Zombie Western – Demoncon 2002

The game started out innocently enough. I was hankerin’ to play a Western, so with the first turn that’s the Tenet I proposed. The next player set us in a mining town named Dark Gulch, and the player after that made sure the boom times had already turned bust. That’s when it started to get a little weird.

The first characters in the story were the crotchety old prospector Dirty Pete, and the skinny piano player. After that came Ruby the saloon girl, with a past. Ruby (plying her trade) had gotten wind of a new, but as yet unclaimed silver strike in one of the abandoned mine shafts. She needed the prospector’s help to claim the strike…only problem was, the area was crawling with zombies…yes zombies.

Fortunately, also in the saloon, was the Reverend Ulysses, a drunken, ex-minister turned zombie hunter. Plied with drink and a share of the stake, The Reverend agreed to help clear out the zombies. Unfortunately for them, the prospector was a little drunk himself, and by the time he was done recruiting Ulysses, the whole town had heard of the plan.

Zeke, a rival zombie hunter and his side kick Ronnie heard about it and decided to collect the bounties on the zombies for himself. Bruce Ashwood, a local miner, equipped with a steam powered mining pick named Betty decided to head out first and jump the claim. Meanwhile Sheriff Brody had sent a telegraph to a man known simply as Dirk…the most famous Zombie Hunter in the west. Unbeknownst to us at the time but to be revealed later was that Dirk and Ruby had been married before a nasty break-up, and the Sheriff’s daughter Sally had a huge crush on the mysterious hunter.

Ruby, the prospector, and the Reverend Ulysses went to the town’s abandoned church which Ulysses used as his headquarters to collect their gear, but zombies had already infiltrated the town. Alerted by Ulysses’ pet dog Ghost (who was quite literally a ghost) the characters managed to blast their way through the zombies without getting their brains eaten.

They traveled to the mine site where a tremendous horde of zombies were mindlessly making their way into the mine shaft, drawn by the sound of mysterious music. The Reverend was preparing to lay a wild west smack down on the undead when Zeke and the Sheriff Brody arrived on the scene. Wanting the zombie bounties all to himself, Zeke had let the Sheriff know that Reverend Ulysses was hunting without a license. Fortunately the Sheriff had a copy of the necessary paperwork (in triplicate) with him which Ulysses dutifully filled out. Unfortunately the license wasn’t active until it had been properly filed. Scowling, The Reverend turned to his gas powered camp stove and threw the paperwork in the fire. Watching the smoke rise to the heavens, the Reverend informed all present that he’d filed the paperwork with God and anyone having a problem with that could take it up with him.

At that point a commotion got their attention. Bruce was bailing out of the mine shaft with a mule cart full of ill gotten silver ore. The zombies made short work of the poor mule and Bruce, seeing the fire of the camp stove, made a bee line towards the safety of Reverend Ulysses and his posse with the zombies not far behind. The strange music was growing louder.

As the group prepared to mount a defense, they failed to notice that Bruce had been bitten while in the mine shaft and was turning into a zombie himself. Now fully transformed he attacked Ruby with his steam pick. She managed to shoot it out of his hand…turns out she was a crack shot, taught by Dirk himself.

The Reverend, Sheriff Brody, Zeke, Ronnie, and the old prospector Dirty Pete tried to hold off the zombie hordes, but it was a losing battle and Pete went down. His fall did manage to occupy several zombies who were intent on eating his brains. Several more turned their attention on Ronnie. Seeing the odds, Zeke abandoned his side kick Ronnie to a painful death and while they were gnawing through his skull he high tailed it back to town. Still the music continued.

At that moment Sally showed up with Dirk in tow. She had met her beau at the train station and led him to the mine. Tossing a few sticks of dynamite around sent zombie parts flying, briefly gaining control of the situation. But Ruby was in trouble. Bruce had gained the upper hand and was about to slay the saloon girl, when Dirk…moved by feelings for his old flame, leapt in to rescue her. Ruby was saved, and Bruce put down, but Dirk had been bitten. He helped finish off the last of the nearby zombies but when he felt himself transforming he told Ruby she had to kill him.

Ruby was preparing to do so, but Sally leapt in and stopped her, throwing herself over Dirk to protect him. Dirk, now fully a zombie, promptly ripped out Sally’s throat before Ruby put him down with a shot that took off half his head.

At this point the strange music had reached a thundering crescendo. Rising out of the mine on a hydraulic lift was a platform containing a steam powered organ. The skinny piano player from the saloon was playing that organ and through its music he was raising and controlling the zombies. As it turns out, he had loved Ruby for years, but she had always scorned him. So he went in quest of dark occult arts that would let him get his revenge.

As a fresh wave of zombies came out of the mine, Ruby and Reverend Ulysses made good their escape. Sheriff Brody, shattered with grief over the loss of his beloved Sally went berserk and killed many zombies before he ran out of ammo and was torn apart by the undead.

Featured Effect, Story Elements:

Story Elements are the type of Tenet which governs what a story is going to be about. The rules specify that each player in turn can propose one and only one Tenet at a time. This ensures that all players have input into the type of game being played. However, it can also result in something of a mishmash of different genres and styles as each player puts his own twist on the game. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of our best games have involved some wildly disparate Story Elements all being thrown into the same pot and stirred together.

This effect can be seen in this play example as the story moved from being a traditional western set in a small mining town to a “weird” western complete with zombies and occultists. As it turned out this wasn’t a bad direction and the game was quite fun with few survivors. However, there are a few tricks to keeping Universalis games more genre pure if desired.

The most obvious is to be prepared to Challenge players who introduce elements outside of the genre expectations that have been established. Not only can this mechanic serve as a straw poll of other players as to whether they’d like or dislike the new direction, but if the new element has never been formally proposed as a Story Element the Challenger can most likely claim the existing Story Elements as Facts with which to oppose the new direction. “This is a ‘western’. There aren’t zombies in westerns”

However, more important is to recognize the importance of the Game Preparation phase outlined in Chapter 2. In our example above I defined the genre as being “western”. It did not then get narrowed down to “traditional western”. If players are truly concerned about genre purity they should take pains to be very specific up front before the first scene is played about exactly what those genre expectations are.

Also, feel free to make use of negating Story Elements. Knowing the popularity of zombies and “weird” westerns recently, players in this game could have ensured that these things didn’t creep into their game by proposing Story Elements such as “No occult” or “No undead gunslingers” and such. In another game we’ve played that was set in a science fiction universe a player made good use of this technique to declare that there was no virtual reality cyberspace in that setting.

—-Ralph Mazza

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