I picked up Shotgun Diaries, a new game by John Wick, a few weeks ago and had an opportunity to play it last week. It is a game designed to emulate modern zombie surivival horror movies, whether it is Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, or even I Am Legend. It would probably even work for settings inspired by the World War Z book.
This game lets you easily create characters that really fit into the zombie movie genre and forces you to act in just the way you would expect them to on screen. The concept is simple – you only get to roll dice when you do something that your “type” of survivor would do (a fast survivor rolls dice when he runs away, a clever survivor only rolls dice when trying to fix stuff). If you don’t roll dice the GM gets to describe what happens, which could be bad for you! This makes it really fun when you have several characters all wanting to do the thing that improves their chance of survival. To top things off, there is a neat mechanic to encourage characters to stick together, giving you bonus dice to roll based on the number of characters that are “together”. This forces hard choices to be made – Does my fast survivor stick around and hope the strong survivor can hold the door closed? It took me a while to work out “bonus dice” cannot be awarded unless the character is actually acting to type – it seems logical now, but is not explicitly stated in the rules.
Here’s a tip when preparing your game – you need to get players to consider more than just their survivor type when creating characters. This isn’t discussed in the rules, but each character needs a motivation to help everyone drive the action. For example, your fast survivor might be a business man trying to get back to his wife and kids, and your sneaky survivor might be a drug addict looking for their next fix. A character sheet would have been nice.
The basic mechanic is, well, basic. When zombies are around (and only when zombies are around) and your character is acting to type, you roll dice. If one or more comes up a ‘6’ you get to describe the result of your character’s action. If no die comes up ‘6’, or if you are not acting to type, the GM gets to describe what happens. And that is it. There are also a few other tweaks, like fear dice that can force you to betray the other players, and resource dice that anyone can take to increase their chances of succes, but these are just variations on the very basic mechanic.
The zombie clock is another important element of the game. It is a great way to add pressure, but a GM needs to be aware of their own pacing and narrative. And you will need a watch. Every ten minutes of real time that passes causes the zombie clock to advance – the pressure or danger is increased (put a token or marker on the table) and one of the player’s resource dice are removed. Usually, the advancing of the clock also indicates the passing of a day. The number of zombie counters indicates how dangerous things have become and eventually there will enough zombies to break into the character’s hide out, forcing them to action. You need to be aiming for short, sharp scenes that encapsulate a single encounter every ten minutes – kind of like snap shots or time-lapse photography. Have a “focus scene” for each character to show what is important to them in the zombie apocalypse, and have it resolve every time the clock ticks forward.
Like a lot of John Wick’s “mini” games Shotgun Diaries is cool, but not for the inexperienced. There is not a lot of detail about running games and many of the rules work on assumptions that you know RPG or genre conventions. Like the “bonus dice” I mentioned above, some of the rules need further explanation or explicit examples. But, to be fair, this is an 18 page game for $5, written by one of the industries great game designers – it makes for a fun romp that does capture and replicate the tropes of the modern zombie flick. I say, give it a try.
You can get Shotgun Diaries from RPGnow.