APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 7 August, 2000


Shadows of the Living Dead

Quick and Dirty Rules for Slow and Dirty Zombies

Scott R. Blow

[See the October issue of APAGear II for Scott's adapatation of zombies in Tactical games! -Ed.]

Zombies are, without a doubt, the creepiest of all cinematic monsters. Prissy, aristocratic vampires have been done to death. Masked, semi-immortal meat cleaver-wielding psychopaths? Yawn. Werewolves? Just stinky, crotch-sniffing dogs writ large. Even ghosts have become hokey, hackneyed shades (pun most certainly intended) of their former selves. Not zombies. Zombies seem special somehow. These re-animated corpses are perhaps the most believable movie monsters. (In fact, sometimes I wonder if I'm not already surrounded by shambling, mindless stiffs. Have you been to the mall lately? It's "Dawn of the Dead" all over again!) Their existence need not depend on suspension-of-disbelief-stretching magic or voodoo, the dead could be revived by more plausible causes. In the Romero movies, for instance, the zombies were simply corpses resurrected by an extra-terrestrial virus. Cosmic rays, pollution, or science gone wrong are a few other means by which Game Masters can revive dead guys for a little Fulci Fun.

In addition to being slightly more realistic horror monsters, zombies are often the most unnerving. The walking dead are entirely single-minded creatures. They exist only to feast on the flesh of the living. They don't feel pain and they don't get tired. The individual zombie may be slow and clumsy --hardly a threat to any reasonably intelligent and mobile adult-- but their nasty habit of "recruiting" those unfortunate enough to become victims ensures that zombies' very quickly gain the numerical advantage. Add bickering, distrust, and in-fighting among the humans (a very common theme in zombie films) and the formerly comical zombies become very, very deadly.

Zombie stories can often make for fun role-playing sessions. One-shots are best, usually, as character mortality must be high in order to maintain a sense of desperation. More than one flick has ended with none of the main characters surviving ("Night of the Living Dead" is the most obvious example). I, personally, would not let any character escape unscathed. The last surviving character(s) should, ideally, either be infected by the zombie plague or in a "safe" place surrounded by zombies, with no means of escape. Not very uplifting, no, but if you wanted optimism you wouldn't be telling zombie stories, would you?

Dream Pod 9's Silhouette system lends itself especially well to zombie one-shots. The combat system is often unforgiving and lethal, as tangling with zombies should be. While some lesser game systems allow characters to function normally and without penalty until they suddenly drop dead or fall unconscious, each Silhouette wound dramatically impacts a character's abilities. This can make for exciting scenes as injured characters, slowed by their wounds, try to limp away from the zombie horde. Will they make it? Who knows! Roll the dice!

The following tips and guidelines are meant to help interested GMs run zombie adventures. GMs should feel free to pick and choose the rules they want and ignore the rest. They may modify, fold, spindle, twist and mutilate these rules to their heart's content. I promise not to unleash the hit-zombies.

Zombie Combat

It bears repeating that individual zombies aren't much of a threat. They are slow, clumsy, dim-witted and generally unarmed (often in every sense of the word). Zombies are most effective in groups, where they can corner, surround, and incapacitate their victims. To this end, I suggest that GMs make use of Heavy Gear tactical-style Multiple Attacker Penalties. Whenever a character is attacked by more than assailant, she takes a -1 penalty to her dodge roll for each attacker beyond the first.

Zombies are easy to hit in combat, but they are terrifyingly resilient. In order to simulate this, I suggest that they be treated as Mildly Intoxicated (-1) for defense purposes, and they never intentionally use protective cover. When fighting zombies, headshots are most effective. When attacked by firearms or edged weapons, the final damage (Margin of Success x Damage Multiplier) should be halved unless the player has elected to take an aimed shot to the zombies head (Note: As with humans, a zombie's wound thresholds are halved whenever an attacker successfully connects with its head). Chemicals and fire deal normal damage in the usual fashion.

Zombies are not particularly ingenious opponents. Their attacks tend to follow a set pattern. First they immobilize their prey (rolling their Hand-to-Hand skill against a defending opponent) then they bite. Humans may attempt to dodge the grapple attempt and they may make an opposed Strength versus Strength roll in an effort to break out of a successful grapple. Zombies gain a +3 bonus to their attack roll when attempting to bite a pinned victim. They receive this bonus even if the victim has been pinned by another zombie.

One zombie bite is generally fatal. While the wound itself is usually fairly minor, the true danger comes from the virus carried by the zombies saliva. Once the virus has entered the victims bloodstream, it is only a matter of time before he dies and rises again as one of the living dead.

Zombies are generally finicky eaters. They prefer to devour only a small portion of their victims, enough to kill, leaving the corpse to rise again. However, periodically a group of zombies will end up completely eviscerating the victim, rending him limb from limb and disembowelling him before feasting messily (see the climax of "Dawn of the Dead" for a stomach-churning example of this). Deciding whether or not this happens is left to the GM's discretion.


The following books and films are especially good sources of zombie-related scenario material.

"Dawn of the Dead" - Sequel to "Night of the Living Dead," this movie oozes with RPG story potential. In addition to the main plot, about humans creating a stronghold in a shopping mall surrounded by zombies, there is a very nice sub-plot about police and military task-forces created to fight back the zombie menace.

"Zombie" - The first of a trilogy of Lucio Fulci films dealing with the living dead. While the story is somewhat lack-luster, some of the scenes are completely horrifying and grotesque -- exactly the kind of gory images the GM should be trying to convey to the players. The agonizingly slow corneal impalement remains the most gut-wrenching thing I've ever seen in a movie, and I'm a jaded horror fan. Additionally, the very last scene of the movie (which shows an immense horde of shambling corpses flooding across the Brooklyn Bridge into New York City) is an excellent starting point for a scenario.

"Cemetary Man" - This semi-comical film is about a mortician who lives and works in a graveyard where the dead just won't stay dead. This kind of scenario works best for one or two players, who must scramble to make sure none of the zombies are allowed to leave the confines of the cemetary. The scene with the zombie boy scout troop is demented fun.

"Dead on Arrival" and "Dead on Arrival 2 - The Dead Next Door" - These are two excellent zombie-related roleplaying scenarios that can be found in Chaosium's B-movie anthologies "Blood Brothers" and "Blood Brothers 2." The first DOA deals with a group of vacationers who become stranded in a small town filled with zombies, and the sequel is about a group of scientists working to control the zombies and the group of soldiers assigned to protect the scientists. Grim fun for the Call of Cthulhu rules, although Silhouette fans will have no trouble using these scenarios with the guidelines I've presented above.

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APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 7 August, 2000