Undead Make the Scariest Villains

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 12, 2011

Would you rather fight a beholder or a zombie? This is a much more complicated question than you might realize. Look at this through the eyes of your character and not through the eyes of a meta-gamer. In-character what is the scariest monster you can imagine? For me it’s undead more than any other.

Most monsters are, well, monstrous. They are clearly different than you and they must be destroyed. The beholder is an abomination. It’s scary, and a big party of what makes it scary is that it doesn’t conform to a physical shape you’re comfortable with. It’s a giant floating ball with eyestalks swirling about. Even if you’d never seen a beholder before and knew nothing about it, your initial instinct as an adventurer would be to attack and destroy something so awful.

Other monsters may look familiar or resemble something you know, but their increased size, ferocious attitude or raw destructive power leave little doubt in your mind that the thing before you is a monster. This is certainly the case with dragons. As an adventurer your job is clear – kill it.

Undead, however, fall into a category all their own. The most frightening type of monster is one that looks like someone you know and love. A random zombie shuffling towards you is scary, but now image it’s your mother, your wife or even your child. That’s horrific. Think of the psychological impact that has on a person. You clearly see it coming toward you and your rational brain is saying “kill the monster” but the emotional part of your brain is saying “that’s someone I know and love.” You have doubt, which brings about hesitation. This psychological edge is what makes undead so terrifying.

In the example above I used zombies, which are scary in their own right, but what if the undead creature is something less horrific looking. Take another popular type of undead, the vampire for example. Part of what makes a vampire so deadly is their ability to assume a pleasant looking form. They don’t look dead. They don’t even look undead. Anyone caught unaware is suddenly vulnerably to a potentially horrific assault by said vampire.

Even if you are aware that the creature is a vampire, how would you react if it was a loved one? You know that your brother was attacked and ravaged by a vampire, yet there he is standing right before your very eyes, looking as perfect and healthy as ever. He’s likely even trying to convince you that he managed to survive the attack and is fine. Your rational mind screams “liar!” but your heart wants to believe that your brother is fine. You’ve hoped for the best possibly outcome and now you’re trying to convince yourself it actually happened that way. You want to believe that he’s ok. Even when he moves to attack you, whether it’s a pouncing charge indented to pin you down or it’s a more subtle gesture of embrace like a hug, your mind and emotions will cloud your judgment. You don’t want to fight. You don’t want to kill.

Now let’s look at the beholder again. As soon as it moves towards you, you attack to kill. No doubt, no hesitation. It’s a monster. Your job is to kill it before it kills you or anyone else you love (like your brother the vampire or your mother the zombie – see how much undead can mess with your thinking).

Even lycanthrope, scary villains in their own right, don’t carry the psychological shock of undead. In their normal human form they may indeed be your friend or family member but when they wolf-out and transform into the beast it’s a lot easier to forget that just seconds earlier they were your uncle or your girlfriend. They don’t become truly dangerous until they take on the bestial animal form. When that happens, the veil of doubt is removed and you have no trouble seeing the threat for what it is. Any personal ties you might have felt are more easily broken when you see the lycanthrope in its animal form. No chance of lulling you into a false sense of security when they’ve just become a giant wolf.

It’s this psychological impact that give undead the edge over all other monsters in my opinion. No matter how seasoned an adventurer you are, no matter how many beholders you’ve killed or werewolves you’ve slain, you’re going to second-guess yourself when you fight undead. When you recognize the face of the creature before you, your instincts will betray you. The realization that yesterday it as your wife and today it’s a zombie trying to kill reminds you of your own vulnerability.

The challenge with D&D or other role playing games is capturing the sense of dread undead bring rather than focusing on just the raw mechanics of combat. Beholders and dragons are generally tougher in terms of levels and hit points than zombies and vampires, but the undead are much more likely to mess with a character’s mind. It’s up to the DM to really try and covey this sense of fear and uncertainty when running undead. The players should likewise try to see these encounters through the eyes of their characters and not just as another opportunity to kill a monster and earn XP.

By focusing on the role-playing more than the number crunching, encounters against undead can easily be more memorable, and likely more difficult, than any battle against a beholder or even a dragon.

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1 Brian Engard January 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I think that, in theory, you’re more-or-less right about undead. They should be scarier because they used to be like us; undead are a cautionary tale, a dark mirror through which we see ourselves in a less than pleasing light. They are a representation of our fear of mortality, and of what might lay beyond death.

That said, in D&D, I don’t think that players usually see them that way. In D&D, undead are maybe a little bit creepy, but so are a lot of monsters. Undead really fall into two camps, if you look at the entries in the various monster manuals. The more traditional undead, like zombies, skeletons, and vampires, are easy to recognize as creatures that were once human (or dragonborn, or elven, or whatever the case may be). The problem is that these undead have been around so long, and have been used so much, that they’ve become a little bit cliche. Because of this, players are rarely scared of them in any real sense (though they might be wary of them from a mechanical standpoint because they could be dangerous and powerful; this, however, is the case with any kind of monster).

The other camp–the bodaks, the boneclaws, and so forth–are the stranger undead, the ones that are hard to recognize as having once been like us. These tend to be scarier in some ways because they are less familiar, but they lose the dark mirror effect because we no longer see ourselves in them. Again, I don’t think they wind up being any scarier than a beholder or a dragon.

You mentioned having people the PCs know come back as undead, and that can be an effective way to evoke that fear of mortality. However, it’s a trick that you get to use exactly once. If you use it more than that, the players aren’t going to get attached to anyone in the game world because they’re just fodder for the necromancers, and you’re going to wind up with a much gamier, more mechanical play experience.

Yes, theoretically, undead are scary. But in the world of D&D, I really don’t think that’s the case any more than any other kind of monster.

2 Camelot January 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Yeah, I’d have to agree with Brian. In real life, a zombie of your loved one would be much more horrifying than an ancient red dragon. We already have “dragons” in the form of volcanos, tsunamis, earthquakes, blizzards, etc. But mind control and necromancy is something that the real world cannot replicate, so actually (hypothetically) encountering a zombie would be terrifying.

However, players playing D&D do not get this feeling when they are told that a zombie version of a fictional character that the fictional character they narrate the actions of once knew and loved is moving towards them. Maybe it’ll send a shiver down their spine, but they’ll smile at the creepiness. Maybe they’ll decide that their character doesn’t fight the undead, but only good roleplayers playing sensitive characters would do that. If you really wanted to make sure that the characters stop and think, you’d have to have the zombies make an attack roll against their Will, and that defeats the whole purpose.

The only time I’ve seen a player actually look scared is when they are faced with a very mechanically strong opponent. The roleplaying is only hypothetical.

3 Brian Engard January 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm

The Angry DM actually brought up a really good point on Twitter just now. If the party has a cleric (or really, just about any divine character), undead are actually a lot less scary than other monsters of the same level. Divine characters dish out a lot of radiant damage, and that’ll kill those undead quicker than it would an orc or a troll. Undead also have the dubious distinction of being one of the only monsters in the game with attacks meant specifically to kill them quickly, like Turn Undead.

4 Jeff Carlsen | Apathy Games January 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm

I find undead to be boring. I’ve seen them done so many times that any effect they used to have on me is long gone.

Now, possession on the other hand. That makes for a great monster.

5 Alton January 12, 2011 at 8:03 pm

I like using undead for a good storyline once and awhile. The latest was a Xorn raising dead in a little town and people seeing loved ones raised etc..

A good Lich as a recurring villain is also scary (see Devils below). I just find most undead to be mindless (or not used properly by the DM)

I personally like Devils. I find they are ruthless. They will do anything, say anything and sacrifice anything to get achieve their goals. They could kidnap family members and hold them hostage. They will sacrifice children if it advances their cause.

I find it very unsettling to deal with Devils. It is not always about combat. They have to be outsmarted, and in the hands of a good DM, can make for an excellent adventure.

I really think it is a personal thing.

Good read.

6 Captain DM January 12, 2011 at 10:46 pm

I would lean more towards Brian’s “other camp” of undead. I thinking swirling masses of sentient flesh and crawling undead dragon claws are a lot more effective for creative an atmosphere of horror. I snagged a few monsters out of the Open Grave book and really went to town on the party in a recent adventure. The unknown is typically more terrifying, at least more commonly terrifying, than a personal connection (as far as D&D goes).

7 Lucretius January 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm

I agree with your point that undead ought to be scary this way. I suggest using the dead PC as a recurring villain. The other players can’t help but have an emotional connection to a former PC. When one of your player characters dies and the party can’t get him raised, have him turn up as an undead… maybe one that is morally neutral… who can at least make a credible “I’m not evil, I’m just miss-understood” act. Then when it turns out that he’s been playing them from the start, it is all the more agonizing because now he’s won them over TWICE, once as a living PC, once as a dead NPC, and he’s betrayed both those connections. 😀

With regards to scary zombie encounters, something that I would like to see more of is the zombie horde… it’s a staple of just about every zombie movie: The hero fights his way out of the dungeon/secret-lab/high-rise/castle only to be faced with a whole street full of dozens or even hundreds of zombies shuffling towards him. Now individually, the hero could take on any 20 of them… but he’s only got so many shot-gun shells… and he can only fire so many a round… and… they… just… keep… on… coming! If handled right, so that it is not obviously an over-whelming fight at the beginning, this can lead to some extreme tension amongst the players. At first their cocky… they’re just zombies after-all. Then they become serious, as the FOURTH group of then zombies approaches… perhaps from multiple directions. Then they start panicking… they’re beginning to run out of resources! Then… finally… comes the realization that they are going to have to do the un-heroic but pragmatic reaction… they’re going to have to RUN FOR IT.

8 Sunyaku January 13, 2011 at 1:28 am

Agreed. The possibility of your character, or people your character knows actually becoming the enemy via zombie, vampire, etc. is scary indeed. It eats away at our trust in each other, leaving us thoroughly alone.

9 Acheron January 13, 2011 at 9:13 am

Man, what a brilliant post.

I remember being reading a monster description, a humanoid unded full of veins, in the monster manual III or IV on 3.5 long time back, and it mentioned something like, “we loose Garth to the unded 3 weeks back it was hard to recognice him, only throw his birthmark in his cheeck we realice HI was in front of us”

Since then i have had that idea, of doing something of the such to my PC’s, and i also consider the undead being some of the sacariest thing there is, because is a miss shape of and corrupt way of destroying life to another level.

So I agree with you in that part, I also agree with Alton, Devils has the thing that not only extremly vile, but the challenge to be outsmarted (as Alton put it) is definetly a good one, probably for me it will be some Vampire/love one/strategist that can posses people or something like that THE most scariest combat, sheer strenght like a giant isn’t that scary by it’s on way if it doesn’t have some brains to make it instresting.

That is why I respect a lot dragons, bloody many HD and tons and tons of malevolence and strong minds.

Good Post!


10 Ameron January 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm

@Brian Engard
You make an excellent point in that the “familiar under” as the scary villain is only going to work once. I like your comments about the mutated and bizarre looking undead being scary because they clearly were like the PCs in life, but something has caused this horrific change. You’re right that as far as the history of D&D goes undead have been so over used that they are cliché. Hopefully my slant on undead will provide DMs with a possible way to use undead in their campaigns and get some new scare value in doing so.

I see the greatest payoff in using a PC’s loved one as an undead after they’ve become extremely vested in their character. Many gamers are not going to role-play the fear that their character might have. Instead their going to see undead like any other monster stat block and kill it. However, I hope that my editorial might inspire some gaming groups to try this kind of venture and see how the game turns out.

@Brian Engard
Where I see plenty of role-paying goodness is having a divine character in the party, yet they are too rattled to call forth their holy powers and use them against their loved ones. This could be in part because the DM has already established a gruesome and horrific ending to anything undead struck by the divine power. Would you use a divine power on your vampire brother whom you desperately want to believe is returned to life, even though you know he’s truly a vampire? Would you use the divine power if you knew that it would be a horrifically painful and gruesome death for him? Food for thought.

@Jeff Carlsen | Apathy Games
OK, let’s apply the same kind of situation described above to possession. Your wife is possessed by a demon that threatens you and your allies. Do you kill her, knowing that it’s the only sure way to stop the demon? Maybe not as scary, but certainly fuel for potentially awesome role-playing.

I too like to use mindless undead as nothing more than fodder. Having your parents among the minions isn’t really that scary to me, especially if they fall with one hit. The more intelligent undead often choose their own fate, like the lich, so there’s not as great a chance that you’ll feel sorry for your sister who worked to turn herself into a lich. You’ll still fear her power and see her as menacing, but not as scary as they undead who come back through no fault of their own.

@Captain DM
I agree that players generally find new monsters more terrifying than tried and true creates they’ve already fought a million times before. A really good DM who gets into describing the powers and the effects beyond just the numbers can make a relatively easy monster from a numbers perspective, truly scary for PCs.

Dead PCs as undead. It seems so obvious. Great idea. I’m totally going to use that.

I’ve done the mob of minions before, but I haven’t done one with zombies or undead (yet). I think my group would still try to fight their way out. Sometimes they are all about the numbers and as long as they know that they can kill the mob with one hit they’ll just keep on fighting. What I need to do is throw in a couple of non-minions for every 10-15 normal minions. Eventually they non-minions will start to add up.

I’ve been talking a lot about fear, but I think the bonds of trust become just as relevant in this kind of situation. Excellent point.

Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve often used the distinguishing feature to job the players’ memories that this is indeed someone they’ve met before. Using it to remind them that the undead was someone they interacted with as a living NPC or even PC is a great way to build tension.

11 Dan January 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm

I’d have to disagree with this idea. Yes, it would be horrifying and traumatic if you were forced to kill (again) a friend or loved one that had risen from the grave. However, I think that if I were to be confronted with a creature of obviously overwhelming size and power (a gigantic dragon for example), I think I would be more fearful for my own life than if a troop of man-size undead marched into town. The original Dragonlance series really showcased the fear that dragons instilled in people. Moreover, there is a very good reason why the creators of D&D gave dragons the natural ability of “dragonfear” – because the mere presence of these creatures gives lesser beings a reason to pause. Their aura of power is palpable and their physical size makes all but the most couragous adventurer soil themselves and flee.

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