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Doctor Blake pulled on her rubber gloves and leaned over the cadaver on the table, which half an hour earlier had tried to kill us. "Strictly speaking," she said, probing the body's skull with a scalpel, "the true Haitian zombie is a victim of the so-called 'Zombie Cucumber'. It's a powerful drug that puts the subject in a cataleptic state. The subject is presumed dead and actually buried alive. The effects of the drug and oxygen deprivation on the brain leaves the subject docile and highly suggestible, and they make lovely lab assistants…"

She paused, as she noticed that we were staring at her.

"…hee! Or so I've heard!"

Basic Information

A zombie is a human or animal corpse reanimated through magic (especially necromancy), super-science, or other means. In many stories and settings, zombies will attack people on sight. In some cases, their bite will infect humans, causing them to become zombies after death as well.

There are three generally recognized categories of zombies in regards to film criticism, to which we add a fourth for RPG purposes.

  • Romero Zombie - The slow shuffling brain-eating monsters popularized by Night of the Living Dead and it's imitators. Definitely undead.
  • Rage Zombie - The frenzied blood-dripping manic zombie popularized by 28 Days Later and other recent Zombie films. Possibly not undead (certainly not in the case of 28 Days given their tendency to starve to death).
  • Voodoo Zombie - Servants of a Voodoo Bokor and not necessarily undead - in some interpretations the bokor has simply stolen the zombie's soul whilst its body remains alive (after a fashion).
  • Fantasy Zombie - mindless, rotting, low-rent undead animated by evil magic.

These zombies vary from one another on whether or not they are undead, what causes them, whether they are infectious or not, how smart they are and a variety of other issues. Not least how easy they are to kill - wrong genre savvy PCs may find it deeply embarrassing when headshots (a la Romero) fail to make much impression on a fantasy style zombie. The virally derived zombies - especially the rage kind - are also often depicted as being given to "evolution" which, subject to popfinition means the development of special upgrade powers. This allows giant zombies, screaming zombies that summon the regular kind from miles away, poison gas zombies, exploding zombies …

Revenants also hover around the fringes of zombiedom - although they tend to be more motivated (free willed would be pushing it), and by things other than food (usually revenge).

In addition, a few other subcategories of Zombie may be relevant to gaming.

Recently, there has also arisen the phenomenon of the "wannabe zombie" - people who have degenerated during the course of a zombie pandemic and have come to act like and pass as zombies - possibly due to psychological trauma (either a variant of Stockholm syndrome or as a result of believing themselves to have been infected and turned) or simply from having disguised themselves for so long that it has become habit. Reactions to genuine zombies are likely to be avoidant or some form of effective appeasement (otherwise they are unlikely to live long) - reactions to other humans are traditionally deeply unpredictable.

Scientific Causes:

Just in case necromancy, a curse, or "some sort of virus" aren't scientific enough for you, here's a few possible causes of zombie-ism. Any of these could change via mutation, genetic engineering, or weaponization (for bioterrorism), and result in a zombie outbreak: [5]

Potentially a cyborg with extensive wetware installations could remain functional to some degree after the biological bits were dead, assuming some kind of AI direction. For example, where the deceased has had full body, mechanically assisted skeletal reinforcement the tools are already in place for whatever manages the power assist on their skeleton to keep things going without them. Alternatively, a badly corrupted implanted AI assistant could turn otherwise normal people into some kind of rage zombie. For a cyberpunk voodoo zombie, imagine for a moment someone with extensive neural wetware who has had it hacked and is effectively under remote control…1

Magical Mechanics

If you are operating or designing an RPG system, there should probably be mechanics for the creation of all zombies (and other undead).
Presumably, we're looking at three basic methods:

  • Use the soul of the body's original occupant to control it (probably the "blackest" technique and should require dominating the soul in question somehow): this should give you access to the skills of the deceased to some degree, but may create an unreliable servitor. Probably needs a fairly fresh corpse as well. Very pulp-fantasy (e.g. Clark Ashton-Smith). Prior consent may make a huge difference2.
  • Use a third party spirit: depending on the spirit, may yield a varying level of skill, aggression and competence. Has the advantage that you can do this with any corpse you find lying about. Ideal for the mindlessly violent RPG zombie. Controlling these may also be a problem. If you happen to work for the "right" sort of person they may supply suitable spirits on request … although some of these may have their own orders, failing that hungry ghosts may be a good source of recruits. If shamen go in for this sort of thing, they may call on an ancestor spirit or allied ghost to take over a body for a while (they may even have a queue of volunteers) whilst even "the good guys" may, from time to time, hi-jack an abandoned mortal shell if they need to (see, for example, the mariner's undead crew in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner - possessed and driven by "a troop of spirits blessed").
  • Build a spirit: this may, more or less, be considered a "meat golem" with reliability dependant on the creator's competence. This may not count as "black magic" and is mostly likely to yield a relatively user-safe zombie. Good for "zombie labourer" magitek settings.

Which of these techniques is easiest probably depends on your skillset - the second is probably the most straightforward as long as you can cope with unsavoury spirits and don't care much about the conduct of your zombies, the first is likely to require significant magical chops (not to mention varying degrees of brutality and ruthlessness) but possibly not too much energy whilst the last likely needs quite a bit of input, but may be a fairly routine task equivalent to writing computer software (in a sufficiently dungeonpunk setting you may be able to buy pre-written code off the shelf, possibly even in branded versions).


What happens to zombies after (say) 28 days/weeks/months should be an important factor - do they rot like a normal corpse and attract scavengers or does that evil magic somehow preserve them? If they rot, do they simply fall apart or do they transform into skeletons? How about environmental damage? Do the "living" varieties age? Starve? Succumb to prolonged damage from fatigue and accumulated injuries?

See Also


3. Digital Sextant - A blog by my friend Brendan Riley, who is a Professor at Columbia College and teaches a class on Zombies in Popular Media. See also his [ website for the class.
4. semi-non-fiction book: The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

Game and Story Use

  • Zombies make great inhuman menaces - they can't be reasoned or bargained with, and you can only either fight or flee them. The fact that they used to be human (or animal) makes them even more unnatural, and they are usually located within Uncanny Valley.
  • Individual zombies are rarely a problem for experienced adventurers, so be sure to use lots of them.
  • Here is an example of a scientific writeup of a zombie virus.
  • Someone with no particular use for a piece of land might infect it with zombies (probably the one of the contagious kinds) as an area denial weapon (think Ravenholm from Half Life: Episode 1). Actually, even the non-contagious but mindlessly aggressive type might also work. But like all biological weapons (or similar things) it's something of a sword with no handle.
  • Cyberpunk time - a heavily augmented individual, showing signs of distinctly sub-optimal performance, then goes on to do something suicidal or otherwise out of character. Especially effective for a VR hacker who has run into some particularly black ICE, or otherwise stuck their virtual nose into something they didn't really want to get into.
    • Consider, as a taster, the hacked hacker from Deux Ex: Human Revolution.
    • Perhaps foreshadow when a homeless person, illegal or otherwise "disposable" person, turns up dead with a set of high spec but badly corrupted neural augs - they will turn out to have been one of the test beds for the technology. The massively out of place augs were installed in them solely for the purpose of making them the victim of the zombie maker software, the firmware damage (which any ripperdoc they try and sell the augs to will point out makes them all but useless) the result of them being thoroughly hacked and infected with malware to hijack the user's brain and the death a result of the fact that the remote control software was still under development (perhaps the one they find falls off or under something, further back down the trail are others who simply died because the control programme forgot to maintain something important or scrambled something the brain couldn't function without).
  • The webcomic Crimson Dark included JAKs - effectively cyberzombies which were human corpses animated by extensive cyberwear and implanted AI (presumably these were brain dead and used some kind of basic life support as they didn't appear to be rotting and appeared to be able to pass for human under cursory inspection). Highly illegal in universe, they were considered capable, if unethical tools for a variety of nefarious tasks, especially those from which the perpetrator was not expected to return. Again, these may be closer to the cyborg "meat puppet" concept that the zombie.
  • Zombies by prior consent are an interesting idea - allowing people to be contracted (or sentenced) to serve as undead after the end of their natural lives - this could be a common form of payment for those who can't pay cash for their magic (or, in a seller's market, where cash isn't accepted) or, inversely, wizards may hand out significant sums of cash now for service later "when you are dead anyway" (see, for example, the dustman contracts in Planescape:Torment) - for the desperate, those planning to outlive the wizard, or the merely stupid, this may look like a good idea. A suitably binding contract may then do away with the unpleasantness required to beat a victims soul into submission or otherwise force them to become undead retroactively and, properly done should yield at least competent undead. Actually, the caster might want to use them for something a bit more hygienic than your average zombie.
  • How about - presumably in a wainscot fantasy setting, a (fairly fresh) zombie being used as a drugs mule - with their internal organs removed and replaced with drug cargo.
  • Obviously the use of hungry ghosts as "pilots" may explain the apparently pointless eating habits of some zombies - the ghosts retain their existential hunger, but being bound into a zombie shapes and channels that hunger into a compulsion to eat flesh/brains/whatever, whilst still leaving it impossible to satiate.
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