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Zombies in D&D have changed many times. In 5e zombies have 3 intelligence and 6 wisdom. Stat-wise makes them smarter than many animals and about as wise as an ogre or a cyclops.

In the back of the DMG on page 282 there is even an optional NPC zombie-template:

+1 Str, +2 Con, -6 INT, -4 WIS -4 CHA. Features: Undead fortitude; immune to poison damage; can't be poisoned; darkvision 60ft.; can't speak but understands the languages it knew in life

This suggests a zombie could 'roll' an ability as high as 12 intelligence &/or 14 wisdom / charisma. That is smarter than most living folks! Why is this all relevant?

The situation: The PC group outruns / outsmarts some undead, giving them a safe vantage point thanks to a cliff / wall / net / barrier situation. The now-safe adventurers attack via ranged weapons (cantrips, sling stones... dropping bricks... whatever). What will the zombies do? In film and television there are many options. Some will simply stay where they are and allow their meaningless non-lives to be ended. Yet other shows present zombies as well programmed machines that shamble away, possibly run. Some movies, like WWZ, have their undead change battle tactics on the fly just for plot (hole) development. Zombie tactical options and strategies are, in fact, as endless as they are mindless. But what would a 5e D&D zombie do? Early editions solved this problem as zombies were listed as having zero intelligence points or 'non intelligent'. I know that a 5e D&D skeleton is written up as having some vestigial memory of a previous life and can carry out behaviour accordingly (example from memory: humanoids had attended a ball whilst living - their (un)dead versions may still be dancing). It is also possible that a zombie might attune to a headband of intellect and suddenly be smarter than nearly any person that has ever lived. One could argue that a brilliant zombie could suddenly gain a death wish - as it became so keenly aware of its horrid existence with such little wisdom for 'will to live'. No idea.


The Question: Does a 5e D&D zombie have any hint, mention &/or (prime) directive for self preservation - assuming no specific orders from their master?

There is this possibly related question. I read it a few times, it is brilliant - but it does not answer this question.

My thanks in advance, let me know if I have missed something.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have a source for the claim that all zombies serve Orcus? I'm just curious, because it was to my knowledge that Orcus only wishes for all undead to serve him (and for anything living to also be undead that serves him). That being said, my notion might completely off so I'd love to see something textual. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Dec 10 '20 at 16:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Any lore is amazing. That said, the answer below is kind of perfect, so i accepted it. 'A supra-genius zombie is still just a standing target by another name.' \$\endgroup\$ – Tim of Time Dec 10 '20 at 18:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron Thank you for the correction. Orcus is a demon-lord, not a god. You are right, he wishes all undead serve him. 'Good' ghosts and revenants don't even like him. He isn't even 'undead' himself as he is technically a semi-quasi-living being (insomuch as any 'demon' or 'fiend' is). \$\endgroup\$ – Tim of Time Dec 10 '20 at 18:34
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Zombies only obey orders

The Monster Manual is pretty explicit on the capabilities of a zombie's psyche (or what remains of it):

A zombie retains no vestiges of its former self, its mind devoid of thought and imagination. A zombie left without orders simply stands in place and rots unless something comes along that it can kill...

[...]

A zombie can follow simple orders and distinguish friends from foes, but its ability to reason is limited to shambling in whatever direction it is pointed, pummeling any enemy in its path...

Based on this passage, I'd imagine that fleeing is outside of the realm of its reasoning unless ordered to do so.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You could probably also put a small paragraph for the orcus misconception in here :) \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Dec 10 '20 at 20:50
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The Monster Manual answers your question directly and explictly (David's answer comes ->THIS CLOSE<- to quoting it):

Zombies take the most direct route to any foe, unable to comprehend obstacles, tactics, or dangerous terrain.

It goes on to describe how Zombies will even put themselves into obvious harmful situations attempting to reach enemies which they are wholly unable to reach.

In your situation: the Zombies will move right up to the barrier, and blindly try to push through. You can add all sorts of flavor for nets or whatever, with rotting arms grasping at the air in a futile attempt to reach the adventurers; wet smacks as they beat themselves against the smooth cliff wall; etc.

If the zombies are able to observe someone using a ladder or something to climb said wall or cliff, it might be possible to have them climb that. I reasoned that counts along the lines of "whatever direction it is pointed" in the MM terms. Or if enough bodies pile up that they suddenly find themselves able to reach the top, they certainly will take advantage. But D&D zombies are the mindless shambling meatsack versions, not the fast-running, find a way in through the air vents when the door is locked versions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to answering on rpg.se. This is a great answer, if you you are looking for guidance about how we handle things on this se, then check out the help center or hop into Role-playing Games Chat, happy gaming :) \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Dec 14 '20 at 16:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I want to accept your answer too but it doesn't work. Good call / well done / thanks. You get all of my upvotes ('+1'). \$\endgroup\$ – Tim of Time Dec 15 '20 at 2:14

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