Hang out with me long enough, and you'll discover that I always carry with me a pro-zombie agenda. Zombie apocalypses are my go-to genre. When it comes to role-playing games, the genre I always tend to crawl to these days is the zombie apocalypse. Many roleplaying games...the majority of them, I would say...have roots deeply set in high fantasy, mainly coming from D&D's titanic influence, which in turn got its inspiration from fantasy literature earlier in the century. Me, though? I'm a zombie dude.
Why is that? There are a number of reasons....
1. Zombies are a universal foe. Zombies are the new Nazis. You can be anyone, from anywhere, having any background, and be a natural nemesis of the walking dead. No moral grey areas, no questions of whether you should kill zombie children, no hope of diplomatic solutions. It's us (me and the players) versus them.
2. Moral shades of grey. This seems contradictory to what I just said, but hear me out here. Having a foe that is unquestionably evil and unquestionably must be destroyed clears the board of external drama...which leaves it wide open for internal drama. Do we use medicine to treat the infirm, or save it for those capable of protecting us? Do we kill the person who just showed up with bite marks on his arm, or do we let him in and hope for the best? When the moment comes, will you be ready to put a bullet in your loved one's brain, or will you hesitate just long enough to share your loved one's fate? That's some great drama, right there. Combine that drama within the context of a zombie apocalypse, and now you have plenty of action and tension that naturally coexists with a character's inner turmoil.
3. Wide tonal range. It's hard to take superheroes seriously. You're running around in spandex and capes, for God's sake. It's not impossible, mind you, but difficult. It's likewise hard to take high fantasy seriously. You've got these long-eared, impossibly attractive elves, and unicorns, and magic spells and all that stuff. C'mon! Again, it's not impossible, but definitely an uphill battle. It is, however, very easy to take shambling, flesh-eating corpses seriously. But, by their very nature, it's also doable to not take them seriously. Look at film. We have Night of the Living Dead and Zombieland. Look at video games. We have Left 4 Dead and Plants vs. Zombies. Zombies can play both sides of the field to great effect, better than any other stock villian or fantasy archetype out there.
4. Variable characteristics. We have the classic, slow walking, damage-absorbing zombies. Then we have the savage, fast-moving, running zombies. Then we have mutant zombies with supernatural abilties, intelligent zombies who can make plans and command a horde, zombie animals...you name it, zombies can do it. And, with a little fudging, you can bring in the rest of the undead army with you who can cover any other bases. Vampires, afterall, are essentially powerful, sexy zombies.
5. Our world becomes a sandbox. Of all the points listed here, this is perhaps my biggest. A zombie apocalypse turns our normal, everyday world into something bizarre and dangerous that needs to be explored. For example, my wife was showing me the floorplans to her new office building the other day. As she gave me a little virtual tour of the place, I kept looking at the whole map and thinking, "Where would the supplies be? Where would survivors go in this building to be safe? What kind of undead ambushes could there be in these halls?" In a zombie apocalypse, you don't need to draw up elaborate, labrinthine dungeons and somehow justify their existence. Likewise, you don't need to fill that dungeon with random monsters and come up with some reason why they're all just hanging out underground. Instead, you can take a shopping mall, stuff it with zombies, and ask your players "What do you do?" It's that simple. A trip to the grocery store suddenly becomes your own, perilous journey to Mordor.
So if you ever find yourself at my gaming table and wonder what RPG I'm going to pull out...a very safe bet is that it's going to involve zombies.
Or Cthulhu. But that's another post...