When I was younger, I used to love nothing more than staying up all night in the cathode ray glow of the television with a bottle of caffeinated beverage by my side, watching such late night fare as Incredible Hulk reruns, badly dubbed kung fu flicks, and rubber suited monster movies. They were hardly Shakespeare, but I’ve found inspiration for writing and gaming in even the darkest dregs of cable television (not everything is redeemable – Charles in Charge comes to mind).
Now that I’m older and (slightly) more responsible, my DVR stays up all night for me, recording a smorgasbord of visual junk food. In this series, I boil that junk down and extract the interesting bits – campaign ideas, adventure locales, encounter set pieces, and of course, monsters.
Spoiler Alert! Yes, spoilers are going to abound. When dissecting a movie or television show to find the hidden awesomeness, you’re bound to reveal things about the plot.
I am a big fan of Deadliest Warrior. Each episode they use a computer simulation to pit two of history’s greatest warriors against one another, collecting data about weapons, armour and fighting techniques along the way. Yes it’s cheesy, it’s arbitrary and the Americans always win (which is even easier to ensure this season, with the addition of highly subjective ‘x-factors’ to the criteria), but I am a sucker for any show with gratuitous slow motion shots of pig carcasses and ballistics gel torsos being hacked to pieces (I also love Mythbusters). Plus, the trash talk between experts is hilarious.
From a gamer’s perspective, it’s a little like watching Gygax’s fetish for arms and armour come to life, albeit with a few less pole arms. After spending years with some of these weapons on paper, it’s nice to see them in action. Of course, if you’re reading this blog, the odds are you’ve already seen the show. There’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram describing people who are gamers and people who wonder if a ninja would win in a fight with a pirate. And if you haven’t seen the show yet, it’s definitely worth checking out for that alone – but I want to talk about the finale.
Vampires vs. Zombies
Now, normally the show deals with real historical figures and martial traditions, but for the season three finale the producers decided to take a sidestep into folklore and pit two iconic undead monsters against one another (depicted here in a mash-up of Clyde Caldwell’s cover of Ravenloft and Jeff Easley’s cover for The Magister). To give their professional opinion and help with the testing, Steve Niles (author of 30 Days of Night, representing the vampires), and Max Brooks (author of World War Z, representing the zombies) were brought in as experts. As would be expected, both by the type of tests they run on the show, and by the version of the undead presented in both Niles and Brooks’ work, the show assumed biological versions of vampires and zombies instead of supernatural ones (so no flying or transmutation for the vamps, and no magically animated body parts attacking on their own for the zombies).
The episode was a lot of fun, and even more gruesome than usual. I heartily approve of using dog and crocodile bites as analogs for the impact of zombie and vampire bites. Once the data was collected, Deadliest Warrior moved on to the real highlight – a hydraulically powered biting machine they used to chew apart a couple of ballistics gel torsos made up to look like a vampire and a zombie to measure the damage the monsters could inflict on one another. The vampire stand-in even had a pumping jugular so they could time how long it would take the creature to bleed out if a zombie got a lucky hit (like I said, they went for the more biological version of the vampire – so they needed blood to survive). I also have to congratulate Max Brooks for taking the smack talk to a whole different level. I easily could have watched a half hour of him bad mouthing vampires and it still would have been entertaining (but then I would have missed out on the biting machine, which would have been a crime).
Not surprisingly, even with the advantage of overwhelming numbers on their side, the zombies lost. Which, as big a fan of zombies as I am, is at it should be. Zombies are mindless, and really only have one strategy, while vampires are at least as smart as mortal humans. They also had the vampires fighting with their teeth and claws, when they could have easily used any of the human weapons featured on the show from the past three seasons. Zombie movies are great, and I think they make a better metaphor for our consumer capitalist society than vampires do, but in an actual fight – vampires win. But really, why would vampires and zombies fight at all? Wouldn’t vampires simply avoid an approaching zombie horde since they don’t have anything to gain by destroying them?
My partner and I usually like to bet on Deadliest Warrior, and in our ‘post-game’ debate these questions came up, which got me thinking (yes we will argue with each other about anything, which should be obvious by how seriously I am taking such a ridiculous show). In combat it’s true that vampires would mop the floor with zombies (as the dramatized portion of the show demonstrated), but when two predators compete with one another in an environment, that’s rarely the factor that determines survival. If it were, the world would be swarming with smilodons and megalodons. Predators compete with one another by stealing the other’s food source.
The problem for vampires is this: both vampires and zombies have the potential to infect others and create spawn, but vampire spawn compete for food (living blood) with their creators so it’s not in the vampires’ best interest to create too many, while zombies just keep making more zombies (since they are mindless and exist only to spread their virus anyway). So while vampires may win the proverbial battle, they will most likely lose the war, as the zombie plague spreads like wildfire amongst their food supply and the vampires are left to die of starvation on a dead planet filled with wandering corpses. It would also put vampires in the strange position of having to risk their ‘lives’ to shield humanity … a scenario rife with possibilities for role playing games.
The Planet of the Dead Campaign
This campaign works best with any post-apocalyptic rpg: Rifts, Gamma World (Gamma Rifts even!), D20 Apocalypse, Mutant Future… but it could also easily work with D&D (especially if you wanted to use the world ending arrival of Atropus from Elder Evils), or even a dark take on Mutants and Masterminds (think Marvel Zombies and the Midnight Sons). Hell, you could probably even use something like Palladium’s Invid Invasion for the Robotech rpg (imagine riding a red and black, vampire built cyclone through the wastelands, fighting giant, gestalt mega-undead formed from the lashed together bodies of hundreds of zombies).
Here is a breakdown of the campaign arc such a game might take.
This short adventure makes a great prequel to the campaign and sets up both the relationships of the PCs as well as setting the tone for adventures to come.
Hours before the global outbreak of the ‘zed virus’, the characters are investigating a series of murders on their home turf. The victims have been drained of blood and suffered horrible neck injuries (which should raise a lot of flags amongst the players). As the deceased are all from vulnerable populations (homeless and sex trade workers), the authorities (police, city watch, etc.) have shown little interest in finding the perpetrator, so it falls to the PC’s to get to the bottom of things (perhaps they were even contacted/hired by the family of one of the victims).
The reality is that a powerful clan of vampires, known as ‘the family’ is using their influence to cover for the indiscretions of one of their more reckless members (you can’t do an end of the world game without at least one nod to The Omega Man). The family is important in the campaign, but doesn’t appear again until the late stages of the game.
The PCs can follow the clues left by the careless vampire to an old tenement building it has been using as a lair (its behaviour has estranged it from the rest of its brethren), but the clock is ticking. Outside, the zed virus is spreading faster than in can be contained, and a shambling horde of the undead is headed the PCs’ way. The vampire seems like the least of the party’s worries when the zombies show up.
An interesting climax to the adventure could be an encounter that transforms from and invasion of the vampire’s lair to a defense of it (perhaps making a temporary truce with the vampire, or maybe a gory three way battle).
Fast forward six months (or a year) and the world has not fared well. Society has crumbled, the government no longer exists, and the organized war against the zombies has been lost. The battle for survival begins.
The PCs can be wandering nomads, foraging for equipment and supplies, or they can be holed up behind makeshift barricades, venturing out on short treks for food and medicine. This kind of format makes this portion of the campaign perfect for short, goal-oriented adventures (find food, rescue loved ones, etc.), that emphasize the demoralizing hellscape of the post zombie apocalypse.
Dangers abound, not just from zombies, but from other more predatory survivors, the environment and starvation. Encounters with zombies should be varied – the Resident Evil series of games did a great job of making a wide range of monsters to fight by having the t-virus constantly mutating and infecting different animals in different ways (and if the game system already has all kinds of strange creatures you can really go to town when introducing the zed virus).
Getting an infectious zombie bite should always be a threat, but in an rpg it can’t be as virulent as it is in the movies (unless you’re running a Call of Cthulhu game I guess). Players generally expect a higher degree of survivability for their characters than you get in the average horror movie. If you need an in-game reason the PCs get a saving throw, or (if you are using a 4e-style disease) can get better from the virus, perhaps they already have some in-built resistance to the plague that the average person doesn’t benefit from (in a fantasy campaign maybe they have been blessed by the gods, or drank water from a magical fountain).
Pepper these short adventures with rumours of a zombie-free colony of survivors that’s been founded some distance from town (however far it needs to be to make the travel dangerous and memorable). The worse things get where the characters are, the more likely they are to take the hook (and if they were already nomads, getting to this sanctuary may have been their goal all along).
Hungry and ragged from the journey, the PCs arrive at the colony, a self-contained complex of hi-tech buildings, complete with armoured greenhouses and its own nuclear power plant (or an impenetrable, walled city with its own self-contained vineyards and orchards in a fantasy game). Amazingly, the colony is as zombie free as advertised and welcomes the PCs with open arms. The place is floor to ceiling gleaming white tile and chrome, bright fluorescent lighting, and most importantly, fully equipped with clean, running water (in a fantasy game the colony would be a neo-classical daydream of the Acropolis, filled with white marble and mathematically precise colonnades). In exchange for residency, given the PCs’ skills, all they need to do is volunteer for the colony’s defense force.
At this point in the game an easy, by the numbers adventure will lull the players into accepting the colony at face value (or not, most rpg players are a pretty suspicious lot – but that’s OK too, the game doesn’t hinge on them being trusting). Under orders from the defence force, a daytime raid against a group of uninfected bandits, or a simple seek and destroy mission to clear a group of undead from a nearby roadway would be good fits.
Once they have begun to settle into their new life, throw the occasional clue about the colony’s true purpose the party’s way: in spite of the steady trickle of survivors coming in, the colony never seems to run out of room or resources; the PCs have never met or seen any of the people who defend the colony through the night; the colony’s leaders are constantly shifting people from one living area to another – every week it seems the PCs have new roommates and neighbours; there is no crime in the colony, yet the PCs haven’t seen any internal police. It won’t take much for the PCs to want to investigate further.
The Bloody Truth
Eventually the PCs will use whatever means they have (force, guile or subterfuge), to get to the bottom of who really runs the colony – a group of vampires called the family (possibly including the vampire they fought at the beginning of the campaign, if it escaped), protecting a small pocket of humanity from the zed virus to preserve their food supply.
The PCs might stumble onto direct evidence of the family (using whatever means of vampire detection are suitable to the game and type of vampires it features), or they may break into the core of the family’s secret activities in the colony – a cavernous, refrigerated vault underneath the colony’s reactor that houses a living blood bank. Hundreds of comatose humans, hooked into a web-like network of intravenous tubes, some providing just enough sustenance to keep these poor souls alive, while the blood they produce is slowly leached away by others (a fantastic image courtesy of the film Daybreakers).
As more and more survivors make their way to the colony, the family adds more bodies to the blood bank, always making sure to keep enough free humans to supply a healthy breeding stock. Preference is given to those humans with highly trained skills, powerful defenders (like the PCs), and pregnant women. Criminals, agitators, and dissidents are all prime candidates to be taken to the blood bank.
The endgame of the campaign is completely dependent on the actions of the PCs (which goes without saying for any part of the campaign, but here especially so). As distasteful as it is, the party might decide to maintain the status quo. Sacrificing a portion of the population might be deemed a worthwhile price for the vampires’ protection against the zed virus and the continuance of humanity. The challenge for a party that takes this road is in convincing the family that they will keep the vampires’ secret. Doubtless the family will arrange for tests of loyalty which might be as dangerous as fighting the vampires themselves (and since the family’s opinion might not be unanimous, this is a great opportunity for high stakes political intrigue and espionage).
Most rpgs are action oriented, and many of the players I know would want to take the other road, overthrow the family and free the enslaved humans. The challenge here is obvious and could be played out as a climactic Helm’s Deep type battle between the vampires, their minions and whatever freedom fighters the PCs can muster together (you could even throw in an ill-timed zombie attack for good measure), or as a series of guerrilla attacks between the PCs and the vampires (in between which they must once again fare for themselves in the zombie infested wasteland).
There is also the possibility that some PCs will want to side with the family, while others will want to destroy the vampires. You should definitely be prepared for some inter party conflict here. Emotions can run high in these situations and it might be a good idea to call a session before the PCs decide what they are going to do (think about the fate of Rorschach in Watchmen – some players might be cool with that, while it could ruin the campaign for others).
Vampires as PCs
Many of the game systems mentioned feature the option of playing as a vampire. At first glance it might seem a bad idea to include these character options, but they can add an interesting twist to the whole campaign. The vampire PC might already be a member of the family (and should be prepared for some of the previously mentioned conflict at the end of the campaign), or might be a member of a different group of vampires just as ignorant of the colony as the other PCs (and might be equally horrified by the activities there). A vampire PC won’t automatically side with the family any more than other PCs will automatically want to fight them.