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5E Seeking Zombie Ideas!

Dausuul

Legend
I am gearing up for a 5E campaign set in a world with an ongoing zombie apocalypse. A thousand years ago, somebody slammed the door to the afterlife*; ever since then, when people die, their mad, broken souls come back to reanimate their corpses as zombies. (If the corpse has been destroyed, the soul goes after a living host instead and turns it into a ghoul.) The world is a scattering of fortified settlements surrounded by undead-haunted wilderness.

Naturally, this means the PCs are going to encounter zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. Also skeletons, for the older corpses, and a scattering of ghouls, but mostly zombies. And I want more variety than just "Look, another horde of CR 1/4 zombies with a slam attack." So I am making up a whole bunch of homebrewed zombie monsters, and I'm looking for suggestions on abilities and traits to give them.

One thing to emphasize: These monsters need to feel like zombies. Facing them should be like a horrible dream where there's something coming after you, and it's not moving fast, but somehow you can't get away and it just won't die. I'm not looking for fast zombies, or smart zombies. I want ways to make slow, stupid zombies scary and unpredictable. Ideas I've had so far include zombies that burrow through the ground, grab your ankles, and drag you under the earth; drowned zombies that entangle you with tendrils of seaweed; swamp zombies shrouded in fog, that hypnotize you with foxfire; zombies that host swarms of disease-ridden flies.

Halloween's coming up, so this seems like the perfect time to ask. What would you give a zombie?

[SIZE=-2]*So runs the popular theory, anyway. There might be a little more going on than that. Just sayin'. ;)[/SIZE]
 

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GMforPowergamers

First Post
I did a zombie game once, it got old real quick... but I have been working on a game world with deadlier scarier undead... so here is what I've got for zombies...


Armor Class 8 Hit Points 22 (3d8 + 9) · Speed 20 ft.
STR 13 (+1) DEX 6 (-2) CON 16 (+3)
INT 3 (-4) WIS 6 (- 2) CHA 5 (- 3)

Saving Throws Wis +0

Damage Immunities poison Condition Immunities poisoned

Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 8

Languages understands the languages it knew in life but can't speak Challenge 1/4 (50 XP)

Undead Fortitude. If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5 +the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.

ACTIONS
Grab. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 4 (1d6 + 1) bludgeoning damage and target restrained.

Bite Melee weapon attack (advantage if target is restrained) +3 to hit reach 5ft one target Hit: 5(1d8+1)pericing damage and Con Save DC 10 or gain poison condition you may repeate your save after ever short or long rest, but each failed save lowers your perm hp by 1d10, if you fall to 0 you die and raise as a zombie.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
Nothing tends to make players more annoyed than monsters with regeneration and high defenses. Even when you do hit them, an unlucky round will undo all their work in chipping it down. So some kind of necrotically-powered tank zombie would be fun.

Elf zombies are particularly nasty; they maintain their connection to the Feywild and can Misty Step at will.

Guillotining proved popular in the first few decades after the closing of the Gates, as a headless corpse would not immediately rise. It took a while before it was realized that the souls eventually returned to their bodiless heads, and began to fly in search of victims.
 

No, they are not, though their staying power when you take them down to 0 HP can be a doozy.

You know what does scare PCs? Ghouls. For my part, I'd be more inclined to use those for the more Romero-esque zombie apocalypses. Or maybe switch over to ghouls entirely, after they've gotten used to the zombies.

I like the idea of the different flavors of zombies, though.

One question I do have, is with their souls coming back to inhabit their rotting corpses, what about the incorporeal dead? Would they still be a thing even?

the problem is zombies aren't scary in D&D
 

Jaelommiss

First Post
I've always found that making enemies scary is dependent more on making the players feel weak than making the enemy strong.

A rogue with a thousand arrows will happily fight zombies all day. The same rogue with four arrows that cost half his (limited) food supply and took a week to carve from one of the few remaining twisted and gnarled trees is going to seriously consider using them. If weapons and armour could break on any swing, the martials are less likely to risk combat. If cantrips are limited (I've used spellcasting modifier + level per day in the past) then the wizard won't simply backpedal while flinging firebolts.

After that has been done, and it will require player buy-in, I'd probably give the zombies more HP (+50% or so should be good), boost their Con by a couple points, and give them the ability to use other equipment if it was on hand at the time of death. If the world went screwy a millennium ago then the zombies around now should be largely people who were trying to fight them (like adventurers and soldiers) and the occasional unfortunate civilian who wandered outside the walls. Heavily armoured zombies are nice. If the zombies bear a trait or two that the now-deceased had then they will be even more variable.

A barbarian might resist nonmagical weapon damage and deal an extra couple points of damage (rage).
A bard could wheeze a low death rattle that can distract living creatures (cutting words).
A cleric could cause an extra 1d8 necrotic damage on a hit (divine strike).
A druid could have a number of undead animals following it.
A fighter might be more heavily equiped, including weapons, and may have an improved crit range.
A monk could pass between shadows (shadow step) or be able to make several, powerful unarmed attacks (martial arts).
A paladin turned undead might be able to bolster the zombies (see Knight, MM 347).
A ranger would be able to follow living prey for days without losing the trail. It sounds simple, but being pursued for three weeks without rest will wreck the PCs.
A rogue might have higher Dex and be able to sneak attack for an extra 2d6.
A sorcerer could resist an element (draconic ancestry), have a hardened hide (draconic resilience), and deal an extra 1d4 elemental damage.
A wizard would be a Lich. Or a weakened lich using the Mummy Lord as a template with changed spells.

Adding one or two of those for every couple dozen zombies would break up the monotony. Most animals could be transformed into zombies using the zombie template on DMG 282. A lot of regular humanoicould also have the template applied. It would probably also work with NPCs at the back of the MM.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I think in this type of campaign, the zombies need to be presented more as a force of nature than as a thing that can be defeated, even if the PCs are capable of taking down a whole slew of zombies. They Just Keep Coming. Fighting them isn't the answer.
 

Dausuul

Legend
You know what does scare PCs? Ghouls. For my part, I'd be more inclined to use those for the more Romero-esque zombie apocalypses. Or maybe switch over to ghouls entirely, after they've gotten used to the zombies.
Oh, there will be ghouls too. Ghouls are the "smart, fast" option; because they went straight from life into undeath, they retain some memory and intellect, which will be reflected in some ghouls having class levels. (Pro tip: Watch out for the ghoul barbarian. Frenzy for three attacks a round, and the paralysis save is based on the ghoul's Con mod...)

But I don't want to rely on ghouls as the main threat. I want zombies to remain frightening, and players are smart. They'll develop standard tactics for fighting zombie hordes, or escaping when there are too many to fight. So I want zombies that can throw a wrench in the works. Your trick that you always rely on to get away from the zombies doesn't work on these zombies. You better think of something else. Fast. They're coming.

One question I do have, is with their souls coming back to inhabit their rotting corpses, what about the incorporeal dead? Would they still be a thing even?
In some cases, you get a soul that for whatever reason never possesses a body, living or dead. In that case it might become a specter.
 


ad_hoc

Hero
Check out Van Richten's Guide to the Walking Dead the 3.x supplement.

It has a lot of ideas including a big list of powers you can give to zombies.
 

redrick

First Post
The most important scary aspect of zombies in films is that all it takes is one bite to turn you into one. This is missing from the D&D zombies, which are just a pain to take down. So why not re-introduce it?

Maybe give the zombie a grapple attack, and then it can bite grappled creatures with advantage? Any character bitten by a zombie turns into one after 24 hours unless cured with some sort of restoration spell. (Something that PCs can't cast but that maybe is available within your world, given you can find the NPC caster and convince him to help you. After all, he might need that restoration spell to save his own life that day.)

More zombies, but make them a little easier to put down. Add Slashing damage to Radiant and Criticals for skipping the Fortitude save. Hacking the zombie's head off with a sword should be easier than shooting its brain out with an arrow. On the other hand, once that zombie is close to you, it can bite you...

Also, maybe move the Fortitude save to the beginning of the zombie's turn, and allow damage dealt after it was knocked down to add to the DC for the save. You can keep bashing the zombie's head in once it goes down, but that means you're ignoring the other zombies that might be right next to it. On the other hand, mop-up on the remaining zombies becomes less tedious once players outnumber zombies. There's nothing more irritating than a zombie encounter which overstays its welcome.

I love the idea of zombies in different environments, with different kinds of grappling. Tendril zombies, burrowing zombies that open the ground beneath you and literally suck you into the earth (so they can bite you), etc.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The most important scary aspect of zombies in films is that all it takes is one bite to turn you into one. This is missing from the D&D zombies, which are just a pain to take down. So why not re-introduce it?
That's a good point. I think I'd have it where you have a chance of becoming infected if you are reduced to half your hit points or less by a zombie's attack. So if you're going to fight zombies, your healer better be on point or you best not stick around for a slog.
 

aco175

Hero
I just saw on the log in page a new article for En5ider for undead. Something about a rust monster zombie or skeleton. I would tend to have the zombies more mindless with a special breed of them as smart. Sort of like the show The Strain, where most are simple bloodsuckers but a few retain memories.
I would also bring back zombie weakness from 4e.
 

shoak1

First Post
zombie apocolypse rules

Here are my zombie apocolypse rules we use in my campaign, some of which were my own inspration some of which were from others. Rather than deal w/innumerable single zombies we use swarms and abstracted rules for zombie overrun and morale.
 

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That's a good point. I think I'd have it where you have a chance of becoming infected if you are reduced to half your hit points or less by a zombie's attack. So if you're going to fight zombies, your healer better be on point or you best not stick around for a slog.

What's also interesting about that, is the paranoia, and not knowing if you or your friends are infected. In fact, maybe the entire campaign could contain a lot of secrecy as well. My next suggestion has nothing to do with zombies, but it may help set the right mood, and get the right sort of role playing from your players.

For one of my Call of Cthulhu campaigns I gave each player a list of secrets that they were allowed to choose from. They could choose only one, and they were all a big deal, and relevant to the plot. Each secret was sealed in a black envelope, and I told them that they should make sure their fellow players do not find out about this secret, or there would be dire consequences (mostly for their sanity).

So this lead to many "Aha!" moments, where one player would know what's up, but he couldn't tell his fellow players. Smiles and paranoia all around the table!

Here are my zombie apocolypse rules we use in my campaign, some of which were my own inspration some of which were from others. Rather than deal w/innumerable single zombies we use swarms and abstracted rules for zombie overrun and morale.

I love some of the special zombies you have on that list. Very good for inspiration. I have a zombie builder document that may also be of some use. I designed it for 3.5 in the modern era. So the zombie stats are all for 3rd edition, but a lot of the tables should still be useful. Also, it has pictures! :)
 

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sleypy

Explorer
I think it could work to have a toned down version of the Rug of Smothering (or the Cloaker.) Coupled with mob tactics or other teamwork trait it would make zombies deadly. There would always be a threat of being overwhelmed by weak zombies. It would also put PCs in situations where they are dependent on other PCs for survival.

A huge zombie swarm would be interesting too. Since swarms have the ability similar to overrunning. You can use those mechanics cinematically because a mass of zombies overrunning would be defenders is a common one.
 

sleypy

Explorer
That's a good point. I think I'd have it where you have a chance of becoming infected if you are reduced to half your hit points or less by a zombie's attack. So if you're going to fight zombies, your healer better be on point or you best not stick around for a slog.
I could see tailoring the optional honor rules in the DM could add on to this. Have it be your level of infection.
 

AtomicPope

Explorer
*This post contains SPOILERS for the Starter Set*

Our first 5e campaign was the Starter Set with the pregen characters. Then we upgraded those characters when the PHB was released. There are undead in that module and there's one funny story that got us all interested in a "Walking Dead" type of DnD game...

We were moving through the ruins of old Thundertree. My Archer Fighter/Battlemaster was the scout with a Halforc Barbarian close behind. We both rolled 1's for our Perception as we approached the ruins of what used to be the inn. The door was stuck and the windows were boarded up. I peered into one of the windows with a natural '1' I saw a person standing there covered in dust. I figured they're probably dead so I said, "I'll kick open the door and if he doesn't say anything I kill him." So I kick open the door, rush in with my magical longsword and chop him twice (used my Action Surge), dropping him to the ground. Then we roll initiative and the DM get's a natural '20'. The Zombie rises up hissing, a dozen more Zombies come out from the corners and rooms and surround me, and a dozen more Zombies come out of the shadows and fog surrounding the party. We were 3rd level and completely surrounded. I was cut off from the party and our Druid didn't have any 2nd Level spells so no Moonbeam. We were hitting Zombies and they were getting right back up again. The only thing that saved me was rolling high on my Second Wind. We had no miniatures out. It was all theater of the mind which I believe helped increase the tension. We had a similar experience with the Ghouls in the mines but we were far more triumphant.

I believe as a campaign it will be hard to sustain that level of intensity throughout. You'd probably have to change the rules using the DMG serious injuries and reduced healing to sustain the understanding that Zombies are not something you simply destroy. You might also have to make your campaign world a LOW level world where proper Wizards are rarely higher than 3rd or 4th level. Basically, once Wizards have access to Fireball and Fly the Zombie hordes are much less impressive. Although a Druid's Moonbeam is more powerful against Zombies and Undead in general knowing there are lots of Fireball casters out there lowers weakens the tension and presence of danger.
 

Gillywonka

First Post
Here's a zombie i made for a necromancy in the swamps scenario i ran.

Raptor Zombie (think 'World War Z')
Same as zombie on page 316 in the MM, except for the following changes;

*AC 10
*Speed 40
*change DEX to 14, so additional +2 to hit and initiative
*change INT to 10, it's not dumb
*Multiattack - 2 slam attacks instead of 1.
*Grapple - if this zombie grapples, it still get's one attack during the grapple, each round (a result of frenzied biting, scratching and pummeling)
*Cannot be turned by Channel Divinity unless the Cleric or Palladin is of the Life or Death domain.
*PCs knocked unconscious, to 0 hit points and less, will still have the zombie attacking next round. Automatic death next round on the zombie's turn when he rips into their throat, then starts eating.
*After combat, any PC that has taken 10 points or more damage, needs to make a DC16 CON save (DC16 because 16 is the CON of a zombie). Those that fail will become a Raptor Zombie in 24 hours. The PC will notice grey blotches and bruises on their skin, that gets more severe as time passes. Their appetite for rare meat will increase. If the PC doesnt have a Lesser Restoration spell or Lay on Hands put on him within 24 hours, he becomes a raptor zombie. (Dont tell the PC what the saving roll was for).

These zombies aren't created by a necromancer, but rather infection from a necrotic virus.

Raptor zombies stay in groups. When you play raptor zombies, let the party think they are regular zombies, then banzai bum rush them. They will team up on a PC, some will grapple the armored PCs so the others can get to the unarmored morsels. Or mix them in with regular zombies, then let them spring into the attack. Watch the cleric's face when the zombies most likely wont turn.

Mix it up for options:
Make some with a higher AC or HP.
Give one more STR so it does +4 damage
Give one a cantrip to snuff out torches or lanterns, thus making the party fight at disadvantage in the dark.
Make one or several into Barbarians. Adjust the level to match the party. If party is 3rd level, make 2 of the zombies, 3rd level barbarians.
Give one the breath weapon of a dragon born, or make it a dragon born raptor zombie.
Give a bonus action of disengage, or let the raptor zombie bypass any PC without incurring an attack of opportunity
 

Uchawi

First Post
You could add waking zombies that are lifeless and scatted around the ruins and only come to life when someone is sleeping in close proximity.
 

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