Friday, October 5, 2012

How to Run Killer Zombie Campaigns

In RPT#507 GM Josh asked for zombie tips. And boy, did RPT readers ever respond!
This issue is dedicated to every GM dying to run a zombie campaign. I say knock 'em dead.

From Mark of the Pixie

Shift combat focus

Most RPGs focus a lot on combat (it's fun and exciting), but with zombies it's different. Killing mindless corpse after mindless corpse gets boring fast, so don't use traditional RPG combat, use zombie movie horror combat. With horror movie zombies, defeat is inevitable, you can't win, you can only delay your defeat.
So I suggest replacing your combat stat by the number of zombies you can face alone, unarmed, before you go down (your Zombie Ratio). For a normal person this may have a ZR of 0 or 1. A fit navy seal combat veteran it may have a ZR of 10 or even 15.
Adjust this to show how scary you want your zombies to be. Weapons add to this number (a baseball bat may add +2, an axe may add +4). Guns also add, but only while you have Ammo (see below). A revolver may be +4, a shotgun +6.
When you get in a fight with zombies your Zombie Ratio drops by 1 for each zombie you take out. When it gets to 0, you get bitten, but may still escape. If it goes lower, you are bitten and dragged off to be eaten (returning later to eat your old friends).
Feel free to add a secret randomiser (ZR+d6-1d6) to keep your players on their toes. Food and rest help to slowly restore your Zombie Ratio.
This simple mechanic encourages players to avoid combat with hordes of zombies (they know they will die if they do), but allows them to take isolated zombies without much difficulty (the navy seal would have no problem taking out 4 isolated zombies). This more closely matches what we see in the movies.
Note: One of the big advantages of guns is you can kill zombies from a distance. You can do this without putting yourself at risk, picking off zombies from a safe position (Shelter). Guns do not affect your ZR, they just reduce your Ammo (see below).

Finite Resources

Resources are limited. You ARE going to run out of stuff.
So rate the following from what they have Least of to what they have Most of:
  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Ammo
  • Transport
  • Survivors
  • Other
(Change as needed for your game.)
At any one time the PC group will be Out of the first of these, and Low in the second.
As they make runs to resupply their food, it gets bumped back up to somewhere on the list, and next session the new lowest runs out, and the second lowest is low.
Out means you just don't have it. Low means you might run out at any time, but you still have some left.
If the PCs are well organised and set up in a good position, then instead of Out/Low, you can have Low/Low. Likewise, if they are on the run without many supplies you can have Out/Out.
  • Food = obvious, without it everyone's ZR starts to drop as they start to starve to death. If it is Low, you can't recover ZR with rest.
  • Shelter = fortified buildings, good exits, defensible, isolated, etc. Without Shelter you are at the mercy of the elements as well as wandering zombies. From Shelter you can pick off zombies with ranged weapons, but this reduces the Shelter as it attracts more undead. If your Shelter is Low, zombies may get in undetected.
  • Ammo = e.g., bullets, arrows, grenades. When you run Out, your guns are expensive clubs. Picking off zombies from Shelter reduces Ammo. If your ammo is Low you may run Out mid-combat.
  • Transport = cars trucks, bikes, whatever. With Transport you can move your group to new locations (reduces Transport). Without it you're walking. While you can outrun a zombie in the short term, they don't get tired, they don't sleep and they will get you in the end. If your transport is Low, your vehicle might break down mid-trip.
  • Survivors = people with your group. If your Food or Shelter is Low, they may die (reduce stat). Survivors are a skill bank. They can fix cars, cook food, keep lookout, treat wounds, etc. They are also friends, lovers, family. People you care about.

    If the PCs need something done and they don't have the skill, one of the Survivors does. But when Survivors is Low it means either you are running Out of them (they died) or they are getting internal conflicts, which may lead to them splitting off and going it alone.

    If it is Out, the PCs are alone. Survivors can also be pre- PCs, so a player who loses a PC can take a named Survivor as their new PC. Look at Ars Magica's troupe style play for examples.
  • Other = everything else. Want a CB radio, first aid kit, rope, medicine, wrench, compass, or even guns (but not bullets)? This is where you find it. If it is Low, one of the other categories is treated as Low (random or GM whim). If you are Out, then medicine, repairs, communications and so on are all gone.

Types of zombies

Variety is the spice of life. Try mixing up a few different types of zombies.
  • Slow zombies
  • Fast zombies
  • Big zombies
  • Headless zombies
  • Burning zombies
  • Acid-blood zombies
  • Pinata zombies (decomposition gas under pressure, hit = pop and goo goes everywhere)
Maybe try animal zombies; zombie dogs, zombie rats, zombie ravens, zombie bears, etc. Makes the zoo a dangerous place to be.
Zombies that get surprise or have weapons or unusual size or are on fire may count as two or even three zombies when subtracting from your ZR.

Zombies = Force of nature

You can no more beat the endless hordes of zombies than you can turn back the tides or stop the sun setting. Individual zombies can be stopped easily enough, but the six billion others....
In some ways, it helps to think of zombies as weather - mindless and destructive, but also unstoppable and unrelenting.

Psychological horror

The zombies you are killing were once people. That's horrible.
But have one of your PCs notice that another PC is it a bite? Just a cut? Hard to tell. Do we tie you up? kill you? Wait for you to turn? What if it is just a cut?
One of the survivors sees her child (a zombie) in the street. How do you stop her running out to save her. She is too emotional for reason to work. Do you let her go? Tie her up? Kill her so she doesn't reveal your hiding place? How will the other survivors respond?
The real horror in zombie movies is often not the undead outside: it is the things the survivors do to each other.

From Aki Halme

What makes a good zombie movie? Or a good game?

1. Choices

Not the case exclusively for zombie campaigns of course, this goes for everything. Decisions made with limited information, for long-term consequences.
Should one make noise to inform possible survivors - or stay silent to avoid alerting zombies? Radio ahead for help and advice, risking getting betrayed by those who wish to conserve limited supplies? Keep to moral high ground and lose friends when supplies run out, or scavenge everything, saving friends while dooming others? Not use a light and not see, or use a light and be seen?

2. Limitations on visibility and mobility

Blind alleys, obstacles, darkness, smoke, broken constructions that might fall to pieces if one runs (to avoid a fight) or fights (to avoid to run).

3. Moral ambiguities

Is it always ok to terminate a zombie? What if some of them are not mindless undead flesh eaters, but something closer to humanity - with manners.
A zombie that crunches skulls to get to the brain but uses a napkin to wipe its mouth afterwards? Identifying marks, past history with a PC, some memories or intelligence?
Will the PCs eliminate a half-crushed, helpless zombie as mercy kill? What if doing so has a cost, such as ammo or risk? How to deal with the zombie menace? Cure them, wipe them out, nuke them out?

4. Not just us vs. them

They can be potential allies, but ones with different goals.
Nice-mannered scientists that are doing human experiments?
Docile zombies that fly into homicidal rage only when they smell living flesh, which is why they have nose plugs?
Survivor groups that are not so keen to share their resources - or ones that ARE out to save everyone, but lacks the means to do so, sharing of what little they have, effectively dooming themselves if the PCs accept their help?
High-morale groups that are out save the world and are dismayed the PCs are not - and may or may not have the capacity to do more than get killed?
People who taste bad to zombies and go about their lives as best they can?
What about the animals? Perhaps the worst danger out there is not a zombie, but other people.

5. Limitations on equipment

Never enough of it - and not just ammo, but food and light and shelter as well. Safe locations are rare, fresh water not always available, and some food does not come as rations but something more suspect.
Batteries may be full, or not, and carrying capacity is finite. In addition, weapons may break, as can everything else. A knife does not run out of bullets, but where to stab - and does one really want to get in melee range? At some point, improvised weapons can become preferable.
Petrol stations are perfectly fine as weapons sources. They have gallons of stuff to kill with, and used right they explode too. Might take a bit of chemistry skill to get the most out of it. For example, homemade napalm, fertiliser nailbombs, molotov cocktails.

6. The Four Horsemen

Famine, plague, war and death. The shortages cause strife, and death is rampant in all its bleakness. There will be corpses, there will be wounded. Being a zombie can be contagious, and it need not be the only disease around, giving another kind of special resource that is in short supply.
As for famine, the world can only more or less feed the people due to mass production. The anarchy of a zombie apocalypse would cause a breakdown of the society. A lot less order, a lot less food, and a lot less of everything the first world provides. What happens when the lights go out for the last time and there is no electricity or telecommunications? How about oil and fuel? How about heating? Roads? Currency?
Electricity needn't go out everywhere. A dam can provide immense water power. It's maintenance that is the issue, especially over long distances. How much of a society can exist under such conditions? Can the players help sustain it? Or will there be war amongst the last remaining pockets of civilisation?

7. Running zombie combats

In combat encounters, the strengths and weaknesses of zombie hordes need be stressed. For example:
  • Hard to destroy, save by special means
  • Zombiism might be contagious
  • Might not need to breathe
  • Can wait in ambush for ages
Usually zombies are shown to be slow, but that does not need to be so. They might be unable to wield equipment, but that too could change. Military zombies could be armored and might also remember enough to operate their weapons.
Zombies are often sees as victims to their instincts and predictable. Predictable is good as it requires the PCs play smart. As for instincts, such as the need to feed, perhaps zombies could have some intelligence until they come in close quarters with prey. Whether the players can use that to their advantage would be up to them. Lose some blood to drive the opposition to unthinking frenzy?
This might also add a few plot ideas: hunting game, there might be more than one breed of zombies, a sample is needed for research or cure. A zombie might wear something vital, such as keys or a uniform required for access, or a grenade. Alternatively, a story might require the PCs to be the hunted, in a Mad Max meets the colosseum sort of extended execution.
On campaign level, perhaps the PCs are human-zombie crossbreeds - people who have been exposed to whatever turns a person from human to zombie, but also to an experimental cure.
On the upside, that gives the PCs the best of both worlds - thinking like humans, with the physique of zombies.
On the downside, zombies hunt them and so do humans, as they need human blood and flesh for sustenance, are carriers of zombiism by blood contact, and are valuable research subjects. Some might also want to cover up the existence of such creatures, and simply want the PCs gone without a trace.

From Da' Vane
All great zombie campaigns come down to three main themes, and the best advice is to focus on these themes above all else, and work on trying to make these fun. Many campaigns take these themes for granted, so normal rules often fall short or result in a massive grind, so it's often best to throw out the rules and wing it.
The themes are:

Zombies! Lots and lots of Zombies!

Forget encounter rules. They won't work well because they are designed for balanced enemies that give PCs a challenge. This is never the case in a zombie campaign. Besides one or two uber-zombies, like former comrades or high-ranking fallen characters, most of the zombies are weak but numerous. So numerous that they are more like moving hostile scenery than actual encounters.
Fighting them just depletes the PCs' supplies until they are on their last hit points, low level abilities, and using their fists or the bodies of enemies for defence.
Be sure to wave the PCs with numerous weenies, use all their kickass abilities, generally show off, and then prepare for the horror when there are still waves more zombies approaching.

Low Resources and Improvisation

The PCs need to use anything and everything to survive. The zombies don't stop coming, so opportunities for resting and resupplying will be limited. The PCs will have to make these opportunities for themselves by running away from the zombie horde, since they can normally outrun them, and spending a few rounds scavenging for useful items before they turn up.
Players should take care to record their supplies, but you should keep scavenging light and fun, and part of the action. Improvisation is good, and this can often be aided by a GM who is more than willing to say yes to the player's cool ideas.
You might want to spice things up by throwing in reasons why the PCs need to give up their tried and true trusted weapons in favour of hunting for new ones. Otherwise, the PCs will likely go towards acquiring their favourite weapons and simply wailing at the zombies, which can get boring fast.


The key to the campaign is survival. Even the most basic necessities become a matter of life and death in the campaign. Food, water and medical supplies will all need to be secured - zombies don't need these, but PCs do!
If the Zombies can infect the PCs or dead PCs return as zombies, there's another problem. PC losses equal enemy gains and present critical vulnerabilities in what might otherwise be secure strongholds.
Time is often critical, as is reaching certain points and achieving certain objectives, and these should be the primary focus of adventures. It may be possible to stop the zombies, but this normally requires finding the source, or some other overly complex objective, rather than just defeating them all.

From Will

I highly recommend the Savage Worlds adventure Zombie Run. It's one of the best adventures I've seen, and it could easily be adapted to other systems (you'd need stats for zombies, plus about 5 boss NPCs and 2-3 human minion types).
It covers many tropes of the genre, such as scavenging for items, trying to find fuel and ammo, and encountering other survivors, some of whom are worse than the zombies!
The adventure also has good advice about setting the tone. While it's written as a linear sequence of events, the authors put in copious advice on what to do if the PCs wander off-track, rather than forcing the GM to railroad. It took my group 8 sessions to get through and we had a blast playing it.
War of the Dead from Daring Entertainment is also highly regarded, although I have not played or read it. It's an episodic campaign where they release an adventure each week for a year; I think they're on Week 20 or so. A lot of people seem to like it.
My general advice is to familiarize yourself with the zombie genre tropes and embrace them. Players eat that stuff up. When the zombie apocalypse occurs, people expect certain things to happen and want to be a part of that.
Part of the appeal is justified violence in a context that is closer-to-home than the dungeon. Everybody likes to let loose and issue a beat-down, but some of us have trouble bringing ourselves to hurt human NPCs. There's no such hesitation when facing rotting, shambling corpses.
It's also a genre where life is cheap, so if you're a softie GM like me and want to kill a few PCs for a change, a horde of infectious undead might be just the thing. (The zombies need to be a credible threat or else the PCs get complacent. You want them struggling to survive, not setting up camp and kicking back.)
Another interesting aspect is that the game is set in the modern world, so you can have your guns and explosives and use your real-world knowledge, but there's no police to worry about or cell phone network to help you out of a jam. This makes it easy for the GM to improvise, because the setting is basically "Everytown, USA, but wrecked." You know what to expect of the environment and the enemies should your players go exploring.
So if you want to run a sandbox or improv game, but are afraid of the effort involved, a world ravaged by zombies is a good place to start. My players went off the rails numerous times during Zombie Run, always to good effect. The things they enjoyed most were coming up with clever ways to deal with the zombies, who were numerous and deadly but stupid.
For example, they eventually got a roll of chain-link fence and carried it around with them in their truck to use to seal off choke points and destroy small groups of zombies using melee weapons. Ahh, good times.

From Walter

Hi Josh,
For me, running horror themed games, whether zombie, Cthulhu Mythos or other, the best part is the psychological aspects and presenting situations that enhance or place stress on the psychology of the characters.
An example would be to present moral dilemmas: relatives of the characters have been turned into zombies. The moral conundrum is whether it is more humane to kill the zombies and put them out of their miserable undead existence, or to let them live.
This assumes that the undead relatives still retain aspects of their humanity. Perhaps it's children who still cling to prized stuffed animals, blankets or other fetters.
I would turn the scenario of gathering ammo into one where the characters go to visit a relative's home to get ammo from Uncle Bob, only to discover that Uncle Bob, his spouse and the children have all been infected with the zombie plague.
The zombies attack, of course. But make it a roleplaying scene where the players are exposed to the humanity that clings ever so slightly within the undead relatives.
You could then throw in a situation where the player character's escape vehicle is low on gas and won't "turn over" when needed.

From Sean S.

In response to reader Josh's request for helpful zombie tips, I ran my Wastelanders campaign for nearly two years and have some suggestions.
Though not purely a zombie campaign (I did have a lot of minions of evil!), it did offer a lot of insight into the survival genre, which is the baseline for a good zombie game.
Keep track of players commodities
Bullets, gas, food and water. If they can run out of it, write down who has it and keep track of when they use it.
When a player knows you are keeping track of something, they tend to be much more cautious about wasting it.

Zombie types

Anyone who has played Left 4 Dead knows how important multiple types of zombies are. I tend to pick one statistic (Str, Con, etc.) and model a specific breed of zombie emphasizing that trait.
An intelligent and charismatic zombie would take the party off guard and make a possible NPC ally. Just as a hulking zombie, or a putrid puking zombie would make them think twice before getting too close.
Abuse the environment
Q: How many zombie movies have dark hallways? A: all of them.
Use blind fighting rules, make them carry torches. Depending on your flavor of apocalypse, you might need radiation gear (my group needed it a lot). I even had one chase sequence where the PCs were trying to escape the big bad guy's fortress on top of a volcano while the volcano was trying to erupt.
Imagine the tension when you aren't being chased by a mere enemy, but the ground itself as it gives way to lava. Suffice to say, they still talk about how awesome that fight ended.


Rolling 1's are just as critical as rolling 20's. Have a malfunction table and don't be afraid to use it. If they roll a 1 and confirm less than 5 or 10 (be reasonable), have their gun jam, or a bullet get stuck in the chamber/clip. They break the stock or lose grip on the gun and it flies out of their hand.
Each malfunction imposes a simple problem in the weapon that can be fixed. A chip in a sword, -1 damage; a bullet jammed in the barrel, -1 ammo; broken trigger or stock, -1 to-hit.
Make a lot of the weapons they find already damaged. This gives those repair skills more purpose and lends credence to the environment being a harsh place. Same goes for armor.

Trade Items

Bullets are expensive; so is food. In my world 1 dollar would only buy a single bullet, a single meal of preserved food, or a pound of raw produce (depending on availability). Remember that consumables are in much higher demand when trading with NPCs. A farmer might sell produce cheap but highly value a handful of bullets.


Don't be afraid to gross out your players a bit, and remember to lead the tension. The first time the party encounters ghouls is much more terrifying if they hear the murmurs of conversation while crunching and slurping of bones and marrow before they encounter the monsters.
Giving a monster the appropriate feeling of terror is more important than making a enemy statistically capable of killing the party.
A final demon boss in my game was a lvl 10 NPC, but by the time the group reached him, they were already afraid of what he could do. A little piano theme music (Phantom of the Opera anyone?) and the encounter was scary.
After they defeated him, he and his minions were sucked into a magical vortex. Then the real bad guy emerged and thrashed the party as expected. Once the big bad had fallen, the volcano chase scene ensued. they players were on their toes that session!

Safety in numbers applies both ways

Play Dead Rising 2 or just google some videos. HORDES of zombies aimlessly wandering the streets. Even at low level. Take a cue from 4th Ed. D&D here. Throw a horde of +0 to-hit zombies with 10 AC and 1hp at the party; have them all do 1- 2 or 1-3 damage.
A party of 4 lvl 1's should be able to take out 10+ "zombie minions" like these, but the encounter will scare the party with just numbers alone. Throw in a few tough zombies or altered zombies for flavor and to shake things up a bit.


Another Dead Rising 2 cue here (you can tell what I've been playing lately). Allow players to modify and use the environment. An improvised weapon might have a -4 to hit, but a custom weapon created out of improvised materials is another story. A classic Nail-Bat fills in the role of a spiked club any day.

Kill them

Maybe not every game (snicker), but if a player gets overly confident, make sure to take him down to negative hit points in the next few sessions. If you have a group that trusts you, you can even have a total party kill turn into a role playing opportunity.
Say the party majorly wipes out and awakes a few hours later to find out they have been moved to the zombies' hideout. Or possibly have them awake in the streets having been gnawed on and now infected (if you are using a transmitted version of zombiism).

Don't let players track their own hit points

I would describe how the impact hurt and how badly injured they felt and keep track of their HP on my DM sheet. This made the players treat the situation with much more caution, along the lines one would expect in a real situation.
It's easy to see a number written down and think "I've got X number of HP left, I'm fine!" But when you hear the description of how you have three broken ribs, a serious concussion, and bleeding from several cuts and gashes, you start to realize what the lower half of your HP means in terms of your character's resolve and well being. (For descriptive purpose, I treat the top 50% of HP as "endurance" and the lower 50% as physical trauma.)
All things considered, the most important and veteran tip I can offer is not to get hung up on the stats and numbers. The PCs' *perception* of the bad guy and their situation is more important than how much in danger they actually are.
A simple circular saw isn't scary, but placed in the hands of a lunatic chasing you and it's perceived much differently.

From Ed Smith

I've run a couple zombie games and the best thing you can do is don't let the players breathe until they get themselves into a safe place (boarding up in a room and such). The idea is not to give the players a chance to think.
I use a one minute game timer for this but I don't let the players know then when it comes to their turn. I run each person as a combat by themselves using the go-to-the-scene technique. If they pause to think, they miss their turn and the zombies move up or attack.
Speed is the key to keep players off balance and add to the feeling of being isolated.

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