Charlie get’s into the ghoulish spirit and takes a trip to Zombie World.
The Orchid Retreat was an island haven for celebrities and petty tyrants to undergo cosmetic surgery and rehab outside of the prying eyes of the public. The Generalissimo had been infected early after the incident and had been left in the jacuzzi where he mindlessly pawed at people who walked past. He had bloated and a lot of his skin had sloughed off, but The Major was unwilling to kill him in case a cure could be found. He took meetings with his employer, spoke with him about the woman who’d arrived for some minor cosmetic surgery and was now leading a flock of dedicated followers in the dining hall. Monica Manetti was truly a tyrant in the making and in consolidating power, but The Major and his underling, Carlos, had access to the one firearm.
Carlos looked through the glass at the dining hall. A couple of people were making a sculpture out of debris, while Monica’s group remained in a tight circle around her. There was a strange, crackling noise and Carlos jumped. Was it The Generalissimo? Was he awake? Would the infection pass with enough time and hot water?
Sense took over and he looked at the body bobbing in the jacuzzi. “It’s the radio,” he said to The Major.
The older man nodded and pointed at the military-grade radio attached to his jacket. “You need to get it.”
“I…” Carlos was more concerned about the state of The Generalissimo than The Major, willing to entertain the thought the others had about how he was unlikely to ever recover. He also knew that fighting against The Major was futile. “Of course.”
Carlos took a couple of steps towards The Generalissimo and froze. He was smarter than simply putting his hands near the man. The Generalissimo growled, almost in confirmation of this fact. Carlos grabbed the pool skimmer and looked at the end. He might be able to unclip the radio with it. The first swipe proved him wrong, then the second caught on the hand of The Generalissimo whose hand tugged with inhuman strength. Carlos tried to get any kind of purchase, but the floor was slick with water. He skidded over and was pulled down, into the jacuzzi, head-first.
Zombie World is an RPG in a box. The Rulebook itself is a satisfyingly small amount of pages, totaling 36 in all. The majority of the game is presented on player boards and cards. Like the Paranoia RPG, the character sheets are wipe-clean and there’s a dry-erase marker in the box. This means that literally everything you need is in there.
The game is Powered by the Apocalypse, like so many others I’ve covered here. The ‘World’ part of the name is also a bit of an indicator after Apocalypse World and Dungeon World. Instead of dice, you use cards to measure how well or badly you do.
You make characters using three decks. There’s a Past, which you keep hidden until it’s revealed in the narrative. You get a choice of two Presents, which are publicly visible and give you a little unique boost based on your role in the group. Then there’s a Trauma, which will give you problems in the fiction of play, but also relieve Stress when you act upon it.
You draw these cards and make a character based around it, something really quick to do because the odds are good you’ll need another character soon enough. You also add an ally from a Population deck and your relationships with the people either side of you from the Fate deck.
An example here is Carlos, who survived his jacuzzi with the undead Generalissimo, just so you know. His player, Rhys, got the following cards:
His past was a Prize Fighter, his present was Strategist and his Trauma was that he was Rigid.
You pick an Enclave from a couple of choices in the box or others bought in expansions. The Orchid Retreat was using the Hospital enclave, although I’ve also played with the Caravan and Amusement Park before. This place has a name, a couple of advantages which have their own mechanics, then supporting characters, surroundings and most importantly, shortages. With this powder keg of relationships in an enclosed environment, the GM draws a Fate card to determine what the current problem is. The Orchid Retreat’s problem was the discovery of some troubling news. Once Carlos grabbed the radio, people found out that apparently political insurgents had arrived on the island to assassinate The Generalissimo. This meant a force coming to attack, but also a means of escape.
The drama plays out inside the enclave and often travels outside, too. As the game goes on, there will be challenges and you’ll need to make moves using the Survivor deck. You draw Survivor Cards equal to your stat and pick the result from Miss, Edge (success at cost), Triumph (success at no cost) and Opportunity (success if you mark Stress). Players can help or hinder people by leveraging the amount of their character cards which are publicly known. The more exposed you are, the more people can use that.
In addition to that deck is the Bite Deck. As a cost of certain actions, you may have to draw from the Bite Deck, which you really don’t want to do. The Survivor deck is shuffled after each draw, but the Bite Deck is not so merciful. There are fifteen cards and while a few are near misses, the rest are escalations, zombies and a single ‘Bite’ card. You only shuffle the deck once the Bite has been seen, so if you’ve had some near misses, you know a lethal bite is getting more likely.
The cards all feature black and white artwork, and a lot of red. They’re all fairly basic illustrations, evocative of The Walking Dead and good for getting the theme across. The player boards are simple, with one for your stats and alliances, the other for moves.
The move sheet keeps one side for normal moves like ‘get in someone’s face’ and the other for zombie moves like ‘fight the dead’, ‘flee the dead’ and ‘fool the dead’. These aren’t just moves to use against a single zombie as this game understands that a lone zombie’s no real challenge. These are the bad moves, the ones you know you’ll have to do and don’t want to. No matter what, you’ll be picking something bad to happen even when you succeed, but if you’re unlucky then the GM will also pick. These could be as basic as gaining Stress, but you could draw from the Bite Deck or take serious harm.
You’re not just suffering at the hands of zombies, you see. Life is cheap and if you’re shot, stabbed, take a fall or maybe get in a car crash then you’ll draw to see if you’re okay. There are modifiers such as if you’re taking the damage by accident or if it wasn’t meant to kill you, but often you’ll just draw one card from the Survivor Deck and hope it’s not a miss. In my first two games we had few casualties until really late in the game. Then things escalated pretty naturally as we got further through the stories.
There’s also Stress, which builds up and makes people unreliable. NPCs only have a couple of points, but players have five and when they’re done with it, they get another Trauma card. Enough and they become an unstable NPC. If there’s one criticism my players have had, it’s that they see too much benefit in the Trauma cards and too little problem in Stress. This is something where more stress in the fiction about how the Trauma is encouraging them to do negative things.
If I have one other criticism, its that the GM normally has a set of moves or reactions to use back at the players when they fail a roll (or in this case draw). It took me a few reads to realise that not only weren’t there any, but the only advice the book had was to go hard at the players. That’s fine and I get that I’m looking for signposting of an absence here, but something more concrete to say initially what I should have done on a miss would have been nice. Another GM who ran it at my community night also came over to ask me where I found any detail about what happens on a miss, so I’m aware this isn’t just me.
Oh, and as a Kickstarter backer, I bought basically everything. This is a Magpie and Brendan Conway joint, so I know it’s going to be good. As played out as zombies are, there are still good takes, and I trusted Conway to do exactly that. This meant that I had the boxed set, two little expansion boxes and one pack of Kickstarter extras. That’s great, but they don’t fit in the box comfortably. I sleeved the Survivor and Bite decks because they see constant use, which only added to the problem. Hopefully at some point there’ll be an expanded box released for the game.
Normally I like to mention any extra resources you might want to help with this, but the box is a complete system, pen and all. The only recommendation I’d have for people are sleeves for the Survivor and Bite Decks like mine. Hopefully without expansions you’ll still be able to close the lid.
I’ve run three games of Zombie World and each one has created fun stories for myself and the players. Each one also felt very different despite us all being very zombie-savvy.
My first game was set at a zombie-themed amusement part on a small island a little way off our mainland. The elderly couple had gone to make out point for some reason and the group were off looking to rescue them as they’d never be able to survive a zombie attack. They went through a wilderness park, killed an insane park ranger, fought some weird naked cave zombies and had a final crescendo event against some zombie Boy Scouts. It was a fairly basic premise, but good fun, sadly ending due to time constraints so there wasn’t as satisfying conclusion as I’d have liked.
My second game had a massive group using the Caravan enclave. The problems were more immediate given the exposed nature of the group. We had a priest who everyone thought was a cult leader. It turned out (after his death) that he was actually legitimately nice and trying to help folks. There were several betrayals as the remnants of the group made their way past a minefield and fenced off exterior to a military base, trying not to get mistaken for zombies. There were fireworks, explosions and an unfortunate pair of ‘Bite’ draws from the deck right at the end.
The Orchid Retreat game went a long time before the group dealt with zombies other than The Generalissimo. I had three players, two of whom had very established factions with no weapons and little actual skill at violence. Joanna’s character Monica turned out to be a politician, but no one knew this to begin with. She was a Tyrant and had a group of people at her beck and call, including her partner’s idiot son who somehow survived the whole thing despite having all the competency of Ralph Wiggum. Rhys played Lieutenant Carlos, who had The Major as his incompetent superior (the brains behind the more incompetent and now undead Generalissimo). He’d befriended a cop with the one gun on the island who of course died really quickly. Michał was ‘Joe’, the ‘butcher’, acquiring things for people, especially his friend Robyn who was the Bansky of this world, ‘Bagsy’.
The drama grew as the two factions both saw the insurgents as a threat and promise. The Generalissimo got out briefly and Robyn’s attempts to reuse the military radio in some of her art led to a zombie break in. There was a fist-fight over who got to use the helicopter, a siege in an underground cinema and eventually, inexplicably, the group all managed to survive by surrendering to the understaffed and incompetent insurgents. There was a terrifying moment when Joe was flying the helicopter after announcing he was a pilot, only to reveal that he was an actor and had played helicopter pilots before, which was pretty much the same thing.
In their epilogues, Joe was in propaganda films for the insurgent forces, Monica was married to the replacement for The Generalissimo and Carlos was executed by a firing squad. We realised that in this world, the zombies may well have only been on the island, or been a lot less of a major problem as the other games.
I know you’re all tired of zombie games. Zombies were beginning to feel overexposed a decade or so ago. The thing is, zombie films and games can still be good, we just need them to be a lot better. For board games, Dead of Winter is still a favourite of mine as it focuses on the human drama, with zombies as an external factor heightening the pressure on the group. The Dead of Winter comic by Kyle Starks is similar, although it also frames Sparky the Stunt-dog as the lead character which is tense but great. Shotgun Diaries is a small game focusing on teamwork and the constant fight against zombies. If you want the definitive zombie RPG, I’d say Zombie World is it. Characters are distinctive but easily replaced when they die. The dynamic of pulling from the Bite Deck is tense and satisfying. The world-building gives you a powderkeg to surround with zombies and then play to see whether anyone can survive.
If you like zombies then well done, you’ve weathered the last decade well. If you still want to find new, fun ways of telling stories with zombies then check this out. If you like social group dynamics under extreme pressure and the horrors they face, this is a fantastic RPG to explore that.