I’m not a big zombie fan. It feels like, too often, the default theme is humans are the real monsters overlapping with who we really are without society’s rules. Powerful themes but it gets repetitive. And too often, the zombie genre can become some kind of escapist fantasy, that a zombie apocalypse beats the nine-to-five job.
The Shotgun Diaries doesn’t come up with a new theme for zombies. Instead, it strips the zombie genre down to almost the most basic level. You play almost helpless survivors struggling to stay alive with minimal, dwindling resources.
Seriously, characters are basically one-hit-point wonders who each have one meaningful skill. If that skill doesn’t apply to a situation, you are helpless. You do have access to a group pool of dice but that is hard to replenish and using it increases the overall danger level.
But the hook, the something special that makes The Shotgun Diaries something worth playing, is the Zombie Clock.
Every ten minutes _real_ time, the Zombie Clock goes forward one tick (indicated by adding some sort of token in front of the GM, glass stones or plastic zombies or mouse skulls or whatever) When that happens, a day goes by, the player’s dice pool loses a die and things get more dangerous.
The GM can trade one of the tokens in to do bad stuff. And if the Zombie Clock gets too far, the characters’ shelter get overrun and really bad things happen.
The Zombie Clock is great because it creates a real time mechanic for ratcheting up tension and danger. I remember when I first played Dread (the one that used a Jenga glee) how having a physical structure that was inevitably going to collapse and cause catastrophic failure added a visceral level of fear and tension. In that first game, we the players started hugging the wall to keep away from the Jenga tower.
The Zombie Clock isn’t quite that extreme but it makes the game more real. You can’t sit back and make detailed plans while the game world is on hold. No, you are literally on the clock.
As I’ve said, I’m not big on zombie games. And there are other zombie games I’d played before The Shotgun Diaries (Like All Flesh Must Be Eaten or Zombie Cinema) However, the potential of the Zombie Clock does make me want to try The Shotgun Diaries.