27 Sep GMing Lessons #13: Making the Best Infected Campaign Ever
I have been inspired by all the game design going on recently on Infected!, and with talking to a lot of backers of our Kickstarter (thanks everyone!), and thought I would write an article on exactly how I think a campaign of Infected! can be run to best effect. Though really, this applies to far more than just this setting – it could be run for any setting, and for most rule systems (though some cater to it better than others).
First up, Infected! (and Immersion RPG), is not D&D. It’s not hack and slash, dungeon crawling or adventures per se. It can be (sort of, though it doesn’t really suit a hex grid), and it can certainly run somewhat that way, but while that can still be a lot of fun, it would miss out something like ninety percent of what makes this game and setting truly awesome.
Yup. Like ninety percent.
The reason for this is that Infected! is a game of drama, intrigue, character development and the interaction of people. There is a ridiculous amount of depth you can get from building the setting, and building the characters within that setting.
It’s super easy to create a zombie apocalypse game. And it can be heaps of fun (I know, that’s how Infected! started off). It’s scary, it’s awesome, there’s lots of stuff to run from and kill, and because you’re playing it using the Immersion RPG rules, it’s brutal and realistic. The thing is, you could play that sort of game for a long while and make it fun – but you’d be doing it the same way as I talk about below,
This is how I session-prep. Not by making dungeons or crafting a module…but by crafting the world the pc’s inhabit, and then stories within that.
In the classic Infected! setting, it’s something like five years on from the apocalypse and survivors are holding out all over the place. They’re decimated, they’ve had wars, insurrections, riots, mass death, Infected trying to eat people and so on. But it has taken place over a fairly long period of time. It seems fast to them, but compared to, say, a movie, it’s centuries.
They have a society in place. There are multiple societies in every region. Let’s take a city for example. Your pc’s may be blow-ins, or they may be people who’ve been there for a while (which I like, personally – it allows you to give them a lot of history).
Start creating the world. What’s the settlement they’re at? How did it get there? Break it all the way back, and start to ask yourself: How did the city survive the Infection? What major crises were there every six months, or every year? Were they abandoned by the government; did a faction take over in a certain area? Was there a civil war because of this? Were there bombings of really bad areas? How did this affect the people in those areas, and the people still living in the other part of the city? Were there refugees?
Okay, so you might ask all or some of those questions, but at the very least you should get a picture of the settlement you’ve got – and the city/immediate area around them. If you’re really keen, you might pull out a map of a real city and start to look it over. Locate where there are some different places – areas that got damaged by artillery, areas that were overrun by Infected, areas where gangs or rival factions or just “other” people are.
Then ask yourself – what about the larger region around this town? What are some of the major events that have already gone on? Like the nuking of the closest major city, or a flood of refugees into the countryside, if it’s a small town, and ask yourself what this would have caused – floods of refugees may have meant the town was overcrowded, had a lot of crime, started to ostracise outsiders, had the virus sweep through and kill thousands…prompting the town to kick out most people and erect a wall, stopping everyone from coming in.
The way the people solved this problem should then have a ramification. No solution will suit everyone. If they kicked heaps of people, some of those people may have stayed nearby, in the ruined sections, where life was brutally hard. And they simmered in their resentment of the fat-cats hiding behind their walls.
Boom. You’ve now got another faction, and a real one. Why are they bandits? Because those bastards behind their walls kicked them out to starve. What else were they supposed to do? Besides, revenge is sweet.
This can result in tit-for-tat skirmishes and trouble. Possibly outright warfare at times, but remember that warfare is risky and dangerous, and no one wants to die. Skirmishes, ambushes, thuggery, that’s far more likely for nearby groups that dislike each other.
Already you can see that you’ve got a city that’s starting to come alive. You can understand the motives of both sides. Which is crucial. No bad guys should be black and white. That’s boring – and not really factual either. Even the Nazis believed in what they were doing, as twisted as it was. That’s why so many people went along with it. To them it made sense! So your “bad guys” in this world should be understandable too. Better yet, they should be so understandable that your pc’s might begin to wonder who’s really the bad guys around here?
Even if you only have two factions within a region, that’s enough to start things rolling – and then, you create some tensions within each of these groups…oh boy!
No group is going to be 100% committed and perfect all the time. Particularly not in highly stressful situations like this, where nothing works most of the time. In this situation, a thousand different agendas start coming to the fore. You’ve got possible malcontents, who think they could do things better (and maybe they could?), philosophies and religions that could be espoused by people on all sides and amongst all factions – like the Red Hands, who all believe in total freedom and no rules. They could be in the main town, and in the bandits outside…making life a little confusing!
Then you’ve got things like the agendas of the main NPCs, who can be so multi-layered (we haven’t even started on this most interesting of points). People show one side, but have other sides that they keep hidden. The leader of the town might say he just wants what’s best for everyone, but secretly he wants to get the hell out of this godforsaken place and get to a real city with a real government… and he’s even got a government informant helping him out. At the same time, the leader probably wouldn’t be there if he didn’t have a lot of contacts in his own community, a lot of people feeding him information. Just being a tough guy isn’t going to be enough – a bullet can end a tough guy’s existence pretty damn easily. So he might also have a spy ring of his own, a group of informants – local merchants, drug dealers, whores, pimps, scouts. All of whom would be unaware of each other.
You could make this leader human too. He has a son that he wants to protect, and get to safety. He saw his own wife wake into one of those things, and he’s terrified this will happen to his son too. He even has a strong-arm man to look after him… only problem being he’s growing up with a hefty sense of his own importance and power, and his bodyguard is really a bully who’s teaching him a totally different way, a way of intimidation, gathering like-minded followers, preying on the weak, profiteering, even making “business” dealings of the most unsavoury kind…all things his father is blinding himself to. The problem is, even though the leader is a good man, he is blind to his son’s failings, and always takes his side, making the boy all-but invulnerable. Anyone accusing him of wrongdoing (like a string of young girls) is immediately considered to be a liar.
This breeds further tension in the town. You could make a list of several key NPC’s who had been wronged, what happened to them or their family (beaten up, robbed, sexually assaulted, extorted), and what they think of the son, and of the father. Most would probably say everything’s fine, so they don’t get in trouble. After all, the leader’s spies are everywhere.
The government informant could be another twisted tale – possibly the government she’s working for is desperate for resources, and wants whatever the town’s got. But they aren’t willing to pay for it. So they want her to topple this town and set up a new leader, one that’s sympathetic to their interests, and basically willing to just let the government take over, charge taxes, and extort the place for “protection”. This spy would have her own desires, fears, histories, hates and interests. She might be funneling weapons to the rebels on the outskirts of the city, and giving them clues as to when caravans would be leaving the town. She might also be in love with someone in the town, or amongst the rebels, against her own better judgement, and be regretting the chain of events she’s set in motion… so she’s constantly trying to delay it.
Already you’ve got a complex view of this little town in a ruined city, and we haven’t even started down the rabbit hole you can venture into!
Motivations hold the key. History, cause-and-effect, ramifications, problems and solutions that cause more problems. This just adds to the layers of the region… how easy is it now to put the pc’s down in this mess of different desires, politics and interests and see what happens?
Conversations will spill little bits of information. Nothing will be as straight forward as the pc’s think. An NPC “Quest Giver” may ask the pc’s to do something that they’re not willing to do themselves for the simple reason that they don’t want others to know that they’re interested – like the rich matron asking the players to investigate a recently-attacked caravan, to find out who did it. She may know it wasn’t the rebels, but secretly the Leader’s son, but she doesn’t want to risk her position in the town to find out! And then when the pc’s do investigate…well, accusing the Leader’s son might not be the best thing for them to do.
We haven’t even touched on the Infected yet, which is another huge area of potential interest, throwing a spanner in the works of many best-laid plans.
And then, there’s also the fact that pc’s can bring their own baggage and history. What if they’ve been part of the community for quite a while? What conflicts have they had? Who are their friends? What do they think of different NPCs? What do those NPCs think of them? Do they know of any little secrets? Do any of the NPCs know secrets of the pcs? Oh, that’s interesting!
So by all means create a plot! But I would advise you to focus first on the setting they’re in. Make it deep, make it rich, complex and multi-layered. It will live and breathe with a life of its own, and will create plots out of what it is. And by the way, then when combat does start, it will have far more intensity… fighting “a bandit” is not nearly the same as fighting “the bandits who are actually the guys who fled the town and are now starving on the outskirts and who were kind to us last week and gave us food and sat around our campfire, and warned us about the town…”
Food for thought! 🙂