Updated: May 18
I personally love zombie fiction and with The Last of Us television adaptation already a few episodes in and currently driving a resurgence of interest in zombies, it felt like the right time to write this blog post. (And yes, after episode 3, Linda Ronstadt now lives rent free in my head.) Zombie survival games can make for a really fun framework for an RPG campaign but there are some major pitfalls to watch out for.
Consensus on Grittiness
One of the hallmarks of Zombie fiction is the grittiness of flesh-eating undead, the horror of a world turned upside down, and the moral questions that naturally arise - what would you do to survive? However, not everyone wants a horror themed campaign for game night. You can avoid a lot of hurt feelings by talking over the prospect of a zombie campaign and what that entails. Are players comfortable with encountering starving, desperate survivors? Are they triggered by starvation or cannibalism? If you have any doubt about your party being on the same page, I'd recommend talking it over and sending out our Game Group Questionnaire to see where people stand. Additionally, many people like RPGs like 5e where you level up and feel like an all-powerful hero. You can absolutely run a brilliant zombie campaign like this. Or maybe you want to play a gritty and realistic campaign where a character might be killed by a stray bullet from a roadside ambush and every zombie bite results in a fatal infection. Coming to a consensus on this will help everyone be invested in your zombie campaign.
Picking the Right System
Depending on how gritty you want your game, now you need to pick the right system. If you play 5e, the immediate challenge is that a couple of Zombies is pretty overpowered for a 1st level party. However, by the time they’re level 3, zombies are pretty easily dispatched. You’ll need to find some homebrew zombies to add to your game or tweak the stat block yourself to make more powerful zombies to keep challenging the players.
The Cypher System RPG could be a good choice as well. I am still familiarizing myself with the mechanics but from what I know, it’s flexible enough to adapt to a modern, gritty, zombie campaign. Additionally, Monte Cook Games is currently crowdfunding an apocalyptic setting book to use with Cypher that could be a perfect source book.
I think another great option for a horror-themed game would be Free League Press’ Year Zero Engine. Specifically, I think the game system for the Alien RPG would work really well, with their panic dice pools and d66 damage charts. The system is very rules light and it would be extremely easy to homebrew a few zombies to use in that system.
Variety is the Spice of Life
A major pitfall for the Zombie campaign is the eventual monotony of fighting the same old shambling undead from encounter to encounter. I believe one of the hallmarks of a great GM is the ability to always surprise your players and that’s crucial here. Whatever system you use, have some unusual zombie variants ready in your back pocket to toss at your players just when they think they’ve figured out how to handle the throngs of walkers. For inspiration, I would check out unique zombies from video games like Left 4 Dead and Back 4 Blood.
Have you run a zombie campaign before? What your biggest tip for GMs considering running one? - Shane