5 Ways to Make Mindless Undead More Interesting

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 23, 2012

A lot of DMs have a love/hate relationship with undead; I know I do. Whenever I need a monster to round out an encounter I know that some kind of undead will always fill the gap. With so many different kinds of undead to choose from they can easily become the go-to monsters. However, as the party gets tougher I find that I’m less likely to use undead staples like skeletons and zombies. Sure I can adjust their scores to make them level-appropriate for tougher parties but these undead are really one-trick ponies. By the time the party reaches upper heroic tier they know the trick and they’re no longer impressed.

This is why I try to limit how often I use undead creatures in my campaign. Some of the most common undead, at least the ones you’re most likely to encounter in great numbers (skeletons and zombies) tend to be mindless. They rely on their overwhelming numbers rather than any advanced tactics. After all, how can a creature with no brain, or a rotten decaying brain, think at all? This lack of reason makes them boring and predictable.

But undead have their place in D&D and we shouldn’t just cast any of them aside, regardless of the PCs’ level. So in order to make mindless undead more interesting I’ve come up with 5 tips that the players won’t see coming and the PCs will never forget.

1) Hive mind

The party moves quietly through the cemetery, careful to avoid the shambling zombies. Suddenly, without warning every zombie stops, turns, and looks at the PCs. As one, the zombies start converging on the party.

Low-level undead aren’t usually very bright. They can be tricked or even avoided all together with some careful planning. But what if some greater intelligence was able to control the minds of an undead army with a mere thought? Imagine a powerful Necromancer or an intelligent undead like a Vampire or Lich that could control masses of undead fodder like puppets. Suddenly the encounter the PCs sought to avoid is unavoidable. The field of mere minions is now something truly deadly because they are acting as one huge consciousness. Assuming the PCs realize this terrible fact, they can fight every single undead surrounding them or try to find the man behind the curtain, so to speak. Worse still, if the PCs fail to find the source of the hive mind there is a good likelihood that they will have to face more armies of undead acting under the command of an intelligent opponent.

2) Bloodhounds

Aided by magic, the heroes move undetected across the field. The zombies can’t see or hear them thanks to the Wizards spells of warding. However, as the party stops to figure out which direction to head next the undead turn and head directly towards the Druid. It’s almost as if they can sense her presence behind the obscuring magical veil.

Most undead will attack the living for no other reason than they are alive, but what if the undead had the ability to detect something more than just sounds and smells? What if some undead could actually detect something that would let them accurately find potential victims? This could be an innate sense for magic, sniffing out arcane energies and being able to zero in on it. Or maybe their negative energies clash so strongly with divine energies that they can find those who wield divine power? These undead, for whatever reason, act as bloodhounds. They have a way to find very specific prey and attack it. This has the potential to be very powerful and very dangerous. PCs that tangle with bloodhound undead should realize that fleeing might be a good short-term solution but eventually the bloodhounds will find what they seek, be it in the PCs or some other victim. Curious PCs will likely want to investigate why some undead have this seeker ability which can lead to more encounter with all sorts of undead.

3) Just following orders

In order for the heroes to escape the guards, they have to pass through the catacombs beneath the old church. The alcoves are filled with the skeletal remains. The Cleric and Paladin both whisper a prayer to their respective gods before passing through. However, when the Fighter advances without uttering a prayer the skeletons rise and attack him.

Just because some undead are mindless doesn’t mean that they can’t be taught or forced to follow very basic instructions. It’s a given that if a PC comes into an areas where undead are roaming the walking dead will attack them. But what if the monsters are capable of more than that? What if the undead are imparted with some very specific instructions? Perhaps they are told not to attack anyone who bears a certain insignia? Or maybe they are told to attack and kill all males who pass, but not to harm females? Giving mindless undead some clear and fairly basic instruction that will modify their behaviour will cause PCs to second guess these monsters. A zombie that doesn’t attack anyone wearing a red cloak is an oddity. This unpredictable behaviour makes the creature a lot more dangerous and will spice up any encounter.

4) Intelligent item, dumb undead

The deep catacombs become extremely narrow. As the party turns the corner they face a group of skeletons. Fortunately the heroes only have to fight two skeletons at a time because of the close quarters. The skeletons put up more fight than expected, slashing the party with flaming swords. When the first two skeletons finally fall the next two grab the magical weapons and continue fighting the party.

Similar to the hive mind, you can keep mindless undead mindless and just introduce a higher intelligent to guide them. By equipping lesser undead with powerful items you immediately make them stronger opponents. Add some intelligence to the items and you’ve really got something diabolical. This is not something many PCs would think of so it’s not something they would necessarily think to combat. As those undead in possession of the intelligent items fall the item calls for a new master. New mindless fodder retrieves the item and is suddenly buffed up. Eventually the party will catch on and realize that by denying the undead access to the items they will be easier to defeat. Until then have fun with this one.

5) Possession

Thinking that they’ve defeated all undead in the immediate area the PCs take a quick breather. However, one of the nearby corpses arises and attacks. He puts up a good fight but eventually drops. A few seconds later another corpse animates. “Why don’t they all attack us at once?”

Fighting a few monsters at a time isn’t usually that bad, but what if a new opponent stood up and replaced his fallen comrade every time you defeated a monster? An intelligent spirit that can inhabit and control the body of physically powerful undead is a dangerous opponent. This is a tricky one to adjudicate mechanically. The DM needs to determine the spirit’s limitations before throwing it at an unsuspecting party.

Do attacks against the host body have any impact on the spirit? Can PCs choose to attack one or the other if they are aware of a second entity? Perhaps the spirit is only affected by blast and burst, or by radiant attacks? When the spirit moves from one host to the next are there any signs of the shift? Is the spirit invisible or just hard to see? How often can the spirit jump from body to body? Does the spirit need to rest (even for just a round or two) before he can take control of a new host?

Mechanics aside this is another way for PCs to sorely misjudge the danger of an encounter. One spirit can be an annoying foe but what if there were five or six spirits and plenty of bodies nearby to inhabit? Not only does the spirit gain physical toughness from a zombie body but assuming the spirit is intelligent it can employ unexpected tactics and possibly even communicate with the party. Imagine a zombie that talked to you while it was trying to infect you? Creepy.

These are but a few ways to take otherwise mindless undead, usually reserved for lower level encounters, more interesting and exciting. The players won’t know what’s going on which will add an element of danger to an otherwise straight-forward encounter.

How have you used mindless undead in intelligent ways? Have you ever tried any of the methods I’ve described above in your games? How did they go over?

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1 Svafa October 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Two ideas I had while reading your post:
1. Reading the Hive Mind idea, my first thought was “what if their intelligence increased proportionally to their numbers?” That is, one Hive Zombie is your pretty brainless typical bumbling monster, but six can form a basic strategy and a horde can think in complex tactics and plan actions in the long term.

2. On Bloodhounds, my first thought, as is likely typical, was more literal: undead drawn to blood. So they might not notice uninjured PCs that are warded or hiding, but as soon as blood is drawn they come running. It also gives the PCs some interesting potential in out-smarting the undead.

Finally, I also thought of an undead encounter I ran with our group last year. They faced off against an undead necromancer, only to have his wraith arise when he was slain. Essentially, it was a two-phase mini-boss, but I don’t see any reason it couldn’t be extended to some enchanted/enhanced skeletons or similar, giving the players a surprise when they estimated five enemies only to realize they’ll have to kill each one twice. And now I realize that’s pretty similar to the Possession section. >.>

2 Philo Pharynx October 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I’ve pulled the “send forces on a suicide mission and have them rise again as undead” encounter before. Very nasty.

Truly evil GM’s will not just have a high ego weapon for #4. It will also be cursed or unholy. Any player who picks it up is in for a world of hurt.

I also think that disguising #5 as #4 could be nasty. There’s a spirit there and the spirit feels possessive about the weapon it had in life. It will try to use that weapon if possible. They’ll just notice that the skeleton with the sword is more powerful and smarter.

3 Tom Coenen October 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm

@Philo, if I use #4, I will make the item cursed or unholy. This makes me a bit evil :-).
Otherwise the PCs, especially the greedy ones, will takes the item quickly.

#3 allows for role playing and a way for PCs to bypass a fight.

4 Chaosmancer October 24, 2012 at 11:44 am

One thing I tried, with limited success due to inexperience, was to draw inspiration from the Baldur’s Gate video game and have an item which resurrected a number of undead every turn. Similar to your Possession idea, but on a larger scale. The fight doesn’t end until you destroy or neutralize the item. Make it an item the PC’s have to retrieve “undamaged” and it can make things even messier.

5 Philo Pharynx October 24, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I’ve done this before, but my inspiration was the arcade video game Gauntlet.

6 Arithravel October 27, 2012 at 12:35 am

I really found this article helpful. I was reluctant to use undead at all in my universe simply because they end up as run of the mill enemies. This was really interesting . It gave me the idea, since Halloween is approaching, that you could have one variably difficult undead, based off of Frankenstein’s monster, a boss or a plot rail. A wizard, or druid could assemble a body made up of various sources (feel free to make it any sort of undead: dragon to human) and use magical energy to give it life. The being could achieve sentience by various means and I would leave that up to the DM.

7 Chris October 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Hi, your article is great. I was thinking about your #1 and it sounds like real life with real people being herded like zombies towards some ambitious politician’s goal! eeeuuu

8 Mordacious December 6, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Thanks for this article. I was searching for this exact thing because I’ve got an undead themed campaign and I’m afraid it’s getting a bit boring. One thing I’ve used is spawning. Send a really interesting NPC with them on an adventure, and then in the next adventure, get the NPC killed by a Wight, Mohrg, or something else with the create spawn ability. In 1d4 rounds, the party now has to kill the PC you sent with them as well as the original monster. Bonus points if you get the players to like the PC. Even more bonus points if one of them cultivates a romantic relationship with the NPC.

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