Playing The Other Side: Mindless Undead

Jason Battles the Skeletons Born of the Hydra's TeethAnyone who plays tabletop RPGs eventually starts coming up with ways to pervert the concept. A group will only play good and neutral heroes for so long before they start to consider playing evil characters. They’ll only play as humans, elves, and dwarves for so long before they start to wonder what it would be like to play as an orc or a goblin. It’s only natural for a person to look for unusual and flavorful experiences, particularly in a game which is already about exploring the fantastical. Even Gygax would purportedly send his D&D players into Western or Science Fiction scenarios–still wielding sword and spell. Deviations like these can be great fun. and it was while entertaining these perversions that I struck upon the idea of having my players take the reigns of mindless undead creatures.

I would start with a dungeon, probably on the smallish side. Perhaps only a single level. It would be filled with everything you would expect to find in a dungeon: interesting rooms, treasure, traps, and so forth. It would even have adventurers. The only thing it wouldn’t have is monsters, because that’s where the players come in. Each player would take command of a single skeleton or zombie with a very simple task: prevent adventurers from defeating the necromancer who was kind enough to animate them. They would be given a map of the dungeon, as well as guidance from their master’s divinations about the location of the invading adventuring party.  They would be free to use any tactics they wished to defeat the adventurers. I, in turn, would move the adventurers through the dungeon, rolling for damage when they passed a trap and buffing them up a bit each time they encountered treasure.

Shambling Zombie by Jim PavelecI would do my best to defeat the zombies, but until the adventurers slay the necromancer, a new zombie or skeleton will always join its fellows within 1d6 rounds of its predecessors death. So no matter how many the adventurers kill, they’re fighting an uphill battle through the dungeon. Any time an adventurer is slain, one of the undead may spend a full round eating its corpse to regain all of their health. Any time the undead succeed in causing a TPK, all of the individual undead involved gain 1HD, and are allowed to add +1 to their damage rolls henceforth.

The cool thing about the idea is that player death really doesn’t matter all that much. When a player has invested a lot of time into creating, or playing a character, it can be a sobering experience for that character to die. It’s one of the big weaknesses of Pathfinder’s involved character building process. But when all of a character’s abilities and statistics are found under “S” and “Z” in the Bestiary, there’s no character creation process to go through. And since the new character appears a mere 1d6 rounds later, I imagine it won’t take long for players to start wantonly sacrificing themselves to create barriers, or to lure adventurers into deathtraps. And while a character who has leveled up might be a little too valuable to just throw away, I doubt any player would grow so attached to a few more HP and a +1 to damage that they’d feel at all sad to lose the character.

The way I imagine it, this would be a pretty fun evening of gaming to run. A brief deviation from the norm to cleanse everyone’s adventuring palette. Little will the players realize the insidious information they’re inadvertently providing to their GM: tactics. It’s just a side benefit really, but I know I’ll be watching my group carefully to see what they come up with. And I’ll be sure to use something similar against them next time they’re unfortunate enough to be level one adventurers taking their first wary steps into a dungeon.

In truth, this is closer to a board game than it is to an RPG. The only reason I wouldn’t call it a board game flat-out is because of tactical infinity. There are no limits to what the players can do to defeat the adventurers, so long as they can convince the GM that the idea is plausible.

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7 thoughts on “Playing The Other Side: Mindless Undead”

  1. This sounds like this would be a great thing to do once in a while, if only so that the GM can jot down some tactics for monsters. After all, how often do we find ourselves reading the parts of the GM guides that say “Monsters aren’t stupid and should be played with cunning and tactics”, silently nod thinking how obvious that statement is, and then play our monsters like a bad B Kung Fu movie ninja, patiently waiting its turn for slaughter.

    Two questions:

    1) Does the +1 HD and to hit apply to newly created undead as well? That is, is each TPK a “level” so to speak, or does it only apply to the survivors and once they’re dead, the next undead is back to square one.

    2) When you ran this, did you find yourself playing the adventurers much the same way you play monsters in a normal GM situation?

    1. 1) New undead start at square 1. Only surviving undead gain HD. The foundation of the game is low-level tactics. The players should feel that their undead creatures can be thrown away without any regrets. Think of the “level up” as a temporary buff the player gets until their zombie dies, rather than a permanent increase in effectiveness.

      2) I have not actually played this variant yet, this post simply represents my own brainstorming. I would suspect that when GMs play monsters as dumb creatures, it’s because we don’t want to ruin our own games by killing our players. In a game like this, where the player’s ‘lives’ mean nothing, a GM should feel no such restraint.

      Though I personally avoid that restraint even in normal games.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. I love this idea. It might also be fun to let the players collect some sort of tokens (or perhaps just xp) from adventurers they kill and then in turn use it as currency to change the type of undead creature they are.

    For instance a ghoul grants 400xp when killed, it could cost that much to become one. But the question is, would this be a permanent change or only last as long as the player can survive? Either way, this sounds like a lot of fun.

    1. That’s a great idea! Though it wouldn’t be good if the players were allowed to control undead which were too powerful, since that would mean the GM would have to create higher and higher level adventurers to face them. I envision this as something a group does one evening when they’re bored, so increasing the preparation time or work load would be a negative thing.

      However, there are a lot of undead which are killable by a 1st level party of adventurers, and players could be allowed to rise through the ranks of those. Perhaps it could replace the +1 HD mechanic. (and once players reach the best undead, the +1 HD mechanic comes into effect).

  3. Hey LS, fellow /tg/ dweller here. I love the articles, keep up the good work.

    One thing I have in mind: abilities. You could create, say, n+2 ability cards where n is your player count, and offer them a pick for every new undead they start with. A random pick of abilities would add more depth to the game. You could use above mentioned xp system to offer the choice to pick two-keep one, pick three-keep one, pick two but you can only use one but get to decide later, et cetera. Think Left 4 Dead where the zombie players all have signature abilities. How fun is that? I’ll do it next Halloween we play a zombie game.

    I like the idea of handing my adventurers loot this way. Whenever they overcome an obstacle I would reward with a magic item, say, a chest with a twist to open, I’d hand them four cards face down. They may pick one, and that would be the item they find in the chest. The other items remain unknown. You can easily pull together a pool of treasure just the way you do with random encounters. Adds an extra layer to the game.

    1. That sounds good! A fun and quick way to add depth, without adding any mechanics to keep track of.

      It’s just on the GM to make the cards, but that shouldn’t be too bad.

  4. I have done something like this before only with Kobolds, Goblins, and City Guards. Essentially making it into a high level board game/super detailed skirmish wargame. It works good to give them a break during the game like While their characters rest in a dungeon or something.it also creates suspense. Heck you could have it to were players pick sides and have a limited number of reinforcements… I might have to go into detail about this some time soon…