Monday 13 November 2023

The Isle of Wight: Zombie Survival

A few weeks ago, I kicked off a zombie survival game set in the real-world Isle of Wight. It's been really delightful!

The campaign pitch goes like this:

On November 4, 1988, a unexpected nuclear exchange takes place across western Europe. The cargo ship BF Fortaleza is travelling unloaded from Lisbon, Portugal to Bournemouth UK when the night horizon lights up with flashes. In the confusion, the ship runs aground on a sand bar off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

With no rescue coming, the crew of 27 shelters on the crippled container ship as winter sets in, glued to the radio for hopeful news. In December, news comes of a mysterious infection sweeping through the cities, with unbelievable reports of people taken by an intense fever and then eating each other.

In January, the UK provisional authority declares mainland cities uninhabitable, and broad-casts an instruction to stop sheltering in place and to flee to sparsely unpopulated areas by any means necessary. Signals from people become infrequent.

In February, the automated radio messages fall silent.

It is March, 1989, five weeks since the last human voice came over the radio. The ship’s supplies will last only a few weeks longer. Reluctantly, the captain asks for volunteers to explore the Isle of Wight, in the hopes of finding other people still alive and the means of long-term survival.

* * *

I'm running the game as a more-or-less West Marches style, in the sense that it's an open sandbox with the players dropping in as they're able. There's a compelling event that gets things going (the home base is running out of food), but other than that there's

I'm trying to run with old school sandbox sensibilities. This isn't a well worn groove for me, I'm very used to trying to maneuver hard to produce a satisfying outcome for each session, avoiding duds at all costs. But I'm letting myself off that hook and instead going with a what would happen? refereeing style.

This can produce sessions that are just so-so, dramatically, but there's a long-term build-up that happens when the world and the events of the game don't conform to dramatic logic, and instead accumulate a sort of stubborn tangibility.

I've written about this before, but the principles of this could be summarized as:

  1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates an environment with hard edges
  2. Players respond by balancing risk/reward, and by inventing solutions
  3. Poignancy emerges over the long term
  4. The design challenge is to help players understand the reality of the situation efficiently, so they can get on with responding to it in the knowledge that their planning effort is worth it


For a system, I'm using a kit-bashed homegrown system I'm just calling 'Isle of Wight'. The aesthetics are deliberately old school, but it's very much a hybrid of a lot of things:
  • levels and xp-for-gold, except the rewards are for survivors, medicine and food
  • old school saving throws to help set the mood
  • core resolution is a sort of PbtA-i-fied Blades in the Dark - roll 2d6, but against three grades of difficulty
  • The Regiment style encounter rolls (so good)
  • Blades-style stress meter, but powered by sleep and food
  • Pits & Perils-inspired inventory with super simplistic encumbrance
  • the table-order initiative with interrupts I used in ALM

At some point soon I'll write about how I'm planning this campaign, which held some surprises for me!


  1. I certainly sounds interesting, I've never really thought of a zombie setting for a West Marches game, but it makes all kinds of sense. I'm GMing Twilight 2000 4th ed. now, and at first glance the rules would be a good fit for your kind of game. Stress, morale, sleep deprivation, disease, small wounds going infected, all kinds of fun things are covered.

    But what are The Regiment style encounters rolls you are referencing?

    1. Yes, I'm sure Twilight:2000 would be a great fit. The rule I'm referring to is the bit that starts with, "When you encounter..", it's like the surprise roll from B/X with a few other options.

    2. Aaahh, I was looking through The Regiment PDF for it.

    3. It's in there too! Check here:

      Search for "When you begin a new engagment"

  2. This is so rad. I've been thinking a lot lately about how to capture that 80s/90s vintage RPG "mouthfeel" while still incorporating modern design innovations and you've NAILED it. Love the implications of missing time, inoculations, and sprinting!

    1. I have a lot to thank John Harper for, this is definitely inspired by the form factor and vibe of his little game, 'World of Dungeons'. That's why this has that B/X-looking character sheet. The core resolution is also like taking Blades in the Dark resolution and rewriting it as a trio of 2d6 PbtA moves. The saves and missing time are my own!