Variant Zombie Tactics


The Monster Manual zombie isn’t a complicated or sophisticated attacker, but it possesses one trait that makes it memorable: Undead Fortitude, which allows it to pop back up and keep fighting even after it’s reduced to 0 hp. You never know how many hits it will ultimately take to stop a zombie. Ezmerelda’s Guide to Ravenloft additionally (and accurately) notes, “The horror of the shambling dead lies not in their individual menace … but [in] their numbers, their persistence, and their disregard for their own well-being.” One zombie, in the right circumstances, can be played for laughs; many zombies are legitimately unnerving, regardless of context.

Even so, after a while, zombie fights can become ho-hum affairs—especially past level 5, when clerics’ Destroy Undead feature can clear them out en masse. How can a Dungeon Master keep the thrill alive?

We can find part of the answer by looking to an unrelated monster: the troll. A troll, out of the box, is nothing but a hard-to-kill brute. However, the Loathsome Limbs variant, which allows the troll’s severed limbs to keep fighting independently, turns a troll encounter into something special. In a similar vein, suppose that a town’s response to an invading zombie horde was to make absolutely sure they didn’t get up again by hacking the corpses to pieces—and even that didn’t work. That’s one way you might end up with a swarm of zombie limbs.

A swarm of zombie limbs is an unthinking, mobile hazard that wanders aimlessly until it senses a living creature within the radius of its blindsight, then homes in on it. It has just enough intelligence that, if the creature it sensed moves beyond the limit of its senses again, it turns and heads in the direction in which it last sensed that creature, attempting to find it again. That’s its limit, though; unless some other outside stimulus acts upon it, it continues in that direction without turning. If no obstacle blocks its progress, hours might go by before it returns to its usual drunkard’s walk.

Aside from this behavior, there’s not a lot to say about the swarm of zombie limbs. It has one Multiattack comprising two attacks, Undead Mass and Grasping Limbs, and has neither the cognitive flexibility nor any good reason not to use both every time it attacks. Although Undead Mass is listed before Grasping Limbs—probably because Grasping Limbs includes a saving throw rider and Undead Mass doesn’t—that rider is exactly why it always makes its Grasping Limbs attack first, then its Undead Mass attack. If Grasping Limbs succeeds in restraining the target, the swarm can then make its Undead Mass attack with advantage on the roll. (I might drop the listed 2d6 necrotic damage to 1d6 if the swarm has half of its maximum hit points or fewer, following the usual pattern of swarm damage.)

One aspect of popular zombie media that’s absent from the D&D 5E zombie is the premise that people slain by zombies turn into zombies themselves. That’s something you could homebrew in if you wanted to, maybe using lycanthropy mechanics as a model—or you could instead decide to include a zombie plague spreader in any zombie horde of a certain size or greater. Stronger than a garden-variety zombie, the plague spreader also has Virulent Miasma, a one-use-per-day, area-effect action that deals poison damage to every humanoid within 30 feet, with the added effect of zombifying them if the damage reduces them to 0 hp.

The wording of this ability is worth noting; it stands in contrast to, say, the Life Drain attack of the wight, which causes a target to rise from the dead as a zombie only if its maximum hit points are reduced to 0. That threat seems scary at first, but when you think about it, it isn’t really: It means that the wight has to use Life Drain on every attack it makes against its target, and that the target has to fail every Constitution save it makes against the attack, for zombification to succeed. The chances of that aren’t high, even if the target is a mere commoner.

Virulent Miasma, on the other hand, has a real chance of zombifying a guard or other CR 1/8 bystander and might even take down a player character if they’re badly wounded enough and roll unluckily on their saving throw. There are two catches: First, the save DC is pretty low. Most PCs will have a 55 percent chance or better of succeeding, and even a commoner has a 45 percent chance. Second, the plague spreader gets only one chance to unleash it. It behooves the plague spreader to wait until the right moment to use it—but its thoughts aren’t coherent enough for it to be able to judge when that moment has come.

Thus, I propose three simple criteria, any of which is enough to induce a zombie plague spreader to use Virulent Miasma:

  • There are six or more living humanoids within 30 feet for the zombie plague spreader (per the Targets in Area of Effect table in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide).
  • There’s at least one living humanoid within 30 feet, and the zombie plague spreader is seriously wounded (reduced to 31 hp or fewer).
  • There’s at least one living humanoid within 30 feet, and it’s combat round 3.

The latter two criteria exist solely because the plague spreader may not get another chance to spread its plague. The first criterion is the one the plague spreader wants to meet, to the extent that it wants anything, and moves intentionally to pursue, to the extent that it has intent. Wherever the largest concentration of humanoids is, that’s the direction the zombie plague spreader goes in. Although it generally accompanies a horde of other zombies, it doesn’t hang back in the middle of the horde. It always takes point, so that the most space around it can be occupied by living humanoids rather than other zombies.

The Huge and scary-looking zombie clot seems at first to work a lot like the swarm of zombie limbs, but there are some key differences. First, it can see where it’s going. It still heads toward the nearest living humanoid—if possible, the nearest two living humanoids, but it’s not going to pass up one if it can’t get close enough to two. However, it’s not going to keep going in a straight line if its targets are serpentining around. Second, while it also seeks to immobilize enemies, it can’t take advantage of their restrained condition to whale on them, because the Flesh Entomb action protects a restrained target from external attacks, including attacks by the clot.

Usually, whether or not to use a 5–6 recharge action is a no-brainer: The answer is “Use it,” because it’s almost always significantly more powerful than a creature’s normal attacks or even its Multiattack. That’s not clearly the case with Flesh Entomb and the zombie clot’s two-Slam Multiattack. Its chance to hit a AC 18 melee opponent—fairly typical for a tier 2 adventuring party—is 55 percent, so it can expect two Slam attacks to deal an average of 20 damage, assuming the target isn’t a barbarian. Flesh Entomb, like a weapon attack, deals damage only on a failed save. However, since the zombie clot can fling a corpse clump at anyone within range, not just a melee opponent, we can assume a less optimal +2 Strength saving throw modifier, for a likely 65 percent chance of failure. Getting entombed by the clump deals damage both on impact and at the start of the target’s turn, so that’s an average of 26 damage before the target can do anything about its predicament—but multiplied by the probability of that predicament’s occurring, that 26 becomes a mere 17, not enough to justify it. Not enough by itself, anyway.

But here’s the thing: If the target doesn’t succeed on that first Strength save, they don’t get another. They have to break themself out (with disadvantage on attack rolls), or their allies have to break them out. That entails destroying the clump, which isn’t hard to hit but will take at least a couple of solid hits to destroy, possibly as many as four. If the zombie clot’s foes are busy doing that, they’re not attacking the zombie clot. That’s where the real benefit of this recharge ability comes in: It’s a distraction from the main fight. This dilemma adds an interesting twist to the encounter, which I have to give an appreciative nod to.

There’s another factor to think about with respect to Flesh Entomb, though, and that’s the zombie clot’s total lack of targeting savvy. With Intelligence 3 and Wisdom 8, all it sees are warm bodies; it doesn’t distinguish between one and another. Once again, we can posit a few mechanistic rules to govern the clot’s use of Flesh Entomb:

  • Since Flesh Entomb has a 30-foot range, the clot’s not going to waste it on a target that’s already within the 10-foot reach of its Slam attack. It targets a creature between 15 and 30 feet away. (That partially solves the problem of its being unable to tell an opponent with a high Strength save modifier from one with a low one: Foes with high Strength save mods will usually position themselves closer to it, while foes with low Strength save mods will stay farther away.)
  • If it takes damage from one or more creatures between 15 and 30 feet away from it, it aims Flesh Entomb at whichever of those creatures hurt it last. (It doesn’t remember anything before the most recent ouch.)
  • If it hasn’t taken damage from one or more creatures between 15 and 30 feet away from it since its previous use of Flesh Entomb, it chooses at random. Cases could be made for both the nearest such foe and the farthest, but the zombie clot couldn’t make either of those cases or any other, because zombie. Ergo, random.
  • If there’s no creature between 15 and 30 feet away, and the zombie clot is engaged in melee, it Multiattacks instead. Immediate problem first. If it’s not engaged in melee, it moves toward the nearest two or more living humanoids, and if that doesn’t bring it into reach of at least one, it looks around for a target for Flesh Entomb, taking that action if it finds any. Otherwise, what choice does it have except to keep advancing?

It almost goes without saying, but zombies are not just undead but possibly the most relentless undead that exist. No type or amount of damage—no anything, except Turn Undead—will induce them to turn tail and run.

Next: brains in jars.

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3 responses to “Variant Zombie Tactics”

  1. Lionheart261 Avatar

    Yeah, most sourcebooks don’t quite touch on some of the zombie niches mentioned here, but if any DMs here are in the market for other zombie variants and willing to seek out other sources, I’ve got you covered with a few more options that can be very easily transplanted outside of their books of origin.

    Husk zombies (Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount): pretty much 5e’s answer to the “runner zombie” and the mentioned idea of turning other people into zombies all at once. At CR 1, these guys are a decent step up from ordinary zombies with a 35 ft. movement speed, a robust +5 Con mod to make Undead Fortitude even more potent, and a Multiattack that lets them Claw twice and add an additional Claw attack for every killing blow. With an average of 6 damage a swing and a curse that brings back their victims as husk zombies within a round, a lone husk zombie can give rise to a horde very quickly under the right conditions. Very good replacement for when ordinary zombies just aren’t cutting it anymore.

    Strahd Zombies (Curse of Strahd): Pretty much just zombies with a troll’s Multiattack and Loathsome Limbs trait, making them the perfect stand in for ordinary zombies when paired alongside swarms of zombie limbs. I’d suggest renaming them to something like Zombie Graspers, reflecting how they still cling to life even in pieces.

    Greater Zombies (Tales from the Yawning Portal): Exactly what it says on the tin, these CR 5 zombies improve upon the base zombie in every sense. AC 15, almost 100 hit points, stat buffs across the board, added resistances and condition immunities including Turn Resistance, and a Multiattack of two “Empowered Slam” attacks that tack on 2d6 necrotic per hit. They’re powerful, but less tactically exciting than the other two, and probably work best as the brutish minions of a high level necromancer.

    I hope y’all find these added monsters helpful for spicing up your zombie encounters!

  2. Bluecho Avatar

    One thing that doesn’t get addressed much, but probably should, is incidental infections due to zombie attacks. Not ones that infect with zombie-ism, but that of normal disease (for a certain value of “normal”, anyway). After all, you don’t really want to be scratched, bashed, or bit by a cadaver, animate or no.

    DMs really should be making PCs roll CON saves to resist disease every time they get hit by a zombie. Maybe with a custom “zombie illness” table. Indeed, I argue this should be a standard ability for zombies, much like Loathsome Limbs ought to be standard for Trolls.

    5e kind of drops the ball for having only basic disease mechanics. Both mundane and supernatural diseases can add complications to the adventuring day (not to mention further tax party resources to magically heal them). With infectious zombie attacks, it turns a deceptively durable bit of cannon fodder into a problem that persists long after the monster itself is slain. Which is sort of the theme of the zombie: a problem that outlives itself.

  3. John Avatar

    Hi I love this blog and have the book and will recommend the player know what their doing to my players.

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