Shotgun Diaries is a little RPG from the award winning game designer John Wick which appeared last fall. It features all your classic zombie tropes in a small, incredibly lightweight package. I came across it when I was looking to do a zombie themed horror game and at $5 I just couldn’t resist giving it a shot.
The game is only about 15 pages long and is written in a kind of journal style with blood droplets and a handwritten font. Unfortunately the book has no pictures and is available as a PDF only. The lack of art does add to the feeling that the book is a journal that some survivors picked up somewhere, although it is not written in the narrative style of White Wolf products. Definitely nothing call home about here but at least it doesn’t take much ink to print a copy out.
Shotgun Diaries features an incredibly simple system that essentially boils down to “If there are zombies you must roll a d6. If you get a 6 you describe how things go, otherwise the GM does. If there are no zombies anyone can freely narrate the story.”
Character creation consists of picking an archetype which fits the roles seen in traditional zombie movies (The helpless survivor, the sneaky survivor, etc.) and giving your character a name. This makes character creation quick and easy. Advancement is also interesting. Anyone who survives the day gets to write in their journal. This consists of a paragraph or two and the player may underline one sentence and this becomes true for the story. This could be something you learned from another character, a memory, or something that occurred during the day.
A couple of other nifty features are The Zombie Clock, which increases every 10 minutes and represents the growing horde, and the fear system. The Zombie Clock adds suspense as well as giving the GM points to spend on story complications (An intelligent zombie, a broken weapon, power outage, etc.). The fear system affects the players when they see something horrific, like having their buddy turn into a zombie. It looks good on paper but I found we were constantly forgetting about it during the game.
A final thing I should mention is that the rules specifically cover players turning into zombies. The great thing about this is that it ties into the zombie clock. After a player has been bitten the GM can spend some of his Zombie Clock points to turn them at any time. This is great for two reasons. First the players know that they could turn at any time but the GM decides when. This is a great way to use the meta game to affect the tension and mood. The second thing is that the turned player gets to play as the zombie. How fun is that?
How it Plays:
I sat down to play SD with 2 players and myself as the GM for a total of 3. This was a little less than we were expecting but the game still went over smoothly. It took a little while for the players to adjust to being able to affect the plot and even define what they discover in empty rooms. Another problem was the player’s tendency to find firearms everywhere. Both of these problems could be easily fixed with further plays, and the second requires the players to get out of the combative mindset of other systems.
Actually GMing the game was a bit different as well. It is nice to not have to prep for a game but at the same time it can be tough to come up with good descriptions, names, etc. on the fly. I did sit down and prepare a number of possible events, however because the players could define things they ran into it didn’t see much use. The Zombie Clock was absolute blast to use. The aspect of increasing the number as the players are discussing their options really adds an element of suspense to the game and the ability to add complications to things is absolutely necessary in a game where the players can call so many of the shots. One thing I wish I had was a stack of zombie miniatures to use as counters for the clock rather than a d20. I think the visual element would have added a lot.
Our game lasted about 3 hours, not counting the time it took to go over the rules and just generally get settled. During that time the players escaped a cabin they took refuge in, traveled across America while fighting off zombies left and right, and became entangled with an evil corporation called Gencorp. Eventually the players stole a small airplane and headed to West Coast to escape the continent. The plot may have been a bit cliché, but the collaborative nature of the storytelling meant that none of us new what was coming next and the game really felt like we were playing through a zombie film.
Shotgun Diaries is fun. It is great to just pick up and play, especially if you don’t have time to prepare for a full blown adventure for another game. I’ll certainly be pulling this game out a few more times at least, preferably after watching a zombie movie or two. If you like zombies and the idea of a more collaborative style RPG then it certainly won’t hurt you to try out this game. If you aren’t a zombie fan or don’t like the idea of a more improvised game you might want to stay away. All things said, definitely worth $5.
[tags]Role Playing Games,Zombies,Indie RPGs,Review[/tags]