The Design & Development article series premiered on the D&D website back in September 2005, and has been a staple ever since. With the approach of 4th Edition, and our designers and developers focused on the new edition, this column will be the primary vehicle for 4th Edition coverage. We’ll not only give you peeks at what’s forthcoming, but also the “how” and “why.”
Keep in mind that the game is still in a state of flux, as refinements are made by our design and development staff. You’re getting a look behind the curtain at game design in progress, so enjoy, and feel free to send your comments to email@example.com.
Shambling, mindless corpses are getting all gussied up for 4E Although it might be hard to believe that something as simple as an animated carcass needed an overhaul, with ample influences in movies and video games, the designers knew the zombie was an ideal guinea pig for applying the new monster philosophy. So they set about keeping the zombie simple to run, but they gave it a clear role and made it feel more like the zombies from the big screen.
Every 3rd Edition D&D player thinks of a zombie, at best, as a tough bag of hit points that can take a beating. At worst, the zombie is seen as a really slow fighter or grist for the turn undead mill. Unfortunately, a Large or smaller 3E zombie really required a weapon to be scary on the damage-dealing side, and they were a lot easier to take out than any movie zombie.
Rethinking the zombie required harkening to the zombie in popular culture while maintaining the D&D elements that make undead cool. Zombies move slowly, dragging their lifeless feet, and it takes a heck of a blow to kill one, so tough is right. But zombies don’t pick up weapons, even convenient ones. They tear you apart with their bare dead hands. They overwhelm you with numbers, drag you down, and eat you.
The new zombie is a brute with just enough reasoning power to know who to kill. It’s easy to hit—zombies don’t dodge—but it’s rotten body just soaks up blows that would kill a living creature. You had better be hitting the zombie hard every time, or it’ll just keep coming. If you manage to hit it really hard, say with a critical hit or a power that deals hefty damage, you might just take the creep out in one fell swing.
That’s right. I did say, “critical hit.” The zombie is vulnerable to that now, which is sweeter than a head shot in any zombie flick.
If you’re a player, take a moment right now to thank the merciful designers that turn undead is still in the game. That power doesn’t send the zombies running off to gods knows where, but if it doesn’t turn them to putrid dust, it does hold them at bay. Believe me—you don’t want zombies close to you. Even though they won’t come wielding greataxes, zombies can take your head off with their vicious slams. The bigger the zombie, the uglier the thump. And when zombies swarm you, some of them are going to grab you, maybe even pulling you to the ground. That’s not the place to be when the dead come knocking.
As a DM, you don’t have to worry about creating the gnoll zombie or the orc zombie. The one set of Medium zombie statistics should do you fine. The players won’t know the difference, except by virtue of your descriptive talents. They should be most worried about the pummeling their characters are taking anyway.
At appropriate levels, a fight against zombies should look more like a horror movie scene. Protagonists have to maneuver to keep away from the possibility of devastating damage while trying to cut their way through a relentless wall of dead flesh. The players get a thrill when a zombie goes down to massive damage, and the DM gets the satisfaction of using a monster that lives up to popular expectations.
It’s a whole new game, even from the very bottom of the undead barrel. Now if we only had a few zombies that added some spice to the basic shambling corpse recipe. Perhaps I’ll go dig a few up for our next look at zombies....