Whether your party is traipsing through a cemetery at night, assaulting the necromancer’s tower, or defending against an undead incursion, they will be dealing with zombies. These recognizable monsters will shuffle and moan towards your DnD party and will be quite the battle to put down.
But of course, having monsters scream and shuffle towards your party gets old after a while, so how do you make zombies fresh in the minds of your characters and the players who play them? Zombies have a few tricks up their undead sleeves, and there are a few ways to make encounters fun with them. Read on to see our full Zombie 5e Guide.
What are Zombies?
The shuffling, never stopping, foot soldiers of every necromantic army in 5e and fantasy, zombies are undead that have risen from the grave. Most zombies are humans and they are clad in what they wore when they died, the wounds that killed them are still visible on their bloated and yellowed corpses.
They are emanated and animated by dark magic, either intentionally or when dark magic soaks the area where they were buried. Once they rise, they either follow the commands of a master or wait in the area for something to kill, attacking all living creatures once they are seen.
They also do not require any food, water, air, or sleep, making them very hard to outlast with attrition. Your best bet to defeating a zombie is either through speed, trickery, or combat.
Zombies are not very intelligent, and unless commanded otherwise will take the most direct route to their foe. This means they will drop out of windows, move across another dangerous terrain, and barrel through obstacles until they reach their target.
How do Zombies Work in 5e?
Zombies in 5e are medium undead monsters, and they shuffle forward towards the party with little regard to tactics and their own safety. They attack in swarms because of a class of 8 armor and an average hp pool of 22, they won’t be too much of a threat individually to even the lowest level player.
Their highest stat is the constitution, and it’s represented by the trait: Undead fortitude. According to their stat block, this trait does the following: If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5 + the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.
For example, if a wizard ‘kills’ a zombie with a spell that does 10 damage, the zombie would need to make a DC 15 saving throw. On success, they don’t die but drop to zero hp instead. This lets them stay in the fight for one more round.
Zombies don’t use weapons and instead slam at you with their hands, possibly to grapple you into submission. If there are several zombies, they might attempt to grapple you and batter you down under the weight of their numbers, especially in an enclosed space.
The Advantages of Zombies
There’s a reason zombies are inside of every undead army, and why every necromancer always has a few lurking around. Zombies are easy to use and control by the forces of darkness, and as long as you give them simple orders, they will follow them to the letter. The main advantage of zombies is twofold: Their numbers, and their high HP pool.
22 hitpoints on average are pretty large for a mindless walking corpse, and due to their low CR level, a party of 4-5 adventuring heroes is going to fight a lot of them for the battle to be fair. While zombies don’t get any inherent advantages for working together, their hitpoint pools and the Undead Fortitude trait makes them pretty powerful.
While they aren’t going to defeat the party outright unless some bad dice rolls are made or the party has been bloodied from a previous encounter, they will force the party to spend some spell slots, healing items, and other resources that they could have used against tougher enemies.
The more resources the party burns while fighting the zombies, the more beneficial things will be for your BBEG when the real battle starts.
The Disadvantages of Zombies
If you see zombies as damage-soaking fleshy tanks, then you would be right as their role. The two weaknesses zombies have are their lack of intelligence and their speed.
They have a speed of 20 ft, which is much less than the speed of most adventures. Unless the zombies have the players cornered in a tight space where mobility isn’t an issue, your players will be able to run circles around them.
Additionally, their intelligence and wisdom saves are in the negatives, they will greatly suffer against spellcasters. A decent wizard will be able to use any spell he wants without too much regard for saving throw successes on the enemy’s part.
How to Make Zombies Fun
So the zombies are slow, shuffling, and they slam you to death. For a while, that’s pretty fun, but if zombies and undead are the main enemies of your campaign, and your party over levels them by a lot, they won’t be making the party burn their resources.
While you could chuck more zombies at them, it is much more fun to introduce some new rules and abilities to make zombies fun!
Pair Them with Other Undead
First, any necromancer worth his salt won’t just have dumb zombies moving around. They’ll have other undead too. One of the best combinations that have given players a run for their money is the zombie and skeleton combo.
Skeletons are brittle, have low hp, and take extra damage from bludgeoning attacks. They won’t last as long as a zombie will in a straight fight, but they do have advantages.
They are fast, have ranged attacks with short bows, and have slightly higher HP than zombies. Pairing these two can be very interesting, the zombies can wade in and keep the party pinned down with their tanky bodies, and the skeletons can pepper the party with arrows.
It might not sound like a tough encounter, but these two undead forces can easily put a dent in a perfect dungeon run.
Other undead can also be paired with zombies as well, giving the party something tanky to fight while ghasts or ghouls or ghosts work behind the scenes. Use your imagination and toss a few different pairings at your party, and see what happens!
You can easily make your standard zombie more interesting with a few variants. Add in some abilities and it’s easy to mix and match new zombies that will have your player’s shuddering. Maybe these variants even depend on how the zombies died in life.
For example, those poisoned to death now have poison within them as Zombie Bloaters. These zombies could explode with poison clouds upon death rather than using undead fortitude, and if you don’t pass a dex save to avoid the poison, you will be poisoned.
Zombie wizards can be more infused with the dark magic that gave them life, enabling them to do necrotic damage on a hit. Perhaps they have a one time use of a spell or other magical ability.
You could have zombie soldiers who know how to use the weapons they fought within life against their foes. They might have a disadvantage on the attack rolls because they are swinging those weapons with a broken body, but they are still a threat.
Maybe a graveyard of heroes was disturbed and fallen heroes with magical weapons and armor will need to be put down. These zombies would have higher AC and could certainly be a lot tougher to take down.
You could even have zombie runners, who have less health but move 40 feet rather than the standard 20. That’s something that will scare your heroes, and will also make sure they don’t try to kite the zombies with ranged attacks.
Zombiefy Other Creatures
Zombies don’t just have to be human. Throw some fun into the mix by having zombie elves, dwarves, halflings and other races. They can be statistically the same as the normal human zombies, but a little cosmetic change is always cool. Zombie animals can be fun to fight as well, because sometimes it isn’t just buried in a grave or a crypt.
You can also have zombie monsters, such as minotaurs and bugbears, or even a zombie dragon. These creatures would be the same statistically as their living counterparts, but the zombie’s low intelligence, wisdom, and would be immune to poison would be.
Otherwise, the fight would play out as normal. Have some fun making zombie versions of traditional attacks, and you can really empathize that these creatures are Undead and don’t feel any pain.
There’s nothing like fighting a zombie bugbear, slashing off its arm with a critical hit, and then watching it mindlessly keep coming. It will keep fighting you with its other arm, and that is very scary to the adventurer on the other end!
Question: Do Zombies Have Weaknesses?
Answer: While most horror movies tell us to aim for the head when it comes to handling zombies, the 5e official statblock doesn’t show any vulnerabilities or weaknesses for zombies. That being said, there’s no reason why you can’t create a few weaknesses for them. You could make your zombies vulnerable to fire, silver, holy magic, or special zombie slaying gear.
Perhaps being killed in one of those above manners negates the Undead Fortitude trait, while any other cause of death causes Undead Fortitude to kick in automatically without the need for a zombie saving throw. Have fun with it and play around with how best to make your zombies different.
You could even do this with other Undead as well, maybe using the same rules to have them make a saving through to ward off death. If they pass, then they make it through with one HP and continue to fight.
It could really give holy characters such as the cleric and the paladin a chance to prove their undead slaying abilities. Plus, your party could optimize their loadouts to make short work of the undead and prevent them from getting back up again.
Question: Do Zombies Carry Disease?
Answer: No, in 5e zombies have no bite attack and don’t turn you into a zombie if their attacks touch or pierce your skin. Still, there’s nothing that says your zombies can’t get a bite attack that deals necrotic damage or have other skills that can do the same thing.
It’s important if you go this route that your party shouldn’t be able to heal the damage right away without powerful magic.
Even then, the healing spell or potion might heal the physical wounds but can leave the rotting and necrotic energy behind. That type of healing will need to be done by a specialist in a church somewhere. Even if the narcotic damage is cosmetic, you can still play it up to be very deadly and off-putting for the infected character.
Necrotic damage is basically the opposite of radiant magic. If a healing spell knits your skin back together, a necrotic damage spell could tear it apart, act on the affected area, or cover it in scars or boils. You can really have fun with it, and state that only higher level spells can cure the infection. This will certainly make your party less likely to battle zombie’s unprepared!
Question: Are Zombies Mindless?
Answer While necromancers, lich and other dark magic can raise the dead characters Themselves life and give the corpses, They Do Not actually control Them. Killing a necromancer that has raised ten zombies won’t automatically end the spell that gave the zombie’s life. It’s a self contained spell, so they will still be alive.
Zombies can be controlled by the one who raised them, but they can’t do much more than charge forward and attack an enemy.