Shelter in Place: An Interview with J.R. Blackwell

Posted: October 3, 2011 by Jenny Dreadful in Books, Games, Interviews

Cover design by Daniel Solis

We have more than a few gamers out there, right? We may have spent a little time with dice and character sheets ourselves. (We may have.) So who’s up for Romero-style fun with props, improv and lots and lots of running? Let’s take a look at a new live action zombie game, Shelter in Place. First, the description from the official Kickstarter:

Shelter in Place is about survival, teamwork and fun. Designed for ten to twenty five players, the game captures the frenetic pace of a zombie movie in an action packed game. Players can take on the roles of Humans or Zombies in a desperate conflict to survive. Humans must use their wits to survive, making sacrifices in order to live through the night. The Zombies must use their brute, unrelenting strength and teamwork to overpower the humans and eat some delicious brains.

Sounds good, right? I’m certain you want to know more and Final Girl Support Group is proud to bring you an interview with a good friend of ours, the game designer and zombie mistress, J.R. Blackwell.

J.R. Blackwell on Shelter in Place

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your exciting new game, J.R! I’ve already shared the general premise of Shelter in Place with our readers, but I want to dig a little deeper. Not everyone is fortunate enough to know you as well as we do.

Would you mind starting with telling our readers a little about yourself? You excel at an impressive number of artforms. Photography, writing, game design, even performance… Where can we learn more about you and your projects? And are you available to hire?

Photo by Rae Winters

I am a writer, photographer, and bon-vivant. Shelter in Place is my first game, but my love of fiction, photography and gaming tie together with my love of telling stories.  I enjoy creating characters and putting them in interesting situations. Even in my days of doing burlesque, one of my characters was an old fat man who would go on stage and dance to a country version of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” The whole routine revolved around taking off the fat suit and revealing my lacy burlesque outfit underneath. It was about making the audience believe in one character, only to reveal another underneath. You can learn more about my lacy stuff, book covers, beard and other sundries at I am available for hire for writing and photography projects and I especially enjoy collaborating with writers and other creative types.

I do love a beautiful lady with a beard. Moving on, I’ve always been particularly fascinated with your thoughts on horror. Would you mind telling us about your relationship with the genre? And how does the exploration of fear influence your art?

I have a love/terror relationship with horror. My writing and photography often have horror elements and I think that’s because those themes get into my brain so deeply.  I’m terrified down to my toes by horror films. They scare me not just while I’m in the theater but for days and nights afterward. Films like High Tension have this way of staying with me, of playing again and again behind my eyes, and The Ring made such a strong impact on me that for years I was convinced that girl was just on the other side of the shower curtain. I use writing and photography to cope with that fear, to control it. When I create monsters and victims, I’m now the master of them, and they frighten me less. But lets not pretend here, I’m still terrified. I can have my eyes wide open in the dark in my bed at night because of a trailer I’ve seen. A trailer. Not even a full movie. That’s the kind of penetration horror gets into my brain.

"Day Twenty Eight: Hearts Blood" by J.R. Blackwell

So what is the origin of Shelter in Place? You’re not a horror fan, but did any films, books, or other media inspire you to set your game within a zombie apocalypse?

I came up with Shelter in Place when I was participating in a shelter in place drill at work. This kind of drill is when all the people in the building are gathered into an interior room and the doors and windows are sealed. It’s meant for environmental disasters, such as a large storm, or a chemical spill that would affect the air quality.  However, standing in that room with my work colleagues, all I could think of was Zombies. Then I started to dream up a game that would take place in and around a Shelter.

Interesting! This is somewhat related; do you feel you are offering a product that is lacking within the current game industry?

When I was designing Shelter in Place, one of my goals was to create a game that would be easy for new players to jump into.  I founded a role-playing club in high school, and in college, I founded a geek club where we did quite a bit of gaming. I’ve always been interested in bringing in new people. I’ve found that actors and fans of genre media often love role-playing if they have a good introduction. However, there are a lot of games that are difficult for new gamers to learn, so I created Shelter in Place as an answer to that issue. With Shelter in Place you can pick up your character sheet you have in your hands all the rules you need to know, everything about your character and you can get started with playing.  

Turning to the experience of playing Shelter in Place, why choose live-action over the table-top and board game formats?

I am a huge fan of live action gaming. One of my goals with Shelter in Place was to give people the feeling that they were actually inside a horror movie. 

How is playing the game like being inside a horror movie?

I wanted to create an immersive experience for my players, and getting people to actually run away from zombies was the way to do that. Like a movie, you have to actually act out what happens.  Zombies shamble towards humans in mass, doors get broken and replaced with barricades, and your human friends get eaten and join the zombie horde. Surviving is not simple, or assured.

Photo by Rae Winters

What happens in a typical session?

Shelter in Place is modeled after movies, with a director, characters, and three acts. One of the things I wanted was for the game to demonstrate how, over time, the humans lose strength as the zombies gain power. So, in the first act, humans are more powerful than the zombies. In the second act, they are about equal, and in the third act, zombies have the upper hand. However, humans can gather props, such as a shotgun or baseball bat to help them fight the zombies.  

What kind of tone should a new player expect? Is it a deadly serious horror game? A silly adventure?

Shelter in Place can go either way, and a lot of it depends on what the players do with it. I’ve seen people play it seriously, zombies moaning, players screaming as they’ve gotten eaten but I’ve also seen people go the Shaun of the Dead route, as a madcap adventure with zombies writing misspelled notes to humans asking them to come outside and go to their “brains party”. I think the game tends to trend towards dark humor and panicked fun.

Photo by Rae Winters

You can end up playing either a survivor or a zombie. What makes each role fun? Even more relevant to those considering buying the book, what is fun about running the game for your friends?

If you’ve ever wondered what it would take to survive the zombie apocalypse, playing a survivor is your way to find out. Playing a human in Shelter in Place means that you have this delicious conflict; to act entirely out of self-interest or to act in the interest of the group. Sometimes those two things might be in line with each other, but sometimes those motivations come into conflict. For example, if zombies are eating your friend, do you go out and help them, and risk getting eaten yourself? These are the questions human characters have to answer for themselves.

Playing a zombie is fun because you are playing for a team! You all have one goal, to eat some delicious brains. Players often seem to have more fun playing zombies because they are united in a common purpose, and they actually use a great deal of strategy in their zombie shuffling to take down the humans.

The fun of running the game is putting your friends through the zombie apocalypse, and having control over their fates like an angry, whimsical god! It’s crazy fun. You get to watch the action and turn up the heat, add in extra characters and help determine who lives and who dies.

I’d say that many games advertising simple rules are still daunting to new players. You mentioned earlier that your game is easy to learn. How do players resolve challenges or combat?

Players resolve conflicts by comparing “Resolution Numbers” that are listed on their character sheets. Whoever has the higher number wins. That’s it.  Now, multiple humans can gang up on a zombie and add all their resolution numbers together, or pick up a baseball bat to help add to those numbers, but it’s always the same – just add up the numbers and you’ve got your outcome. It really is that simple.

One more question about gameplay! I see there are optional “twists” in Shelter in Place that can make the session a little unpredictable. Can you tell us about that?

The twists are my favorite part. The twists are optional characters that you can add into the game to shake things up a little bit. For example, we have an optional character in the Kickstarter campaign who is a Time Traveler. This character can “rewind” the film and take things back one act – bringing all the people who are dead back to life, but putting all the props you might have gathered right back where they were. The twist characters can throw a unique element into a traditional game of zombies against humans.

Some of the available Kickstarter rewards

I think we’ve learned a great deal about how the game works now and we really appreciate your time. Before we wrap up, what is the current status of your Kickstarter campaign? How long do readers have a chance to contribute? And what are the rewards?

As I write this, we have raised $4431, exceeding our original goal of $2,500. Readers can contribute up to noon on October 13th. The rewards include a PDF of the game, a book, posters, t-shirts, zombie plushies, photoshoots with me and a chance to get me to come to your town and run the game.

It’s great to hear that you’ve exceeded your goal. What is the next step? And when can we get our hands on this book?

We’ve decided that if we reach $5,000, we will put out a zombie anthology called “Gimmie Shelter” which writers such as Mur Lafferty, David A. Hill Jr., Filamena Young, Jared Axelrod and Chuck Wendig. A PDF will go out to everyone who contributed, and at higher levels of contributions, people will get copies of the book. The best way to get a copy of the book is by contributing to the Kickstarter. We are planning to ship the books after the Kickstarter ends with the goal of getting it in our supporters’ hands by Halloween. After the Kickstarter ends we hope to have copies of the book available for purchase – but the best way to get it, and get it fast, is though the Kickstarter. 

Thanks, lady. It’s been a pleasure.


That’s the story, readers. 10 more days to contribute to the Shelter in Place Kickstarter. Either way, you should have a chance to safely cannibalize your friends soon.


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