Few iconic horror movie monsters have had the recent cultural ubiquity that zombies have enjoyed.
The recent boom of the zombie’s popularity is due almost entirely to the success of The Walking Dead, but the real roots lie with George A. Romero’s 1968 classic The Night of the Living Dead. I do not think it is exaggerating one bit to say that that movie is the foundation upon which all things zombie have since been built.
But upon what foundation was it built? We may have Romero to thank for the modern zombie, but he was neither the coiner of the term nor the mind behind the concept. For that, we have to look to Haiti and the vodou religion.
Real Life Zombies
Earth Nerd Clave has already written an excellent post on the origin of the zombie and its ties to vodou culture, so I’m going to point you there for the longer (and fascinating!) history lesson.
What is most interesting for our discussion is the zombie’s suggestibility and position of servitude. The following is straight from the Monster Manual (MM):
Sinister necromantic magic infuses the remains of the dead, causing them to rise as zombies that do their creator’s bidding without fear or hesitation…A zombie left without orders simply stands in place and rots unless something comes along that it can kill.pg. 315
We can have some serious fun with this!
Minding Minion, Commandless Cadaver, or Dark Magic Detector?
When your party encounters zombies, they could be one of three things.
- Minding Minion. These zed-words are following orders. What are those orders? Who gave them?
- Commandless Cadaver. Zombies are undead, but sometimes their masters just end up dead-dead. As the MM said: “A zombie left without orders simply stands in place and rots unless unless something comes along that it can kill.” After the party cleans them up, they might discover the body of the former master nearby. What kinds of treasures might he hold? How did he die?
- Dark Magic Detector. Also out of the MM: “Some zombies arise spontaneously when dark magic saturates an area.” Can the PCs plot the appearances of these creepers on a map and discover a pattern or a trail that leads them to a powerful source of dark magic?
D&D Zombie Tactics
Zombies are relentless, and if you’re not playing them so, you’re doing it wrong. The MM goes so far as to get specific when describing some of the ways to play this trait of theirs up:
Zombies take the most direct route to any foe, unable to comprehend obstacles, tactics, or dangerous terrain. A zombie might stumble into a fast-slowing river…step out of an open window…stumble through infernos, into pools of acid, and across fields littered with caltrops without hesitation.pg. 315
They. Don’t. Care.
They always close the gap. They don’t think about Attacks of Opportunity or Flanking (if you play with such a rule). Just move them to the closest opponent by the shortest route every single time. That’s their thing.
When Are Zombies At Their Scariest?
I think zombies are scariest in two specific situations. The first is in large numbers. One or two living dead is no trouble at all. But if they outnumber your party by half or more…you’ve got some serious trouble. Mobs turn this 1/4 CR creature into more than most parties can chew; especially if they trigger Undead Fortitude with any regularity.
The second way zombies are at their scariest is when your party discovers that their encounter with them was orchestrated by whoever exerts control over the zombies. First off, that is no weak magic, so whoever it is is powerful! And secondly, that someone has got it out for the party. Who is it? What’s their beef?
If you want to crank up the fear factor on these guys, describe, describe, describe. Loose flesh, opaque eyes, dangling innards, sinewy exposed muscle…What wounds are visible? Do those wounds tell a tale themselves? Are they eating anything when discovered? What race are they? Are they armed?
Look to pop culture depictions of these things for inspiration. Are they fast zombies like those in 28 Days Later? Increase their move speed from 20ft to 30- or 40ft. Maybe even give them an extra attack like they’re frenzied. Be sure to describe that speed! If done right, it will downright shock your PCs.
Or maybe they’re more like those from Dawn of the Dead and they’re slow shamblers. How can you make them a bit scarier? Give them a disease! 5e is a little light on them, but the internet aboundeth with options. Maybe take away the standard Slam attack and replace it with the Bite from the Strahd Zombies (+3 to hit, reach 5ft, one target, 1d4+1 piercing) and toss in a Constitution Save (DC12) each successful bite to avoid contracting whatever it is you pick.
Keep in mind that these tweaks will increase the CR of the zombies a bit, though.
And have some gosh-darned fun with them too! Zombies, maybe more than any of the other creatures we’ll look at in this series, can lend themselves to some comedy. I particularly love the Loathsome Limbs feature of the Strahd Zombies. I wrote an entire encounter with silly fun around that mechanic here!
D&D Zombie Encounter Ideas
- The zombies swarm one specific member of the party and ignore all others. What does that party member have that the zombies’ master wants, or who might want them dead?
- There are reports of the dead rising from their graves to the north. The earliest reports noted that the undead just stood there until mercifully dispatched, but the most recent ones feature break-ins and robbery. Maybe someone is growing in power and practice…
- A recently-dead knight’s family reports a grave robbery, but it turns out that the knight has been returned to life…and he was buried in his full plate and with his trusty sword!
- The party discovers a Ranger in the woods who keeps a zombie restrained in his woodshed. They were best friends when both were living. He swears he feeds it woodland creatures only.
- A small village in the wilderness is run by a Necromancer who has several zombies on hand as laborers. “They’re harmless,” he says, “and only do as I bid them.” His fellow villagers verify as much. But zombies are faulted for a few murders in a nearby town. Turns out the Necromancer talks in his sleep and has the worst nightmares.
- Wrong place, wrong time! As the party tries to get some rest, the soil around them roils and several zombies rise right from beneath their bedrolls! Roll for initiative!
Other Creepy Creature Features: