by Tobie Abad
It doesn't have to be a zombie game.
But it needs to be a game where horror elements are welcome.
It starts as a twitch. An unconscious thing which no one usually notices. A word happens more often than not. Simple yet there. Most overlook it. Most even don't realize it. But when they do, they probably don't even think its anything to be worried about. And eventually they will realize how wrong they were.
System: Choose a simple common word. But be sure that the infected non-playing character ALWAYS uses that word at least once in every instance when he speaks. The infection is insidious however, so questions that require a single word are usually answered with non-verbal responses. And there's always the shrug that says "beats me?"
System to have a player infected: Tell the player the one word he needs to always include. It can be as innocuous as "okay" or as challenging as "peculiar." But remember, it shouldn't be too obvious.
Then it begins to get stronger. The infection wants to live, so it keeps its host alive. So it begins to push the biological systems of the Host in ways that will keep it alive. It cannot do this without a cost, however. And the price to pay for such benefits is the loss of a good night's sleep. The body just cannot cope with the strain it had undergone when the infection pushes it beyond its limits.
System: The character tends to have nightmares. Dreaming horrors. He awakes screaming. He mumbles in his sleep.
System to have a player infected: The player can automatically succeed in a single roll wherein failure can mean bodily harm or death. But he then must portray himself unable to sleep for that night. And if the game has any systems for penalizing one for not getting enough rest, they should be applied here.
The infection does not crave flesh. Surprisingly, it hungers for words. Words tied to precious memories. So what it does is it encourages those around it to share personal stories. To share anecdotes. To share their experiences. And when it has a chance, it eats. It doesn't wound or damage those it feeds on though. It just silently takes a few details from the memories. Details no one would probably remember.
Like the time when that first kiss happened. Or the name of the movie you saw when he proposed to you. Or the passkey to your bank account. Those kind of details.
The infection doesn't keep them. The actual detail is irrelevant. Its importance is what is. Cause important details in a memory are laden with psychic energy. And that is what the infection truly desires.
System: As the game progresses, throw the player tiny moments of memory loss, or gaps in their recall. It works best if you tie it in to related sharing or discussions they had earlier with the infected npc or other players. Like when the npc asks her about her husband, and the player talks about him being the only man she ever loved, maybe you can later bring up something personal that she should remember (like say, their song playing in the radio) and mentioning it in passing that the song just sounds familiar for some reason.
Then throw the whammy later, by having the husband arrive, and play the same song for them to dance to as he greets her since it is their anniversary. But she can't remember.
System to have a player infected: The player can be assigned to be the trigger of a certain memory, and later, the catalyst to the scene revealing the memory loss. As a reward for this, each time he succeeds in this, he can have the It Grows bonus without having to suffer from nightmares.
By now the others realize something is wrong. Something is definitely happening. But they might just not know about the Infection yet. Interestingly, this is usually the same point in time the infection tries to spread. To reproduce. And it does so in this manner.
It spreads through the Word.
Remember that word back in the beginning? The Onset word? The infection can latch on to it once someone else who has not been infected says it enough times. Words have power, and when they are repeated enough times, the power weaves in a pattern wide enough for the infection to leap onto.
So watch what you say as your very words to warn others might be the thing that lets the infection in.
System: This is where it gets tricky. But tricky is always fun. The players still probably have not figured out what the exact word is. Or worse, they do, but do not realize saying it is dangerous now. Since not knowing removes the tension and fear, you cannot run it that way.
Instead you get some counters. Glass beads. Dice you don't normally use. Any kind of counter. You bring it out and don't tell them why. But each time they say the word, you pull out a counter and mark it. A cool move is to ask each player to lend you one of their dice (assuming they all bring their own) or to simply have something from each of them (car keys, cellphone, etc) and whenever the word is mentioned, you place the counter beside that object. You are tracking how many times they are saying it after all. But you don't mention what you are tracking.
They will notice. They will see it has to do with "them" somehow. And then the panic rises. When the counters hit a target number, that character is now infected. What the target number should be depends on how quickly you want the infection to spread. A good rule of thumb is twice the number of players. Oh and don't track the number between sessions. Each game session resets the counter. You have to be kind somehow.
Once they're infected, then you give them the Onset rules. And it continues on.
System to have a player infected: The infected player does not have to track the infection. Instead, he is encouraged to try to get them to say it. If the infection is ever made known to the others, then the player realizes his chances of getting them to say the word may diminish quickly. Only then can the player opt to force them to say it, whether through fear or coercion.
The Long Term
Knowing how it spreads, you can imagine the game world eventually being run over by this meme-fection. It can be an awesome influence to the eventual apocalyptic setting for the game, as people get divided between the two factions. Or it can be frustrating.
The infection is insidious but not evil. Just... hungry.
And thankfully that same hunger can be used against it.
If the singular word for Onset is found, and people stop saying it long enough, the infection dies out.
Alternately, the infection can be killed with the destruction of the said Onset word. This one may mean the actual destruction of a word (it is given a whole new meaning that everyone knows) or a symbolic destruction of the word (tougher to do right).
But eventually. Someone out there.
Feels it in his chest. Rage. Anger. Envy.
And utters the word out of spite.
And it is born again.