Roleplaying

Preparing to Run the Zombie Apocalypse

New Jersey Zombie Walk by Jasonmeehan used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Everyone loves to talk about their zombie plan, but who actually needs one? Game masters, that’s who! The zombie apocalypse is ever popular for roleplaying games, but it’s also challenging. Many factors go into creating the perfect undead playground, even when they seem simple from the outside. You can get away with winging it in a one-shot, but campaigns need planning. Lay some groundwork in advance, and you’re set for success.

Define a Goal

Getting to the plane can't be that hard, right? Getting to the plane can’t be that hard, right?

What are your PCs doing, and what’s their main adventure hook? There has to be something more than “fight zombies” or “survive” to maintain a campaign. This is something the characters can work towards over several sessions. Goals need not be set in stone, but you should have one ready when the game starts to give your PCs some direction.

Reach a Location

This goal is useful for games that take place as the dead first rise; your characters are trying desperately to reach… somewhere. You have a lot of options for what that place is. Often it’s a place of safety: a shelter or walled town. Or it could be a supply cache, vehicle depot, hospital, etc.

The PCs need not know exactly where their goal is, but they should have a general idea, enough to start the journey. The less information they have, the more compelling their reason for going needs to be. Players will try a lot harder to reach a rocket launcher depot than a grocery store. If the journey seems like more trouble than it’s worth, they might just give up and wander off.

Prepare several locations you can slot in as needed, because this goal requires travel by definition. Ideally, these are locations that could show up anywhere. That way you can use them on whatever route your PCs take. Once you’ve prepared the wrecked gas station, zombie-infested school, and suspiciously unoccupied office building, they can show up anywhere in the city. Keep things flexible, or the PCs will feel railroaded.*

Rescue Someone

The remnants of a school trip are holed up in someone’s basement, and they need extraction before the undead get in. A tiny group of scientists have a vaccine against the Z-virus, but they’re trapped in their labs and can’t get out.

This time, the PCs are undertaking a journey for someone else’s sake rather than their own. This goal has a built-in time limit, which is great for creating drama. It also requires that your PCs be decently equipped. A group that can barely defend themselves isn’t likely to stick their necks out for someone else.

Like the first goal, your PCs are trying to get somewhere, but this time they’re also trying to get back. So while you don’t need as many locations, you need to prepare challenges for a return trip as well. Alternatively, the PCs could get to those in need of rescue and move on to somewhere else entirely.

Grow a Community

No matter how bad things get, people will always try to rebuild. Communities grow from the ashes, and your characters are part of one. It could be a fortified apartment building, a rural town surrounded by spiked trenches, a boat at sea, or just about anything else you can imagine. What’s important is that it’s fragile and needs the PCs in order to survive.

This isn’t just about repelling waves of zombies at the gates, though that’s always fun. A community needs resources, many of which we don’t normally think about. Food and shelter are obvious, but what about insulin or asthma medication? Games and reading material so the community’s children have something to do all day. Someone who knows how to install electrical wire. Almost any skill or material you can think of will be needed at some point.*

Your PCs are in charge of getting the community what it needs. They also need to manage internal conflict. Supply shortages lead to accusations of food hoarding. A pair of teenagers come to blows over who gets to ask a third teenager to dance. The community’s best cook is found to have a serious criminal record from before the undead came.

This goal rarely requires travel, but you’ll want to know the immediate area, as PCs will soon be combing over it for supplies. Roll up plenty of NPCs to represent the townsfolk, and remember that the characters are fighting for something other than themselves.

Reclaim Territory

The undead have had their way for too long, and it’s time for humanity to take back what’s theirs! For this goal, your PCs are on the offensive, taking the fight to the enemy. First, figure out what kind of area they’ll be clearing. I recommend something the size of a large city, but you can go as large or small as you like. Just be aware that the bigger an area, the more sessions you’re signing up for and the more leg work you’ll have to do as the GM to keep track of everything. If you make the area too small, it won’t be important enough to drive the story.

To keep things manageable, split this goal into smaller objectives. To clear the city, the PCs’ forces must control the airport, city center, and the power station. That way you’re less likely to find your players marching their troops onto some back street you didn’t plan for.

Prepare setbacks. A clean sweep across the city is no fun for anyone, so don’t be afraid to make things difficult. Zombies might come swarming out of subway tunnels when the characters least expect it, or one of their commanders might go rogue at the worst possible moment. Be prepared for a lot of combat, as there’s no getting around it in this game type.

If your players like to seize the initiative, this is a great opportunity for a free form game. Give them a list of objectives, and have at. If they prefer more direction, whip up an NPC general to give out orders. Just make sure your party has the resources to realistically accomplish this goal. Telling a group of tired refugees they have to retake New York City will have them running for the hills.

The goal your party starts with doesn’t have to remain constant for the entire campaign. More likely it will shift, as the party accomplishes one goal then moves on to the other. The PCs might start off running for their lives, trying to reach the safety of an abandoned army base. From there, they bring in new people and gather resources, until it’s time to retake the nearby town.

Conceive the Party

You wish your crew was this good at zombie killing. You wish your crew was as good at zombie killing.

Who are your PCs? What do they do and why? You don’t make the players’ characters for them, but you need a basic framework for their characters. This is the starting premise your players will build on.

Ragtag Survivors

With nothing but a backpack and some protein bars, your PCs are everyday people trying to escape the horde. This premise works best when the apocalypse is just starting. You’ll play through the dead’s initial rise, as the characters try to cope with society collapsing all around them.

The PCs will be as close to baseline humans as PCs ever get. Even characters with military background can’t be prepared for an attack by walking corpses. Instead of min-maxed skills and big guns, they’ll survive by wits and luck, if they survive at all. On that note, each player should have a backup character or two, as this type of party is quite lethal.

Ragtag survivors are a good fit for the goal of getting somewhere. Preferably, somewhere safe. Other goals are unlikely to work, because a group of average citizens has a hard enough time keeping themselves alive, let alone anyone else.

Community Defenders

As survivors build new lives in this world of the undead, they invariably band together for defense and cooperation. Your PCs are part of one such group, protecting their walled town from all that might threaten it. They’ve survived long enough for their community to be relatively stable, but it’s never more than one emergency away from complete catastrophe.

The characters’ fellow townsfolk are more than just a constant source of fetch quests. A community means support. If the PCs are hurt, they have somewhere to rest and recover. When their ATV breaks down, they can hand it over to the village mechanic for repairs. The community is a two-way street, requiring the characters’ help and helping them in return.

Obviously, growing the community is a good default goal for this party, but it isn’t the only one. As a community grows, it looks to expand, perhaps into zombie-occupied territory. Are the town militia really going to stand by when their radio crackles with the distress call of a refugee convoy overwhelmed by the dead?

Nomads

Unattached to anyone except each other, your PCs roam across the zombified countryside, never stopping in one place for long. With nothing to tie them down, this party type has a level of freedom that cannot be contained. Woe betide the GM who tells the nomads where they can and can’t go.

Fancy language aside, this party type is suited for game masters who enjoy off the cuff sessions. If you can improvise a scenario at the table, then great. If you can’t, choose another option. When the PCs can go anywhere, they rarely go where you expect them, so advanced planning is difficult.

In order to be nomads, the PCs must have some kind of transportation.* The type of transportation depends on how big an area you’re comfortable dealing with. Cars are faster than horses, and motorized PCs cover a lot of ground. GMs in search of a challenge might even try an airship.

Remember that even nomads can’t exist in complete isolation. They’ll need to trade for supplies or get broken equipment repaired. If you don’t maintain some level of contact with other humans, your characters might decide to become raiders, taking the game in a very dark direction.

Nomads are flexible in their goals and are the mostly likely to decide what to do on their own, rather than waiting for GM instructions. They don’t usually have the numbers to reclaim territory, but the others are all feasible. Just don’t expect them to stick around afterwards.

Military Unit

The ultimate in lean, mean, zombie killing machines, your characters exist within an organized military force. Either a remnant of the old army or something formed after society’s fall, they wear uniforms and follow a chain of command. These PCs have the greatest resources at their disposal but are also the most restricted. Everyone loves their M1 battle tank, but they might not love taking orders on where to drive it.

Only go with this kind of party if your players enjoy serious responsibility. They’ll either have to follow orders of a superior officer or be the generals in charge of an entire army. You need to check your system as well, because military characters are more likely to get their hands on some high-end gear. While most systems have decent rules for handguns, many are lacking when it comes to rocket launchers.

If the players are game and the system supports it, this party type is ideal for reclaiming territory. World War Z fans know what I’m talking about: campaigns launched from the Rockies to sweep the dead away, or block-to-block city fighting in your urban center of choice.

It’s possible for the party to switch from one type to another as the game progresses, just as they switch goals. A group of community defenders could grow in size and strength until they’re a military in their own right. A group of ragtag survivors could find an untouched motorcycle dealership and become leather-clad nomads. What’s important is that you have a firm idea of where the party starts, then let them grow from there.

Design Your Zombies

And that was the 17th time that I died. And that was the 17th time I died.

Zombie apocalypse stories all share two common themes: zombies and the apocalypse. You need some undead, and they must be mean enough to bring civilization to its knees. Within that requirement, you have plenty of room to experiment.

Classic Biters

Everyone recognizes these guys. They spread by biting, can’t run, you need to shoot them in the head, etc. While they’re a bit played out on television, that’s no reason you can’t use them in your campaign. Familiarity is a boon in roleplaying games, as it keeps everyone on the same page.

Your biggest issue with the old standby is believability. Audiences will suspend their disbelief for the Walking Dead, but PCs aren’t so forgiving. They’ll ask questions, like how they’re supposed to defeat an undead horde powerful enough to take down the world’s combined armies. Then they’ll realize defeating a slow enemy that can’t think or use tools isn’t that hard.

When using classic biters, it’s best to keep the zombies themselves in the background. Start with civilization already fallen. Focus on interpersonal tension and supply shortages. Essentially, do what Walking Dead does.

Airborne Infection

Instead of relying on mouth-based infections, people get the zombie virus the same way they get influenza. Survivors are those precious few who were naturally immune to the infection. This solves a lot of believability problems, as it means the undead never had to meet humanity in open conflict.

By default, that makes characters immune to becoming zombies. While you can always say that the strain spread by a zombie’s bite gets around their immunity, there are advantages to unzombifiable PCs. In the traditional zombie setting, one bite is a (un)death sentence. In prose and television, the writers can make sure the characters they need are never on the receiving end of a zombie’s teeth, but roleplaying games don’t have that certainty.

If you’re concerned about unplanned character death, keeping your PCs immune will make things a lot easier. On the other hand, if you enjoy living dangerously, don’t make your characters immune. They live in a sealed environment and have to wear breathers any time they go outside. Forget about getting bitten, even letting your mask slip is enough for a one-way ticket to zombie town.

Super Zombies

Video games have known for a long time that killing the same kind of zombie over and over again is boring. Hence the tanks, witches, and other zombies with special abilities from games like Left 4 Dead. This innovation can be a boon to your campaign as well.

If you’re running a combat heavy game, super zombies are a necessity. Combat is slow enough without dealing with the same enemy every time. From a narrative perspective, different enemies shake characters out of their complacency. They never get completely comfortable, because who knows when a zombie that can shoot acid might show up?

For the sake of mechanics, you’ll want a reason super zombies don’t show up in force until later in the campaign. Too many too early will overwhelm your characters. Instead, seed them in gradually. Maybe they’re mutations, only showing up as the virus has time to gestate. Or maybe all the specials originated in one area and are only now making their way into the PC’s domain.

Hazard Zombies

The undead are bad enough when all they can do is bite and claw. To up the threat and keep your PCs on their toes, consider zombies that are dangerous just to stand near. As undead, they’re immune to many contaminants that are fatal to humans.

Radioactive shamblers are a great way to put the fear on your players. Any who dare to get close enough for a decapitation will end up with an unhealthy level of rads. How did they become radioactive? What do you think happens to the undead workers of a nuclear power plant after it goes critical?

Fungus spores are another idea, one used to great effect in the video game Last of Us. Similar to an airborne infection, they mean all characters need to wear gas masks whenever the undead are nearby.

Curable Zombies

One constant of the zombie apocalypse story is that once someone turns, they’re gone forever. Why is that? If the undead are caused by a virus, as is usually the case nowadays, surely a cure is possible? If you want to stand out, have a group of scientists in your setting who’ve cracked the code. Not in time to stop the apocalypse, but in time to cause trouble for the survivors.

If zombies can be turned back into regular people, that actually makes fighting them harder. In most zombie apocalypse stories, characters know they have no choice but to put the undead down. The person that shambler used to be is gone anyway. But if they can be cured, shooting them is ethically compromising.

No longer can the good guys unleash ordinance indiscriminately. It’s like every zombie is holding a human shield. This option turns many of the normal tropes on their head, so it’s good to use with a group that’s tired of the old cliches. It also allows for a much happier ending, which is a big bonus for some players.

Imagine the World

Perfect. Perfect.

Now that your premise, party, and undead are taken care of, imagine what the world around them looks like. You don’t need to map out every settlement and terrain feature, but you do want a good enough understanding that you can quickly generate content when the PCs do something you didn’t expect.*

Isolated Enclaves

The standard, Walking Dead type setting. Civilization as we know it has collapsed, but there are still humans holding out against the horde. This setting has a lot of potential for roleplaying, as it gives a built-in reason for conflict between groups of people.

With the mechanisms of society broken down, everything is in short supply. Groups of survivors fight each other as often as the undead in their need for food and water. Like any post-apocalyptic scenario, it lets us tell stories of tearing up our favorite cities with automatic weapons, and who doesn’t enjoy that?

This setting type is flexible. With most of the world in ruin, there’s plenty of room for long treks through the wilderness or desperate quests to rescue fellow survivors. Those groups that still hold out against the dead may one day ally together and take back the world. Sounds like something PCs would be involved in.

Exclusion Zones

Civilization has not, in fact, collapsed. Humans have endured too much over the millennia to let a little thing like the undead destroy them. But the zombies have still hurt us badly. Large areas across the planet are surrendered to the dead, places where humans do not venture.

Theses exclusion zones are bordered by natural boundaries like rivers and mountain ranges. Heavy fortifications take care of any undead that manage to get across. Anyone inside the zone is left to fend for themselves.

While many people live their lives in complete safety,* your PCs are among those few who make their lives in the zones. Perhaps they’re scavengers, venturing inside to pick the bones of abandoned cities, or special military units sent on search and rescue missions. They might even be residents trapped within the zone’s borders, in fear they carry the infection.

If civilization still exists outside the zones, even if the characters can’t access it, shortages won’t be as bad. Government supply drops, traders willing to take a risk, or border smugglers are all ways PCs can get their hands on new stuff.

With its better access to technology, this setting is the perfect backdrop for reclaiming territory. World governments will try it sooner or later. It’s your PCs’ job to make sure these expeditions actually push back the dead, instead of opening a gap to let them consume even more of the world.

No One Left

For the truly bleak campaign, in this setting there are not even isolated enclaves. So far as the characters know, they’re the only humans left. There might be other holdouts somewhere, but it’ll be some time until the PCs meet them, if they meet at all.

Zombies must be really powerful, or their infection exceptionally contagious to cause such a world. Reclaiming territory isn’t on the table; there’s no one to reclaim it for. Nomadic PCs are the best option for this setting type, on an eternal quest from one temporary safe house to another.

Defending humanity’s last settlement is also a possibility, though you’ll have to explain why this community has survived when all others fell. Perhaps a Fallout-style vault or a space station high in orbit.

While many options are out there, these three are the most common and the easiest to recognize as an apocalypse. If you’re feeling creative, feel free to dream up a world where humans live safely above the horde in elevated tree houses; just be aware that’ll entail a steeper learning curve for your players.

Create Opposition

Witness how these badguys will work for any kind of apocalypse. Witness how these badguys will work for any kind of apocalypse.

Now it’s time to figure out who’s stopping the PCs from doing what they want to do. For that, we need something human(ish). No matter how dangerous they are, zombies are not opposition. They are hazards. Opposition requires agency, and the zombies have no agency by their very nature.

Raider Bands

In a crisis, some people will band together for mutual good. Others will do the reverse, taking from their fellow survivors. They use violence and intimidation, deaf to pleas of their victims. They make great antagonists for a band of PCs just starting off.

If you’ve seen Road Warrior, you’re familiar with raiders. They cobble together weapons and vehicles from whatever’s lying around and survive by stealing from others. Their leaders are the most vicious among them. This model isn’t sustainable, but the bandits don’t think that far ahead, and they cause plenty of damage in the short term.

Many raider bands cloak their thievery in some moralistic guise. God chose them to survive; foreigners brought the zombie plague with their strange diseases. Others will be more honest, believing that only those with the greatest martial strength are worthy of survival. None of them are nice people.

Even so, they are still people. Even the most vicious raider can be spoken to, perhaps negotiated with, under the right circumstances. Those circumstances might be at the end of a shotgun, but it’s possible.

Shadowy Agency

While raiders are blatantly threatening, this foe hides in the shadows. They appear in black helicopters,* executing their mission with military precision, then fading away like smoke. Only one thing about them is clear: they do not have the PCs’ best interests at heart.

A shadowy agency can be government, corporate, or something else entirely. What’s important is that they have resources, and their goals are mysterious. At first, they barely notice the PCs. Then their actions are indirect, luring the party into a zombie-infested area with tempting supplies. Only when the PCs are a major force do they upgrade to direct antagonism, abducting a party member or important NPC for cruel experimentation.

This institution should be connected to the undead horde in some way. Perhaps they created the virus in the first place, or maybe they’re torturing survivors in a vain hope to find a cure. Or their goal might be to build a utopian society from the ashes, and anyone who isn’t perfect has got to go.

Shadowy agencies threaten more through subtlety than brute force. While they usually lack manpower, their advanced technology means they could always be watching. A new arrival to the community might even be one of their agents. The paranoia they create is almost as great a threat as their powerful weapons.

Evil Monarchs

Whether they wear crowns or not, these are warlords who have carved out powerful fiefdoms for themselves. They may claim old world authority or simply have more weapons than anyone else. While raiders are experts at violence, the evil monarch understands control. They justify the oppression of their rule by saying that it’s necessary to keep the undead at bay. They’re lying, possibly even to themselves,* but it’s the kind of lie frightened people are wont to believe.

To use a Mad Max reference, evil monarchs are Immortan Joe to the raider’s Lord Humongous. They have the resources to raise armies. Only an organized military force can stand against them head-to-head. Anyone else must stay on the periphery, avoiding their full attention. Evil monarchs chase nomads from their territory and lay siege to communities until there is no choice but to submit. PCs who face one without an army at their backs are in for a hard fight indeed.

Evil monarchs make great antagonists for any party trying to reclaim territory. Bad enough the undead are everywhere, now they must deal with a well armed force of humans who will do anything to keep civilization at bay.

On the other hand, the PCs might be residents of the evil monarch’s realm. The monarch might not have been evil at the start. At first they were a shining beacon of hope, and only later did things get bad. Now the PCs must foment a revolution, with the horde pressing in from outside.

Zombie Controllers

The most terrifying enemy one can face in a zombie apocalypse, these heinous foes control the horde itself. They may use science or magic, depending on your setting specifics, but the zombies shamble to their orders. Since they’re bad guys, they never order the undead to do anything good.

The undead’s greatest weakness is that they lack intelligence. Not anymore. Now they’re the shock troops for evil sorcerers or malicious scientists. Bad enough trying to get headshots on a horde, now they advance in organized waves.

The zombie controllers’ strength is directly proportional to how many zombies they can command. Just a handful makes them appropriate to face ragtag survivors. A hundred or so threatens a community or band of nomads. Several thousand will give even a military unit pause.

If you give an enemy the ability to control zombies, make sure it ties into a larger picture. People don’t just wake up with that kind of power. If they’re not behind the undead’s rise, they’re certainly connected to it somehow. Your PCs will have a grand old time trying to figure out the connection.


Now you’ve just got to choose a decent system, and you’re good to go. Keep in mind what kind of story you want to tell. Call of Cthulhu’s lethality will get you a game that’s short and bloody. Spycraft’s d20 combat system will mean PCs who act like movie heroes, withstanding the worst punishment you can throw at them. So long as you know what you’re trying to do, the rest will fall into place.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Buck Huckins

    Excellent Article

    If you want to run a good zombie game I highly recommend Savage Worlds. It’s a generic system but the rules are very light, and best of all, the combat is quick. The game uses a toughness mechanic where creatures don’t have hit points, they just have a Toughness that needs to be overcome by damage.

    It even has rules for headshots, and a prepublished adventure called Zombie Run!!! with some great missions (including shutting down a nuclear power plant full of zombies before it melts down and spreads fallout all over the nearby survivor communities).

    My favorite goal in zombie games is when they turn on the army radio they find and hear that the area they are in is going to be nuked within 24 hours. Always a fun way of doing things.

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