Greatest Hits 2013: Zombies: Breathing Life into an Overused Undead

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 31, 2013

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2013. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

This article was the final entry of our A to Z Blogger Challenge in April and it’s the final entry of our 2013 Greatest Hits. Nothing says “The End” like Zombies.

Zombies are still some of the most popular creatures in pop culture and mass media entertainment. The Walking Dead – both the TV show on AMC and the comic book – are still going strong and generating huge dollars. The Zombie obsession phenomenon seems to be as difficult to kill as actual Zombies.

In D&D Zombies are good monsters to throw at unsuspecting PCs regardless of their level. Zombies can be level 1 minions or epic level marauders. The beauty of Zombies is that they’re such a straight forward archetype. The problem is that they get repetitive and boring, hence the purpose of the original article.

Since writing this article I’ve tried to come up with new ways to make Zombies fresh and original and I’ve struggled. There seems to be only so much you can do with them before they stop being Zombies and start being something else. So if you find that you’ve hit that rut in your game my advice is to focus on making them scary. Don’t worry so much about the mechanics; try to make an impression on the players.

In a recent 4e game I used a bunch of Zombie minions. They fell easily enough with a single hit. However, on the Zombie’s next turn a roll of 16-20 on a d20 meant the Zombie got back up. This is a standard 4e mechanic. My tweak was to forego the first roll and have ALL the Zombies get back up the first time. They then rolled the 16-20 to see if they’d get up a second time.

The players, most of whom had faced Zombies before, were not expecting this and it made the encounter a lot scarier. Where they’d originally been content to fight, they were now seriously contemplating if they should run. A simple adjustment made a huge impact on the encounter. So if you want to use Zombies in your game and you feel they’ve become tiresome, try making small adjustments to increase the fear factor.

From April 30, 2013, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Zombies: Breathing Life into an Overused Undead.

zombies-03First it was Vampires. Then it was werewolves. Now the popular media seems obsessed with zombies. Where the Vampires and Werewolves got the Twilight treatment and were essentially emasculated by removing the fear factor, zombies for the most part have stayed true to their traditional monstrous selves that everyone’s come to know and expect.

Zombies are everywhere. AMC’s Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on TV, and the comic that it’s based on is still going strong after 100 issues. It seems that there are more and more zombie novels on the shelves these days than ever before, and there have never been as many big-budget Hollywood movies featuring the undead menace as there are this year.

We’ve practically reached a point where zombies have become a cliché. They’re overused and dare I say it, are starting to bore us. After all, how many different ways can you tell a story that involves a zombie apocalypse? Well, that depends on how imaginative you are. The key to telling an interesting zombie story, or in the case of gamers, running an interesting zombie-themed camping, is to use an angle that we haven’t seen before or at least hasn’t been used to death.

The traditional zombie is a mindless drone. It seeks only to consume human flesh and will stop at nothing to get it. Zombies are mindless, driven only by the instinct to feed. A person bit by a zombie suffers one of two horrific fates. 1) The zombie eats the bite victim, gorging itself until nothing remains and the body is unrecognizable as ever being human. 2) The victim isn’t entirely consumed and after a short incubation period rises as a zombie himself. This is the norm. So if you’re going to run a zombies adventure you should find some way to vary the accepted understanding of zombies.


In order for our bodies to fight off infections and diseases we’re given small doses of the harmful viruses in order to build antibodies. This way if we ever do contract one of the diseases it won’t kill us. Extrapolating from that understanding, what if there was a way to inoculate a character from the zombie plague?

In order to build up an immunity to snake venom you need to extract poison from the snake and subject yourself to small doses. If zombie plague was a diseases transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids whose to say that consuming small amounts of a zombie wouldn’t inoculate you in a similar way.

By taking this one twist on the traditional zombie you could create a whole campaign arc. First the PCs need to discover that there is a way to survive a zombie attack. Perhaps they find a group of lost people in a town overrun by zombies. Wounds on the people indicate that they were all bitten recently, however, none of them turned into zombies. The heroes could learn that in order to survive the people had to consume the flesh of zombies. Something in that act made them resistance to turning.

The idea of consuming the flesh of another sentient being will likely be repugnant which should create some interesting role-playing, especially if any of the PCs are divine character (I’ve got to think that this would be considered a sin by their faith). The heroes then have to decide how to test their theory. Obviously the immunization doesn’t require one to eat a whole body so testing is needed.

If this were my campaign I’d hide the cure in some corner of the creature’s body, some place other than the brain – perhaps an internal organ like the pancreas. A zombie that’s seen battle or hardship may have suffered damage to its pancreas or even had it destroyed all together. It’s still a dangerous animated zombie, but it won’t have the organ needed to create the resistance. Now the PCs have to find recently transformed zombies with specific organs intact.

Remember that this inoculation won’t stop a zombie from tearing you limb from limb, but if the physical assault doesn’t kill you, you won’t turn into an undead, or at least there’s a much smaller likelihood.

Body and Soul

In some zombie books I’ve read the corpse of the recently departed is usurped by a host soul. This evil entity takes over the remains and transforms it into an undead creature. The body may look like your friend or loved one, but they’re essence is gone. Any glimmer of intelligence that you may think this undead has is not that of the person you remember.

Now assume that the departed soul is not gone forever. What if the souls traded places? When the body was killed the soul was vulnerable for a switch. The person didn’t die, they were merely the unwitting victim of a soul swap. Somewhere their soul is trapped while this interloper uses their body to infect more people and allow more of the evil creatures to gain bodies.

Once PCs learn that this is what’s happening they should be easily convinced to go on a quest to save the trapped souls. Of course, the zombies don’t want to give up their new found bodies so they’ll take steps to stop anyone, especially the PCs, from freeing the trapped souls.

What happens when a soul is released is entirely up to the DM. Does the original soul return to their body or do they go wherever their faith dictates (heaven most likely). If they do return to their body, does it heal from the wounds it suffered while the new host put it through the ringer? If freed souls are returned to their bodies, what happens if they find themselves surrounded by other zombies when they wake up?

There’s a lot of room for the DM to develop this kind of story. It’s also a good way to revive a fallen PC if there’s no other way to justify the return of someone who dies at the hands of a zombie.

There and Back Again

Our story begins as most zombie tales do, a person is transformed into a zombie. Then, through some miracle he’s cured of this affliction and goes from being undead back to a living person (possibly using the suggested method described above). Now let’s assume that he still retains the memories of his actions, every horrific and despicable thing he ever did while he was a zombie – the killing, the eating of flesh, everything. How does this person handle it? How do others treat him?

Normal society is likely to shun and persecute anyone returned to life and likely will want them to pay a price for the actions they took while a zombie. Now you have two kinds of people in your campaign, the once-born and the twice-born. Depending on just how many people are returned to normal this could create serious problems in your campaign world. If the hatred is strong enough it could lead to the establishment of twice-born communities or even full countries.

Remember that all people in this scenario are 100% alive and living, but half have returned from ravenous zombie state. They’re not monsters now but they were and they know it. Can those who are twice-born keep their transformation secret or are their visible tell-tale signs? Maybe their eyes are a strange colour or they bear certain marks.

Although this kind of set up could lead to plenty of combat, especially by the zealots on both sides, this kind of campaign is directed more towards really serious role-players. Some PCs may even want to incorporate it into their own background for a new character.

Additional Resources

As we stated from the outset, there are a lot of zombie books, movies, comics, TV shows, video games and even RPGs out there from which you can draw inspiration if you’re going to run a zombie game. With so many stories out there it will be difficult to come up with something to keep the players interested and excited for more than a one shot adventure. Use the three examples we’ve provided and see if these twists on the familiar get your group interested.

For additional resources we recommend that you check out some of the other articles we’ve written on zombies and undead.

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