Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Game Translation: ZombiU

ZombiU is a largely first-person survival horror where you play a person who is flagged down by the "prepper" while passing a particular subway station. The "prepper" gets you to perform a multitude of tasks for him as do several others during the course of the game. The game's premises centers on the Black Prophecy written by John Dee over 400 years ago which declared that zombies would overrun London in 2012.

ZombiU is a neat zombie romp where you play a variety of zombie survivors during the campaign. When one character dies, you start playing the next. There's no real difference between them except for appearance, name and a couple details on their ID (namely occupation and age). Having to kill your former zombie character is a neat touch, however, and brings with it the added bonus of being able to grab your old loot. There's also the option to just play a single character to see how far you get. If you die in that option, you have to start over.

It's a good idea in any zombie-based pen and paper campaign that the player characters can die and die regularly. I once ran one where all of the characters were pre-generated and randomly assigned. Some were better than others. Some were entirely useless. Some had epic weapons they couldn't use. Others had great weapons skills and a plank. Yeah, the weapons were randomly assigned as well. The players weren't too attached to the characters so it led to some truly interesting events. More of an idea for a one-shot, however.
For a game with longevity, I'd recommend getting the players to create their own characters and put a bit of thought into those character histories. It doesn't have to be heaps detailed. Just 5 - 8 dot points on personality and history should do. Players should, at all times, have two backup characters as though the average lifespan of a character should be 6 - 8 sessions, there may be the odd session where bad luck or a nasty horde slays two characters in the one session.

One element of the videogame won't translate so well, however, and that's the idea of luring a zombie out of a crowd by touching the edge of their perception *sphere* and then backing away. Unless you break out the miniatures, this isn't going to work. If you do break out the miniatures, it will feel artificial and contrived. In most forms of media, when one zombie sees you, the noises it makes attracts more zombies.

Another difference from the videogame is the fact that players will have greater choices in what their characters do. They may choose to hole up elsewhere, approach an obstacle entirely differently, or bypass it altogether. Let them. Part of the fun of a post-apocalyptic scenario is trying to think up ways to survive. If they manage to keep their characters alive for an entire campaign then good on them. Just don't stack the odds in their favour.

This is a game that exalts in a decidedly British locale.
The goals should also lead from one another. Often enough you can just let the characters exist and simply keep track of their dwindling resources. You (or a player) should take note of just how many bullets, guns, knives, cans of food, and hours worth of fuel they still possess. There's nothing to say you can't skip to the chase and briefly narrate their weeks worth of safety before forcing them back outside. Sure you can interrupt their safety occasionally, as safety in a zombie world is illusory, but do so sparingly and dramatically. You don't want to make all their hard work immediately useless, after all. What would be the point in that?

Also give the player characters a chance to bond, joke, converse and have times when the zombies aren't on screen. A dungeon crawl with zombies can get boring really quickly as zombies all have similar stats. It's not like going from a battle with three orc fighters to a battle with an elfen ranger to a battle with a medusa. Therefore provide plenty of brake pads.

Avoid letting the characters get the kind of armour where the zombies can't get at them ever. Otherwise you're forced to either throw a horde at them (which can damage them through sheer weight) or have them attacked unawares. If they do get some nice armour, reduce the armour benefits so that it doesn't render the individual zombie useless.

Funnily enough one of the easiest ways to roleplay ZombiU would be with the neat little Zombicide boardgame which I played the other day.  It would allow people to use tactics to lure out zombies by dropping noise tokens on its square and could be rigged quite nicely alongside a roleplaying system to allow folks to use cover, concealment and other dice-based attacks as per normal.

Anyway, a campaign based around ZombiU or including elements of it, should appeal to Tacticians and Action Heroes the most.

Tacticians will find the need to use interesting inventory items at all the right times (grenades, mines, flares, and guns) and the ability to lure and manipulate the zombies into all the right place.  This would especially be interesting to them if you used miniatures.

Action Heroes will love the chance to blow stuff up, smash down monsters and enjoy thrilling chase scenes where they flee hordes of zombies.

Explorers would get the most out of it if it were a location they recognised, either one that was famous (which you had researched) or from their own neck of the woods.

Investigators will, of course, need something to discover and investigate during the game.  Luckily zombie games are big on treachery, conspiracies and the occasional tidbit about how everyone else died.

Communicators won't tend to enjoy this sort of game.  Yes, you can create a game about in-group bickering, schisms and group politics but that wouldn't really be a very ZombiU game, now would it?

If you want to check out the trailer, you can find it here. If you want to read up on the TV Tropes you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation (which will be in a fortnight's time), you have a choice of these: Blood Dragon, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Outlast, Vampire: the Masquerade (Bloodlines) or Dishonoured. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll probably be Dishonoured.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.


  1. I'll be pretty interested to see Gears of War when you're ready for that, since I've seen people play it :) It's also a bit different from some of the more survival horror-y games so interested to see what you do with it.

  2. I'm wondering whether a nice way to do a zombie game might not be to take a BRP approach and give different zombie some distinctive skills so you can make them randomly behave differently. Put it down to differences in how the disease affected them, or lingering personality, or whatever. I'm thinking of the "comedy" skills in the Call of Cthulhu NPCs.

    Behaviour skills might include: Lurch in Circles; Stand Motionless; Patrol; Amble Aimlessly; Follow Leader; Seek Movement; Seek Noise. Each zombie has distinctive ways of behaving, making them predictable, but there's a chance of them doing other things too.
    Combat skills might include: Swing Club; Throttle; Only Bite; Thump; Embrace; Wrench; Claw Ineffectually. Some zombies may be far more dangerous than others because of a combination of attack style and physique/state of decay.

    I suspect you probably could get away with introducing a lure-away mechanic, but you'd have to establish it in the game canon. Emphasise the idea of zombies as individual entities that happen to end up in similar places, rather than as hordes. Suggest that zombies mostly ignore each other, so one shuffling off won't necessarily attract another if zombie 2 doesn't spot the same stimulus.

  3. I love the idea of randomising the skills! Then, what you do, is you randomise them further. Put those combat skills on its own set with percentiles against it and another set for Undetected Movement and a third set for Detected Movement. Make a percentile roll to determine just what they do. Move away from the hiding place, towards it, ambling, standing, lurching, scratching.... I like it. It introduces an element of randomness which a person's mind can't ever truly achieve.

    1. Oh, that's a pretty fun idea! You could also have the percentiles modified, instead of a hard division. So Undetected and Detected are a continuous set, and the players' actions increase the tendency for dangerous behaviour while still staying random. Making noise, getting seen, maybe even one zombie seeing another shuffle purposefully off could add to the rolls.

      You could also treat zombie hordes slightly differently, so (for example) a result might have some proportion of the horde amble off and turn into individuals, or the whole lot lurch forward. Players could try to gauge their decoys to lure out just one or two zombies without attracting everything in range, but it's always a gamble... Only thing is I'm not sure this would be compatible with a randomised system where you might want zombies to move towards the loudest noise, or closest non-zombie movement, or source of light.