12 November 2014 | The End of the World RPG

The Task Before You

A Designer Diary on the Rules for The End of the World Game System


The chaos of the apocalypse breaks out all around you in Zombie Apocalypse and the other books in The End of the World roleplaying game line. As you fight to survive against impossible odds, you’ll find yourself facing numerous hardships, tasks, and dangers. To survive, you’ll need to know a thing or two about completing tasks and avoiding stress.

In our last article, we went over the main elements that go into a character: characteristics, features, and equipment. Today, Andrew Fischer, a game designer of The End of the World books, talks about designing the core elements of the game system.

Andrew Fischer on Designing the Rules for The End of the World

Designing the rules system for The End of the World was a unique and fun experience for us. The roleplaying game line is based on an RPG made by our Spanish partners called El Fin del Mundo. When we began working with El Fin del Mundo, we faced the challenge of adapting the game for American audiences while staying faithful to the original vision of the game. The result is an elegant system that allows all types of players to tell stories in twenty different apocalypses that will be released across the four books that make up The End of the World roleplaying game.

Completing a Task

The core of your experience in Zombie Apocalypse and the other books in The End of the World game line is the struggle for survival. We wanted to craft a game system that presented the harsh challenges of the apocalypse and allowed players to use many different approaches to deal with the obstacles before them. We also wanted to make a game system that was simple to learn, that stepped out of the players’ way and let the story do the talking. These ideas were at the forefront of our minds as we designed the task system for The End of the World.

The world of the apocalypse is filled with danger. Zombies may lurk in any corner, alien surveillance may make free movement impossible, and even other survivors can pose a threat. In the course of survival, you’ll need to attempt to complete tasks that may be difficult or dangerous – perhaps you’re hiding from robotic killers or attempting to reason with a Mayan warrior. Whenever you attempt a task that is difficult or poses a serious danger, you roll a number of six-sided dice to determine if it succeeds or fails. These dice are split between two colors – one representing “positive” dice that help you, and the other representing “negative” dice that hinder you. Positive and negative dice can be added by your positive and negative features, your equipment, any existing injuries, the difficulty of the task, the environment, or other contributing factors.

Once the pool of dice for the task has been collected, you roll them and compare their values. Each negative die result that matches a positive die result removes both dice from the final pool. If any positive dice remain in the pool with a result equal to or lower than the characteristic associated with the task, you successfully complete the task. However, even success may hold its consequences. Any negative dice left in the pool cause you to suffer stress, pushing you closer to your limits, as we’ll explore in more detail below.

As an example of a task, a group may be fleeing from several shambling undead and reach the door of a seemingly-abandoned house. The door is locked, so Alice attempts to pick the lock quickly before the zombies can overtake the group. The GM has Alice make a Logic test to pick the lock. Alice starts the task with a single positive die and adds an extra positive die for her +Quick Fingers feature and another positive die for the stiff wire that Simon hands her to help. The GM adds two negative dice to the pool: one for the innate difficulty of picking the lock and another for the pressure Alice feels as the zombies close in.

Alice rolls the dice and receives “2,” “2,” and “6” on her positive dice, and “2” and “5” on her negative dice. The negative “2” cancels out one positive “2.” Alice has a Logic characteristic of 3, and the remaining positive “2” means that Alice succeeds at the test and the lock opens! However, the remaining uncanceled negative die indicates that Alice takes a single mental stress due to the pressure caused by the approaching undead.

The process of throwing together dice for each check is a casual and quick process that allows both the player and the Game Master to build an engaging narrative around the task being attempted. The ease of modifying the test by adding positive and negative dice allows the system to stay flexible, making it simple for players and GMs to integrate whatever unique circumstances their specific story requires. Some tasks, such as opposed tests and combat, have more rules, but they still maintain their elegant, narrative nature.

Stress, Injury, and Death

While determining the success and failure of tasks is important, it would be meaningless without a way to represent the repercussions of those actions. Most characters in apocalypse movies don’t make it through to the end without at least a few cuts, bruises, and traumatic experiences (and many “survivors” don’t make it to the end at all). One element of El Fin del Mundo that we really wanted to bring over into our game was the constant pressure of stress on the character, and the injuries that it could cause; injuries not just to a player’s body, but to his mind and spirit.

To show the constant danger and pressure of the apocalypse, characters suffer stress as they play through The End of the World. Stress can be occur any of a character’s three categories – physical, mental, or social – and it can arise from anything from a stressful conversation to life-or-death combat with a zombie. Stress can build up quickly over time, and if it gets too high in any one category, can result in the character’s death.

To combat the constant creep of stress, you and the other players can analyze the damage their stress has caused and attempt to heal the injuries. To represent this, whenever a PC has some downtime, he can choose to convert his stress into a trauma: a tangible injury that may hinder his performance, but can be healed over time. The more stress that is built up before being converted into a trauma, the worse the trauma is. For example, a player with six physical stress may consider what his character has endured and decide that his six stress is represented by a Broken Ankle trauma. On the other hand, a character with three social stress may consider what encounters caused that stress and decide that it is represented by a Wary Around People trauma. In this way, players can ignore their injuries in the short-term, risking greater injury for immediate benefit, or they can carefully heal any stress they suffer at the cost of many low-level traumas. How different characters deal with stress and trauma may vary, but one thing is certain: in the terror of the apocalypse, stress is everywhere, and not everyone will survive the countless dangers that surround you.

The Fight for Survival

The apocalypse awaits in The End of the World line. Zombies hunger for the flesh of the living, and only your wits and abilities can keep you and your friends safe for another day. Of course, even amidst these dangers, you have the chance to survive long past the initial outbreak. In our next preview, we’ll explore the unique apocalypse/post-apocalypse scenario structure in Zombie Apocalypse and the rest of The End of the World line.

Pre-order Zombie Apocalypse at your local retailer today!

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