Monday, 25 June 2012

Z is for Zombies

One of my favourite bits of zombie makeup!

A staple of genre fiction. Whether they're shambling corpses, re-animated villains, or virally-infected berserkers, this particular form of Undead has been garnering quite a lot of media attention over the past few decades.

In fantasy, zombies are the mindless servants of Necromancers and Bad People. Mostly resurrected through manipulation of some dubious force (Dark/Black/Blood/Death/Plague Magic, Negative Energy, Curses and Hexes, whatever), they make good minions - they are too mindless for anything else. Your typical Fantasy zombie is slow, already rotting, and capable of only following the orders and will of their Master. No weapons for them - they'll claw and bite and scratch, like animals.
Occasionally, you get something closer to a flawed resurrection - Necromancers might raise loyal servants from beyond the grave, granting them some measure of their previous abilities. Unlike most zombies, these guys are sentient (though bound to their master's will), and might even be capable of full battle or spellcasting. They're sort of like a poor man's Lich, cheating death and becoming somewhat more powerful for it. Mostly kept to one or two per villain - an army of these wouldn't provide the proper sense of having "mooks" and "elites".

With someone in charge of their actions, these kinds of zombies can be a fair threat - they can be buried, and called out when they need to be used, or even used to make a bottleneck or a walking wall to cover other troops from attack. It's all up to how tactically-minded the one in charge is (and, if he's a proper tactician, a horde of Undead servants can easily turn the tide of any battle).

Modern Zombies are a different kettle of fish. Well, two distinct kettles of fish.

Firstly, the fantasy-like "slow zombies". Think Romero, Fulchi, the classics. Normally, they're created by a virus that reanimates the dead, or some other pseudo-scientific explanation - few seem to use the classic "Voodoo Zombie" archetype any more. The main problem with these is the fact that they operate without any other thought than hunger - and as they move slowly, you can avoid them pretty well. Note how there's rarely a single zombie? You can kill one pretty easy. A city of them, well, one of them's bound to get a lucky bite in somewhere. They need to be used as a horde to have much of an effect - and in some games, running such a thing can be troublesome (D&D has always had a little issue with mass combat). Operating something like 4e's Minions could help in such a situation, but most games might have issues balancing such a large group of enemies. Without numbers on their side, they're just too stupid to provide any real threat, and with numbers, they can very easily overwhelm even the best-prepared group.

Second, you have the Fast Zombies - almost always scientific, and most often not actually dead (yet). Mutated strains of rabies are a perennial favourite explanation (because rabies is fucking horrifying). 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead are the main codifiers of these bad boys. While still somewhat stupid, they make a far more pressing physical threat - they're faster and stronger (due to being uncaring as to how much damage they do to themselves), incapable of feeling pain or fear, and are purely designed as vectors for their chosen Zombie Virus. Some might even be able to use simple weapons, like clubs and cudgels (which can add a little extra "oomph" to their attacks). In hordes, they become practically unstoppable.

"I took Cleave and Greater Cleave. I'll be fine."
But the one defining trait that both the modern types have? You have to destroy the brain. Headshots, blunt force trauma, fire, electrocution, doesn't matter how - you just need to kill the brain to kill the beast. In modern systems, this means Called Shots - Called Shots everywhere. And, as you normally need to pour a lot of points/skills/whatever into them to make them somewhat effective, most people will rely on attacking them normally, ruining some of the charm of the zombie genre. Look at The Walking Dead - despite being ostensibly gritty and "realistic", characters can pull of several headshots in a row, on moving targets (albeit slow-moving ones), while running for their lives, on a regular basis. You just try that according to many Modern RPG systems. I'll wait.

... Harder than it looks, right?

One compromise I might make (if you want a more "cinematic" zombie experience) would be to make headshots easier. A selection of mechanics might include:
  • Any "critical hit"-type effect automatically becomes a headshot, killing the zombie instantly. Means even an untrained character has a chance to do it with some reliability.
  • Make Called Shot mechanics more easily available, or reduce the penalties (against a zombie, a Called Shot to the head involves no penalty) for using them without training (at least in close quarters - long range penalties still apply).
  • Certain weapons (like shotguns, or maybe high rate-of-fire weapons) might have an increased Critical Threat range, to up their chances of hitting the head.
Fantasy zombies lack that particular weakness (mostly) - you have an arcane force possessing a body, doesn't matter whether it's got a head or not, it'll still be driven by the will of the one who bound it into that body. This makes them a lot more dangerous - destruction or dismemberment of the whole body is required. Weirdly, most rulesets ignore this somewhat, and make zombies very low-level combatants. A strange one, considering the amount of damage you should need to do to kill the damn things.

While I love zombie literature and cinema, one of the most recurring themes is that the zombies aren't the main threat. It's what other people will be willing to do in such a situation - whether it's leaving their friends to die, using the chaos as an excuse to loot, pillage, and generally make a nuisance of themselves, or to see everyone else as a threat, regardless of their intent. Zombies are simply a catalyst for the breakdown of modern societal rules - and while some will cling to them (almost overbearingly), some will equally take the chance to cast them off, embracing savagery and horror that would make any normal person disgusted, all with the excuse of survival.

When running a zombie game, however, zombies should still be a big threat - but sometimes, you need a band of slavers, or cannibals, or some threat closer to home than the Undead - just to bring forth the real horror of the situation the PC's find themselves in.

...and I'm spent! An A to Z tour of what I do, what I like, and what I don't. Thanks for reading! Normal service will now be resumed.

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