In Which I Stare Longingly at Zombie World While My RPG Friends are in Quarantine

At the time of writing the biggest celebration of spook is just around the corner: Halloween, a holiday dedicated to ghosts and vampires, to hot nurses and hotter fictional serial killers. In college some friends and I started a tradition of playing a Halloween tabletop game on (or at least close to) this most sacred of holidays. Yet in 2020, prospects look grim for having our annual game. I live in the US and cases of COVID-19 are higher here than they have ever been, so it feels a little irresponsible for all of us to risk our health just to roll some dice or pull some Jenga blocks while we tell scary stories across the table. It is a disappointing development because this year I have a new game just begging to be tried out for the first time, a tabletop RPG card game by the name of Zombie World.

Zombie World is another entry into the vast library of games which fall under the umbrella of RPGs “Powered by the Apocalypse” (PbtA for short) – for those who may not know, this means that the game borrows key parts of its design philosophy from the RPG Apocalypse World and perhaps some other games which share that common inspiration as well. What makes Zombie World distinct from its many cousins is a specific focus on surviving a zombie-infested post apocalypse, as well as the use of cards rather than dice as the randomizer for moving the action forward. It was the card-based play that got my attention and drew me to the game. But because I don’t have a large enough group in my nuclear family to play a session of Zombie World (what good is a five year old if he can’t play RPGs with me?!), today I’ll be settling for looking at the cards and thinking about how cool they are while typing my thoughts for you to enjoy.

The first thing that jumps out to me as I stare at the Zombie World box is how official it looks. My experience with purchasing PbtA games generally involves going through either DriveThruRPG or through the designer’s sketchy looking personal webpage to snag a convenient PDF file. Now many of these games are also available in print, but even when you have a nice book to reference it is still on you to print out character sheets, get your own dice, make sure you have plenty of pencils – it’s a different sort of experience compared to opening up a new board game or cracking open the Dungeons and Dragons starter kit. Having everything I need to play Zombie World other than the people themselves all contained in a single box – a nice looking box with artful and sturdy materials – is a nice change of pace. I can imagine cracking this open at a friend’s house and getting to see their excitement as they get their fingers on the cards or look over the character playmats.

Players in Zombie World have two playmats – the character mat and the moves mat. The character mat shows all the details about their character such as the name, stats, alliances, and accumulated stress. The moves mat has all of the most common moves the characters will use – basic moves for interacting with other humans as well as zombie moves for when the time comes to tangle with the undead. On the character mat the players will have at least three cards – one representing their past, one representing their present, and one outlining a trauma that the character lives with. Each of these elements affects the character mechanically, adjusting their stats or giving them bonuses or penalties when taking certain actions.

The character’s past and trauma are drawn randomly from the appropriate decks; the logic behind this is that a person cannot change their past, so the player doesn’t choose what their character used to be before the apocalypse. Past cards and trauma cards both do not start in play – the group of survivors you live with don’t know about those things starting out. These elements are revealed when action happens in the game which would reveal them to the world at large, and revealed pasts or trauma can grant bonuses to the character. For example, someone who was a teenager when Z-Day first occurred can reveal their card by telling someone about when a person died to keep them safe; once that card is revealed, the teenager can then mark stress to have other people suffer their consequences for them when using the avert disaster move. Conversely, a character with the Reckless trauma clears a point of stress when they suffer serious harm, and draw an additional card when resolving a situation where they charge headlong into danger. While you don’t have to play into your past or trauma, doing so gives you benefits that may just help you to survive the apocalypse.

One thing I want to note about the traumas before moving on: I think it is important to consider that some of the traumas could potentially be triggering for people who have experienced trauma in real life. For example, while the xenophobia trauma does not specify any particular people group as the subject of its mistreatment, the idea of a character who leans very hard into an “us vs them” mentality may be unappealing to members of marginalized communities who regularly experience real-life xenophobia. There’s also an obsession trauma where the character becomes fixated on another person – someone who has been the target of stalking, domestic violence, or sexual harassment may not want their character to be anyone’s “obsession.” I highly recommend that anyone planning to play this game combine it with a safety tool like Script Change or Lines and Veils and have a discussion before the game about traumas to potentially exclude from the deck.

Your character’s present works a little differently because we do have some degree of ccontrol over what we are doing in the current moment. This is represented by power of choice when drawing cards – you draw two roles for the community and choose which one you want for your character. This is still pretty random compared to the character creation process in other RPGs, and for those looking to mechanically optimize your character it may be a source of frustration that you don’t get to manually pick a past, present, and trauma that all work together in beautiful harmony. Many options for your character’s present grant a bonus to one of your four stats: survival, steel, soul, or savagery. When creating your character you assign a score to these stats in values of 3, 2, 2, and 1 in order to determine how they solve problems. Your present may bolster your best stat or cover your weakness. Your present may also change how a specific move works, or add a new move altogether. The prophet role, for example, gives the character four devoted allies in a cult that believes the apocalypse came about due to the sins of humanity. Once a player has named their character, snagged a past, present, and trauma, and assigned their four stats, they are ready to dive into Zombie World – well, they would be if I followed the rulebook in the correct order, because for any of that stuff to happen the players first have to work together to create an enclave.

The enclave is the setting of Zombie World, a place where a group of survivors have come together to try to thrive in the post apocalypse. The base Zombie World set comes with two enclaves, a hospital and a prison. Each one has unique opportunities in the form of special moves and specialized resources known as advantages. The players all work together to create the enclave in a process where each person gets to contribute ideas to one of four key aspects of the enclave: the scarcity, the population, the surroundings, and the advantages. Scarcities are resources that the enclave is in desperate need of and therefore opportunities for conflict to arise. The population indicates what other types of survivors coexist with the player characters in the community. Surroundings give alternate locations to explore and potential seeds for future scenes. Advantages are the most explicitly mechanical choices and have cards which outline their specific benefits for the players. The garage, for example, allows for a draw to see if the player can make repairs to a vehicle that can give an advantage on future moves where that vehicle would be helpful.

The full group all working together to design the conclave is key because, for better or worse, this is the environment that the survivors will share together for one or more sessions. It should be a place everyone is excited about and invested in. Depending on how many players you have at the table (the game can handle anything from 2 to 8 players in addition to the game master), you may also flesh out the enclave using relationships and alliances. Relationships are connections between characters which show they have a bond more significant than just “we live in the same enclave,” and like most other parts of this game they are drawn at random. The relationships are vague so that you can fill in the important details. For example, if you and another person “did something awful to help the enclave,” the exact terms of that fall to the two of you to define together. Allies are members of the population who are explicitly tied to a player character, although when there are a lot of players the ally rules function a bit differently. Allies are drawn from the population deck and each has a set of skills and equipment that shows how they can be useful to the players. For example, the pharmacist Travis Conrad is skilled at bartering and survival, and can hook you up with a bit of medicine if needed.

Once characters and the enclave are all decided, a single Fate card is drawn to begin play. Fate cards have scenarios upon them which drive the action and they are tied explicitly to the aspects of the enclave you decided at the beginning of the game. Perhaps a new threat will emerge from the surroundings you defined during enclave creation, or maybe that cool advantage you picked falls apart and needs repaired. With the seeds of conflict planted, the characters can now use their moves in order to try and address the problem.

If you’ve never played a roleplaying game before, the actual process of playing the game is really no more complicated than having a conversation (one of the founding ideas behind PbtA games). There are rules on the playmats and the cards to guide that conversation, but for the most part the GM will tell the players what the situation looks like and the players will say what their characters do in response to those circumstances. When those actions constitute a move the players draw a card to resolve the move, and the GM will narrate the outcome based on how successful (or not) the moved turned out to be. Move conditions are pretty clear and are outlined in the name of the move: get in someone’s face, assess a bad situation, fight the dead, make a plan. Moves not only clearly outline how to activate them but also how to resolve them based on the card you draw.

When making a move, players draw cards from the survivor deck based on the stat used for the move. When drawing multiple cards, the player takes the best result – so the higher your stat, the more likely you are to draw a card that will make your move a success. Like many PbtA games there are three core degrees of success. Triumph is a success that has minimal cost; Edge is a more complicated success that may cause harm to the player or expend resources; a Miss means that the move fails and something bad is going to happen. Players may also draw an opportunity, which gives them a miss unless they spend a point of stress, at which point they triumph instead. As characters build up stress, they accumulate new trauma, and once trauma builds to four the character becomes an NPC who is actively working to harm the enclave.

Because I haven’t been able to play the game, the actual experience of play is theoretical for me and so this is the point where I will have to end my discussion of Zombie World. The concept is one I’m excited about and I love how the package is both attractive and practical, making it a great fit for my next board game night (when I actually get to have one). Zombie stories don’t typically get me excited, but I am intrigued by the mechanisms of Zombie World and I think it seems like a fun way to visit this genre with a group of folks without asking them to commit to a larger scale RPG.

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