[In the Lab] Notes on Dead Weight

A long time ago, I came up with an rpg premise that seemed to resonate with a lot of people. There's one tower sanctuary left after a zombie apocalypse. Parkour runners loot the surrounding ruins while trying trying not to get weighed down. If you're too slow, the zombies get ya.

John Harper came up with a cool Apocalypse World hack for the setting and it's been dormant since. People still ask about it occasionally, though. I'm just not a role-playing game designer, so if I were to revisit this world, it'd have to be as a more tactical board or card game. So here are some thoughts on Dead Weight as such!

At it's core, it's basically a hack of Bomb's Away! Everyone begins with one runner card. There are three decks of cards on the table, containing either DISTANCE cards or ITEM cards.

On your turn, you roll one die and strike that result from your runner's card. Then, you can draw a new card from the first deck. You can keep rolling as many times as you like, each time drawing a new card. On your second roll, you can draw from the first or second deck. On your third roll, you can draw from the first, second or third deck. If a deck ever runs out, you cannot draw from it. (In other words, that part of city has been looted.)

DISTANCE cards get you more time in the city. Instead of striking a result on your runner's card, you can strike the result on the distance card.

ITEM cards are what you can use to buy new resources, hire new runners, and equip better tools. Eventually, you can buy admittance passage to higher levels of the tower. While carrying an ITEM, you must roll an additional die and strike that result as well.

BUSTING: If you roll a result that is completely struck out, you BUST. You lose all the loot and get one result on your runner's card permanently struck. (This is why you eventually want to hire more runners, too.)

TURNING BACK: You can always turn back and cash in your items. When you do so, place them face down in a discard pile.

NEW AREAS: When a deck runs out, place the discard pile face down as a fourth deck. This is a new, previously unexplored distant part of the city, ready to be looted. Discard piles continuously become new parts of the city in this way, so you might have a fifth deck, a sixth deck, and so on.

The first player to buy admittance to the top level wins.

That's the loose idea, anyhow. For a minute there, I thought this would be more of a dexterity game, but I couldn't settle on a way to actually make that work in play without that aspect totally overshadowing all the other tactical elements.


  1. A strategic press-your-luck edition of Dead Weight! Sounds fun, but you may lose the interest of players that don't care too much for luck of the die roll. Perhaps a mechanic that allows limited manipulation of die results.
    Still, I feel like it lacks the gritty ambiance of the Apocalypse World hack that suits the setting so well.

  2. I recognize those feet!

  3. Hey, they're just prototypes. :)

  4. My comments are over due. (My PC has been down.)

    1. The Push Your Luck mechanic feels very appropriate for a zombie survivors themed game. You can (probably) eke out an existence if you play it safe, but to thrive, you have to take chances.

    2. Distance cards feel pretty useful. But they need to be given the penalty of Item cards. The balance in the mix is going to be critical to make this playable.

    3. Item cards and additional dice. It feels like these could weigh you down pretty quickly. Without appropriate Distance cards, (if I'm doing the math right) a runner could only be out in the city for three turns max - and that would require some pretty lucky rolling.

    4. Busting and Turning Back are pretty obvious mechanics.

    5. New Areas. When I empty the 1st area (the most likely with the mechanics as written), I start a 4th area from the discard. Does this mean that future runners get nothing on their first roll and need need to risk a minimum of two rolls before they can draw anything at all? If this is the case, there is going to be a practical upper level to the number of areas in the city.

    Overall, I think the mechanic is a really elegant way to address the theme. I think card mix is going to be pretty critical - the balance between Distance and Item cards, the practical "size" of the city.

    Consider letting Distance cards carry over from turn to turn - or maybe that is the intent of extra runners - basically 'permanent' extra distance.

    I'm not normally a big zombie guy, but the use of the dice here would encourage me to try out this game.

  5. Re: 2. You think maybe keeping a distance card should cost an item card?

    Re: 3. Any thoughts on how to nerf that penalty a bit?

    Re: 5. Dang, you're quite right. Hm. Lemme stew on that a bit.


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