The revised edition of Fear Itself offers a toolkit approach to building campaigns. Let’s use that toolkit to build that hoary staple of the horror roleplaying genre – a zombie apocalypse. One-shot zombie games tend to be extended exercises combat-and-running (brainless, or braaaaiiins-full fun, so to speak), so let’s tackle the more interesting question of running a multi-session zombie campaign.
The first step is to think about what the players are going to be doing in the average session, and – since this is GUMSHOE – what sort of clues they’ll be looking for. In a zombie apocalypse game, the two key mysteries to be solved are “how do we survive” and “what caused the zombies?”, so we’ll need abilities to give clues related to those two questions.
Next, start with the default Fear Itself ability list, and check each ability to see if it fits a zombie game.
History: Gone – the old world’s been washed away.
Humanities: Overly formal for a post-apocalyptic game. We’ll slot in that perennial GUMSHOE favourite of Architecture in here instead, as buildings and the securing of entrances is key.
Medicine: Definitely staying. In fact, if we’re going with disease-based zombies, let’s add Diagnosis as a separate ability (aka Spot Bite Marks).
Occult Studies: Gone.
Research: Still useful enough to justify its presence.
Social Sciences: The title’s a little formal, so we’ll change it to Sociology – having an ability that covers power structure in groups, ad hoc governments and the like is useful in a game that’s going to be about small, desperate communities.
We’ll also add Military Science to the list, as poking around abandoned military bases and looting civil defense shelters (not to mention securing buildings against hordes of zombies) is definitely going to be a thing.
Bullshit Detector: Stays.
Bureaucracy: Gone with the bureaucrats.
Cop Talk: Gone. No cops anymore.
Flattery, Flirting, Impersonate, Interrogation, Intimidation, Negotiation, Reassurance can all stay.
Streetwise: Can stay.
We’ll add Leadership as an ability, so characters can inspire their allies and awaken the better natures of people they meet.
Computer Use: Let’s rephrase this as Engineering, and have it cover a wider range of technical topics – electrical engineering, security systems, and so on.
Investigative Procedure: Really, this ability should go – there’s no need for forensics in this genre – but it comes up enough in actual play that it’s still useful. While genre emulation is one goal to design towards, it’s not the only one. Still, this one’s on the borderline compared to its importance in regular Fear Itself, so we’ll keep an eye on it in play and see if it’s still worth having as a separate ability.
Notice: Spotting things out of place. Always useful.
Outdoor Survival: Knowledge of natural history; wilderness survival skills. Definitely useful after the end of civilisation.
Photography: Zombie selfies? Zelfies? No, Photography’s gone.
Science: A catch-all for physics, chemistry and related fields. Still useful – doubly so in a post-apocalyptic game, where you’ve got few experts remaining and scientific hyper-specialisation is no longer an issue.
To this list we’ll add Scavenging, covering the ability to spot and retrieve useful treasures from the zombie-infested cities and shopping malls. It’ll partner with Preparedness in the same way Medicine partners with First Aid.
All the regular Fear Itself General Abilities suit a zombie apocalypse game. The one we’ll tweak is Shrink – we’ll downplay the psychological treatment aspect and make it more about inspiration and defiance, and we’ll call it Hope. That means you can have a grizzled survivor who doesn’t flinch in the face of zombie attacks (high Stability) but doesn’t give a damn about you or anyone else (low Hope), or a kid who’s terrified of zombies (low Stability) but inspires you to get yourself together to protect them (spends Hope to bolster your Stability).
So, the final ability list:
Architecture: Knowledge of building layouts, designs, construction and urban survival.
Humanities: Philosophy, theology, archaeology. A solid Classical education.
Medicine: Covers anatomy, pharmacy, biology and so forth.
Military Science: Knowledge of military tactics and equipment
Languages: You don’t need to pick the Languages you know in advance; you can retroactively choose to know some obscure language if needed.
Research: Digging up information in a library or online.
Sociology: Knowledge of beliefs, power structures and factions.
Trivia: A random assortment of obscure facts that might come in oddly useful.
Bullshit Detector: Knowing when someone is lying.
Flattery: Getting clues by charming people.
Flirting: Obtaining clues by seducing people.
Impersonate: Pretending to be someone else.
Interrogation: Getting information from someone in a semi-formal debriefing or interview.
Intimidation: Forcing someone to tell you what you want to hear.
Leadership: Taking charge in a situation, co-ordinating effort.
Negotiation: Making deals and trading for information.
Reassurance: Calming people down, coming across as trustworthy and kind to someone suffering from trauma.
Streetwise: Dealing with criminals and the downtrodden.
Engineering: Building and maintaining complex mechanical or electrical systems
Investigative Procedure*: Forensic investigation.
Notice: Spotting things out of place.
Outdoor Survival: Knowledge of natural history; wilderness survival skills.
Scavenging: Finding useful items in the ruins
Science: A catch-all for physics, chemistry and related fields.
Athletics: Running, climbing, acrobatics, dodging. Having Athletics 8+ makes it harder for bad guys to hit you.
Driving: Operating a vehicle.
Filch: Sleight of hand and pick-pocketing.
Fleeing: Running away.
Health: Your physical resilience and fortitude.
Hope: Your belief (or the belief you inspire in others) that this isn’t the end. Restores Stability.
Hiding: Concealing yourself from enemies.
Infiltration: Sneaking, hiding, opening locks.
Mechanics: Repairing or building devices.
Medic: First aid (restores Health)
Preparedness: Having equipment to hand.
Scuffling*: Fighting at close range.
Sense Trouble: Spotting danger before it strikes.
Shooting*: Using a firearm.
Stability: Your mental resilience and sanity.
The Infection Map
One of the suggested group setups in Fear Itself 2 is the Spiral of Misery, where each player character is linked to another, so one by one they’re all dragged into the horror. The tightly bound spiral works in a setting where the ‘normal’ world is still out there – the aim is to isolate the player characters, pulling them out of their ordinary lives and support networks. Here, we’ve the opposite problem – we’re going to destroy the normal world, so we want to give the players something to salvage.
So, as part of campaign setup, we get a big sheet of paper and write the names of the player characters on it. Each player comes up with two or three NPCs who are close to their character – close friends and family members – who get added to the map. Call these NPCs Loved Ones. Next, we add another NPC for each loved one, more or less – call these ones Civilians. These are people who aren’t necessarily important to the player characters, but are close to their Loved Ones. Two or more Loved Ones can share the same Civilian (for example, if two PCs have kids as Loved Ones, they might have the same school teacher).
Draw any other connections on the map that suggest themselves – maybe two Civilians are married, or work in the same place, or are connected to a player character. At the end of the process, you should have a nice spider-web of relationships tracing the social structure of the community that’s about to get overrun by zombies.
Next, add zombies.
The Infection Begins
The GM picks any one Civilian and turns that Civilian into a zombie. The players then take it in turns to pick any Civilian, Loved One or Player Character connected to a zombie to be the target of the next attack (alternatively, the player can choose to Bug Out – see below). Roll a d6 when a Zombie attacks a Loved One or Civilian.
1-2: The target survives and escapes, and is now Safe.
3: The target’s injured in some way – maybe bitten, maybe hurt, or maybe they’ve left something important behind (life-saving medication, for example). They’re Safe – for the moment.
4+: The target’s killed and becomes a zombie.
If a zombie attacks a player character, then run a brief vignette where the player character escapes the zombie horde that’s overrunning the town.
If, by good fortune, there aren’t any valid targets for the zombies (there’s no-one who isn’t Safe or already a zombie for them to chew on), then each player may make one Loved One automatically Safe, and then the GM picks another Civilian to get zombified in a different part of the relationship map.
At any point, a player can choose to Bug Out and flee town. The player character escapes, along with any Safe characters (Civilians or Loved Ones) connected to them. Any Loved Ones they leave behind that aren’t already Safe or zombified are considered Missing – they’re removed from the relationship map, but aren’t necessarily dead. Finding out their fates is a mystery to be solved in actual play.
Once all the player characters have Bugged Out, the game itself begins.
Player characters lose 4 Stability for each Loved One turned into a zombie, and 2 Stability for each Missing Loved One. They gain 2 Stability for each Safe Loved One.
Redraw the relationship map, removing any zombies or missing characters. What you’re left with is a tattered group of survivors who look to the player characters for protection…