[Zombie Cinema] Birthday game

Started by Ron Edwards, September 05, 2008, 03:37:41 PM

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Ron Edwards


Yesterday was my birthday, and as it was a weeknight, my wife Cecilia and I decided to save any partying for the weekend and relax for the evening. Our friend Deb, whom some of you may remember from a Trollbabe thread a while back, came over as well.

I announced that I wanted a birthday present: that the two of them play Zombie Cinema with me. My wife is not interested in playing hobby games except sometimes wholly strategic ones like Oriente or Ticket to Ride, and although Deb liked Trollbabe, she isn't a gamer either. So this was a fairly serious request, appropriate for a birthday.

It went really well. I began with a very strong focus on the purpose of the game, reading the first two paragraphs about it aloud. I recommend always, always doing this.

It so happens that I'm tired of the parodic zombie eat-braaains stuff, and only barely tolerant of the overworked Romero zombie, you know, shuffles, killed by head shots, et cetera. There're a lot of great zombies which are very different, whether simply fast and disturbingly barely-cognitive as in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, or not undead but still pure zombie as in Sliver. Also, I was pretty sure that my partners in play wouldn't be interested in the humor of "our town! now! Zombies! go!", which as it happens I've kind of had enough of too.

I suggested we skip to a far, sterile future, with white linoleum and medications. They instantly seized it and added a few details, specifically that the zombies were some kind of artificial or manufactured people, maybe a government project to make people perfect (interestingly, Deb watched Serenity after this, not before). Cool! Before the discussion could get into material best left for play, we drew cards.

I got Macho, History, and It's Your Fault. Deb got Naive, Medical Professional, and Organization. Cecilia got Family, Destination, and Ideology. This swiftly resulted in my character being some kind of special ops type who got sent on missions outside the perfect society (which isn't supposed to have an outside); Deb's was a physio-psycho-therapist who "readjusted" him and people like him when they needed to be re-integrated into society; and Cecilia's character was my character's sister, a mid-level but powerful member of the church, which is of course the same as the government and the military and the medical community, et cetera. We began when my character, all drugged and wired up for readjustment, resisted the treatment, and his brainwaves were feeding back through the mainframe, obviously straight into the secret project.

We had a nice mix of scenes with and without conflicts. Conflicts included whether the siblings would try to escape or try to re-program the ("The") computer, whether the medical person would betray the others, whether my character would be subjected to a process that would fry his brain, and more. It was cool to see the various characters form and re-form temporary two-person alliances in different situations. The zombies were pretty scary, being all chalky and shapeless, partly-formed into people. Then the altered computer started zapping all the sleeping people (wired up to it, of course) so they awoke zombified too, behaviorally. This was kind of fun because Cecilia's character saw the zombies first in a dream. A government assassin was the first to die on-screen. A futuristic go-buggy crashed with the brother and sister in it. The choke-point, walls, and break-in instructions worked perfectly during the last few scenes in the government center with the computer in it.

As it happened, it was a fairly straightforward game in mechanics terms. I didn't win all my conflicts, but rolled well against the other two a couple of times and ended up far ahead. So eventually we ended up with my character one step from safety and Deb's character up against the zombie marker in the next box, and Cecilia's just one after that. In the story, my character was all hooked up to the machine that was to enslave him and use his brainwaves to control the zombies, but he was fighting it and trying to make the zombies destroy the church (his sister had ultimately betrayed him a minute ago). I won that roll, and my character went to safety, Deb's was shifted back to the zombies, and Cecilia was shifted back to where Deb was ... and then the turn moved to me, and I had the round marker. Hence the zombies move forward, and Cecilia's character, the lone one on the board, had to die too.

I made sure in that rapid shuffle of pawns, narration, and turns, that we followed the rules exactly. Everyone knew about the sacrifice rule, but no one used it, and once Cecilia's character was alone, no one could. The story ended with my character's consciousness fleeing out into the electrical fields, escaping his past as well as the zombies; with the zombie totally wrecking society; with Deb's character crushed by the zombies of the kill-squad she'd tried to ambush the other characters with; and with Cecilia's character alone, having lost both her brother and her church because she'd been unable to choose between them, and then chose wrong.

The game got a big thumbs-up from both of the other players. Deb said, we should play that again!

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

Oh, that's bleak. I agree strongly with the move away from traditional zombies, that's a great way to keep the premise fresh. When we play with the teenagers around here there is awfully lot of tension directed at what the zombies are, where they came from, what they look like and so on - so we don't, as a rule, pre-arrange any of that before the game, but rather let the players reveal all the interesting stuff in play. The exact nature of zombies then often becomes a sort of supporting thematic visual for whatever the story is really about; often one of the key questions in the game will be why the zombies leave certain people alone, or what they might want, or how they could be stopped, which all then turn on the matter of what they actually are. The rules system emphasizes this by leaving the question of overall happy or sad ending up to the players' epilogues.

Anyway, good to know that you got the game to work with three players, that's always been a bit of a challenging set-up in ways I've been unwilling to ameliorate.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Eero,

I agree with you entirely about the definition and developing details of the zombies. We worked out most of our ideas through play itself, using the prompts of the appropriate boxes on the board, and I've found that's one of the most engaging parts of the game for me.

It might be worth outlining what sort of starting information is required. So far, in my experience, we don't need much more than the setting and the most minor reference to the zombies. In this particular game, I knew we needed to start playing as soon as people started describing them. Have you found that it's necessary to explain to people that the game does not presume brain-eating or infectious bites as assumptions? I did explain this for this game, and I think it helped us a lot.

Regarding three players, I found it to be functional. It was great to see how sometimes the brother and sister clashed, sometimes they teamed up against the medic, and sometimes the medic and sister teamed up. Occasionally, when all three characters agreed on what to do, or when the conflict concerned non-player characters, the active player simply narrated an action sequence and we moved on to the next player. The zombies moved fast, but not as fast as they might as we never rolled a tie for a conflict, and as it happens, I kind of like it that way. I've always thought most zombie films are too long by about 20-30 minutes anyway.

One thing that helps too is to explain how to play when the player-characters are not all in the same location. The rules work perfectly for these situations but it's not necessarily clear that they are clear, if you see what I mean. I like the way they work because it tends to spread the characters across the board rather than clump them up. That leads to more interesting contexts for the sacrifice rule, although that didn't happen in this particular case.

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

My personal experience of play with the zombie game has mostly been with two sorts of people: one are the shifting bunch of teenagers who get swept up in my playtest events, one are boardgamers or such peripherally associated gamers who don't have any real rpg experience. Both groups are notably non-cognizant about zombies as a genre; the teenagers, for instance, have much more exposure to Warhammer and Warcraft (and their fantasy depiction of zombies) than classical American b-movie. If anything, I need to remind them that the zombies do not necessarily need to have a clear origin story based on some evil people raising them - which is the default assumption in post-D&D fantasy adventure stories.

What this means in practice is that the concept of zombie has not in my play been loaded with lots of preconceptions or cultural weight, and thus I haven't had any trouble with getting the players to have the courage to make the zombie threat their own - they have about as much canonical preconception about zombies as they'd have about... dinosaurs, say. While we have only rarely explicitly decided to play a variant game that replaces the zombies with something else, our "zombie" games have had all sorts of inventive variants on the zombie theme with no direction or advice at all from myself. I can well imagine how a bunch of zombie fans might need encouragement to set aside the classical ideas, but in my personal ring of players that has never been a problem. The teenagers are only barely aware of how zombies are supposed to act in zombie movies in the first place, so they're quite willing to go against those notions. Interestingly enough this doesn't seem to cause any trouble with creating gripping and even touching survival stories with zombies; it's much more important to get the specific traits and "powers" of the zombies to work thematically with the characters than to follow preconceptions about what "zombie" means.

Other than that, I tend to play the game in what I think of as a "purist" manner in that I embrace the challenge of getting a coherent story to gel out of minimal starting information. Basically, when I play the game, it's usually just a sentence of background situation ("a Mid-Western American farming community trapped in a bomb shelter after a North Korean gas attack" was the situation once, for example) and a sentence-long description of each player character. Everything else, including the zombies (and whether there are any), is created through the play process.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.