Zombies are pretty darn cool, especially at the moment where we see mainstream film and TV creating survivalist shows, and kids TV features zombies as characters. With that firmly in mind as both an inspiration and also to avoid as formulaic – here is a rough take on the flavour of zombies for rpgs that I like.
For starters, no cheese. Brains!
The big cliche is that zombies just want brains, brains, brains. I’m loathe to re-use any of that trope as it creates a cheesy rather than creepy monster. There is no horror left in chewing on a skull. There is horror in the challenge that zombies can present though.
By contrast to shmuck TV, the wights and the Others in Game of Thrones are both scary and frigg’n nasty, and far more in tune with how I’d like Undead to be treated. Undead that are presented as tough enough to be very deadly, worthy of a few heroic deeds are where most rpgs should be aiming. An undead creature should exhibit at least some basic cunning, and some awareness of threat. The d8 HP skeleton was only a challenge for a very short period of time. Soon after running away the team could return to the undead parlor and have their way with the generic undead with ease.
The difference is really considering the purpose but also the intelligence of the creature. Do they have purpose, or simple decision powers, or able to perceive obvious vs subtle clues? I’d like to think that a range of answers is the most appropriate even within the one game setting so that the range of undead encountered varies, even if the physical appearance does not change. Keep the players on their toes in terms of expectations of foes.
Where are they from?
The undead created via magical necromancy (curses, stolen coins, etc) should be able to follow very simple commands, but be very literal in execution.This is so that the necromancer can use the undead as servants and guardians, while they carry on with other nefarious deeds. The magic provides a form of animation and automation that is very different from other zombie sources.
The undead created via a demonic pact should have more cunning and a vicious touch, being guided by a quasi-omnipotent malevolent force.This could be as simple as the infernal touch giving them the intellect of a dog or other animal, or right up to a blended purpose of a gestalt mind. The demonic power really gives as much of a hand-waving-power as introducing holy powers. Go biblical on the characters.
The viral or disease zombies are somewhat harder to steer, as this type of zombie is more used in modern stories where the source of the infestation and the mode are normally explained in a pseudo-science way. The Walking Dead deliberately does not explain the source of the zombie outbreak, but does maintain a consistency in the approach the undead take. The zombies moan, shamble, smell, and act like each other, and it seems more like a brutal virus more than poison. 28 days later has a similar approach, and Resident Evil uses the nasty drug formula as the cause, but maintains the zombies presence fairly consistently. Continue reading