[Reading Group] Tropical Zombies

So, I finally got around to reviewing the scenario that I chose myself: Tropical Zombies!

I stumbled upon Tropical Zombies around a year ago, when I needed a scenario to play with the people in the Swansea Roleplaying Society. That required a scenario with few enough handouts that I could translate it in the minimal time I had available. And for that, Tropical Zombies is ideal. All the characters are one page – between them! Yep, that’s right, two rows of three characters, with a picture, basic stats like “Part,” “Sex,” and “Age,” a name, selected skills, selected weapons, background and a quote – and only the background is in Danish. Just what I needed.

But I didn’t just pick it for the easy translatable characters. I picked it – and opened it in the first place to look at the characters – because it looked fun. And guess what? It is.

Haff you met my gut Freund, Der Doktor?

Six American teenagers find themselves stuck in the Amazon jungle when their bus is pushed over a cliff. Luckily, a sleepy little town just happens to nearby. The townsfolk all praise Der Doktor, who lives nearby and is the great benefactor of the town. Soon, however, the peace is gone as zombies descend upon the unfortunate teens.

The characters parody classic horror movie cliché as much as the plot does. We have Janet Goodgirl and Mary-Lou Bimbeau, as well as Jonathan Gheek and DUNC. They each fulfill a character cliché, such as the “token asian” and the “boorish quarterback,” and each character description contains an estimate of how long that character is likely to survive, based on their moral character and likeability. The skills further enforce the stereotypes, giving DUNC “Beer Drining 85 %” and “Cow  Tipping 75 %,” while Janet Goodgirl has “Moralize 70 %” and “Hysterical Screaming 45 %.”

The final part of the scenario is a few advices on how to enforce the movie cliché. In many ways, a very minimalist scenario without long preambles, gm instructions or NPC descriptions.

And yet, it works

The scenario, as written, is in many ways as the movies it emulates: very typical and without grand inventions in plot or production. Sure, the layout and drawings are quite good, and the whole thing is mercifully brief and easy to navigate. But the scenes are sketchy, and the plot is linear and railroading. As I said in the beginning of this review, I played this scenario with great success. So, what’s the secret to success in the zombie infested jungle?

To metaplay.

One game sidebar contains the advice to play the game as a B-movie. Not just to plot it as a B-movie, and to use as many clichés as possible. No, to actually pretend this is a cheap movie, and to describe how microphones enteres the picture frame, and how you can clearly see the cheap make-up on the zombies. The bus-driver and the shopkeeper are played by the same actor, and the scenery may fall down at any moment. The players are really actors, and the GM is the director – who may yell “cut!” and demand another take of the scene. It’s a brilliant idea, and one that can quickly take the scenario from the amusing to the absolutely hilarious.

When I played it, however, we took it one step further.

Anyone will have heard horrible tales of on-set drama. And honestly – who believe that Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson really are the heroes they portray?

With that in mind, we played a significant part of the game outside of the camera’s view, with the actors playing out their own personal intrigues and petty fights. And of course, the actors weren’t necessarily anything like their characters. “Michael Goodguy” was really a lecherous, stuck-up SOB, who was disliked by everyone – and so on. The result was absolutely, rolling-on-the floor hilarious. As a gm, I often didn’t get to say a word – but I didn’t mind, because I was in stitches by the players’ antics.

And so, that is the beauty of Tropical Zombies. It’s not what is in the text of the scenario that is so brilliant, but what it allows the players and the GM to do.

So if you want to have a night of fun without any pretensions to art or deep emotional development, Tropical Zombies is definitely worth a look.

So, my usual summaries:

What can we learn?

  • Sometimes, the brilliance is not was is in the scenario, but what isn’t (even if a scenario should always strive to guide the gm and players well).
  • A character doesn’t need to be long to be useful for great play.

Who should play this game?

  • Anyone can play this game.
  • The game game will benefit from players who are able to improvise to the benefit of the group. That means finding a tone and doing silly without it derailing the game completely, and without hogging the spotlight. Also, it requires players who can relax, and accept the silly – pretentious or artsy players may not find the game funny.
  • The gm should be equally comfortable railroading with extreme prejudice, guiding the players along the predetermined plotline, and sitting back and allow the players to take over the game with their riffing clichés and wackiness.

Written too hastily, and not penetrating as deeply as I had hoped when choosing the scenario. But, alas, my time is brief at the end of the year, and I’d rather get it done (like they do in Copenhagen (one may still hope in this 11th hour)) than have a perfect review stuck in my head.

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