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I am planning on starting my newest campaign about the end of the world: a Zombie Apocalypse, with the game starting before the outbreak has occurred. Every zombie RPG I have encountered so far has content to allow you to start your campaign before the outbreak occurs. Unfortunately they give you no indication of how this might play out. Standard turns seem pointless, since your PCs can basically do nothing but wait for the outbreak to unfold.

The only two ways I can come up with to make this part of the game interesting is to not tell your players that the game is a zombie game, and make them figure that out. Second is to just narrate the entire pre outbreak in a sort of montage. Unfortunately the first option is out since my players know what type of campaign I am making. The second option is not satisfactory given the amount of time I spent developing the story pre-outbreak. I have several audio clips of news reports and the like to flesh out the story.

My players will be playing as themselves. So that means a landscapers, sales people, and the like they will be as powerful as they are in real life. the zombie type is taken from End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse; Virually spread, but the zombies are not undead. more like a bath salts junkie. It can be cured, and that will be a major part of the story. I was planing on having the PCs start the game playing a tabletop role playing game, but i'm open to suggestions as to where to start the PCs as well. The feel of the game will be realistic horror. the setting will be a small town in the mountains not far from where we live in real life.

What I'm asking for is techniques on how to run the first part of the game pre-outbreak, without just cutting it short but avoiding player meta-gaming removing any of the real impact.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. While broad in scope, the question does focus on one focuses situation. Thus I think the question can be answered. However, I'll wait before answering it just in case... \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Jan 29 '15 at 7:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Seamus, could you edit your question to make it more focused? For example, add what the players are playing: (para)military, emergency service, civilians, random jobs, etc... or a mixture of all the above. Also, how powerful are they? Where are they starting: First, second, or third world, isolated or heavily linked? What style is your game: Horror, comedy, shoot 'em up, ...? What themes are you and your players seeking to explore within this game? Which zombie flavour are your trying to emulate -- Walking Dead? 28 days later? Warm bodies? Bio-hazard/Resident Evil? \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Jan 29 '15 at 9:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ This question was edited and reopened already. More information especially about the PCs could make it better but it is viable in its current state. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jan 29 '15 at 13:01
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Work WITH your players

If I'm going to sit down and play a game for several hours, nevermind for several sessions of several hours, I want to know what genre I'm playing. The "gotcha" campaign doesn't make people as happy as folks think.

Tell your players, "I'm planning on doing a zombie outbreak game, and the expectations are that your characters are going to be built like (Normal civilians/civilians with some survival skills/police military etc.) and the first part will be before the outbreak."

What's to stop players from doing stuff like building a bunker before play? Because you, as a group, agree that's not the kind of zombie game you want to play, and if they don't want that, they're not going to like this campaign.

Easy.

Motivation & Relationship Mechanics

This is one of those places having relationship and ideals based rewards would work great.

When a media wants to show you more of the pre-outbreak, they show the protagonist's normal lives - the people they care about, their ideals, hopes and dreams and struggles. In games with these kinds of reward mechanics, you spend these scenes loading up these relationships and ideals, getting either XP or some kind of hero points in the process, and then when all hell breaks loose, then the players get more points for trying to protect, rescue, or reconnect with those people, places, and things.

"The Univesity. You know, I would have been the first one to go to college, Mom wanted that for me. And here I am. Finally walking through these doors. But I didn't want it to be like this."

These kinds of mechanics work very well because they set up a long term survival goal into the rules - in the short term, doing what's immediately best for survival is good, but in the long term, you want those XP/hero points to stay alive as the situation worsens.

Which...mirrors a lot of zombie fiction - the last survivor(s) end up having to balance caring for others and being actually a decent human being vs. pragmatic "I'm sorry, you've been bitten, I can't let you in.".

Social Mechanics

Games with good systems for social mechanics would also be good. Zombie fiction is a lot about the arguments about what to do next and everyone getting at each others' throats and sometimes people making bad decisions. Good social mechanics gives people a chance to influence each other, to convince each other to help, or to cut bad deals.

Tying it together

When you have the two above ideas working together, you can use the pre-outbreak time to set up relationships, rivalries, tensions and promises. All of that becomes critical when the disaster strikes.

"I know he's your father. But he's been bit. Our time is running out. He made you promise you'd keep yourself safe and try to live the best you could, right? You won't be safe staying with what he's about to become. Do you want to protect his corpse or his wishes?"

You'll notice all that kind of stuff is what makes the best zombie stories work. It's about people falling apart and falling together that makes it work, not "I am tactically sound and have food supplies" kind of stories.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In a film, the first (and zombie-free) act exists to set up the "normal lives" of the characters, and establish who they are outside of the horrible, horrible situations they later find themselves in. Sure, you can learn a lot about someone by seeing how they act in horrible, horrible situations, but unless you can compare that with how they live their lives normally, you'll not fully understand how those horrible, horrible situations change them. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 19 '15 at 8:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure. The point I'm emphasizing is that the players should know this is a zombie game, even if their characters don't. \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 May 19 '15 at 15:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, sorry - I didn't mean to sound like that point wasn't valid; I think it's an important one and that you're right to include it. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 20 '15 at 1:13
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I think you have not one problem, you have two. Let's address them separately.

Players metagaming

You have to talk to your players and convince them to get into character. Tell them they have to act as they know nothing about zombies, or what is going to happen and they should try to think everything is ok. Tell them If you think it can help, you can promise reward to good roleplaying.

Also, you can promise them nothing bad is going to happen to their characters because of not metagaming. This is the prelude. No one is meant to die. If a character sees a person collapsing on the floor, and he tries to help him instead of running from him or shooting him, when he turns and tries to bite the character, he won't be able to do it, because the character is quick and strong enough, or because he gets help from someone else.

Similarly, if a character has to face a rabid man and doesn't shoot him in the head, and the man rises again one time after another, you let him hit the head or escape in time.

If your players understand it is good for the story, they should collaborate in avoiding metagaming. Otherwise, don't be afraid to warn, penalyze or forbid actions that are flagrant metagame.

Making it interesting

The second thing is how to make the prelude not boring. Preludes have several goals, one is presenting the characters and another is giving a sense of normality that makes contrast with the horror and craziness that comes later.

Go to the sources. Go and see some zombies films or series that start with a prelude. What makes it interesting, not boring?

I don't know if it's your case, but to players accustomed to the idea that roleplaying is combat and exploration, playing daily normal situations can be a bit odd. It's worth trying, though. Just try to make them not too long. In the prelude you have more control on the pace and scenes that after (time in which more control should be transferred to the players). If you think a scene is becoming boring, cut it and go to the next.

Still too boring? Let's spill boring everyday with things that should catch your players attention:

  • First of all, you should incrementally increase the sense that something is wrong, just as movies do. Use the material you have prepared, but incrementally. First they hear about a crazy man who bites another in a public place, then more cases, then they hear screaming, then they see the police or the army going in the street. Just dose that information with your "boring" scenes.
  • Second, it's a trick to get your player attention to even ordinary conversation. Spill useful information although unrelated with zombies on it. examples: the car is in the shop, the children are at school, in the corner there is a hiking shop or a pharmacy, someone has a house in the lake, someone hides a gun, ... The more casual it looks, the better. Reward their good conversation spilling those hints.
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I think the primary issue is that you need the players to be doing something before the zombies come into it. That is, you almost have to pick a different genre of RPG and have a session that's interesting enough to be worth playing even before the zombies show up, and then the game will shift as the outbreak progresses.

You need a distinct setting, and THEN the zombies happen. Otherwise the beginning of the game will be "players sitting in a blank room" waiting for the Interesting to start happening. Come up with some sort of modern adventure -- a bank robbery, or car pileup on the highway, or a kidnapping, or...? Then the zombies show up, and whatever was happening before suddenly becomes either less critical, or a lot harder to beat.

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