With Halloween coming, it’s important to remember your favorite grind monster that never gets any love – the zombie. When starting a campaign, a bunch of zombies in the graveyard outside of town is as stereotypical as a kobold camp near a small village. But by the time your players reach any level higher than Red Box, zombies aren’t a real threat. Even a horde can be cleaned from a field in a few rounds with a bit of organization and good tactics (fireball is a hell of a spell). Although the Monster Manual only has generic stats for those fresh from the grave, with a bit of modification zombies can still be scary. Just like in popular media, they don’t have to always come via an evil necromancer, but can originate through sources from a disease outbreak to medical research gone wrong. Then you can create every flavor of zombie, from slow and shambled masses that don’t want to stay dead, to quick and brutal beasts.
Here are several tweaks to make to the Monster Manual’s standard zombies to make them as frightening on your table as they are on the screen.
Numbers – Ok, the obvious one. The major strength of zombies is that they can attack as a horde. The easier your zombies can transfer their zombie-ness, the more zombies there can be, and more zombies means hordes. A zombie that can only be raised by necromancers ensures that there is going to be a limited amount of Undead HD on the board. However an infestation that spreads through bites, touch, or even airborne ensures that instead of fighting ‘only’ a dozen, your players are now faced with several dozen if not hundreds. And THAT is a challenge. Sooner or later spells are going to run out, your magic item per day use will be used up, and of course someone is going to roll low. To use the zombie’s strength of numbers isn’t a game that is going to be dangerous in the first rounds however it will get deadlier and deadlier as the rounds go on.
Speed – Slow zombies are easy targets, but fast zombies can create chaos. Zombies are often too slow to catch anything and too weak to damage any mid to high level character, yet by giving them the extra potential to catch your players, they immediately become more threatening. This isn’t limited to only their base movement speed, but by adding even one extra attack to their attack profile they have another needed chance to make a hit on the PCs.
Resistances – The regular zombie that we beat up for extra early level experience is weak to everything. Fire is a must, anything holy cuts through them like butter, and even low level magic can one shot. But add a resistance to your zombies, and they can hold their own at higher levels. This does require tweaking the story and world settings to explain why they gained the sudden resistance to holy magic (they’re not actually undead, they’re just brain dead test subjects in a kingdom’s search to make a super soldier, so holy magic still heals instead of damaging) but as long as the explanation is there, and it logically makes sense, changing a resistance to strength is a powerful swap.
Origin– Just like you love to have players with a rich background, it’s equally important for your undead. With a rich enough origin story, you can work around a lot of the weaknesses of the traditional zombie. What if for your particular campaign, the virus that changes a person into a zombie requires a constitution save after they have been infected or the host stays dead? This would mean weak hosts would die, leaving only stronger, ‘healthier’, zombies to fight against your party. That would explain why they have tripled their normal hit points, have a higher attack bonus, as well as why they hit like a ton of bricks, because only people that were strong to start out with could ever complete the transformation. A zombie that has that rich of a background doesn’t just explain why they are different, but it makes players start to ask questions, and players with questions want to go on quests for answers.
Support – Like a fighter won’t leave the tavern without a cleric in tow, your zombies should not leave the graveyard without something supporting them. It can be a magical item, a necromancer, or even a vampire, but zombies should never be found shambling around looking for brains on their own. A good magician knows more than one spell and is prepared for any event, so why wouldn’t the bad guy be prepared to cast enchantments on his army of undead? A zombie with any modification is scary, but a modified zombie that also has a necromancer pumping out circle of death, flesh to stone, or even something as simple as some Silent Hill level of fog, just changed a slight challenge into a literal witch hunt.
Through altering the base stats and abilities of a zombie the low leveled snooze fest of clearing out a graveyard can be transformed into a challenge for mid-level, and with enough alterations one for even high level characters. The best part about these modifications is that your players will remember them. Players don’t recall the time they fought exactly what they saw in a book for the hundredth time, but years later they will talk about when they got over run by fast zombies that were immune to holy damage and could transform anyone they bit.