Arcane Game Lore

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World War Z, the book

I happen to have read the wikipedia entry on World War Z and the comment that stood out to me was, “The only thing the book and the movie have in common is the title.” That may have been a bit of an exaggeration but it was enough for me to seek out the book and not the movie.

At first blush the book reminded me of Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising.” I’ve been an avid reader through most of my life and while I never really read a lot of Tom Clancy’s work I did read and love “Red Storm Rising.” Clancy develops and follows a handful of characters through the course of his hypothetical World War 3 between Soviet Russian and Nato for the control of Europe (its a conventional war with no nukes BTW). In this way you get to witness the width and breadth of the conflict. If I remember correctly you follow a tank driver, a destroyer captain, a F117 pilot, an Air Force staff sgt. (a weather man) and a Russian general. My favorite character was the Air Force weatherman who finds himself leading a handful of marine privates into the mountains of Iceland with a satellite phone and reporting back to the US the movements and activities of the Russian who overran Iceland. To me he was the most compelling character and I couldn’t wait for Clancy to get back to his story when the book diverted to the other main characters. I did enjoy watching the tank driver begin the war as an enlisted man and end it as a captain simply because all the officers had not survived and command had fallen to him.

World War Z is much like Clancy’s novel in format in that you witness the interviews of those that survive the zombie war. This lets you witness so many facets of the war around the world and truly gives you a global picture of the war. However, because of its format you do not get to stay with any of the compelling characters that begin to resonate with you as the interviews end  within a few pages and you are on to the next interview. The last chapter caught me by surprise. It was titled “Goodbyes.” Part of the surprise was that it was actually the end of about five interviews from earlier in the book. It actually took me a second to realize what was happening because the author had not revisited any characters through the entire book. Putting those final bits of the interviews with those characters at the end was actually necessary as it gave the book a conclusion. It also saved the author from having to write some final comments from the interviewer who, while present at every interview never really became a character. I was a little sad at some of the choices of characters to revisit at the end as they were not the most compelling ones for me.

My big criticism of the book would be this: it should have been more like Tom Clancy’s novel. If Brooks had developed about 5 characters that could have been followed through the course of the war I would have loved the book instead of just liking it. I now understand why the movie and the book have so little in common; the book had to many characters in the spot light for to short a time. The movie has Brad Pitt. If the the book had had 5 main characters whose lives may or may not have become intertwined then perhaps there would have been enough for the movie to follow the book a little better.

Since this is a blog that generally focuses on all things related to RPGs I now turn to the issue of using World War Z as a setting for an RPG. The very format of the book that I just criticized makes it perfect for working up a setting to use in a game. It lets you see a hundred little details that you might not have gotten if you had followed just 5 main characters. The US infantry man who describes the threat pyramid pamphlet gives you the road map to creating your “monster manual” of opponents including booby traps. A rough campaign timeline could easily be worked out as well. Even if the player characters survive the war there is still opportunity for adventure as the declaration of Victory in America or in Europe does not mean the end of the zombie threat. World War Z makes an excellent setting guide for an enterprising Game Master looking to run something different. On top of that Max Brooks has produced a series of zombie survival guides that would also be great supporting material.

I would recommend using an adaptable skill based system as opposed to a leveling system like D&D. Characters in game should be fragile and weapons and threats lethal, thus character creation needs to be simple and quick so that replacement characters can be worked into the game with little delay. I would also include some sort of sanity score and the possibility for characters to fall prey to mental illness or strain since suicide played such a pivotal role in the book. Some people simply gave up and killed themselves and or others. If nothing else non player characters should have the very real possibility of being unbalanced even if there is no sanity score for the player characters. IIRC the Call of Cthulhu games had a sanity mechanism of some kind. Most technology is sidelined for most of the war making it easy to compile a standard equipment list. There will be no functioning internet, no jets, few military vehicles and most things will be muscle powered. Sources of inspiration would be Gama World, Twilight 2000, other post apocalyptic games and potentially Call of Cthulhu.

I’m going to give this a two thumbs up. It’s a good story with some compelling characters (even if you don’t spend very much time with them) and would make a great change of pace for a RPG campaign if you were burnt out on fantasy genre games.


Categorised as: General



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