We had a chance to chat with Charles Rice, who designed the pen-and-paper roleplaying game 'AZ: After Zombies' for Apocalyptic Games. He discussed his sources of inspiration and why a knowledge of history can enrich your perspective on all things "zombie."
Q: Could you tell us about how the game started?
A: In late 2012 I'd become a late convert to The Walking Dead, mostly the comic, though the TV show has stretches that are really, really good. I wanted a game that evoked that feel.
Also, though I'd published a number of modern RPGs in the past, under the d20 OGL but I'd never actually designed a game from the ground up and wanted to take on that challenge.
The game was in development and play-testing for about three years, and was published in December of 2015.
Q: What differentiates it from other zombie-themed games?
A: I think the fact that the game is essentially a survival game. You could use these rules, minus the zombies of course, to run a game about characters stranded in the wake of a natural disaster, for example.
The game is not about fighting zombies. You don't gain experience for combat, you gain experience for "time served" in other words, you can run from every zombie you meet and still learn to better survive in the world After Zombies.
I also prefer post-apocalypse games where the focus is rebuilding what was lost. Stories like "The Road" hold zero appeal to me. Too nihilistic. As a result, I spent a ton of time on the crafting in the game. Players can take apart, repair and build from scratch every item in the game.
Q: Could you describe the game Mechanics?
A: I wanted the game to be simple to play, and so a lot of the complexity is front-loaded. It can take a while to generate a survivor but once you do, playing the game is a snap.
The mechanics are tried and true percentile, where you have an ability score from 1 to 100. If you are skilled in an action based on that skill, let's say, Combat, you're rolling percentile dice to roll under that ability score. If you don't have the relevant skill, you're operating at one-half your ability score.
Although there are no classes, the game uses a level-based mechanic and as players level up, they'll improve their ability scores, learn new skills and gain perks, improving their ability with skills they already possess.
The game also focuses on the mental stress on survivors. All characters have a Mental Toughness rating, which takes damage and can be healed just like their physical hit points.
Finally, there's a Unity mechanic, which represents the cohesion of the group. Do they get along or are they constantly arguing?
Q: Are there supplements?
A: I've been supporting the game since its release with a series of adventures. There are currently four adventures published for the game, with a fifth on the way. There's also an official character sheet, available as a free download.
For folks curious about the game I recommend our first adventure, Siege at West Lake Middle School. It's Pay What You Want, and since it's an introductory adventure, it contains sample characters and a walk-through on how some of the key mechanics work. It's a great, risk-free way to get a look at the game and what we're trying to do with it.
Q: What is the appeal of the zombie genre?
A: I think it's that enemy you can't fight. The enemy is not really the zombies, the enemy us, only a version of us that can't be reasoned with, or frightened, or coerced. There's also a strong interplay of our natural fear of mortality. Death is a thing we all live. But if that wasn't the end, well, that's an unsettling thought.
We see this in accounts of the Black Death in Europe. No one knew how the disease spread, so there was fear, conspiracy theories, people literally boarded up in their homes and ultimately, a fascination with death and decay. I read a lot about the Black Death while working on the game because I think it's a fantastic parallel to zombie fiction.