It’s been a little over seven months since I re-started my Year of the Zombie campaign. Year of the Zombie is a D20 Modern ruleset put out by UKG Publishing. With the help of Fantasy Grounds and Skype six of us have been playing on and off since the early part of November 2006. I thought I’d post a little recap on where the campaign is right now, but mostly about what it has been like to run a online zombie game, and where I think things are headed for the rest of the year. Gibberish gets a lot of search results for various zombie things, so this information might help others start games of their own.
Fantasy Grounds 1.x has been a mixed bag. When the software works, it does what we need. However, we’ve had various problems with the program, ranging from players crashing, to the entire group crashing, to a player having her character sheet corrupted. Sometimes one half of the group will see an updated map or image, the rest have to wait while I repeatedly mash the “refresh image” feature. One of our players has never been able to see the text properly — it always renders very very small no matter when he tries to do. On a good note, Fantasy Grounds allows for some quick and easy image importation. I had a player instant message me with pictures of a Coast Guard cutter boat, which I then imported instantly into the game to give the party an idea of what was around them. The nuts-and-bolts aspect of the game, such as die rolling and map-making, is pretty good. I wish there was a way to lock down the “table” so that players couldn’t roll the dice until it was time. There have been a few times where someone was bored and rolling all the time, and either obfuscated an active player’s roll or were called on to make a roll of their own and I couldn’t tell if they were just fucking around or actually made a roll. Perhaps the newest version of the software puts a timestamp next to each roll.
The latest version of FG is out (2.0), but we haven’t tried it yet.
Skype is great considering that it’s free. It is very resource intensive, and between Skype and Fantasy grounds I was unable to do anything else on my workstation without Skype stuttering or lagging in conversations. I have offloaded Skype duty to an older machine, and this helps a lot. I am very happy using Skype for our voice needs.
Setting up the YOTZ forum was a nice way to store information about the game itself. I don’t know, in retrospect, if it’s necessary. I think I could have posted the same information on Gibberish so that other folks outside of the game could see what’s going on more easily. The forum was also used for votes and player feedback, but again that could have been done easily within WordPress.
Google Calendar was my solution for scheduling game time. Unfortunately not everyone either uses Google Calendar; the attendance status functionality is the primary reason I use it over just emailing folks. I also wish I knew of a setting (or if GC did this at all) so that I am notified when people change their status. More on attendance in a bit, but more than once someone has declared they will attend and then will have to back out. I see that we have quorum, start the game, and then two or three of us sit for fifteen minutes until I call the game.
We play for two-ish hours every other Tuesday. Playtime definitely feels short, but I think extending it any longer than two hours would cause the game to bump up against other real-life issues. The nice thing about the bi-weekly, two hour time spot is that it should be easy to plan for without detracting too much from chores, significant others, work, or just general playtime. My meatspace rpg group had been meeting for four to eight hours per session, and with people coming in from out of town or bringing stuff to cook it turned into a whole day event. While the idea of having some of my friends around all day is great, it’s a lot easier to pick up and put down a two hour virtual campaign.
Consistent attendance has been the biggest drag to the game. Sometimes things get in the way, but our campaign is plagued by a lot of short-notice (or no-notice) cancellations and confusion. While the YOTZ world is more action than role-playing, I still try to keep a somewhat consistent story going. This makes it hard for the game to continue when even two of our players are absent. For example, the group had started out on a zombie-infested cruise ship. The party had barricaded themselves to the bridge, but the ship was chock-a-block with the undead. We ended the night’s session with the group planning their escape. The next session rolls around, and only two out of five players can make it. No big deal, as shit happens, but what do I do with the story? The two attendees wound up doing a run to the belly of the ship to get supplies and investigate a fire. It was fun for us, but the story didn’t go anywhere. As I’m typing this out, perhaps moving the story along isn’t that big of a deal, but it does put me (as the guy running the game) in a bad spot for managing the absentee player characters.
It is SO MUCH easier — and expected — for player characters to die in a zombie campaign. I think we’ve had an equal amount of player death caused by zombies as we have from friendly fire. There are no clerics, healing potions, or resurrections in YOTZ, and if you take a lot of damage in one session you are still recovering several sessions later. One bite from a zombie will always result in death and a turn. When you pit five player characters and five non-player characters (controlled by me) against fifty zombies, chances are someone is going to get jacked. When a player is absent, I feel compelled to babysit their character until they return. Even though everyone accepts that they will die, they want their character death to mean something. Hopefully heroic, but at least funny. I think coming back to the game and being told, “you died in an elevator” would suck. As such, I either have to take it easy on those not there, or shunt them off to the side and invent something for those in attendance to do.
The number one thing I’ve liked about playing the game is how much more realistic the roleplaying is. People freak out and do stuff that they wouldn’t normally do. One of the things I’ve always hated about moral alignment-based systems such as AD&D, any Palladium Game, etc is that players choose an alignment — how their characters should generally act — and then mostly disregard it and act however they want, or however is easiest to get along with the rest of the group. I find characters of “really really good” alignments fall prey to this most often, particularly when they are grouped with other characters of, how shall we say, moral ambiguity.
My YOTZ game has no alignment. It allows players the flexibility to react much more situationally, and in my opinion, more honestly. One of the members of the party freaked out and started shooting at nearby zombies. The only problem was that two players were in between. Oops, friendly fire. In another instance, one of the characters had been bitten, but had not yet turned. They waited until she passed out and put a bullet in her brain. Survival instincts take over, and I think that aspect of the game would be impossible to reproduce under a traditional alignment system. One of my favorite moments was the mental image of a 300+ character (comic book artist, complete with warped sense of reality based on action comics) jumped from the cruise ship’s sinking emergency boat to a Coast Guard ship.
On the future
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to inject fun into the campaign again and run sessions more regularly. I had to come up with something modular enough that a 50% or lower attendance wouldn’t sink the storyline, but still relevant to the overall storyline. I’ve decided to implement smaller “episodes” that run one or two sessions at most. There will be goals or victory conditions in each episode of which the players may or may not be made aware. Players can spend these points to do things “behind the scenes” such as defend a refugee camp, repair that truck that was shot up by raiders, set up an equipment cache, send out trading convoys, etc. If enough players show up to defend the refugee camp “in person” then they can spend their points elsewhere. If not, then the group can spend points and those who do show can do a mini-adventure, which in turn earns points for the team.
The other option that I may use, either separately or in conjunction to the point system, is to increase the player base. I may or may not keep the overall number of players the same, but I know that there are other people out there who expressed interest in YOTZ back in October. I’d rather not boot players out, but if I have the choice between a player who wants to be there and one who can’t make the time, the game must go on.