Zombie Heads
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Basic Information

Some types of Zombie can only be killed by severe brain trauma (most notably, Romero Zombies). If you behead them, you've taken out the body, but done nothing about the head. A severed zombie head is still a potential threat.

Admittedly, it's probably a mostly-immobilized threat. Even if enough of the neck and jaw remains for it to have some meaningful musculature intact, it's not like zombies are known for their creativity. If your zombies are the mindless horde type (and most zombies are), then they probably aren't going to have the cleverness to push themselves along with their lower jaw or tongue. So unless you foolishly brush up against (or fall onto) a zombie head, you're relatively safe. The biggest danger probably comes during disposal of the remains after a fight - someone might foolishly assume they can pick up a severed head without danger. Or if you behead a zombie in tall grass, or a boggy swamp, that head could sit around for a long time before someone stumbles onto it.

So really, though technically a monster, a zombie head has a lot more in common with a trap.

Variants might include other partial zombies, possibly with an arm or two still attached to allow for slow dragging movement or grasping attacks.

Sources

Bibliography
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Flavorful and creepy, and probably unexpected. A well-placed zombie head can really make your players sit up and take notice, or it can emphasize the themes and tones of the game.
  • Most RPGs these days don't feature random hit locations or critical hit charts, and many don't even have rules for called shots. Which means that surprising your players with a zombie head in such a system is a dirty trick. If the rules don't make allowances for zombies to lose their heads in the middle of a fight without dying, then why should the players ever take precautions as if the rules did? Unless you're playing something like Warhammer FRPG 2nd Edition or Rolemaster, severed zombie heads should be exceedingly rare. In games with more abstract damage systems, zombie heads should really only a possibility if deliberately manufactured. That means they might show up in a trap purpose-built by a particularly evil villain, but they should never be a random "oops, you stepped in the tall grass and got bit" kind of thing. Especially not if a bite is lethal and/or infecting in the grand zombie-movie tradition. Don't abuse your power, GMs.
  • If your rule system allows for critical hits, it's not inconceivable that any place with zombies could have a few zombie heads lying around. Players should probably get some sort of search or spot roll before you surprise them with the zombie head where it wasn't expected.
  • Settings where the only way to truly destroy a zombie is to burn it (or some other drastic method) may see rather higher numbers of zombie heads specifically because dismembering them will sometimes be more convenient than starting a fire that alerts other zombies for miles around.
  • A horrible necromancer is known far and wide for his habit of animating those he beheads. He does one or more of the following with them:
    • Lining the road to their palace, dungeon or wizard's tower with heads on pikes to perform intimidation checks on those who approach. Dracula, eat your heart out.
    • Using zombie heads as catapult shot when besieging enemy citadels. If you can use the heads of slain defenders of the target city, then it's both viral and psychological warfare.
    • Building an outer wall with zombie heads cemented into it to deter thieves, spies, or anyone else who might try to scale the walls.
    • Filling a pit or moat with a sea of heads. This makes an interesting execution chamber or trap, though special methods may be needed to retrieve the bodies of those thrown in so that they can't reanimate and climb out.
    • A menagerie or museum full of pets or trophies made from slain foes.
    • Especially if head-hunting is a big thing…
    • If the heads retain the power to make a noise, they could form the sentinel head version of a ghost fence.
  • Animated heads that retained the ability to talk and some modicum of personality don't really qualify as zombie heads, per se, but many of the observations on this page would probably still apply.
    • Bringing a villain back as a brain in a jar (or a familiar for another villain) is a way to make your favorite bad-guy recur without cheating the players out of a hard-won victory. Just make sure you include a scene or two that really plays up how inconvenienced and limited the old villain is without their body.
    • Likewise, you can't get much more dastardly than a villain who kills a PC or friendly NPC and then keeps their head around to torment it.
    • Of course, said PC/NPC might then have a valuable supporting role in the campaign once rescued…
  • Alas, poor Yorick… ow! Quit biting me! Bad Yorick, bad! Yeah, the zombie head can be played for humor, too.
    • Especially if PCs take to drop-kicking them.

Building this Character

The zombie head is somewhere between mook and trap. Once you're aware of it, it should be easy enough to eliminate or avoid. It's debatable whether or not the head can even perform attacks in a traditional sense. Attack rolls in most games assume a fair amount of lunging and maneuvering, which is yet another area where a severed head is at a distinct disadvantage.

And it's not like a severed head can dodge, either. Some systems also assume undeclared parry attempts in a standard round of combat, so you might reduce the defenses of the head by another point or two to cover that. A head is of course a rather smaller target than a full body, which may provide it some defense to compensate for these penalties, but overall the zombie head should be penalized. Some game systems already have mechanics for targeting much smaller foes, and others that lack that specific rule may still have called shot rules for hitting smaller squishier parts of an enemy.

If you've got a called-shot rule, that's a pretty good place to start. Headshots tend to be pretty effective in most RPGs that care about them at all. The thing to remember is that while being arguably harder to hit (because of target size), the zombie head is essentially 99% vital area. If it is hit, it's automatically being hit somewhere important. None-the-less, the human skull can be surprisingly resilient. Only the crunchiest game systems tend to simulate the fine distinctions between defensive agility and penetration power.

For less mechanically fiddly systems that lump dodge and armor together, you might consider implementing a penalty to hit at any range beyond point blank, balanced by bonus damage when you do connect.

If your system uses abstract hit point-style mechanics or diminishing dice pools a la Risus, it's pretty hard to argue that having already lost your head (or body) isn't the sort of thing that should be represented by having very few remaining points or dice. One-hit-kill should be the most common result when striking this monster. In general, if you're willing to walk up and smack the head with an axe, it should be pretty easy to destroy.

Stealth is likely to be the best skill of a zombie head. Even if your normal zombies moan "braaaains!" all night long, the head lacks lungs and is thus probably very quiet. It's much shorter than a human, so those standing guard or entering a room might easily over-look it. There's plenty of logic in making the zombie head an ambush predator — but you should take care to balance this logic against the virulence of your game's zombie transmission vector and whether or not the rules encourage the players to expect such dismembered monsters. A good scare can work wonders, but a character death they never could have seen coming and couldn't possibly prevent is probably going to ruffle some feathers.

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