When a Russian bio-bomb turns most of the men in America into flesh-eating zombies, women and children have to fight to survive using any available means. The Dead Scare tabletop RPG will let you explore an alternate history, subvert gender roles, and splatter zombie heads.
Dead Scare's Kickstarter is more than half funded, with stretch goals that include digital "postcards" of different settings around the U.S. and how the zombie apocalypse has played out there. The postcard authors lined up are: Shanna Germain, Delilah S. Dawson, Shoshana Kessock, Whitney "Strix" Beltran, and Nora Last. Here's a short excerpt explaining the setting:
I spoke with Dead Scare's lead designer, Elsa S. Henry, about her take on the zombie apocalypse.
io9: Tell me about your background. The Kickstarter describes you as "a historian-turned-game designer" — how did you follow that particular path?
Elsa S. Henry: I've always been a gamer, I have always wanted to make games. Being a young woman I wasn't always encouraged to make them, though. My peers and the adults at game stores were mostly men, when it came to gaming, and so I didn't see any role models for pursuing the career. So I focused on other things. I pursued my undergraduate degree in history and theater, and then a Masters Degree in Women's History at Sarah Lawrence College. As I studied history I saw all these potential stories that could be told. I decided not to go into academia just because as a low vision doctoral candidate, I knew I'd hurt my eyes more than I wanted to. Because I only have one eye, and that one requires a lot of magnification, spending years in dark library rooms reading primary source documents felt like a choice between getting to see for a longer period of time, or pursuing academia — so I pursued the path of the independent scholar, working with topics like disability and feminism, as well as disability in game design. Somehow that's ended me up as a freelance game designer. I'm still not entirely sure how it happened, but I'm not sorry about it!
What caused the zombie uprising in Dead Scare?
Henry: The Dead Scare zombie uprising is the result of a Soviet attack in retaliation for years of anti-communist international policies and triggered by the execution of the Rosenbergs for espionage in 1953. The Z-Bombs (as the airborne viral weapons became known) were deployed by around 1,000 Soviet Spies across the United States in strategic city business centers. Thus it was mostly those in the business districts who were infected while those at home in the suburbs mostly survived to deal with the newly undead who never returned from work.
All of the characters in Dead Scare are women and children, but they live in an era that was historically dominated by men. How does an apocalyptic lens let you re-examine and subvert those traditional and conformist roles and tropes of the 1950s?
Henry: The way I got around to Dead Scare as a concept was a bit of a workaround. My husband is a zombie movies fan; I am not. We were watching The Walking Dead and it was making me sort of crazy because while there were some badass women, but most of them were hanging off on the sidelines. They weren't the focal point of the story. So I wanted to create a story about women and children, where they were the heroes. As a historian, the idea of subverting McCarthy era America appealed to me, and it sort of gave me a way to say, "And all the men became zombies," because there was such a large gender divide. Having such a large gender divide in terms of what people did and where they would be gave me a reasonable explanation for why women are the major survival group.
Can you tell me a bit about the system Dead Scare will be using?
Henry: Dead Scare is using the Apocalypse World engine. What I liked about it was the way that it uses moves rather than skills to represent what your characters do, and the consequences for failing are pretty steep. At the last playtest, for example, the Troublemaker took the "Mini Manhattan Project" move which allows you to improvise explosions. They succeeded in building the bomb, but they didn't succeed in actually setting the timer, so the bomb exploded and the game ended an hour early.
I've developed a courage mechanic for the game — it's basically a way to have players experience the spiral of fear characters go through in a horror movie. As you get exposed to more and more scary things that happen to you, the more scared and incapable of caring for yourself that you get. There are several ways to regain courage within the game but they might prove harder to access as the outbreak gets worse.
I know inclusiveness is one of your goals with Dead Scare. How has that been incorporated into this project?
Henry: This is a game by women and non-binary creators, about women in an apocalypse. We've worked really hard to make sure that we're telling stories that we want to see told. I'm also a low vision, deaf (with a little d) game designer, so part of my goal in this game has been to give disabled characters a chance at surviving in an apocalypse. To that end, I've got an entire section dedicated to the disabled and how they can weaponize their various mobility devices from the era.
Our team of women is myself, Elizabeth Simins, Lillian Cohen Moore and Tiara Lynn Agresta. Between the four of us we've got years of experience in creation, both in and out of the games industry.