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The zombie genre has become a zombie itself: shambling, decaying, wandering on autopilot. Yet we still keep making and enjoying zombie stories-so what’s the solution? We change the formula. Galvanize the sucker. Shoot twenty thousand volts into that old corpse and make it dance. One way to do that is to strip the zombie apocalypse of its urban setting and situate it in the past. Just in time for Halloween, here are three historical settings that turn freshen up your table top zombie game-from the gothic dread of Victorian waiting mortuaries to a gleefully unfaithful retelling of the Alamo.

LOST WITH ALL HANDS

The captain was ecstatic when they fished the German out of the water. The U-boat officer’s skin was putrid and bloated-he’d been out there a long time-but his pockets overflowed with maps and codebooks. It’s a lucky strike, and lucky strikes are rare in the North Atlantic.

Twenty-four hours later the HMS Somerset Vale‘s small sickbay bulges with fevered men. They froth and yowl, squirming inside their yellowed skins, but that’s nothing compared to what happens after they lie still. Within a day, the malady has taken half the crew and the surviving seamen find themselves locked safe behind bulkheads. But they won’t survive if they stay there-for the Vale has drifted away from its convoy, and the North Atlantic is no place for a lone, stricken destroyer. U-boat wolf packs hunt Allied vessels. Pocket battleships churn the dark waters. The skies buzz with Luftwaffe spotter planes. If the crew wants to live, they have to make their way through the ship, battling their former comrades for control of the vessel’s critical systems. Seize the helm. Crank up the engines. Broadcast a distress call, and for God’s sake man – keep the bloody lights on.

In Lost With All Hands the players become officers of a crippled Hunt-class destroyer. Each player takes on a specific role such as helmsman, communications officer, chief engineer, Royal Marine officer or the ship’s doctor as they try to mitigate the infection and elude German pursuers. This is a damage control scenario rather than a zombie killing game, meaning that the infected are an obstacle rather than the primary threat. While the players can bludgeon zombies on in the narrow corridors or lock them behind bulkheads, even a corpse that presents no physical threat can send the ship off-course or taint the provisions simply by blundering around. If the crewmen are to survive, they need to leverage all their problem-solving skills and work in concert to bring the Vale home-or give it an honorable burial at sea.

hunt  class destroyer

GM Notes: Keep the players in suspense. Once the officers find a balance, throw another crisis at them. Put a German pocket battleship on the horizon. Have the zombies start a fire in the hold. Make sure the game is about problem solving rather than just eliminating the undead, which shouldn’t be wholly possible-remember, there are limited guns and ammunition on naval vessels and they’re usually locked up in the armory. Players will have to use improvised weapons like spanners and pipes for most fights, and need to be extremely careful about explosives. After they gain control, the next question is what they’re going to do. They can’t land in a friendly port or they risk spreading the malady. If they radio a distress call, the Royal Navy may quarantine the ship, or even try sink it to stop the contagion. Scuttling the Vale might be a wise choice, but the icy Atlantic is no place to be in a lifeboat. Particularly intrepid and bloody-minded players might even try to crash the ship into an enemy port as a bioweapon. No matter what they chose, blindside them with consequences and never let them completely contain or destroy the outbreak.

Suggested Tabletop Rules Sets: GURPS WWII and GURPS WWII: All The King’s Men.

victorian mortuary

THE ASYLUM FOR DOUBTFUL LIFE

Somewhere on the mortuary floor, a bell rings. The bells ring every night in the Munich Leichenhaus, so Anna takes her time. She enters the great room still fuzzy from her stolen nap, turning up the oil lamp so the glow reaches to the vaulted ceiling. Whoever’s ringing is on the far end of the room. Anna thinks it’s Number Seven.

Anna passes between the corpses. Each body lies on an ornate stretcher, nested inches deep in flowers. Here a woman in the wrinkles of middle age, her face blackening. There a soldier in his grenadier jacket. Every corpse has a string leading from its index finger to a bell above their stretcher. Should not prove as dead as they appear, the ringing will save themselves from being buried alive. If not, decay will let the doctors know they’re safe to bury. It’s the law, but it’s a stupid law-the bells ring every night as the bodies bloat and settle. No one has ever woken up.

Even with the flowers, the tang of decomposition crawls up Anna’s nostrils. It sticks to her and follows her home, even after she takes off her nurse’s uniform. She passes through the room with a handkerchief over her nose. Number Seven comes into view.

No, Number Seven is gone. There’s only the shroud pulled aside and an empty ring of flowers like an abandoned bird’s nest. Shed petals float in the zinc preservative that fills the stretcher tray. Anna takes a step backward and her shoe lands in something wet. She lowers the shaking lantern. It’s a footprint. A bare, wet footprint in shining zinc.

A bell rings. Then another. The whole ward begins to chime.

For the first time, someone has woken up.

During the 19th century, European physicians had a bit of a problem-namely, they couldn’t figure out how to declare people dead. Cessation of heartbeat and breathing seems the obvious solution, but there were some conditions that made these processes hard to detect, and stethoscopes-though around-were in their infancy and not trusted. Doctors debated the problem in academic journals and medical organizations offered cash prizes for a solution. Meanwhile, the public developed a lurid fascination with tales of premature burial-fed equally by hack publishers, dubious stories from medical journals, and horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe. Adding to the fear was a psychological condition called the “death trance” which paralyzed young women and made them appear dead. Some doctors advised blowing pepper up a corpse’s nostrils to see if it stirred. Others thought that slitting a dead man with a razor or shoving a hot poker in his rectum would be enough to wake him up in case he only appeared deceased. However, the most trusted method was simply waiting for the body to decay-a sure signal that life had fled. Under this logic, a philanthropist in Munich built the first Leichenhaus, or “waiting mortuary,” in 1791, giving it the rather optimistic name “The Asylum for Doubtful Life.” The theory was that corpses should wait there until they started to rot, signaling that they were safe to bury.

The first mortuaries were simple houses, but by the time the 1860s rolled around they were large palaces with marble columns, floral displays and vaulted ceilings. There were perks, too-the rich could spend five times the normal fee to decay in an ornate private chamber rather than moldering with the masses. Architects added sculptures depicting angels and sphinxes, hammering home that the mortuary was a transitioning place, a “Temple of Sleep” leading to the world of the dead. Establishments even let people tour the facility for a small fee. A matron, a couple of watchmen and multiple nurses served on staff with a doctor on-call in case anyone woke up, though there’s no record of that ever happening.

Using waiting mortuaries in your zombie game has several advantages. First of all, the setting is actually scary. Victorian funerary practices with their hired mourners, ostentatious floral arrangements and corpse photography were creepy as hell and make excellent background for a horror game. Second, if you cast the party as period-era nurses and night attendants you avoid making the zombies easy to kill, since players don’t have access to modern firearms and have to make do with muzzle-loaders. Finally, the players have a built-in goal: Try and find out what’s raising the dead and stop it before the corpses leave the hospital.

GM Notes: The Victorian confusion about where life ends can be fertile ground for a storyline. Maybe the attending physician is testing a serum that’s supposed to reinvigorate people who only appear dead, but instead it reanimates necrotic flesh. Alternately, some GMs may want to cast the zombies as supernatural horrors rather than scientific ones-perhaps the hospital sits on converging lay lines or the corpses rise due to a powerful avenging spirit manipulating them like puppets. The key is to keep players focused on the ghoulish atmosphere, injecting mortality and the sheer gross-out factor to keep the fear alive. Want to make zombies scary again? Describe how they smell.

Suggested Tabletop Rules Sets: Call of Cthulhu or All Flesh Must Be Eaten.

alamo by doerr and jacobson

DISMEMBER THE ALAMO!

“We must die,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Travis. “Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death.” He unsheathes his sword and slowly draws a line in the sand. “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.”

One by one, the men walk over. Crockett. Juan Seguín. Bowie crosses, sweating heavily from the infection. Only one man remains.

“And you, sir?” Travis asks the last man. “If you promise to fight, we will have you.”

The last man thinks for a moment. Then with a shrug he walks across, dirt crunching under his knee-high boots. “If you give me a rifle, I will fight,” says Antonio López de Santa Anna.

Dismember the Alamo! isn’t a historical scenario, at least not in the strictest sense. It’s a satirical take on American mythmaking and hero-worship. In this alternate history, a zombie infection breaks out in Santa Anna’s ranks, leading him and his staff to surrender in exchange for sanctuary in the Alamo. But the Texans have little time to celebrate their victory-there are 1,800 brain-eaters clawing at the gate. A mass breakout is impossible, and indeed, would simply spread the horror to the rest of Texas. There’s no choice but to keep the shambling dead busy besieging the mission complex, sacrificing themselves so the rest of Texas can mount a defense.

Players don the coonskin caps and buckskins of American legends-David Crockett, Jim Bowie, Juan Seguín and Colonel Travis, not to mention Santa Anna. Their directive is to hold the mission to the last man using any and every crazy, suicidal, ludicrous tactic they can dream up. If a player wants Jim Bowie to run across the yard throwing knives into zombie skulls, let him. Is Crockett thinking of adding an ax edge to Old Betsy’s butt? Great. After all, this is how people have treated the Alamo for almost every film about the event. Crockett never blew the magazine like in the John Wayne version, for instance. Neither did he “kill him a bear when he was only three,” like Disney’s TV show theme song states. Even sacred parts of the Alamo myth, like Colonel Travis drawing a line in the sand, are later fabrications. Instead of fighting that, run with it-make the defense of the Alamo the biggest tall tale you can manage.

GM Notes: The 7th Sea and Swashbuckling Adventure rules are perfect for games like this-they encourage over-the-top play and reward daring feats. However, it’s important to note that the whole point of the Alamo is that all of these people die. Dismember the Alamo! isn’t about winning, it’s about hosting the most ludicrous total party kill that you and your players can possibly imagine. Don’t be afraid to let your players run wild, but remember that there needs to be a progression. In the beginning, the characters should be merely Hollywood versions of their real selves, but by the last assault they should be pummeling zombie bears with their raw fists and hip-shooting light artillery. Try to watch some Alamo movies (and preferably read a book) beforehand to get a sense of the characters, but remember that the PCs are supposed to be legends rather than historical figures.

And keep another surprise up your sleeve: After they all die, you can give them new character sheets. Their heroic defense has allowed Sam Houston to rally a Texan army and track the infected. Their new characters catch up with the horde at San Jacinto, getting the opportunity to avenge their own deaths.

Suggested Tabletop Rules Sets: Swashbuckling Adventures or its older and better incarnation, 7th Sea.

With a little imagination and a history book, you can create mash ups that reinvigorate the zombie genre. Don’t feel restricted to these three scenarios-mix and match whatever you like. You could create a great game where zombies replace the black plague, or the potato blight that created the Irish diaspora, or have Hadrian’s wall be a defense against the undead horde. Zombies are a highly malleable monster, and the only limit is your imagination and a Google search.

Need more zombies? Check out our Walking Dead survivor personality quiz, Lisa Foiles’ Top 5 underrated zombie games, and read about why we might need to stop caring about the apocalypse.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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