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Crumbling Zombies

When I last ran Dread, it was an extension of my existing Trail of Cthulhu campaign and tied into it in various ways. Dread was an attractive alternative to Trail of Cthulhu, because it is inherently a little bit competitive in the way the Jenga tower is the main way of resolving actions. At the time, I thought combining Dread with a group of player characters with secret agendas would be a good idea. Unfortunately that didn’t turn out to be an optimal experience and so when I decided to run Dread again I definitely didn’t repeat that. On the other hand, I wanted something that would get the same kind of feel of tension and worry between the players.

That’s when it struck me: Zombie movies. More specifically the old style of B-Horror like Night of the Living Dead (see how the title came about?). What if the player characters were all stuck together at the outset of the zombie apocalypse, trying to just survive through the night and hopefully escape? From this premise I got a great idea: Instead of a player being killed when the tower fell the first time, what would happen is that player would be “infected” in some manner. With the questionnaire that makes Dread’s character creation so unique, this “death” would then establish the truth about how the zombie apocalypse started and how zombies were made. For example, if a player wrote that zombies came from a virus on a meteor hitting earth and it spread by bites, it would then become the “True origin” of the zombie apocalypse.

QuestionnaireA screenshot of the questionnaire I gave out to the players at the start of the game. This established not only a players character, but also immediately gave them a sense of where the game was set (In the US, in San Francisco at a University). Note the questions about the “accident” and how the zombie virus/infection/curse spreads. Direct image link to see it better here.

In order to give a sense of paranoia and tension once the “potential zombie” was revealed, the infected player would have to draw blocks at random when I felt like it. This represented sudden urges of a strange alien/mutant hive mind (I’ll get to this later) and if they managed to resist this urge to attack their friends. Additionally if they felt like it at any moment they could simply “change teams”, giving the other players a complicated choice if they kept the potential zombie or decided to trust them. Gameplay wise this gives a lot more flexibility for a result and meant that I can easily control the pace of pulling blocks after the reveal. So if I want more tension, I can make the “infected” player pull more to either threaten a zombie attack, or just to decrease the towers stability for the other players actions.

Without ruining the play report to follow, this hidden infected concept and mechanic worked absolutely perfectly. It was much easier to understand than the somewhat convoluted agendas and special abilities I tried in Dread of Cthulhu. Another reason the hidden infected idea worked a lot better, was because there wasn’t an inherent “competition” aspect other than “Can I help this other player die hilariously in some way?”. I felt this works much better with the kind of narrative Dread inherently creates (and needs), which relies a lot on GM flexibility and on the spot thinking. In particular you need to constantly find ways to keep the players moving forward in the story (more on this later).

Night of the Living Dread

It begins

At the start of the game there were five players, most of whom were actually new to me and generally new to RPGs also. I think only one player had played Dread before, but thankfully Dread using a Jenga tower as a mechanic made it very easy for everyone to get into the game. The initial tower and the map of the University of San Francisco (thank you internet) were my initial props. I decided to go with the University because it looked interesting enough online, had a campus with a lot of decent sized buildings and was condensed enough to keep the action focused. Especially because initially the players are locked in the Univeristy and need to somehow live through the night. Success at seeing dawn for the characters would mean being (hopefully) saved by the military, who were destined to roll into the city by morning.

Here I already started to allow my players to take command of the games narrative, because while googling around the University a discussion was had on them being in a bar (initially). Aside from being an hilarious homage to another zombie movie I am a huge fan of, Shaun of the Dead, it just seemed to make sense. If there’s a zombie apocalypse, you might as well get a bit drunk! Ironically one bar that seemed close enough to the University was a bar called the “Buckshot” and honestly, how could I possibly resist? So instead of being trapped inside the University directly, the players were instead inside this bar initially by misfortune or circumstance. This was particularly emphasized by the various accidents that each character had happen to them, in the moments or period leading up to them arriving to the bar.

So before moving onto the actual characters themselves, I want to point out how listening to the players and giving them stakes in the narrative right from the start is always good. My original notes and plan was an escape from the gymnasium building, but allowing them to change the script and start in the bar, I feel, helped everyone get into character much better. Naturally this required some adjustment to the story and how I would give some incentive to move forward, but overall it was a smart (if impromptu) change.

With everyone assembled in the bar, it was time to do the most important initial step and get to the character introductions. The zany cast of characters who had survived the opening hours of the zombie apocalypse, starting in no particular order was;

Sarah Fortune – Who happened to be carrying around her two (?) taxidermied cats. Yes. That was a thing.
Ralph – IT student, who very much looked up to his nihilistic best friend Marcus
Marcus Crowley – A philosophy student who had a high degree of existential angst
Scarlet Lee – Captain of the Universities cheer leading squad.
Ray Clause – A+ biology student and quiet member of the team

With everyone introduced and a general idea of what they looked like, it was time to start motivating the players to engage in the story. Now, here is where I did something really important and in a scenario like this you need to remember it: Give the players a reason to move. You might remember from the questionnaire previously, that I asked “You were involved in an accident recently: What happened?”. This question wasn’t just to see if my players were especially unfortunate, but also to explain how they received a particularly bad injury of some kind. An injury that would require medical attention or treatment, or risk giving them little chance of seeing out the night. In effect, this became the main motivation to actually move out of the bar and put themselves at risk (and hence zombies). Otherwise I feared what the players would do is shore up and then never leave the same place, requiring me to come up with a convoluted reason to get attacked.

To emphasize how the injury was no joke, I had all of the players pull one block from the tower in a sequence decided by a previous dice roll off. Here things escalated insanely quickly, with the tower having several of its bottom bricks removed almost immediately! It honestly looked like one of my fears with Dread was going to happen: Having a very early (and impromptu) collapse. Of course I “buffer” such a dramatic failure in my games with mechanics like the “Infection”, but I was worried it was going to be decided too quick! Bear in mind we’re less than 5 minutes into actually playing at this point when I thought this would be an issue. I’m going to revisit the seeming “invincibility” of this tower later.

Tower issues aside, the first thing the characters did was break a couple of metal chairs for the legs to use as weapons and investigate the bar. Unfortunately for them, I decided to ramp up the tension a bit straight away, by describing sopping wet footprints* and drag marks coming in through the emergency exit into one of the bathrooms. Seems like while everyone was barricading the front door, someone had forgot about the rear entry to the building and it was left open – whoops! Disappointingly or possibly sensibly, honestly it depended on my mood if that really was a zombie or not in there, the players decided to ignore the toilet to get out of the bar for good.

Although the bar was a fair distance from the University, they decided (using their map) to head to the building with the health and recreation services. This is because the health and recreation building had some doctors and student health facilities. While it’s probable that the doctors were eaten by zombies, it was at least a better bet than letting the various injuries get to them. Walking through the rain, I had them stumble across various small initial obstacles like a mangled corpse, a police car with several dead officers (and their Mossberg shotgun) and then the glass doors in the building. Here the characters encountered their first zombies directly, a shambling horde gathered at the rear of the building and trying to get inside.

An impromptu distraction involving using some molotov cocktails and the car alarm of the Prius drew the horde away, but this soon led to another complication: An armed fellow inside of the building shot at Scarlet when she tried to get his attention. Of course this noise would draw more zombies, so the group decided to climb up a trellis on a vertical garden to get to the second floor of the building. Interestingly Ralph decided to be rather pragmatic and held the trellis in place, making the others job of scrambling up much easier. The sheer lack of trying to betray one another was getting to me considerably! Either way, sparing a valuable shotgun shell of the three they had from the Mossberg earlier, Scarlett blew off the trellis to ensure the sprinting** undead couldn’t follow.

Here they found some medical supplies, bandages, painkillers, anti-inflammatories and other things that would buy them some more time from their injuries. Exploring the rest of the place showed that the guy who shot at them had been busy, executing many of the nurses, doctors and unlucky students on this floor. They had been so busy doing this, that they hadn’t even bothered to turn off their work terminal and thus the characters could access it. An email in Russian*** indicated that there was some conspiracy going on, with mention of samples and most importantly – a helicopter coming to pick up the spy at 4am. Of course, things were just about to get more complicated because the elevator started moving and something got up in one of the examination rooms, banging on the door….

The Best Laid Plans….

Possibly the most curious thing here was how the players entirely ignored the prospect of the helicopter coming. While I had winged most of this scenario, I intended for the players to feel like they could escape on the helicopter and head towards the gymnasium. A finale with the players battling the Russians and zombies, with whoever could get onto the helicopter and fly away was on my mind. Interestingly the players showed absolutely zero interest in doing this and thus I needed to come up with a new plan. In many ways the stuff happening with the zombie and elevator was mostly to distract the players a bit, as I had to think of a new idea.

It soon came to me and Scarlet soon had a dramatic choice – shoot the zombie or potentially the crazy guy with the gun who might be coming up in the elevator? It turned out to be a good decision, because one of the nurses who had hid from the carnage – Susan – came to investigate. She was on the University intranet (noting that the internet and phones were generally down, but their own network was functional) and noticed someone checking emails on the system on L2. As “Zombies don’t read emails!” was a pretty good reason to see if there were actually other surviving people there. Any celebrations were soon cut short, as the horde of angered zombies from the emergency exit soon began pouring in. Here the characters desperately fought them off at the elevator and by some sheer luck, nobody got injured.

How the hell was this staying up?

So remember how I mentioned I was worried the tower would fall over in the first five minutes? By this point the tower was a leaning, near broken mess and had a highly exposed skeleton. Of course it turned out there were several Jenga masters in this group, because no matter how bad and generally wobbly the tower got it just never seemed to fall over. This was now around 2 hours into the game, so I was actually at the point where I had the opposite problem: Nobody seemed capable of dying! Even with my best attempts to draw ever more blocks, including a rickety elevator ride, a crazed Janitor trying to use his chemistry knowledge to blow up the building (whom Ralph knocked out, then they stole his partially complete “bomb in a bucket”) and a full on GoT LARP turned into Zombies (yes, I did this, no I’m not ashamed) could not make it fall.

Then I thought Ralph was certainly going to make a heroic sacrifice or at least get infected when he took on a room full of four zombies by himself. At this point the most unbelievable stealth murdering of zombies ever took place, with Ralphs player easily proving herself a master of Jenga. She successfully pulled blocks – of a very rickety tower – four times in a row to silently kill all of the zombies between them and the freedom of the exit. Honestly at this point I actually began to wonder if nobody was going to get infected, let alone actually manage to die! None the less the moment of gruesome infection finally came, as the characters ran up the stairs and away from the crazed gunman below it proved too much for Ray: He began to vomit, hyperventilate and turn an awful color as his player knocked over the tower trying to run.

At this point I checked the origin for the zombie apocalypse, which was a lab experiment and decided that Ray was hiding a secret: He was a test subject. You see the University science department had been researching recombinant viruses for the treatment of cancer. They had found some great success, but the program had some kinks in the form of causing gross mutations and cannibalism in lab animals. Unfortunately some students, thinking their professors were keeping the cure to themselves, distributed it to some people who needed it (including themselves) using a Russian made inhibitor to keep it in check. Unfortunately this day? The truck carrying the usual shipment had been late and then crashed the night before – so nobody had it except for a handful in a safe in the biology department.

Without their fix of inhibitor, the virus rapidly mutated and began to spread, causing increased aggression and making them “infect” others. Pretty soon one failed example of scientific altruism (and outright silliness) later and the zombie apocalypse was born. Of course this didn’t really make any of the other characters feel better knowing Ray was becoming a zombie, but it really did amp up the tension just when I needed it! Because oh boy, I was so worried everyone was going to escape and nobody was going to die! That just wouldn’t be a game of Dread if that happened!

Then the Dying Started

In any event, with about an hour and a half to go, I rebuilt the tower with some structural weaknesses and we resumed running away. Marcus, who was at the rear of the party saw Ray start to turn first and I thought he would try to lock ray behind, to separate the potential zombie from the others. Oddly enough, despite how dramatic this would have been to the narrative, he actually decided not to go through with this and the party all worked together again. Dang it! Either way though, I didn’t have to wait long for the next gruesome death as I introduced a new and even more horrible threat: The Hive Master.

This disgusting, distended corpse of a thing resembles a gigantic vampire bat in the face and a long sinuous “winged” worm for a body. About 12 feet or so in length, it had finally come to investigate the group of human survivors and finish them off for itself. Most importantly, I needed it to keep the players moving and not relaxing, because Marcus’ plan at this point was to try holing up on the roof. Naturally that wasn’t what I wanted: I didn’t want them feeling safe, anywhere. This is also where Ray started to have to draw blocks spontaneously, because the Hive Master could chat to him psychically any time it wanted. This is also where I revealed another neat trick: The Hive Master vastly increased the intelligence of the zombies around it.

So with increased tension and threat, the characters tried to sneak their way into the security room hoping for another exit or option. Unfortunately, even with a reasonably safe pull Scarlett made a fatal error and smacked a table. The resulting sound let the hideous Hive Master locate her, grab her and then bite most of her shoulder off! Finally a gruesome death worthy of a zombie apocalypse! This also turned Scarlet into a zombie and then it was another full run into the security room, where the thick door would buy them a bit of time. However, with real world time running out, I decided to rebuild the tower in ever more diabolical ways, like this one:


Here in the security room I decided to provide a bit of a Macguffin for getting out: A heavily armored SWAT team truck, similar to a Unimog, was in the garage. Unfortunately the SWAT team hadn’t had much luck and was already dead, but the vehicle would be the best possible means of escape – if they could get to it. Thankfully a system of vents in the building would allow them to get there – but they just had to survive the descent first. Of course, with the zombies piling in the players came up with the unusual plan of setting them on fire in an enclosed space. This didn’t work out well, because even though it did kill the zombies, their burning corpses collapsed into the vents after the fleeing characters. The choking flames and smoke eventually overwhelmed Marcus (next to collapse the tower) and the zombies caught up to him.

What a way to go.

Immediately after, in what will go down as one of the most ironic deaths I think I’ll see in Dread, Ralph failed to catch himself on the collapsing ventilation system as the Hive Master charged in. After surviving so long and taking out 4 zombies by himself, it was falling from the vent and having Sarah, Ray and Susan (the NPC) land on top of him that was too much. The terrible crunching sound, akin to the tower falling, was all that remained of him. This left only Sarah, Ray and a badly injured Susan to flee for the Unimog – which was so close now! Here, I gave Sarah and Ray a choice of helping Susan to the vehicle (requiring them to pull) or using Rays enhanced strength to carry Sarah while leaving the wounded Susan behind (requiring no pull as the zombies would be distracted eating Susan first).

You can guess which option they picked.

Of course Dread – like many games of its ilk – will self correct for such morally dubious decisions eventually. I asked Ray to pull two blocks to resist the Hive Masters control and the first was easy enough, but then on the second the tower collapsed! Literally at the final possible moment, with freedom only hitting the accelerator and speeding away through the garage away, he turned into a zombie. This meant that Sarah, with her two taxidermy cats in tow, had only to fight off Ray in some way to survive the scenario. Unfortunately though, she failed to do so and the final collapse saw the last of the humans to be eaten! Thus did the scenario end, with the heroes coming so close to at least one of them surviving and yet, so far.

Overall I was immensely satisfied with how this worked out. It was terrific fun and I feel a lot of the problems/issues the first time I ran dread were not present. Most importantly, it was a good test of my flexibility and ability to think of the fly as a GM. The terribly ironic ending of Ralph and the simply brilliant timing of Rays conversion to a zombie were just fantastic. Most of all, my players really enjoyed the game and everyone had a lot of fun, especially as I was running this for one player as a birthday event/present as well!

Next up in Dread

Playing as the janitorial team asked to clean up the USG Ishimura after it was successfully recovered. If you’ve ever played the video game Dead Space, you know where this is going. Going to be a lot of overtime and penalty rates galore, because dear gods that is one big clean up job. I hope someone has a lot of spare mops for this and nobody goes inexplicably mad. Mad enough to start murdering all their companions and claiming that there are monsters everywhere. It’s just an abandoned ship filled with buckets of blood, corpses and weird organic crap growing all the walls after all. It can’t really hurt you.

Can it?

*Naturally it was raining outside.

**I decided to go with the sacrilegious (to some fans of the genre) running zombies type for this. This was because with more mobile running zombies it was easier to attack the players and put them under strain to move easier.

***Honestly, I really have to stop making the Russians consistent villains in my game.