[RPG] How to manage play in a zombie RPG pre outbreak


I am planning on starting my newest campaign about the end of the world: a Zombie Apocalypse, with the game starting before the outbreak has occurred. Every zombie RPG I have encountered so far has content to allow you to start your campaign before the outbreak occurs. Unfortunately they give you no indication of how this might play out. Standard turns seem pointless, since your PCs can basically do nothing but wait for the outbreak to unfold.

The only two ways I can come up with to make this part of the game interesting is to not tell your players that the game is a zombie game, and make them figure that out. Second is to just narrate the entire pre-outbreak in a sort of montage. Unfortunately the first option is out since my players know what type of campaign I am making. The second option is not satisfactory given the amount of time I spent developing the story pre-outbreak. I have several audio clips of news reports and the like to flesh out the story.

My players will be playing as themselves. So that means landscapers, sales people, and the like; they will be as powerful as they are in real life. The zombie type is taken from End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse. It is virally spread, but the zombies are not undead and more like bath salts junkies. It can be cured, and that will be a major part of the story. I was planing on having the PCs start the game playing a tabletop role-playing game, but I'm open to suggestions as to where to start the PCs as well. The feel of the game will be realistic horror. The setting will be a small town in the mountains not far from where we live in real life.

What I'm asking for are techniques on how to run the first part of the game pre-outbreak, without just cutting it short but avoiding player meta-gaming removing any of the real impact.

Best Answer

Work WITH your players

If I'm going to sit down and play a game for several hours, nevermind for several sessions of several hours, I want to know what genre I'm playing. The "gotcha" campaign doesn't make people as happy as folks think.

Tell your players, "I'm planning on doing a zombie outbreak game, and the expectations are that your characters are going to be built like (Normal civilians/civilians with some survival skills/police military etc.) and the first part will be before the outbreak."

What's to stop players from doing stuff like building a bunker before play? Because you, as a group, agree that's not the kind of zombie game you want to play, and if they don't want that, they're not going to like this campaign.


Motivation & Relationship Mechanics

This is one of those places having relationship and ideals based rewards would work great.

When a media wants to show you more of the pre-outbreak, they show the protagonist's normal lives - the people they care about, their ideals, hopes and dreams and struggles. In games with these kinds of reward mechanics, you spend these scenes loading up these relationships and ideals, getting either XP or some kind of hero points in the process, and then when all hell breaks loose, then the players get more points for trying to protect, rescue, or reconnect with those people, places, and things.

"The Univesity. You know, I would have been the first one to go to college, Mom wanted that for me. And here I am. Finally walking through these doors. But I didn't want it to be like this."

These kinds of mechanics work very well because they set up a long term survival goal into the rules - in the short term, doing what's immediately best for survival is good, but in the long term, you want those XP/hero points to stay alive as the situation worsens.

Which...mirrors a lot of zombie fiction - the last survivor(s) end up having to balance caring for others and being actually a decent human being vs. pragmatic "I'm sorry, you've been bitten, I can't let you in.".

Social Mechanics

Games with good systems for social mechanics would also be good. Zombie fiction is a lot about the arguments about what to do next and everyone getting at each others' throats and sometimes people making bad decisions. Good social mechanics gives people a chance to influence each other, to convince each other to help, or to cut bad deals.

Tying it together

When you have the two above ideas working together, you can use the pre-outbreak time to set up relationships, rivalries, tensions and promises. All of that becomes critical when the disaster strikes.

"I know he's your father. But he's been bit. Our time is running out. He made you promise you'd keep yourself safe and try to live the best you could, right? You won't be safe staying with what he's about to become. Do you want to protect his corpse or his wishes?"

You'll notice all that kind of stuff is what makes the best zombie stories work. It's about people falling apart and falling together that makes it work, not "I am tactically sound and have food supplies" kind of stories.

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