[Zombie Cinema] Socially robust

Started by Christoph Boeckle, September 02, 2008, 08:18:28 AM

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Christoph Boeckle


There's a point I want to make about Eero Tuovinen's new game Zombie Cinema (a.k.a. Zombeja! Ovella!). It has taken me days of textually shuffling my feet around in the sand to find a good stance, but I think I've found at least a good angle of attack on the topic: the social robustness of the game.

I've talked about this game on two previous occasions on the Forge (at a con with some adolescents and at a games evening in an alternative pub). I believe those can be seen as supporting the point I'm about to illustrate here.

Paris, France, August 12th
I was coming home from a nice stay in St-Malo (Bretagne, France) with some pals that live there and I had a 5 hour wait in Paris between two trains. It so happens that JC Hoog lives 5 minutes away from the train station, so he invited me to come over and called in two of his friends for an RPG. We decided a few days before, per e-mail, that we'd play Zombeja.
We set the game at a resort island (one of those organized vacation camps which are often parodied in French humour). All players were pretty confirmed role-players and had played some indie games with JC. On a few occasions, JC was trying to frame into conflicts directly, since our characters were stagnating on the board. The other three of us didn't really care as much, but they did happen, perhaps even with greater success thanks to the quick "free-game" introduction that gave the conflicts substance (I'm not saying that one can't frame in media res, but it's more complicated).
Our characters all died except JC's. Caught on the erupting volcano, swarmed by zombies and my character's wife nearly sacrificed by a crazed "pseudo-aztec priest" our chances to get out of this Indiana Jones with Zombies flick were slim. I sacrificed my straightforward and nice family father to try to save the wife (I was "winning", a thing that happened another time with a similar character, it's a really good concept to gather sympathy from the other players): I described how the father was knifed instead of the mother and how the resulting confusion allowed JC's Foreign Legionnaire to escape with the son. Since the wrong person was sacrificed, a terrible cataclysm ensued, and all the other people died. Even the wife. Too bad.
Interesting lesson learned: the son and the wife were NPCs, but the sacrifice mechanic still allowed me to set a dramatic scene with them, even though it was JC's pawn who advanced to the "escape" square on the board.

Delémont, Switzerland, August 17th
This time, the "internet pal" who got me interested in rpg theory years ago, whom I had met a few times before, came to my place with another friend. They had been to a LARP for the weekend. I will call them Sébastien and David, because that's their names. Also, my excellent friend Julien who lives in the 'hood played. My brother Michael just watched for the first half of the game, so we gave him a die anyway, but no pawn. He could lend his die to whoever he wanted and play NPCs, but not frame scenes or launch conflicts against zombies.
We played in post-hurricane New Orleans. Sébastien played a fire man on a rescue team, David a cruel scientist, Julien a latino thug and me a nice black family father looking for his lost family. This session was riddled with silly references. A huge cliché-fest, especially on the part of Sébastien and David who really seemed to know lots about the genre. This didn't seem like a good tactic though. Along with Julien's outright bad guy (he likes to play that type apparently), their two characters quickly got chewed up (my take: not enough angles for conflict were provided). Mine fared barely better as we didn't have a lot of conflicts, and of those we had, we had two ties (Michael's die never played a role in that, but it could have happened). We even rolled a quadruple one! I did manage to get Julien's sympathy (his thug had somehow kidnapped the father's baby! the baby was infected! everybody wanted the poor baby! I got to flee with it!) for a sacrifice (his character, as he zombified in-fiction, threw himself head-first into battle with a horde of zombies attacking the four of us - it wasn't quite clear if the character did that out of regret for his kidnapping or what) that helped me to survive the other three characters, but then I rolled very badly against the zombie menaces and the father got killed running up the stairs of a building: the last scene showed the fireman running after him, another zombie crashing through the ceiling and the baby showing it's fangs! What an awful way to die and finish a film (but hey, as a play-session it was quite good).

Lausanne, Switzerland, August 19th
So, at my university there's this bar held by students. I used to be on the board and I still meet some of the guys for the occasional board-game nights (we also play a little RPG and poker). We have started a Call of Cthulhu campaign, but for some reason the group decided to play something else. There were some extra guys around. Finally, we were 7 at the table (good thing the bar has lots of board-games from which we could get an additional, grey token for the 7th player), one gal and six guys, ages ~22-40.
We decided to set the game on the campus and the very first scene was all our characters playing board-games in said bar. A "real" member of the bar team calls our characters because she heard strange noises on the campus, and from there it started.
All told, it was a bit messy at the beginning. One guy was new to roleplaying and found this board-game very confusing (so, how do we win? I can say whatever I want? how can this be serious?), others weren't very serious about playing and lots of silly scenes happened. For example, I followed Eero's advice to play a woman (a "winning" strategy he says) and another player decided he'd play his "vicious" trait to the hilt and he harassed (with sexual intentions) my character from A to Z. This got me into a lot of conflicts and my character escaped at record speeds thanks to the unanimous support I had from all the other players. The harasser was saved by another player who pitied him dying so quickly (at the expert hands of a zombie sex bomb, for which I am to blame...) only to die shortly after anyway (this time he got gang-banged: I would like to recall that the player of the dying character chooses how he dies!)
Nevertheless, the group's attitude focused: at one point one of the characters got tied up by the others and the player of the victim immediately stood up, went to a cupboard, got some duct-tape and rope and asked the others to tie him up at the table. The game advanced and even though the new and sceptic player was narrating all sorts of over-the-top stuff (he had rocket launchers, flame-throwers and stuff like that always on the ready) we were getting somewhere in the fiction, where the crazy soldier was actually quite a pivotal character (in the end, he was fending off the zombie invasion as two other characters tried to turn the school's TOKAMAK into a deadly anti-zombie weapon, but failed and died, teleporting the soldier to a similar machine in London).
Somehow it worked out much better than I was thinking during the murkiest part of the session. Everybody seemed satisfied after those two hours of play and we went on to play another (!) board-game.

Some blabbering
So, there hasn't been a single other game I've been able and felt able to play with such a wide variety of people in such a wide variety of circumstances.
The mechanics are simple yet very powerful in how they structure play and very respectful of a player's ability to portray his character, whether he dies or not. The board goes a long way for doing this: it's a very convenient way to display all the pertinent information (where we're at in the story and on the zombie-menace scale, who has the "currency" to do sacrifice scenes and who needs to get their ass moving and frame conflicts if they don't want to die).
Also, the fact that players can give their die in support to others on the pure ground of what they enjoy in the fiction (à la Gift-Dice in TSoY or Fan-Mail in PTA) allows for a subtle yet strong cycle of enforcement of group-acknowledgement of the collaborative creation (if this is not clear, I'll try to reword it). This allowed us to prevent the silliness of the harasser character from contaminating play and to judge the character (you reap what you sow!)
The very genre and probably even structure of the target "story" is so well-known by most players that we're rapidly playing on the same "wave-length". Olivier Caïra, a French sociologist who has written a book (Jeux de Rôle, les forges de la fiction, ISBN : 978-2-271-06497-4 ) on role-playing published by the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research), suggests that the roleplaying phenomenon appeared so lately (it's just a pen and paper story-telling game for goodness's sake!) because our society needed a critical mass of shared cultural references, enabled only lately with the explosion of media. I can clearly understand this hypothesis with my experience with Zombie Cinema.

As soon as the rumoured heist-themed board appears, I'll be able to recommend this game for kids! (Yeah, cops and robbers!)

Questions and comments welcome!