I’ve always had a passion for the macabre. In particular, I am very fond of all things pertaining to undeath. My preference tends towards the unsettling majesty of gothic fantasy, but I’m not above enjoying a B horror movie or two. So when I was asked to participate in May of the Dead, I didn’t hesitate. I don’t exactly need an excuse to fill this site with my darker imaginings, but since I have one, I thought it would be a good opportunity to work on a number of undead-themed posts in a row. Each Friday during the month of May, I’ll be animating a new undead-themed post. And if you’d like to read more, there are many other websites participating in this little carnival.
For this first post, I’d like to discuss zombies. Though they lack the elegance of an animated skeleton, and are currently suffering from their severe overexposure in recent years, the zombie is none the less a fundamental fantasy foe. And while the classic shambling cadaver will never go out of style, it is diminished by its own omnipresence. What is a GM to do? How can we inject a sense of danger back into a creature which players have faced so many times that they know the creature’s statblock and abilities like the backs of their character sheets?
We reinvent it.
Part of the reason zombies are so enduring is because they are the most fundamental kind of undead we can imagine. They are dead bodies, which none the less are capable of moving on their own, and want to hurt the living. You might say that a zombie is a blank slate, waiting to be given the kind of unique attributes which can turn it into a truly memorable monster. Pathfinder has already done this, somewhat. In the Bestiary, the zombie entry contains a small section titled “Variant Zombies” on page 289. Detailed therein are the “fast zombie,” and the “plague zombie,” both of which are pretty self explanatory. The former are faster than normal zombies, and the latter can infect victims with a zombifying disease. Here are a few other ways I’ve come up with to reanimate your player’s fear of zombies:
Exploding Zombies These have become popular in zombie-centric video games which need a way to ramp up difficulty without straying too far from their core theme. The idea makes a certain kind of sense: when a person dies, their decomposing body creates a lot of gas. Normally this gas is expelled gradually, but if we can stretch our imaginations far enough to accept walking dead in the first place, then we can certainly imagine that all of these gasses somehow end up trapped inside the corpse. Perhaps inside a bloated and distended stomach. This state could be an accidental byproduct of the reanimation process, causing perhaps one in every ten or twenty zombies to become an exploding zombie. Particularly sinister necromancers might create these undead bombardiers intentionally, and unleash a horde of them on an unsuspecting adventuring party.
Pungent Cloud Zombies Speaking of gasses, why limit ourselves to something as ostentatious as an explosion? I find undead are always the most enticing when they’re a little mysterious, and subtle. Those same gasses produced by decomposition could form an oppressive miasma. A single zombie would only effect those standing in adjacent squares, but each zombie reinforces the cloud of fear and despair which surrounds them. A large enough horde might affect anyone standing within a mile of them. Those affected would have their intellects clouded, and their bodies made sluggish. Wizards would find they could not recall their most powerful (read: highest spell level) incantations, and fighters would seem to miss a lot more than they normally would (-5 to attack rolls).
Slightly Intelligent Zombies Traditionally, zombies are mindless. That’s almost part-in-parcel of what it means to be a zombie. If a necromancer needs a servant which can think, they create a ghoul. A zombie is created when a necromancer needs a large force which will obey them without question. But lets say that a group of zombies is created by an erratic necromancer, or perhaps has no master, but has managed to avoid destruction for years or even decades. Why not give them an intelligence of 2? That’s not enough that they could learn speech, or form any kind of society. But it is enough that they could communicate on a very basic level, and even form simple tactics to better defeat their enemies with.
Somewhat-to-Highly Intelligent Zombies Zombies created by a downright insane necromancer, or who have lived for a century or more, might become as intelligent as you or I. It is unlikely that they would recall, or care to recall, anything about their life, but their intelligence would provide them with a unique advantage in their un-life. It is doubtful that any such zombie could ever be anything but evil, since their continued life depends on negative energy and consuming the flesh of the living. But as villains, they might be truly formidable.
Necrotic Bite Zombie The dangerous nature of a Zombie’s bite is an important element in most zombie fiction. For some reason it’s never really made the leap to game mechanics, leaving Pathfinder zombies to rely on their slam attack. Necrotic Bite Zombies gain a +0 bite attack which deals 1d6 damage. Anyone who is hit by the zombie’s Necrotic Bite must make a fortitude save (DC is equal to 10 + half the zombie’s HD + the zombie’s cha modifier). If the fortitude save fails, roll 1d10 to determine where the victim has been bitten. A result of 1-2 is the right leg, a result of 3-4 is the left leg, a result of 5-6 is the right arm, a result of 7-8 is the left arm, a result of 9 is the torso, and a result of 10 is the head. The skin around the bite becomes black and flaky, like skin which has been severely burned. This effect slowly spreads throughout the day. After 24 hours, it grows enough to spread to an adjacent part of the body. The spread can be stopped either with magical healing, or by amputating all affected body parts. Aside from severe discomfort, the necrotic zombie bite has no negative mechanical effects until it has fully spread throughout both the torso and head of the victim, at which point the victim dies and rises as a necrotic bite zombie 1d6 minutes later.
Zombification Zone A particular dungeon could be enchanted in such a way that anything which died within it would be raised as a zombie within 1d6 minutes of death. This would include any creatures which the players slay, or any players which die within the dungeon. Just as the players leave a room after clearing it, they would be accosted from behind by the very creatures they thought they had just destroyed!
Boneblade Zombie Zombies are often covered with jutting bones. It can be an exposed ribcage, a broken femur, or just a forearm without a hand. Boneblade Zombies have been specifically crafted to maximize the number of jutting bones, and to sharpen those bones to razor points. The slam attacks of these zombies deal 1d8 +6 piercing damage, and they gain +2 natural armor bonus to AC.
Minion Zombies When I was first learning about 4th edition, the concept of minion NPCs was one of the first things to really turn me off to the game. As a rule, I don’t like the inclusion of enemies which functionally exist for the purpose of being defeated easily. As an option, however, I think it could be a flavorful alternative to the zombies presented in the bestiary. When a level one party is fighting a necromancer, and 5 zombies enter to assist him from the next room, the players are in pretty serious trouble. While zombies are not particularly difficult to hit, they are capable of doing a fair amount of damage. And since each one has 5 damage reduction on top of 12 HP, the party is going to need to devote at least a few turns to each one. If, on the other hand, you remove the damage reduction from each zombie, and reduce their HP to 1, the necromancer could call 30 zombies into the room to help him! Since Zombies are cannon fodder anyway, it makes sense for them to be easy to destroy. And since they don’t lose any of their ability to harm the players, they still pose a serious threat.
Plant Zombie Rather than being animated by negative energy, zombies could functionally be created by a flower which grows in the skulls of dead people. The roots weave throughout the brain, and stimulate it to produce movement. The blood and flesh of the living are used as fertilizer, allowing the plant to sustain itself, and a puff of pollen on the corpses of the dead would allow it to reproduce. Functionally this would be no different from a normal zombie, but don’t discount the value of fluff in making something old feel new again.
Parasitic Zombies Did you know that zombies are real? There are a variety of real life parasites which take control of their host creatures. One such parasite, the lancet liver fluke, was featured by The Oatmeal, and its life cycle serves as a good example of other similar parasites. Insofar as I’ve read, all of these parasites take control of a specific type of organism, then do their best to get that organism eaten by one of its natural predators. The parasite then reproduces in the colon of the new host, and its eggs are released into the world when the creature poops. In reality, I’ve never heard of these parasites taking control of anything larger than a small fish, but in fantasy such a parasite might be used to take control of humans. Once controlled, the brain-dead humans would function essentially as zombies. They would attack anything in their path, sustaining themselves on the flesh of others, with the ultimate goal of being devoured by a dragon, or other large human-eating creature.
Beloved Zombie These zombies are sometimes created by experienced necromancers with a particularly sadistic bent. Each zombie is under the effect of powerful illusion magic, which causes anyone who sees the zombie to believe it was created from the remains of a deceased loved one. Any attack roll made against such a zombie is made at a -1 penalty per HD of the zombie. Low level beloved zombies might simply appear to be the viewer’s long dead grandparent who was kind of a dick. Whereas a high level zombie would appear to be the recently deceased son of the viewer, crying while he plays with all of the viewer’s dead childhood pets.