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.
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.
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.