To celebrate the airing of Season Five of The Walking Dead, we’re having a zombie themed week of posts here at The Illuminerdy.
This offering is the outline of a system free zombie survival scenario you can throw at your players.
It has a twist, though: The players don’t know that it’s a zombie apocalypse scenario. Instead, it’s set up as a bank heist gone wrong.
I first ran this scenario using the World of Darkness core rules and statted the zombies using guidelines in the World of Darkness: Antagonists book published by White Wolf/Onyx Path. I would probably use Fear Itself (Gumshoe/Pelgrane Press) now. I would also expect Savage Worlds, D20 Modern, Fate and/or WaRP to handle it well.
It was originally run over six, 3 hour, sessions, with the bank raid taking up session 1 and the zombie threat emerging at the climax of session 2.
I have included notes on how to reduce the scenario down to a one shot or two session game at the end of this document.
The Set Up
During character creation, ask the players to stat up small time career criminals. Suggest that they use characters from Tarantino films as inspiration. The TV series The Kill Point, starring John Leguizamo, is another excellent starting point, as is Inside Man and maybe Ocean’s Eleven or Die Hard. If the players are open minded, maybe Dog Day Afternoon as well. (If you’ve not watched Dog Day Afternoon, watch it now. I was exclaiming “wait, what?!” every fifteen minutes.)
Ideally the players will identify specific roles and specialisations during character creation, such as ‘Safe Cracker’, ‘Crowd Control’, ‘Security Expert’, ‘Barely Contained Psychopath’, ‘Bag Man’, ‘Muscle’ etc.
DO NOT let anyone be the driver. They’ll just die. Tell them that you want to keep the player characters together, so as a consequence the driver role is off limits. It’s fine if they think that the job is going to go bad and plan accordingly. They won’t plan for a zombie apocalypse. No one ever does.
They usually don’t look up, either, but that’s a different story…
Make the game look legitimate. Suggest the players watch Reservoir Dogs and Inside Man and give them some resources on bank robberies, such as the Wikipedia entry on Bank Robbery or the results of a Google search on ‘How to rob a bank’.
One prop that you will need is a map of a bank, either a real one if you can get it, or one you have drawn up yourself. It will add an air of authenticity to the con you’re playing on your players and will be heavily utilised later on.
If possible, get each player to detail just why their character is robbing a bank. Add a layer of humanity to the proceedings. Your players are more likely to care about human beings in a tough spot than two dimensional criminals.
Get them to share their stories and intertwine their histories. How did they meet? Are they friends? Relatives? Ex-cell mates? Did they serve together?
Let them care about each other.
It’s the day of the heist. They’re packing their bags with guns, Halloween masks and tools. The weather is unseasonably hot. There’s a big event on the other side of town, and the local Police Department are occupied there.
Add some other local details as the PCs travel to the target bank. Maybe add in a close call with a cop or family member for a quick satisfactory moment of tension and triumph.
The heist will go exactly as planned, to begin with at least. The customers in the banking hall comply, as do the cashiers. Any security guards are lovable old men with scant days until retirement who say things like “Son, you don’t have to do this” and “My fingers are too arthritic to pull the trigger anyways”.
The bank manager is a delightfully oily and cowardly person who uses a young cashier as a human shield when the guns come out. He doesn’t comply with any demands or directions unless personally threatened. The players may wish to cut one of his fingers off or pistol whip him. That’s fine. Let them have some fun.
The Chief Cashier is more noble, and will comply with the players demands if any customers or cashiers are threatened (but will remain stubborn and resistant if the Manager or the branch Financial Advisor are threatened).
The branch Financial Advisor would fit right in in Fargo or Glengarry Glen Ross. He’s a nervous, unassertive and wretched person who is often in the way, even though he tries not to be.
The big money is in the vault, which doesn’t have a door like the one in Tron or Scrooge McDuck’s house, sadly.
It’s a solid metal door, about 4 inches thick with a dial the size of a dinner plate on the front and two key holes. Both keys need to be inserted before the dial can be turned. The Manager has one key, the other is held by the Chief Cashier.
Behind the vault door is a steel bar door, which only requires one key to open. The Chief Cashier holds this.
Behind the steel bar door are a beaten wooden cart full of cash boxes and several locked chests and boxes deposited there by customers. The bank staff do not have the keys for these boxes nor are they aware of the contents.
Feel free to stock them with Nazi gold.
The Twist #1
It all goes sour as the players find their route out of the bank blocked by Police. It’s bad luck is all; a squad car got called to a shoplifting at the music store across the street five minutes before the player characters walked into the bank, and the rest is history.
Now there are five cars and a road block between the characters and freedom.
The Police response is text book. They surround the building, cut the external phone lines and hook everything up to their command van.
They try to establish a dialogue with the player characters, offer clemency and leniency in return for the release of hostages. They control access to food and water. Before too long the power is cut off.
One thing to remember about bank buildings, especially the older ones, is that they’re purposely designed to be hard to break into. They’re eminently defensible positions, and this is pretty much the only advantage that the player characters have.
The Police opt to wait it out. Sooner or later the robbers will have to come out. The Police will only make a full assault if the player characters start executing hostages.
The Twist #2
As night falls (or the second night, if you want to ramp up the player tension) the player characters hear sustained gunfire outside the bank.
They’ll most likely brace for impact, expecting SWAT to come crashing in through the ceiling any moment.
That doesn’t happen.
The gunfire continues outside, accompanied by explosions and crashes and screams. It keeps on.
It’s evident that the Police are shooting at someone else. If anyone chances a look outside, they see carnage in the street: burning cars, smashed store fronts, bodies lying in the streets, wounded crying for help.
The shooting subsides, reducing to short bursts, and gets closer to the bank. There’s a heavy knocking at the door and the outside phone line rings.
The officer on the other end begs the player characters to open the doors and let the three officers outside it in. “Please, in the name of all that’s holy!”
The knocking at the door is accompanied by desperate, terrified cries for help.
If the players choose to open the door, three uniformed officers, one badly wounded, bundle in. They slam the door behind them and start dragging tables and desks to barricade it.
If the players do not open the door, then they will hear what sounds like someone being brutally murdered.
Either way, figures will start banging against the locked doors, endlessly, tirelessly.
If the players chose to let the uniformed officers in, then they will be rewarded with knowledge and danger.
The Knowledge: After the compulsory suspicious Mexican standoff, the Police will tell the player characters what has happened.
It started at the public event on the other side of town. First there were riots and looting and rampaging mobs, then the madness spread across town.
Keep the details vague and horrifying. At no point refer to anything other than crazed citizens.
The Danger: The badly wounded officer passes out shortly after arriving, most probably from loss of blood caused by the gaping wound on their shoulder, and dies some 15 minutes later.
Ten minutes after that, hopefully in the middle of a heated exchange between the player characters and the Police officers, dead officer stands up and begins shuffling around the room making pained moaning sounds. It will attack the first person to move within arms reach.
Letting the uniformed officers into the building ultimately grants the player characters with enough information to get a handle on the situation. If they do not allow the officers into the building, they will have to observe the activity in the street outside to deduce what is going on.
Once they work up the courage to look out of a window (they may be afraid of SWAT snipers etc, and really should be) they will see the following:
- Civilians wandering around inside the Police cordon around the bank building
- One overturned Police van
- One burning Police cruiser
- At least 15 civilians surrounding and shaking a SWAT van
- Bodies lying in the street, with at least one being dragged away, unceremoniously, by a group of civilians and Police officers
- Smashed store fronts, other stores with their shutters down
- The power is out, at least in this part of town.
It is at this point that you, the GM, will begin to lose complete control of the scenario. The players will by now have realized that you’ve conned them and will be bouncing differing fight or flight options off of each other and you.
The bank building itself is secure enough to withstand a zombie siege almost indefinitely, and has sections that can easily be partitioned off and quarantined should any undead get inside.
The biggest threat to the player characters and any hostages left inside is the prospect of starving to death.
Resources within the bank are scarce. Water is limited to a couple of coolers around the building, food to whatever sandwiches the branch staff brought in with them that day, plus any supplies left over from those that the Police sent in during hostage negotiations.
This will be the ultimate impetus for the player characters to leave the building. Most players would rather have their characters go down under a wave of undead than have them starve to death.
Here the scenario becomes about survival: Getting out of the bank, finding shelter, finding supplies, getting out of town.
Conflict should be provided not by the undead, who are essentially an environmental hazard, but rather from any surviving bank raid hostages and from any Police Officers. The player characters are still the ‘bad guys’, and none of the NPCs will forget that in a hurry.
When I ran this scenario I gave the players a break by allowing them contact with a SWAT sniper trapped on top of a building across the street, kind of like Andy the Gunshop Owner from the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.
The sniper provided valuable intelligence to the players, advising them of activities in the street below and covering fire in the event of an escape.
I also gave the player characters access to the roof of the bank, which in turn allowed them to get onto the roof of another nearby building and free run across the block. They enjoyed that.
From this point onwards, I open up the scenario to your vision of the zombie apocalypse, and you can decide if it is a local plague or a world wide end of days. If and how the player characters can escape the town and find sanctuary is something that you should think long and hard about.
I had my player characters die a grisly and futile death at the town border, trapped between a tide of undead behind them and a collapsed bridge in front.
Running the scenario as a one session game
If you would like to run this scenario as a Con game, or in a single night, then here are some pointers on shortening it.
- Cut, and cut hard. Any extraneous detail should be excluded.
- Give the players some pre-generated characters, saving time with character creation.
- Start with the characters walking in the doors of the bank.
- Reduce resistance within the bank. The NPC bank staff and hostages will comply without fuss or quarrel.
- Montage sequences. Fast forward through time by describing events without roleplaying them where possible.
- Reduce the number of uniformed officers knocking on the door from 3 to 1. He can tell the players everything you want them to know before croaking and reanimating.
- 15 minutes before your session is due to end, flood the area with zombies. If the player characters are still in the bank, infect the hostages. If they have ventured outside, have the ceiling collapse under the weight of zombies and rain bitey death down on them.
As stated earlier, I originally ran this scenario using the new World of Darkness core rules and the Antagonists supplement to stat my zombies. It’s a good book and a great system, and allows you to create your own zombie horde in about ten minutes.
If you would like to use Fear Itself to run your zombie apocalypse game, then I’ve got you covered with this post over at my old blog. Some of the artwork has dropped off, so apologies for that.