I know I haven’t been keeping up with the gaming-related articles; trying to turn that around now that I’m through listing horror films (for the moment).
Zombies have had a major rise in pop culture over the past few decades: the board games Zombies!!! and Last Night on Earth, Dead Rising, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Shaun of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, Planet Terror, The Walking Dead, World War Z… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only natural to incorporate them into roleplaying games, given how popular and enduring the genre is.
But how do you make zombies scary? Their horror, along with the “fear” associated with vampires and werewolves, has diminished to naught with the rise of zombies as a trope in and of itself.
Originally they were a parody of life contrasting with the serene peacefulness of the afterlife concept we’ve acquired from the Victorian age; a perversion of what makes us us—life—the forceful and unnatural reanimation of unlife. The Victorians had a strange fascination with death, and made a thing out of taking death photos and wakes: the stillness of death captured on the stillness of photography, a strange fascination with its tranquility. (The Victorians were weird.) Instead of living peacefully in death, our rotting, shambling husks return, showing the decay and grotesqueness of death.
In recent years, George Romero’s vision of shambling corpses has done more to influence the genre than the original mythology of Haitian voodoo. The drive has been to make zombies into the result of a plague, a perpetual motion machine of killing and eating and rising again, which in and of itself is terrifying: something that cannot be countered or defended against by conventional means. And when you eventually die, you are stripped of your humanity, returning, without your bidding, as a ravenous corpse to continue spreading the disease.
But does any of this make zombies inherently scary? Nope. We all know the pieces of this picture: rotting flesh, ravenous hunger, groans, shuffling, soulless stares. They’re even less scary in a fantasy setting, where a holy character might have the power to drive them away (or turn them back into dust, ala Van Helsing). What makes zombies scary, besides the obvious, are the standard things that make all horror scary: the threat of dying, the isolation, atmosphere, tension. Once the world is dark, grim, lonely and atmospheric, that’s when zombies start being scary.
Still, there are quite a number of other tricks to pull with zombies.
Make them ambiguous! Some of my favorite uses of zombies are when they appear to be something else entirely. One of my friends’ games that I borrowed involved a group of FBI agents lurking around in recent-post-Katrina New Orleans, being stalked by what could be either looters or walking dead. My Weird Wars game used a lot of zombies spread all over the place; technically they were humans infected by a Lovecraftian parasite, but let’s not split hairs. Nobody realized they were zombies until they entered fisticuffs with them, and found out after one’s brain case had been split open. In any case, making your zombies act more like something else—or, rather, less like zombies—is a neat trick to play early on, before your players have figured out what exactly they’re in the middle of.
Description! These are rotting, horrible un-creatures. Play up the five senses you may forget to describe: how bad they smell, the squishing sounds they make, the bits hanging off their open rib-cages and their empty eye sockets pecked clean by birds.
People you know! This is a trick that’s showing up with some frequency now: have someone the character knows, or one of the characters, become infected. How long they have before turning, and how the group deals with the problem, now becomes its own narrative driving force. Maybe it can be staved off with something grotesque: eating or using something from a zombie, mayhaps.
In other cases, have a player run into somebody they knew: unless they were already established early on, don’t expect too much roleplaying other than “I’ll miss you” *blam*, but it’s a great time to run fear or sanity checks after blowing away a close friend.
Plague! Again, a new but well-used development. How each plague spreads is different: in some cases, you need to die by zombie attack, while others just need contact, or a simple zombie bite.
Conserving Resources! Not just ammo and food, which will be in short supply during a zombiepocalypse, but also game resources. If you’re in a system that uses bennies or bonus points that can be spent for ingame bonuses, cut down on those: only allow them to be spent ahead of time. No rerolls or post-roll bonuses puts more emphasis on the dice, making it into a make-or-break event instead of something the players have security nets to cover.
Zombie Flavors! Fast zombies, burning zombies, exploding zombies, tough zombies, zombie animals, zombies who can use simple items/guns… the purist in me thinks these are pure cop-out, but if you’re playing a zombie game, your players might want (or might not expect) a variety in undead. Or you could just change them up altogether, and make them into something else entirely… the creatures in I Am Legend were theoretically vampires, acted like zombies, and were unique to that story/film, for example.
Play the other side! Here’s one that I always wanted to do: subvert the trope and have the players play semi-intelligent zombies. Combine aspects of the zombie genre with a heavy dose of White Wolf-style introspection and “personal horror.” Probably a bit too roleplay-heavy and cerebral for most people, but I think it’s a viable idea. (Yes, it’s Harrowed from Deadlands as a party mechanic.)
Also, check out Libris Mortis if you’re into Pathfinder or d20. It’s one of the greatest d20 supplements, and worth every penny.