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.
Which powers, and when?
Toughness – Most zombie variations are very resistant to damage, and will fight on well beyond normal wound levels. They’re also typically mobile and active regardless of how much of the human flesh is left undamaged. It makes sense that they can’t keep mobile once they’re reduced to bones, but till they’re non-flesh they are typically still dangerous.
Fatigue – I’d say that a zombie is immune to any type of combat mechanics which involve tiredness or fatigue. They just don’t suffer that, and would have energy to burn while they are properly motivated (by yummy living flesh).
No Sleep – Typically they don’t sleep either, but then perhaps that might be something that is good to change. A dormant state which is entered while they cannot feed, or when they rundown their magical batteries, which means they’ll live longer. For the disease zombies perhaps the sleep is needed so that the body still functions well (eye sight, reaction time, etc) so while they don’t need to, the zombie might actually pause for a while to refresh itself.
No air – A zombie that requires air is a strange concept, given that their lungs are probably rotting, and I could not think of any instances where a zombie was drowned as a way to kill it. That makes the undead a great little guardian for both above ground and below ground places, including putting one on a leash in your pool. Reminds me of the “take a walk boys” scene in Pirates of the Caribbean.
There might be room to move in the lore to create a zombie that is a normal person in all terms except for the mental motivation, or mindlessness. This type of zombie might suit a more modern or hard science game, where the biomechanics and physics are not able to be enhanced by magic, and the zombification leads to a very dull mind.
Perhaps there is also a hierarchy amongst the undead where the cunning of the zombie slowly enhances as the creature learns…
Runners or shamblers?
Speed of the zombie will greatly affect the tactics that are effective in their defeat. A creature that suffers no pain and is hard to kill is one thing, but if it moves as fast as an angry maniac – then that is a really nasty combatant. I think there is room for both in the same settings, subject to the physical state of the corpse. Quick movers should be the fresh ones, who still have most of their flesh intact.
Slow movers, crawlers, and all the combinations between that are still useful compared to runners, as they can perform subtle and creepy actions (a legless zombie might crawl into a cellar to seek flesh, remaining hidden till the poor PCs arrive).
How long can they survive?
The 28 days later zombies ran out of fuel when they couldn’t eat people any more. I like this one, but it fits the pseudo-science zombie far more than the magical animation zombie.
Other stories see the undead as being perfect guards and servants, as they never require food and last almost forever. Perhaps in some settings the cause also dissipates too, so that a corpse will return to normal after a few nights of activity. That would be good for a curse, especially if the curse was to re-occur in sequence with another action in the story. It leave the characters with a mystery to solve, as well as a nasty short term problem.
What created them? Can they propagate?
If a plague is more than a virus or chemical, then the zombie infestation might only be defeated while the heroes ensure that all the current walkers are destroyed, but also that the root cause is removed. This is where the cause becomes paramount, as the zombification might be a virus that all living are eventually infected with, and so every human is cursed to rise again unless their body is managed properly when they die.
In a medieval setting the plague might also be similar to the Black Death’s miasma – an airborne evil which consumes communities. Perhaps the protection of heavy clothing which protected the doctors from the Black Plague’s fleas might also stop the spread of the zombie outbreak. That gives the opportunity for heroes to take action and remain in an inflected area, as long as they are very careful.
Think also too that a bite or claw is going to be dangerous for some types of zombie, but not others (virus vs magic). Exchange of bodily fluids with a corpse is never good, especially when the zombie has been rotting for weeks. You’ve got at best a very nasty disease or two, and at worse you’re on the fast track to becoming a shambler yourself.
Only Human? Nah.
What about other creatures that get infected – such as rats, birds, insects, dogs, etc. A few hundred humans is not a real problem compared to all the animals and vermin that also inhabit a township. It might be a tad silly to be chased though the main street by a zombie cow, but a zombie dog or zombie crow could be very effective in scaring the inhabitants.
The reaction from survivors.
I think it is reasonable to assume that the uninfected would be brutal in protecting themselves, and be desperate to either escape or find a sanctuary. That may also mean killing, maiming or abandoning their neighbors to survive. hat alone might be a useful hook for the start of an adventure.
How to kill them
Even this part of the lore is not consistent, but there are always plenty of options. De-braining (boom, headshot) is a really common solution, as is total bodily destruction by fire. Perhaps beyond the typical stories could also have destruction of the necromancer or magical device, performing a special ritual, killing the lead zombie, or even accepting that they are permanent and re-starting a life that permanently protects against them.