Zombies and higher level gameplay



Hello everyone,

I have been recently pondering of some things (mainly zombies and skeletons) and how to make them viable challenge for higher level of gameplay. After a certain level these types of creatures tend to show up less frequently since only way of making them tougher is through racial HD of fallen enemies as they do not benefit anything from class levels due to their mindless nature. I would like to avoid that, since that includes using large or larger creature types most time and it tends to be kind of predictable.

So, myself being a fan of zombies and zombie movies, I would love to hear any idea's on how to make them tougher opponents or more challenging, unique or whichever might be fun. I have also some idea's of my own of course, but I would love to hear some insight of other people and how they would approach this.

Thanks upfront on replies,


Skeletal champions and/or zombie lords might be what you are after.


ericthecleric wrote:
Skeletal champions and/or zombie lords might be what you are after.

It might be, but in general it seems hard to justify more then one zombie lord to me at least. Skeletal champions are good choice in general.

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Use bigger numbers. Use "fast zombies" that aren't staggered. Allow zombies to have a floodlike hive mentality that makes them smarter and stronger as their numbers grow. Reflavor other forms of undead as zombies to give them better stats and unique abilities.

So basically turn them flood or left 4 dead zombies.

Shadow Lodge

You may kind of be falling into a bit of a trap of thinking a zombie is a zombie is a zombie.

There's the monster the Zombie, which can be tweaked in various ways that other people mentioned like using a zombie lord.

Then there's what people think of as zombies, mindless squishy (usually because of the rotting flesh) undead. So there is the opportunity to mix it up by applying the undead (or the zombie) subtypes to other things then a medium humanoid base.

The other thing you can use to kind of put the respect of the ol' zombie back into high level players can be considered slightly (or very) evil and old school. Some arbitrary number of the zombies, are infested with rot grubs.

The details for them are in Bestiary 3 but any undead can be a carrier for them and not be harmed.

Or there's the host zombies from classic horrors.

Some of it can simply be how you want to put the respect for the mob back into the group. One of the big things for zombies, can be sure they're easy to take out, but if you're not careful you may never feel clean again, or can still get pretty messed up.

We had a game where a psychotic necromancer was killing randomly in the forest to make friends and over the course of his journey the forest became a flood with undead woodland creatures.

Nothing makes a party go "WTF" like a half dozen flying squirrel squirrel zombies dropping on them while they are trying to figure out why that deer over yonder is missing a leg and half its face.

Creativity and numbers can make any low CR undead encounter fun.

I was thinking of using a bile-like spit ranged touch attack. Mostly because it would be gross and disturbing. I haven't checked to see if there's an ability already out there yet, but combine that with the exploding disease zombies and numbers and that might help.

One of the Baba Yaga adventures introduced the idea of Mob of Monsters to cover large groups of soldiers you could probably adapt those for zombie hordes (I think it was in Rasputin must Die)

there is also Aid another. A Pack of Zombies attacks a player, only 1 zombie makes the attack roll the rest just Aid granting it a +2 to hit each. Can do it with regular attacks or the drag down and feed style zombies where they Grapple, Pin and then the entire group proceeds to eat the PC.

The advantage of shamblers in the movies is sheer numbers. High level PCs might be able to one shot them but new ones can shuffle into their place. Under estimate them and let yourself get surrounded. 1 Grapple roll with +14 Aid Another bonus to hit.

Scarab Sages

I've turned them into Swarms before. Pulled down for 4D6/round and Sunder/Disarm rolls vs. your gear , as they tear off the armored bits to get at the meat underneath.

Scarab Sages

Troop rules from Rasputin Must Die! Terrifying swarms of zombies.

Silver Crusade

The zombies can be instructed to grapple then kill! Even weaker zombies can grapple effectively. It's a touch attack, so it will often work. Even martial types will sometimes fail the opposed grapple checks - zombies have full BaB, and may be quite strong. Once a PC is grappled, that PC is largely neutralized. The grappled PC is immobilized, and may be seriously threatened by a mass of incoming zombies.

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Ok Malag, let's face it; zombies need special effects. A lot of the suggestions so far revolve around turning the zombies into a swarm or just making them faster/non-humanoid. That's fine, but doesn't really get to the other part of what was in your OP which was you didn't want to just beef them with boring racial HD.

Well, if you don't want them just more durable and you want mindless killing machines, what're you going to do?

1. Have them be carriers: fill them with alchemical swarms or giant leeches; give them some kind of parasitic growth that acts like a CR2 Choker; make 'em more mummy like and dry inside, then fill them with a beetle or spider swarm.

2. Give them energies: maybe these zombies vomit or drip acid giving them 1d6 to their slam or a xd6 breath weapon; they might be filled with alchemical fire that, when exposed to air (they take a wound) they explode in a xd6 fireball; perhaps they're so juiced up with necrotic cysts that they deal +1d6 cold on a slam, plus 4 strength, plus 1 negative level unless a save is made

3. Spellstitched: this is a template from Libris Mortis back in 3x and essentially it allows a number of certain schools of magic (Necromancy, Evocation and one other I think) to be woven into the undead for SLAs/day. So, your zombies might be hitting with a slam while inflicting Blindness or maybe they move to the front line then convulse as a lightning bolt rips through them

4. Wondrous items: custom make some wondrous items that are Small to Diminutive sized; now insert those in your zombies. Yeah, its costly, but imagine zombies with gems in their rotten eye sockets that cloak them in perpetual darkness; a belt woven right into their rotting flesh that gives them a poison on their slam attack and lets them walk on walls and ceilings; maybe a few protection devices so they just keep walking right through that wall of fire unscathed and begin strangling the wizard?

Of course I also second all the excellent suggestions already made. If you have higher level opponents, don't be afraid to make giants into zombies, or maybe a bunch of hippogriff zombies ridden by skeletal champion cavaliers with bane lances. Don't discount the power of templates, necromancers with buffing spells, and good old fashioned tactics. If the ground suddenly opens beneath a 9th level wizard foolish enough not to have a fly spell cast on himself, and that hole contains a simple zombie horde that use Aid Another + Grapple to strangle the wizard instead of just slamming him to death, suddenly you've got a wizard who can't cast any verbal, has to make intense concentration checks, and is 5' down from the battlefield surrounded by enemies so anyone coming to save him has a tough time of it.

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Relentless Curse zombies are all you need to frighten party members.
Sure they cost 4*(normal HD+8) to animate at once, but they can charge, move and attack, have a climb speed, gain a bonus slam attack, get 2 extra hit die, and deliver bestow curse with every landed blow.

Players fear the undead when they know that touching one means they have can lose 6 points of any ability or gain a 50% chance to have their turn skipped.

Also, don't forget that Mudra skeletons don't have to be humanoid. You can make that dire bear skeleton into an acidic, burning dire bear mudra skeleton and let it do AOE damage, make 4 weapon attacks alongside its natural attacks, all while delivering acid and fire damage with every blow.

For added fun, have swarms hiding inside the zombies and skeletons that come out when attacked.

Mark Hoover's suggestions are great as always.

At higher levels where the zombies are not that difficult to defeat in combat, they can still pose a hazard or plot point. You would have to set up some sort of situation where the village (or whatever) is in peril from, say, Relentless Brain-Eating Plague zombies. And there is some sort of race against the clock setup where the PCs cannot just mow down zombies at their leisure.

Think also "zombie apocalypse" situations where the PCs are stranded in a small space which they must defend without access to outside resources; completely surrounded and vastly outnumbered. Have a hireling or pet infected with the zombie plague - often in films the threatening thing about zombies is getting bitten and infected rather than outright killed.

EDIT: How about one night of terror where the PCs have to face many many more than the four encounters they might expect, and they don't have time or safety to recharge daily abilities or consumables?


Thanks on replies everyone,

So far, there is some cool advices and ideas. Swarm types are really cool idea in general, but usually there has to be a reason for existence of such a large number of zombies. It's certainly reserved idea which I plan to implement in future and not a thought which didn't cross my mind.

Currently tho, my players are playing at level 14 in AP, which is pretty high even for a regular CR 1/2 zombie, but nearby necromancer had gained several dozens of corpses due to players not being so careful so I am pondering if there is something that can be done with it. Another reason is to prepare several unique encounters which I will probably need in around 4-5 weeks.

Keep up with ideas!


Well Apocalypse Zombies are only CR 2. How about some kind of variant Yellow Musk Creeper (Fiendish or something) that creates these hordes of infected plant-zombies, and when they die they release spores that spread the infection, potentially imperiling the entire region. Or they can be "grafted" onto each other to create larger (and higher CR) composite creatures.


@Mark Hoover
Some excellent advice there. I especially love the Spellstitched version and might just about use it in next session tomorrow.

@Angry Wiggles
Really good ideas with curse. Might use those sparely tho.
I have no idea what "Mudra skeletons" are. I'll check those out.

It did cross my mind to set up some sort of clock. Possibly with bunch of civilians involved, which yells to PC's to act fast.

I would love to expand that idea of zombie apocalypse with PC's being stranded on small space, unfortunately I don't know how. Currently PC's have access to Phase Shift, Teleport and Fly spells at all times (it's higher level after all) and using Antimagic Field isn't in my plan, so if you have some sort of idea as secondary short survival quest during AP, I am all ears.


Magda Luckbender wrote:

It's a touch attack, so it will often work.

That's 3.5 its straight CMB VS CMD in pathfinder.

Malag wrote:
I would love to expand that idea of small space, unfortunately I don't know how. Currently PC's have access to Phase Shift, Teleport and Fly spells at all times (it's higher level after all) and using Antimagic Field isn't in my plan, so if you have some sort of idea as secondary short survival quest during AP, I am all ears.

I agree it's hard to entrap them at that level. I don't know a good way to run em out of spells without it seeming like cheating. Level drain to leech away those high-level spell slots? Put them underwater during a hurricane so they can't easily teleport to the surface and negate many of the advantages of flying? It's like figuring out ways to challenge the Justice League.

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Malag wrote:

@Angry Wiggles

I have no idea what "Mudra skeletons" are. I'll check those out.
Classic Horrors Revisited wrote:

Mudra Skeleton: Sometimes known as “whirlwind skeletons,”

mudra skeletons are created with four or more arms, each
capable of wielding a weapon. A mudra skeleton’s Dexterity
increases by +4 (instead of +2), and it gains Multiweapon
Fighting and Weapon Finesse as bonus feats. (CR +1)

As your adding a template, the general rule is that for the cost of animating and the number of HD for animating, it's treated as though it has twice it's normal HD.

There are a number of both cruel and hilarious combinations of templates that can be made out of the walking dead section of Classic Horrors Revisited. For example, as zombie and skeleton templates are allowed to be mixed, you can theoretically create a cursed, mudra skeleton 8 headed hydra. The resulting monstrosity could make 12 attacks a round, with every successful attack forcing the victim to save against a permanent curse.


Yep. That's about same problem which I have. Luckily, I am mostly leading AP, which already has most of stuff built in.

@Angry Wiggles
I think you just made my day with this. I'll play around with them and see what can be made.


Ways to entrap them:

1. Wild magic zone or Dead magic zone
2. Zombies with rings of spell absorption sewn into them
3. a one-way demi plane like a roach motel; you can check in but not out. Of course the creator has a way out disguised somewhere on the plane, but you'll have to claw through hordes of zombies to get it.
4. Temporal displacement: the whole area the PCs are trapped in is phasing in and out of space-time. They might still plane shift but they can't fly or teleport out since they may be out of phase with their surroundings
5. dimensional anchor effect
6. Necromancer has a loved one for ransom: if the party doesn't play "the game" they won't ever see this person alive again (though they might be undead...)

I can't think of any more off the top of my head, but these might spark someone else's imagination.

1. Create a wizard NPC
2. Give him a long coat
3. Mount him on a fast zombie Tyrannosaurus
4. Throw him at your players
5. PROFIT!!!

Simplest reason of them all could easily trap them; they don't want to leave. A large amount of people they can't move, a location they don't want destroyed, protecting a spellcaster at a critical point in his research or casting some long complicated spell trying to put right the cause of the zombie apocalypse they find themselves in, etc. There are all sorts of ways you can trap the PCs with their own nobility.

**edit** Turns out it was my swipe keyboard that was capitalizing everything. Changed keyboards and all is good! Strange that it only did it on this forum though...

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SwnyNerdgasm wrote:

1. Create a wizard NPC

2. Give him a long coat
3. Mount him on a fast zombie Tyrannosaurus
4. Throw him at your players
5. PROFIT!!!


Some good suggestions so far.

Zombies can also be magically enhanced as can characters. Greater Magic Weapon, Haste, Blur/Displacement, Improved Invisibility, etc.

Try adding brown or yellow mold to the zombie. Brown mold could be smeared on its skin and shouldn't have any effect on it. Several such zombies close together could cause characters to be in multiple zones of effect at once. Yellow mold could be hidden in the zombie's clothing and burst loose when it is struck.

Use fast zombies carrying a thin stone container of green slime in each hand or attached a vest and ordered to charge and grapple their target would be annoying. If one's campaign has musketeers, the zombies could be hollowed out, filled with powder (in canisters of course), and use the same tactics.

There is also a third party spell (I'd have to hunt around to find it) that created a wide area effect that caused all creatures which died within it to rise as zombies. I don't mean the small area spells from the official 3.5 books. This one was something like 100 foot radius/level, though I applied some house rules to it since it was rather potent. Cast over a city or besieged fortress, sneak in some commandos to get things rolling and then the characters find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse movie since everyone who dies animates as a zombie shortly thereafter. Not only would they have to protect folks from the zombies, but they might be facing fallen friends and family as they try to find the focus of the spell and dispel it (thought they'd still have to hunt down existing zombies).

I agree that making the zombies work kind of like a swarm might be effective. If you don't go the swarm route you can rely on the fact that with enough attacks you'll eventually roll some nat 20s. You also might consider letting the zombies operate with somewhat better tactics than their mindlessness might suggest. They are natural experts on ganging up and mobbing people, so I'd think that liberal use of Aid Another when a PC gets surrounded might help the zombies shine. You don't need to be very good at attacking when your zombie buddies give you a +14 to hit.

When movie zombies damage you it is usually absolutely devastating, generally a one hit kill though possibly with some delay. The Brain Eating Zombie has Grab and a Bite Attack. Maybe you could put the Grab on the Slam and make the Bite either an extra attack on grappled foes or something which happens when the zombie successfully grapples you. Add a super nasty disease to the Bite and I think you could have a pretty good facsimile of a movie zombie. If you can keep them coming long enough the PCs should start running out of spells and maybe begin to grow desperate for sleep.

With such high level PCs you might want to make sure that you hit them with the zombie apocalypse when they're already low on resources and possibly lacking equipment. If you've got no equipment and you're low on daily powers even low CR monsters can be threatening.

A rogue necromancer experiement with troll flesh created the Amobea zombie. Each time you "kill" it it splits into two unless killed with fire.

Imagine your players faces when they hit that first zombie and it becomes 2. Imagine the fun when after discovering its weakness to fire they hit his second experiment the burned zombie which has the ability to absorb and release heat. Wizard "kills" it with scorching ray only to have it unleash that damage via a touch attack on who'evers closest (negate the high ac of the fighter too).

Then they find the my little zombie a friendly zombie pony that just wants to play. Literally no attacks, no harm just a friendly horsey that wants you to hop on its back and take it for a trot and if you have nicely squishy treats to give it that would be greatly apprecaited. Something he made for his zombie daughter to occupy her time.

Sovereign Court

I used the entire encounter and environment once that worked well for me.

PCs stopped in a small town. It was ghostly quiet but it was very late in the evening. PCs decide to stop at the inn for a nite cap and to get a room. What they didnt know is the BBEG had beaten them there. He pretty much had his minions decimate the town and turn the town folk into zombies. The PCs having a drink get a sneak attack from the bartender...."uh oh". Doors burst open as zombies pour in. PCs smile at one another and start chopping zombies up. they are having a grand old time until they see the smoke. PCs have to fight their way through but they just keep coming. Eventually they jump out the secodn story window. BBEG took off with their horses of course. :)

@Liam Warner - Troll experiments are an old favorite of mine. The Entropic template looks interesting for this. I never thought of what qualities the undead remains of such creatures might have though.

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