Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Three Historical Settings for Your Zombie Game

Robert Rath | 17 Oct 2013 12:00
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victorian mortuary


Somewhere on the mortuary floor, a bell rings. The bells ring every night in the Munich Leichenhaus, so Anna takes her time. She enters the great room still fuzzy from her stolen nap, turning up the oil lamp so the glow reaches to the vaulted ceiling. Whoever's ringing is on the far end of the room. Anna thinks it's Number Seven.

Anna passes between the corpses. Each body lies on an ornate stretcher, nested inches deep in flowers. Here a woman in the wrinkles of middle age, her face blackening. There a soldier in his grenadier jacket. Every corpse has a string leading from its index finger to a bell above their stretcher. Should not prove as dead as they appear, the ringing will save themselves from being buried alive. If not, decay will let the doctors know they're safe to bury. It's the law, but it's a stupid law-the bells ring every night as the bodies bloat and settle. No one has ever woken up.

Even with the flowers, the tang of decomposition crawls up Anna's nostrils. It sticks to her and follows her home, even after she takes off her nurse's uniform. She passes through the room with a handkerchief over her nose. Number Seven comes into view.

No, Number Seven is gone. There's only the shroud pulled aside and an empty ring of flowers like an abandoned bird's nest. Shed petals float in the zinc preservative that fills the stretcher tray. Anna takes a step backward and her shoe lands in something wet. She lowers the shaking lantern. It's a footprint. A bare, wet footprint in shining zinc.

A bell rings. Then another. The whole ward begins to chime.

For the first time, someone has woken up.

During the 19th century, European physicians had a bit of a problem-namely, they couldn't figure out how to declare people dead. Cessation of heartbeat and breathing seems the obvious solution, but there were some conditions that made these processes hard to detect, and stethoscopes-though around-were in their infancy and not trusted. Doctors debated the problem in academic journals and medical organizations offered cash prizes for a solution. Meanwhile, the public developed a lurid fascination with tales of premature burial-fed equally by hack publishers, dubious stories from medical journals, and horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe. Adding to the fear was a psychological condition called the "death trance" which paralyzed young women and made them appear dead. Some doctors advised blowing pepper up a corpse's nostrils to see if it stirred. Others thought that slitting a dead man with a razor or shoving a hot poker in his rectum would be enough to wake him up in case he only appeared deceased. However, the most trusted method was simply waiting for the body to decay-a sure signal that life had fled. Under this logic, a philanthropist in Munich built the first Leichenhaus, or "waiting mortuary," in 1791, giving it the rather optimistic name "The Asylum for Doubtful Life." The theory was that corpses should wait there until they started to rot, signaling that they were safe to bury.

The first mortuaries were simple houses, but by the time the 1860s rolled around they were large palaces with marble columns, floral displays and vaulted ceilings. There were perks, too-the rich could spend five times the normal fee to decay in an ornate private chamber rather than moldering with the masses. Architects added sculptures depicting angels and sphinxes, hammering home that the mortuary was a transitioning place, a "Temple of Sleep" leading to the world of the dead. Establishments even let people tour the facility for a small fee. A matron, a couple of watchmen and multiple nurses served on staff with a doctor on-call in case anyone woke up, though there's no record of that ever happening.

Using waiting mortuaries in your zombie game has several advantages. First of all, the setting is actually scary. Victorian funerary practices with their hired mourners, ostentatious floral arrangements and corpse photography were creepy as hell and make excellent background for a horror game. Second, if you cast the party as period-era nurses and night attendants you avoid making the zombies easy to kill, since players don't have access to modern firearms and have to make do with muzzle-loaders. Finally, the players have a built-in goal: Try and find out what's raising the dead and stop it before the corpses leave the hospital.

GM Notes: The Victorian confusion about where life ends can be fertile ground for a storyline. Maybe the attending physician is testing a serum that's supposed to reinvigorate people who only appear dead, but instead it reanimates necrotic flesh. Alternately, some GMs may want to cast the zombies as supernatural horrors rather than scientific ones-perhaps the hospital sits on converging lay lines or the corpses rise due to a powerful avenging spirit manipulating them like puppets. The key is to keep players focused on the ghoulish atmosphere, injecting mortality and the sheer gross-out factor to keep the fear alive. Want to make zombies scary again? Describe how they smell.

Suggested Tabletop Rules Sets: Call of Cthulhu or All Flesh Must Be Eaten.

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