Among several quick-play games or play-materials we brought to Närcon, I made sure to include Zombie Cinema. Different people find different games to ideal for introducing play, and for me, this is among my top three.
It uses a board, but you don’t play on it in an ordinary board game sense. It’s a content-device. When the turn marker comes to you, you examine the boxes which currently hold pawns and those, and those alone, are the specifications for your framing and ongoing input during this turn. Depending on how spread out pawns become, sometimes it’s as few as two (as at the start), or sometimes you’re reading four or five.
Significantly, during one of these sessions, someone internalized it out loud by saying “Ohh, so we’re not trying [to compete to] to win by getting off the board,” in a very positive and excited way. The “Escape” position is merely one way for a character to leave play, among others. I also saw it in both sessions during the first turn, when everyone collectively realized that conflicts were run only between characters, not against the zombies, and grinned at one another around the table. [For clarity, after a player-character has left play in any way, conflicts against the zombies are sometimes possible.]
At this late date, I’m mildly miffed that this game and Cold Soldier have to be about zombies especially since they work so well exactly with this content. For one thing, the topic has been diluted by so much re-treading since the late 2000s, and for another, I’d like to be able to introduce role-playing with a wider range of content for options. I also use my preferred application of The Pool and a few other things, but I do wish for more systems as specific and dynamic as these which happen to be about something else … [the recent Tales of the Round Table may qualify, although I’m not used to it yet].
The first game was set right “here and now” at the convention itself, which I’m sure you’ll recognize as a common choice for zombie or murder convention play. Obviously, we had handy maps and personal familiarity with many of the spaces, so play was always well-oriented in spatial terms. Here are the notes I took about the characters as we created them. I know my handwriting is awful; it’s not so important for you to learn the content as to recognize this as a technique at the table.
So you at least know what you’re looking at, if not actually to read it easily, the characters are created by drawing cards: one green, one yellow, and one red. For example, this was the result which became Anna, interpreting the cards to “housewife with three kids, antivax [plus related topics], first time out in a long time and unfamiliar with the convention.”
In this game, not surprisingly given our setting, the thematic tag or underpinning for the zombies was cosplaying, which was both a bit funny and legitimately creepy. Having both a naive paramedic and a shut-in antivaxer – each with family present – was obviously slated for conflict from the beginning and also put a little teeth into the familiar trope of “zombie virus,” especially since the Cause o’Zombies wasn’t ever established for sure.
The big point, though, and it applies for the second game too, is that we made a nice collective effort regarding the mandated content “Zombies exhibit deeper purpose,” when it appeared. In this case it included – through different people’s input and development of one another’s – a gathering at the Zen Garden (an actual place nearby), some kind of dreadful realm-ripping-open portal, and an actual Zombie King, with particularly unfortunate cosplay. It never received a real explanation but it didn’t have to, winning on visuals alone.
The second game, played with entirely different people except for me, was set on the ferry operating among Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, as suggested by one of the participants. I have also been on that ferry so we were able to operate as “living maps” for everyone else. As you can see from the lead image, these are very big ships which include several garage decks for hundreds of vehicles, rather than the small and pragmatic concept of a ferry.
In this game, we tended less toward creepy and more toward splatter, as someone enthusiastically mentioned about halfway through, including some notable combat. It also featured a rapid-fire kill-off for all but one player-character (Ichi), who had a chance to stop the whole thing in a conflict with the zombies at the end, but failed in the final roll. Therefore, unlike the first game in which the zombies’ (mysterious) portal-opening goal failed as well as all the characters dying, in this one, the story ends with the zombie-controlled ferry easing gently into dock at Rostock … for what nefarious end, we do not know.
Again, as with the first game, the “Zombies exhibit deeper purpose” was honored as a situational component with more bite toward/at the end than one might have anticipated.
Here’s a critical system point, well worth noting and applying elsewhere, which arose via rules/role clarification in both games: the turn holder (cough*GM of the moment) has to name a location and state which player-characters are present. They do not have to account for the player-characters who are absent, effectively freeing them up for someone else to consider later. I hadn’t really noticed before how important this was, both in terms of relaxing expectations for anyone to know everything about all the player-characters while GMing, and I think it can be applied well in games where one person holds the scene-framing job throughout.
Finally: these sessions and others with some prepared systems were played very much as follow-up and fun-activity for the workshops that I conducted at the convention, and as explicit invitation to see what Adept Play is about. I’m not very good at recruitment and members-oriented promotion, partly due to my social and ethical ambiguity about it, and this seemed like the most honest and least greasy way. It’s a work in progress.