D&D Zombie Apocalypse, Part 1: Genesis

Zombie Wolves by ICanHazCheesburgerA few weeks ago, I got to attend  New York’s ComicCon as one of Wizards of the Coast’s volunteer DMs. I ran a few “Learn to Play” events, using the recent D&D Red Box and a few level 1 pre-generated characters to entice new (and returning) players back into the fold.

As I was getting ready to play the less than stellar adventure found in the Box, the event’s organiser pulled me aside and told me these magical words:

“Forget about the red box adventure, make something up entirely. Just start with a Roleplaying encounter and play it by ear from there.”

I had just given me the keys to the kingdom… and no one was there to watch me steal the crown jewels.

(Ewww, get your mind out of the gutter!)

You see, while the adventure in the Red Box is quite ordinary and the character generation method is one of the worst I’ve seen since Battlelords of the 23rd Century, the Red Box’s DM’s book is a solid piece of introductory gaming. Thus, armed with the monster chapter and the digest rule-42 on the last page (i.e. the DC table for level 1-3 gameplay), I got ready to inflict my very own brew of D&D on unsuspecting players.

I decided to put all my small press experience to bear on those games and approached the game as such:

Chatty: Okay, so you’re all relatively new adventurers who’ve banded together in the recent past. Can you tell me about your last adventure? More specifically, can you tell me one thing that went really good for your group and what that was really bad…

This post is about one of the best answers I got:

The Zombie Apocalypse, Indie Style

Player #1 (Human Paladin) : The GOOD thing we had is that we’ve so far managed to survive the Zombie Apocalypse.

Chatty (trying to imagine what a fantasy zombie apocalypse would be like… and trying to scale it to a 2 hour game): That’s… interesting. Are we talking regional, continental or global apocalypse?

Player #2: Let’s say “continental”

Chatty (Doing double-time building a setting scaffold in his mind): All right, and if that was the “good” thing, what was the bad one?

Player #2 (Dwarven slayer): Well see… I kinda caused the apocalypse… I kinda was supposed to help my necromancer friend and things got… complicated.

(Oh man, I live for moments like that.)

Chatty: You did? Now THAT is interesting. Does your adventuring colleague know about that?

(Player one was grinning like an idiot at that point.)

Player #2 (Sheepishly): No… I kinda grabbed him real fast and dragged him out of my necromancer pal’s dungeon as the plague was spreading.

(Call it what you want, but in my book, this is true roleplaying.)

Chatty: So basically you guys have survived for some time huh? So this game will kinda be like a 28 Days set in the world of D&D right?

Player #1 (Already passed the point of excitement): Oh YES, this is SO cool!

I had the ingredients needed to fill 2 hours of pure, undiluted D&D gaming.

The Clan of the Dead

I decided to set a classic 6/3 skill challenge where the characters (a 3rd player had joined by that time) were trying to reach one of the few remaining reinforced surface outposts before being overtaken by… (I flipped through the Red Box’s monster chapter) Zombie Wolves!

But Chatty you ask, there are no Zombie wolves in the Red Box.

Yes there are… I’ll show you later, but right now we don’t need stats since the PCs might actually make it alive and outrun the wolves.

(That’s a huge time saving secret just there, don’t refer to stats untill you actually need them… and that’s only if you didn’t make them up in the first place.)

So I ran the challenge very loosy goey, asking the players how they tried to outrun the wolves, slow them and find ways to deal with them. I told them that whatever they managed to win or lose the scene, they would make it into the cave… the challenge was: How hurt and how many wolves would be after you by the time you got there…

Sadly, the players lost the challenge so I decided to make the next encounter into a combat one where the characters had to fight off the zombified versions of 2 wolves and a Dire Wolf… After having inflicted each PC the damage equivalent to a bite…

Things were, pardon the pun, dire indeed.

So how did I zombify the wolves? Real simple. I lowered all thier defenses by 2, bumped thier damage by one category and added the “dies on a crit” feature (which, sadly, never came into play). Had this not been a one-shot game, I would have also added the “Zombies get up the round following getting dropped to 0 HP” power.

The players eventually beat the wolves with very savvy use of fire, chokepoints and the mindlessness of the creatures themselves. I was proud of the players and they were having the time of thier lives. Player #1, who was a 20-something New Zelander who used to play way back when, promised me he was going to start playing again.

There’s no sweeter sound a DM likes to hear in such events.

As I recounted the experience to Dave, we agreed that the concept of a Zombie Apocalypse that wiped out most civilizations from both the surface and underworld would make for a very rich fantasy setting for a mini (5-10 sessions) campaign.

Why don’t we explore this in part 2?


  1. Nice setup technique, you got there!

    “Tell me one good thing and one bad thing about your last adventure” – love it!

  2. There must be something in the water, because I was just jotting down notes (some on the blog) about a D&D Zombie Apocalypse!

  3. A very neat, quick setup. I’ve actually read your post about the ‘adventure scaffold’ and I think it’s a great, very speedy way to let an adventure more or less build itself. I’ve always wanted to do a massive scale zombie adventure using the d20 modern system, but my wife is TERRIFIED of zombies and she’d never forgive me. I’m glad you were able to inspire the New Zelander to start playing again!

  4. Thanks Chatty. I’ve been running games for years and years, and am now able to really enjoy gaming as a player. However, now I want to start drumming up and running a zombie post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. I know it’s been done several times over, but there’s a reason such a play would be grinning as he realizes such a game is what he’ll be playing for the next couple of hours.

    Hmmm, now to overthrow my GM…

  5. @Eric: I knew you’d love that. It’s one of those “It looks so simple yet ain’t” things about GMing. So far it works wonders!

    @ProfPope: I blame Halloween. 🙂 Let me know what you posted!

    @Paul: Thanks for the kind words. I think that the concept of the adventure scaffold is a great tool for intermediate GM’s ready to explore running freeform adventures without feeling like there’s no structure to rely on.

    @Tourq: Such settings are perfect for mini-campaigns. You could plan a short comeback.

    Thanks for the comments everyone, I missed this.

    (That usually kills the thread too… sigh)

  6. @chatty I’d love to hear more about the ups and downs of this technique 🙂

  7. Nicely done. Watch out though. Sometimes you’ll dig up Pb instead of Au via this technique. Still, as long as the players will buy into the story you can turn anything into the shiny stuff.

  8. So, let’s pose a hypothetical situation:

    The zombie apocalypse has happened, the players are in ‘survive and find survivors’ mode. How do you end this campaign (or which ending do you plant seeds toward)?

    Would the players find a way to end the zombie apocalypse, then look out at the ashes of their destroyed world?

    Would they abandon their homeland, and lead the survivors on an exodus to safety (another continent, another plane, or even another reality)?

    Would you end the campaign like many zombie movies, where they finally reach the haven they have been seeking, only to discover that it too is overrun by zombies, fade to black, roll credits…?

  9. Wow, that sounds awesome. I think it’s really cool that you let the players pretty much create the entire backstory, letting them play the game they wanted to play. I’m gonna have to try that approach the next time I can get some friends together for a game.

    I was at NYCC and was in the D&D area for a while, but I didn’t play any actual D&D, because I thought it was only for new players. I did get to try out the new Legend of Drizzt board game, which was enjoyable, but the guy moderating the game was a little out of it and didn’t always pay attention, and it was a little awkward playing with people I didn’t know. I think it’d be fun with friends, but most games are usually more fun when played with people you know.


  1. […] In part 1, I described how an improv D&D game I ran at the New York ComicCon had a Zombie Apocalypse as a setting. […]

  2. […] In part 1, I described how an improv D&D game I ran at the New York ComicCon had a Zombie Apocalypse as a setting. […]