Depictions of the macabre have always held a special place in my heart. Even in my early childhood, all of my doodles were of horrible monsters and demons. I remember it being a major concern to my parents, and I even frightened a few other children with what I came up with. This was not intentional. I’ve rarely ‘played up’ my love for disturbing images just to make people uncomfortable. (Though, I confess, as I’ve grown older this has become something of a guilty pleasure). I merely have a natural passion for the darker imaginings of the human psyche. And at the center of this passion are creatures possessed of unnatural life beyond death. Ghouls, vampires, and of course, zombies.
You might say that I was into zombies “before they were cool,” but then I would have kick you in the stomach for making me sound like a hipster douche. All the same, even I have long since tired of the ‘zombie craze.’ That’s hardly an original sentiment, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. It is past time for zombies to shamble out of the spotlight. The overproduction of zombie-themed books, movies, television programs and (especially) games is more than frustrating. The books which arguably started that craze, however, are still some of the best I’ve ever read.
Max Brooks’ two zombie classics, “The Zombie Survival Guide,” and “World War Z” are original, and inspired works of modern literature. They cannot even be counted as pulp, despite being predicated on a pulp icon like zombies. Both books explore some interesting questions about the human condition, and they do it from unique perspectives. The level of thought which Brooks put into his work is honestly remarkable, and he deserves no end of accolades for what he accomplished.
Personally, I think World War Z is the far better book. If you haven’t read it, you ought to. The episodic style of the story means you can read it in small segments and feel satisfied that you’ve experienced an entire story at the end of each one. But the episodes are not so completely disconnected that the book doesn’t have an overall narrative. One which, I think, is the definitive account of a zombie apocalypse.
Despite WWZ’s objective superiority, however, I think The Zombie Survival Guide is a much more valuable tome for game masters. It’s valuable even if you never have, and never intend, to run a zombie survival game. The ZSG is useful for all GMs, of all games, in all settings, because in that book Max Brooks does what a good GM should do: he creates a fantastic world, complete with rules for the fantastic elements, then takes that world completely seriously.
If you are unfamiliar with the Zombie Survival guide, the premise of the book is very simple. Zombies are real. There have been numerous minor outbreaks recorded in the past, dating back to as early as 60,000 B.C.. And while past outbreaks have been contained, there is still a real threat of a pandemic of zombieism which would consume the world. When and if that happens, the book aims to prepare the reader to survive in any eventuality. It exhaustively covers its subject matter–to the point that in some spots it almost becomes a general-purpose survival guide. Though it never stops being entertaining.
The complete seriousness of this book with regards to its own fantastic content is a perspective-altering tool for game masters. As I mentioned, this is precisely what I think we ought to be doing. We create, or inherit, fictional realities. Those realities often have fantastic elements, such as magic, or high technology, or even something as simple as slightly altered history from that of the real world. But whatever the particular oddities of our worlds may be, once we’ve determined what those oddities are, we should try to understand how the world would function realistically. If we can accomplish that, then we’ve taken one of the most important and most difficult steps to help our players take the world seriously.
For example, consider a world of medieval fantasy. The only way it differs from real-life medieval Europe is the presence of magic. Okay, now it’s time to figure out how it functions realistically: how does magic work? Is it an innate power granted to a few, or is it a studied art? How powerful can magic be, and why haven’t magic users taken over the world by now? Medieval Europe was strictly religious, how does the pope respond to magic? Does he claim it for the church as a gift from god, or does he decry magic users as servants of evil? If he decries it as evil, is it outlawed universally, or does his opposition to it cause a schism from the church? Or, perhaps, does the obvious power of magic cause the political power of the pope to disappear entirely? Does magic affect the day-to-day life of the peasantry, or are its gifts enjoyed primarily by the ruling classes?
These are important questions to consider if we want our players to find our worlds believable. And it’s the type of thinking for which The Zombie Survival Guide serves as a perfect example. In some ways, I think the ZCG is the most well developed campaign setting I’ve ever seen. Because while many campaign settings focus their attention on detailing nations and races and politics, this book can skip all of that since it can be found in any world atlas. Instead, it focuses all of its 250-some pages on exploring the single way in which its world differs from our own.
It seems more than a little strange to write a recommendation for a best selling book which has been on the shelves for almost a decade. But I don’t simply recommend it as a good read. (After all: World War Z is better!) I recommend it as a valuable source of education for game masters.