Zombie Cinema Rules Critique

Now that we have the Solar System out of the way, time to focus on my own game, Zombie Cinema. It’s a pretty routine Forge-style narrativist-formalist-dramatist (yes, that is a joke; yes, that means something) zombie romp in many ways, but there are some innovations, especially in the area of social context. Luckily the game design is completely done and honed, thanks to the fact that the game was released a year ago in Finnish. I know exactly what’s going on with this one, so it’s all a matter of some minor editing and stuff.

The most important details still to be finangled with the zombie game are the rules, really. My basic notion here is best condensed into a couple of points:

  1. The game is a boardgame-rpg hybrid in the sense that it utilizes the social context and mechanical tools of boardgaming to represent the roleplaying game (or “story game” as I’m apparently calling it in English). Instead of character sheets, players manipulate a game board and cards.
  2. The game is pretty simple, rules-wise: Zombie Cinema, as the name implies, is supposed to allow a group to play through a story with the extent and content of a zombie movie. This is a pretty narrow agenda, so I simply don’t need a lot of rules. The game really just has a story arc mechanic and conflict resolution rules.
  3. Boardgames are supposed to be playable without rules expertise – you just open the box, read the rules once through and go. The rules are objective. They don’t concern themselves with guidance, only with the objective facts of the rules.

All this considered, I have this crazy goal of trying to fit the game’s rules on one tri-fold sheet printed on two sides. It’s not a lot of space, so every sentence counts. I did write up and lay out a rough draft of this in the spring and even had Ben Lehman look it over, but I’ll still want to sit down and think hard about this before the week’s end to see if I could improve this in any way without making it any longer.

This would be much easier if I was absolutely constricted to this particular lenght of the rules, but in principle there is nothing stopping me from commissioning two sheets for the rules; it just doubles the printing costs for the rules, that’s all. So if I were to put in a second sheet, I’d need to actually have a reason and get some use out of it. So far I’ve considered writing up an extensive play example for the second sheet, the theory being that these rules alone might not allow a given group to set up the game independently without ever seeing how the game is played. As for that, you be the judge:

Zombie Cinema

3-6 players aged 12+, game lasts 30 minutes per player.
Nobody knew when it started, or why. Perhaps the lonely death of a spinster was one too much for angels to bear, or a chemical leak in the groundwater had unexpected consequences. Only one thing is certain: now the dead walk.

Game Components

1 game board
1 zombie pawn
1 round marker
6 character pawns (in colors)
6 dice (in colors)
27 Cinema Cards (in three colors)
1 rules sheet

Zombie Cinema is a story game in which the participants create a story of normal people harassed by the restless dead. Each player invents a character whose thoughts and deeds he will portray for the others. Players will both advocate for their characters’ interests and collaborate on the common story. Everybody wins together by telling a good story.

The seminal work of the zombie movie genre, George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead, will be the template for our unique story here: a group of people from different walks of life end up hunted by the endless threat of the zombie menace. The terror, despair and constant fight for survival push us into immediate decisions about life, death, and what is important.

Goals of play & Advocating

Players of a story game do not compete for a win. Their goal is to create an enjoyable story together. However, the fun in the game is that players do not need to work for concensus to make their story. Instead, each player has a character he advocates in the story: the player describes his character’s thoughts and actions for the others and lets the character strive for his own well-being in the story.

Advocating means that the player makes the intents of his character clearly known and lets the character struggle for them, but the player himself will stay impartial and cooperative towards the other players. Choices made by the character are always partisan to who and what he is, while the player acts to make the game fun for all.

Making the Call

Play of Zombie Cinema is a give and take between players who tell a story together. The rules assign ultimate responsibility for each individual decision to a single player — this is called making the call.

When a player is allowed to make the call at a point in the game, the other players are free to offer suggestions and discuss the situation. The call is about having responsibility to choose, not necessarily about being the one who thinks up the ideas.

The only exception is that if all the other players balk at the call, they may repeal it unanimously. When this happens the group should discuss why the call was not acceptable — repealing the call is a clear sign of crossed expectations that need to be negotiated before play may proceed.

Sometimes the rules assign a player the temporary powers of the narrator. The narrator may always make the call on everything happening in the story until his power lapses.

Beginning the game

Set up the game board as follows: The zombie pawn goes on the lowest space. Character pawns (one for each player) go all in the starting space. Each player takes a die in a color corresponding with his pawn. Before the game begins, the players agree upon the milieu of the story. This choice determines where and when the initial scenes take place. A good default choice is “our home town”, but experienced players might wish to set the game in a different time or place.

Next each player creates his character for the game by drawing a set of Cinema Cards for inspiration. Taking one of each color is traditional, but the players are free to experiment; whatever helps you describe an interesting character to the rest of the group.

A couple of sentences is enough to define the milieu and the characters. An initial situation might help play begin: players might agree that the characters just happen to be at the shopping mall when the zombie epidemic breaks out, for example.

The game is started by a player who has played the game before and wants to start, or the one who saw a zombie movie last if there are ties. Give the round marker to the starting player.

Turn order & Order of play

Each player goes through the following steps during his turn:

  1. Framing a scene
  2. Free narration
  3. Conflict resolution
  4. Cutting the scene

Play then passes clock-wise around the table. This continues until the end of the game. The player taking his turn is called the active player.

Normally play during a turn is free for all and everybody can participate at their own convenience. When two players are trying to both act before the other or are waiting for the other to act before committing to a play, the order of play is invoked by the active player: the entangled players act in clockwise order counting from the active player.

Framing a scene

Each turn begins by framing a scene that develops the story. The active player makes the call on the time, location and participants of the scene, describing the scene like a shot in a movie. A scene might include one or more player characters, but it is not mandatory.

A frame may put a character in an awful situation, but only with the permission of the player. Having the story pick up immediately where the last scene ended is a valid play. A player may pass his turn if he does not have a good idea for a scene — don’t hesitate, just pass.

Free narration

All players may freely narrate activity in the scene. Their main task is to describe the thoughts and actions of their character. Players may suggest things freely to each other and narrate the action of secondary characters in the story, but the active player makes the call on anything but player characters; players each make the call on the thoughts and actions of their own characters.

Player characters may not be permanently removed from the story by free narration. All players have the right to have their character enter a scene after it is framed. The player himself makes the call on whether he should. The active player calls the cut when the scene is done: generally, a few minutes.

Conflict resolution

When characters in free narration have a conflict of interest between them, one of the participating players makes the call by hitting their die on the table. When the conflict is called, the participating players have to either back down on the issue or accept by hitting their dice on the table. If the conflict is not settled by backing down, proceed.

All the other players now have an opportunity to either pass, ally or support with their dice. To pass, hide your die; to ally, place your die next to the die you’re allying with; to support, place your die on top of the die you’re supporting. Thus the participating dice form opposing lines.

You may only pass if your character does not get involved in the conflict. You may only ally if your character helps out the character of the player you ally with. You may always support anybody in the conflict regardless of what your character does.

After all players have passed, allied, or supported, the conflict participants roll their own dice and any dice that supported them, and the allies roll their own dice and any dice that supported them. The highest individual die of this roll is called the high die.

The player who rolled the high die narrates how the conflict was favorably resolved for his side. The narrator makes the call for everything in the scene, including the actions of player characters in resolving the conflict.

Any players who were on the losing side of the conflict have their character pawn moved one space down towards the zombie pawn. Any players on the winning side have their pawns moved one space up. Players who passed or supported do not move their pawns.

If there is a tie between dice on the winning side, have the tied players co-narrate and the active player make the call on any disagreements. If there is a tie between the sides of the conflict, the zombie pawn moves up one space and the active player becomes the narrator, describing how the zombies interrupt the conflict, leaving it unresolved. In this case the active player takes the round marker as well.

Cutting the scene

If there is no conflict in the scene, the active player makes the call on cutting the scene when the interesting subject matter has been explored. If there was a conflict in the scene, the narrator cuts the scene after the conflict is described.

Cutting the scene ends the turn. Play continues with the player to the left of the last active player.


A player may decide to sacrifice his character pawn’s position on the board in favour of another pawn: he moves his own pawn towards the zombie pawn and moves another pawn away from it a corresponding number of steps.

The sacrificing player immediately becomes the narrator and describes how his character saves the other character. If the sacrifice happens between scenes, the player may frame a new scene, narrate the sacrifice and cut.

Sacrifice interrupts everything else, including death & escape: thus a player may sacrifice to save a character just about to die, for example. Characters may escape as the result of a sacrifice. Play continues normally afterwards from where it was interrupted.

Zombie Pawn

The position of the zombie pawn indicates the zombies’ role in the story. Each space on the board describes the most severe zombie action that may currently occur.

Any player may make the call in free narration to have the zombies act in any manner allowed by their board position. If two players disagree, the action higher on the board takes precedence, with the active player making the call for equally severe narrations. If the zombie pawn is too low on the board for a narrated zombie event, any single player may veto the call by appealing to the board.

The zombie pawn also eats character pawns. When a character pawn is on the same space with a zombie pawn, the character pawn is immediately eaten and set aside, which causes character death in the story.

The zombie pawn moves up one space on the board during tied conflicts and immediately before the turn of any player holding the round marker.

Death & Escape

No player character can ever be killed or permanently removed from the story by free narration or conflict. This only happens if the character’s pawn is eaten or escapes.

When the zombie pawn eats a character pawn, that character dies. The character may only appear again as an inhuman zombie. If a pawn moves out through the top of the board, that character escapes. The character might not be happy, but he survives the story alive.

The player of a character who dies or escapes immediately becomes the narrator, describing to the others how his character is removed from the story. Then he cuts the scene. If no scene is ongoing when the death or escape occurs, the player frames a scene, immediately narrates it and makes the cut. Play continues normally afterwards from where it was interrupted.

The game ends when all characters have either died or escaped from the story. The player of the last live character narrates the final scene.

Characterless players

When a player’s character escapes or dies, he continues in the game normally, except that he does not advocate for a specific character. Instead such a player may ally into conflicts by temporarily advocating for a secondary character in the scene, and he may support normally.

When a characterless player is the active player, characters may call for a conflict against the zombies. The active player then advocates for the zombies and rolls for them as if they were a character in conflict. Winning or losing does not affect the position of the zombie pawn on the board, it just allows characters to advance without turning on one another.


11 Responses to “Zombie Cinema Rules Critique”

  1. Sami Koponen Says:

    I’d say that it depends on your targer audience. If you aim to sell ZC as a “story game” to roleplayers, especially the ones familiar with the indie-scene, they can pick up the game from there. If you wish roleplayers to actually jazz with the game, some “further advices” wouldn’t hurt. I mean that seriously, it makes me die a little inside every time I see people play ZC and produce wacky off-the-wall crazy comedy. If you are trying to sell it to non-roleplayers, an “example of play” would be useful in my mind.

    Then again, why would a non-roleplayer even pick up the game? I’ve seen Finnish board gamers and seriously doubt that they would want a copy of ZC (we both know of course that you know an average board gamer’s taste far better than I). And beyond them, who even buys non-electronic games these days? Where are you going to sell ZC so that it is even seen by non-roleplayers?

    And last, the best piece of advice: How do the other story game rules look like? Does Once Upon A Time offer anything else but the facts about the rules? And how do you think it has succeeded?

  2. The Tweaker Says:

    I concur in that you’d need to add at least some examples of play. Your design is very interesting, but I think non-roleplayers (or even trad-style roleplayers) would not be able to simply pick the game up and start playing it, as it is intended to, without further clarification.

  3. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Non-roleplaying audience is not my primary one, I guess, but the game will be featured in some boardgame stores, regardless. We’ll see how it fares, and perhaps I’ll do some targeted marketing later after I see how the game is received.

    I’m not particularly worried about the crazy comedy, myself. People make the sort of stories they can coordinate for, and I have little to do with it. A primary reason for rpgs traditionally being so heavy in execution is the need of the designer to try to control the play experience from afar by programming the GM into forcing play to whatever direction he’s looking for. As this is not the case here, it’s up to the play group to look into why they wanted to play the game in the first place and do that: if they want to play a zombie game, perhaps they have a reason for that. And whether that reason is because they want to make zany stories (zombies allow this, perhaps, because the genre is viewed as non-serious?) or because they want to engage in a lofty critique of American consumerism, that’s their business, not mine.

    Apparently one more sheet of material would be necessary, though? I can’t add anything substantial to this without adding another sheet of material, so I’m hesitant to do that just to write an extended example of play. But if that’s the only way to make this understandable, perhaps I’ll have to do just that. Costs another $.25 per set or something like that, unless I misremember.

  4. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Good call in OUAT, Sami. I found the rules for that and compared to find out how I’m doing in the clarity department. I might be biased, but I didn’t find the OUAT rules that much clearer. There was a pretty long dialogue-form example of play, though. Perhaps including such would be a smart move.

  5. Christoph Says:

    I like this form of the rule set a lot!
    I’d just rewrite the first part (up to “Beginning the game”): it’s quite clunky and heavy (try to just erase a few mentions of the word “story” for starters, it appears way too often).

    The rest is really good. I’d be tempted to add a note that the character whose pawn gets eaten by the zombie pawn doesn’t necessarily die at the hands of the zombies in the fiction, but that might be unnecessary long-time-roleplayer clarification.

    Regarding impact on people not used to roleplaying, an example could be quite good. Perhaps you can do it in a meaningful paragraph on the back of the game box itself?
    I also wonder if the term “narrator” is not overkill. After all he is just making the call on a lot of things. The word “narrator” might also be a source of confusion since it’s quite different to the concept of “free narration”.

  6. Christoph Says:

    Ah, you might want to add a note about starting play immediately with a conflict, like we had done together at the cabin. That technique, coupled with the rule that all characters should be in the same location (so that there can be conflicts), has led to my very best sessions of this game.
    Again, I’m speaking from the point of view of a long-time roleplayer (even though I’ve played the game with a few complete newcomers to RPGs).

  7. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Christoph. I’ll take another hard look at the beginning parts. Yesterday they seemed pretty good to me, but I might just be enamored with the conscise description of narrativist roleplaying I wrote there. Might be more clear if I said less.

  8. Olli Kantola Says:

    The rules seem clear, concise and playable. However, I’m a bit worried about cutting scenes. Too late to say about this, but I’ve noticed that often the biggest problem in the game for first-time players has been cutting the scenes.

    IMHO the game works best agggressively cut, with short scenes, but the first thing that a new player often does, is not start by framing a scene, but by telling some backstory, or keep playing a scene on and on.

    Any thoughts?

  9. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Actually, that issue, and a dozen others like it, ultimately led me to distinguishing between rules and advice altogether. Why worry that players won’t have the skills to make use of the rules in a totally excellent manner when they play first?

    Rather, I’ll write some technique exposition for the website when I get it up. There are plenty of things that are not mixed up with the rules of the game but that are very useful to understand if you want to play “well”, regardless. (Playing well being, creating strong protagonists, plotting a tense and flexible story, and so on an so forth.) The importance of cutting scenes well is one technique, setting up and playing secondary characters is another, setting other characters up with hard choices is a third… really, what we’re discussing is the whole range of skills and theory of dramatic storytelling; it’s a topic worthy of a whole book, so when I couldn’t reasonably touch upon it in a couple of sentences, I decided to dump it all in the internet and let the rules stand as exact instructions about the minimal responsibilities of the players. The rules as they stand in the product are exact about the arena of play, about what is technically allowed or not for each player at each moment; it’s up to the group to bring their own skills and strategies of storytelling into that to entertain themselves.

    Roleplaying games traditionally blur the dividing line between rules and technique rather hard compared to other tabletop games. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when you only provide the rules and leave the players to read the strategy articles from the Internet.

  10. Olli Kantola Says:

    Actually, I was thinking about the same thing, because another comment here brought up Once Upon A Time… OUAT has been pretty popular despite the fact that it’s very rare to see it produce exciting stories, because people don’t have the skills to do it.

    If you think this as a boardgame all of what you say fits!

  11. Faq 8 | Limbic Systems Says:

    […] nombreux JDR proposent des systèmes sans MJ et sans scénario : Zombie Cinema de Eero Tuovinen, Polaris Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North de Ben Lehman et bien […]

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