Thursday, 17 May 2012

Putting the Dread Back in the Undead

Okay, so you're running a game.  Things are getting real interesting.  The party has traced the mystery back to a dangerous cult hiding out in the cemetery, and the only thing standing between them and righteous, ecstatic justice is... An army of undead minions!

Oooooooh!  Oooga booga!

Yeah.  I'd wager that's exactly how your party feels.  Wildly unimpressed. It's not your fault, they've been spoiled by society and encounter design.  They've seen a dozen zombie movies this week, so the whole shambling, rotting engine of death is kind of played out for them.  Not to mention their characters have probably been fighting these things since level one, so it wouldn't surprise me if they knew the monster stat block off by heart. 

So what do we do to combat this complacency?  How do we fight the ennui inherent in the system?  Well, like all the best military strategists in history, we employ two words separated by a conjunction. Shock and awe.  Or, if you're feeling grandiloquent, surprise and astonish. You know.  Whatever.

The plan unfolds in both major theatres of Dungeon Mastering, flavour and mechanics.  The flavour side is fairly straightforward, but requires a bit more forethought than usually goes into the average zombie/skeleton encounter.  Try making up a few creepy or gross lines beforehand to use when your vile minions land attacks, or when they take certain actions.  Some fun examples include:

"The dusty skeleton grasps you tightly, and bites down hard on your arm.  As you wrench it away, you pull a bunch of teeth out of it's mouth.  A few of them are embedded in your flesh."

"The zombie locks you in its grip, and howls wildly.  Its rotten fleshy face contorts so violently that one of its eyeballs ruptures, exploding all over your face."

"The zombie's severed forearm slashes through the air, and embeds its sharpened bones in your neck.  You feel slivers of rotting bone caught in your flesh."

Notice anything interesting about these?  Yes!  Ten points to Gryffindor.  Each of them plays into that fear of self zombification popular media has been so nice to instill in people for us.  Watch your players faces as you tell them how they feel the zombie's saliva seep into their gaping wound.  It will be delicious.

"The corpse before you oozes pus out of a dozen gaping, infected holes.  You can follow its putrid trail back around the corner."

"A sickly sweet stench pierces your nostrils and takes root in your core.  The smell of rot, and death, and disease.  You turn your head and come face to face with what remains of the butcher, covered in blood, gore, and mold.  As he hefts his arm, his cloudy eyes shake and fall from their sockets."

The more you can instill the idea that they are filthy, that they are leaving potential problems for the players to have to deal with later, the more your players will worry.  They wonder what card you have up your sleeve, what trick you're waiting to pull.  And that anxiety quickly transforms into terror as you make them sweat it out, despite the fact that like any good magician, there's nothing up your sleeve.

The mechanics side is where things start to really get interesting.  The majority of the problem with zombies and players is that they are too familiar.  One of the most common, most ingrained fears that your average human has is the fear of the unknown.  The familiar is therefore not to be feared, obviously.  So the trick here is simple, but effective.

Through everything they know about the mechanics of the undead out the window. 

Zombies with a radiant vulnerability?  Not anymore.  Speed 4?  Says who.  Mindless brutes who attack the nearest living thing?  Not the necromancer controlling them.  Play them hard, fast, and tactically.  Giggle as your players panic when the defender drops.  Okay maybe don't giggle.  That would be cruel.

If you need inspiration, flip around through the monster manual and look at interesting stat blocks.  The creature itself isn't important, it's what it can do that you're interested in.  Maybe that lizardfolk Poisonscale guy would make an interesting zombie, if you just switch some keywords around.  Instead of ongoing poison when he bites the players, make it necrotic.  Tell your players their arm shrivels and decays before their eyes a little more each turn, to the tune of ongoing 5.  Maybe when they die, they erupt in a torrent of necrotic energy, pus, and bone fragments.  I'd be concerned.

Likely the single best thing you can do however, is to break out the disease rules.  You can find a decent disease in the DMG to use as your Infection if you so choose, or you can make a custom one without too much effort that will suit your particular party.  Everyone has their own set of fears, after all, and each party's power levels are different.

Here's a good example of a horrifying zombie infection that will have your players running for the hills... from each other.

Stage 1: Lose a healing surge, and the feeling in the tips of your extremities.  The touch of death is upon you.

Stage 2: Your speed becomes 4.  You can feel yourself calcifying, and starting to rot.  Everything you smell is mouldy, because your nose has started to decay.  Your hair falls out, and your teeth begin to loosen.

Stage 3: Every time you spend a healing surge, make a death saving throw.  If you fall unconscious or die, you rise at the beginning of your next turn as a zombie, and must attack your party or any nearby prey item.  You can make only melee basic attacks, and cannot use utility powers. 

There are other options as well, of course.  Lets say you have an arachnophobe in your group.  If he gets bitten, he gets the Crawling Infection. 

Stage 1: Lose a healing surge.  You feel something growing in the pit of your stomach, a hard object.

Stage 2: You are weakened. The hard lump in your stomach begins to wriggle constantly, and your body withers as your friends watch.  Each hour that passes sees you shrivel a little more as your abdomen swells.

Stage 3: Strange objects move about under your skin, skittering through your flesh.  Every time you receive a critical hit, make a critical miss, or fall to 0 hit points, flesh-eating spiders erupt from your wounds.  These spiders deal ongoing 5 damage, save ends, to you and any creature adjacent to you when the triggering effect occurs.  First Failed Save: target grants combat advantage.  Second Failed Save: The spiders burrow into your skin, and lay eggs.  Target becomes susceptible to the Crawling Infection.

Now, these are pretty hardcore diseases.  But that's the point.  Watch your party when you read them off the list of effects, watch carefully as their eyes grow to the size of dinner plates, and they immediately set off to find the best healers they can.

So there you have it.  If you want your undead to be causing your players dread, be disgusting.  Be vile, and horribly descriptive.  Be unpredictable, be unexpected, keep them on their toes.  And never tell them everything.

This post originally published on the Rubber Chicken Studios blog.

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