could sacrifice my nice water collecting rig, saying that it’s contaminated or simply broken. My hard work gives me a buffer against other problems. My life is still difficult, but my hard work setting up a living situation isn’t torn apart at the first Intrusion.
Once an object or situation is no longer useful to my survival, it’s no longer a resource. And in some cases, a collection of useful objects might become a single resource, until the point where that one last item is critical. By yourself having ten rifles probably doesn’t give you ten get-out-of-jail-free cards. But when the chips are down every last weapon matters. Resources need to be dynamic, renegotiated from time to time.
A few ideas for what might qualify as a resource:
- Body armor
- Set of clothes
- A few days’ rations
- A secure building
- An escape route
- A personal item (important book, picture, etc.)
This system is particularly useful in the heat of combat, in a setting where even a single bite from a monster can kill you and turn you into one of them. What wouldn’t you give up to keep them from getting hold of you? Isn’t that question a central one to most of these kinds of scenarios? That's the horror right, that you’ll do anything to survive?
We could even expand these rules so that resources can be expended not just to counter a rolled Intrusion, but to counter an attack by a foe, when getting hit means disaster, so long as the resource is close at hand. You could throw your gun at an enemy when out of ammo or make your car roll down a hill as a distraction. You might even be able to get those resources back later on down the road, but sacrificing them means they could be gone for good. You made a tough choice in the heat of the moment that you might very well regret. That's a good story.
If we really want to get dark, we might even make people into resources. A good lookout might just buy you some time when that hoard of walking dead come over the fence. Turning people literally into expendable resources might be going too far, but those kinds of tough choices fit the setting, particularly when the game has moved into being about leadership of larger survivor groups.
Making the game about finding and setting up the resources needed for survival makes sense in a survival game. This isn’t a scenario where magical artifacts or cool gear fit. Finding a nice bit of body armor or a locker full of food should be your chest of gold in this kind of world. Keeping the game about these things and keeping people interested in setting up a safe situation, even when what they build is constantly getting torn down is tricky. We can mitigate, with Cyphers and XP given for finding useful items, but in the end a nice simple system for a reconstruction of civilization can keep things focused on what survival is supposed to be about.
Other Cypher System Supplements
As I’m writing this it’s come to my attention that Tom Robinson has just released a zombie survival supplement on the Cypher System Creator program:
Probably worth checking out.
Image Credit: Surian Soosay on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0