Monthly Archives: August 2016

Best Ways To Handle Town Guards

klLaw enforcement in fantasy games presents GMs with a dilemma.

a) Do you let the guards do their jobs, which means most PCs will soon get into trouble and must duck and cover or fight the guard at every turn?

b) Do you let the PCs run rampant, causing murder and mayhem, and risk breaking sense of disbelief (and your hopes and plans) because there are no consequences for breaking the law?

Spending every campaign in prison or on the run is the type of gameplay sentence you want to avoid. Here are the best ways I know how to factor in town guards while still giving PCs freedom to play their style of game.

1. Incompetent And Corrupt

The guard is unable to do their job effectively because they have no training or skill, or because they have a selfish agenda of abusing their authority to achieve personal gains.

PCs get away with most of their actions because the guards are too busy serving their own ends. Alternatively, PCs escape notice or capture because the guards are so incompetent.

There is great gaming potential in such an environment!

Leader hires incompetent guards for his own evil purposesA blend of corruption and bumbling, someone has the ability to only hire those who will not interfere with their larger agenda. The leader figure could be the head of the whole city, the head of the guard, or just a bureaucrat who screens candidates.
This option gives you an instant plot hook too, should you choose: save the city from the corrupt leader. First step would be finding out where the corruption lies. Next step would be to learn how the leader is doing it and how he is getting away with it. Third step would be getting proof, catching the leader red handed, or removing the leader from power.

Such steps fit into the three act structure nicely, if you choose. Should the PCs confront the leader without ending things immediately, they just tip him off. This creates great encounters and scenes, and puts new roadblocks in the PCs’ way.

Before launching this situation, figure out:

Who is the corrupt leader?
How do they manage to fill the ranks with bumbling fools?
What other authority figures must be involved to make this happen? (e.g. politicians, high-ranking guards, other guild leaders)
Why is the leader doing this? There must be some greater goal or plot afoot.
For example:

Captain Bennett, head of recruitment
Interviews candidates himself; only hires the weak and stupid; ensures the trainers themselves are unskilled; shortened training to two days; pushes reports upwards that only the poor, stupid and unwilling ever apply to be guards, so the pool of choices is always limited.
So far, the Captain has had little trouble convincing his bosses that only poor candidates ever apply to become guards. The head of the merchants guild filed so many complaints about the law enforcement incompetence, it was getting hard intercepting her each time. Plus, she has made several astute guesses. So, he offered her a monthly cut in exchange for greater access to merchant guild resources.
The Captain works for the campaign villain, who would find it much more difficult carrying out dark plots if the guard were capable of detecting and interfering with them.
Pockets of honesty and competenceYou have the option to make key NPCs, guard units or sections within guard head quarters skilled and uncorrupt. You might do this to provide a bit of resistance to PC activities. The threat of some guard retaliation might keep players from burning the whole city down in the first session. 🙂
In addition, lots more plot and encounter potential opens up if there is conflict within the law enforcement establishment.

Guards are disorganized, under-funded and under-staffedA great setup if you just want a quick method to knock the guards out of your campaign so the PCs can do their thing without much interference, while still offering a logical reason why the guards have not locked them up yet.
Bureaucracy, budgets, leadership priorities, health of the economy and government, and cultural factors can supply you reasons why the guards do not get better equipment, training and support.

For example, the city of Riddleport in my campaign is a gentrified pirate city that has carried on a tradition of contempt for central authority. Despite the danger, older families and guilds prefer a lawless environment so they can carry on the way they’ve always done under the philosophy of “might makes right.”

Guards are cowardsAnother type of incompetence, this option could explain why the PCs can wage fights in the streets, break into places without recourse, and intimidate the locals. Who will stand up to them?
It’s not believable every guard in the city hasn’t the backbone to do their job and arrest the PCs, but this reason could work in the district the characters tend to operate in, leaving the party free to act like typical PCs.

PCs can bribe guards easilyAn excellent option that gives the excuse you need to prevent the campaign from turning into an ongoing PC manhunt. If the PCs get into trouble, they can just open their purse strings and buy their way out of an arrest, sentence, or in the worst case, jail.
This option gives you the bonus of siphoning away PC treasure. It becomes a new expense for them. The great thing is the PCs choose to commit the crimes, so bribing guards becomes a choice as well, if not a deliberate strategy.

Consider creating a list of crimes, and instead of the usual table of punishments, note the expected bribe amounts instead. Whether you choose to share this with the players or not, it will help you keep bribes consistent.

You might also create individual guards who charge more or less and who are more or less reliable. This gives you variation on bribe rates, seeds for new NPCs and potential plot hooks. For example, perhaps the guard who takes smaller bribes to look the other way also reports the characters’ activities to a senior officer for a bonus.

2. Get Player Agreement Up Front

Before the campaign begins and characters are made, have a discussion with your group. Decide how law enforcement will work in the setting and how it will affect gameplay. Let the players help you create this aspect of the game. Hopefully this produces a result the group can live by and play by when the campaign starts.

What kind of adventures do you want to DM?
What kind of adventures do they want to play?
What kind of adventurers do they want to play?
Be sure to represent the world-building point of view, that the players are unlikely to have, where the setting will be full of people who need to live by the decisions the group makes.

Sure, it is fun and easy to want to play heroes who can do what they want without any consequences. But what has stopped others from doing the same in the past, causing strife, misery and tragedy? Surely a society would take actions to prevent this from happening again.

By having this discussion at the beginning of the campaign you can formulate a world around the desires of the group.

For example, the players remain adamant they want to be unhindered by law enforcement. Two options of many come to mind:

Option #1: Create a warlord environment with an unsophisticated legal system. There are no guards, just agents of the warlord, and the warlord decides punishments. The PCs are safe unless they commit some major crime.
Option #2: Give the characters law enforcement powers. This solves many small game issues handily, and gives you a handy campaign platform as a bonus.
As you can see, both options have a profound impact on a campaign.

In addition, deciding this up front helps inform players what kind of characters they should create. I think this is where most campaigns fall down in terms of handling guards. The group creates PCs near the beginning of the process, which is like putting the cart before the horse. Or worse, players create characters outside the process, and they just show up to the first session with no idea of your plan, and everyone hopes things magically gel together. Either way, characters will be at odds with the setting, campaign and adventurers the game master has planned.

The solution is to discuss law enforcement before characters are created, as part of campaign planning from the beginning.

If you are mid-campaign there is still hope. If guards are a current headache for you, have a group chat immediately. Discuss the situation to get the group’s preferences. Once everyone agrees on the law enforcement style they would like, you need to make some changes.

Start with the characters. Continuing the discussion, ask the players how their characters will adapt to the group decision. This might require character personality tweaking, background changes, and motive changes. Players might need to reframe their character’s point of view a bit so they are in sync with what everyone decided they wanted gameplay to be like.

Next, tackle the setting. Make necessary changes so the law enforcement style and presence matches what everyone’s new expectations are. With character and setting changes planned out, you will need to update your adventure.

Make quick and seamless changes right away. Make bigger changes that can be done without requiring retroactive gameplay. Players will not care if you change game world history that they have not learned yet, for example, though you might need to update NPC backgrounds and motives as a result.

For changes that are big and visible I suggest running encounters to play them out. For example, the PCs stumble into a deadly fight between guards and the villain’s minions. If the PCs help the minions, then the guards who had a grudge, proof, or pending charges against the PCs are slain. Assuming no witnesses, problem solved. If the PCs help the guards, then out of gratitude the guards become friendly to them, drop the charges, and tend to look the other way in the future.

3. Make Them Allies

Guards friendly and sympathetic to the PCs make many of your headaches go away. This is one of my favourite campaign options. If the guards are friendly, likely the PCs will be more law abiding, or at least more cooperative.

Have the guards offer an olive branch. They must make the first step as the PCs likely will not. This is understandable because the players do not know what to expect from the game world, so the characters will be cautious or even hostile. Perhaps the guards summoned to the aftermath of an encounter chat with the PCs in a professional and objective manner. Instead of arrests, they might offer warnings, or better yet, offer to help.

Not all law enforcement needs to be heavy-handed. From your perspective, you might want to curtail fireballs and slaughter in the streets from the start. You may be inclined to summon a company of competent guards to smack the PCs around a bit and teach them a lesson. As we know from experience, this never works.

Instead, try making the guards sympathetic to the PCs’ situation. They are just doing their job. They want what is best for the PCs, the town, and all the other citizens. “How can we make this work so you can continue fighting against Lord Maldor without burning the town down or putting anyone at risk?”

Such an approach makes the characters sympathetic to the guards, in turn. Often after such an encounter, the characters will factor more lawful thinking into their plans. If they do not, you have not lost anything. The guards can still respond in force in the future.

However, the opposite is far more difficult to accomplish. Guards that come off as hostile or jerks will get the PCs’ backs up. Future olive branches will get rebuffed. Chances for the PCs to behave better because they have a friendly and productive relationship with law enforcement are zero.

4. Balkanized

We come now to my favourite option for handling guards in campaigns: factions. While not suitable for every campaign or setting, Balkanised law enforcement gives you the greatest range of options. There is no central authority, or if there is it is no more powerful than other factions. Instead, the environment is such that might makes right.

Regional leaders dictate the law. Enforcement style is based on the philosophy and resources of each faction. Characters can get away with a lot in such a setting, yet there can still be consequences for running amok.

If PCs do get into trouble with a faction, they can just change locations so they are out of arm’s reach. Incursions into a hostile faction’s territory offer exciting and dramatic gameplay, but the PCs do not have to be on the run for the whole campaign this time. They just need to return to neutral or friendly territory, and this territory could be as large as one side of town or a small as a neighbourhood block.

This type of setting also gives you a chance to learn more about your players. You can offer up a number of different types of law enforcement and see what works and what does not.

Players also get more strategic options, should they choose to exercise them. They can play factions off against each other, form alliances and ruin relations between factions to make areas easier to adventure in.

Faction play requires more work on your behalf, but it could be just the thing to solve your guard problems.

Steps to Create Great Magic Item in Just Three Minutes

Busy GMs need help prepping for games faster. And you can create fantastic magic items in just three minutes using my stat block.

Magic treasure is critical in most fantasy games because it does so much:

  • Creates campaign balance, especially if combats are often difficult
  • Adds to campaign mood, atmosphere and wonderment
  • Beefs up weak characters in parties where more knowledgeable gamers build more effective PCs
  • Gives players creative options during gameplay
  • ives game masters fun design opportunities
    Fun! Who doesn’t love a magical reward?
  • It’s easy to create a +1 dagger, but that’s boring, as we’ve chatted about in Roleplaying
  • Tips before. You want your treasure to entertain, feel like a reward and add depth to your campaign.

With my fast design system, you turn magical rewards into plot hooks, world development tools and campaign enhancements all at the same time. Oh yeah, and your players will love them, too.

My stat block has just six elements, all focused on making gameplay more interesting. I think that’s the key to anything you design – make gameplay more fun, then worry about world building and plotting.

There are other things you can add to this stat block, such as cost to construct, creation process, market value, and so on. You can also take a deep dive into any element of the stat block, such as lore, and write up pages worth of information.

But I wanted a tool that let me generate a great reward, whether it’s in a pile of treasure or being worn by an NPC, in just three minutes. In a half hour you can have an adventure’s worth of key magic items designed!

Let’s dive in.

The Stat Block

Use this stat block to create three minute magic items. The numbers represent the time you should give to each part of the block to meet our three minute goal.

Awesome Name – 30 seconds
Appearance – 30 seconds
Benefit – 30 seconds
Drawback – 30 seconds
Lore – 60 seconds
Twist – 0 seconds (yup 0 – not a typo!)
Awesome Name

The item’s name is its hook. The test of a great name is players’ ears perk up when they hear it. If you get your group’s attention just with the name of something, you’ve done a fantastic job.

You want to then drop the item name into conversation, histories, clues and everywhere else you can think of in your campaign. Tease your players first. Then supply the way to acquire the now must-have object of character lust.

I give 30 seconds to this because you should try out several different names. Then pick the best. Usually our first name idea is not the best, and a little brainstorming helps generate a better result.


What does the item look like? A one-liner here should be enough to work from when introducing the item during a session.

Turn this into a 5 second task by using an image and just showing it to your players.

Tip: create one interesting visual feature or quirk. Bonus points if it ties into a PC’s personality or theme. This helps firmly hook the item in your players’ minds. An item with distinct appearance gives the owning player fodder for roleplaying, identification and value.

For example, a +1 dagger that looks like a finely crafted dagger is pretty boring. When in use, the player is not likely to play it up or celebrate the item in any way. However, make the dagger look like an exotic creature’s fang, and you’ll get a little more excitement for it.


What does the item do for a character? A great benefit offers choice. If an item enters player conversation (and better yet, NPC and PC conversation) a few times each session, you’ve done a great job.

I split benefits into three types:


These to be always-on. A +1 attack, for example.

I do not like these much, though I currently do hand out a lot of this kind. Passive items add little to gameplay. They are not interactive. They offer no choices or tactical considerations. They offer no roleplaying opportunities.


These offer specific effects for a limited time. With these you can create any kind of cool and interactive operation, effect or event. Pick just about any spell effect, for example, and make that the reusable benefit of a magic item.

Aim for active benefits with your item designs. Feel free to add in passive benefits as well, because the PCs will need parity with challenges they face. But focus on creating active benefits PCs will swoon over.


These come in two flavours:

Emergent benefits come from clever players figuring out great uses and synergies between the item and other game elements.

Hidden benefits foil typical detection and identification means so you can surprise and delight players at some future point.

I like adding hidden benefits, especially to the most beloved items. Because the benefits are secret, you can add these after the fact, once you know an item isn’t going to be sold or stuffed in a sack.

Picking just the best or most interesting items for this treatment is like putting chocolate sauce and sprinkles on ice cream. Your players will be ecstatic.


This is perhaps the trickiest element of the stat block because it requires the most thoughtful design.

A drawback creates gameplay at its finest where players must pay a small price to receive the benefits of the item.

This is not meant to be a penalty. Nor is it meant to negate the benefit. It’s meant to add more fun by weaving more texture into your games.

The design skill comes in where you want a drawback that actually creates fun, or at least more interest or depth, so the PC opts not to toss the item and actually wants to use it despite the drawback.

A great example is the artefacts system in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. (If you own the book, crack open those tables for drawback inspiration. By the way, did you know the book placed #1 recently on Wired’s 9 Essential Geek Books You Must Read Right Now?)

Examples of the types of drawbacks to consider:

Minor curses
Trade-offs (one thing improves, one thing worsens)
Random effects
Chance of occasional interesting failure
I suggest creating a swipe file, as they call it, of drawback ideas you find while reading RPG stuff in books and online.


You can mine a rich background throughout an entire campaign. The trap we fall into is lengthy histories. If you’re like me, by the time we’re done one history for one thing it’s game day already.

So get into the habit of point form histories that cover just the highlights. Do this for enough game elements and you build an awesome scaffold for your game.

A great history focuses on just one thing: notable events relevant to your campaign.

Break that down further, and we see an event only needs a time, place, location and NPCs.

For our magic item design, then, we just need three or so one-liners, one event per line, that follows a Mad Libs style formula like this:

There are other approaches, and I’ll cover at least one in an upcoming newsletter. But, the gist is to keep it short and simple, and to proliferate your histories with people, places and things, because that’s what your adventures are all about.

Put another way, when you create adventure backgrounds, NPC backgrounds, plot hooks and encounters, you want to tie things together to make your campaign feel integrated and immersive. To do this easily, you want your notes to be clear and simple. Pages of history result in tons of great information getting buried. One-liners present the most important information front and centre, available for instant use.

For your item’s history, create three one line entries that involve at least one NPC, a place and a situation.


You want to break the pattern of “just another +1 dagger” that saps wonderment out of your sessions. A twist offers one of the best ways to do this. The unexpected always creates interest and excitement, and sometimes a little drama.

Best case scenario, which only comes with practice at creating magic items in this fashion, is you create a neat twist in one of the other stat block elements. Then this step takes no extra time!

For example, an interesting drawback creates a natural twist. So does a secret in the form of a juicy Lore entry. A surprise benefit makes a neat twist sometimes, too.

On occasion, you can make a twist out of the item’s appearance, such as when form does not follow function. For example, a magic dagger that does d4 damage and d12 healing when it hits. Attacking to heal is a fun twist, and on the rare occasion when damage exceeds healing but only by a minor amount, you’ll get laughs and groans at the table. Practice Required

You will not likely make your first item using this system in the time it takes to boil an egg. It requires a bit of practice. You might need to create 10 items or 25 or more before you get fast at it. The great news is practicing is fun.

What could be better than whipping out an index card when you’ve got three minutes to spare and creating a magic item for your campaign? Repeat as often as possible until you get fast.

It’s not like designing a game world. Those take a long time to work through the entire process. Weeks, months or even years.

But with our magic item stat block, you can cycle through the entire creation process from start to finish in minutes. That means you can repeat often, and therefore become great at it fast. Cheat Like I Do

Use all the tools and resources at your disposal to help you out. Following my template ensures you will generate something interesting. That gets taken care of all by itself. You just need to put in the time and effort.

First thing you might do if stuck is grab a magic item book off your shelf. Or an adventure. Steal parts liberally. Mix and match.

Websites are another great source of ideas.

Second, use generators. Suck at names? Google some name gens and hit F5 to get that design part taken care of for you.

Steps to Run Killer Zombie Campaigns

From Mark of the Pixie


Most RPGs focus a lot on combat (it’s fun and exciting), but with zombies it’s different. Killing mindless corpse after mindless corpse gets boring fast, so don’t use traditional RPG combat, use zombie movie horror combat. With horror movie zombies, defeat is inevitable, you can’t win, you can only delay your defeat.

So I suggest replacing your combat stat by the number of zombies you can face alone, unarmed, before you go down (your Zombie Ratio). For a normal person this may have a ZR of 0 or 1. A fit navy seal combat veteran it may have a ZR of 10 or even 15.

Adjust this to show how scary you want your zombies to be. Weapons add to this number (a baseball bat may add +2, an axe may add +4). Guns also add, but only while you have Ammo (see below). A revolver may be +4, a shotgun +6.

When you get in a fight with zombies your Zombie Ratio drops by 1 for each zombie you take out. When it gets to 0, you get bitten, but may still escape. If it goes lower, you are bitten and dragged off to be eaten (returning later to eat your old friends).

Feel free to add a secret randomiser (ZR+d6-1d6) to keep your players on their toes. Food and rest help to slowly restore your Zombie Ratio.

This simple mechanic encourages players to avoid combat with hordes of zombies (they know they will die if they do), but allows them to take isolated zombies without much difficulty (the navy seal would have no problem taking out 4 isolated zombies). This more closely matches what we see in the movies.

Note: One of the big advantages of guns is you can kill zombies from a distance. You can do this without putting yourself at risk, picking off zombies from a safe position (Shelter). Guns do not affect your ZR, they just reduce your Ammo (see below).


Resources are limited. You ARE going to run out of stuff.

So rate the following from what they have Least of to what they have Most of:

(Change as needed for your game.)

At any one time the PC group will be Out of the first of these, and Low in the second.

As they make runs to resupply their food, it gets bumped back up to somewhere on the list, and next session the new lowest runs out, and the second lowest is low.

Out means you just don’t have it. Low means you might run out at any time, but you still have some left.

If the PCs are well organised and set up in a good position, then instead of Out/Low, you can have Low/Low. Likewise, if they are on the run without many supplies you can have Out/Out.

Food = obvious, without it everyone’s ZR starts to drop as they start to starve to death. If it is Low, you can’t recover ZR with rest.
Shelter = fortified buildings, good exits, defensible, isolated, etc. Without Shelter you are at the mercy of the elements as well as wandering zombies. From Shelter you can pick off zombies with ranged weapons, but this reduces the Shelter as it attracts more undead. If your Shelter is Low, zombies may get in undetected.
Ammo = e.g., bullets, arrows, grenades. When you run Out, your guns are expensive clubs. Picking off zombies from Shelter reduces Ammo. If your ammo is Low you may run Out mid-combat.
Transport = cars trucks, bikes, whatever. With Transport you can move your group to new locations (reduces Transport). Without it you’re walking. While you can outrun a zombie in the short term, they don’t get tired, they don’t sleep and they will get you in the end. If your transport is Low, your vehicle might break down mid-trip.
Survivors = people with your group. If your Food or Shelter is Low, they may die (reduce stat). Survivors are a skill bank. They can fix cars, cook food, keep lookout, treat wounds, etc. They are also friends, lovers, family. People you care about.
If the PCs need something done and they don’t have the skill, one of the Survivors does. But when Survivors is Low it means either you are running Out of them (they died) or they are getting internal conflicts, which may lead to them splitting off and going it alone.

If it is Out, the PCs are alone. Survivors can also be pre- PCs, so a player who loses a PC can take a named Survivor as their new PC. Look at Ars Magica’s troupe style play for examples.

Other = everything else. Want a CB radio, first aid kit, rope, medicine, wrench, compass, or even guns (but not bullets)? This is where you find it. If it is Low, one of the other categories is treated as Low (random or GM whim). If you are Out, then medicine, repairs, communications and so on are all gone.

Variety is the spice of life. Try mixing up a few different types of zombies.

Slow zombies
Fast zombies
Big zombies
Headless zombies
Burning zombies
Acid-blood zombies
Pinata zombies (decomposition gas under pressure, hit = pop and goo goes everywhere)
Maybe try animal zombies; zombie dogs, zombie rats, zombie ravens, zombie bears, etc. Makes the zoo a dangerous place to be.

Zombies that get surprise or have weapons or unusual size or are on fire may count as two or even three zombies when subtracting from your ZR.


You can no more beat the endless hordes of zombies than you can turn back the tides or stop the sun setting. Individual zombies can be stopped easily enough, but the six billion others….

In some ways, it helps to think of zombies as weather – mindless and destructive, but also unstoppable and unrelenting.


The zombies you are killing were once people. That’s horrible.

But have one of your PCs notice that another PC is bleeding….is it a bite? Just a cut? Hard to tell. Do we tie you up? kill you? Wait for you to turn? What if it is just a cut?

One of the survivors sees her child (a zombie) in the street. How do you stop her running out to save her. She is too emotional for reason to work. Do you let her go? Tie her up? Kill her so she doesn’t reveal your hiding place? How will the other survivors respond?

The real horror in zombie movies is often not the undead outside: it is the things the survivors do to each other.

From Aki Halme

What makes a good zombie movie? Or a good game?


Not the case exclusively for zombie campaigns of course, this goes for everything. Decisions made with limited information, for long-term consequences.

Should one make noise to inform possible survivors – or stay silent to avoid alerting zombies? Radio ahead for help and advice, risking getting betrayed by those who wish to conserve limited supplies? Keep to moral high ground and lose friends when supplies run out, or scavenge everything, saving friends while dooming others? Not use a light and not see, or use a light and be seen?


Blind alleys, obstacles, darkness, smoke, broken constructions that might fall to pieces if one runs (to avoid a fight) or fights (to avoid to run).


Is it always ok to terminate a zombie? What if some of them are not mindless undead flesh eaters, but something closer to humanity – with manners.

A zombie that crunches skulls to get to the brain but uses a napkin to wipe its mouth afterwards? Identifying marks, past history with a PC, some memories or intelligence?

Will the PCs eliminate a half-crushed, helpless zombie as mercy kill? What if doing so has a cost, such as ammo or risk? How to deal with the zombie menace? Cure them, wipe them out, nuke them out?


They can be potential allies, but ones with different goals.

Nice-mannered scientists that are doing human experiments?

Docile zombies that fly into homicidal rage only when they smell living flesh, which is why they have nose plugs?

Survivor groups that are not so keen to share their resources – or ones that ARE out to save everyone, but lacks the means to do so, sharing of what little they have, effectively dooming themselves if the PCs accept their help?

High-morale groups that are out save the world and are dismayed the PCs are not – and may or may not have the capacity to do more than get killed?

People who taste bad to zombies and go about their lives as best they can?

What about the animals? Perhaps the worst danger out there is not a zombie, but other people.


Never enough of it – and not just ammo, but food and light and shelter as well. Safe locations are rare, fresh water not always available, and some food does not come as rations but something more suspect.

Batteries may be full, or not, and carrying capacity is finite. In addition, weapons may break, as can everything else. A knife does not run out of bullets, but where to stab – and does one really want to get in melee range? At some point, improvised weapons can become preferable.

Petrol stations are perfectly fine as weapons sources. They have gallons of stuff to kill with, and used right they explode too. Might take a bit of chemistry skill to get the most out of it. For example, homemade napalm, fertiliser nailbombs, molotov cocktails.


Famine, plague, war and death. The shortages cause strife, and death is rampant in all its bleakness. There will be corpses, there will be wounded. Being a zombie can be contagious, and it need not be the only disease around, giving another kind of special resource that is in short supply.

As for famine, the world can only more or less feed the people due to mass production. The anarchy of a zombie apocalypse would cause a breakdown of the society. A lot less order, a lot less food, and a lot less of everything the first world provides. What happens when the lights go out for the last time and there is no electricity or telecommunications? How about oil and fuel? How about heating? Roads? Currency?

Electricity needn’t go out everywhere. A dam can provide immense water power. It’s maintenance that is the issue, especially over long distances. How much of a society can exist under such conditions? Can the players help sustain it? Or will there be war amongst the last remaining pockets of civilisation?


In combat encounters, the strengths and weaknesses of zombie hordes need be stressed. For example:

Hard to destroy, save by special means
Zombiism might be contagious
Might not need to breathe
Can wait in ambush for ages
Usually zombies are shown to be slow, but that does not need to be so. They might be unable to wield equipment, but that too could change. Military zombies could be armored and might also remember enough to operate their weapons.

Zombies are often sees as victims to their instincts and predictable. Predictable is good as it requires the PCs play smart. As for instincts, such as the need to feed, perhaps zombies could have some intelligence until they come in close quarters with prey. Whether the players can use that to their advantage would be up to them. Lose some blood to drive the opposition to unthinking frenzy?

This might also add a few plot ideas: hunting game, there might be more than one breed of zombies, a sample is needed for research or cure. A zombie might wear something vital, such as keys or a uniform required for access, or a grenade. Alternatively, a story might require the PCs to be the hunted, in a Mad Max meets the colosseum sort of extended execution.

On campaign level, perhaps the PCs are human-zombie crossbreeds – people who have been exposed to whatever turns a person from human to zombie, but also to an experimental cure.

On the upside, that gives the PCs the best of both worlds – thinking like humans, with the physique of zombies.

On the downside, zombies hunt them and so do humans, as they need human blood and flesh for sustenance, are carriers of zombiism by blood contact, and are valuable research subjects. Some might also want to cover up the existence of such creatures, and simply want the PCs gone without a trace.

From Da’ Vane

All great zombie campaigns come down to three main themes, and the best advice is to focus on these themes above all else, and work on trying to make these fun. Many campaigns take these themes for granted, so normal rules often fall short or result in a massive grind, so it’s often best to throw out the rules and wing it.

The themes are:


Forget encounter rules. They won’t work well because they are designed for balanced enemies that give PCs a challenge. This is never the case in a zombie campaign. Besides one or two uber-zombies, like former comrades or high-ranking fallen characters, most of the zombies are weak but numerous. So numerous that they are more like moving hostile scenery than actual encounters.

Fighting them just depletes the PCs’ supplies until they are on their last hit points, low level abilities, and using their fists or the bodies of enemies for defence.

Be sure to wave the PCs with numerous weenies, use all their kickass abilities, generally show off, and then prepare for the horror when there are still waves more zombies approaching.


The PCs need to use anything and everything to survive. The zombies don’t stop coming, so opportunities for resting and resupplying will be limited. The PCs will have to make these opportunities for themselves by running away from the zombie horde, since they can normally outrun them, and spending a few rounds scavenging for useful items before they turn up.

Players should take care to record their supplies, but you should keep scavenging light and fun, and part of the action. Improvisation is good, and this can often be aided by a GM who is more than willing to say yes to the player’s cool ideas.

You might want to spice things up by throwing in reasons why the PCs need to give up their tried and true trusted weapons in favour of hunting for new ones. Otherwise, the PCs will likely go towards acquiring their favourite weapons and simply wailing at the zombies, which can get boring fast.


The key to the campaign is survival. Even the most basic necessities become a matter of life and death in the campaign. Food, water and medical supplies will all need to be secured – zombies don’t need these, but PCs do!

If the Zombies can infect the PCs or dead PCs return as zombies, there’s another problem. PC losses equal enemy gains and present critical vulnerabilities in what might otherwise be secure strongholds.

Time is often critical, as is reaching certain points and achieving certain objectives, and these should be the primary focus of adventures. It may be possible to stop the zombies, but this normally requires finding the source, or some other overly complex objective, rather than just defeating them all.

From Will

I highly recommend the Savage Worlds adventure Zombie Run. It’s one of the best adventures I’ve seen, and it could easily be adapted to other systems (you’d need stats for zombies, plus about 5 boss NPCs and 2-3 human minion types).

It covers many tropes of the genre, such as scavenging for items, trying to find fuel and ammo, and encountering other survivors, some of whom are worse than the zombies!

The adventure also has good advice about setting the tone. While it’s written as a linear sequence of events, the authors put in copious advice on what to do if the PCs wander off-track, rather than forcing the GM to railroad. It took my group 8 sessions to get through and we had a blast playing it.

War of the Dead from Daring Entertainment is also highly regarded, although I have not played or read it. It’s an episodic campaign where they release an adventure each week for a year; I think they’re on Week 20 or so. A lot of people seem to like it.

My general advice is to familiarize yourself with the zombie genre tropes and embrace them. Players eat that stuff up. When the zombie apocalypse occurs, people expect certain things to happen and want to be a part of that.

Part of the appeal is justified violence in a context that is closer-to-home than the dungeon. Everybody likes to let loose and issue a beat-down, but some of us have trouble bringing ourselves to hurt human NPCs. There’s no such hesitation when facing rotting, shambling corpses.

It’s also a genre where life is cheap, so if you’re a softie GM like me and want to kill a few PCs for a change, a horde of infectious undead might be just the thing. (The zombies need to be a credible threat or else the PCs get complacent. You want them struggling to survive, not setting up camp and kicking back.)

Another interesting aspect is that the game is set in the modern world, so you can have your guns and explosives and use your real-world knowledge, but there’s no police to worry about or cell phone network to help you out of a jam. This makes it easy for the GM to improvise, because the setting is basically “Everytown, USA, but wrecked.” You know what to expect of the environment and the enemies should your players go exploring.

So if you want to run a sandbox or improv game, but are afraid of the effort involved, a world ravaged by zombies is a good place to start. My players went off the rails numerous times during Zombie Run, always to good effect. The things they enjoyed most were coming up with clever ways to deal with the zombies, who were numerous and deadly but stupid.

For example, they eventually got a roll of chain-link fence and carried it around with them in their truck to use to seal off choke points and destroy small groups of zombies using melee weapons. Ahh, good times.

From Walter

Hi Josh,

For me, running horror themed games, whether zombie, Cthulhu Mythos or other, the best part is the psychological aspects and presenting situations that enhance or place stress on the psychology of the characters.

An example would be to present moral dilemmas: relatives of the characters have been turned into zombies. The moral conundrum is whether it is more humane to kill the zombies and put them out of their miserable undead existence, or to let them live.

This assumes that the undead relatives still retain aspects of their humanity. Perhaps it’s children who still cling to prized stuffed animals, blankets or other fetters.

I would turn the scenario of gathering ammo into one where the characters go to visit a relative’s home to get ammo from Uncle Bob, only to discover that Uncle Bob, his spouse and the children have all been infected with the zombie plague.

The zombies attack, of course. But make it a roleplaying scene where the players are exposed to the humanity that clings ever so slightly within the undead relatives.

You could then throw in a situation where the player character’s escape vehicle is low on gas and won’t “turn over” when needed.

From Sean S.

In response to reader Josh’s request for helpful zombie tips, I ran my Wastelanders campaign for nearly two years and have some suggestions.

Though not purely a zombie campaign (I did have a lot of minions of evil!), it did offer a lot of insight into the survival genre, which is the baseline for a good zombie game.

Keep track of players commodities

Bullets, gas, food and water. If they can run out of it, write down who has it and keep track of when they use it.

When a player knows you are keeping track of something, they tend to be much more cautious about wasting it.


Anyone who has played Left 4 Dead knows how important multiple types of zombies are. I tend to pick one statistic (Str, Con, etc.) and model a specific breed of zombie emphasizing that trait.

An intelligent and charismatic zombie would take the party off guard and make a possible NPC ally. Just as a hulking zombie, or a putrid puking zombie would make them think twice before getting too close.

Abuse the environment

Q: How many zombie movies have dark hallways? A: all of them.

Use blind fighting rules, make them carry torches. Depending on your flavor of apocalypse, you might need radiation gear (my group needed it a lot). I even had one chase sequence where the PCs were trying to escape the big bad guy’s fortress on top of a volcano while the volcano was trying to erupt.

Imagine the tension when you aren’t being chased by a mere enemy, but the ground itself as it gives way to lava. Suffice to say, they still talk about how awesome that fight ended.


Rolling 1’s are just as critical as rolling 20’s. Have a malfunction table and don’t be afraid to use it. If they roll a 1 and confirm less than 5 or 10 (be reasonable), have their gun jam, or a bullet get stuck in the chamber/clip. They break the stock or lose grip on the gun and it flies out of their hand.

Each malfunction imposes a simple problem in the weapon that can be fixed. A chip in a sword, -1 damage; a bullet jammed in the barrel, -1 ammo; broken trigger or stock, -1 to-hit.

Make a lot of the weapons they find already damaged. This gives those repair skills more purpose and lends credence to the environment being a harsh place. Same goes for armor.


Bullets are expensive; so is food. In my world 1 dollar would only buy a single bullet, a single meal of preserved food, or a pound of raw produce (depending on availability). Remember that consumables are in much higher demand when trading with NPCs. A farmer might sell produce cheap but highly value a handful of bullets.


Don’t be afraid to gross out your players a bit, and remember to lead the tension. The first time the party encounters ghouls is much more terrifying if they hear the murmurs of conversation while crunching and slurping of bones and marrow before they encounter the monsters.

Giving a monster the appropriate feeling of terror is more important than making a enemy statistically capable of killing the party.

A final demon boss in my game was a lvl 10 NPC, but by the time the group reached him, they were already afraid of what he could do. A little piano theme music (Phantom of the Opera anyone?) and the encounter was scary.

After they defeated him, he and his minions were sucked into a magical vortex. Then the real bad guy emerged and thrashed the party as expected. Once the big bad had fallen, the volcano chase scene ensued. they players were on their toes that session!


Play Dead Rising 2 or just google some videos. HORDES of zombies aimlessly wandering the streets. Even at low level. Take a cue from 4th Ed. D&D here. Throw a horde of +0 to-hit zombies with 10 AC and 1hp at the party; have them all do 1- 2 or 1-3 damage.

A party of 4 lvl 1’s should be able to take out 10+ “zombie minions” like these, but the encounter will scare the party with just numbers alone. Throw in a few tough zombies or altered zombies for flavor and to shake things up a bit.


Another Dead Rising 2 cue here (you can tell what I’ve been playing lately). Allow players to modify and use the environment. An improvised weapon might have a -4 to hit, but a custom weapon created out of improvised materials is another story. A classic Nail-Bat fills in the role of a spiked club any day.


Maybe not every game (snicker), but if a player gets overly confident, make sure to take him down to negative hit points in the next few sessions. If you have a group that trusts you, you can even have a total party kill turn into a role playing opportunity.

Say the party majorly wipes out and awakes a few hours later to find out they have been moved to the zombies’ hideout. Or possibly have them awake in the streets having been gnawed on and now infected (if you are using a transmitted version of zombiism).


I would describe how the impact hurt and how badly injured they felt and keep track of their HP on my DM sheet. This made the players treat the situation with much more caution, along the lines one would expect in a real situation.

It’s easy to see a number written down and think “I’ve got X number of HP left, I’m fine!” But when you hear the description of how you have three broken ribs, a serious concussion, and bleeding from several cuts and gashes, you start to realize what the lower half of your HP means in terms of your character’s resolve and well being. (For descriptive purpose, I treat the top 50% of HP as “endurance” and the lower 50% as physical trauma.)

All things considered, the most important and veteran tip I can offer is not to get hung up on the stats and numbers. The PCs’ *perception* of the bad guy and their situation is more important than how much in danger they actually are.

A simple circular saw isn’t scary, but placed in the hands of a lunatic chasing you and it’s perceived much differently.

From Ed Smith

I’ve run a couple zombie games and the best thing you can do is don’t let the players breathe until they get themselves into a safe place (boarding up in a room and such). The idea is not to give the players a chance to think.

I use a one minute game timer for this but I don’t let the players know then when it comes to their turn. I run each person as a combat by themselves using the go-to-the-scene technique. If they pause to think, they miss their turn and the zombies move up or attack.