Using Unknown Armies for a Zombie Survival Game

In order to get ready for the Project Dismember game,
I’ve hammered out four new sets of house rules for use in running zombie survival campaigns with Unknown Armies. I was initially using the RPG.net forums to work on them, but I’ll move them here for collection and further updating.

Included are the following five sets of House Rules:

  • Relationships add skill-modifying percentages to your character to use when relying on, helping, or working against other characters in your team.
  • Infection is a mechanic for tracking the spread of the zombie infection after you are exposed to it. It is implemented like a new Madness Meter, with some unique modifications.
  • Hordes are my attempt to transform the core Unknown Armies Riot mechanics into an effective representation of the infamous Zombie Horde.
  • Fortification rules allow the survivors to work together to locate, acquire, and enhance hideouts and safehouses.
  • Scarcities are a way to implement the danger of dwindling necessities, inspired by the core Madness Meter mechanics.

Read on for the details!

Relationships

At creation you get Soul/2 (up) in free skill points just for the purpose of developing relationships with other players. You create and name these like any normal skill: “I think Marsha is fucking hot and I want to do her 5%,” and “Jim’s a loudmouth asshole 8 %.” These are rarely (never?) rolled on their own. You are encouraged to leave some points unassigned, for later use when new players join, or when opinions change.

These can be used by you are any time when you are either counting on or working against another character. If you like Marsha, and she’s watching your back, add your relationship to your skill. If you hate Jim and you’re setting him up for a fall, add your relationship with him to your skill.

These can rise and fall as you see fit. If you think your relationship with someone is suffering, discard some points from it and return them to the pool. Add more points to the pool with XP: 1 XP for two relationship pool points.

It’s loose and open, but you’re not likely to live long enough to be able to exploit it.

Infection

This rule introduces a unique new madness meter, Infection, that only the GM knows about. This meter does not contain Hardened notches at all, only Failed. If a character interacts with a zombie, their player must roll vs Body, using the following modifiers:

  • +40% It slobbered on your clothes
  • +20% Its head exploded near you
  • +/- 0% It scratched you
  • -10% It slobbered in your mouth
  • -20% You kissed it
  • -30% It bit you
  • -40% You fucked it
  • -60% You ate its flesh

Failure gets you a Failed notch. Matched failure gets you two failed notches. Critical failure gets you four failed notches. At a crucial point in every scene, the GM can force you to make a Body roll, -10% per Failed notch you already have. If you fail, you gain another notch.

If you reach five notches, you die. Make an unmodified Soul roll. If failed, you rise in the near future, when dramatically appropriate. If successful, you come back right fucking now.

Zombie Hordes

These rules adapt the existing Riot mechanics to represent the “sleeping tiger” that is the Zombie Horde.

The Horde Roll: If there are a hundred zombies in the surrounding quarter-mile and a character fires a gun, there is a flat 50% chance of a Horde. Roll dice:

  • 1-25: Status quo is maintained as none of the zombies get a bead on the sound, or they are otherwise occupied.
  • 26-50: d10 zombies converge on the location of the gunshot, arriving in anywhere from a few seconds to at most a couple of minutes.
  • 51+: Congrats, mate. You’ve started a zombie horde.

Modifiers: The basic roll assumes a good number of zombies in the nearby area and a single loud noise to draw them in. There are many factors to consider, but here are a few possibilities:

  • A quieter noise, like an axe splitting a skull, will modify the roll by -10 or -20
  • Rural countryside is more sparse, so modify by -20 to -30
  • Small town areas have more spread-out population, -10
  • Big City areas are more dense, +30
  • Continuous loud noise, +10 to +30
  • One of you is freshly wounded and bleeding, +30
  • Lots of zombies: +10 for every additional twenty.

The final roll result is the Horde Rating.

Horde Duration: Unlike normal UA Riots, Hordes do not dwindle and just go away on their own. As long as there is the presence of the living nearby, they will relentlessly attack and try to feast. In fact, the horde will only grow in size. Every ten minutes, roll the dice. If you roll greater than 1/2 the current HR, the Horde remains but doesn’t grow. Otherwise, add the sum of the HR to itself (EX: 71 HR: 7+1=8).

Horde Damage: Any living creature caught inside the hungry horde takes damage equal to the Horde rating every ten minutes. Successful Dodge can half this damage. Whatever damage you take, if you’re still alive, check the sum of that damage (EX: 71 damage: 7+1=8). If that sum is 10 or over, you also got bitten; otherwise, it’s just scratches. In either case, remember the Infection rules.

Surviving the Horde: The only way to survive a Horde is to kill it in its entirety, or leave the area. As you increase the size of the Horde, your chances of either of these increases exponentially in difficulty.

Weakening the Horde: For every 2 zombies eliminated, reduce the Horde Rating by 1. I recommend using explosives and powerful tactical weapons. If explosions are used, however, the Horde automatically succeeds its very next size check, increasing in size by the sum of the new roll regardless of the roll.

Hordes vs Fortification: If the survivors have established a fortification compare the Horde Rating to the Fortification. If less than or equal to, the Fortification holds. If HR is greater than the fortification, reduce the Fortification rating by the HR sum (EX: 71 HR: 7+1=8) every ten minutes. Whenever the HR is more than twice the Fortification, it will fail some time in the span of the next ten minutes.

However, as long as the Fortification holds, the survivors inside take no damage from the Horde.

Fortifications

With proper time in advance, you can try to gather supplies in your environs to fortify and barricade a safehouse or other defensible position. These are good for providing enhanced defense against zombie Hordes, as well as having a safe(r) place to sleep at night instead of alone in the wild world outside. Sometimes, just having a bed and a roof is more important and comforting than a loaded gun.

Setting up a new fortification: When searching for a new defensible position, the player makes a significant skill roll, with modifiers from the GM based on location, weather, environment, etc (some places and times will be better than others). If successful, the result is the [I]best[I] position for fortification in the vicinity (no do-overs or try agains). This result sets the base Fortification rating for the new Hideout. This can be modified with additional effort.

The tens digit of the roll allows them to set a number of Key Defenses within the place. If you got a weak success, you also have to name a number of Key Weaknesses equal to 1/2 that (round up).

Examples:

  • Collapsable staircase
  • Sewer access
  • Barred windows
  • Gated entryway
  • Rooftop access
  • Second story
  • Wrought iron fence

Setting up defenses like these are key to narrative arrangement of scenes within the hideout, including potential horde attacks.

OSHes: Additionally, some or all of these can instead be set aside as “OSHes” (Oh Shit! Handles). An OSH isn’t defined at first, just kept around as a last-ditch resource in a hideout in case of attack. During a Horde attack or other possible invasion (raiders, single encounter shamblers, wild dogs, etc) an OSH can be sacrificed for a one-time get-away, preventing all damage from one source at one moment in time. For example, you could use one to prevent taking 71 damage when the Horde gets you, saying you knocked over a large cupboard and stalled them long enough for you to make it upstairs.

Enhancing the Fortification: By using relevant skills and resources, you can make rolls over time to enhance your Fortification by small amounts. The basic check is a significant roll, and assumes you spend an entire day of work scavenging, repairing, constructing, and toiling. Strong Success adds the roll sum to the Fortification rating. Weak success adds only the tens digit. Matched success is like strong, and also adds a Key Defense or an OSH. Matched Failure reduces the Fortification by the sum, and adds a Key Weakness. Multiple survivors can do this independently, or one player can make the roll and factor in Relationships for all those working under her leadership.

Utilizing the Fortification: The Fortification rating provides solid defense against intrusion from both the undead and any other force of active antagonism in the game. It’s uses are pretty varied, as if it were just another skill. It could be used as a Dodge skill against applicable attacks. It can make breaking and entering more difficult for intelligent enemies (by acting as a threshold for related entry skills). It actively works with the Horde rules to provide a limited (and sometimes very reliable) defense against the masses of the living dead.

Scarcities

When the world falls to the zombies, the things we need most in order to weather them out and beat them back will be in the most demand, and thus the hardest to come by. Those who wish to survive and stay fit should work hard to keep their supplies in good stock.

The GM will secretly keep track of four major Scarcities: Nourishment, Ammunition, Gasoline, Medicine. Like Madness Meters, these are ranked from Zero (Awesome) to Five (you’re fucked). These Scarcities apply to the entire group of Survivors, and are not managed individually.

  • 0: With no dots, you’re full up. You have everything you need in this scarcity: pantries overflowing with canned foods, a VW microbus full of ammunition, a fully-loaded ambulance worth of medical supplies, and an entire Exxon tanker trailer, freshly filled.
  • 1: You have access to a fully-stocked pantry; you have enough ammo to keep your guns loaded for a week of combat, and access to tools to make more of your own; you have a portable field medic station and gurney; You have a full take and four spares.
  • 2: You have a backpack stuffed with for the next week, maybe three if you ration it out; you have one heavy ammo box; you have an EMT bag and a shitload of gauze; you have a full tank of gas.
  • 3: You have enough to eat for the next day or two on tight rations; you have one full clip of ammo left; you’ve got a first-aid kit from the pharmacy down the street; you have half a tank of gas and a siphoning tube.
  • 4: You’ve got a twinkie and a can of pepsi; you have one bullet in your gun, and you know who it is for; you have half a box of band-aids and a bottle of children’s chewable vitamins; your moped is running on fumes.
  • 5: You’re totally out of this supply, and the end is pretty fucking nigh. You are two days away from starvation; your gun is broken and only useful as a club; you got no medicine and you feel a nasty cough coming on; you have a bike with two flat tires and a broken chain.

Player Awareness: The players should never be consciously aware of the actual numbers related to their Scarcites. They should be encouraged from time to time to keep an eye on their stocks, but otherwise their supply levels will only be known if they actively inspect their stuff. In such a case, give them an estimate based on the level descriptions above.

Initial Scarcity Levels: Initial scarcity levels for the game depend on how your scenario starts. For a Total Doomsday scenario like 28 Days Later, divvy out 17 dots to the Scarcities. For a hardened heroes survival action scenario like Left 4 Dead, divvy out 14 dots.

Raising Scarcity Levels: The GM raises the Scarcity levels in whatever manner seems appropriate. Here are some ideas:

  • Matched failure on a firearms test can raise the Ammo scarcity.
  • Forced escape from a Horde attack or other such raid forces the survivors to leave things behind in haste. Each survivor rolls both Speed and Mind. Each failure adds a dot to a Scarcity of the GM’s choice, each matched failure adds two dots.
  • Both failures and weak successes on medicine skill checks reduce the supplies.
  • Days of travel have passed, so food lowers accordingly.

Lowering Scarcity Levels: Likewise, this is done pretty organically. The GM can add stockpiles in the game that the players find, while the players can try skills to search and scavenge, and can even try and violently take things from NPCs.

Scarcities and Madness: Hitting level 4 in-game (not starting that way) on any Scarcity is a level 4 Helplessness check for all affected and aware. Hitting level 5 is a level 6 Helplessness check.

Level 5 Scarcity: When a group reaches level 5 in a Scarcity, they are not only just out of those supplies, but they are also now in a position of weakness in which that scarcity is endangering the group’s continued existence. At the soonest possible moment, you need to bring this horrible scarcity into the full light, in a painfully inconvenient way for them to overcome. Give someone a festering wound, or a painful sickness. Have a gun click or jam right as the character is about to blow away a zombie. Have characters suffer from malnourishment, and all kinds of associated gross afflictions. Set them up in a situation where cannibalism might actually be the only course of action. Have their vehicle break down while escaping a horde, and their generator shut down in a horrible blizzard.

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