Advice for play

The rules of Zombie Cinema resemble a boardgame more than a roleplaying game in that the rules leaflet only prescribes rules mechanics, not advice for how to use those rules. This makes the rules quick to learn and ascertains that the players are clear on what is mandated and what is only encouraged to play the game well.

The following pointers are the advice part of traditional rpg rules, one might say. I’ll tell here about some ways in which the instrument that is the game can be made to sing. Be sure to ask for more advice if you still have any questions after reading this – I’ll be adding points to the text as necessary.

Goals of play

This is said very clearly in the rules of the game, but it bears repeating: the goal of Zombie Cinema is to have fun by creating a movie-like story together with the other players. This is a strategic goal in the sense that you can play smartly or not so smartly, and the effort may succeed or fail to different degrees depending on the skills of the group.

The rules of the game also explain how the story is created: each player presents for the amusement of others a strongly personified character, and the story comes out of the choices and interaction of this cast of characters. This already tells us something useful that might be missed on a quick read-through: the story (and the fun) comes about because the players depict their characters faithfully while cooperating with the other players in creating the story. This might result in different interactions in the game:

  • When the players are describing how their characters act, such as in the middle of scenes, they are advocating for the character: the player tries to depict a believable character and that character’s choices in the imaginary situations presented in the game. This, Zombie Cinema claims, is a basic requirement for interesting stories to happen.
  • When framing scenes, the player is not advocating for his character. Thus it is entirely reasonable for the player to frame scenes that do not further the ambitions of his character. When the player is not depicting what his character thinks and does, he makes choices according to his dramatic sensibilities.

As you can see from the above, Zombie Cinema does not exactly resemble most roleplaying games or boardgames, in which the interests of the players tend to align with the interests of the characters they control. In Zombie Cinema you might have sympathy for your character, and your character always makes choices according to his own interests, but the player also has powers of choice that are not choices of his character: when making these “meta choices”, the player may well choose against the interests of his character.

Creating characters

Character creation in Zombie Cinema is a creative challenge: the player is trying to choose a character who will develop into an interesting and valuable member of the cast in a zombie movie. There are certain strategies for this:

  • Following conventions is always a good idea when trying to get a functional movie off the ground, simply because with a conventional character the group knows what to expect and how to use the character. I’ve met many roleplayers who have been taught that originality is the highest virtue in character creation, but this is not the case in Zombie Cinema: it’s much more important to have a character which you can use efficiently. The Cinema Cards help in this by suggesting some typical memes from the zombie movie genre.
  • Setting up relationships with the other players’ characters is an excellent idea. These relationships may be pre-existing in the plot of the forthcoming play, such as agreeing that two characters are related, used to be lovers or work in the same company or whatever. They may, however, also be just possibilities that are acknowledged in the abstract only: the players might know that these two characters would fit rather well together as a romantic couple, for instance, even if the characters only meet each other at the beginning of the game.
  • Not determining too much about your character in advance is a good idea, because it allows you to shift him fruitfully. This is especially true of dramatic roles – do not lock down the expectation that your character will be the male lead (hero), for the events beyond your control might easily lead to a situation where it’ll be much more fruitful for you to turn him into a villain. The advice holds for concrete character backstory, too: just like in movies, we simply are not interested in hearing about your character’s life story or political views before the story’s even started; all that stuff may be brought out and invented as necessary when and if it becomes relevant. Often you’ll find that choosing these details on the moment of reveal opens new narrative opportunities that would have never been there if you’d already known your character too well in advance.

There is an anecdote I tell about character creation strategy in Zombie Cinema: if everybody else has declared their characters and they’re all men of different sorts, make your character female. This is vital for movie stories, you’ll be needing that gender split with the assorted themes of romance and other things when the actual play begins, even if those themes only make an appearance by omission. Playing the only female character in the story is also interesting simply because that guarantees the female lead role for your character (more on the roles later). Stories with an all-male cast are dull most of the time, but all too common when roleplayers make their characters; they’re used to thinking in terms of what sort of character they can identify with, not what sort of character would be interesting to portray in relation to the other characters.

Often the best method for creating your character is to be open to ideas and grab the first one that seems playable. You also shouldn’t worry too much about the character’s details – act like you were watching a movie, and just determine the external facts about your character at first. What the audience of the movie wouldn’t know is also stuff you don’t need to know – you’ll find out the deeper details through the process of play.

Going back to the original exhortation, the player’s job in the game is to create an interesting character and then advocate that character for the other players. To say the same thing in different words, your task in creating your character is to take some interesting issue of human nature and give it form as a colorful, believable imaginary personality. Think of it as a clash of themes: this character is a liberal animal rights activist, this one is a middle-class teacher – they don’t fight crime, but they certainly fight zombies, and to be interesting to the audience (that’s you), they need to be clear and communicative in their conception. The weak and disinteresting character who isn’t really anything concrete will soon be fed to the zombies as unnecessary overhead when the game starts.

Character roles

People have dramatic sensibilities, and part of those sensibitilies are the deep-rooted conceptions we have about the roles of characters in stories. This gives rise to what I’m going to call “character roles”, which are basically formulaic positions characters in stories take when people follow those sensibilities. Understanding character roles is useful for playing something like Zombie Cinema simply because knowing the role allows you to play towards it to affirm your character’s role, or to play against the role, keeping up tension and potentially shifting your character to a different role in the story.

The most important roles are familiar to us all from stories:

  • Heroes are proactive characters with goals. They are usually male. It is very difficult to create a zombie story without a hero, simply because the crisis situation demands characters to take a stand and fight for their convictions.
  • Heroines are idealized victims of adverse conditions. They are usually female. Sympathetic characters who refuse to become heroes tend quite easily towards being heroines. Often a heroine character is easy to recognize in Zombie Cinema for how other characters sacrifice their position to save her from the zombies.
  • Villains are basically hero characters that are unsympathetic to the audience. Often in Zombie Cinema a player decides himself that his character is a villain, but equally common is that the group together condemns the values and methods of a given character. Do not avoid playing a villain! They are important to good stories.
  • Companions are characters who explicitly forgo competition with the big roles – they find their cachet in the story by interacting with the above triplet in different ways. It is also possible for several characters to share one of the big roles by being companionable towards each other, buddy movie style.
  • Extras are characters that are not actually that important. When player characters in Zombie Cinema turn into extras (and make no mistake, the game has nothing in it to prevent this from happening), one might consider this a “failure” for the character; this happens now and then even with the most skilled players, and does not necessarily have anything to do with player failure. Some story shapes just can’t carry more important characters, while sometimes the player’s planned character runs afoul of what the other players have created. The smart thing to do with extras is to milk them for colorful details and then let the zombies have them at the right moment to sharpen the focus of the story on the leading characters. Having extras is not a weakness in the story at all, as long as the main roles are well-manned and characters are not extraneous simply because everybody created dull characters.

Character roles drive much of the dynamics of play in Zombie Cinema simply because we don’t know which characters are going to fit into which roles when the game begins. The process of play actually shows us which characters rise to adversity, which deserve bad ends, which form strong relationships, which die early and, simply put, which are interesting and which are not. I often describe this principle by saying that all players try to create protagonists for the game, but the real protagonist only appears after the pretenders have been fed to the zombies.

Players should not worry too much about which role their character will have, although it is possible to shoot for a specific dramatic function right from the start. But it’s important to be open to what the story offers you: for example, when the heroine shows strong preference for that other strong male character (thus affirming his position as the hero), you should not insist on making your character the “second hero”; it might be much more fruitful to keep your eyes open and look for opportunities to have your character turn into a villain or companion type.

Above all, remember that all this drama theory is not necessary for playing the game. I only explain this stuff here to show you the hidden mechanics of how people understand drama and why we feel that some stories are lame and others are not. The important lesson here is to listen to your gut and make choices in the game to affirm what you yourself consider interesting in a story. Also, the above discussion of character roles reaffirms what I wrote before about the goals of play: your goal in the game is actually not to make your character the hero with sneaky storytelling, but to depict the natural details of the character powerfully and convincingly, allowing the story dynamics to assign that character into a role. In some stories the right-wing survivalist becomes the confident hero, in others he becomes the nutjob villain, in yet others he’s extraneous and can be killed off whenever. Embrace the unexpected and work for the good of the story, not a misplaced character loyalty.

Framing the first scene

The trick to framing the first scene in Zombie Cinema is to look back on what was the deal with one of the characters that were created, and put that up on the screen for the other players. Usually this is your own character simply because you know him best at this point: why did you make the character into a male/female/cop/teacher/young/old/whatever you made him? Show that.

Specifically, show – don’t tell. Zombie Cinema is a game about imaginary movies, so when you’re uncertain about how to narrate things, describe them from the camera’s viewpoint: what is seen, perhaps what is not seen, how people are situated and what the images express. However, there’s no need to try to be poetic yourself with your descriptions of things, just tell the other players what message you’re trying to convey directly. For example, when I want to tell the other players that characters in a scene are uncomfortable, I say that “it’s obvious from their faces and gestures that they are anxious and uncomfortable.” I could say something about how the knuckles of his fists are white or how she doesn’t know where to put her eyes, but I don’t have to – it is enough to express what I want to express and let the other players use their imagination for the rest.

But, scene idea: put your character in the environment and situation that perfectly captures the interesting bit you wanted to express about her. So if your character is a frustrated woman in a corporate environment, trapped by the glass ceiling, perhaps you can start the game by having her complain about her career development to her boss. You might have already told the other players that your character is about this or that, but it never hurts to show it as well. Scene framing is in part ritual behavior, things that happen in scenes are real in the game in a way things just speculated about off-screen are not.

Other scene framing

Some good principles for framing scenes later on:

  • If you don’t know what to frame, pass. I put this first because people seem to almost automatically read the rule about passing your turn as the active player as some sort of failure mechanism that should not be used in real play. Well, it’s not that – each player in the game has a different viewpoint on what happens in the developing story, and even if you can’t think of anything relevant to put on next, another player well might. Also, the game is not invulnerable to pacing issues: sometimes the players have developed too little material (more on this below) and the story seems to run out before the game does. There is no need to look for consensus in these situations: if you think that the game should already be over, pass your turn and let the next player make his own conclusions. Passing is overwhelmingly the quickest way for you to get the story to a satisfying conclusion, and it doesn’t require annoying negotiations with the other players about whether the game should continue or not.
  • During the first rounds of the game, when the story is still developing, new scenes can easily introduce new elements to the story. So if you don’t know what to frame, put on something that allows characters to meet each other in a new context, or introduces more characters into the story.
  • During the end-game, when we know who the protagonists are, each scene can usually simply follow on from the last one in logical order. Just offer more antagonism to the characters and keep an eye on the board: you can see with a glance whether a given character’s story is almost done or whether it still has legs, so frame accordingly. If the character’s story hinges on his next conflict, give him a scene with his arch-nemesis. If the story still has ways to go, you can put in some environmental hazards or other delays. Simple.

When choosing which characters to include in the scene, pick the one that still has most undeveloped potential. Often this is your own character: nobody else is going to advocate for your character if you don’t, so often it’s up to you to show the other players what’s cool or relevant about your character.

Sometimes instead of passing you may wish to frame a slow scene that has only one or no player characters at all. A scene with no characters at all is essentially your opportunity to have a monologue – the other players can’t really influence such a narration. A scene with just one character is an opportunity to showcase that character in relation to the environment, secondary characters or simply himself. Remember, though, that the other players have a right to introduce their own characters into the scene if they want. This is why I usually end my scenes by asking if the other players have anything to add before I close the scene.

Zombie pawn on the board

Read carefully what impact the zombie pawn’s position on the board has on the narrated fiction. You’ll note that the pawn position does not, in fact, do anything in the game unless at least one player requires it to. The whole game board is merely a filter that resolves disagreements between the players about the current activities of the zombies: if no player ever requires it, the zombies never need to conform to the instructions of the board. Thus it is possible to play games where zombies are much less or more aggressive than the board suggests – the baseline is only upheld if the players have creative differences.

Staging conflicts

The largest issue people tend to have with Zombie Cinema is that the mechanically important conflicts are between characters and not against zombies. I sympathize with this stance – a game about desperately fighting against zombies would no doubt be fun. This isn’t that game, though.

When playing through scenes in Zombie Cinema, the players should concern themselves with two things only: what is the matter of interest in this scene, and how can I turn that into a conflict? The “matter of interest” part is simple if you imagine this to be a movie script: why the fuck are we filming this when we could be filming something that is actually interesting? If there is no answer, cut the scene already and let the next player frame something interesting. We discussed this above in the part about scene framing.

The conflict staging part might be more tricky if you’re used to characters always struggling for their lives. In Zombie Cinema, however, that’s not what conflict means. Conflicts are simply points of disagreement between the player characters, any disagreement. If you feel like the rules are forcing you to make a big deal of small disagreements, then that means that the rules are working – that’s their purpose, to encourage the players to bring mechanical emphasis into something that is always emphasized in crisis narratives: characters in tight spots get strained and start fighting with each other, even about little things. How your character conducts himself under pressure, that’s what it is all about.

You may wish to look at declaring conflicts as a sort of strategic little game with your character’s well-being as the stakes: you need good conflicts to prosper on the game board and escape the zombies, but where do you get them? When you declare a conflict yourself, the responsibility is on you to make it interesting. If you don’t, your chosen opponent might back down – or worse yet, go ahead and allow the other players to vote for his character to win the lame conflict you started. So it’s not entirely straightforward to advocate for your character’s interests when it comes to conflicts.

The best conflicts are usually ones that develop our understanding of the characters involved. So when your character challenges my character over some inconsequential detail of the escape plan, what does this tell about the characters? Does your character want to challenge mine for the leadership position? Does he think that my character’s plan was genuinely bad? Does he want to impress the heroine by upstaging my character? Is he panicky and has simply lost his wits temporarily? Frame your conflicts in terms like these, and you can often make a quite fine conflict out of the most mundane issues between the characters. I usually make this sort of thing explicit by directly saying why I’m calling for a conflict: “My character starts arguing about the taxi fare with yours – look everybody, my character is a stingy, socially awkward asshole.”

Losing your character

Zombie Cinema is a very robust game socially, I find that it works in almost all situations. There might be little communication glitches with the players, but almost always the overall game works well enough. The only exception to this is that sometimes players have difficulty orienting on the game after their own character gets eaten by the zombies. This has probably a lot to do with how folks are used to playing roleplaying games, so I say it here again directly: in Zombie Cinema you’re not responsible for navigating your character out of the story alive; your task is to cooperate with your co-players to create a story. The issue of character death is totally orthogonal to this task. Your characters wants to live, but you the player want a good story. A good writer doesn’t fall in love with his characters to such a degree that he refuses to make them suffer, right?

What this means is that the player shouldn’t withdraw from the game and lose interest when his own character dies off. It was that character’s time to die, anybody could have saved him with the sacrifice rules if he were worth saving. Better that he be eaten so that the other characters can have a sharper focus on their issues for the rest of the game. And the player still has all the interfaces for play that he had when he had a character; his role is just a little bit different now that he’s facilitating for the other characters fulltime instead of advocating for his own.

(If you’re losing your character because he is in danger of escaping alive after a series of lucky rolls – consider letting him go, but if you find him too interesting for that, then sacrifice some position to get him down. Downwards is an easy direction on the board, you can always get there.)

Even worse than losing interest, though, is that some players with a vague grasp of the rules turn antagonistic against the other players’ characters when their own character dies. This is usually coupled with the player relishing descriptions of his own dead character making an appearance as a zombie, perhaps even a zombie king who sends the other zombies to haunt the living characters. I’ve rarely seen this sort of thing handled with any sort of dramatic interest; usually the player is just disengaged from the common effort at story creation, he’s just abusing the freedoms the game gives him to see if he can get the other players’ characters killed, too.

Now, providing antagonism in the game is a fine choice for any player. Likewise, supporting the zombies in conflict against the few living characters is also a valid choice. If these were not, I would have forbidden them in the rules. What might become a problem now and then is when a player categorically decides to kill the rest of the player characters no matter what – this is not antagonism in the story, it’s just childish spite. Players are supposed to make choices in the conflict mechanics on the basis of advocation and dramatic preference. A player who sets aside these priorities and just tries to make everybody’s character dead (perhaps to make the game end quicker?) is frankly not playing very well – I recommend calling him on it and reminding that the group doesn’t have to play the game to the end if it’s not fun.

That’s teaching by counterexample, though, so I should also write about the correct technique: ideally, each time a character is in a life or death conflict, each player considers the situation from the viewpoint of advocation – does my character have a stake in this situation, do I want to risk his position by having him enter the conflict? If advocation does not bring an answer, consider this: is it time for this character to die? Do I want to vote him off the island? Especially at the end-game when only one or two characters are alive and most players have moved to more passive roles it is very easy to see the conflict mechanics for what they are: they are a somewhat randomized vote for who should live and who should die in the story. Vote for the most sympathetic characters to live. The best games of Zombie Cinema that I’ve played have invariably been ones in which the group has, by successful cooperation, managed to create a protagonist or two who are truly sympathetic to such a degree that all the players hope for them to live. That’s when the endgame rules perform at their best. An endgame where all the players are just trying to kill off the last living character while describing how evil their own recently zombified character is are pretty pale in comparison. It’s story in formal terms, but it’s not really engaging on an emotional level.