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My Little Zombie Apocalypse Tabletop RPG

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Zombies

Two years ago I was deeply engrossed in tabletop RPGs. I enjoyed writing them and seeing how players interacted with the story. I hadn't used official systems like Savage Worlds or D&D yet. All I had was my impression of what those games were like, a bag of dice and an undeniable thirst for making the Ultimate Game.

At the time I was regularly playing board games with some friends from school and I wanted to make a more approachable RPG for someone who had never even heard of such things. These friends, being very casual players, were more of a Scrabble and Cranium kind of folk. The challenge of making a playable game for them intrigued me; if I could make something that was playable by the most casual board gamers, I would have to duck and weave through a series of hurdles that I'd never experienced before.

Challenge accepted.

That's when I started work on a zombie RPG system. I didn't know it at the time, but I was essentially building a board game. Of course it was still very much an RPG, but a fairly light one with the focus on problem-solving under stress instead of killing zombies. There was still a GM making dice rolls and telling the story, but mechanically the game was very flat; there was no room for character improvement.

The only zombie game I had played at that point was Left 4 Dead, which was tremendously good at what it did: It allowed players to feel the tension of escaping zombies. I wanted more meaningful storytelling, choices and consequences. I wanted a fairly serious drama, a sense of dread and the need to scavenge often. And remember, this was before the Walking Dead was on TV. Here's how I laid it out.

The Custom class replaced the Soldier much later.

The Custom class replaced the Soldier much later.

The Classes

There were seven classes in the game, designed to solve the kinds of problems one might expect to have during a zombie apocalypse. Each character would have a Master skill and one Secondary skill. Master skills were unique to each character type. Secondaries were picked by the players upon choosing the character, allowing a small degree of customization. Here are the classes and their Master skills, in no particular order:

  • Medic - Medicine
  • Engineer - Engineering
  • Soldier - Heavy Weapons
  • Athlete - Athletics
  • Confidence Man - Persuasion
  • Gangster - Streetwise

They would have various amounts of hit points, with the lowest possible being three, and the max being six. When you ask people to do math in their head, it's best to keep the numbers as small as possible.

As for Secondary skills, I lifted the list of skills wholesale from Fallout 3. Originally I had more, but I soon pared down the list.

  • Barter
  • Explosives
  • First Aid
  • Lock Picking
  • Martial Arts
  • Sneak
  • Survival
  • Mechanics

Several of the Secondary skills were just watered-down versions of Master skills. First Aid was the weak version of Medicine, Mechanics was the weak version of Engineering, etc. I have to show you a chart to explain the next bit.

A reference sheet I made so everyone could see what they needed to succeed.

A reference sheet I made so everyone could see what they needed to succeed.

Randomness was determined by a single 20-sided die. Depending on the player's class and secondary skills, they would change their probability of success. I didn't know anything about statistics at the time, otherwise I would have made a smoother transition and a slightly higher chance of success in all categories. As it was then, here's the breakdown (and please, check my math):

  • Untrained: 30% chance of success.
  • Trained: 40% chance of success.
  • Master: 60% chance of success.

Example of Play:

If an Engineer wanted to use a cutting torch to open a metal door, he would roll a d20. Since that's his Master skill, he looks at the Master roll chart and sees he only needs a 9 or higher to succeed. He rolls an 8, so he fails.
An Athlete with the Mechanics Secondary skill wants to attempt the same thing. Since all Secondary skills count as Trained, he needs a 13 or higher to succeed. He rolls a 14, which is a success.

Once I had all of the boring mechanical stuff down, I started writing the story.

A shot of the script, complete with added home-made visuals, a rudimentary search table and poor grammar.

A shot of the script, complete with added home-made visuals, a rudimentary search table and poor grammar.

The Story, And How The Game Broke

For the sake of brevity, I'll just say that the adventure takes place a few weeks after the zombie apocalypse. The players begin trapped inside a hotel. I had only run a few sessions of RPGs before this, so my body of knowledge was limited by what I could find on the D&D website and my own experience. My way of writing mirrored what I could find, and it was not as smooth as I'd have liked. You can read the entire adventure here.

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After the first session, I knew several things: First, my game was absolutely broken. Luckily, I'm always happy to learn from my mistakes.

I started a Word document that read like patch notes for a video game. It contained everything that was or might be broken, and suggestions on how to fix it. You can also read that here. I'll give you an excerpt:

  • The gangster's cocaine is humorous, but mostly worthless. He needs a different (but appropriate) main-hand tool.
  • The soldier class is dramatically overpowered. Solution: He has been removed from the game.

I don't know what it is, but when people play a new game, their first inclination is to break it as soon as possible. I learned enough from a single session to fill two pages of a word document. It was delightful. I went back to the drawing board and made some changes, then we tried again. I removed three of the Secondary skills and co-opted the Chance of Success list to include range values.

3 skills were removed, range was added and the pointless phrase "mild success" was cut.

3 skills were removed, range was added and the pointless phrase "mild success" was cut.

The End

We played several zombie games using this system. Later, I tried and failed to add complexity to a game that wasn't meant to have any. As you might imagine, it fell apart. After several more revisions, the system had turned into a swirling mess of shredded metal. It's death scream was heard around the time I discovered Savage Worlds and found that it more fully met my needs. I even found that other zombie aficionados had written detailed campaigns for that system.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot about the difficulty of designing games, particularly RPGs. I set out to design a system that met my goals and I think I succeeded. My system lacked depth, balance, player advancement and many other important aspects, and it took forever to create. Imagine how long it would take me to make something actually good.


William157 (author) from Southern California on August 10, 2014:

@Amy Livingston: You're right! I'll update the article.

Amy Livingston from Highland Park, NJ on August 06, 2014:

This is a fascinating article, but I have one quibble: why do you say your friends were "very casual *female* players"? Wouldn't saying they were "very casual players" convey the same information? Otherwise, it sounds like you're suggesting girls can't game. :-P

John Roberts from South Yorkshire, England on April 26, 2012:

I saw what you mean in your Earth Reborn review (couldn't remember the name of the game, so didn't mention it hehe). As for my game, I was hoping to make it similar to a HeXen WAD, but I guess it'll just be a board game with RPG elements, unfortunately comparable to Two Worlds. I'm working on it at the moment and I'll have the introduction up in a few days ^^

William157 (author) from Southern California on April 26, 2012:

@JohnGreasyGamer: It was quite fun to play, but the complexity broke down when things like combat or searching happened. It was best as long as people were exploring or talking to NPCs. I could make it good at other things with a little tweaking, just like you said, but I don't really have the need or desire. Like I said in my Earth Reborn review, that game does everything I set out to do with the Zombie RPG, right down to the fast, easy resolution of rolls.

You're making your own system? Is this a video game or an RPG? I'd be interested in learning more. Game design is fascinating to me, and seeing your take would be entertaining.

John Roberts from South Yorkshire, England on April 26, 2012:

Wow, this sounds like a really good game and there's so much complexity to it. Much more different than I imagined. I'm currently working on my own, but from what I've seen here, it's going wrong hehe. When I started I realized how complex things can get, and it takes a lot of revision to make sure certain elements of gameplay don't contradict what rules you previously made.

Within a few months I'm sure you can perfect your work ^^

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