Game Mastering

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July 5, 2012, 8:20 am

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Running a Zombie Apocalypse


A few quick and techniques any GM can use to make a zombie apocalypse campaign a success without becoming to stressful or repetitive for to run over the long term:


Planning and Improvisation

With any open ended “sandbox” style game (I.E one where the players are pretty much free to go where they please and do what they wish,) it can often be easiest to only plan a short distance ahead and try to react to player choices; rather then overly anticipate their decisions or guide them in any specific direction. When letting players drive the plot, it lets you more easily plan future adventures based on the PC’s current plans and immediate goals, making the preparation for the next session relatively fast and simple.

For example, your session ends with a group preparing to travel in their newly acquired vehicle to an airfield and acquire a plane of some sort. Knowing the groups current plans and immediate destination, You can easily prepare the upcoming encounter locations to make the journey to the airport, and the airfield itself flow smoothly.

Granted, not every session ends in the perfect place for you to anticipate the groups’ next move or direction, but Iyou can usually either ask the group out of character what their plans are, or arrange for a friendly NPC to ask the characters where they’re traveling next. (Perhaps providing them with some useful info on what lies in that general direction.)


Zombies aren’t the only Enemy

While the zombies are the main threat and theme to the setting, They often work best when applied sparingly, and where they will have the largest dramatic impact. If nearly every combat encounter in their travels is nothing but zombies, players quickly grow familiar and jaded with the undead threat, which greatly diminishes the horror and suspense of the setting.

As in any other post apocalyptic game, the main threat is not so much the aftermath of the apocalypse itself, (be it zombie, radiation or biological,) But from fellow humans, and the resulting chaos from society attempting to cling to, (or abandon entirely) the remnants of civilization. This human element, as well as the threat from others dangers both living, (such as escaped zoo animals and feral pets,) and environmental, (such as storms, fires, destroyed bridges, temperature extremes) provide a broad variety of challenging encounters, and ones that pure combat ability and weapons won’t always help overcome.

When the zombies do make an appearance in your campaign, try to make sure it is in a situation that is either dramatic itself, (such as the horde of zombies during a severe thunderstorm,) or otherwise presents opportunities for an exciting or suspenseful encounter. (Such as the child zombies in a confined area.)


Much of Survival Horror is Survival

I your campaign try to empathize the survival aspect, the challenges of simply trying to stay alive in a world where nothing is easily acquired and potential danger lurks around every corner. Zombies, road gangs, and other such combative threats are far less exciting and suspenseful when your players have a healthy stockpile of ammunition and enough supplies to travel the wastes for weeks without needing to scavenge.

In order to keep things gritty and difficult make sure to have the characters sweat and/or bleed for every reward and upgrade they acquire, rewarding good ideas and smart tactics, while still ensuring their plans never go too smooth. A few unforeseen complications or unexpected combat encounter can turn an otherwise “typical” scavenging or planning scene into a memorable encounter, (such as the inclusion of a wild animal nesting near stockpiled supplies.)

Usually most groups will expend enough ammunition and supplies to continually have to hunt for more, but at times throwing in an extra combat encounter to help drain their resources and keep them needing more. (Such as the horde of zombies.) When your players come up with a masterful plan or perform some stellar roleplaying, make sure the reward is worth the effort, and that the challenge of future encounters will take the benefits of this reward into account.


Pacing Action and Interaction

The other technique you can use to keep sessions fresh and exciting is mixing up the combat encounters, usually with interaction or exploration scenes which create opportunities for character development and interaction within the group. After a particularly tense and combat heavy session or two, It can be good to slow down the pacing for all or part of a session. This lets everyone reassess the current situation without feeling overly pressured and driven to charge full speed ahead. Giving some regular in game “downtime” allows not only your players to strategize, but gives you a clear idea on what to plan for next, without needing to rely upon improvisation or leading the players with an obvious plot hook.


Drop in Encounters

The last method to help keep things flowing smoothly is to keep a few short encounters ready at a moments notice to toss in when things slow down, or the group is eager for combat. These encounters are usually rather simple, from a random rabid animal lumbering towards the group from the bushes along side the road, or a zombie bursting from inside a port-a-potty, it gives the session a hit of adrenaline that revitalizes everyone and keeps things from dragging.

Does anyone else have a few techniques they’d like to add for keeping zombie games fun and horrifying?


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Comments ( 12 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Cheka Man
July 4, 2012, 11:01
Other ideas-The zombie animal that is still fresh until it suddenly bites you
The fresh little girl zombie
How about zombies who have human intelligence until they rot?
The zombie of this type who has somehow managed to mummify himself and so keep at least some of his intelligence
July 4, 2012, 19:02
You should check out the Dead Reign rpg, many of the ideas you just listed are already featured in the setting, and it's got some great zombie artwork in it.
Cheka Man
July 4, 2012, 23:32
Is that on this board?
July 5, 2012, 3:05

No, it's a world setting published by Palladium Books, you can find a review of it Here.

Also you can find my campaign synopsis of a game I ran in the setting Here.

Voted clydedavis
July 5, 2012, 3:09
This is a very good solid collection of tips and tricks for this type of scenario. Personally, I think it covers the important aspects of keeping the game faster-paced and more intense, leading to enjoyable game-play. I think it also does service to highlight the horror-themed aspect of post-apocalyptic survival, especially the "Much of Survival Horror is Survival" piece. I'm also glad you included zombies not being the only enemy, as I feel some people whom are new to this genre tend to miss out on. Including other threats adds much more enjoyable and realistic game-play for sure.

My brief suggestion -- infection scares. Through random encounters or planned dramatic moments, creating moments where NPCs or PCs could possibly be infected, thus requiring them to either make hasty decisions or plans about what to do when bad goes to worse, or setting them up to go on a quest for an infection suppressant in a race against time. I think infection scares always create some additional intensity to the game play, but should be used sparingly, either to make dramatic moments much more amplified in intensity, or to kick slower game-play into fast-pace again.
July 5, 2012, 8:29

Aye infection can be an excellent motivator; even if it's simply the more generic illnesses rather then the threat of becoming a zombie.

(Seeking antibiotics to prevent an infected bite form turning into gangrene can prove every bit as motivating as an antidote to prevent zombification.)

Another good trick is to hit an NPC with the illness. While most players assume, (often correctly) no GM will kill their character with something as non climactic as sickness; they usually know all to well their beloved NPC wife/husband/brother/mother is not quite so vaccinated against tragic death.

Voted Dossta
July 6, 2012, 11:47
This is a good start, but I was kind of hoping for more here. A section on recommended resources -- both for system and setting details -- would be welcome, as would a list of interesting places for encounters or perhaps even some quick plot hooks & ideas.
Voted Kassy
July 9, 2012, 9:25
Pretty much what Dossta said.

I think that this can also (with a few tweaks) be applied to other game settings as well.

Voted MysticMoon
July 11, 2012, 12:35
Only voted
Voted Scrasamax
July 11, 2012, 14:01
Only voted
Voted Chaosmark
July 11, 2012, 15:18
Only voted
Voted valadaar
January 12, 2017, 8:29
Your campaigns sound like they would be very awesome! Good article.

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