It’s sad for me to say this, here at the end of Zombie Week, but it’s a bit difficult at times not to feel like the zombie concept is a bit, well, dead.
Popular media seems like it can’t get enough of them, and the saturation alone might leave many folks searching for ways to spice up what otherwise feels like one more bland helping of brain-eating shamblers a-shufflin’ down the dark, abandoned street.
Luckily, your classic Romero zombie is but one of dozens of variants available to choose from, and the alternatives can shake up the old tropes and keep the notion of zombies fresh. If not fresh-smelling.
Below is a list of zombies and zombie-like creatures from almost a dozen cultures that at least somewhat break the norm and may keep your players curious and guessing as the new creatures prowl across your campaign world in an otherwise classic zombie-horror scenario. The different qualities, backgrounds and motivations should also present new challenges besides just “don’t get bit” and “make sure to work on your cardio.”
(Although let’s be real, that last one is good advice in any campaign)
- The Original Zombi (Haitian)
- Dybbuk (Jewish)
- Anchimayen (Mapuche)
- Draugr (Norse)
- Tiyanak (Phillipines)
- Ro-langs (Tibet)
- Jiangshi/Kyonshi (China/Japan)
- Jumbee (Caribbean)
- Wendigo (North America)
- Ghoul (Arabic)
- Xidachane/Maduxwane (South Africa)
- And if that’s not enough, there are more listed here…
The only other question is how best to integrate zombies into your campaign and still give them the punch they deserve. Zombies in the classic sense in a D&D game aren’t exactly terrifying past 1st level, for instance, and many GMs might not even consider putting zombies in settings that aren’t fantasy or modern fantasy. But there’s no reason to limit yourself.
The flavor changes, but the disgusting, rotting meat underneath remains just as filling.
If your setting is fantasy, my biggest advice to you is mix up the classic cultural assumptions. Don’t give all the dwarves (and only the dwarves) banshees or draugr, for instance. Give them ro-langs to explain why every fifty feet of tunnel, they make an entrance so small even dwarves have to stoop to enter, since they know ro-langs can’t bend over to fit through.
The same is true in a sci-fi setting, although sci-fi also opens up several new avenues not based on classic folklore. The source of the zombie might be digital backlash from the last time they went online or an exsurgent virus variant, but the effects can mimic any of those above. The classic “cyberzombie” (a horde of people being controlled by a sinister puppeteer who just appear to be zombie-like while controlled).
Is your setting modern era or historical? Going regionally appropriate is great, if it preserves the tone you’re going for. Just remember: if your setting is the United States, every culture on the list above (and many more) have come here or been here, so it’s all on the table. You could even mix and match and give your PCs a multicultural horde of different types of fleshy undead to rail against.
Also remember that there’s a difference between randomly featuring zombies as a one-off villain and centering your game (or at least a major story arc in it) around them. Zombie stories generally come in two forms: outbreak and survival.
Outbreak scenarios deal with the sudden onset of the appearance of zombies and rising of the dead. Day one is normal and boring, day two the dead walk and all hell breaks loose. Often, outbreak scenarios include a Big Red Button solution that can be found and hit by the PCs to undo (or at least stop) the walking dead (kill the sorcerer, develop the antivirus, nuke the island, etc).
Survival scenarios accept that the world is lost and zombies are going to be an ongoing part of it. The outbreak was a while ago, the survivors have developed tactics to dealing with zombies – they’ve simply become a fact of every day life. Survival games are slow horror. Most of the time, you’re just dealing with the dark, depressing truth of how long you can keep going like this. The worst villains are often other survivors and the challenges revolve around scarce resources and serious trust issues.
A survival scenario doesn’t have to be long after outbreak, but it helps to be at least a few months out so that the world has had time to change and the initial high-adrenaline disaster period is past. Combining the two means having the PCs be “out of touch” for the time between outbreak and the new world order (a long-term space voyage comes home, they were all in the coma ward of the nearby hospital, it happened during the cross-continental sea voyage, etc). They return and find out about the outbreak and have to quickly get up to speed with the changing world so they can survive.
Make sure you know which zombie scenario you’d like to run with before you plan out a longer game around them. Having zombies of any flavor just jump out and say ‘boo’ will take you only so far.
But seriously, have them actually say ‘boo,’ that would be hilarious.