Making Undead Cool Again
Undead are boring. We’ve gamed them so much they’re predictable and common. But that’s not going to stop me. For the fantasy city campaign I’m planning, which has no name yet, I’m adding undead. Lots of undead. And I have a plan. It’s an evil plan. A plan that, if you heard what it was, you’d clutch your character sheet and run screaming to a different GM.
Here’s my plan.
Give Them Leaders With a Mission
The first thing I’m doing is hitting up my bucket list. As I mentioned issues ago, I have a wishlist of cool gaming moments, elements, and products I want to GM before I roll my last die.
I keep this wishlist in a small Field Notes square grid notebook. If an idea hits me away from home, I’ll add it to Evernote, and then transcribe it into the notebook. I’ve just started this practice. Before, I had only had a blog post and some notes spread around in different books. Now I have just one simple notebook. And hopefully I fill it with new ones fast. One can never have enough inspiration.
So in my wishlist are a bunch of monsters I want to run in upcoming campaigns. I scratched tarrasque off last campaign. That bad boy co-destroyed Riddleport in the grand finale. I’ve got many more critters on my list to go.
And I’m taking a half dozen or so for my new game and making them undead. These creatures will be the leaders of different undead factions operating within the city. While each amazing monster chases its own agenda, they also pursue a terrible common objective. This gives me my bucket list, campaign plot, and city design elements all on a delicious zombie platter.
The tip I’d like to pass on to you is to revitalize your undead by combining them with other creatures and monster types to surprise your players. A platoon of githyanki ghasts dive-bombing in on flying zombie dolphins might just catch the PCs unawares.
Give your undead a driving urge or motive, too. Switch up the classic situation where they are just lying around for centuries waiting to animate or escape. Instead, have them animate and escape pre-campaign. Then give them some form of leadership and a purpose for the PCs to tangle with during the campaign.
Maybe the mummy storm giant wants revenge. The lich beholder wants to resume his foul arcane experiments. And the death knight black dragon has some lands to re-conquer.
Give undead in your game a role greater than XP salad. Make them smart and organized. And have them pursue an evil plan with the intense focus only an angry alien mind can muster.
Give Them Society
Skeletons keep whacking until they’re a pile of bones again. Zombies shuffle along until their legs get cut out from under them. Ghouls and ghasts just attack until fed. Where’s the roleplaying? The intrigue? The plot?
For this campaign, I’m giving the horde some culture. I might even teach the yoghurt heads some manners. I’m using my 3 Line Culture technique to create several factions with interesting identities and roleplaying opportunities.
I’ll give each faction a monstrous undead leader, who will influence their faction’s:
- Membership makeup
- Action style
With culture and aims designed, I’ll give the undead intra-horde conflicts on three different levels:
- Species vs. species (e.g., dogs hate cats, vampires hate _____)
- Leader vs. leader (territory and resource disputes, strategy disputes, and rival vendettas and hatred – a terrific fruit punch of strife!)
- The horde’s common goal and what tribe or faction wins the big prize first
Last, and perhaps the best way to make undead interesting again in this campaign, is they can all think and talk. Even the skeletons will become NPCs. And the party can interact, roleplay, scheme, and conflict with them all as they see fit.
Give Them Unexpected Mechanics
If sentience and personality aren’t enough to surprise and entertain players, I have two more game mechanics I’m going to layer on.
Undead are contagious. That should terrify even priests and paladins, because there’s going to be at least three different kinds of infection:
- Bite me. A good solid bite should make walking dead out of at least a couple party members.
- You’ll make a great dad. Riffing off the recent Alien article, some undead will lay their eggs into PCs. A red dot means you’re going to be a parent!
- Geiger counter. Speaking of Aliens and the late artist H.R. Giger who inspired them, some undead will emit radiation that erodes your life force until you are one of them.
The infection mechanics I think will not only change the tone of the campaign to one of fear and horror, but it will transform the setting and nature of gameplay.
First, I’ll create an infection meter. It will climb as the campaign winds on and the undead spread, making the area ever more dangerous to trespass. Just having infectious undead means they become a dynamic campaign factor, a measurable tension, and a looming doom.
Second, the PCs will have to rethink their hack’n’slash approach. It’s one thing to grind toe-to-toe with skellies and then take their loot, but it’s another when that fight means you wake up the next morning with no skin and a rattle when you walk.
The second mechanic has the undead evolving rapidly over time. It’s another tension meter pulling at the players to act smart and fast.
Lower undead transform into higher undead. Skeletons and zombies become ghouls and ghasts that become ghosts and reapers. Did you ever play the board game Titan, where monsters travel the board and evolve? It’s an app now. That’s the type of thing I’m thinking of.
And here’s where I need your help. I’m struggling to figure out an elegant mechanic for this evolution. Is it time based? Or based on kills?
Or maybe it’s a terrifying family tree based on infections and spawning more. A multi-level mummification pyramid scheme.
If this was your campaign, how would you have the undead become tougher and more powerful and evolve while the PCs try to survive? Hit reply and let me know.
Modify your undead in your next campaign to catch your players off-guard. Give them cultures, personalities, and new mechanics. Nothing says you can’t change things up and make your campaign special this way. Remember, flying zombie dolphins are NPCs too.