Improv Chapter 6: Example Settings

Zombie Dawn

"Brains … need more … brains …"

Zombie Dawn is a setting for recreating the kinds of stories you see in zombie movies. The setting is intended for one-shot games, though longer games are possible.

Story Mood

Before you start the story, you should discuss what kind of mood you are aiming for. You can do this by using zombie movies as examples of the kind of mood you want to create.

  • Survival Horror: The default setting. The heroes tend to be ordinary people facing the terror of the zombie hoard. Example movies include George Romero's classic zombie series (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead) and recent movies like 28 Days Later.
  • Tongue in Cheek: The story is less serious, with humor mixed in with the horror. Examples include the more recent Shaun of the Dead and the older Return of the Living Dead. Decide how silly you want things to be.
  • Zombie Action: The story is more about action and adventurous zombie-smashing, with competent zombie-hunters for heroes. The Resident Evil movies are a good example of this style.
  • Schlock Horror: The story is simply a gross-out gore-fest. Most B-grade zombie movies fall into this category.

Discussing the mood helps to get the players into the same mindset, so that the story they are telling is more consistent.

Defining the Setting

The setting must include zombies, but everything else is open. You should add something interesting and special to the setting to make your zombie story unique. There are a couple of things you can consider.

Location: Most zombie stories take place in a single location. You should choose a location with lots of potential for interesting action, someplace large with lots of places to go and lots of things that can be added to the story. The classic example is the zombie-filled shopping mall. Other possibilities include hospitals, military bases, secret experimental labs, schools and so forth.

The Heroes: In zombie-survivor horror, the heroes are often thrown together by circumstances. The zombies attack and the survivors are forced to band together, forming the group. This default gives you a lot of flexibility; any character concept that fits the setting and mood will work.

You can also have some pre-reestablished relationship for the characters. Some of the protagonists may know each other before the zombies appeared. Perhaps the heroes are even part of an established team before the adventure begins. This is especially appropriate for zombie-action stories. You can also mix-and-match, having a core team plus a couple of extra survivors the team picks up at the beginning of the story.

The Zombies: The default zombie is a shambling undead monster with a hunger for flesh who can only be killed by destroying its brain. Most zombie stories are not, in fact, about the zombies themselves. The zombies are a simply the catalyst that forces the heroes into action. Often the origin and nature of zombies is never fully explained. If you want to keep things simple, you can have your zombies fit this default.

If you want, you can make the nature of your zombies a bigger focus of the story. Perhaps the zombie origin is known (they are an out-of-control experiment, the dead returning on judgment day, a precursor for an alien adventure). Perhaps there is something special about the zombie nature (the zombies are faster or smarter, the zombies have some purpose other than simply eating people, the zombies require some special method to kill).

Other Characters: Zombie stories involve a lot of mayhem; the zombies need to eat. Since the zombies can't eat the heroes without ending the story, you need other people around to be threatened and mauled by the flesh-hungry dead. This helps to establish the zombie threat, as well as giving the heroes some people to save.

Zombies may not be the only threat in the setting. There is plenty of room for ordinary humans to cause trouble. Human enemies can be direct threats, such as bandits, rogue soldiers or corporate raiders out to get the heroes despite the zombie threat. Other characters can be indirect threats as well. People can do foolish things through greed, prejudice or panic that worsens the situation, giving the zombies a chance to finish people off.

The non-protagonist characters can have relationships with the protagonists as well. While it may be exciting to save a little girl from a zombie attack, it is even more meaningful if that little girl is your protagonist's daughter or sister. As always, the relationships can be good or bad: a zombie crisis tends to focus people on what is really important and long brewing conflicts can boil the surface where they can be resolved.

Characters and Special Rules

Since zombies can appear anywhere and anytime, a wide variety of character types work for zombie stories. You want to create character's that fit the mood of the story you are aiming for and the other established facts for the setting. The story's location is a good source of inspiration for character concepts. If you set a zombie store in a mall, you could have mall employees (store clerks, security guards, managers) and people visiting the mall (parents and kids, high school students, wealthy mall patrons).

Character talents should also fit the setting. If the protagonists are ordinary people, they should have "normal" talents that might help them deal with attacking zombies. If you have an action-oriented setting, you may have more combat talents among your characters. It is OK to mix and match. In the Improv rules, the talents "skilled zombie hunter" and "just wants to protect his kids" are both equally effective in dealing with zombies, though the exact talent will effect how the protagonist is successful.

Character Goals

Zombie stories tend to be quick and intense. To keep the story focused for each protagonist, you should give your hero a goal for the story. The goal should be what you want to happen if the hero triumphs in the story. By defining your goal before the story begins, you indicate what elements you need to appear in the story to make your goal possible.

For example, your character's goal might be to win the heart of an actor she admires. For this goal to be possible, the actor should appear in the story and you should think of a reason for the actor to be present in your setting. If your character's goal is to become famous for your exploits against the zombies, you need some way for your actions to become known once the zombie menace is dealt with.

You character goals also put some limits on what can happen in the middle of the story. If character's goal is to win the love of your favorite actor, the actor could die in the middle of the story, because that would make your goal impossible. The actor could only die at the end and only then if your protagonist doesn't triumph. On the other hand, your protagonist could not conclusively win the actor's love until the end of the story either.

Death, Insanity, Triumph

In zombie dawn, there are three possible fates for each character: Death, Insanity or Triumph. Every conflict moves the protagonist in the direction of one of those fates. You can track the characters fate by adding Death, Insanity and Triumph tracks to the character sheet, all starting at a value of 0. Fate points are added to each track depending on the character's progress in the story.

If your protagonist wins a conflict, you get a point in Triumph. If your protagonist loses a conflict, you get a point in either Death or Insanity (your choice). In addition, for conflicts initiated by the GM during the GM's scene, the GM may assign an additional point of Death or Insanity (the GM's choice) to any protagonist. GM-assigned points don't happen for defeats that occur during player scenes.

For example, in a GM scene, the protagonists Bob and Sue are involved in a conflict. Bob wins and Sue loses. Bob gets a point of Triumph and Sue chooses to take a point of Insanity. The GM chooses to assign a point of Death to Bob. If this were a player scene, the GM would not get to assign any fate points.

At the end of the story, after the final conflict, the player's ultimate fate is determined by the Death, Insanity and Triumph totals. The highest total determines the character's fate:

  • Death: The character dies.
  • Insanity: The character goes mad.
  • Triumph: The character survives and achieves his goal.

In case of a tie, the character meets both fates. If a character has the same total in Death and Triumph, the character achieves her goal but dies in the process.

You will know the character's ultimate fate by the end of the final conflict. You can narrate the character's fate as part of the final conflict narration or as an epilogue to that conflict.

Scenes in Zombie Dawn

The GM should frame the opening scene in a game of Zombie Dawn to set up the situation. Two common options are:

  • The characters are gathered together, living their ordinary lives, when suddenly zombies attack.
  • The zombies have already attacked and the character flee to a common location, where they join together in a group.

As part of setting up the situation, the GM and the player should add elements to the story that the protagonist need to meet their goals. If the characters have important relationships, the related characters should either be present or put into some kind of known danger to be rescued later. The GM and players should get the major non-protagonist characters on stage play their parts in the story. You probably also want some minor NPCs on stage as zombie-chow. The initial conflicts should be about dealing with the zombies, and having the protagonists start towards their goals.

Scenes in the middle of the story should build on what was introduced in the beginning. The protagonists should have further scenes struggling towards their goals and fending off zombies. Each character's progress is tracked by points in the Death, Insanity, Triumph tracks. Where possible, the protagonists should be thrown together so that they can interact and differing goals can lead to conflict. The intermediate scenes can move the character's toward their fate but can't determine it.

After you've gone through several scenes for each player and are reaching the end of the game session, the GM should frame a climactic scene where the story is resolved. The final conflict will determine the protagonist's Death, Insanity and Triumph totals and their ultimate fate. The protagonists' stakes in the final conflict should be about finally achieving their goals or meeting their doom.

Example Characters

The following characters were designed for a zombie adventure in a shopping mall, but would work in other settings with minor changes.

The Security Guard: Gus is an elderly security guard that was "in the war" (which one depends on your setting). He is now in his twilight years, but still remembers his glory days. Gus can be played as a tragic figure past his prime or as a grizzled hero back for one last gasp.

  • Talents: Was "in the war", level-headed, knows the area.
  • Goal: Have one last dramatic victory before he dies.

The Cheerleader: Melanie is a college cheerleader with a long-time crush for a famous celebrity. The zombie attack has thrown her together with her crush. Can she win his heart or will the zombies eat him instead? Melanie can be played as a romantic lead or as a conniving troublemaker.

  • Talents: Gymnast, cute as a button, relationship with crush.
  • Goal: Make her crush fall in love with her.

The Frat Boy: Rod is a man's man. He is tough, confident and knows he is destined for better things. Though he hasn't been recognized yet, the zombie attack gives him a chance to prove his worth. Rod could be played as a classic hero or as an arrogant trouble maker.

  • Talents: Determined, inured to pain, handsome.
  • Goal: Become famous for defeating zombies.

The Store Clerk: Jane is a clerk in an athletics store with bigger ambitions. She hopes one day to be in the Olympics. She has a long-standing rivalry with a fellow employee with similar ambitions. She wants to prove herself better than her rival so that she can get the courage to pursue her Olympic goals.

  • Talents: Athletic, well-equipped, relationship with rival
  • Goal: Outshine her rival and prove that she is the best.

The Computer Geek: Herman is a geek and a weakling, surviving more by luck than anything else. The zombie attack has given him an opportunity to acquire special equipment that he could not otherwise afford to buy. Herman could be played as comic relief or someone whose skills are vital for the heroes' victory.

  • Talents: Electronic wizard, stupid lucky, zombie movie trivia.
  • Goal: Get special electronic gear in the confusion of the zombie attack.

Murder Most Foul

"I am afraid, Alistair, the there is only one logical conclusion: it is murder!"

Murder Most Foul is a setting for creating murder-mystery stories. The setting is intended for one-shot games, in which the protagonists are both the investigators and primary suspects. The mood should be generally serious. After all, someone has died, and it is important to respect the dead. This setting works best if you have 4 to 6 players.

Defining the Setting

In Murder Most Foul, someone has been murdered. The story is about uncovering the murderer and possibly bringing them to justice. The protagonists are the ones that investigate the murder, but are also the likeliest suspects for having committed the murder. There are three big things you need to decide before you begin:

  • Who is the murder victim?
  • Where did the murder take place?
  • Why are the protagonists investigating the murder?

Depending on the time you have to prepare, either the GM can define the setting details before the game or the group can collectively decide at the start of the game.

The Victim

The victim is a very important character in the story, even though he or she dies at the beginning. The victim determines a great deal about the story. The victim should be someone with relationships to all the protagonists and a variety of possible reasons to be murdered.

  • A wealthy philanthropist hiding dark secrets.
  • A powerful criminal whose death will create a power vacuum.
  • A corrupt politician whose finger is in a lot of pies.
  • A scientist or reporter whose recent discovery could shake up society in unpleasant ways.
  • An innocent victim who happened to know or have something important.

The victim is the starting for defining the rest of the story.

The Location

The location for the murder and investigation sets the stage for where the action takes place. The location should be constrained to a limited area to keep the story focused.

  • A remote mansion, castle or monastery.
  • A large vehicle like a train, luxury plane or cruise ship.
  • A small town or a district inside a larger city.
  • A fantastic setting like a space station or an underground mine.

It must make sense for the murder victim to have died in the location. If you are stuck for ideas for the murder victim, you may want to come up with a location first, then figure out who might have been murdered there.

Involving the Protagonists

You need some reason why the protagonists are investigating the crime rather than the police.

  • The crime could have taken place at an isolated location and the protagonists investigate the murder because the police are out of reach.
  • The authorities could be corrupt and unlikely to bring the murderer to justice.
  • The protagonists have enough secrets that they would prefer to discover the murderer on their own rather than involve the police.
  • The murderer could have had some important or valuable item that the protagonists want to find before the police arrive.

MacGuffin: The last item is often called a "MacGuffin" in crime stories. It is an item that gives a reason for the murder and an excuse to keep the police out of it. Your murder story doesn't have to involve a MacGuffin, but it can make things more complex and interesting. One of the protagonists will likely end up with the MacGuffin and conflicts to acquire the MacGuffin will be common. Some possible MacGuffin's are:

  • A little black book containing various people's secrets which the victim was using for blackmail.
  • Information leading to some kind of treasure which could make the protagonists wealthy.
  • The will of the deceased, determining who inherits the victim's wealth and power.
  • A scientific invention of the victim which may have a big impact on society when it is reveal.

If you do use a MacGuffin, it is always missing at the beginning of the story. The protagonists may have various relationships to the MacGuffin as well as the victim. For example, if MacGuffin is an invention, some protagonists may want to use it to get rich, others to help society and others to suppress the invention to keep it from disrupting the status quo.

Characters and Special Rules

The protagonists in a murder story are the main characters but are not necessarily heroes. The protagonists should have complex motives, each a potential killer. Every protagonist should be tied to the victim in some way. The protagonists should have a hard time trusting each other, but they should also have a good reason to solve the crime together rather than involving the authorities.

The protagonists should have three or more talents as usual . In addition, each protagonist has a dark secret, their hook for the story. Finally, one of them is actually the murderer.

Dark Secrets

Every protagonist must have a dark secret. This dark secret is something that the character doesn't want discovered. The secret must be something that could potentially drive the protagonist to murder. Although the character doesn't want the secret revealed, you as a player do want to reveal the secret by the end of the game. A secret that isn't revealed isn't part of the story. Pick something juicy that will be interesting when it finally comes out.

The secret can involve other protagonists, but if it does, the secret should always be much worse for the protagonist whose secret it is. For example, Bob's secret might be that he had an adulterous affair with Jane, which the murder victim knew about. This secret would be embarrassing for Jane if it were discovered, but would be disastrous for Bob, ruining his marriage and his career.

You should write your protagonist's secret on a note card and show it to the GM when you are done. After the GM has recorded all the secrets, you should give your secret card to another player. You should pass out secret cards so that each player ends up with the secret of exactly one other player. The protagonist of that player knows your protagonist's secret, though your protagonist may not know that she knows. This helps ensure that your secret will eventually come out.

Choosing the Murderer

Once dark secrets have been established and passed out, you determine who the murderer is. It may seem strange that you determine the murder after you choose your secret, but this helps ensure that every secret is a potential motive for murder. It also ensures that the murder itself is not part of the secret.

The GM should take the Ace of Spades and add a number of other cards equal to the number of players, so that the total number of cards is one more than the number of players. The GM should shuffle the cards and hand them out to the players, face down. Each player should look at their card and hand it back to the GM without revealing it. The player that ends up with the Ace of Spades is the murderer. This means only that player and the GM will know who the murderer is. It may happen that no player ended up with the Ace of Spades, which means some NPC is the murderer.

MacGuffins: If your story includes a MacGuffin, one of the extra cards should be the Ace of Hearts. The player that ends up with the Ace of Hearts has the MacGuffin or knows where it is. This means the murderer never has the MacGuffin. Only the GM and the player knows who has the MacGuffin; it is also possible for an NPC to end up with the MacGuffin.

Player Knowledge (Optional): If you want to let some other player know who the murderer is and who has the MacGuffin, you can pass your card to one other player before giving it to the GM. You should pass out your cards so that each player gets exactly one card from another player and you should not pass your card to the player with your secret card.

Making Notes: The GM should note down who is the murderer and who has the MacGuffin, along with each protagonist's dark secret.

Acts and Scenes

In Murder Most Foul, scenes are grouped into a series of Acts. In each act, there are restrictions on what is revealed in that act. That ensures the story moves at the right pace. In general, each act begins with a GM scene and ends after each player has framed a scene. You may need to adjust this for the number of players you have or the length of time you have to play.

Here is a three Act structure for a game Murder Most Foul:

Act 1: This act introduces the situation and the protagonists. The protagonists begin their investigations.

  • The protagonists are introduced.
  • The victim's murder is discovered.
  • The protagonist's dark secrets may not be revealed, though some hints about the secrets may come out.
  • If there is a MacGuffin, its location may be revealed by anyone who knows, but doesn't have to be.
  • The murderer may not be revealed or even hinted at.

Act 2: The investigation heats up and some real information starts to come out.

  • At least one major hint for each protagonist's dark secret must be revealed.
  • A protagonist's dark secret may not be revealed by anyone other than the player controlling that protagonist.
  • A dark secret may be revealed by the player controlling that protagonist, but doesn't have to be.
  • If there is a MacGuffin, its location must be revealed. It may change hands thereafter.
  • The murderer may not be revealed, but may be hinted at in an inconclusive way.
  • You may also lay out red herrings to indicate that other player's protagonists may be the murderer.

Act 3: All the dirty laundry comes out leading up to the climax.

  • Every dark secret must be revealed.
  • If there is a MacGuffin, its ultimate fate must be determined.
  • The murderer must be revealed and his or her fate determined.

You may adjust the number of acts for a longer or shorter game.

GM Scenes and Player Scenes

Each act starts with a scene by the GM. The game also ends with a GM scene. The GM should frame scenes that puts the protagonists together in a group. The nature of these gatherings depends on the act.

  • The first scene should reveal the murder and explain the basic situation.
  • Intermediate scenes should bring the protagonist to discuss what they have learned and make accusations.
  • The last scene should bring the protagonist together for a final conflict. In this scene, the murderer may be brought to justice or escape, and the final disposition of the MacGuffin is determined.

In their individual scenes, the players should pursue the agenda of their protagonist, either seeking information from NPCs or from other protagonists. Each player has the power to force one other player's protagonist to appear in their scene so they can confront that protagonist in a direct conflict. Other protagonists may participate only if they are invited by the player that framed the scene, and may refuse to appear if they don't want to be involved.

Players are limited in what they can accomplish individual scenes by the limitations for each Act. Players can (and likely will) have conflicts between their protagonists, using talents and story-tokens as appropriate. Players can also affect each other indirectly by confronting NPCs that may have knowledge of the situation.

Conflicts and Story-Tokens

Unlike many games of Improv, the GM scenes may not involved much conflict. The players scenes may have the majority of the conflict, much of it player-to-player. This will be true up until the final scene of the game, which is always a GM scene that resolves the story. If you are using the extended conflict rules, the final scene should be an extended conflict.

If you are using story-tokens, you may find that players are not inclined to reward each other tokens because they are competing more directly with each other. If this is a problem, remind the players that they are not out to "win" the game, but to create a good story. Players should reward each other with clever and interesting narration, even if it is not in the best interest of their protagonists.

If the players are still unwilling to reward each other with tokens, the GM may do so with his own tokens. Since the GM will be involved in fewer conflicts and therefore putting fewer tokens into the pool, some GM awards will be necessary:

  • The GM can bribe a player for narration, awarding that player with a story-token to get them to reveal a secret or put their protagonist at risk.
  • The GM can award a player with a token for clever and interesting play from his set of tokens.

Tokens spent by players against other players normally go back into the pool to allow the players to reward each other. When the murderer is revealed, token spent against the murderer go directly to the murderer in much the same way tokens spent against the GM go to the GM. Like the GM, the murderer cannot use tokens in the same conflict that he received them.

Revealing Secrets

The Act structure of a game of Murder Most Foul indicates that secrets must be revealed by a certain point in the game. A secret is "revealed" if at least one new protagonist learns the secret. There are three people that can reveal a secret:

  • The person to whom the secret belongs.
  • Other players that know the secret.
  • The GM.

In general, the person to whom the secret belong has the option to reveal that secret an Act earlier than other players or the GM. If that player does not reveal the secret, other players should get the next opportunity to reveal the secret. If none of the players reveal the secret during their scenes, the GM should arrange for the secret to be revealed at the appropriate time.

Remember, the intent of the rules is that the secret be revealed eventually. Even though your protagonist wants to keep the secret hidden, your goal as a player is to reveal the secret at a time you think will be interesting, exciting or advantageous.

Further Deaths

To keep a game of Murder Most Foul from turning into a blood bath, there are limits on conflicts that can be used to eliminate or kill another protagonists. The default rules are as follows:

  • No conflict in Acts 1 or 2 can result in the elimination of a protagonist.
  • In Act 3, one protagonist can be eliminated before the final scene.
  • In the final scene, any number of protagonists may be eliminated.
  • If a murderer would be eliminated before the final scene, that character instead is revealed as the murderer but not killed. Once revealed, the murderer cannot be eliminated until the final scene.

This ensures that the majority of the protagonists survive to the final confrontation. Protagonists that didn't survive keep their story-tokens and may spend them where they will in future conflict.

For a bloodier game, you may allow one elimination in Act 2 and two eliminations in Act 3 before the final conflict. The murderer is still immune to elimination before the final scene. You should only use this option if you have a lot of players.

For the rules, "elimination" means anything that removes the character from further action in the story. This could be death, but could also be arrest, being knocked into a coma, trapped in some inescapable place and so forth. Any circumstance that is not elimination is escapable. If the protagonists loses a conflict and is locked into a room without the key, the protagonist can still escape that room by winning a conflict in a later scene.

Example Characters



"We go where angels for to tread."

Angelic is a setting in which the heroes are mortals chosen by Heaven to protect mankind from demons. The setting is intended for longer games in which the protagonist change over time and wrestle with the moral quandaries of their situation.

The Concord

Long ago, angels and demons fought each other directly for the fate of mankind. Divine powers walked the world and the earth trembled. As the savagery of the conflict increased, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before the war escalated to Armageddon and the end times.

For their own reasons, neither Heaven nor Hell wanted the world to end. Heaven wanted to preserve humanity to give it time to reach its full potential. Hell cared nothing for mankind, but the odds were stacked too heavily in Heaven's favor. Hell could ensure the destruction of man, but afterwards would almost certainly have been destroyed themselves.

About a thousand years ago, Heaven and Hell reached an agreement: the Concord. Both Heaven and Hell would refrain from acting directly on the world. Divine and Infernal powers would be limited to indirect influence only. Heaven and Hell would not interact directly, reducing the chance that battle would lead to the Apocalypse.

Unfortunately, Hell being what it is, the demons cheat. Though they no longer walk openly in the world, Hell's minion push beyond the limits of the Concord and act directly on the world. They keep these actions small and quiet, blaming them on "rogue elements" in Hell, trying to get away with as much as they can without provoking Heaven to all-out war.

Heaven being what it is, the angels cannot similarly break the rules. Heaven has found its own loophole, however. Although angels can no longer walk the earth, Heaven is able to imbue mortals with Divine power. These mortals are not angels, but they have angelic power and are able to protect humanity from the depredations of Hell. The mortals are called Wardens.

Creating Wardens

The protagonists of the game are Wardens, mortals imbued with Heavenly power to fight against the forces of Hell. Wardens are filled with Divine power, but still have free will and mortal weakness. Wardens are created using the normal Improv rules, with the following additions.

How Wardens are Chosen

Mundane and Divine Talents

Forms: Mortal, Angelic and Manifest

Character Hooks

World Rules

Grace and Damnation

About Heaven

Types of Demons

The Goals of Heaven

About Hell

Types of Demons

The Goals of Hell




The Lost Heir

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