Sunday, March 30, 2008

Zombie: The Brain Eatening

This weekend was my old college's Gaming Weekend. Whenever I'm fairly nearby, I always try to run a game or two. Plus, it's a great opportunity to hang out with people who haven't seen you in long enough that they've forgotten how irritating you are.

The big game I ran this year was Zombie: The Brain Eatening. A farcical take on Vampire: The Masquerade, it was a "horde LARP". What this means is that there were five zombies and a large number of people playing walk-on roles as various humans. And, of course, getting eaten by zombies.

The zombies all had clans, like vampires do, and they all had "undisciplines" such as arrrrghiturgy and midbossamalism and amateurian. Potence made you smell really bad, and presents let you put special items down as rewards for quests... instead of spending blood points, you spend brains. And, of course, dying is strictly temporary.

The zombies had their own variant of the Masquerade called the Disco. If a zombie acted unzombielike (or really powerful), the hordelings could shout "DISCO!" and run for it. If they survived, they could respawn as hunters - more powerful, more dangerous, more useful characters. Also, the zombies could dance for health and brains, so it's one of the few games where choreographed team dancing was a major component of the game...

The game was testing a few limits. Every game I run tests aspects of gaming I want to know more about, and this one had a few things I wanted to test.

It went well enough. The room was too small, which was actually a huge problem that totally screwed up one element I was testing: I built it so that the hordelings (the human walk-ons) were supposed to run around pretending to be in a movie, but with a small room they didn't really have enough space to improv properly.

The next test would have involved more complex management of this kind of unguided improv, but the data are dirty because of the small room. I don't know whether I want to do the more advanced test without knowing more about the more limited situations.

The other bits came away clean, though.

One bit was inspired by the fact that I never have enough GMs. I always underestimate how many GMs I need. This game, I made all the zombies GMs:

The zombies were trying to save the world from the six forces trying to make it uninhabitable for zombie-kind. However, to do this they needed to guide the humans into saving the world. Therefore, the zombies were all about putting down quests and trying to finagle the humans into being willing and able to do them.

However, the humans were also the power source of the zombies - they needed brains to do these things, which meant they had to eat humans... and, of course, hunters had more skills to win quests with, but were also significantly more dangerous to zombies...

So, in essence, the zombies were those stereotypical 12-year-old GMs who need you to get through the plot line, but also just want to torture you and kill you a lot.

It worked out pretty well, although it was just a test, so the questing dynamics were a bit oversimplified.

I also wanted to see how much nonverbal communication could be brought to the fore. Although zombies were perfectly capable of talking, if anyone heard them talking, they would call "DISCO!" and turn into a hunter. Almost all of the interactions - combat, special abilities - were done through a limited number of hand gestures. Whole combat sequences could be run without needing any kind of spoken word at all.

This worked out fairly well, but my instructions were muddy at times, so there was more OOC communication than I would have liked. The zombies did develop a nice, subtle method of communicating with both each other and humans (without being clear enough to call Disco).

Also, I wanted the zombies to dance, because I wanted to see how comfortable players were with doing physically dumb stuff in teams. Normally, if you give someone the ability to dance in a game, they'll under-utilize it. Even if they're not the shy sort, dancing is too aggressively outside the normal actions in the LARP. So, I moved normal: I figured, if everyone's dancing, nobody will have any problems with joining in.

This worked absolutely spectacularly: many zombies who probably wouldn't have ever danced on their own were perfectly happy dancing in a team, to the point where they choreographed it. While in the first hour or two attendance was spotty, by halfway through the game zombies would rush over to any dancing zombie to join in and reap the rewards of acting like a silly person.

Actually, it worked really well, because even the humans - who gained no benefit from dancing - would break into dance as well.

The last thing I really wanted to test was the idea of a game that couldn't be LOST. It was physically impossible to lose the game, which makes it almost unique among LARPs. I wanted to see whether or not this significantly affected the way people played the game.

The answer is: no, it doesn't. So long as people have a goal, they'll play to achieve that goal even if there is no force acting against them and no time limit. Which is good to know.

A lot of emergent behavior I had hoped to see came out perfectly clear. For example, although an innocent (normal hordeling) calls Disco when he sees a zombie being weird or uber, once he's a hunter (super hordeling) he can't do that any more. Which gives the zombies no real reason to be careful around him. Over the course of the game, zombies became more cavalier about breaking Disco in front of hunters.

Also, something I had thought might be necessary but wasn't sure: the zombies would purposefully break Disco at endgame to turn innocents into hunters. The greater skills the hunters had were required to achieve the better quests, so one of the zombies would perform a "moster hug" - sprint up to a group of players, trump their combat (waaay overpower for a zombie), and then pat them on the head and run away.

I had allowed for a mechanic where humans could get stronger by searching for equipment. This very simple system would allow humans, if not being eaten by zombies, to power up and power up and power up. The zombies quickly learned that if they were over in a corner trying to figure out what to do, the humans were probably all over in another corner getting power armor, rocket launchers, and bandoliers of grenades.

Anyway, the game accomplished what I wanted it to. I'll have to run the improv test again (probably in a different game), but the others told me a lot. I count it as a success!


Olick said...

This is the best thing I've seen or read all week. And last week, since Sunday is technically the only day in this week so far.

I have some questions: Did Dancing break Disco (Methinks no. Everyone knows zombies sometimes dance, haven't you seen Thriller?) And how do zombies interact with humans in any way that isn't "zombies! kill them" or "zombies! run!" in order to set up quests?

Craig Perko said...

Quoting the rule book:

Dancing is not breaking Disco. Zombies are allowed to dance. It's their one true pleasure in unlife.

As to communication, Zombies set up quests by putting down cones of paper. These cones were quest markers.

So the zombies didn't have to tell the humans anything...

Although, near the end of the game, the zombies did resort to gesturing and grunting at hunters if people were being sluggish about things.

Patrick said...

"So long as people have a goal, they'll play to achieve that goal even if there is no force acting against them and no time limit."

That is good to know, I had suspected such, though in some games you do benefit from constraining goal-seeking with an opposing loss condition, it isn't ubiquitous.

I had a zombie dream last night where all the zombies could still talk and it was like a political revolution, turning everyone into zombies, like in American Zombie. If you can find that film online, I highly recommend it.

PJammaGod said...

You have no idea howbadly I want a copy of your Zombie :The Brain Eatening rules right now.

If it's not too much to ask would it be possible for you to publish a .pdf or the like for other people to look up (and giggle madly)?

And like olick said, this is probably the best thing I've read all week

Craig Perko said...

My host went down, and I haven't gotten a new one yet. Send me an email at, and I'll mail you the PDFs.