7 Tips For Running an All-Zombie Campaign

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 17, 2011

With the season two premier of AMC’s Walking Dead airing yesterday, zombies are again the flavour of the month, especially with fantasy gamers. If you’re like me then every time you watch Walking Dead, or any other zombie move, you start thinking about running a zombie apocalypse campaign in D&D.

I’ve given considerable thought over the years on the best way to run a game where all the monsters were zombies. It’s tough if you’re as deeply engrained in D&D as I am. After all, one of the great things about D&D is that there are a wide variety of monsters. One week you might fight trolls, the next week a beholder, and the week after that zombies and the next week a dragon. Between the wide variety of creatures available in the Monster Manuals and the relative easy of creating your own creatures with Monster Builder, it seems kind of ridiculous to even want to create a camping where you battle the same creatures again and again.

But if there’s one thing the zombie genre has taught me it’s that a campaign with only one monster type can be very exciting if you play your cards right. Today I’m going to share 7 tips for how to pull off a successful zombie campaign in the world of 4e D&D.

1. Character Specialization

If the players know beforehand that they’ll be fighting lots and lots of zombies then they can make very specialized characters. Obviously divine characters will be very popular choices because of their special powers vs. undead and ability to deal radiant damage, but there are other excellent choices as well. A controller is a good choice because they can target multiple creatures with each attack. Any monsters not destroyed can usually be pushed, immobilized, slowed or dazed as a secondary effect. Another good addition to any party facing off against zombies is a strikers capable of sharp-shooting, be it a Rogue, Ranger or even a Sorcerer.

In many campaigns building a specialized PC can be problematic, especially if only one PC chooses that specialization. But in an all zombie campaign everyone shares the same specialized slant. Everyone tries to find the perfect build without making exact duplicates of each other’s characters. A specialized character is considerably better at facing whatever creature they’ve chosen to battle which makes every player feel like they’ve got a truly awesome PC.

2. Tactics Become Critical

Normally in D&D if you take a few hits during a fight it’s no big deal. You expend a healing surge and you’re good to go. But what if the mechanics were tweaked and any damage inflicted by a zombie resulted in Zombie Plague. Any creature who contracts Zombie Plague needs to save against the effect at the end of combat the same way they would save against Filth Fever or Lycanthrope. If they succeed then the zombie’s attack didn’t break the skin and they’re fine. If they fail then they’ve become infected and it’s only a matter of time before they become zombies. There is no cure for the Zombie Plague. It doesn’t matter how many hit points the PCs has left, if they get bitten by a zombie it’s game over. Suddenly combat takes on a whole new dynamic. It isn’t just about defeating the monsters; it’s about not getting hit in the process.

3. The Thrill of the Kill

I’m a big believer that all zombies should be minions. A single hit should be enough to drop a zombie in its tracks. I’m also a big believer that zombies should appear in huge mobs. So if you’re already playing that any hit can lead to Zombie Plague then 40 zombies shuffling toward the party, even knowing that they’re minions, becomes a really scary proposition. A really cruel DM can really scare the players by give some of the zombies a Rise Again power. When a zombie is killed roll a d20. On a roll of 16-20 it will stand up again on its next turn and continue attacking, unless it was killed with a crit. This basically turns them into two-hit minions. Facing 40 minions who all have the potential to Rise Again can be a very deadly battle regardless of the PCs’ level.

4. Role-Play Fear

If the adventure takes place in an urban setting there’s bound to be a lot of really scared NPCs. This can make for some really excellent role-playing opportunities. Skills like Intimidate that aren’t often used during social encounter become a lot more effective than sweet-talking Diplomacy. NPCs are likely to make a lot of irrational and stupid decisions which can make the PCs’ job of staying alive a lot harder. The anticipation of an attack and how NPCs deal with that fear can often be more tense than the actual attack.

5. Encourage and Reward Playing Smart

The more the PCs know about their enemy, the better they can plan. Zombies are mindless. They are driven by an instinctual desire to feed. They’re attracted to sounds, smells and signs of movement. If the PCs can hide and remain undetected then they have a better chance of survival. PCs trained in Stealth, Perception, Streetwise, Athletics and Acrobatics have a chance to put those skills to great use with regularity. By playing smart, the PCs can use their skills and try to get close enough to the zombies to observe them. Knowing where to find the zombies and how many there are can provide a huge edge in avoiding or fighting them.

6. Changing Settings

Depending on how wide-spread the zombie outbreak is for your adventure, the PCs will have to decide if they’re better off staying in a defensible area or fleeing to an area that remains uninfected. It’s likely that the campaign will even begin with one and turn into the other. Regardless of which scenario plays out, there will be plenty of adventure.

In order to defend a stronghold the PCs must begin by ensuring that the place is safe and secure. Every possible hiding place needs to be checked for any zombies already inside. All possible ways in and out must be located and secured. Once the stronghold is secured supplies will be limited. Running out of food may force the PCs to flee in order to avoid starvation.

In the alternative scenario, the PCs may discover the zombie outbreak while in the wild. The campaign may begin with a series of encounters where the PCs have to out run waves of pursuing zombies or hide from them while trying to figure out their next move. Do they keep moving of find a defensible place to hole up? Do they actively see other survivors or do they feel that a small group has a better chance of survival?

7. The Familiar Becomes Scary

A good zombie game will always have way more zombies than heroes. The number of zombies will continue to be replenished as the living become infected or killed by zombies. Every time one of the heroes falls the enemy’s numbers are strengthened. The PCs will interact with NPC survivors and hopefully start to know them. When some of the NPCs are killed by zombies (because that’s eventually going to happen) they will become the enemy. How will the PCs and other NPCs react when the new wave of zombies includes the hot barmaid that the PCs were flirting with only a few days earlier or the teenage boys who were capable scouts that admired and looked up to the PCs?

These are just a few tips to help you get started if you want to run an all-zombie game. This is a very high level overview, tips to get you thinking in the right direction. The details will change based on your specific choices but these tips should be a good framework to get you started.

Have you ever played in an all-zombie game using D&D rules? How did it work? Did the PCs survive? Do you think that using all minions would work for a long-term campaign? What about the proposal to create a Zombie Plague that can infect and kill anyone bitten during combat? Share your tips for making a great all-zombie D&D adventure.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Quirky DM October 17, 2011 at 10:32 am

Great article. Those are all excellent points. #3 is good especially as you want zombies to fall down easily, but still want a way to make them shrug off any non-lethal hits. I like it.

Zombie Plague as a disease is the right one. I would make it so you can never actually improve your condition on the chart and each rest you take, you take a cumulative -1 on your checks. The rumor that a powerful magic has been discovered that can cure the disease is a powerful motivator- especially once your characters start getting infected.
Quirky DM´s last blog post ..Re: The One Real Problem with Magic Items

2 Darth_Bingo October 17, 2011 at 11:02 am

Another point to add a mechanic to the fear RP element – you may consider adding the despair deck from the Shadowfell set by WOTC. While the campaign might not directly entail the Shadowfell, despair is a common element to many zombie apocalypse movies and literature. This deck is a fun means to replicate despair via game mechanic. Be sure to award the players with the Boons if they make their saves, though, just to be fair.

3 Zevix October 17, 2011 at 12:05 pm

I really like what you’ve got here in terms of things to increase the tension of a zombie themed game, but unfortunately, I just don’t think that 4th Edition is the right place for it. While it is a remarkable system in many respects, making the players seem small and helpless is not an area in which it shines, and a large part of the horror inherent to a Zombie Apocalypse game relies on such a sense of helplessness. While your ideas are great ones (and even better, mostly ideas that I had never heard before), I feel that they would only allow you to make a passable D&D campaign, while these same ideas would make a game using a system like All Flesh Must Be Eaten or GURPS into something truly incredible and chilling.

After all, zombies lose much of their impact when the players can vaporize them with a Turn Undead, or throw fireballs around with reckless abandon. 4th Edition exists primarily to make the players feel heroic, while the protagonists of a zombie survival game should be anything but.

4 Thorynn October 17, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Great post! The “rise again” feature is awesome. Might be fun for non-zombie minions, just to give them a little more staying power.

5 Carda October 17, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I agree with Zevix that vanilla 4e might not be the best setting for an all-minion-zombie setup, but utilizing third party material like Amethyst’s modern-style gun-using classes might make for an effective compromise. Not only can you avoid the Magic Missile problem, but you can also make ammunition a scarce resource, so that the party does their best to avoid wasting shots that might miss due to cover.

6 Chlar'r October 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I dunno. In my experience, there is mostly dread rather than fear when fighting any undead higher than skeletons. They typically come with affects that kill, rot and de-level a character in some unavoidable manner and the PCs are literally unequipped to cope.
Sure, if you’re playing with some side characters that you don’t mind tossing away, I suppose it could be fun for the PCs, but, if you’re playing with main characters that you’re hoping to develop to paragon and above, it’s mostly just fun for the DM.

7 GBMcus October 17, 2011 at 6:31 pm

I think an important staple of the zombie game/movie these days is the boss zombie, your gigantic tentacle worm, brutes and such. So if your players were blowing off the minions, than you could crescendo your encounters to one of the monsters.

Also i would be tempted to raise the ac of my zombies as well to reflect the fact that zombies can take a lot of punishment.

8 Sunyaku October 17, 2011 at 7:15 pm

In a campaign like this, I think I would increase the frequency of encounters that players are not meant to “beat”. A zombie game should be a world of survival, and if you can strategically take out a few zombies and evade the rest, that’s probably the best option (especially considering point #2 on your list).

This would certainly be a break from the typical, “every creature I see must die” mentality of 4e.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Surprising Surprise Rounds

9 Chlar'r October 17, 2011 at 7:17 pm

If it’s an all-zombie adventure in the sense that, like in a horror movie, the heroes are striving to save a specific town, having a ton of zombies around and trying to move frpm one safe haven to another could be great. If it’s a main character rather than a throw away, I’d want to know that there will be some reasonable possibility of curing the PCs from zombie plague.
What turns this into fun, IMO, is the inclusion of the Despair Deck once players become bloodied and RPing out those results. Where it takes several days to become a zombie and the PCs can choose at some point to run back to the city for a cure.

In horror films, a key aspect that causes fear is that individual zombies keep coming back for more even though they should be incapacitated – eviserated with a shotgun blast or delimbed or even decapitated, they might still come after you. So, single hits should not drop a zombie.
In fact, the scare tactic is that even that hit with Blade Vault doesn’t stop the zombie from shuffling towards you.

I think it’s less about changing the setting and more about changing the types of zombies. Heroes of Neverwinter did a great job with their 5th level boss fight where the zombies are resistant to most spells – especially elemental spells.
That’s what needs to be added to provide fear.
“Um, why is your Turn Dead not affecting those guys? What kind of zombies are those? And how do we take them down if Turn Dead and fire won’t work?”
Where can the heroes find those answers? What skills can they use to learn those details?

(Seems to me if the zombies are around long enough for the heroes to worry about starvation, something’s wrong. Typically zombies are a night time occurance and the heroes are only worried about securing a safe haven each night. A surprise of a couple day time zombies would likely add to the fear.)

I’d be interested to see how the Dispair Deck affected NPC interaction.
As well as the time of day someone transitions to zombie.
Could an NPC mask the mental and physical effects right up until sunset?
What methods do the PCs use to detect whose been infected and how far gone they are? Could a half-orc or dragonborn player smell the infection?

10 Dan October 17, 2011 at 7:46 pm

I had a similar idea while running my friends through a Gamma World game. I created a city where a nuke went off and radiated the population, animating the dead into zombies in the process. It was one of the best encounters I had created in a while – full of building tension and player trepidation. Initially, the players tried to use stealth to make it through the city, but they were finally forced into a fight when they reached a four-way street intersection. I decided to make all the zombies minions, each round I rolled a random direction (1d4) for the zombies to come from, and a random number of zombies for each “wave”. After 10 rounds of combat, the zombies packs were beginning to overrun the characters’ defensive position and the players were looking for an opportunity to escape with their lives… good times :)

11 Rhugar October 18, 2011 at 3:05 pm

OK, just a couple of things I’d like to add: 1) All zombies from Monster Vault already have an ability called Deathless Hunger, which works a bit like your proposed Rise Again ability. I actually prefer Deathless Hunger because it doesn’t require you to keep track of where each zombie fell so you can know where to place it when it Rises Again. 2) I agree with Chlar’r in that I don’t think all zombies should be minions; mainly because virtually all 4E zombies have Zombie Weakness, which causes them to always drop to 0 hp on a crit, and so zombies already go down a little more quickly than other monsters.

12 Andrew October 18, 2011 at 8:41 pm

I might even throw in a simple “headshot” rule. If you make an attack roll with a -10 penalty and you still hit, it counts as a crit and drops the zombie.

13 Ameron (Derek Myers) October 19, 2011 at 11:40 am

@Quirky DM
I know that it’s going to be challenging to run an all-zombie campaign in D&D but I think the Zombie Plague (which I agree can never be cured without powerful magic beyond a normal PC’s ability) is a good way to instill the dread this kind of game needs.

@Darth_Bingo
Using the Despair Deck is an excellent idea. Although I’ve never used the deck myself it would add the fear elements necessary to make this work. Great suggestion.

@Zevix
I’ve been trying to figure out a way to use 4e mechanics to make this kind of campaign work for a while now and I agree that other game systems are probably more suitable. However, my group is hard-core D&D so I’m trying to figure out what needs to happen to make this workable within the 4e mechanics. You’re right about Turn Undead abilities. I’d have to tweak them or eliminate them all together. Perhaps the zombies are not “undead” but rather just infected people. No radiant vulnerability or undead subtype eliminates divine min/maxing (and angers the players in the process).

@Thorynn
A few existing monsters in the MM already have a Rise Again or similar ability. I just wanted to emphasize the value of giving it to some (or all) zombies. Nothing freaks out overconfident players like a dead monster getting up again.

@Carda
I hadn’t considered the possibility of a magic missile problem… I think overwhelming numbers would encourage the Wizard to use something that targets greater numbers. Knowing he’s got magic missile in his back pocket is a good fall back when the numbers start to thin. After all he can still only fire one per round.

@Chlar’r
Adding a Zombie Plague that is basically save or die should instill some fear that many players miss from previous editions. I agree that after a while it will become boring so that’s why I suggest changing the location at some point to kept things fresh.

@GBMcus
I agree that after a while there should be some tougher foes. A few boss zombies or even just a new type that’s not a normal minion would force players to change the tactics they were using when everything was a minion. It also brings the zombie weakness of an instant kill on a crit back into play.

@Sunyaku
I absolutely agree. When the PCs see 100+ zombies approaching them they have to realize that even though they’re likely minions, running is their best options. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t stay and fight a few to thin out the numbers while other NPCs get a head start, but in the end they have to get into the frame of mind that not ever battle is winnable in the traditional D&D sense of things.

@Chlar’r
Seems like I was the only one to not think of using the Despair Deck. Good call. I like the suggestion to make the zombies a night-only threat. Use the day to prepare for the attack you know will come at nightfall. In this kind of scenario I think you could use my idea of waves of minions or your idea of a smaller attack from much more powerful zombies. I agree that some of the zombies, especially any big boss zombies, should have some resistances to keep things interesting and catch the players off guard.

@Dan
Although I’ve been calling it an all-zombie campaign, zombie really could be a metaphor for any kind of monster you see as suitable. Abominations from a nuclear blast or exposure to Spellplague, demons accidentally trapped on our world or good old fashioned undead, use the monster type that makes sense for your campaign.

@Rhugar
As mentioned in my comments above, many existing monsters have an ability that brings them back to life whether it’s called Rise Again or Deathless Hunger. I just wanted to highlight it for DMs who may not know it’s out there. Good point on the zombie weakness. After reading the comments I have to agree that there should be some tougher, non-minions for exactly this reason. Nothing makes you feel awesome like taking out a 100+ hit point monster when your level 1 PC rolls a 20 and drops him.

@Andrew
I like this idea for killing non-minion zombies faster. A little play testing might be in order to find the right balance, but the idea is great.

14 Dave October 20, 2011 at 10:42 am

Okay Derek, you’ve got my interest piqued. We totally have to try this one Sunday night. I love me some zombie action.

15 Meh December 4, 2012 at 2:39 pm

How about:
zombies cant take attacks of opportunity. Makes some tactics more viable.

16 Ron February 21, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Your tips sound very helpful, especially the zombie plague idea. Never thought of that (and yes I am running a “Walking Dead” type campaign with my siblings. (One of them being an android. Can’t get infected but he’ll have to make up for the losses of his allies.)

(The campaign I am running is a d20 Modern though)

17 NamelessGrok February 24, 2013 at 6:04 am

I’m also planning a d20 modern Walking Dead- esque campaign. The PCs are creating and playing as themselves in our home town. Starting in their own homes. I’m blending Pathfinder and d20 modern together for this. Give them as much customization as possible (outside of Gurps) to create themselves.

I’m going to start it off exactly like Walking Dead, the PCs are basic humans in the real world. Fighting to survive. Then as it progresses have aspects of a fantasy world start bleeding over into the real one. Magic, other monsters, player ability to take typical fantasy classes, enchanted items, just bleed it over steadily until the big bad is revealed trying to merge its world with another so it can take over both. Landscape gets altered as the two worlds get closer together. Keep things fresh.

Theoretically, the players will be invested in the characters as the characters are themselves and theoretically it will keep the whole thing from getting stale. As options in the ol’ hometown start to get ridiculously boring…oh look, the hospital has changed, now it’s a swamp and zombified beasties from another world are shambling and shuffling their way out of it.

18 DM Dux February 3, 2014 at 5:21 pm

I am actually planning on a Zombie Apocalypse pathfinder game. The characters have just reached level 2 and the only mention of undead or zombies came up in the lore of The University of Gygax where necromancy is accepted but not trusted. My zombies are a “necromancy dark darker and more foul than a reanimated corpse who spread their curse like a plague.”
For special rules I made them highly resilient and made the plague far easier to catch (and some zombie types can spread easier than others). But crits kill instantly and piercing weapons deal additional damage. If the prain lives, the zombie can get back up.
The party is a group of young adults who just reached adult hood and are going on a coming-of-age adventure called “The Delve.” When they return to their village triumphant they will find the village is a state of chaos as town guard try to fight back the zombies. They will find (randomly chosen) NPCs dead or turned (and 3 out of 5 players have a romantic interest). I will have a Undead Cult to add to the variety of creatures but I will be treating zombies as not only things to fight, but mostly traps and hazards.
Once the village has returned to some state of repair and the elders can make plans to defend the town they will send the party (a group that has proven to have the skills and the talent and the promise to complete the task) to a near by town to find a wizard who has specialized in this plague. When they arrive they will find the city worse off than their village. From there I plan to use the zombies as an on going threat but to weave in other common D&D adventures and creatures. An orc tribe play as minions to the death cultist who themselves minions of a group of evil outsiders. At no point will zombies not be a presence but I think sticking to just zombies can be a pitfall. I also plan on having “good guy” survivors acting in desperation and attacking the party, stuff along those lines. Friends become enemies, enemies become friend, etc.

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