I met up with Chris De La Rosa, lead designer of the zombie tabletop roleplaying game Outbreak Undead , and one of his community volunteers on Saturday August 17th, 2013 in their booth on Gen Con’s retail floor. Both Chris and the volunteers were enthusiastic about their game and took nearly 40 minutes of their Saturday afternoon to talk to us and answer our questions.
We walked away from their interview very intrigued by Outbreak: Undead. The title is one that we at Terrible Gamers and Rentagamemaster only had a passing awareness of, until our conversation with Chris, so we were surprised by the detail and scholarly effort that went into the game design. Without saying too much, I will let the interview speak for itself, at the end of those 40 minutes I was very excited to get my hands on a copy of the game. Unfortunately, Terrible Gamers and Rentagamemaster have a budget of -$150 a month (-$2400 at Gen Con) so you will have to wait to read an actual review of the game. If you want to get it sooner, feel free to hit that donate button and support our website (hint, hint).
The interview transcript posted bellow has been edited. We tried are very hardest to include the content we felt to be of the greatest interests to our readership. We hope you enjoy it. And before we forget, a really big thank you to Chris for the interesting conversation and the, I’m guessing, cool as shit game (seriously donate people).
The “play yourself” as a character is a really interesting feature of Outbreak: Undead. Growing up, as someone who has been gaming for most of my life, there has always been that one game–for instance we (my gaming group) all wanted to make characters for a world of darkness game–where we (my gaming group) wanted to play ourselves… [and we tried] to wedge ourselves into the… [character gen mechanics].
Outbreak: Undead Community Volunteer
There is [also] the other way around where you are always playing games where… part of roleplaying is being ridiculously conscious of what you know and what the player knows. A lot of times game can get weird when… the players have knowledge that characters [don't]. In this game, player knowledge is character knowledge because you’re playing yourself.
So, Chris (Christopher De La Rosa), what really… made you want to make this game?
We started by just having a lot of people tell us what their zombie survival plans were, and that really is the genesis of it. And after awhile [we] tried to think about… [whether] a d20 modern system could do it (work for a zombie RPG) and [we decided] it is not really accurate to us as people. We (our characters) were doing way to well [surviving the zombie apocalypse].
So my background is actually in Psychology, and I went back to research from my college days, talked to my college professors and got some PhD students to develop a test to make yourself as a character [for our game].
[In Outbreak: Undead] you also have the ability to upgrade your character as you go when you encounter situations where you know that you have experience. So you can plead a case to [your] GM saying “well I spent 4 years doing this so my character would be better at doing this.” You’re demonstrating that… your character knowledge should be more like your player knowledge because you are playing the same person. You can do that [in Outbreak: Undead) by making skills on the fly so your character is [actually] more like you the longer you survive.
So that is really interesting to me as a journalist and a scholar. You actually went and got PhD students the help you design…
Yes, one of my old professors… mentored us through and his research assistant did the grunt work on it. I went over their work and made sure it worked for what we needed to do. It’s actually pretty accurate for, especially for what it is [a tabletop rpg]. We are working the second edition of it… SPEW-AI2–Strength, Perception, Empathy, Will Assessment Inventory. So we are working on the second one now [and will] add a little expanded question base, and are trying to get more people on it… right now it’s just 3 (people).
But you can take the test right now. It is online on our website. Just go to our website and find the logo for it–SPEW-AI–on the corner of the page and you can… generate your core stats [for an Outbreak: Undead character] and work from there.
(Terrible Gamers is including a link to the SPEW-AI test if you would like to give it a shot)
So is that something you were really aiming for then? Were you trying to be a realistic as possible with Outbreak: Undead?
Yes. Some people fight that more… than others. [Some players] think “yea, I probably won’t survive,” and accept the fact that they aren’t as prepared as they think they are… [while for others] it causes cognitive dissonance, because they think they’d do way better [in a zombie scenario than their characters]. The truth of the matter is that they really wouldn’t.
So in many ways Outbreak: Undead is a simulation of a survival…
A survival roleplaying game. Yeah, it’s a simulation.
Outbreak: Undead Volunteer
Another interesting thing is that Outbreak: Undead takes into account as many elements of a [zombie] outbreak that it can. So just because you personally cannot fire a rifle well, it does not mean that [in the game] you cannot manipulate a strongpoint to be successful… just because someone does not know how to deal with zombies in the short term, it does not mean that they wouldn’t be useful in the long term.
So is Outbreak: Undead built around the idea that players are always playing themselves? What if someone wants to go outside of themselves?
We actually… [have] template characters. They are, in the more traditional roleplaying sense, filling a class role. So I’m the strong guy of the group–the police officer or former military–or I am the healer–the med tech or the doctor. So there are there those sorts of characters that are available for you to play in Outbreak: Undead. In fact, we have a warning in the front of the book that says if you are not comfortable with the idea of you dying… you should seriously reconsider playing [as yourself].
And I’m not saying that as a joke. Some of our beta testing sessions were very intense and [some players were] very, very distraught about what some of the characters were doing. [I think] this is because lots of things require empathy, and people like to think of themselves as empathetic. The fact that they are not, when push comes to shove, makes them very disturbed.
That is interesting because it adds a whole new layer to tabletop roleplaying games. People who play pencil and paper roleplaying games often get attached to their characters, so in Outbreak: Undead, where you are actually putting yourself into the game potentially, and especially if you are playing with your friends, you have a lot of existential investment there…
It just kind of reveals a dark side of the human psyche, and that wasn’t exactly intentional, but when you strive for realism that (dark side) can be a byproduct of it.
So we encourage people… if they don’t have that kind of ability to distance themselves emotionally [from the game], to just play a template character. And there are a lot of people who do that. I do it, a lot of people do it, especially when other characters die, which happens.
I am actually imagining right now, a bunch of academics or PhD students trying to play themselves in Outbreak: Undead as a group of survivors… [laughs]… you know a bunch of men and women who are really good at writing scholarly papers and not much else. That would be a short game I think [laughs].
In any case, so campaigns…
Honestly, the longer a campaign goes, the less realistic it becomes. Its like trying to plan out for the next 10 years. Most people are not able to do that. Most people don’t have any idea what they’ll be doing the next 5 years, or even 3. So trying to project out the results of global pandemic over 10 years in the future makes you speculate so much that you basically end up playing a fantasy game.
I mean, I’m not saying don’t do it. I would have a lot of fun in that type of game. It just becomes less of a simulation and more of a game.
So what is the scope of the average game? Are the players running campaigns or just short outbreak scenarios?
Well, the way we designed it we kind of figured out there was four stages to any outbreak… It ranges from its just happening and society is beginning, to crumble to we lost and we are just trying to survive day-to-day. So there are four outbreak levels, one for every level… number one is chaos, then order trying to be reestablished… then there is failure to establish order… [finally] there is absolute death of society. So [players]… can choose where you want that to go. You could have a campaign that actually stretches across that whole spectrum that would be a very long campaign.
I’ve run campaigns for years in other games, and it is not impossible [in ours]. Mostly though we are just trying to capture one snapshot in an outbreak and play it. We actually made the game master’s companion because that [helps] solve the problem of how do you write a story in the context of a larger outbreak… It allows you to use the zombies as set dressing to a more relate able drama.
Would you say that your game is gritty… or deadly? Is it the type of game where what you really want to do is avoid confrontation with things like zombies at almost all costs?
Yeah. Honestly it is that kind of game. I call it unforgiving. You can try to get yourself out of a situation by combat, but that is extraordinarily risky, but you have to do it sometimes. There are ways we give you to sneak around [and] the ability to use more evasive ways to avoid confrontation. Basically, we punish heroism in the sense that if you try to be an action hero you end up getting killed.
[The game] forces you to strategize and play smart. Realistically the biggest chance you have to succeed is… [having] a solid team behind you.
This brings up another question I have about your mechanics. Say the characters get into a fight. Are they fighting individual zombies or does Outbreak: Undead have some sort of horde/mob mechanic?
Well the idea behind it (Outbreak: Undead encounters) is that for every period of time–45 to 90 minutes–you [as the GM] make an encounter check. If that check is successful that means that something saw… [your players]. So it is assumed that zombies… if an encounter check is passed by a GM… notice the players trying to do something.
[If this happens] you (the players) can deal with it by trying to duck away and hide or fighting through them. So the mobs [of zombies] they (players) encounter can be largely avoid, although there is situation called… all out defense, which is wave after wave of punishing large amounts of zombies. And [that happens] if you try and settle down and you don’t have enough of a stronghold to defend you.
So yes there are mechanics for both, and it is generally one-on-one, because if you fight anything that requires you to use mob mechanics you should probably run. There are weight of numbers and other mechanics that are added, so if you waded into a group of zombies they would win just in virtue of having more numbers than you.
So can you use Outbreak: Undead to simulate any type of natural disaster? How important are zombies?
If any good game or story is not given relatable characters… then there is no real point to it. If you make zombies a central theme, you are essentially making set dressing a central theme. And that’s another thing about Outbreak: Undead. We don’t tell you a lot about the zombies, there is not a lot of zombie lore in it, in the sense that we do not tell you what zombies do, but you will see lots of fluff in regards to what people do in response to zombies. You will see news reports on what impact it has on the community or you will hear stories of people losing everything.
So these kinds of human interest stories are what drive the narrative because you are seeing the results of a catastrophe as opposed to the catastrophe being the main theme. For instance that new PS3 game The Last of Us, I was encouraged by that game because there were zombies, but you cared far more about the characters that were in it and that shows it is a good story…
Yeah and I think that is why it is also doing so well as a television show. It allows people who are not zombie movie or tv show people care about the characters who are in it.
Right. And how you are describing your game seems similar in a lot of ways. Its not like your traditional zombie horror story arc where you know some people will live, some will die, and in the end the survivors will be saved. Its more like what if people really inhabited this world? There is no end right? Do you get that feeling from your game?
We say that more of a problem actually. One of the things about roleplaying games or simulations is: when do you conclude it? If you run any simulation to its “end” all survival rates go to zero. So what do you do, just play until everyone dies? That’s not exactly… well… we gave the GMs companion so that people can make more relatable stories in the context of a larger one.
So its not about an Outbreak’s start or end, but it can be I suppose.
So from a storytelling perspective, or as a GM do you think it is more difficult to introduce new characters. What happens, for example, if I die in the first 20 minutes of a game session. Am I SOL? Does it hurt the simulation aspect to let me roll a new character?
It kind of does and it kind of doesn’t. There are meta ways around that scenario. We gauge each game’s progress by SP–which, depending on how you use it, are either survival or scenario points–and you earn these by accomplishing your objectives.
If in that process someone dies, then you didn’t plan very well, and what you can do is give up a chunk of SP to… [not die].
So your game has been out for 4 years now, correct?
Is there a strong sense of community now amongst people who play it?
Well I know there is a community because we do have an active forum [chuckles]… No, seriously though, so hearing that there are a multitude of games run not officially by us, that tells… me that people care enough about it [Outbreak: Undead]… [that] they are trying to get people involved in it…
We try to run as many games as we can [at Gen Con] and we are pleasantly surprised by how much enthusiasm or games have… I see from our community how active they are and how much they support Outbreak: Undead and we greatly appreciate it.
A lot of them [members of the community] end up becoming volunteers in different places around the country. So everyone has their own story to share and people like hearing it.
Do you find that the Outbreak: Undead community tries to offer suggestions for future content? Suggestions like where the game line might go in the future?
In regards to development?
Yes. Do you find that the Outbreak: Undead community is a good source of new ideas?
Absolutely. In fact, most of our community, when we find out their backgrounds–that comes out… [when they join our forums]…
We ask people up front, “why are you here.” They tell us things like I am a doctor, or I am an engineer, or… they actually say what they can do for the community and its part of their reason for why they want to join. They want to contribute their knowledge.
We [Outbreak: Undead] got this far by not assuming we know everything and we are always learning new things about the world around us that we can incorporate into the game. So we actually initiate that kind of feedback and I have adapted it [Outbreak: Undead] as much as we can to accommodate as much as we can because we strive for realism. [It is important] to know when you don’t know enough.
So were you thinking about this at the genesis of Outbreak: Undead? Were you thinking about the kind of people who were going to want to play your game and whether or not the community could actually help you develop the game?
Yeah, we definitely thought that the culture of our… [community] was informed by the type of game we were looking to make. So if we pushed realism and we pushed preparedness accurately, then that was the type of community that would gravitate towards us.
We get a few people who “rules lawyer” their way through… [Outbreak: Undead]. There are was in the game to get around one thing or another, but is that actually helping you? You are doing this to try and prepare for, if not zombies, maybe some other natural disaster that, you know, might actually happen. You are doing yourself a disservice.
Usually that type of metagaming is looked down upon by the community because that defeats the spirit of our community, but instead of just shutting those conversations down, the community usually provides people with information.
For example I learned just how long a hospital can survive without power because I met someone who works at a power plant on our forums who knows which grids go down first and how long EMS can last on backup. There are so many things that we have learned because we were humble enough to ask [our community]
So Outbreak: Undead is constantly adapting to the things the development team learns from the community itself?
Right. We make information we learn available to the community. We obviously can’t change the book because it’s a printed, solid, object. But we make notes for future releases so that when we have something that is coming out like a supplement we can pay tribute to… [our community].
(c) Scott Mills 2013