Building a Better Zombie

One of the problems that D&D has, I feel, is that low level undead just aren’t all that scary.  Ghouls are frightening because they have paralysis and aetherial undead are terrifying because of their level drain, but Zombies and Skeletons tend to be kind of boring mooks who are usually less threatening than encountering a group of 1st level human bandits.  Besides, they can be turned!  The only real ‘scary’ part is that they don’t have to make morale checks, so you have to kill all of them.  As such, the only way that skeletons or zombies are a real threat is if you throw a ton of them at the party.

Thief: the Dark Project is one of the few places where small numbers of undead are truly scary – they’re very different from how your living (even monstrous living) opponents behave.  While Ghosts are creepy and hard to kill, and Hammer Haunts cut you to pieces in seconds once they find you (and they WILL find you), I think that how Thief treats Zombies is particularly special.  They’re always in the way, they’re always groaning loudly, and, unless you’ve got things planned just so, you can’t kill them.  One zombie can be an annoyance, but two zombies can be downright deadly.  Once you have 4 or more zombies on you, it’s time to hit the quickload button.

So here’s a reimagining of the B/X zombie based on those found in Thief: The Dark Project.


AC: 8
HD 2 + 3* (15HP)
Move: 90’(30’)
Attacks: 1 weapon
Damage: 1-8 or weapon
No. Appearing: 2-8 (4-24)
Save As: F1
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Chaotic

Zombies are undead humans or demi-humans animated by powerful curses and evil magics that stone and steel alone cannot unmake. As all undead, they may be “Turned” by a cleric but are not affected by sleep or charm spells or any form of mind reading. They typically resemble normal rotting and bloated corpses, and when still may be indistinguishable from a normal corpse.  If approached by a living creature foolish enough to linger about (3 rounds), the Zombie will rise and attack.  Treat prone Zombies as having 3 HP; upon rising, a Zombie will have its full 15 HP.  After receiving 12 HP of damage, a risen Zombie will fall prone and remain so until a living creature remains nearby for 3 rounds, at which time the Zombie will rise with full health.  Zombies will always attack last regardless of initiative.

Zombies can only be killed with fire or Holy Water.  Holy Water will do 3d6 damage to Zombies.  Zombies that are turned do not run away but will fall prone.

I’ll probably be stating out some more monsters from Thief over the next few days, including Burricks, Hammer Haunts, Insect Beasts, Fire Spirits, Crab Men and  Crab Beasts, and Monkey Men.  I’ll be working on a few base assumptions, including d6 hit dice and Garrett as a d4 thief of around 4th level; I may even stat him.

20 responses to “Building a Better Zombie

    • Thanks! In Thief, enemies that are unaware take much higher damage, and technically prone zombies are ‘unaware’; therefore, they are much easier to kill with holy water, explosives or even flash bombs when they’re not shambling around. I think you could kill a zombie with a single flash bomb when it’s lying down, but it takes 3 or 4 of them (if you’re lucky) to kill one that’s walking or alert.

      I love undead in Thief because it’s one of the few spots in a fantasy game where they’re really unnerving. Their appearance, the fighting mechanics governing them, and sounds they make are really a whole-package deal. That first time you walk by a rotting corpse on the ground surrounded by a swarm of flies and it starts groaning is a gaming memory that’s really stuck with me.

  1. Just to serve as the necromancer devil’s advocate. In some iterations, skeletons take half damage from non-blunt weapons. That can be huge at first level, doubling the number of hits to kill one. In addition, they can’t be talked to or reasoned with, eliminating one of the player’s better options in staying alive.

    In all my recent campaigns low level undead encounters are fairly easy if you have a cleric, and fairly tough if you don’t. They become a way to keep parties ‘honest’ and ensure they have a decent skill spread. Without the first level spell, B/X clerics are a bit of a bastard child who no one wants to play, but every party knows that not taking a cleric can prove to be a costly mistake.

    • Yeah, they can be a pain at level 1, especially if you do like i do and make skeletons immune to ranged weapons and make zombies take 1 damage from projectiles. In a B/X game I ran awhile back, I let the players roll for damage on zombies without telling them they were only doing 1 damage per arrow that hit; they thought that it was a boss fight. In straight B/X, though, Skeletons and Zombies both take normal damage and are fairly mundane outside of base undead immunities to sleep, charm and other mind control.

      I’m a big fan of undead enemies, but clerics in b/x can really screw the pooch sometimes. I’m always looking for a way to keep low-level undead interesting into mid-levels without having to throw things with level drain at my players. Level Drain leads to hurt feeling :/

    • Also a weird thing about B/X Zombies: they have slightly better than average movement (120’/40′ or equivalent to an unencumbered human) but strike last because they’re so ‘slow’.

  2. So, how does ‘falling down’ instead of running away upon being turned work in practice? I like the idea of mindless undead being turned without fleeing — is this like, an ‘all the mindless undead do this’ kind of effect?


    • In practice, it would reset the zombie for a couple rounds; when you think about it, most zombie encounters are set-pieces that resemble a cross between traps and monsters. (The effigy on the slab is actually a corpse is actually a zombie is actually attacking you.) This would give players a chance to avoid the encounter and sneak on by, but essentially ‘resets’ the zombie trap. Plus you don’t have to remember that there’s a turned zombie running away somewhere in the dungeon that will turn up later.

      • Right. The zombies stay in the room as long as the PCs don’t fight them. They’re nigh-invulnerable unless you have the right tools. I like that. I’m going to have to try that.

        I like having unique vulnerabilities for undead.


    • Also, you could have the prone zombies groan if PCs get close, not only letting the PCs know the zombies are still a potential threat but possibly attracting the attention of other wandering monsters. I wouldn’t put them on the level of shriekers, but maybe toss in an extra roll. You might end up in a situation where a monster wanders in and attacks, and after the first two rounds, the zombie is up and ready to attack again and no one has noticed until it’s too late.

      • I wonder if there might be some virtue to creating a system of stealth-based ‘specials’ to effectively automate stealth.

        For example:
        ‘Ambush’ prevents enemies escaping from combat (at least until the ambush-er is slain or incapacitated).
        ‘Scout’ counters the effect of ‘stealth’ and enables you to detect (but not identify) the presence of creatures before you enter an area.
        ‘Stalker’ enables following an enemy without engaging or alerting them.
        ‘Stealth’ automatically grants initiative during the first round of combat to creatures or characters with stealth.

        Then you can drop the ridiculous Stealth/Perception checks, or whatever terminology your edition uses. :p

        After all these years, I’ve come to hate the ambiguity of rolling for stealth. I’d rather it were more of an auto-resolve type situation. At least, when we aren’t talking about single-player Roguelikes.

        The Stealth genre can have its own mechanics.


      • An interesting proposition.

        Frankly, I kind of hate the way that stealth works in D&D; it generally revolves around the players constantly reminding the DM that they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing as quietly and carefully as possible. “Don’t forget, I’m still sneaking!” I’ve been on both sides of it.

        I generally try to give players the benefit of the doubt when it comes to doing things, but I will treat circular conversations between the players as they screw around in a particular spot as the characters loudly talking and arguing strategy.

        I think that some sort of fixed comparison between a party’s overall stealth and a monster’s scouting/hunting capability could be very useful. The only thing I’d be wary of is using the party’s highest stealth score as the party’s stealth score; otherwise it would be like that ancient War in Middle Earth RTS from the early 90s where when Aragon takes command of the troops at Minas Tirith, all of the thousands of Gondorian men-at-arms get to use his evasion score and suddenly Sauron’s armies are all “Where did the castle garrison go?”

      • Also, I hate hate hate perception checks, especially ones like in DCC where you try to roll under this or that stat; if a character listens at a door, I’m just going to assume that if there’s sound on the other side of the door, they’ll be able to hear it.

      • RE: Aragorn-Stealthy leaders
        Pretty much why I think ‘stealth’ means you win initiative in the first (and only first) round, and not grant a surprise round.

        You get points for sneakiness, but only so many points.

        I keep forgetting about the Shriekers. You mentioned them and I had a thought, but it keeps escaping me. I was trying to decide how a ‘whistle-blower’ special might work. It’s like a trap that summons monsters. It only works if there are monster nearby.

        Like when someone scrambles air forces to meet you in Alpha Centauri. Stupid scrambled needlejets! D:<


      • Well, I do think that stealth should also be an integral part of being able to pick and choose when and where you have encounters.

      • Do you think it makes sense to combine the above Scout+Stealth, or leave them separate things that perhaps a number of creatures have together?

        It makes me wonder if there were ever a situation where you would want one and not the other? I mean, casting invisibility might grant you Stealth in the sense you win initiative once. A wizard wouldn’t necessarily have Scout but would still benefit from wining initiative.

        A thief or ranger on the other hand, is a lot more likely to have a Scout+Stealth combination, given that they can look ahead for baddies, then get the jump on the baddies in question (if they choose to engage).

        Even then, winning initiative gives the thief/ranger the opportunity to approach and DECIDE whether they even want to fight–even waiting to make the call util after seeing the others’ reaction.


      • I’d say leave them separate; something that is good at finding things might not necessarily be quiet while doing so, while something sneaky might not be as adept at hunting. Heck, you can detect the Hammer Haunts by their creepy jibbering from several rooms away, but that doesn’t change the fact that once they get a whiff of you, they’ll be on you like white on rice, and even if you can get away, they’ll spend a decent few minutes looking for you before they return to their patrol routes.

      • One worry I’d have about a totally passive sneak stat is that you’d have to figure out some way around the NoTarget type break that you have in something like Oblivion where you can max out your chameleon and nothing will react to you anymore.

        You’d want to have a range based on the differential between the two stats so that something with low scout has a very low but not impossible chance to find someone with low sneak and vice versa.

      • I think what’s implied by automatically winning initiative via Stealth is that upon entering the room, the encounter is triggered normally (roll reaction, etc) unless you have an delay-trigger like on your zombies.

        The only way you could avoid an encounter would be through use of Scout+Stealth, in which you detect an encounter and then choose a different path. Entering a room breaks Stealth unless the creatures are sleeping.


  3. I think you raise an interesting idea here about the difference in interactions between prone and standing creatures (zombies or otherwise). From 3e onward (can’t really speak for older editions), PCs bounce up and down during combat all the time. They get knocked down, but they get up again.

    I like the implication that ‘prone means vulnerable to stealth.’ I’m going to have to think on this.


    • Playing Thief has been giving me all kinds of ideas, in no small part because it better captures dungeon crawling from a PC’s perspective than any PC/Console RPG I’ve played.

      Prone zombies and sleeping guards are frequent features that one needs to sneak around.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s