Making Undead Scarier
Part 2: Mindless undead:
Zombies, Skeletons, & more
By: Jesse C Cohoon
Part One of this series appears on http://stuffershack.com/
Mindless undead such as zombies and skeletons are common threats found in many types of RPG games. Unfortunately, it’s far too easy for the GM to roleplay them in a simplistic manner, as simple monsters to vanquish, giving them no backstory or interest, and an opportunity for world building is lost. But by increasing their power, intelligence, and giving them smart allies, they can truly become the threats they should be.
In real life, human zombies are corpses said to be revived by witchcraft, especially in certain African and Caribbean religions. There’s also the theory that zombie-ism is caused by the administration of a combination of drugs that allow a living person to be controlled. Others theories contribute it to being the victim's own belief system, possibly leading to the victim complying with voodoo priest’s will, causing psychogenic ("quasi-hysterical") amnesia, catatonia, and other psychological symptoms which are later misinterpreted as a return from the dead.
In the natural world there are many more examples of zombies, and with some adaptation could be used for your campaign:
In RPGs, pop culture, they are dead creatures who are able to move because of oftentimes evil magic, such as a curse or spells. Many of these creatures eat human flesh. In some video games zombies are caused by viruses, as in the Resident Evil series, or fungi, as in The Last of Us game.
Skeletons, on the other hand, are just the internal animated structure of the creature, without the flesh. Most of the time skeletons are immune or take partial damage from piercing weapons due to there’s no flesh for such weapons to sink into. Humanoid skeletons will often wield a sword and shield.
A deadlier version of skeletal remains are a cloud of bones which looks like bone fragments and rise up and cyclonically attack its enemies. Such an undead can only be destroyed by area of effect magic, magic “burst” weapons, holy water, or turning. If the GM wants to mix things up the cloud of bones could be something that’s not undead, but the result of errant magical energies.
The Flayed are the opposite. They are the remnants of a person who was flayed alive and now mindlessly seek to deprive others of their skin. The way PCs will know they’re around is that they’ll feel something wet drop on them – and that fluid will turn out to be blood.
D20 Ways of Increasing Mindless Undead’s Power & Intelligence
1. Increase their hit dice. By simply being harder to kill, they become more powerful.
2. Have them attack when the PCs are at their most vulnerable. Even low-level threats suddenly become a serious problem when PC’s resources are stretched to their limits.
3. Have them disease carriers: even if the PCs don’t die immediately from their attack(s), them becoming a carrier of some sort of disease can become problematic over time, if it’s not easily treated or cured. The disease doesn’t necessarily mean the PCs death to become a similar type of undead. It could be something that attacks their health over time, making them more susceptible to other threats down the line.
4. Give them abilities they would not normally have by piecing them together something like Frankenstein’s monster. A similar idea is to allow them to combine into bigger creatures. An entire graveyard of skeletal bones might come up with some interesting (and deadly) combinations.
5. Make them completely immune to normal weapons. Mindless undead that can only be harmed by magical weapons or those of a unique material such as jade or crystal suddenly become a threat when you don’t have any that can harm them on hand. A similar idea is to let their destruction be only by special means. For instance “destruction” on the Turn Undead table (in games that have such things). In video games zombies are often only shown to be destroyed by a direct headshot.
6. Let them create others of their kind. A classic horror movie and TV show trope is being bitten by a zombie will eventually create another zombie. But things don’t have to be quite that cut and dry. Maybe there’s a cure, but it has to be administered within a certain time frame. This echoes back to the Resident Evil series which the health item appears to be a plant of some sort.
7. Let them regenerate their health by doing damage as in a zombie eating the flesh of a fallen victim or over time by draining their enemy’s health. Likewise, the attack of The Flayed strips off skin off of its opponents, thus replenishing its health
8. Let their mere presence be corrupting. Maybe even living things start to take on the characteristics of undead in a world filled with them, and the line between alive and dead / undead is blurred, and the PCs have to be careful not to be around them too much or become the very thing they’re fighting.
9. Let them reappear after their apparent destruction. In many platforming and/ or video game RPGs, if you leave a screen and return, the enemies that you vanquished are back.
10. Let them appear from nowhere. For instance, you might have a field of bones and as the PCs approach, they suddenly clatter together and come alive. Or if you’re crossing a field at night the ground could heave up under them as the zombies force their way to the surface. In either case the PCs lose a turn because they’re unprepared for the threat.
11. Give them an unsettling or horrific appearance, which may have the PCs unable to act until the shock wears off. The unsettling nature could include the fact that the undead they’re facing are actually former friends and loved ones that they have to put down.
12. Allow them to retain at least some of their abilities as if they were alive.
a. Allow them to retain many of the features as if they were alive. For instance a zombified dragon might be able to use its breath weapon and fly. An elfin skeleton might be able to detect secret doors.
b. Muscle memory is a powerful thing. But so the PCs think that this is a standard mindless undead, their movements don’t belie that fact. Maybe it can even sneak about as if it were a rogue, or have the multiple attacks of a monk.
13. Increase their options:
a. Give them enough smarts to flank enemies or fight in formation; furthermore, them different weapons, particularly reach weapons or ranged ones.
b. Allow them to grapple and trip their opponents
c. Let them able to be given magic items and different equipment – as well as the ability to use said equipment. Maybe they can be loaded onto a trebuchet and launched at the PCs, and if it survives the force of impact, it gets up and starts fighting them.
14. Allow them to be given complex instructions for dealing with different types of enemies.
15. Have them show up in unexpected locations. Because undead don’t need to breathe, they can fight underwater without that worry. An entire wall could be made of zombified or skeletal flesh, and the more creatures that die by it would increase the number (and damage) of the attacks it has.
16. Make them able to go into “overdrive,” doing more damage, increasing speed, gaining new abilities once their HP get below a certain point.
17. Don’t limit them to humanoid creatures. Even common animals should be subjected to being raised. Skeletal dogs, cats, and rats could be a common occurrence.
18. Allow them to learn from others’ experiences. Maybe the undead have a “hive mind” thing going on and as others of their type get destroyed they learn the PCs’ tactics. Or perhaps a few of them can hang back and observe the battle, joining in once they’ve seen the PCs fight.
19. Nothing says that mindless undead needs slow. In fact, in the Resident Evil series, quite a few of the monsters are very fast and if you’re not quick on the draw you’ll be dead before you can blink.
20. Let them go out in a blaze of glory. Maybe when they die, they explode and cause the PCs damage, or get one unavoidable final attack at full damage on the enemy that caused its demise.
Mindless Undead allies
Mindless undead needn’t appear by themselves. A smart enemy will combine the strengths of living creatures with the undead vs. leaving them to guard a place unattended.
Even though it’d most likely be a bumpy ride, an alive rider atop a skeletal or zombified horse would be able to cover more distance than a similar rider on an alive horse, as the living horse would have to stop and rest.
Maybe roaming skeletons and zombies attract scavengers such as wolf packs or ravens (which become zombified versions of the same creature upon their death from eating the flesh or gnawing on the bones of them).
The undead allies could be “self-contained” within the undead itself. Perhaps the undead are a home to a swarm of rats (perhaps also undead), a colony of normal bees, or slimes.
In an environment as a necropolis, there might be undead of various types all around: incorporeal, mindless, and intelligent all working together towards a common goal: protecting their home from invaders.
Necromancers are probably the most common ally for mindless undead, as they typically use them as shock troops for their invading armies. The reason why is they’re the easiest to make and there’s typically plenty of corpses to make more. They’re also pretty easy to bolster with vile magics, if the need arises.
Now you know more about mindless undead creatures, potential ways of making them more powerful and intelligent, as well as their allies there’s no excuse to ever run another boring encounter with them again.
Part three will be hosted on http://stuffershack.com/