Friday, June 10, 2011

Zombie Apocalypse

Last night’s session was particularly brutal, even for one of my games. Seven PCs met their doom in the Paschendale Necropolis…a fairly sizable butcher bill considering there were only six players in the game (and only five for most of the session).

Sure, there were some signs at the outset that the stars might be misaligned for the adventurers. Heron/Neckbeard was out for the evening, and his absence has oft heralded savage bloodlettings in the past (the Iron Goat is one of those guys with a knack for survival). Also, Randy was MIA this week and that means his wit and humor were also absent.

Not to mention that “sacrificial lamb” quality he so often brings to the table.
; )

Plus, I was feeling pretty good for a change, health-wise…never a good sign for the players. A nagging back-ache notwithstanding (the two glasses of wine with dinner helped that) I was raring to go and ready to blow the doors off the adventure. I was...ready to see the characters get in the thick-of-it, going toe-to-toe with some of the big bad beasties I’d secreted around the dungeon’s nooks and crannies.

Unfortunately, they never got that far. Damn zombies.

I really do need to do that post about the monsters of the Basic set. Playing these low-level B/X adventures has given me such a greater appreciation for the mechanics of the game and the fiendishness of the designers…I am constantly surprised with just how low-down MEAN Gygax and Co. (Moldvay included) really were.

Let’s look at the zombie, shall we. What is it? An animated corpse, right? Two hit dice, an Armor Class of 8, strikes last in the combat round, and does D8 damage…which seems formidable compared to D6, but not that bad when using the variable weapon damage rules (as we are).

[by the way, Matthew was back with us last night…yay!...and was a bit discombobulated by weapons rolling different dice now. That really does my heart good when I manage to make that kind of impression…I may even switch back to D6 in the near future as this scrabbling around for D8s and D10s just to see them roll 1s and 2s anyway is starting to get annoying]

Per Moldvay, a zombie is 2nd level monster…it appears on the 2nd level of the dungeon in fairly high numbers (I believe 2D8 is the number appearing outside the lair) which is practically an undead riot in the confines of narrow 10’ corridors…a roiling, seething mass of cadaverous flesh and fangs and teeth. Fortunately for my players, I don't unleash this sort of nightmare in my adventure (all the zombies are encountered in wide open spaces).

In fact, there are no zombies on the 1st level of the dungeon normally, so they’d only be encountered in deeper forays OR (as happened last night) after successive forays that resulted in both leveling up (for the PCs) and the “corpsifying” of the local dungeon denizens: zombie-fodder.

Even so, they’re limited in their locals (does it sound like I’m giving too much away by writing this? Well, there were only two living survivors of last night’s clusterf**k; so what if I throw ‘em a bone?). The cultists don’t have enough fodder lying around (yet) to make a Grand Army of the Dead, so they use ‘em as guards. And what are they going to guard? Well, the sacred places left in the Necropolis that still have shit worth guarding, of course. On the first level, that means the Great Temple and the Black Cauldron.

[yes, like the book…told you people I’m a hack]

But zombies, right? Not a problem, right? The party was packing quite a bit of muscle: a 3rd level archer with an 18 Dex and magic arrows, a 3rd level magic-user, a 4th level thief, a barbarian with double-digit hit points, a plate-and-shield armored fighter, and the party cleric. Rugrin the acolyte was still only 1st level, but he was only 3 XP away from 2nd and was well-armed with a magic mace and heavy armor.


A 1st level cleric needs a 9 to turn zombies. That’s about a 1 in 4 chance.

Zombies are fast in B/X; they move in a shambling gate equal to an unarmored man. That means that IF they pursue a fleeing party, they will still probably chase them down. Of course, they also get back attacks against any party member that attempts to run from melee, just like any other monster. And zombies themselves are FEARLESS…with Morale 12 they NEVER give up and always fight to the death.

Mindless, fearless, shambling nightmares animated by a restless spirit chained to a rotting corpse…pure, physical malevolence. And while it’s easy to hit AC8, the high hit points (average: 9) means the zombies will often stick around at least a round or two. And though slow, they hit as hard as hobgoblins.

So the first zombie fight of the night led to the deaths of the archer, fighter, and barbarian. The remaining party members picked over their friends’ corpses and left the dungeon for a few days of rest and recovery. Then, joined by another archer, an elf, and another stalwart warrior, the party made a second foray into the dungeon and swiftly returned to the Great Temple…only to find the same reanimated corpses re-reanimated.

[what? The cultists weren’t going to refortify their defenses while the party was resting and recruiting new members? Give me a break...]

This time, the party didn’t get off as easy. Only the magic-user and thief survived, and only by running for their lives and leaving the bodies of their companions behind, including the dead cleric, just 3 XP shy of 2nd level.

What a clusterf**k.

I wrote this adventure up in the hope that my players would finally start to level up and begin that climb out of the “basement levels” of their adventuring careers. Instead, I find I’ve flushed nearly everyone’s greatest characters to date…Randy’s dastardly necromancer, Josh’s way-cool archer, Greg’s cleric (so close! So close!)…even Dave’s slightly skittish barbarian. Matthew came back after a 3-4 month hiatus and lost two characters in a single session.

Ugh. And it was just zombies…just zombies! It was Night of the Living Dead in there, and PCs were dropping like flies. I rolled a lot of “1s” for damage last night, but every now and then the creatures would hit that big “8” and WHAM, down would go another character in a pool of blood and brains and shattered skull.

The scale seems a little off to call zombies a 2nd level monster. Yes, I realize that even a 3rd level cleric can auto-turn the walking dead, but remember that zombies TRAVEL IN PACKS. A cleric’s turning will panic 2D6 hit dice worth of zombies…that’s an average of 3 zombies per encounter. Zombies average number appearing is 9, leaving 6 to deal with. And while zombies hit as hard as hobgoblins (no small monster for a low-level adventuring party), they are a lot tougher to bring down.

Here’s the math:

1st – 3rd level character’s chance to hit zombie: 50%
1st – 3rd level character’s chance to hit hobgoblin: 40%

Average zombie hit points: 9
Average hobgoblin hit points: 5.5

Assuming D6 damage rolls (average 3.5 damage per hit):

- It takes more than three rounds to take down a hob (5.5 hps / 1.4 damage/round).
- It takes more than five rounds to take down a zombie (9 hps / 1.75 damage/round)

Even with the zombie striking last every round, it’s going to get at least one extra hit on a character compared to the hobgoblin. And remember, hobgoblins check morale for possible surrender/retreat.

Zombies never retreat.

Neither do they rest or tire. Nor do they feel compelled to make noise besides the shuffling of their twisted/broken limbs. Nor do they show mercy or remorse...relentless, unholy demons in once-human form. No claw-claw-bite attack, but plenty deadly.

Plenty damn deadly.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot to mention…the party recovered NO treasure from the dungeon. Total XP for survivors of last night’s session (including prime requisite bonus):

Cerise: 154xp
Stanley: 33xp

That’s just adding insult to (grievous) injury.

Next week, I’m not sure what we’ll be doing, but we may be leaving the Necropolis behind for awhile…at least until the party can cultivate a new cleric and bring some new characters up to 2nd or 3rd level. Maybe one of these entries from the Fat Frog Challenge will prove useful.


  1. 1) So glad you're feeling better. And just in time for the weekend. I always hate feeling fine during the week and then feeling crappy over the weekend. I'll take the reverse any day.

    2) Very cool insight on using an oft-overlooked (or at least, a "so ubiquitous as to no longer be scary") monster. I'm a huge fan of using undead in my game because it fits the feel of my world better than, say, a gibbering mouther (WTF?), but I haven't used them as creatively as you're talking about. Thanks for the ideas!

    3) Just out of curiosity, what wine did you drink last night? My wife and I are two of our good gaming friends are big fans of wine, and we often take wine tasting trips to Central Coast and pack along strategy board games to play in the hotel at night while sipping on some of the bottles we purchased during our trip.

  2. sounds like it would have been better to encounter them in the corridors, where they could only get two abreast.

    Anyway, I'll be curious to find out how they're raising all these guys. Every person we've killed has been thrown down the bottomless cess pit, yet each time we return, there they are...just as if we had acted like idiots and left them lying where they were. I sense a Government plot!

  3. What's stopping you from putting a diamond necklace on one of the zombies so the xp awards match the super high difficulty?

  4. Never mind that we bashed all their bones in last time. I guess they have plenty of spares in the walls, though. Poor Hexham has been killed a total of four times now, I think.

  5. "even Dave’s slightly skittish barbarian"

    Skittish? I wonder why? ;)

  6. You couldn't give the guy 3 fucking experience points? It was not a 1000 nor 500 nor even 50 it was 3!!!

    You are lucky your players are filled with agape.

  7. Great stuff, I have so much fun reading the hell you put your players through! ;-)

  8. @ Martin:
    #1 Thank you!
    #2 Hmm...I didn't think it was all that creative to mob PCs and beat 'em to death, but you're welcome to my strategy!
    #3 Last night we were drinking Menage A Trois, though our go to cheap dinner wine is Ravenswood merlot...we have a good stock of Lone Canary (out of Spokane) and some other Eastern WA bottles, but we save those for special occasions.

    @ IG: I should probably have noted the particularly stinky nature of these zombies...they'd obviously spent time in the cesspit (like Stanley!). ; )

    @ Luke: ....

    @ Greg: Well, Hex was one of the zombies that got burned by Cerise, so he'll only be coming back as a very (spindly, charred) skeleton, if at all.

    @ Imago: I just meant "compared to the stereotypical barbarian." I would say Dave's gameplay emphasizes the analytical over the visceral.

    @ Anath: You're probably right, but I've been trying to keep a strict "no fudging" rule for myself. In hindsight, I should probably have allowed him to "level up" mid-session (after they left the dungeon the first time that evening)...but my policy is to award XP in between sessions only.

    @ Drance: Ugh. I am a monster.

  9. Sounds like you're having fun. And they do keep coming back. Have they watched "Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising' yet? :)

  10. Hexham is now Ghost Rider. Excellent.