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A Game of Zombies and Trucks

I've been having trouble finding enough people interested in my sci-fi game to playtest it, but a combination of my regular D&D game being on hiatus and some friends expressing interest in a zombie game, led to my being able to take another project of mine, Zombies & Trucks, out for a spin. Here's what happened.

So the setting for the game is somewhat tongue-in-cheek: the zombie plague known as the Seattle Freeze reached pandemic levels and infected much of the world. The illness begins by making people emotionally cold and distant, and as their skin turns bluish they develop more and more of a "cold rage" until they're full-blown zombies, or "freezers". There is no cure, but as long as the infected person keeps drinking coffee they can stay the progression of the disease. If you know Seattle, you'll get the inside joke!

Civilization has degenerated to the point where people live in independent enclaves, and trucks ship needed commodities (especially coffee and food) between them in exchange for weapons, ammunition, medicine, and other goods. Some of the big corporations have survived, including a certain famous shipping company that I won't mention by name because I don't want to get Ron in trouble. Let's call it "Nile Transport". Anyway "Nile" and a few other companies have fleets of trucks that attempt to monopolize shipping, and are happy to attack each other's (any competing rig, really) vehicles and take their stuff. So, a kind of "Car Wars plus zombies" situation. The players have their own truck, independent of any of the big Corporations.

So I was a bit pressed for time and didn't do a lot of prep. What I had in mind as inspiration was that the players were running low on supplies, and I made a few notes on locations and dangers in the area: one farming enclave in the countryside was low on food because the heat (global warming still a thing) was damaging their crops; another enclave of a fortified gas station with an extremely strict, militant leader; and a couple of enclaves within Seattle, including a right-wing religious one, a hippie commune, and a biotech haven. In addition, I had the idea that Ama - ahem, I mean "Nile" - was shipping some kind of important cargo to and from one of the biotech enclaves in Seattle. However, they treated their employees so badly the truckers became increasingly desperate, out to get whatever they could from any possible target. If the players ventured out on a highway, they would encounter one of these trucks. I only had a vague idea what the cargo was, figuring it's some sort of experimental vaccine or other drug. I did have in mind that the biotech folks would secretly be doing some kind of evil experimentation back in their labs. That's basically it.

The game began with the PCs lamenting their lack of supplies. They headed for the nearby farm, figuring they could then make a run to the gas station or one of the Seattle enclaves for fuel and ammo. The farmers stopped them at the fence, saying they couldn't trade because they needed all the food they had. I wondered how the players would react - attack, give up or something else? The PCs proceeded to negotiate, in the end succeeding with some good rolls and getting a few units of food, in exchange for some fuel and some repair work on farming equipment.

After some discussion, the players decided they needed to risk the highway to get to the fortified gas station. Once they got on, they quickly noticed a Nile Transport truck accelerating towards them. The players didn't even think of negotiating here - one PC got on the roof to operate their mounted gun, opening fire on the Nile truck, while the PC driver tried to maneuver their truck between stalled vehicles on the highway, and the other PC leaned out the passenger window, shooting when he could.

A brief word on the mechanics: I wanted a simple system that would still have some "color" to it; in other words, rather than hit points (which seem to me a rough measure of how many successful rolls are needed to overcome a challenge), which work but are completely abstract, I wanted something more like "you take a hit to the leg", where that has an influence on subsequent rolls. I also wanted high rolls to be good, and no modifiers or the like. So what I came up with was a d6 roll where you roll above your stat, and failed rolls in certain circumstances (like combat) cause your stat to increase, and you note down what the wound is. When the wound is relevant to the action, you get a penalty to your roll. The stats I came up with were Wounds, Shudder, and (because every good zombie story is about the humans - do they stay human, or become monsters as bad or worse than the zombies?) Inhumanity. I wondered whether the harsh-sounding stats, and the fact that lower stats were better, would be difficult or confusing for people.

Anyway the Nile truck returned fire and tried to ram the PCs. The PC driver had a good roll so they slipped out of the way, but the shooter rolled badly and got shot in the shoulder. After a couple of good rolls the PCs shot out the windshield of the Nile truck and rammed them into one of the highway wrecks. They stopped their truck and got out, wanting to loot whatever goods the Nile people had. The Nile driver and shooter in the shotgun seat were dead, but they heard someone moving around the main cabin. Two of the PCs start to enter the cabin area from the front, while the third stands guard outside.

The two PCs exchange fire with the Nile employee inside, then manage to convince him to give up; they promise not to kill him and to let him go with some provisions. Then they take a look at the cargo. Now because of my failure to prep much, I didn't have a clear idea what the cargo was, and was about to say something about an experimental vaccine or something such. But immediately a picture popped into my head of kids in cages, and that's what I blurted out.

One of the PCs, A., became outraged and said he shoots the Nile guy; however as soon as he says it, S., the other PC in the truck, tries to stop him. I rule that it's an opposed roll, and S. wins, knocking the gun out of A.'s hand. "We need him alive," S. insists, "so that he can tell us what's going on here, and how we can help these kids." A. just wants to kill the guy, saying that these kids aren't their problem.

Now, A.'s Inhumanity is 3 (out of a maximum of 6; if a PC's Inhumanity reaches 6, they become an NPC, as in Sorcerer), and S.'s is 2. So it makes sense that S. cares more about the kids than A. But A.'s not caring about the children at all (other than just wanting to kill the Nile fellow as punishment) struck me as a bit extreme, something you wouldn't expect to see until Inhumanity reached 5 or so - maybe not even until 6. I didn't say anything to the player, because I didn't see it as my role to police how he plays. But I wonder whether including something like a "scale of Inhumanity" with examples for each level might be helpful to include for players. If you know of a game that does this kind of thing (especially if it's in a way you like), please let me know in the comments - also if you have any other insights on players not playing like "they're supposed to".

The Nile employee pleads with them, telling them how Nile Transport treats them like slaves, giving them impossible schedules and not even paying them enough to survive. They have to raid other trucks and settlements or they'd starve, he says.

The PCs are not impressed, but let him leave with his life in exchange for information. He tells  them the kids are being experimented on in a building in South Lake Union; the place is full of labs and has multiple armed guards, but is also filled with loot - medicine, an armory with weapons and ammo, food, and some fuel. Nile guy thinks they might be able to sneak in through the roof.

The PCs take to the road again, braving the zombie-laden streets of Seattle to get to the target building. First, though, they stop at one of the hippie-type communes and negotiate with them, and after some good rolls convince them to take the kids in.

Next they pull up near the target location and surveille it. At this point, I'm pretty much out of prep: I have a few notes on what's in the building, and that there are guards, but that's it. I quickly think to myself, what makes sense to be in here and around here? On the street, there should be a number of zombies: the noise of vehicle deliveries would draw them. The guards watch the entrances, have some sort of shift change and a schedule of walking around inside the building. I already have that the structure has two floors, so I figure the medical technicians and cages will be on the second floor. The informant mentioned something about the roof, so I  note down a roof access. I tell the players what they see, which is the freezers walking around outside, and some guards inside the main entrance.

The players discuss how they want to break in. A. wants to use the truck's main guns to shoot up the front door and then come crashing in with the truck. S. and W. are concerned that will alert the entire building, and argue for a stealthier approach. A. is eventually convinced (no rolls here, just in-character discussion), and they quietly exit the truck, keeping out of sight of the zombies. A. goes first, carrying a rope and grappling hook.

I have him roll basically a stealth check; A. passes and reaches the rear of the building. He then successfully throws the grappling hook up to the roof without alerting anyone. A. climbs up the rope and makes it to the roof. S. makes their stealth roll, and starts climbing. W. fails their roll spectacularly, so I say he stumbles and falls, his gun clattering to the ground; a freezer hears, and starts sprinting towards him, howling. W. gets to his feet and runs for the rope, but isn't fast enough and the zombie grabs him, throwing him to the ground. They struggle and W.'s player once again rolls poorly, so gets bit. His Wounds increase and he has to drink coffee within seconds or become infected. W. tries to hold the freezer at bay while going for his thermos, but it's not going well. Fortunately for him, S. slides down and smashes the zombie's head in with a machete.

Unfortunately for them, the commotion has attracted more freezers. W. downs some coffee while they make for the rope. S. climbs up, and W. starts to but a freezer grabs him by the ankle and starts pulling him down. He tries to get free but can't (the player is having a comically bad run of luck with his rolls, we're all laughing out loud with him about it at this point). A. reaches down and starts pulling him up, and together they manage to get him to the roof.

The roof access I came up with was basically a ventilation shaft, so the group enters the building through it. They come to an intersection where they see a few rooms through the vent grills: one with cages, another with weapons, and another with boxes of dried food. In the lab, they see a child being put onto a table, with a number of IV tubes and so on lined up alongside.  Without waiting for discussion, S. makes for that room.

S. kicks the grill in and jumps into the room. The medtech attending to the boy turns around, but she rushes in and cold-cocks him, taking him out. The rest of the group comes in afterwards. A. is annoyed that there's no obvious loot in the room, just cages with kids and various medical paraphernalia. A teenage girl from one of the cages calls out, asking for help. They approach and are alarmed by her appearance: she looks exactly like a freezer, a blue taint to her skin and blue veins standing out in her face. But freezers have only a rudimentary form of intelligence and cannot speak or otherwise use language; this girl clearly can. She tells them that the children have been kept here and experimented on. She pleads with the PCs to let her go; all she wants to do is save the other kids, which she'll do herself, and won't ask anything more of them.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time for the session there. The teenage girl I only created at the last moment, not having prepped her in advance.

I realize that Ron has some strict rules for talking about games still in development, which this one is, but if you have any experience with other games that have similar rules I'll appreciate hearing what you liked about them, or what problems you had with them. I also will be grateful for any comments about other aspects of play, as I mentioned above, and about the GMing: what are the pitfalls of "impromptu" GMing, and any other areas that could use improvement or that were good. Or whatever caught your interest!

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Simon Pettersson's picture

Sounds like a fun session! Reminds me of Gregor Hutton's classic Big Mutherfuckin’ Crab Truckers, though I doubt there's anything to gain from there!

"Games with similar mechanics" is a hard topic to comment on, as the mechanics you've stated are very minimalist and simple. "The pitfalls of impromptu GMing" is a topic I have opinions on, however! In essence, the thing to watch out for, in my opinion, is Gromit railroading, where you're not railroading by keeping the game to a prelaid track, but rather just laying a new piece of track every time the players finish one. I tend to revert to this whenever I GM Lasers & Feelings, if I'm not careful. The heroes see a mayday signal. They try to triangulate it! Ok, I make up a space station. They go there. I invent some hostile ships around it. They decide to sneak inside using their cloaking device. I invent patrolling guards inside the station. They try to find out where the signal came from, etc. I'm not railroading in the traditional sense, since I don't force the players onto a track, but in essence it's the same thing, since I'm not letting them take any meaningful decisions. I just make up a new place for them once they finish with the current one. There's no constraint and no agency.

This is not the only way to do impromptu GMing, though! You don't have to play it this way, it's just that you can fall into it without realizing it. The way to avoid it is to:

  1. Give the players meaningful choices.
  2. Make their choices meaningful.

They are basically the same thing, but the first one is presenting them with a situation where they have to make a choice that really matters. Like in your case with the kids in cages. What are they going to do? That's an important choice. The second is to make sure that the choices they make, both the ones you presented as meaningful and the ones thay make naturally, all the time, really have an impact. They decided to save those kids, let that be important. Let that have real and meaningful consequences that can be clearly traced to them deciding to save those kids. You don't need to prep these things for them to be meaningful, in my opinion. You can absolutely do it on the fly, but you have to really respect the things the players say and treat those things as constraint. Like Ron says, "it fucking well stands". Some of the consequences will be clear when they make the choice, some won't be. It's fine if those other consequences aren't set when they make the choice. But when they happen, they need to be reasonable and take all the things that happened before as a constraint.

One thing I like to do is to try to identify what I like to call the "sore spot" of each character. Or, in Primetime Adventures terminology, their Issue. What's this character about? Then poke at that sore spot and see what they do. Like the charcter who's playing pretty selfish here. "Those kids aren't our problem." Ok! You can do a lot with this stuff. Maybe let him meet someone from his past who remembers him from a better time. Maybe introduce someone who's a step further in the "don't care" direction and see how they interact. Maybe one of the kids heard him say that and in a later scene confronts him with it, calling him a callous bastard. Or talks to one of the others about it. Introducing another scene where the "don't care" stance is even harsher, this time with him alone having to take the decision. Etc. Seeing what the character is "about" and prodding it, giving open-ended situations and then making sure the results of those situations carry consequences, that's the way I like to do it.

Of course, I tend to do that when I'm a player, too. You don't have to be (or have) a GM for that kind of interaction.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Simon! I like the way you laid all that out, I really appreciate it. Yes, I was thinking the big thing to be concerned about is falling into intuitive continuity/railroading. Your prescription on how to avoid it is good too, although I wonder if we can say more about what makes something meaningful.

So if we look at your L&F example, there was no meaningful choice because there was basically no choice at all, at least at first; there was a space station there, and nothing else to do but to go there. But suppose you had provided a bit more, say an asteroid on an unusual course; they could now choose to investigate either the asteroid or space station. Does that make it a meaningful choice? Not necessarily, right? One way it could fail is if they’d face the same situation (say, the hostile ships) regardless of whether they chose to go to the space station or the asteroid (IC at play). But even if it’s not railroading, it seems to me the choice still might not mean much. Why? I’m not sure. Is it because of the impact on the characters?

Let’s suppose the choice was to check out the space station, which is being besieged by hostile ships, or a populated asteroid, where the inhabitants are dying of a plague and also need help. That’s a dilemma, because if you help one group the other one may suffer. I suppose you could say that’s meaningful, because the consequences in the fiction will be quite different depending on what the players choose.

You can make the dilemma more acute by adding connections to the PCs - maybe a relative of one is on the space station, and another has a sworn oath to protect the asteroid creatures, etc. That seems like it becomes more meaningful…

Anyway I’m probably overthinking it, but any thoughts on meaningful choice and how to set it up appreciated.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Yes, that's an interesting question. I think choices can be meaningful in different ways, and depending on the game, the playstyle and the preferences of the players, some of these are going to be more meaningful than others.

  1. A choice can be tactically meaningful. If I use a Mighty Strike I might be able to take the orc down in one attack, but if I only use a normal attack, I'll save the Mighty Strike for the troll, where we might really need it.
  2. A choice can be aesthetically meaningful. If I stop the wedding by jumping through the window or if I sneak in with a disguise and stand up at the "speak now or forever hold your peace" part, that's going to have the same effect, but it will look really different.
  3. A choice can be thematically meaningful. Should I accept the crown and my destiny, or should I flee to preserve my freedom?
  4. A choice can be meaningful because it affects the path of the story, even if it's not thematically relevant. Should we escape into the forest and become outlaws, or should we flee to the next kingdom and seek asylum?

There are probably more categories. Additionally, I think an important part of making a choice meaningful is that it is evident that it will have consequences and that some of these consequences will be clear at the time of making the choice. If I present you with a crossroads in the dungeon and tell you to choose left or right, that's not very meaningful, because you have no idea of the consequences. If there are ancient runes on the walls of both paths, but those on the left have been demolished and overwritten with goblin writing, it's looking a bit more meaningful, because you have some inkling of what to expect. You don't know everything, but you do know something, and you can try to find out more by, for example, trying to interpret the ancient or goblin writing.

Also, of course, the choices don't have to be binary. An open-ended situation is of course even better, like your "kids in cages" thing.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Excellent breakdown, Simon! Those distinctions and descriptions are really useful, thank you.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here’s a principle to consider: whether a metric indicates what has happened or serves as a determinant for what can happen next. By “determinant” I mean a constraint with very little range.

In the original Cyberpunk game, the score for Empathy was both. It was decreased by gaining cybertech, and its current value dictated what the character can and cannot feel or process.  Similarly, in the original Vampire: the Masquerade, the score for Humanity was also both; if I recall correctly, it was decreased by cruel or frenzied behavior, and its lower values also made such behavior likely or even obligatory.

Whereas in Sorcerer, Humanity only indicates what has happened, and does not affect the range of a character’s behavior at any point. In this case it is an indicator but it is not a determinant.

Finally, in games such as Champions or GURPS, the interplay among Psychological Disadvantages, each of which at some degree and category, results in a specific profile regarding what the character can or can’t do, and whether they involuntarily react to something. In this case, the metric does not change based on what has happened in an automatic way, so it’s not an indicator, but only a determinant.

I suggest thinking about these as two different things, and considering whether you want A, B, or A+B.

Dreamofpeace's picture

This is a very useful distinction, thanks Ron! I had just assumed they went together. Upon reflection, I'm thinking it might be easiest - and more fun - if I use the stats as indicators, and use another mechanism for determinants. Another iteration commences! 

Simon Pettersson's picture

Another thing I realized. If you are wounded, you get +1 to Wounded AND you get a wound that will give you a penalty when relevant? That sounds pretty harsh, especially on such a coarse 1-6 scale.

Dreamofpeace's picture

It may sound like it, but you're usually rolling plenty of dice and the penalty is just to discard the highest one; and wounds can be healed. In play it's been fine so far, in fact I think I'm making my usual error of being "too nice", believe it or not :)

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