Fate Codex

All Fate Must Be Eaten

by Rob Wieland

Hell Is Other People

Zombies are the great American monster. Like all great American innovations, the zombie takes elements of what came before—the reborn creatures of Haitian voodoo, the insatiable hunger of the ghoul, the infectious bite of the vampire—and blends them together into an entirely new creature. The zombie isn’t scary because it could be anybody. It’s scary because it’s everyone.

The monster plays on fears of conformity—creatures that look human one-on-one, but soon turn into a sea of grasping hands and always chewing mouths.

The true monsters of the zombie movie aren’t the creatures banging on the door. The zombies don’t get inside on their own. Zombies turn our hopes and fears against us by shining an ugly mirror on our prejudices and our selfishness. Tension between human survivors leads to backstabbing, doors unlatched, and rules temporarily forgotten. Raiders strip every last gold tooth and luxury item that they can get their hands on. The powerful try to rebuild the world in their own images. When it all looks hopeless at the end of a zombie story, it’s usually because, somewhere in the middle of the story, the people involved put their self-interest first.

Fate Core’s focus on characters make it an excellent fit for these types of zombie stories. The rules presented here target the important drama between the survivors, with the zombies as a looming threat. We include tailored aspects, as well as advice on how to keep the tension high between survivors during play.

Night of the Living Aspects

‘Zombie story’ is a pretty wide genre definition. Is this story a dramatic tale about survivors striving to live another day by battling external threats and internal friction? Is it a comedic tale about the survivors doing all the things they wished they could have done but didn’t before the rise of the walking dead? Is it an action tale involving blasting through an infinite number of undead to return the world to some semblance of normalcy? Maybe it’s a little of all those. When you first sit down at the table, talk about what kind of zombie story you want to tell. Discussing favorite zombie story elements with other group members will help focus what’s important in this tale and narrow ideas for character concepts.

Characters still begin with five aspects, but the focus is modified to get ones that are a better fit for the genre. High Concept and Trouble stay close to their counterparts in Fate Core, but the other three aspects reflect the attitudes toward the zombies, the positive bonds that give the group strength, and the cracks in the armor that may one day let the zombies in to feast. There are several example aspects included for inspiration and for those groups who want to dive straight into the deep end of the world.

For groups that want to start on the first day of the end of the world, begin play with a high concept and trouble and fill in the others as you play through your first session. Each scene ends with at least one of the remaining three aspects filled in. Steer scenes towards ones that fill out everyone’s open aspects. This works well for the classic zombie scenario of strangers thrust together trying to survive, as a convention game, or as a one-shot trying to show people how Fate works.

The high concept aspect says something about the game as well as the character. Games set during the fall of humanity will have high concepts that reflect on what the character was before the rise of the dead. Games set farther after the fall feature high concepts that reflect the character’s role in the survival group. Compel pre-fall aspects to remind characters of what they lost, or maybe what they were hoping to forget. Compel post-fall aspects to generate unforeseen consequences or remind the group of past failures.

Examples: Reluctant Leader, Grieving Mother, Hopeful Seeker, Secretive Official, Reckless Anarchist

Trouble follows characters even after the end of the world. Good thematic troubles can put the individual characters in danger from the undead with a compel. Great ones can endanger all the survivors at the table. Drunks fall asleep, curious characters push out farther into the unexplored regions around camp, and arrogant survivors try to lead the others only to cause friction instead. Selecting a trouble that endangers everyone rather than just a single character means more opportunities for compels and character drama.

Examples: Thinks She’s in Charge, Will Do Anything to Find Him, Absent-Minded, Wants to Learn How They Work, Am I Infected?

The phase trio from Fate Core exists to provide a group with compelling reasons to have stuck together. Zombie games featuring survivors of the zombie apocalypse use it to generate good backstories and highlight the tensions between the survivors. The phase trio defines the web of relationships in the survivor group, as well as how the character became a survivor instead of a zombie when things went to hell. The three phases generate three aspects important to your character: the Survivor Aspect, the Link Aspect, and the Friction Aspect.

Take a turn around the table generating each of these aspects for each of the characters. When generating link and friction aspects, make sure everyone has at least one link and friction pointing at them directly. The more tangled the web, the more drama gets made by pulling on the strands.

The survivor aspect sums up the character’s first memorable encounter with the walking dead. The zombie might have been someone the character didn’t know. It could have been someone the character knew quite well, like a family member or a loved one. The aspect also suggests how the character survived the encounter. It may have ended in violence. It might have tested the resourcefulness of the survivor. It might have been what killed the last group the person joined. Good examples of this aspect suggest both the nature of the encountered zombie and how the character survived.

Examples: Killed My Zombified Mother, Outran My Undead Boy Scout Troup, Ran Over a Zombie at 2 AM, Only Survivor of Project Phoenix, Battled My Way Out of St. Francis Hospital

The link aspect chooses the character’s link to the survivor group. Yes, there’s safety in numbers, but there’s always going to be one person that makes life better. That person might be a potential love interest. This person may remind the character of someone they knew before the rise. The person may have saved the character’s life. Even if someone had completely balanced views on the rest of the group, there’s one person that stands out just a little bit. Good examples of the link aspect define the relationship between the characters and how that relationship can be tested.

Examples: Nelson Kept Me Alive, Kelly Knows How I Feel (Right?), Beverly Is My New Mom, I Owe Frank Everything, Valerie Rescued Me

The friction aspect indicates the character’s choice for the first one to be zombie meat. The aspect should illustrate why the other survivor is so frustrating. In any social situation, someone’s going to be on the bottom of the totem pole. Compels can quickly lead to tension between these two characters but don’t forget to use these aspects to invoke. If two characters who don’t like each other are looking for supplies, there’s healthy competition to be the one who brings home actual bacon. Good examples of the friction aspect highlight the tension and also point out ways that tension is useful to the story.

Examples: Suzanne’s Just a Kid, Dalton Is Dangerous, Laurie Keeps Too Many Secrets, It’s Either Jim or Me, Alex Almost Got Me Killed

What About the Weapons?

One of the first elements that get discussed in zombie games is weapons. Some of this discussion will come out as characters are made. The fragility of weapons can be represented by creating advantages. While an advantage has a free invoke, it’s safe. Once the invoke is gone, that beloved cricket bat or shotgun is in danger. All it takes is a compel to tell the player that the axe is broken or the chainsaw is out of gas. If the character wants a trusty weapon that can never be destroyed, make it a stunt or a character aspect, like My Father’s Hunting Rifle. That hunting rifle has backstory, making the character trust it reliably, but take dangerous risks to make sure it doesn’t get pulled off by a pack of zombies. Even as a stunt, a trusty weapon can still inspire stories without the need for compel. What happens when someone discovers someone else using a Battle-Hardened Katana to slice off zombie heads?

Forty Miles of Bad Road

Fate has a reputation for being unable to do horror games because of the control the players have over their characters. It also has a reputation for not being gritty enough to convey the danger of a zombie setting. With all those stress boxes and consequences, a character will never truly feel in danger. Characters can soak up all that stress and consequence and be just fine without a care in the world. This hack aims to add some grime, sweat, and blood to Fate Core.

Ninety percent of dread is in the mind’s eye. Stress hits are still hits. Describe the wind getting knocked out of a character’s lungs or the gnashing teeth two inches from delicate fingers. Use mental hits to remind the character of other times they were put down or upset by the person doing the arguing. Treating stress hits like close calls goes a long way to turning them into another precious resource like bottled water or pain pills. Most characters only have two stress boxes, so keep the pressure on whenever they cross one out.

Survivors push themselves to stay alive. In this hack, stress hits only recover after a conflict when the survivors have found a safe haven from zombies. Adjusting when characters recover stress keeps the pressure on players to actively seek safety. It also makes offering stress as part of a success with a cost a tougher choice. If a character stays up on watch, they don’t get to recover stress. Who takes that hit? The ex-cop who already has a lost box or two but has skills that fit the profile of a guard better? Or the unstressed waitress who can keep watch but might be a liability if things turn violent?

Fate focuses on character, and characters are what drive zombie stories. The zombies are a fire simmering in the background. When the survivors get into conflicts, make them count. Arguing whether to kill someone who’s been bit can quickly turn into a mental conflict, since the life of a man, or maybe a boy, lies in the balance. Ask the players if they want to turn an argument into a conflict. Compelling a friction aspect between two survivors that hate each other turns a discussion into a contest as two rivals try to get the survivors to take a side on their argument. That compel sets off other ones, as other friction aspects are compelled to air the characters’ grievances and link aspects compel people into the argument. Soon, a flare-up between two rivals brings the whole group into an argument. Perfect timing for a zombie attack.

Save The Last One for Yourself

Hit compels hard. Especially when compels are used to get characters to act against each other. Don’t be afraid to take suggestions from the players and put those fate points out there. When players push each other, they get their points once those actions have consequences. Insulting someone with the friction aspect is one thing. Insulting them to the point where they forgot to make sure the gate was locked? That’s compel worthy.

Consequences from conflicts do a great job reflecting the gritty nature of a zombie setting. Medical aid is scarce, so something that might be a mild consequence elsewhere can always be Worse Than It First Looked. This setting is also rife with mental consequences as survivors crack under pressure. Consequences offer more compels to allow zombies to put on the pressure. Consequences are a great way to pay for success with a cost from avoiding zombies. A consequence like I Think I Got Bit will fuel some great scenes if the character makes it back to the safety of the hideout.

It’s a hard world. Character death is common in zombie fiction and this hack is no different. As GM, declare as hard an outcome as possible. Being Taken Out of a conflict could mean a character dies in this genre. A physical conflict likely ends in death. Even a mental conflict might end in a fatal mistake that allows the dead to get in. If players negotiate concessions, you should get some continuing drama out of it. Getting medical attention might become the crux of the next storyline. A character might survive a zombie attack through conceding, but someone else gets bit. Or win the argument, but lose the group’s trust. The other survivors may wonder if the character is worth putting up with all the arguments and mental conflict. Storming off in a huff isn’t the best idea with zombies right outside the door. A returning character may be pestered with questions about being infected. Or blamed if something goes wrong at the camp in the interim.

No More Room in Hell

The zombies in this hack are an environmental threat. Aspects represent the risen dead; these aspects describe the rules of the zombie infestation. As GM, create five aspects that describe the zombies while the players are making their characters. These illustrate the strength of the zombies, as well as their weaknesses. Five allows for a good sense of discovery. You have final say over the aspects; though, in the spirit of collaborative world building, you may take suggestions from the table.

Once the survivors know the rules, they can make plans and preparations to keep themselves safe from infection. They may invoke zombie aspects for bonuses when using the aspects to their advantage. You can compel the aspects when the zombies have an advantage over the breathing characters in the story. We’ve included some examples below from classic zombie tropes, but don’t be afraid to make your own. Borrow them from other movies, or take assumptions about zombies and twist them to keep your players on their toes.

Infectious Bite: Often, the infection is carried by the zombie’s bite. Invoke the aspect for a better examination of a character’s health after a run-in with the dead. Compel the aspect to infect an NPC. Whether they turn or are put down by the other survivors can be the source of great drama.

Slow Walkers: The classic zombie moves at a slow but relentless speed. Invoke the aspect to make it easy for a character to outrun or dodge out of the grasp of a zombie. Compel the aspect to catch the character in a situation where he may be unable to maneuver away, like a walk-in freezer.

Shoot Them in the Head!: Putting down a zombie often requires a bullet to the brain. Invoke this aspect to take careful aim to put a walker back down for good. Compel the aspect and the zombie gets within grasping or biting distance while the player gets into position.

Growling Runners: More recent zombie stories feature them as fast, rage-filled beasts able to close the distance before an unlucky soul can reload. Invoke this aspect to take advantage of feral intelligence to lure or hunt them like animals. Compel this aspect to blitz an unsuspecting survivor out of nowhere.

They Just Keep Coming: As more people die, the ranks of the zombies swell. Invoke this aspect to gain a crystal clear focus in the face of so many things that want to taste the flesh of the living. Compel the aspect to have more zombies arrive just as soon as the last batch is dispatched.

A Neverending Hunger

Zombies are not made like characters. They have no stress. They take no consequences. The zombies never roll dice. Racking up zombie kills is meaningless. They are a force that doesn’t negotiate or back down. Use challenges and contests when confronting a zombie threat. Save the conflicts for when human characters come to blows. The players might use a challenge to clear the zombies out of an area to keep it safe. A contest might involve players working together to restart a generator to keep their electric fence up. Be explicit with the stakes. The clearer you are with what happens if the players don’t succeed, the more likely they will be willing to invoke and succeed at a cost to make it happen.

Because zombies don’t roll dice, they deal stress in one of two ways: when a player chooses to succeed at a cost or when the GM invokes a zombie aspect. When a character succeeds at a cost and takes stress from a zombie, they take stress equal to the difference in shifts they need to turn the roll into a success. When you invoke a zombie aspect, the character may make an appropriate defend roll against a difficulty of +2 for each zombie aspect invoked.

Nathan dropped into a pit of zombies locked up in a sub-basement. They have Strength in Numbers and an Infectious Bite. The GM spends two fate points for a +4 attack on Nathan. He musters a +3 defense, taking a 1-stress hit. Even if the GM doesn’t spend more fate points to hit him with another attack next round, he’s still got to find a way out of here.

Many zombie stories have an element of discovering the source of the infection and how it works. The gradual reveal also increases the threat of the zombies, since they get more opportunities to compel themselves into situations. As GM, you may use any of the zombie aspects at any time, but they are revealed when they are used. Once all the aspects are discovered, the exploration continues. The zombies continue to evolve as a threat. Maybe the dead are learning. Maybe the virus mutated. Maybe the demons are angry the survivors keep winning. When the maximum number of zombie aspects is in play, you may remove one of them whenever the characters reach a significant milestone.

Fate makes the game about the people, and people are what make a zombie tale memorable.