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D&D Inspirations from our ‘Zombie Murder Mystery’ game

Written by Alex - Published on October 31, 2011

I. Delve into ZMM

Its got zombies, murder, & a mystery.

By: Alex Harms

When Dungeon Delve came out back in 2009 I was excited to have a book full of level appropriate scenarios to use with my gaming group. I loved that I could go over to the shelf grab a book and have a series of encounters, thematically tied together, which I could use throw into my ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign, run as a side trek or even as a stand alone adventure when I had no time to prepare.

My biggest disappointment with Delve though, was that the scenarios lacked compelling stories. It provided interesting combat scenarios, but the setups were often weak and the story which tied one encounter to the next was often little more than, “You go up stairs and…” When I run my game I want there to be more substance and narrative tying my encounters together. Even the most action packed movies are mostly plot and narrative. This is because if the movie (or game) is all combat and action, the audience becomes numb to it. In the context of role-playing games a lack of forward narrative to tie combat encounters together becomes an uninspired algorithm of number crunching.

The ZMM Model

When I first picked up Zombie Murder Mystery (ZMM) I was skeptical of the way in which the book was laid out. Being a long time D&D player I was used to seeing detailed maps, exotic monster statistics, and precise lists of treasure. I didn’t get that with ZMM. What I got was loosely planned out scenes which sketched out and suggested a narrative for the Game Master to employ. What I loved about ZMM was how freeing it was, and how effortless it made preparation. Instead of bogging down the Narrator with endless lists of statistics and numbers, ZMM scenarios put story, plot and narrative first and leave the mechanics in the back ground. The lesson here is wonderful: “Trust yourself. Trust your players. Don’t over plan.”

When I ran ZMM the first time there was a moment when the players wanted to get from a Hotel Lobby to the Kitchen to do an autopsy. Had I had a map in front of me I would have said, “Ok, first you need to through the hall way (Meaningless encounter), then the dining room (Pointless Interaction) and finally the Kitchen” as I trace the path through the hotel. Rather, by focusing on story instead of planned encounters, I was more able to skip directly to the meaningful parts of the story and advance the plot with each scene.

Every scene should move the plot forward in some way. If an encounter doesn’t make your world richer, or your characters deeper or your drama more intense it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

How ZMM Puts Story First

Be Goal Oriented

ZMM has a number of built in features which if applied to any of the scenarios in Dungeon Delve, or your own adventures, will instantly make them more enjoyable. First, the game is goal and story oriented. It explicitly states the objective (survive and disable the villain). Players should always know what they are trying to do. If they don’t know what the objective is, tell them. Goals provide motivation and motivation breeds action and story content. Every time you sit down at the table there should be a goal in place to achieve by the end of the night. If players complete their session goals, and tell a good story, every session will feel like a huge success. Narrators must always define the goal and guide the story in that direction.

Try to avoid cutting the action right before they complete their goals, or dragging your session out so they don’t accomplish anything meaningful during the session. Remember, story, whether episodic, serial or epic is first.

Run Down the Clock

ZMM also uses the “Time bomb” technique. Players must complete their goal before the clock runs down or they fail. Their goal is time contingent. Making goals time contingent forces focus and speed. It takes out meaningless talk and useless interactions and demands action. Cut anything that isn’t necessary to the story. Especially because D&D combat takes so long these days (4th edition), cut anything not absolutely necessary and keep the clock running. This forces the players to act and advances the narrative. If you really want to keep play speeding forward set an actual timer for the duration of your session and say you have until then to complete the session goal. Players will never waste time in a meaningless argument again.

The World is a Dangerous Place

Lastly, ZMM employs constant danger. As in the world of D&D, the world of ZMM is a dangerous place. Characters can’t be complacent; they must do something heroic! Keeping the risk high and the pressure on with time and danger will force action and compelling narrative into your games. Too many times has my party stood outside a door healing and talking because they knew the next encounter would trigger when they opened the door (again a problem with maps). Don’t allow this. If they stand around to long, then something bad happens. Keeps the story flowing forward!

Delve with Zombie Murder Mystery

Applying the lessons we have picked up from ZMM to our other games will guarantee a strong session every time. Plan sessions and stories not scenarios and statistics. The fun in narrative games is the narrative. By connecting your combat encounters to meaningful story elements which relate to player goals and motivations, you can take the encounters in Dungeon Delve and your own adventures and make them into vibrant and powerful stories. Develop methods to advance the plot rather than forcing the details. Learn from ZMM and employ goal oriented gaming, ticking clocks and constant danger to force focus and action rather than a drifting complacency. Your adventurers are men and women of action and deserve a story and a game worthy of that title.

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Written by Alex

Currently working with dungeonmastering.com on… secret projects…

Scattering random musings on game design theory gathered over 12+ years of roleplaying.

Philosopher, Psychologist, Fencing Coach, Nerd.

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