It’s really easy to start a zombie apocalypse game. Every gamers seen enough versions of that particular scenario that they’re only waiting to hear you name the setting, how far along the thing is, and what rules you’ll be using to make the characters to get started. The more enthusiastic ones will start before you get around to the rules system, or sometimes even before you tell them how far along things are.
The trouble here is that gamers tend to THINK. They’re going to be looking for ways to win easily instead of going along with the scriptwriter. They’ll be looking for ways to justify any bit of equipment that they’d like to have. They’ll be making nitroglycerin out of old zombies (well I know how you could do that…). Any hole in the logic or plot, identifiable zombie behavior pattern, or other flaw will be mercilessly investigated and exploited. They’ll adjust and improve their tactics – and they’ll EXPERIMENT. Worse, they’ll expect you to have answers on tap – especially if you happen to be playing with technical types.
That means that… you’re going to want to have answers ready. You’ll want to know just how your zombies work before you start – and you’ll want it to be plausible under whatever laws of nature you establish for your setting.
First up, what makes them go? Where does the energy come from?
That’s the first, and most fundamental, problem with a lot of “zombie” tales. The supposed “agent” involved doesn’t matter yet. If we want to keep our zombies plausible, what matters is that keeping a body active requires a fair amount of energy. Where can we get it?
- Total Mass-Energy Conversion? That WOULD keep our zombies going – but it requires big-bang level temperatures, gravitational singularities, or magnetic monopoles and some way to convert the resulting radiant energy into usable power. Putting that into an organic body? Yep. that’s (implied rude expression) magic.
- Nuclear Energy? Derived from Fission, Fusion, or Radioisotopes? Since whatever creates zombies usually doesn’t install chunks of highly-radioactive and/or fissionable material (which would make interesting zombies I’ll admit, but would make them lethal to all normal life forms in a wide radius by their mere presence) we can leave out Fission and Radioisotopes. As a side-benefit, that lets us ignore the problem of converting that energy into a usable form. Fusion sounds better – there’s all that enthusiasm about “Cold Fusion” to give us a gloss of respectability – but while there are several ways to achieve fusion in the lab, the only way that can actually generate net power is thermal. Generating and containing that kind of temperature in a human body takes us back to (rude noises) magic – although the thought of fusion-bomb zombies is amusing.
- Thermal Energy? Sure, that’s all around you – but turning it into power without a lower-temperature energy sink violates the laws of thermodynamics. That’s some SERIOUS magic, whether we label it “negative energy” or “subspace”. Thermodynamics is about as well-established and generally applicable as physics GETS. Still, energy-vampire thermal-energy sucking zombies are another amusing notion even if they ARE heap big magic…
- Dark Energy, Spacefields, and Vacuum Energy. Well, everything we know about THESE – where we’re sure that they exist at all – suggests that there’s no way to actually extract net energy from them short of things like starting an energy-cascade to a lower vacuum-energy state (also known as “a wave of total destruction that expands at the speed of light, replacing our universe with another newborn one”). Handwave in enough new physics to allow this and we’re back to (random euphemism) magic again.
- Electrical And Magnetic Energy… Well, now we’re cooking! We know LOTS of ways of acquiring, storing, and using electrical energy! Admittedly, most of them are a lot less organic than the human body, but there’s no reason why similar organic structures cannot be created… Taking this route we can justify nanite zombies – perhaps some form of cellular-replacement route-to-immortality-experiment gone horribly wrong – that gradually fill up their hosts with plasticized tissues, tiny electrical components, and capacitor systems. It’s hard to see why electrical zombies should behave anything like classical ones – but killer cyberzombies DO have a certain appeal. We may still need some magic to make this work, but we can shove it a good deal further into the background with electrozombies.
- Radiant Energy – such as photons – can DEFINITELY work as an energy source, and can be fairly readily harnessed by organic structures. The problem here is simply that it’s pretty diffuse – which means that any creature relying on the direct conversion of radiant energy to power (at least in any remotely earthlike environment) is going to be SLOW. In fact, we already have some creatures out there that feed on dead animals, convert radiant energy into power to “live”, and are engaged in a constant, mindless, struggle for survival. They’ve been even refining their weapons for millions of years! They’re called “Plants” – and, like it or not, exciting action scenes involving fights with plants that aren’t being moved around by external forces… tend to be pretty contrived, few, and far between. How often do you see your lawn dragging down and pulling apart your lawnmower? I think that we’re going to have to look elsewhere for our zombie apocalypse fuel.
- Mechanical Energy sources include the energy of impacts (kinetic energy), of sound (small impacts), rotation, and energy stored in elastic systems (springs, rubber bands, and so on). Now, this may have worked for Sebastian Shaw – but he’s a comic book character, and Marvel’s “Mutant Powers” pretty much ALL fall into the (rude sexual reference) magic category. Do I REALLY need to go into much detail on the limitations of clockwork, hydraulic, or otherwise mechanical zombies powered by cranks, flywheels, wound-up springs, and rubber bands? Leave it to Tik-Tok of Oz.
That leaves us with… Chemical Energy. We KNOW that this can move a human body around, and that the human body – even dead – has substantial reserves of it, and that it can fuel some pretty impressive stunts!
Of course, using chemical energy to power a human body… requires some pretty sophisticated systems. Simply bursting into flames doesn’t get you very far. You’ve got to release it a bit at a time (usually requiring various reactant chemicals and sources and transport systems for them), control it (regulatory mechanisms), channel it into usable forms (classically ATP or other highly energetic molecules), convert it into mechanical energy with more complicated molecular systems (the contractile molecules that power muscles), and so on.
Wait a minute. This is getting pretty blasted complicated! Worse, it’s sounding a lot like… life. Isn’t there an easier way?
Sure there is. You can power your zombies with fuel cells (back to Electrozombies!) or a steam engine or an internal-combustion engine or a lot of other variants – but that takes you back to mechanical energy…
If you want to use chemical energy as a direct, efficient, power source for a human body… you want to keep it so close to being alive that it’s a lot simpler, easier, and more efficient to not kill it in the first place. Thus the various forms of “living zombies”, such as the “Rage Virus Zombies” of Twenty-Eight Days Later.
That has it’s own limitations – if you don’t respect things like incubation times, the need to breathe, the fact that operating in continual overdrive will kill most bodies fairly quickly (blood pressure, heart strain, fever, internal damage, not taking necessary medications, not eating – or at least not being able to digest properly while blood is being diverted from digestion to sustain constant activity elsewhere – and so on) you’re back in (reference to eliminatory bodily functions) magic territory again – but at least it’s a technically plausible start!
Of course, the resulting zombie plague won’t necessarily bear much resemblance to a classical zombie attack – but if a classical zombie attack is what you want, don’t try for a technical justification. Go ahead. Let it stand tall and proud. It’s MAGIC. That’s why it ignores many physical limitations and follows your favorite zombie conventions. Personally, I LIKE magic – but I DON’T like it when it tries to hide from me under a thin cloak of scientific terminology.
Arise you rotting corpses, you slaughterers of the living, you decaying and unnatural horrors! Stand tall, proud, and magical among the twitching bodies of your latest victims! Wait for those who are intact enough to rise to join your relentless ranks! Know neither pain nor pity! Plant the standard of dark magic in the very heart of the living world! You have nothing to lose but the jeers of skeptics!
Do stop sucking down those intestines from still-living screaming victims though. Trying to describe that to the players is just gross.