D&D Zombie Apocalypse, Part 2: The What Ifs

Copyright Wizards of the Coast and the ArtistIn part 1, I described how an improv D&D game I ran at the New York ComicCon had a Zombie Apocalypse as a setting.

While the game had nothing spectacular in terms of the encounters we played or the monsters the players fought (zombie wolves), the concept awoke my dormant creativity and sent into a spiral of ideas and concepts upon which a campaign setting could rest on.

The Fantasy Zombie Apocalypse What-If Game

Ever since that game, my mind’s been afire with the idea of running an actual D&D game during a Zombie Apocalypse. The game has the necessary resources: there are a gazzillion zombie creatures in the D&D Compendium, the Open Grave sourcebook has many ideas about them and, well, zombies are just too cool for school.

(Hello Phil? The 80’s called and they want that tacky buzz phrase back)

But here’s what makes ot so interesting to me, when you mix any generic fantasy world and apply a zombie plague over it, you get the most interesting concepts.

For a modern take on the subject, refer to this 2009 Halloween post of mine.

So why don’t we play my favourite of all creative games, the What-If game?

Minding the Zombie Problem

What if the plague is parasitic in nature and only affects denizens of the material world? That would mean all material-born creatures would be likely to fall to the plague… except possibly a few special individuals destined to fight or maintain it (read: characters and a few villains).

Could that imply that creatures originating from the Far Realms like Mind Flayers and Beholders are  immune?  That would likely mean that the illithids could take over the world… or would they if they can’t control or blast the minds of millions of mindless walking corpses? If you’re going for the classic brain-eating zombie plague, the mind flayers would actually have to deal with starvation as they race across the world to “preserve and ration” their food source from the ravening zombies. Maybe with a few nudges in the right places, the Flayers could be convinced to pack their bags and head back to the Far Realms, or at least go invade another material world.

In the same line, what of the denizens of other planes of existence (regardless of the cosmology of the edition of D&D you play)? With a world overrun by the mindless undead, it stands to reason that it could be the end result of a grand scheme of some god or demon prince of the undead. In fact, an actual global-scale zombie plague could mean that Orcus was finally successful and was spreading chaos and destruction on the material world. In such a version, the world would be run by a few of the Prince of Undeath’s chosen, psychopathic cultists with strange necromantic powers that allow them to sculpt undead flesh into unspoken monstrosities that defy even the grossest entries of your favourite Monster Manual.

Imagine a mimic made of undead flesh. A spider with the jaws of an alligator and 8 human arms. A red dragon with its head replaced by an undead Beholder.

Possibilities: endless.

You could make the cause of the plague a theme of your mini-campaign.  What caused it? A biological virus, a magical plague, a divine curse?  Answering questions like these would open new plot possibilities that you can develop (or not) as the action unfolds.

One of my favourite questions to explore would be “what of the other undead?” How would the catastrophic increase in near-mindless flesh-eaters affect the “Necrosphere” so to speak? I’d be particularly interested in exploring what the ghouls would do. What would thier king, Doresein, do if it noticed that its subjects were starving as the availability of  dead humanoid flesh dwindled to near zero? I’d explore how the King of Ghouls would go about hiring  the PCs through a front, not easy when 99% of humanoid life now shambles around, to solve his food problem.

Oh, what’s this? Two parallel explorations of ideas that lead to the same issue: Food. So what if you mixed the Mind Flayer plot line with that of the Ghouls. In a world where these two empires become forced to clash, which would the PCs side with?

And finally, what of a small shrine of a near forgotten goddess was rediscovered?  What if the sole relics she left behind were a rusted syringe-like contraption and a heavily damaged book of rituals explaining how to create something called, in a lost language, a Vhak-Ssine? (It doesn’t have to be that obvious). And what it these were the only known elements capable of curing the plague and immunizing against it?

Remember that in all those musings, I assume that the cure disease spell does work.  I just assume that much like our modern health systems, a virulent plague would overload the relatively small number of spellcasters that can cure it.

But what of the adventurers? How would we explain their resistance to the plague? Would they be likely to fall to it? And if so, what would Zombie rules for PCs be like in D&D 4e? What would they accomplish in such a bleak world. What would be a typical plot for a 6-10 sessions mini-campaign?

I leave those things for you to mull over and share in the comments.

As you can see from the very few examples above, a setting that’s been explored many times can still yield original and engaging adventure ideas by just asking a few questions and exploring where the answers could lead you.

I may tackle a part 3 in the near future where I discuss what form a zombie apocalypse mini-campaign could take.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Vampires would be alarmed as well… with their source of sustenance being tainted, at least, and quickly spiraling towards extinction.

    I’m leaning heavily towards a zombie apocalypse scenario in a 3.5e campaign that I should be starting next weekend. In fact, the player-characters will be haunted by nightmares of being caught in the middle as survivors of a world overran by zombies. I’ve decided to divide this campaign up into two different campaigns: a mini-campaign used to setup the main storyline and establish the house rules that will be necessary… and then the main campaign in which all hell breaks loose about 20 years later.

    For the mini-campaign, I’m going to do something like Dragonlance, in which I tie several things to the moons of the campaign world. There will be a ‘grand eclipse’ of the two moons, which weakens the boundaries between the material plane and the other planes. Certains rituals performed at a secluded ancient altar can (and will) tear openings between the material and other planes, allowing denizens from the other planes to enter the material world. I have already decided that such openings will be to the realm of the undead. I got this idea from a thread on enworld discussing an annual ‘night of the undead’ encounter chart. I just decided that one night a year was not good enough for me, so I expanded it to one night a month, the night of the new moon. This is the result I’m wanting anyhow, but I don’t want the players thinking that they have no effect on the story. So, the PCs will have the objective to keep it from getting much worse.

    The main campaign, set about 20 years later, will see a key city coming under a brutal seige, in which a wide array of weapons and dirty tricks are used. Chatty, you wrote an article awhile back in which you used a kind of ‘planar bomb’ that opened a gate to another plane and allowed another creature to come to the material world. Well, I intend to use those bombs… opening yet another gate to the undead world (and perhaps allowing the dreaded hungry zombies to come into play).

    I think its going to be a lot of fun. I told one of my players what I was planning and he is really excited about it. Twelve nights a year, the undead population will dramatically increase. Who knows, I might insert an option on that encounter chart that will gate in the beginning of the zombie apocalypse (that would be a long shot though, a 00 on a d100 might be too low of odds, but a 00 subchart with that option on it will probably be adequate).

    I also decided that I was going to do something positive with the ‘grand eclipse’ ritual as well. The undead part, on the new moons, will be more about the negative energy washing over the lands… raising undead from old battlefields and graveyards, as well as opening ‘rifts’. But on the full moons, positive energy will ripple through the world, weakening the undead and increasing the power of divine casters who channel positive energy. On the new moons, the living will go into hiding from the hordes of undead. But on the full moons, the intelligent undead will need to do the hiding because they will be weakened and hunted (my thought, for example: stripping vampires (and other undead) of any of their supernatural abilities during the full moon, while lycans are not weakened at all and positive energy clerics are more powerful than usual). Undead are still a threat on the full moon, but are far more vulnerable.

    I’m excited that we’ll be starting soon (Sunday, Nov 27, if it goes as planned). I can’t wait to see my players’ faces when the ‘grand eclipse’ ritual is completed right before their eyes, so to speak. I have a lot of things that I want to cover in the mini-campaign before reaching the ‘grand eclipse’, but it is clearly going to be the defining moment where the direction of the campaign world comes into a full, clear view to the players.

  2. Chuck Thompson says:

    Chatty, this module (J.E. Raggi’s Death Frost Doom) presents the exact scenario you are discussing. Here’s the product listing http://www.lotfp.com/RPG/products/death-frost-doom, and you can find many useful reviews online.

  3. Marche Hare says:

    Don’t know what system I’d use, but this sounds like an awesome campaign idea.