I’ve considered writing some sort of sequel for Zombie Cinema for a couple of years now, mostly because I’m personally a bit bored of playing Zombie Cinema and want a bit of variety; it’s a tricky business, considering the number of constraints that I take on in any such design. I’m pretty happy with my latest effort mechanically, it’s just that the game lacks in really functional genre. Here’s how it works:
Components and preparation
The game has a Stakes Board, 40 Chips, a round marker, a die for each player and a playing piece for each player. Would have some sort of chargen oracle as well if I knew what genre the game is supposed to be. Similar components to Zombie Cinema, except that there’s a bunch of chips that are used as a sort of character resource. At the beginning of the game you set aside 10 chips in the Bank and share the rest equally between the players (put any remainder in the Bank). Put one chip from the Bank onto the Stakes Board.
The Stakes Board is used to track the current value of the stakes. I’ve just been piling chips on a specific spot in playtest, but presumably I’ll be doing something with the board once I figure out the genre of the game. The stakes start at 1 chip and go up as the game proceeds.
For the most part the game runs just like Zombie Cinema: players frame scenes in turn, and conflicts are handled using the same dicing mechanics. The big difference is in the narratology: instead of being threatened by outside forces, the player characters are each powerful individuals working at cross-purposes in the plot of the story. They end up in conflict with each other so that only one may remain in the end. Representing this we have the pile of chips each player has: your character is in the game as long as you hold chips, but once you run out, he dies or gets otherwise sidelined as a meaningful actor.
Whenever a conflict is declared between two characters, the procedure is otherwise the same as Zombie Cinema, except that the two parties have to each bid chips equal to the current stakes into the conflict. If a side has multiple participants, they can share the bid by each bidding in part. Any of the participants may raise the stakes before the dice are rolled, in which case the opposing side has to match the raise or forfeit the conflict, losing their bid. Players can go all-in by bidding everything they have, in which case the stakes are set to that level. Essentially similar to poker bidding in logic, this.
The winning side in conflict splits the winnings. In the case of a tie the bid chips go into the Bank, as everybody loses. Just like Zombie Cinema, you get to narrate the scene if your character is played out of the game.
This is the heart of the game: normally the game would run until only one character remains, but the players can modify this situation at will by having their characters become companions to each other, aligning their interests. The game ends whenever all the remaining characters in play belong in the same company. In other words, your goal in the game is to find out who your character can befriend and who he has to remove from the game.
A player may declare that his character aligns with another at any point by paying chips equal to the stakes into the Bank. Use the playing pieces to represent who’s allied with whom, just move your piece next to the one you want to accompany. The only rules-effect of being companions is that when the two characters have a conflict, the current stakes limit is the upper limit of the stakes instead of the lower; either player may raise the stakes, but if they raise them over the stakes limit, then the companionship is cancelled unless either side immediately forfeits.
(I’m also considering that companions could share chips freely with each other. We’ll see.)
If a character ends up in a conflict with both companions and enemies against him, the stakes have to be exactly equal to the current stakes level; if anybody raises them, the companionship breaks, unless either companion forfeits.
Using the Bank
Chips are leached from the players into the Bank in ties and when they pay for companionship. The players may also get chips back from the Bank by claiming them: whenever a scene ends without a conflict, the characters who participated get to share chips equal to the stakes between them (returning the remainder to the bank). It used to be that you could only do this when your character demonstrated badassitude or character depth etc., but I haven’t been too fond of the critical facets, so right now I’m happy with making the effect automatic. This can’t be done if there are not enough chips in the Bank to match the stakes.
Players whose characters have been removed from the game can use the Bank in conflict to finance the side of community in any conflict, provided that they’ll use their own die to ally on that side as well. “Side of the community” is still a bit vague due to how I don’t know what the genre of this thing is supposed to be, but presumably it’s the one on which the police helicopters would be when and if they get to the scene of conflict.
The rising stakes
The mechanical core idea of the game is that it ends due to the probability swings caused by the increasing minimum stakes, just like a poker tournament. In other words, having the minimum stakes go up ensures that somebody runs out of chips sooner or later.
I’ve tried out various options in regards to when and why the stakes should go up. My current bet in this regard is to have the stakes go up each time chips are claimed from the Bank as well as after each full round. This is essentially a playtest issue, as the math has to be matched to the desired game length. With 40 chips in the game we can roughly assume that the game ends on average when the stakes are around 10 chips high or so. (Pretty complex math in practice, this; better for most to just approximate this stuff.)
When the stakes go up, just move a chip from the Bank onto the stakes board. If there are no chips in the Bank, take the chip from the player with the most chips.
The above Zombie Cinema variant works pretty well as a mechanical framework, but it sucks ass in narrative terms. As I explain elsewhere, I lack a solid genre for this thing. It looks superficially like it’d create superhero stories of some sort, but that’s not in fact enough – there also needs to be an implicit political/societal issue that polarizes player characters and motivates them into beating the shit out of each other. Wuxia worked well in playtest due to how naturally it ties onto issues of good governance and such; when one player makes his character a mongol conqueror, another makes a peasant rebel and a third makes a loyal bureaucrat, the conflicts are pretty obvious and natural, especially when you remember that everybody at the table is expecting the story content to include plentiful duels.
I could create specific steps of play preparation in which the players choose a milieu and genre and some societal stakes over which their characters will be fighting; that’s probably the easiest way out here, as the game’s structure fits several dozen genres while not being exhaustive towards any of them. Still, I’d like to have one specific genre towards which to fine-tune the game, as I think that’s one of the best things in Zombie Cinema, the specific genre and scenario.
Luckily this isn’t a very serious project for me. The game I really should be working on is Eleanor’s Dream, after all. I’m also not entirely happy with how much the game still runs on character-vs-character conflict, just like Zombie Cinema; I wouldn’t mind figuring out how to do some entirely different sort of structure as well.