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A Black woman, an Asian man, and a white guy in a cowboy hat stand in the vestibule of a rundown house, lit from behind. They stare out of the frame at the viewer, and are all armed with rifles. Image: Free League Publishing

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The next season of The Walking Dead will take place in your neighborhood, if you want it to

Free League and AMC will use a new tabletop role-playing game to make things more personal

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The 11th and final season of The Walking Dead may be over, but the franchise will go on thanks in part to a new tabletop role-playing game. AMC Networks has partnered with Free League Publishing — a powerhouse with a stable of original and licensed tabletop games, settings, and systems — to create The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game. With it, fans will be able to play out their own personal zombie apocalypse with a small group of friends, building relationships and drama from a fortified outpost set anywhere in the world. A crowdfunding campaign launches on Kickstarter on March 14. Polygon sat down with the developers for an in-depth discussion on what fans should expect.

A woman wearing hocky pads and holding a knife is circled by a man in a trench coat wielding two large blades. Image: Free League Publishing

It’s hard to overstate just how spectacular the rise of Free League has been these past few years. Working from a handful of keystone franchises, including iconic games like Mutant: Year Zero and Twilight 2000, the Swedish company has piled on more than a dozen other successful TTRPGs. They include licensed pop culture hits like Alien: The Roleplaying Game, Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game, and the reboot of the Tolkien-inspired TTRPG The One Ring. But, much like Devolver Digital in the world of video games, Free League has also shown excellent taste with its other projects, helping to bring hits like Mörk Borg and Vaesen to market. Now it’s going all in on zombies.

“The game is designed for you to be able to play at any place in the [The Walking Dead’s] timeline,” said Free League game director Mattias Johnsson, “and basically anywhere in the world.”

A person on horseback, trailed by a wagon, ambles along a highway toward an abandonded city. On the other side of the Jersey barricades, a four-lane highway is full of old cars. Crepuscular light leaks down from an overcast sky. Image: Free League Publishing

Using the rules included in the core rulebook, players will begin their adventure by fleshing out the corner of the world where they intend to play. A lengthy “session zero” will touch on safety and consent before diving into world-building and character creation.

“What has fascinated me about this game is that every group I’ve seen play has done almost an entirely different thing,” producer Joe LeFavi said. “We give them archetypes [for] not who you are today, but who you were when this all started. You know, Glenn was just a pizza delivery guy. They were homemakers and farmers and petty criminals, but they became these great people over time.”

A big part of what players will do as part of session-zero planning will be creating their initial haven, a base of operations where they’ll spend most of their down time. But groups don’t necessarily need to be tied to one geographic location — far from it, in fact.

A young man with unfeeling eyes and a frown. Behind him, inside an old abandonded place of business, are several of the shambling, slavering zombie horde. Image: Free League Publishing

“[Early playtesters] have been able to kind of pick their own path,” LeFavi continued. “If they want to focus on building a micro-society, they can do that. If they want to focus on taming the unknown and going into the uncharteds and seeing what is around every corner, they can do that. And if they just want to have one session where everyone is just co-op, trying to stay alive as a horde tries to overwhelm their stronghold, they can do that too.”

A sample of a spread on The Player Characters. It includes art of three survivors heavily armed and standing in the vestibule of an abandoned building. Image: Free League Publishing
A spread on The World of the Dead and The Player Characters, from The Walking Dead Universe tabletop RPG. A group of survivors comprises the art on the right-hand page, including a Black man leading a donkey. On the left-hand page is a blockout asking “Can I play Rick?” Image: Free League Publishing

Free League will be drawing on its years of experience making TTRPGs, several of which align closely with the themes, world-building, and combat mechanics native to the world of The Walking Dead. Base-building and ranged combat have been heavily influenced by Mutant: Year Zero, while the humanity system from Blade Runner (which LeFavi wrote) has served as the inspiration for morale mechanics in The Walking Dead.

“There’s this ‘threat level’ that is basically the stress mechanics for the world itself,” LeFavi said. “There’s this incredible [emphasis on the] stakes where, with Alien and Blade Runner, you may let the stakes rise, and you may let the stress get to you, and it will test what it brings out in you for better or worse. But the more you get stressed out, the more The Walking Dead kind of feels it and reacts.”

One of the most surprising elements of the project, developers told Polygon, is just how involved The Walking Dead’s creative team has been in the process.

A mockup of the boxed starter set for The Walking Dead Universe. Key art includes a man with a hatchet in silhouette. Image: Free League Publishing

“We’ve been working directly with AMC Publishing,” LeFavi said, “with [showrunner] Scott Gimple, with some of the other producers and writers behind the TV show, and basically just sharing the creative process and saying, This is what we want to do with the game. These are the kind of stories we want to tell. What do you think? What parts of the canon can we explore? Where can we go beyond the scope? Where are we going too far? What timelines make sense? And they’ve been feeding us inspiration the whole time — where we literally will have 30 notes on every page of the manuscript.”

The good vibes were reinforced by game director Johnsson, who was initially intimidated by the prospect of working with AMC on one of its marquee franchises.

“This is the first time I’ve worked on a really big licensed game,” Johnsson said. “I normally stay pretty close to home: Symbaroum is my baby, and the game that I co-created and developed and still write for. So I learned a lot, and it feels like they’re truly enthusiastic. What they bring to the table — it’s not just in terms of lore. It’s also actually in terms of mechanics.”

“There was not [a] PowerPoint presentation of like, What is a tabletop role-playing game?” LeFavi added. “They know what this stuff is. They play, and they got really excited about the idea to make [this], to the point where they’re like, No, we want this to be a core pillar of the extended universe! — just like they will talk about [the] Tales of the Walking Dead anthology.”

To that end, once the core rulebook and the boxed starter set have been finalized, developers will then begin working with AMC to cast and produce a televised actual play series. AMC has an appetite for that format, having worked with Hyper RPG on the Kollok actual play series for a number of years. In the same way that spinoff series have expanded the universe, the team at Free League hopes that its TTRPG will help carry the story of The Walking Dead past its 11th season. And while developers aren’t sure where the series will eventually be aired, they do have their eyes set on including characters and potentially talent from the original series.

“It was something that we really wanted to do to reach the core Walking Dead fandom,” LeFavi said. “To actually say, like, Hey, did you know there’s an RPG out there? To be able to put it on AMC’s actual owned channels and show the game, and show how fun it is, and show even people who they might know from on screen dip into the story, that’s the whole hope of it.”

The crowdfunding campaign for The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game runs through April 5. Pledges start around $45, which includes the core rulebook and a PDF version of the boxed starter set. A deluxe bundle featuring digital and physical copies of both items costs roughly $120. Digital products are set to be delivered shortly after the campaign ends, while physical products are expected at retail in the fourth quarter of 2023.

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