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I am running a campaign with a disease that makes humanoids become mindless zombie-esque creatures. However they are not undead: they can be cured and returned to their original selves.

In the MM page 316 a zombie has the following special trait:

Undead Fortitude: 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.

Due to the nature of my zombies, them being particularly affected by "radiant damage" makes no sense. However if I remove the "radiant damage" part of this special trait I think the zombies will be far too powerful against my three level 1 PCs.

What could I replace the "radiant damage" part of the trait with that will make more thematic sense and still be intuitive to the players? The list of damage types in the DMG doesn't really include a type that makes sense against a diseased creature. Or should I just make it fire damage or something to allow for some fun role play without worrying about it "making sense"?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by V2Blast, Oblivious Sage, David Coffron, Wesley Obenshain, T.J.L. Oct 6 '18 at 4:22

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I"m not sure if this is 100% opinion-based or not as I think answers that provide guidance but not specific direction (unless they have tested a mechanic themselves) seem like they should be ok. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 28 '18 at 12:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ It seems like a fine question for Good Subjective / Bad Subjective. \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Sep 28 '18 at 12:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ As presented this seems subjective/ opinion-based. The reason is that it depends heavily on your setting and what you want to do with it. \$\endgroup\$ – JP Chapleau Sep 28 '18 at 14:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree that this is most likely too opinion based for our format. This is essentially and idea generation request, albeit with a limited number of potential answers. I don't see any way to justify that Fire damage or Cold damage would be more effective in this instance outside of "because I think that's right". \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Sep 28 '18 at 16:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a decent question, but considering it was reopened, how is this not a strictly opinion-based question? \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Zastoupil Sep 28 '18 at 19:58
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It's not terribly unbalanced to let your zombies have undead fortitude minus radiant damage exclusion. In fact, many teams have no way to deal radiant damage and can kill zombies just fine. If you really want to have a specific kind of damage take radiant's place, it will depend on how your zombification works:

  • If they are decaying while zombified, necrotic is a good option (accelerating decomposition)
  • If the disease is akin to a parasite, fire would make sense (burning the disease, in fact)
  • If the nervous system is still the main controller of the zombies, lightning would be suited (short-circuit, in a way)

Just decide, or think about, how your zombie-disease works. Especially if this is going to be a recurrent trait in many monsters, not just in the relatively weak zombies. If you just decide fire damage is apt and you have a wizard, his cones of fire and firebolt will be way more effective than your other player's tools (though it's the same with clerics and paladins in normal undead campaigns, so you could be fine with it).

It would make sense if the way to kill them and the way to cure them is related. In general, try to have a reason for every design choice, having a consistent world is better for your players (since they can make deductions, they could discover cold is what cures zombies and thus deduce freezing them kills them easier) and for you (since you don't have to keep track of a bunch of unrelated rules without cohesion).

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a very good point. I hadn't properly thought of how the disease works yet. I know it starts spreading because it is released in grain by a rival merchant. So having it be something like flour beetles that were only meant to eat the grain but turned out to be parasites would make sense. A rival merchant turning everyone to zombies to get a competitive edge seems a little extreme so that solves two problems. Thanks for the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – MooseBoost Sep 28 '18 at 12:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for accepting, but usually here we try to not accept the answers until 24 hours have passed so other people are not discouraged to post their own answers. I'm glad you liked my answer, and you're welcome. \$\endgroup\$ – LordHieros Sep 28 '18 at 12:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Psychic damage would be even better than lightning for resetting the brain. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Sep 28 '18 at 12:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Cold damage could be said to suppress the contagion's activity... \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Sep 28 '18 at 16:20
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If your 'zombies' are not truly undead, do they need the Undead Fortitude trait at all?

The zombies which appear in the Monster Manual are shambling corpses, bearing old wounds and rotting where they stand. Narratively, the Undead Fortitude trait represents a zombie simply not caring about a wound it received, because it doesn't need that organ you just impaled on your shortsword. A lucky zombie which passes multiple Undead Fortitude checks would have bits falling off and large chunks of flesh missing; injuries that would kill any living creature but aren't a big deal to zombies.

If your zombies aren't actually dead and can still be cured (I assume you mean by methods short of Raise Dead), then shrugging off organs being impaled and limbs being lopped off is far-fetched.

Consider removing the Undead Fortitude trait altogether for your zombies. If you feel this makes the zombies too weak, you can increase the hit points to compensate.

Since your zombies are disease-based, consider making this disease contagious, and thus give your zombies a trait more fitting to your campaign. Give them a Bite attack like that possessed by the Diseased Giant Rat (MM p.327, sidebar), except with your zombie disease instead of the giant rat's disease. If you fear that this might be too dangerous, you can make it so that the Bite attack can only be used on a creature grappled by the zombie, as for a Vampire. You could also make it so that the zombie can use its slam attack to grapple an opponent rather than deal damage (as a Vampire can). Since zombies don't have multiattack, this gives your players one round to try and break free from the zombie's grasp, which sounds like a dramatic moment which your players may remember for a while.

You could make the onset time for the disease sufficiently long that the party has enough time to race to discover a cure to save their ailing comrade, at your discretion. Even if the onset time is relatively short, the party could still try to cure their zombified friends. This may enrich your story opportunities. (Sample Diseases in DMG p.256)

Yakk provided a suggested stat-block for this Diseased Zombie (which I have extended slightly using the Zombie's regular attributes).
Str 13 (+1), Dex 6 (-2), Con 16 (+3), Int 3 (-4), Wis 6 (-2), Cha 5 (-3)
22 HP, 8 AC, Speed 20ft.
Multiattack: The zombie makes two Slam attacks. If both attacks hit a single Medium or smaller creature, the target is grappled.
Slam: Melee weapon attack. +3 to hit. Reach 5ft. One target. Hit: 1d4+1 bludgeoning damage.
Bite: Melee weapon attack. +3 to hit. Reach 5ft. One creature grappled by the zombie. Hit: 1d4+1 piercing damage, and the target must pass a DC 14 CON save or get Zombie Disease.

There are some variables which depend on the flavour and challenge you want these zombies to provide. You'll need to decide whether your zombies are undead type (making them vulnerable to effects like Turn Undead, Destroy Undead and Control Undead) or some other type, such as monstrosities or humanoids. You should also decide whether it is immune to poison damage and the poisoned condition like the normal zombie, and whether they have darkvision and proficiency on Wisdom saves (which presumably existed to provide some resistance to Turn Undead). You can also adjust the numbers as you see fit (I would have picked DC 13 for the Constitution save, because the save would probably be based on the Zombie's CON modifier, but considering the difficulty of getting a bite in a higher save might be appropriate).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ We had a DM do something very much like this (we eventually surmised that he was copying the walking dead TV show) in terms of the zombie affliction being contagious. Unfortunately, I can't offer you an add on for your answer since that campaign ended due to RL. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 28 '18 at 12:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast similar influence with me. I've been playing pandemic the board game with the group I am DMing for, I thought it would be fun to continue the theme, and whats better than a walking dead style plague as the disease. \$\endgroup\$ – MooseBoost Sep 28 '18 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BBeast Good idea with the needing to be grappled then bitten to get diseased. I did want one of the PCs to get the disease at some point because that would make for some great game pressure but also knew I couldn't just make them diseased if they got damaged as that would mean a very short game before they were all zombies. \$\endgroup\$ – MooseBoost Sep 28 '18 at 15:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I REALLY like this take on things. You are not undead, you are diseased, so lets toss the undead specific traits and bring in disease based ones instead. \$\endgroup\$ – Rozwel Sep 28 '18 at 21:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Diseased Zombie: 22 HP, Slam 1d20+3 x2, d4 damage each. If both attacks hit, target is grappled. Bite (only if grappled) 1d20+3, 1d4 damage, DC 14 Fort save or get Zombie Disease. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Sep 29 '18 at 18:19
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Why not stick with Radiant?

Not only does that option keep things mechanically congruent, but there is already precedent in radiant sources weakening the effect of disease.

The Paladin, which uses divine magic to fuel it's smites that deal radiant damage, also uses the magic to prevent disease in its Divine Health feature.

the divine magic flowing through you makes you immune to disease.

You could easily narrate the radiant damage as weakening the disease that animates the body so that it is more able to be killed.

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Consider sticking with radiant damage, but for a different reason

One option you might consider is keeping radiant as the the disease-zombies' fortitude-suppressing damage type, but giving a different justification. Perhaps the disease makes them extremely sensitive to bright light. Direct sunlight isn't quite powerful enough to do more than give them a quick sunburn, but focused radiant energy definitely hurts. There is certainly precedent for such light-sensitivity in many zombie stories. (Remember to narrate the screams of anguish from these creatures that seem not to even notice any other damage, as well as the scorched, blackened skin and immediate stench of burnt flesh, so the players know something special is happening.)

In fact, you might take it farther and say that direct sunlight also suppresses their fortitude trait, making them easier to kill during the day. Or maybe sunlight even does 1 radiant damage per round, making the zombies effectively nocturnal, with a need to hide in shelter or underground during the day. You can use this to present the players with interesting strategic choices and elevate the tension, such as: should the party attack now, in the middle of the night, or should they try to hold out until morning? (However, don't make them too easy to kill during the day, or else the choice will be obvious and no longer interesting. Giving them an extensive underground lair to hide in is one way to mitigate things.)

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Thematically speaking, you could always swap it for a fire vulnerability (if you want a "scientific" handwave, the disease causes buildup of flammable liquids and other byproducts in the body.) Fire seems to be pretty much universal currency in terms of hurting things in most settings that have zombies of any sort, so it isn't outside the realms of common sense that your virus (I assume a Resident Evil T-Virusesque thing) can make people more flammable.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Take the tour if you havent already. This Q&A site tries to support answers with reasoning beyond the universality of the approach. Why would fire be a better option than some of the others that have been used to deal with virus-based zombies in popular culture? In short, explain (with evidence or experience) why a fire weakness is the "best" choice and you'll have yourself a solid answer. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Sep 28 '18 at 16:58
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Your zombies are human. They have a penalty against their intelligence (not sure if that's a stat), and speed (unless it's a fast-moving zombie), and they have a very fixed, mindless behavior. When they attack, you take biting damage (not sure if there's a template for that) and have a chance to catch their disease. Their rot decreases their hitpoints, so older zombies are easier to defeat than newer ones. A hungry zombie has a salivation attack with an increased chance of spreading the disease.

A skilled PC can outsmart a zombie or outrun it if things go south. When attacking melee, you need a good weapon - you have to kill it on the first turn or else risk catching the disease from their attack. If you don't have enough damage, you're going to need a friend to get the zombie's attention and sneak up behind it. And whatever you do, don't barricade yourself into a corner!

However, if you insist on using the D&D zombies, you can just roll for a headshot instead.

Evil GM: Hmm, corner. How about a bunker...

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These zombies sound more feral than undead, so maybe that is a direction you could go?

3.5 has a Feral template that might give you some ideas. https://www.dandwiki.com/wiki/Feral_(3.5e_Template)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Take our tour if you havent already. We expect answers to be backed by the text or experience. Have you used the Feral template in 5e before? Especially suggesting things from other games should be better supported than just "might give you some ideas." 3.5e and 5e are not immediately compatible. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Sep 28 '18 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ In addition, the linked dandwiki page seems to be on a non-SRD (and thus potentially homebrew) section of the site. (See this Q&A for more info about the site's poor reputation.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 29 '18 at 7:15

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