I was asked, not a long time ago, to GM a zombie-apocalypse one-shot. Being versed in horror-GMing, I decided to approach the genre as I approach most other genres of horror, but I've encountered a problem: the zombie-apocalypse sub-genre is way too different, and I'm having trouble translating it into a game. As such is the case, I'm feeling kinda lost right now, and I'm asking you for help.

So, how do one GMs a zombie-apocalypse game?

I'm far more interested in help in terms of writing the game, but tips and suggestions about how to run the game will be also highly appreciated.

I'm looking for help in creating a game close enough to Night of the Living Dead, the archetypal zombie movie, in terms of the feel.

Night of the Living Dead (and also Dawn) was outright scary. This is the kind of feeling that I'm after. It was more around the way the characters coped with the situation, and how they tried to handle it than anything else and through their conflicts the story became scary. The zombies were there, and prominent, but it was less about defeating them and more about coping with the dire situation that the world revolved into.


Zombie apocalypses range from a slug feast (Left4Dead2) to a vehicle for huis-clos building on the survivors' slow but assured spiral into inhumanity (Walking Dead). It seems that you are aiming more towards the latter.

For me, Night of the Living Dead and Walking Dead and ... are all scary because they are all about the slow, methodical, and inextricable dehumanisation of their protagonists. The zombies, as is often the case, were nothing more than the catalyst for this. But could not have been replaced with anything with intelligence: you cannot reason with them, just get eaten.

First, alienation is a must. You should make sure that the players (yes, I mean the players, not their characters) are not comfortable. Stress them a little. Then stress them more. They should translate that into their character play. Setting, music, lighting, food, etc... Use it all! Clearly, get players' agreement before messing them! I do in all my horror games and provided I stay clear of specific trauma (as determined by players, not me), it works really well.

Second, let the players plot their own decent into becoming monsters. Or when you create the characters, make sure there is a path outlined for them to follow. The cop becomes a bully. The soldier becomes a murdering machine. The prom queen puts herself above all others... Stereotypes can be exploited here as it is a one off. Or do not go there. Maybe the mild mannered school teacher will turn psycho. I would let the players plot their own character's doom. It will add to the whole hopelessness.

Third, start slow and pick up the pace. The external Zombie threat must continue, like the rising tide, and never ever stop. Any gain the characters make, comes at a cost. More often than not, at a greater cost than it was worth. I suggest you have NPCs that you can sacrifice during the start of the game. Just make sure that each character has connections to them. Also, if (read: when) a payer character dies, make sure you have a backup.


The Setting

I've run zombie apocalypse adventures before. The tricks that worked for me were: (1) Start with a lot of low level characters, (2) Have them search for a defendable position, (3) Only hit them with small groups of zombies at first, (4) Let them get comfortable, then (5) over run them with a large "herd" of zombies, and (6) Chase them until they get away, manage to hide, happen to find another good location, or all die.

Over time, a few survivors gain levels (or skills, etc.) They become the leaders. That's when they find a great place with a good wall and sturdy gate (modern prison, fantasy stronghold, etc.) But before they can use it, they have clear out the zombies shambling around inside it.

This is where they find a BIG zombie creature and more characters will die. Since this is the final battle, some characters will sacrifice themselves to save the others in an daring epic rescue attempt, suicide bomb, etc.

Game System

These adventures are low on role play and high on combat, so try to use a game with a fast and lethal combat game system. I use my own "Big Bad Ball Busting Bloody Battles", but any fast action combat system will work.

Very Important!

Tell the players that a lot of characters will die. Have your players roll up a few extra new characters, and be sure to allow your players to introduce new characters at the new locations or hiding spots.

Your characters will be talking about this adventure for months!!!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Start slow and build up to hoards is the best advice \$\endgroup\$ – GMNoob Jul 22 '14 at 7:29

This site already has some good articles on how to make players feel fear, and that should help with what you are trying to accomplish. A big thing that I would emphasis is time.

I ran a zombie outbreak game that revolved around a single city that was successfully quarantined shortly after the outbreak(similar to Resident Evil 2). The players and their characters were informed by the military via megaphones around the perimeter of town that they had three days to reach the barricade for a chance to escape before the entire city would be destroyed. To put more emphasis on the time crunch, I told the players at the start of the game that every minute of real-time spent planning would equate to five minutes in game. This made the players elect to plan quickly and focus on short-term goals as well as staying on the move.

The players after the session stated that the pressure of time on their planning was hair-raising, and that they felt true senses of terror and anxiety. I'm not sure that this is exactly what you want to accomplish, but playing around with time restraints, or at least not pausing the game while characters plan, will definitely leave a lasting effect on your players.

Another important aspect of the game would be resource management. I went as far as to create a home-brew system of encumbrance and spacing limitations so that the players would have to make hard choices about what things they would bring along with them for the journey and what things they would either scrap for useful parts or leave behind entirely. This definitely had an effect on both their short term and long term planning. Obviously in the short term they could only choose to carry so much but in the long term their limited ability to carry things with them lead them to alter their potential choices on where to head next, where to rest, and so on.

I would also suggest using a bit of realism when dealing with vehicles and other means of transportation in your game. I was running d20 modern as a base for my game and it has some great built-in rules for vehicles including rules for collision and ramming crowds of people/enemies. This will make characters seriously consider how viable grabbing a vehicle and ramming their way out truly is. Also, depending on how long ago the outbreak began in your game, a bit of long-term realism you could inform the players of is the fact that fuel for vehicles will only last for so many months without being specially preserved. Diesel fuel will generally last longer, but diesel vehicles tend to require a bit more maintenance. Escaping in cars and trucks might be a viable solution in the short term, but in the long term players will need to secure a more lasting and reliable means of transportation, such as lightweight bicycles.

If you're looking for ways for the characters to interact with other humans they meet along the way, then skills and abilities that promote diplomacy, intimidation, and subterfuge are still useful. The Walking Dead should give you plenty of ideas for how to implement these into your game.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Could you add some reference of questions where how to make players fear is discussed? \$\endgroup\$ – Masclins May 13 '15 at 8:47

When players get complacent, change things

In my own campaign, the PCs are trying to survive a viral zombie outbreak. This is how I've run that campaign.


During their first month the PCs outran and outfoxed the zombies because zombies are slow and stupid. Zombies have no traits that make them dangerous except numbers. If there are enough of zombies, they can't be stopped. Eventually, the PCs found somewhere safe enough to hole up for a while, and the PCs located other people. Some lived, some died, but the stronghold's integrity was maintained.

Alter the opposition

Then I asked myself What happens when a virus meets resistance? The answer became The virus mutates. I added special infected to raise the threat level and reengage the players. After using zombies sparingly while the characters hid and fortified, the players got complacent and bored, but when the zombies started acting smarter, the players immediately started worrying again.


  • changing the zombies' descriptions from their initial appearance. It doesn't change anything the zombies do, but it certainly worries the PCs.
  • changing the setting, forcing the PCs to relocate to unfamiliar territory.
  • adding different opponents. Wildlife could flourish during an outbreak, and human opposition is always dangerous.
  • adding power groups. Other surviving bands could be ahead or behind the apocalyptic survival bell curve of survivor thinking than the PCs' group. Find their motivations and put those in conflict with the PCs.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site. Take the tour. Thank you for your contribution. I've taken the liberty of editing your answer; it's preferred that answers use paragraphs and are easy to read. Feel free to edit or revert. Thank you for helping strangers. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 13 '15 at 15:06

I would also try to find some Zombie campaign rpg games. Some of them have good examples of how things should work and have a lot of story ideas and system behind it to support everything. An important factor is the system with which you are running the game. I would suggest the AFMBE (All Flesh Must Be Eaten). It has a lot of short adventure tips and ideas for almost anything that you will need, including on how to setup and run your campaign.

Sorry if i wasn't more of a help. The others above me also gave good ideas.


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