Why let a little thing like the end of the world stop the local Waffle House from serving hot coffee and warm meals? That’s one of the questions at the heart of short-and-sweet tabletop RPG Cracker Barrel Has Fallen, a two-page game that imagines life at a diner during a zombie apocalypse.
Set in whatever southern US town or suburban shopping district the players desire, Cracker Barrel Has Fallen puts the group in the well-worn shoes of a Waffle House crew who have been told to survive a horde of ravenous zombies for six hours while the National Guard rushes to their rescue.
Borrowing the simple and popular two-stat system from mainstays such as Lasers & Feelings and Honey Heist, this title splits all skill challenges along lines of Wit and Survival. Whenever the outcome of a choice or action is unclear, players build a pool of dice based on their stats, skills and applicable equipment and combine the two highest results. Six or below is full failure, while a 12 earns players something extra (more on that in a bit) - everything else provides the GM opportunities to complicate matters.
If you’ve never heard of a Waffle House, imagine an extensive chain of greasy spoon diners that are open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and are known for being a constant and reliable source of comfort for travellers with a strong stomach and taste for burnt coffee. As such, the player-characters embody the will of overworked food service employees left holding the existential bag during the collapse of civilisation. Somehow, management expects them to carry on even in these conditions, keeping that chequered yellow sign lit until the bloody end.
As author OopsAllSmurph points out, there’s a real-world reason they chose this particular late-nite, all night diner as their setting: the Waffle House index. This informal scale rates the disaster level of hurricanes, tornadoes and other nasty weather that regularly tears up the American South based on how many Waffle House locations stay open during the storm, or how quickly they reopen afterward.
This joke, reportedly started by former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Craig Fugate, draws upon a surprising amount of relevant data. Waffle House staff are regularly trained to handle extreme weather events, and the diners are equipped to open as soon as possible with a reduced menu. This includes back-up generators in most locations, extra food stores and a bafflingly comprehensive emergency plan. As such, cities and even FEMA have apparently relied on the Waffle House Index to quickly determine how dire the situation has become.
“As Craig often says, the Waffle House test doesn’t just tell us how quickly a business might rebound – it also tells us how the larger community is faring. The sooner restaurants, grocery and corner stores, or banks can re-open, the sooner local economies will start generating revenue again – signaling a stronger recovery for that community. The success of the private sector in preparing for and weathering disasters is essential to a community’s ability to recover in the long run,” wrote FEMA director of external affairs Dan Stoneking in 2018.
OopsAllSmurph translated the Waffle House Index into the game, which starts smack dab in the middle of the yellow. Players will need to keep their Waffle House from slipping to the bottom of the red if they don’t want to automatically lose. The scale can be shifted up closer to green by taking an automatic failure on any roll - alternatively, players can move the scale down in order to guarantee automatic success on their next roll. Maintaining a minimum level of operation is essential, even when brain-hungry nightmares are clawing at the windows.
Cracker Barrel Has Fallen is available as a pay-what-you-want digital download on its Itch.io page, and OopsAllSmurph has stated that all proceeds during the month of June will be donated to Trans Lifeline, a US-based company offering community support and access to resources that is most widely known for its grassroots hotline.