Zombies are EVERYWHERE.
We’re speaking about pop culture of course, and not about the literal apocalypse. They’re in TV shows, comic books, movies, video games; if it’s a media type that can generate fandom, it’s a safe bet that you can find zombies in it.
In the west, The Walking Dead has become something of a pop culture phenomenon, perhaps rivaled only by G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
Starting its life as a comic book series by Robert Kirkman and published by Image, the show is six seasons strong with no signs of slowing down.
So if you’re an avid tabletop roleplaying gamer, and you and your friends have been infected by the urge to play the last of humanity struggling to survive the end of the world, or if you perhaps want to play the lurching undead monsters yourself, what RPG should you use?
Not all dice-chucking pen-and-paper rulesets are up to the task of accurately portraying the horrors of the endless undead.
Here are 7 of the best tabletop zombie RPGs available for any player or GM wanting their dose of apocalyptic mayhem:
THE END OF THE WORLD: ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
System: EDGE system
The “End of the World” series of products by Fantasy Flight Games initially released with multiple supplemental settings all designed to simulate different doom-ridden scenarios, and the Zombie Apocalypse was first among these.
- Detailed Survival - The game is layered with useful information, providing even amateurs to the doomsday survival genre with the right tools to accurately simulate the pain and grind of being a survivor in a zombie-infested world.
- Diverse Settings - Acknowledging the diversity of the subsets of the zombie apocalypse, the game even provides five different scenarios on how the undead rose and what can be done about it.
- Beginning to End - Not all RPGs will provide what veteran gamemasters will call an “endgame.” This game does, giving ideas of stalemate and even cure scenarios and what survivors can do in the aftermath of the apocalypse.
- Narrative Simplicity - The game isn’t incredibly complex, but focuses on the story to keep the action and drama high. You won’t be wasting time trying to lawyer the rules.
- Lacks Technical Depth - There are playing groups that thrive on numerical minutiae and thorough setting detail for immersion. This is one of those games that doesn’t pay that too much attention to these things in favor of a good driving story.
- Low Power - Don’t jump into this zombie tabletop RPG game expecting to start off as pathetic survivors, then later evolving into elite zombie killing commandos. This is a game of survival and those seeking for zombie horde payback had best try another system.
Game system: d100 system
Fresh from Kickstarting the second edition of this RPG, Hunter Books has the makings of a much-improved product from its well-made, if low-key, first edition roots. This is a good example of how an indie publisher can make a quality product that can challenge the larger market.
- Yes But Could YOU Survive? - Outbreak: Undead prides itself on being a hardcore "simulation" RPG. This game has a unique system called the SPEW-AI (Strength Perception Empathy Willpower Assessment Inventory) which allows you to create yourself accurately as a character, giving players the ability to participate in the zombie apocalypse as themselves.
The publishers swear by its effectiveness, and is specifically constructed so as to minimize bias and ego to create your true self. You can make a completely new character if you want to, but if you're curious as to whether or not you would live through a real disaster scenario, this game is the perfect way to find out.
- Painstaking Detail - This game puts a lot of weight on an accurate simulation. All kinds of items can be used as weapons, it factors in realism including pain, panic, and emotional stress, and templates for common survivor archetypes for ease of transition, all while giving you different kinds of scenarios and zombie lore. There are no levels, just an organic way of become better the longer you survive.
- Kitted Out - Not very many RPGs come out these days as complete sets. This one does. The Second Edition Starter Kit includes the pocket edition of the core rulebook, custom dice, reference cards, and character sheets. All you need to provide yourselves are the 3 P's: pencils, participants, and passion.
- Hard to Find - If you want a physical product, it may be difficult to get your hands on Outbreak: Undead. Hunters Books is a relatively small publisher so if you're not ordering straight from their online store, locating a copy in local brick-and-mortar shops will be a matter of luck.
- Slow Support - As a small publisher, Hunters Books may be slow in coming out with supplemental products for the hardcore zombie RPG gamer. The pocket rulebook that comes with the starter kit is supposed to be a basis for a series of larger core rulebooks, but those books have yet to be published.
- Gritty and Low on the Heroism - With all its emphasis on realistic scenarios and character portrayals, chances are players won't feel like heroes. The game is engineered in such a way that if you put players in an action movie climax scenario, they're probably going to die in various horrible ways. Unless you're a badass in real life, you won't be a badass here.
Game system: Point-based character creation
This is one of the few games here that doesn’t set you into the apocalypse itself, but throws a zombie problem of a different sort at you. The setting of Unhallowed Metropolis is closer to a dystopia, one where world’s end has already happened, but it’s over now and society continues. What kind of society remains, now that’s not so ideal.
- Alternate History - Unhallowed Metropolis takes place in a world where a great plague in 1905 made the dead rise, and human civilization had to retreat to cleansed, fortified cities while the undead roamed the countryside. It is now 2105 and players have characters that live in one of these post-apocalyptic cities (London by default), and it's debatable whether you're better off outside than in.
- Gothic Future Elements - Despite the fortifications, these cities have their own problems, including those caused by the constantly-mutating plague and the monsters it incidentally, or intentionally spawns. Alchemy, galvanics, aristocratic vampires, insane citizens, and of course, the various forms of Animates (zombies) create a layered setting that's both bleak and colorful.
- Multi-Genre Gaming - If you belong to a group that loves mixing its genres, this setting is perfect for threading the zombie outbreak into a magical and technological framework. If you wanted to add horror to your typical RPG settings, Unhallowed Metropolis is a great place to start.
- Saturated - Mixing genres is all well and good, if your gamemaster can handle it. But if you don't have someone very experienced running the game, the very dense setting could easily ruin the fun instead of enhancing it.
- Different and Weird - Not all groups will enjoy this setting. It's bizarre, and is nothing like survival horror in a contemporary world. If your play group expects a game closer to The Walking Dead, then stay far away from Unhallowed Metropolis.
- Pedestrian System - The actual gameplay mechanics and systems aren't anything spectacular or innovative, and RPG veterans won't find much to rave about. The different systems in place are often non-synergistic. Some reviews of this game will even suggest for your group to use the wonderful setting, but use another game system in place of the basic one.
Game system: d10 system
Infected reflects a different kind of apocalypse, one that's reflective of the darkness in mankind itself. In this game, while a viral zombie plague did threaten humanity, in the end, it was man's own failings that destroyed society.
- Back to the Dark Ages - Throughout history the most dangerous threat to a human wasn't wilds beasts or monsters; it was other people. This game brings us to a point where this is once again true. While the infected roam on the borders of human population clusters, inside decaying human cities a survivor has to contend with bandits, lunatics, and cannibals. If you want to know what The Walking Dead might be like after another few decades, this is the game you're looking for.
- Immersion - Infected! uses a system it calls the "Immersion RPG game system." While centered on a more modern setting, it gives options for gamers to tweak the setting toward different genres. It also has options to adjust the level of realism, so the game can go the full range of dark and gritty to swashbuckling cinematic.
- Moderate Complexity - Of all the rule systems presented in this article, Infected! falls in between rules-heavy and rules-light. It's a classless system with nonlinear progression and just enough technical detail to be thorough without bogging you down with math the way systems like GURPS or even high-level Pathfinder will do. Good for groups with a mix of player preferences.
- Unfinished and Unreleased Game - Sadly, this promising new entry to the zombie tabletop RPG market isn't even officially out yet. Yet another product of Kickstarter funding, it is in the last steps needed before books get sent out to shelves. If you want this game, it may take a while for you to get it.
WANT THIS GAME?
The game is still taking preorders on Backerkit here. The publishers provide customers regular updates of its progress, and if requested, will provide you a sampler of the finished product.
ALL FLESH MUST BE EATEN
Game system: Unisystem
As far as RPG zombie games go, many veterans of the genre will swear by this game, even calling it the “best in the market.” One of the earliest roleplaying games focused completely on zombie survival horror, this product by Eden Studios has been nominated for and won multiple game awards.
- Survival-Evocative System - The game is based on Eden Studios’ Unisystem, which is flexible enough to handle all the elements and settings common to this genre of gaming, and has some nice subtle touches to enhance the experience.
For example, the scale of the life or endurance pools of characters is rather wide for this kind of game, which allows a player to not only experience damage from vicious wounds, but also to experience the sensation of being slowly worn down to death from scrapes, narrow escapes, and near-misses as a game progresses.
- Compact Size - You’ll only be needing this one book, and it’s smaller than most RPG rulebooks, making the game easy to carry around. Plus, with only one kind of dice to use (the game uses d10s), and no maps, it makes setting up to play delightfully easy.
- Full of Ideas - All Flesh Must Be Eaten gives you eleven different settings—dubbed “Deadworlds”—if you don’t want to create your own, and it’s easy enough to mix-and-match or draw from these to make your own personal setting. This gives considerable flexibility for game development while cutting down on the time needed to do so. It even gives you a historical reference of zombies in film and literature for additional concept fodder.
- Works Both Ways - Want to be a walker? Not all of these games let you play the part of the undead. All Flesh Must Be Eaten is one of those that gives you room to do so.
- Something For Everyone - The game mechanics can be scaled to be as crunchy or as loose as your gaming group likes, so the game can cater to all kinds of players--as long as they like zombies, of course.
- Too Many Possibilities - The flexibility this game has with its rules and settings can be a drawback. The chance of throwing in too many game elements or spending too long on developing your perfect setting is very real when you have a system that can accommodate it.
- Crispier Than Expected - This game presents the non-cinematic version of the Unisystem, so it can be a bit heavier on the numbers and paperwork than one would expect if you were looking for something that’s more dynamic to play.
Game system: Simple
They might as well call this “Zombieland: The Game.” We’re certainly referring to the Woody Harrelson/Jesse Eisenberg movie of the same name. If that’s the setting you’re looking to play in, with that game flavor and tone in mind, then this is the game you’re going to use.
- Straightforward, Yet Silly - Yes, zombies are dangerous. But grab a fire axe, a heavy wrench, or a shotgun from beneath a bar’s countertop and so are you. This is still a game about survival, but unlike more realistic settings, survival here always involves getting some payback.
- No Setup Required - The game gives you one setting and background for the cataclysm, tells you the things you need to do to survive by building it into your character stats, then sets you loose in a zombie-infested environment. Simple and clean.
- Easy to Learn - You can create characters for this kind of zombie game in minutes, and teach players how the game works in the same amount of time. You can get to the arduous job of zombie whacking and survival sooner.
- Large Parties are Welcome - The dynamism of the setting and simplicity of the game rules will let a gamemaster run this game with many more players than they’re used to. This game might actually be less fun in small groups.
- Editor and Layout Artist Needed - Of all the choices we’ve provided, this is the least professionally-made. The material, the writing style, and the layout of the game feel more like a product someone wrote in their mother’s basement, rather than a polished publication. And that may be intentional, adding to the game’s character. However, it could be a turn-off for gamers who want something with a higher level of polish.
- Full Dice Set Required - I hope you’ve played Dungeons and Dragons, because the author of the game assumes you did, and he also assumes you kept all the different polyhedrals. If you don’t have a full set of D&D dice, then you should get some before playing Zombie Cataclysm.
- Questionable Longevity - This does not feel like a game you would be playing for many game sessions or months on end. While perfect for a one-shot game or a short story arc with a few game sessions, we don’t see this product as something fit for long campaigns.
Game system: FATE or Diceless
Last but far from least, Fate Core by Evil Hat is another award-winning RPG, staying true to its claim that no matter what the setting or foundation, this game can make it happen.
- Unmatched Flexibility - Fate Core isn't so much “rules-light” as it is “rules-loose.” The core tenet of this game is the flow of game and the story always trump the rules. If an existing system, skill, or game element is lackluster, then you're free to change or add new rules to modify the game to whatever is needed.
- Cinematic and Dramatic Mastery – Notice how The Walking Dead doesn't just focus on surviving zombies, and concentrates mostly on social human interactions? This is the best system by far for creating a role playing, drama-heavy game, accommodating even social and mental combat and forcing players to inflict consequences on themselves that may take multiple game sessions to deal with.
- Agency and Proactivity – Most RPGs have you creating a character concept in your head, then modifying that concept to fit the rules system you're using. Fate Core lets you create a character concept then manipulate the system to create said character! This is the best system for making characters who give players the freedom to act and change the world around them, in whatever way they choose.
- One Book, Small Size - Fate Core only needs the one central rulebook. Everything else you add is icing. The book is also the smallest and most compact of the ones listed here, though it's still pretty heavy due to the quality of the paper stock.
- World-Building Necessary - At the moment, Fate Core doesn't have a dedicated sourcebook on the zombie apocalypse. A group that wants to use Fate to play the undead end of the world scenario will need to do some work to fill in all the extra details, but once it's done, the setting will truly be something to call your own.
- Trust Each Other – Fate needs a cohesive group that knows each other and synergizes well with the other participants. If you don't trust the GM to make correct judgment calls, if players exhibit open antagonism toward each other during dramatic moments, then a zombie campaign using this will fall apart faster than a makeshift barricade being battered by the undead horde.
- Funny Dice - Fate Core uses "Fudge Dice," which are six-siders that have two '+' sides, two '-' sides, and two blank sides. Every roll uses 4 of these, and only specialty stores will have them (they're more rare than D&D polyhedrals). While you can use standard dice to simulate Fudge Dice, a lot of gamers are fussy enough to want to use the genuine article.
WANT THIS GAME?
Determine your fate here. The online store even sells some of the best (and prettiest) Fudge Dice available in the market. Numerous supplements exist, including one devoted entirely to teaching you how to make those game changes and tweaks I mentioned.
So there you have it. Which game system is right for your group?
We've already given hints on how to determine compatibility, but one thing you should never ignore the what kind of zombie setting you want to play with.
What is your group looking for? Drama? Action? Weirdness? Each one of these systems can be more favorable depending on which direction the gaming winds are blowing. Good luck, and try your best not to get eaten, okay?