October 31, 2013: The Zombie Challenge
A nifty feature of GURPS Zombies is that it doesn't assume a genre or a zombie type. You could start with an infectious, flesh-eating horde ripped from the B movies (and from the pages of GURPS Horror). But consider the disciplined undead army of the Necromancer-King, bent on conquering your GURPS Dungeon Fantasy world . . . Caribbean villagers mysteriously vanishing in your historical game, only to be spied cutting cane at the big plantation . . . or a "mindlessness meme" that will doom the entire Transhuman Space setting if it escapes from some isolated facility and reaches the Web. Of course, such plots are either too unrealistic or too earth-shattering for ongoing campaigns -- or are they?
In the spirit of "It was only a dream!" TV episodes and comic-book glimpses into parallel universes, think about taking a single session out of your campaign's continuity to ask, "What if zombies invaded?" This would be a fun way to mark Halloween or Friday the 13th, or to occupy a night when absences leave half the gaming group at loose ends. It would also be a welcome break from a game that's getting too serious or intense for its own good. And it might save the bacon of the GM who had no time to prepare -- while it's still improvisation, nobody has to live with inconsistent snap judgments afterward.
Set the scene by eliminating any PCs whose players are absent. These heroes might go down fighting, get eaten, or "wake up" as zombies -- make it graphic. If everybody is present (or perhaps regardless), do this to beloved associates: sidekicks, kids, friendly locals, etc. After that, improvise!
The adventurers start in whatever state they were in at the end of last game session: same location, same abilities, same gear, same wounds. If they aren't prepared for zombies, they can sneak. If they are, they can fight. If they want better equipment or a more defensible location, they can search. Don't overplan -- let the players propose actions and try suitable skill rolls.
Zombies are everywhere -- but again, don't overplan. Roll dice to determine whether zeds lurk behind a given door in the building, town, ship, or space station where the heroes find themselves. If the PCs wander, set odds of a zombie attack each hour. Horde size can also be left to chance, as can mutations if the zombies are changing. The ambitious GM might randomly generate useful gear at each locale visited, too.
There should be an objective as well. In fantasy, make it bold: "Destroy every zombie between us and the Necromancer-King, or die trying!" For mid-range heroes, it might be modest: "Reach the escape vehicle we heard about from that broadcast or dying man." For ordinary folks, it may be as simple as surviving x hours against y waves of zeds. The goal needn't be attainable -- time's up at session's end.
The next session picks up where the real campaign left off. Zombie-night events never happened: deaths and wounds are erased, depleted resources are restored. It was all just a dream -- or, in a GURPS game where somebody has the Nightmares disadvantage, a nightmare. If the setting features VR or interactive holograms, call it a simulation. Or perhaps it was a parallel world . . . which, in GURPS Infinite Worlds, might still be lurking out there. Only the GM knows for sure!
To make this worth the players' trouble, the GM can dangle rewards that will outlast the night. There could be prizes for "Most Zombie Kills," "Zombie Kill of the Week," "Most Selfish Betrayal," "Most Selfless Sacrifice," "Most Innocents Saved," "Longest Lifespan," and "Escaped!" -- and possibly big deals like "Found the Cure" or "Slew the Necromancer-King." These achievements might offer modest payoffs in game currency (in GURPS, a bonus character point apiece), though the generous GM is free to grant more substantial bennies ("An Extra Life for everyone who survives!"). Slant these awards so that they discourage indifference and encourage survival and team spirit (up to that last-minute betrayal at the escape-pod hatch, anyway).
However, the biggest reward is the opportunity to cut loose and explore themes that are inappropriate for the campaign. When everybody serves an organization that tolerates no backstabbing, carte blanche to fight and betray one another can be fun. In a cerebral game, violence can be cathartic. If the heroes are intended for great things, a no-win scenario can underline the value of that destiny. And most gamers live for the chance to activate the self-destruct, cast the Forbidden Spell, or execute the ruler everyone knows but no one can prove is Evil (because he set zombies on the world, of course). You know you want to!
-- Sean Punch
Copyright © 2014 by Steve Jackson Games. All Rights Reserved.