Z is for Zombie, Who’ll Do in a Flash

And nobody was surprised.

Zombies come in a startling number of forms in D&D. Off the top of my head you have normal stock zombies, fast zombies, diseased zombies, fire zombies, hulking zombies, zombie lords, and any combination of them, all before you consider that “zombie” is a template you can apply to just about anything with a pulse. I would describe them further, but I can’t. That’s the point.

Unlike a vampire, which is the specific name for a creature with specific powers and specific weaknesses, “zombie” is an everyday metaphor (“I’m a zombie in the mornings before I have my coffee.”) that bring to mind actions and mood, not stats. A zombie can be a creature that shambles, or one that grunts half-heartedly, or one that comes in swarms, or one that spreads like a disease. They’re usually undead, but if you say the orcs are approaching like zombies, everybody knows what you mean. Anything can be a zombie, and a zombie can be anything (finish your drink). Heck, Cracked had an article that mentioned this just last week:

Zombies are popular because they fit everywhere. Vampires are zombies that you want to make out with. Frankenstein’s monster is a zombie that just took a little elbow grease to get going. We can apply any metaphor that we want to them, and we can use them as quick cannon fodder or as the plodding thing that we have to painstakingly evade once we find ourselves trapped in a room with one.

Zombies aren’t my favorite creatures because they’re usually too simple and straightforward, but that’s also their beauty. Looking back I think I’ve used them in almost every campaign I’ve run, either as zombies themselves or as something else through the magic of reskinning. Consider my last six:

  • The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl: The first session had the players fighting a necromancer and her zombies as a random mission before the campaign proper started.
  • …and the Unforgiving Blade: Undead ambushed the party and attacked en masse as a delaying tactic.
  • …and the Memento Mori: A disease changed NPCs into monsters.
  • …and the Empire of Sin: The party defended a barn from nearly-mindless, swarming creatures.
  • Battles of the Saber Knights: Addled, mind-controlled farmers lumbered toward the party to eat their brains.
  • The Umbrageous Sodality and the Ghost Opera: This is the Halloween campaign, of course I used zombies.

This is not counting the non-d20 campaign we’ve running now. I guess that’s a spoiler, but not much of one. You can insert zombies into just about any campaign at just about any point, either as literal lurching undead or as anything that hits enough of a zombie’s checkboxes for you to describe the combat as a “zombie swarm scenario”. You can even use them with various moods, from the grim horror zombie whose bite slowly drives you so mad you kill your allies to the light-hearted cartoon zombies who comedically chase their heads around the battlefield. As long as a battle makes sense with the story, zombies can probably be a part of it.

This is a rare time when the reskinning can be completely transparent because nobody cares about it. Knowing that the orcs secretly use zombie statistics doesn’t break any immersion or narrative, and there are so many types of zombies you can use them for just about anything. When I’m using them, most of the manipulation I do is to the stats themselves, drastically slashing the zombie’s hit points so they fall in one or two hits. The feel is important, not the numbers, and zombies have a broad feel, perhaps the broadest of anything I’ve discussed this month.

I’d like to say something about angels to bring this full circle, but you may have noticed that we have an unmatched rhyme in the post names. There’s one more creature I want to discuss tomorrow before we leave monsters alone for a bit.

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Y is for Yuan-Ti: Bad, but They Care

When I started playing D&D, it never occurred to me that certain creatures would be proprietary to it. I got into it because of the public-domain monsters I recognized, not because it was the only place I could find mind flayers and beholders. When I moved from my physical books to a linked HTML SRD I didn’t even notice most of the monsters that disappeared and didn’t much care about the flavor that went with it, except for the Greyhawk deities. But this creature I absolutely missed, quickly and deeply.

Yuan-ti are somewhere between humans and snakes,, and exactly where they fall on that gradient indicates their power. Generally, the more human a yuan-ti is, the weaker it is, and the most snakelike members of the race have leadership roles. This caste structure withstands even their normally chaotic nature, and lesser yuan-ti go far out of their way for the few methods by which they can advance to a new form and new power. They’re impressively religious, either following snake deities or evil for evil’s sake, and their leaders tend toward leading worship or being worshipped themselves.

There are more varieties of yuan-ti than one might expect, from the low-level, almost-PC-ready purebloods through the monstrous malisons and ignans to the nightmarish anathemas. They’re appropriate threats at almost every level of play, and I really like how they escalate so they can be the focus of an entire campaign or a side arc in a greater story. All of them have a few tricks to keep combat fresh, but not so many tricks that they get lost in the shuffle, and almost every yuan-ti is smarter than a human, too smart to rush into melee and get beaten to death. They have a strong visual aesthetic, they’ve been around long enough in most settings to have culture and cities, and they can even integrate themselves into other societies through guile and magic to pop up whenever it inconveniences the party the most. They’re just fun.

So why would I feel the need to make them more interesting? Because they’re unambiguous top-to-bottom villains. They’re evil humans mixed with evil animals who do evil things because evil gods told them to advance evil. They use poison, lies, intimidation, oppression, classism, and mind control to get what they want, and they’ll sacrifice anyone or anything, including each other, to gain power. This isn’t simple Saturday morning cartoon villainy because they’re too intelligent for that, and they won’t throw themselves into combat just because it’s time for a random encounter or because a book said they should. But there’s nothing redeeming about them. They’re an acceptable target for parties, and there’s intentionally no remorse or complication in breaking into their temples, killing everybody there, and stealing their belongings to sell. They’re a more advanced bad guy, but they’re still objectively a bad guy.

The monster campaign is where we did the best job turning this on its ear. One player ran a yuan-ti pureblood, one of the few characters who could pass for human if nobody looked too closely. Every PC in the campaign had some sort of character-specific enemy, and hers was her father, who wanted her to stop playing hero and instead come back home to continue on her rise to the top of yuan-ti society. He chased the party on and off for a while and finally appeared in the flesh at the end of Act 2, where he had gotten himself trapped somewhere and needed their help. The party had been going on the assumption that he wanted to menace them somehow and steal his daughter away, but he was actually following them out of genuine concern.

Even the most rampantly malevolent race isn’t beyond having connections or hobbies or opinions. Because the books only describe yuan-ti as religious jungle snake monsters we think that’s everything there is to know about them, but they can have families and traditions and favorite sports teams. Sometimes those loyalties can overrule their predilection toward evil, or at least suppress it. After all, religiously evil humans probably exist in every city and only the most militant paladin run by the most short-sighted player would assume they’re constantly up to no good. An evil monster isn’t any different from an evil PC. It’s all in how you handle it in service of the game.

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X is for Xorn, Who Are Just Kind of There

This is the first monster I thought of when I decided to write about them for April. Other letters were hard, even ones I thought wouldn’t be, but there was always one and only one creature who could fill the spot for X.

Xorns are three-armed, three-legged, roughly spherical creatures from the Elemental Plane of Earth. Their main character trait is their appetite; they can only eat rare metals, gems, and minerals, and given that those are harder to come by on the Material Plane they spend much of their time scavenging and searching for veins underground. They get bigger as they get older but low-level xorns are surprisingly hardy for their CR, and they have a few gotcha abilities and defenses that reward players who know a thing or two about outsiders.

Xorns seem designed to be random encounters, either bargaining with the party for sustenance or attacking when somebody gets between it and its next meal. As such it’s weird that in 3E they carried no treasure and in Pathfinder the older ones often come with class levels, respectively lowering players’ and DMs’ interest in them. You might think of them as smarter earth elementals, and they carry many of the same problems and benefits. Players aren’t likely to remember a xorn from session to session, and few DMs can get excited about a society or cabal of xorns whose goal is…eating more exciting food, I guess. You also can’t use their stats for much else as it’s hard to think of a creature with three arms and earth glide that isn’t a xorn itself. No, to make a xorn a memorable encounter, you have to give it some character yourself.

In The Eight Arms and the Empire of Sin, the party went underground to search for a monster acting as an avatar of pride. Their guide was an ioun stone that ramped up the emotions of the character using it, so while the party was tracking a sin of pride, it was only because their peacock-themed paladin was falling prey to it. She felt the creatures of the caverns were beneath her, and she was pointedly not considering the possibility of an ambush, especially not one that literally popped out of the wall. A surprisingly crafty xorn approached them, perhaps a minor scuffle occurred, but in short order it had plucked the stone from around her head and swallowed it.

Thus entered the Xorn of Pride, who demanded to be addressed in title case but preferred more ostentatious epithets like King of the Earth or Super Kami Xorn. It was not the fastest, or the smartest, or the hungriest xorn, but if you tried to tell it that, it wouldn’t listen. Running it let me be as bombastic as I wanted, a high bar, and put the party in that wonderful state where they dislike an NPC as players but know they have to appease it as characters. They immediately created their own side quest to remove the stone from the xorn, more because he was annoying than because they needed it to progress, and it gave me a warm feeling when they decided killing it was neither productive nor necessary and instead took the moral high ground.

They never did get that stone back, which means there’s still a xorn running around convinced it’s the greatest thing on three legs. Every once in a while I bring it up, and the players remember they’re still going to have to deal with it one day. I don’t know if it’s anticipation or dread, but I think it’s more than anybody has cared about a xorn in decades.

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W’s for Were-Things, Since There Are a Million

This is a weird one. Because it’s sometimes a template and sometimes isn’t, and when it’s a template it goes by an L name but creates creatures that begin with W, but it’s a template so broad that each creature you make with it is technically three creatures, it’s not like anything else this month and arguably not like anything else in D&D. It might even be the thing this month mostly likely to be a PC. With all that going for it there was no way I was going to talk about witchknives instead.

D&D has several varieties of were-things. The most common are werewolves, but the rulebooks also have werebears, wereboars, weretigers, wererats, and occasionally dire versions of the same. Lycanthropy is usually a template that lets you rub a humanoid and an animal together until a monsters comes out, and though the resulting creature varies wildly in size, skills, and combat potential it’s universally better than the originals. Were-things don’t always lose their minds under the full moon, but they do always have DR against everything but silver, D&D’s…well, silver bullet for shapeshifters.

It’s this variability that makes them worthwhile. Need a big, strong monster who can throw wagons at the party? Combine a hill giant with a bear! Need a tricky sneak who can survive a few hits? Combine a halfling with a rat! Need a veteran of the Underdark who avoids capture by pretending to be an innocuous animal? Combine a dwarf with a giant bat! Most templates let you turn the original creature into something else, but lycanthropy can change any single creature into dozens of others. They usually have class levels to augment them further, from the obvious orcish werewolf barbarian lord to the significantly more ridiculous merfolk werefrog paladin. And you can add them to a group or adventure based on their race, their animal, their class, or anything else you want. They’re a blank slate you can use to accomplish nearly anything.

In fact, that freedom gets even broader when you strip away the lycanthropy itself and pretend you’ve made up a new creature (take a drink). The hybrid form of a lycanthrope keeps it mostly human but gives it several of the animal’s abilities. Consider the wererat, with its natural bite attack that inflicts disease. That can just as easily be a feral sewer-dwelling creature who sneaks around and ambushes lone victims. You only need to make a few changes. First, strip away the DR or change it to something more flavorful (“DR 5/attacks made in sunlight”). Second, if you don’t specifically want the monster to walk among townsfolk or pass unnoticed as a rat, take away the transforming entirely. It’s not a meaningful part of the CR, and if it doesn’t fit your flavor, don’t bother with it. Third, feel free to ignore the curse of lycanthropy it can inflict with its attacks. It’s probably safe to assume most DMs would be happier without the headache of accidentally cursing their players with combat bonuses. With those gone, there’s nothing left tying you to a specific transforming common-knowledge creature.

I’ve done this several times, especially using the 3E version of the template where you added the animal’s Hit Dice to the base creature’s. Remember when I said I’d spent forever trying to come up with a template for elite creatures? This is really, really close. I don’t always like the amount of number-crunching it takes, and I don’t always want to give tiger powers to my elite elven necromancer, but you could do worse than adding a bunch of levels onto a creature in a way that doesn’t give them overpowered monster abilities.

The only problem I see with lycanthropes, besides the bookkeeping concerns above, is that they’re all physical creatures. There aren’t any werewolf clerics or sorcerers because werewolves are about hitting things, not magic. It’s a bit of a shame, though I feel its limitations make it stronger. “Combine a humanoid and an animal” is already a task with a plethora of options. We don’t really need to make it harder by tacking on magical options too. The lycanthrope does one thing and does it well in an uncountable number of ways. That suffices.

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V is for Vampire, Very Vaudevillian

Four creatures from my love of Halloween made it into this month’s posts: the pumpkin, today’s monster, and two more yet to come. Given what letters remain it shouldn’t be too hard to figure them out.

Vampires in D&D are highly variable, just like they are in real life conventional folk tales real life. The stock D&D vampire has stock vampire powers and weaknesses, but there are also savage vampires and psychic vampires and hopping vampires and really old vampires who don’t look so good and vampire PC races in everything but name. There’s even a vampire class in 4E, which was as successful at starting a line of monster classes as Dracula Untold was at starting a Universal Monsters movie universe. But you probably know the most important bits: undead monster, sunlight bad, eating people good.

In fact, that’s kind of the problem with vampires. Everybody knows about them. If this is your first time on this or any gaming blog, you can probably still rattle off several vampire weaknesses, in order of common awareness: sunlight, stake through the heart, holy symbols, garlic, crossing running water, a compulsion to count dropped objects (that’s right, The Count from Sesame Street is mythologically accurate). Their powers vary, but the hits include flight, transforming into a bat, wall-climbing, a hypnotic gaze, and creating more vampires from people they drink. Variant and cultural vampires mix and match these or adjust them slightly, like the vampire burned by moonlight, but if your DM says “vampire” you already have an idea of what the creature can do and how you can kill it. You even know ninety percent of how it’s going to act: suavely, from the shadows, controlling minions, and probably all done with a very specific impression of Bela Lugosi.

The mystery of vampires is gone. They’re too culturally accessible. Anything that ticks off enough “obviously a vampire” boxes will send the players running for stakes and official Chosen By PelorTM prayer discs. Even the players who metagame the least can make a fair argument that their characters would know at least as much about vampires as the average television viewer does. But if you mix things up and make your own custom vampire with strange, scary, never-before-seen powers, are you actually using a vampire? Aren’t you just using a custom creature to whom you’ve attached the vampire brand? Why would you do that, except to say the word “vampire” to your players and feel smug when they assume something they have every right to assume? Vampires are defined by their weaknesses and powers. If you change their weaknesses and powers, you don’t get to say you’re using a vampire any more, and if you are using their weaknesses and powers for something else, you don’t get to be surprised or disappointed when the players treat it like a vampire anyway. Vampires haven’t meaningfully changed since the days of vaudeville, and it shows. It’s with some effort that I admit the most original take I’ve seen on them is Twilight, where they’re basically angels who can’t fly.

So if we have to use the creature basically as written without any reskinning or change in flavor, the only thing left is to take the creature as written and either turn it up to eleven or put it in places it doesn’t belong. The vampire class actually does a pretty good job of the latter; a vampire normally wouldn’t go dungeon delving or slum it in a tavern or make ineffectual passes at the party barbarian, but PCs do. As a DM I find the former more interesting, and in the Umbrageous Solidality and the Ghost Opera the players had to fight a nosferatu, a Pathfinder monster inspired by the movie of the same name. As with the umber hulk I upped the horror around the vampire, positioning him safely behind waves of minions and a plan greater than the party could reasonably stop. He killed people, he kidnapped others, and at one point he dominated a party member and left them as a sleeper agent until he needed them. At all times he was ahead of the party, and only by slowly dismantling his support structure behind his back were they finally able to challenge him directly. We played the vampire tropes almost perfectly straight but kept the villain far enough away from the party that they couldn’t steamroll him as soon as they heard his accent.

My favorite part of the villain was actually a metagame joke. I told the party he was hundreds if not thousands of years old and he had weird powers from long ago. Despite a few clues here and there, they didn’t meet him until halfway through the campaign, and then I think only one player put two and two together: he was a member of the 3.5E warlock class. His “powers from long ago” were from a previous edition of the game. They were strange and the players weren’t sure how to react to them, but the nosferatu itself was exactly as written and he was eventually killed by sunlight, probably. We didn’t need to mess with the vampire itself to make it interesting, we just needed to do interesting things with it.

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