Zombie love is at an all time high, once again proving that gamers are ahead of the cultural curve.
And when you’re going to fill out your army of undead, the zombie is an excellent choice. Zombies are also flexible and easy to tailor to your specific gaming genre. Modern day games have zombies born of disease who propagate through their bite, in fantasy they are the creations of necromancers and the children of the demon-lord Orcus, and when it comes to horror the classic Voodoo zombie is hard to beat.
But why stop there? Here are some variations on the zombie theme that will help keep your players guessing.
1. The Conqueror Worm – The Fiend Folio introduced us to my favorite of the official zombie variations, the Sons of Kyuss. “These ghastly undead appear as animated putrid corpses with fat green worms crawling in and out of all their skull orifices.” The description goes on to tell of zombies that will pummel you to death, if you are lucky. If you are not lucky a worm will leap from the Son and land on the hapless PC, burrowing into their skin like a rot grub, then bore its way to the victim’s brain. “If the worm reaches the brain, the victim becomes a Son of Kyuss, the process of putrefaction setting in without further delay.” The rules allow several opportunities for the victim to destroy the worm, both while it is burrowing into his or her skin and through spells while it works its way towards the victim’s brain. But the player needs to think of these measures and carry them out, most likely at the same time the battle is still raging with the Sons. Frantic terror is the result.
Sons of Kyuss are truly horrific beings that can bring all new terror to the classic zombie horde. A good way to use them is to mix one or two in with a mob of regular zombies, which will have the added result that your players will never take a mass of shambling corpses for granted again.
2. A Fungus Among-Us – Another zombie creation trope is one that relies on fungus, spreading their infection through spores. This is a popular one for modern day and science fiction settings, which is appropriate since scientists have discovered a gruesome real-life zombie fungus that thankfully only attacks ants. At least… for now. Again the Fiend Folio provides us with an excellent example with the yellow musk zombie, created from the pollen of the yellow musk creeper vines.
Fungus zombies also prey on our fear of airborne pathogens and open the potential for chemical weapons. This is a great way for an evil mastermind to terrorize the populace, be it a wizard, mad scientist, or pulp alien invader.
3. Mind over Matter – Mind control is another staple of fantasy and science fiction and it makes a great tool for zombification. Mind controlled zombies may be created via hypnosis, such as subliminal messages in film or backmasking in music, or direct mind control from a powerful psionic being. Mind Flayers are good candidates for this, but there is a different kind of horror that comes from a powerful mind that lacks intelligence. Unleash a telepathic creature who is capable of mass mind control, but whose motives are animal in nature; safety, food, reproduction. The result would be something like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
4. Exorcise Routines – A variation on the mind control theme is divine or demonic possession. Clerics of an infernal being capture subjects and enslave them to diabolic spirits who take over their bodies. These slaves range out in hordes to capture more victims and drag them back to the demon’s temple. When the cult has created enough thralls the demon will be unleashed on the world.
This breed of zombie should be imbued with a sinister cunning. Because they long to increase their numbers they will attack from ambushes instead of the traditional zombie wave attacks. They will stalk and surprise travelers and isolated communities, leading to the players entering empty villages that show signs of recent habitation. “They mostly come at night. Mostly.”
5. All that Glitters – This breed of zombie is a trap conjured up by a necromancer of especially insidious nature. The party will encounter a zombie whose eyes have been replaced by diamonds. After dispatching the beast the party will likely follow the standard, “loot the bodies,” procedure and pry the jewels from their sockets. Then the curse begins to take effect.
Anyone in possession of one of the gems must make a saving throw each midnight or lose 1d10 HP. If the character possesses two gems, two saves must be made. If someone dies while possessing a gem they will be reborn as a zombie, their own eyes having hardened into diamonds. The curse is on the gems, so disposing of them or casting Remove Curse on the diamonds will solve the problem. Anyone killed by one of these zombies will likewise be transformed.
If the players sell the diamonds they may have a nasty surprise waiting for them the next time they visit town.
For a cyberpunk twist on this, replace the diamonds with a valuable skill chip that rewrites the user’s brain and writes itself to any other skill chips slotted by the victim. Bad luck choombata.
There are plenty of additional ways to come up with new breeds of zombies and if you have ideas I’d love to hear them. Two rules of thumb to keep your creations zombie-like are;
1) Zombies are mindless. They may have an innate cunning or be guided by an external intelligence, but the zombies themselves have no will.
2) There is some method of spreading their numbers, a threat that the players and populace will join the shambling ranks.