Undead used to be scary things: dead, rotting bodies seeking to devour all life, outnumbering their foes, and replacing their fallen with slain enemies. But nowadays players see them and think 'Skeleton, 1d8 hp, THAC0 19, I should use a crushing weapon' rather than 'rampaging undead horde that is an abomination.'

How can I, either through GM-techniques or house-rules (or both) change Undead to make them scary again? System-agnostic answers are welcome, but rules-based answers need to be 2e-specific or at least compatible.

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ IMHO, for experienced character not mindless undeads should be scary, but necromancer who created them, and dont forget sceletons and zombies are not only undeads which PC can meet. I had once campaign where main antagonist was powerful lich \$\endgroup\$
    – user902383
    Jan 9, 2014 at 14:51
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ Tangentially related: How can I invoke actual fear in my players? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 9, 2014 at 15:48
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ I think this depends on your players too. My players find literally anything that deals ~50% of their hp in one hit scary, whether it's a fluffy bunny or a tentacle monster. I've found the best way to scare them is convince them that their character really could die, and part of that is actually killing them occasionally. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric B
    Jan 9, 2014 at 16:18
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Plague carrying zombies \$\endgroup\$
    – allen213
    Jan 9, 2014 at 17:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Shouldn't those be players whose task is about finding a way to naturally fear the thing, considered dangerous in their in-game environment ? shouldn't they fail their "role playing" if they do out of character things ? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 9, 2014 at 20:19

12 Answers 12


I believe it is a matter of story, and less a matter of mechanics. Mechanically, any monster, any NPC, any curse, any trap, anything the players encounter will have a solution, a stat to beat, and you as the GM would have calculated their chances and deemed it possible for them to defeat (speaking in generalities)

The way to make the Undead scary is not to increase their mechanical difficulty in the game, or change the methods that are used against them - making a skeleton suddenly not receive extra damage from crushing weapons only upsets the players.

In my opinion the only way to make something be scary is to have it cause fear. Since you yourself can't actually cause the players themselves to be afraid of a fictional monster, you need to make the undead really scare, and spread fear in the game.

Methods for Causing Fear


The first step to causing fear is hearing about it. The common folk are spreading rumors about strange disappearances a few towns over, an unusual amount of people leaving their homes without an explanation are seen wandering around the countryside, if questioned they might just "have a bad feeling" or maybe their livestock just turned up dead one morning, whatever it is, something is disturbing people, and no one knows what it is.


No one really knows who said it first, but once the idea was planted everyone was saying it - Undead. No one has any confirmation, but everyone is full of superstition and the commoners are no longer just grumbling about strange occurrences - they are gathering to demand answers, they are forming night-watch groups.

Clues and Panic:

With the rumors of strange things afoot, and the murmurings of Undead, people are more vigilant. Suddenly the strange footprints in the forest are no longer dismissed as unimportant- they are from the Undead. The boy who went missing? Undead, the noises at night? Undead, scraps of clothing on a tree, bloody marks on a wall - Undead.


The leaders are telling people to stay indoors after dark, mercenaries are hired, guardsmen are on double watch, adventurers start showing up in taverns looking for glory! All this, without any evidence, no proof of Undead yet - but the commoners, the leaders, everyone is afraid. Excursions are sent into the night to discover what might be lurking...

First Contact:

They never return. Bodies not found.

Panic and Fear:

Everyone knows now. There must be no doubt - commoners start packing up their things ready to flee, the rulers are trying to keep them, but even the guards and mercenaries are being stubborn. And yet - there has been no one alive that has yet lived to tell of the Undead.


That is when it happens. That is the night when they came......

And I suppose you can figure out what to do from there. Maybe the Undead kill everyone in town save a few survivors who manage to escape and tell of it (in all its horror) maybe that is when the rulers send for the heroes to come rescue them...

But whatever happens after all these stages, the fear is part of the world around them - any roleplayer worth his dice would know that his character should be afraid - even if he himself is not.

Once the Undead are actually part of the game, when the fights begin - then to cause them to really be frightening is to have them be unpredictable, forceful, and unyielding - just like a proper horde of undead.

Tactics for Undead


Have them be hiding, under ground, behind doors, in crates, on the cieling, drowned in the water, hanging from the windows - anywhere you can place a hidden corpse.


Numbers of undead beyond counting, beyond the skill of the party, too many to fit anywhere - but in the distance, coming slowly, the players have every chance to escape, but seeing those numbers, witnessing the hordes will give them pause.


Any fallen ally, any corpse, any innocent victim - have them become Undead as soon as you can, preferably while the players are watching, and as fast as you can.

Beyond these ideas, you could always add a few necromancers, liches, vampires, or other powerful leaders for the Undead that would give them tactics or a strategy (always something to be afraid of) Or just giving the Undead some big powerful monsters - But that is less in the idea of what I believe your question to be about - how to make a bunch of skeletons scare the players.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Big fat +1 much as I was going to say, especially for powerful undead leaders, atmosphere and HORDES \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Jan 9, 2014 at 15:01
  • 12
    \$\begingroup\$ This is very good. I would add to this to include undead that are recognizably characters that they came to care for, or at least know, previously. It's easy to scoff at mindless undead #6, but the patchily rotting corpse with drooping skin that used to be the kid who gave you a few quests a while back, who is now huddled in a corner and chewing on his still breathing pet dog evokes an entirely different response. \$\endgroup\$
    – Travis
    Jan 9, 2014 at 23:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ So... basically... watch The Walking Dead and notice the environment during some of the scariest moments. Undead are dumb as snot and slow (and sure are easy to kill with a simple blow to the brain)... but when it's 100 vs 3 and they are in groups around every corner, you may be smarter and more powerful but it'll be awfully easy to get overwhelmed. Next thing you know it's 101 vs 2. And make sure to pit them again The Gov'nor. \$\endgroup\$
    – WernerCD
    Jan 11, 2014 at 14:26

The key to fear is the unknown. It is familiarity that breeds the complacency you see. So, in your case, do not use creatures your players know. And give the ones they do know different, unexpected abilities.

I once ran a campaign where my personal rule was to never use a monster out of the book. There were certain ecological niches - the orc niche, the kobold, ogre, etc. But the creatures that filled them had different names, and looked differently. That meant every creature the party encountered was a potential unknown. That created a level of uneasiness.

In in that campaign was a one-of-a-kind wraith-like entity that scared the party right out of a dungeon. His vivid description, his strange weapons, and even stranger manner of attack, made them question whether they should be even meddling with him.

So in your particular case... instead of a run of the mill skeleton immune to bladed weapons, perhaps make them immune to metal (it passes right through them) instead. Give them a gaze attack that paralyizes their victims. Or if overbeared by the skeletons, give them the ability to drag an opponent into the ground to their death - and make the characters witness this somehow. Then they will know fear :-)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Historically, elves and fairies were the same thing. Then Tolkein re-imagined them into their modern well-known form, and later Robert Jordan re-imagined them again into Ogier, and I'm sure there's a thousand more I don't know about. I like that authors are "growing" old stories into completely new and unique creatures. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 10, 2014 at 1:01
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Speaking on the whole unknown thing, it's possible to keep players in the dark about what a monster is for a surprisingly long time even when it's right in front of them - and a lot of undead look fairly similar to each other. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jan 10, 2014 at 4:35
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Agree with the above, the reason players aren't afraid of skeletons that you use is because they are always 1d8 hp, THAC0 19. Very that up, keep the players guessing, and make the skeletons more powerful, a legit reason for players to fear them. On that note, this shows IMHO opinion the whole problem with Dungeons and Dragons games (note I like D&D, just pointing this out). D&D is really a fantasy super heroes game. Why should a 10th level character ever fear a D8 Skeleton? Games where players are less powered makes things adversaries, even minor ones in some systems, something to fear. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 10, 2014 at 19:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, "the unknown" and it is a brilliant horror feature in H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood stories. +1 for mentioning vivid descriptions and strangeness. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jul 10, 2021 at 19:49

Damned are the Dead

Before you had the American Zombie trope as the default of undead (slow, mindless), fantasy typically treated the undead as somewhat aware, damned and suffering. It's more horrifying when you realize that those poor folks are living (unliving) in torment, and they cannot sleep, cannot hope for death and this is what they will turn others into as well.

Imagine the mindstate of someone who knows and feels what's happening to them... show it to your players - the last words of a damned soul before the rotting flesh of their mouth falls from the bone of their jaw...

The Restless never Rest

I can't remember if AD&D2E had rules for exhaustion during melee? But whatever game you're using, it's useful to remember that the undead are literally tireless. That old Terminator quote can apply to the undead:

"It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

Consider walking/marching rates, then triple or quadruple them as undead never need to eat, rest, sleep or get tired. They can walk through water and not drown. They can walk through the worst of environment - desert, arctic, a storm and not feel a thing. The undead can make siege eternal.

If they are capable of being directed to semi-complex tasks, you could have them tunnel or mine during a siege at rates no humans could keep up with without dying of exhaustion.

Fear/Morale checks

It's completely fair to give morale checks when it comes to facing the undead.

Not just seeing them, but absolutely in combat. When you face something that feels no pain, when half of your fighting techniques are based on damaging organs these things do not need, it can be very demoralizing. They do not wince in pain, they do not flinch, they do not cry out. You're not even sure you really landed a good blow since there was a crack of bone but it seems only slightly off kilter and didn't pause at all.

The other side of it, too, is making sure you're using the appropriate pain/morale checks for living things regularly in your game. If most other things run away after taking some injuries, it highlights how bad the undead are because they DO NOT retreat, do not pause, and do not care.

Is it really dead?

So you fight something undead, you give some really nasty shots and it falls down and is still. Is it really dead? Do you want to go up and find out?

You can rule undead knocked to 1 hit point or seriously injured simply lay there until someone gets too close and then they make a surprise attack. This makes them even more of a pain in the ass to deal with as you have to go along and mutilate the bodies even more to make sure they're really dead. That takes time, is stressful, and tiring.

Source of Evil

If you want to make a slight rules change that undead will eventually re-form/come back unless their source of evil is destroyed. Obviously, this is the soul object for the lich, the coffin for the vampire, etc. but low level undead might simply be either the wizard/cleric that made them, or the unholy energy of the place they're found in.

Having to cleanse unholy ground is definitely a time consuming task on top of everything else. And it may piss off greater powers who claimed that land...

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I like the last bit - reminds me of the Supernatural series, they'd find a ghost, hit it with something iron and it'd dissipate.. but it'd keep coming back until they found its bones and burnt them. The sense of relentlessness can be frightening... or tedious, so be careful to give the players enough clues to deal with the problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – gbjbaanb
    Jan 9, 2014 at 17:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh definitely! It shouldn't be a guessing hunt, as much as the logistical pain of getting to the source of evil and cleansing it, while running for your life. \$\endgroup\$
    – user9935
    Jan 9, 2014 at 18:04

Overused tropes are bad

There was a joke in one of the Austin Powers movies where the bad guy is going to be run over by a steam roller, but the steam roller seems to be traveling slower than walking speed and takes forever to cross the room before it hits the guy.

To me, undead seem to be like this. You get stupid minions who are slow and more annoying than anything else. Maybe it's lazy DM Writing, but it's always the EEEEEEVIL necromancer who whistles up a horde of undead to separate the players from himself. The shambling hordes of stupid undead is a trope. What makes undead boring is following the trope.

Break the trope

Make undead tougher. One way to break the trope is to throw something other than d4 skeletons or d4 zombies at them. Those both get very boring, very fast (especially since IIRC D&D Zombies are not contagious, not smart, and not fast). I have seen few liches in my D&D experiences, and they frankly frighten me. Especially the encounter years ago with an Ancient Wyrm Draco-lich. I still do not know how we beat him in the end. It knocked all of us (level 12+ characters) down to single digit hit points, or put us at death's door.

Make the encounter more challenging. What happens if the fighters don't have blunt objects when they get jumped by skeletons? What if the undead attack after the wizard has chosen no spells for the day to do damage? Yes, I'm saying you should pull shenanigans within reason for the sake of a good evening's entertainment.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I think as a general rule if you want an encounter to be more challenging, you should make the enemy stronger, not try to undermine the players' strengths. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric B
    Jan 9, 2014 at 16:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EricB, while I agree a DM should make the bad guys more challenging most of the time, occasionally doing something to make the players miserable (broken weapon, no room to swing the big weapons) makes for memorable encounters. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Jan 13, 2014 at 13:29
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ What if the undead attack after the wizard has chosen no spells for the day to do damage? An increase in the average intelligence of wizards in the area, that's what. Seriously, wizard casting is Int-based, how does a wizard stupid enough to adventure with no damage-dealing at all even manage to prepare any spell? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 13, 2014 at 19:08

Make them mechancially different

You said it right in the question that the players now just think of the undead as a bunch of stats, stats they know quite well. They will be at least more cautious, if not actually afraid, if they know that they do not know what the stats are for these creatures, at least not initially. So, make them mechanically different and make the fact they are different obvious. As mentioned below, foreshadowing and a different appearance description will help wtih this.

Preferrably, make them mechanically different in an interesting way. Give them unusual immunities and unusually vulnerabilities. Against a high level party that has a fair bit of magic, I would be tempted to make them highly resistant to anything with a magical aura, inverting one of the common immunities. After they learn this, it would send the high level players running off to buy mundane weapons and force the wizard to think about spells that affect his party or the terrain and rather than directly targetting the undead (or even break out his staff to whack things with). Even if you use a common vulnerability like silver or fire, the players need to either research or experiment to find out which one it is.


You can go a long way with your description and mood. This is what horror books thrive on.

So, make the description both evocative and fresh. If you just say "skeletons" the players think of stats. If you say "rotting, shambling bodies seeking to devour flesh", they probably go to zombies and zombie stats pretty fast, but they have to make a story related leap and they think about your description first.

Now, if you say "There is a collection of creatures coming towards you. In the dim moonlight, it is hard to see all the details, but you clearly make out pinpricks of violet light looking like candles, spaced out as though they were eyes. As the creatures approach, you see they are vaguely human, but they are pale and and the limbs are whithered and dessicated while the bellies are bloated and distended. There is a symbol, still oozing blood, carved into the forehead of each body. They give off a distinct scent of rot, but there is a definite, and strong undertone of lavendar beneath it..."

Now, if you do it right, they might be scared. At least they will know this isn't something straight out of the MM and they need to approach with caution. The lavendar might well be a clue of what was used in the rituals to make them, and gives them a lead to research. So does the symbol ont he forehead. These are, if not scary, at least interesting.


Foreshadowing both makes it feel like you aren't trying to just shock the players and helps set the mood. So they hear about mysterious happenings first. They learn from a local cleric that some of the souls of the recently dead have been crying out in his dreams for help, as well as the souls of some that have recently gone missing. Perhaps they find out about certain ritual components being acquired in large quantities, such as lavendar...

Now, they know to expect something, have some idea of what, but only some idea.

Make them run the first encounter

This one is dicey, know your group before you use it. But in virtually every piece of monster fiction, the protagonists run at first. It helps heighten fear for both protagonist and audience, reinforces the fact this is something to be afraid of.

So, make them run the first encounter. But you need to do it carefully. These are players, not horror protagonists. They shouldn't feel like the GM forced them to run out of spite, and depending on the group they may not want to feel like they lost. Instead, they made a strategic retreat so they could come back and fight under more favorable conditions later.

Remind them that these are new, that they might want to do research based on their new information they learn in this encounter. To help with that, perhaps they already met an old academic that could help them, but only if they got him a detailed description. So, running away with that detailed description now in hand is a victory, in a sense. Make it obvious that they are overwhelmed the first encounter. Perhaps there are several dozen at first and they hear yet more in the darkness beyond. Also, make sure they know running is a viable option. Perhaps there is holy ground nearby. Or a bridge they can collapse behind them. Or perhaps this type of undead is just slow. They need to know that running will work or they will stand and fight just so they die facing forward.

Also, see How can I make my PCs flee?


Some more solutions to raise the fear:

Make them tough. Don't have them undead be the mooks, but the bosses. Does anybody remember King Leoric from Diablo 1? The first time you met him? I am sure you died instantly just as I did. And next time you saw the gloom that surrounds him, your heart beat faster.

Another point: make it stylish. Discribe that never resting bugger. Put some flesh to the bones (pun intended). There is a difference between "you face 4 ghouls, roll for initiative" and "You feel them stare out of their now hollow eye-sockets right into your very souls as the dead rise from their grave. You heard the undead knew no emotions but you could swear you hear them laugh as they rise their dark bladed scythes, that drip with poison." ( I am not a native speaker, but I hope you get the notion).


Monsters are blocks of numbers plus a fanciful description. The player will listen to the description and then deal with the numbers. How you use them is what makes the difference. Let's review certain fact about undead:

They hate life

This is a common trait to most undead, and the lest intelligent they are, the more is their behaviour influenced by this fact. A undead creature tries to extinguish life wherever it finds it.

Of course healthy adventurers are full of life, but a undead killing urges could draw them toward a different targets: the children, the women, the elderly... Weaker prey mean more deaths in less time. Not only that, once the undead chooses a target, it will pursue them relentlessly, ignoring anything else, even the swords and arrows of the adventurers tearing their ruined bodies. Not that they care about that, they are dead already, and feel either pain nor fear. When the corpses of the innocents starts to pile up, the players will cease to take those monsters so lightly.

Only if the players manage to put a decent blockade to their advance, will the undead attack them. When confronted with the players, the undead should follow those directives when choosing targets:

  1. Holy people must die: Paladins and good clerics can wield powers that are anathema to the walking dead, and they can feel it. Such opponents will be a primary target.
  2. Always aim for the weak: The undead can feel the proximity of death. When in doubt, the will attack always the target that is either defenceless or that has the lowest total of hit points.
  3. Flesh before steel: Targets with the least armor are chosen first, because they are likely to die sooner that those clad in armor.

Also, when attacking, non-intelligent should adhere to the following tactics:

  • When possible, they should attack to the same target. En masse. Other targets will be ignored no matter what they do, until the current one falls.
  • When possible, they will try to overpower the target either by grappling or any other tactic that leaves him unable to defend itself.
  • When a target is rendered defenceless, all undead that has a chance to attack him will attack him at full force until he drops dead.

Intelligent undead should use more advanced tactics, but they should still adhere to the targeting directives given before. They will deceive, take hostages, and use the most despicable tactics, all while hidding behind a wall of lesser undead.


With a little bit a magic

I'm currently running a 5e custom Forgotten Realms campaign that begins with a long backstory of how the great cities and empires of the southern continent have been slowly eradicated by a growing unstoppable hoard of the undead. Sure clerics and paladins can absolutely decimate the undead but there are 2 things unique about this specific horde. They have helped to sow an intense terror of all things undead in my players.

  1. Mutations

    The undead are created magically, but there is so much variety of life in the forgotten realms. What happens when a human becomes a zombie may be very different than when an elf, dwarf, orc, gnoll, giant, etc are turned. On top of this, many necromancy practitioners may also be wild mages (like one of my players). So I have created a table of mutations that can be applied to zombies. Claws for additional damage, hides which resist non-magical weaponry, breath weapons, growing tails or wings, etc.

    As an example, early in my campaign a player trapped a group of soldiers in a farm house filled with the undead. When the party came back through, these fresh undead were not only still wearing army, but they were also moving fast, acting intelligent, and a few of the soldiers had their weapons fused into their hands so they were spinning whirlwinds of bladed undeath. My players have decided to be more thorough in their disposal of corpses going forward.

  2. Plague

    The undead plague is magical. This does not mean that it can't spread like a natural disease however. And not just through a bite. When these undead die they explode with a magical purple dust that when inhaled requires a wisdom save to avoid becoming infected. My players picked up on this after killing just 2 zombies and now give all undead a wide berth. If they cannot avoid the undead they make sure to kill them from as great a distance as possible. And when there are more than they can take out from a distance, they straight up flee.

  3. Numbers

    It’s common knowledge that the undead are attacted to movement and noise. So of corpse if they see a shambling horde of moaning and howling undead monsters, they are likely to move towards and follow it. Like goblins, zombies and skeletons aren't much of a threat on their own. But in large groups they can surround you and prevent your escape. If you have combat attract other nearby undead it will start to force your players to think more strategically about their approach to fighting them. Bash bash bash till it stops moving will always work, but it may also get you into big trouble.


Simple Undead like skeletons are well known and basic. The mechanics are known and they are dead simple. Undead should be special. They are no living beings with feelings to understand or respect. Even a marauding orc band can be understood, although probably hated. But Undead are totally alien. But going by the rules, they aren't special. They are just orcs with another texture. They do normal damage.

Players (humans in general) are afraid of the unknown. So let your players know upfront, possibly at the start of the campaign, that you changed all undead and that they should expect them to work differently. Don't tell them how. Just different. That will bring back parts of the "unknown" experience.

Back in 2e the bigger, better, more evil undead had a way to impose negative levels on players. I think it was called "level drain" back then. I always liked the idea of the undead draining the very life force of people, but I always hated the d&d-esque implementation. It basically was save-or-die. If you missed two saves in a combat, you technically were not dead, but realistically, being two levels below everyone else in the party meant you wanted roll a new character. Rolling a new character was even easier than backtracking your existing character to two levels before. This surely scared people. The possibility to lose something more valuable than the life of a character, the experience and levels of a character sure made people think twice about fighting such enemies.

Combining those two thoughts into one, I'd like to propose special rules for undead: they all drain life force. However, only a little. A skeleton for example could drain 1XP per point of damage it does. Thats very little. But if your players are unlucky, they might come out of a fight with undead having less XP than before even if they killed them all. When a cemetery full of undead is no longer a way to gain XP, but a chance to lose XP, that is scary.

To keep it simple you may allow people to keep any levels even if they go below the required XP. Rolling back a character is tedious and if you are around the magic XP number for a level and you have to level up and down your character every two combats people will not be scared, but bored.

You can adjust the drain rate to whatever you see fit. But it should have an impact. Fighting Undead should be scarier than fighting orcs. The mechanics should reflect that.


Undead are scariest, in my opinion, when they appear less different, and only feel different. Like when you cannot make out that they really are undead until they are really close, and only then we see the colour of their eyes, or their pallor. I'm not sure why undead are usually portrayed as those with zero intelligence. I mean, it makes sense that over long periods of time they become drooling, flesh-eating, yada yada, but a freshly undead person should still be in retention of their cognitive powers, and show only mild state of deterioration, per se.

Friends who are slowly walking towards you, sometimes stumbling; you want to stretch your hands out to steady them when you realise that something is a bit off. And when you see the grey eyes instead of the green, and the sickly state of their skin, is when you step back, teary eyed, and shoot the fella's head off, and put him out of his misery.


Here are some other (mechanical) ideas to make the undead different from orcs:

Perhaps zombies can latch on to a player and refuse to let go, even after you hack the zombie's arm off. While the arm is attached, every action performed with their arm (attacks, blocking, spells, other things like climbing, etc) is hindered by some amount. Perhaps -2 on hit chances and a 1d6 instead of 1d8 for damage, or whatever makes sense. Other actions, like shooting archery, could be impossible.

The player then has to bust out a knife and cut off the zombie's fingers, or make a strength check to rip it off, or use a spell, whatever. Especially difficult if the zombie is resistant/immune to certain weapons and they need a special object to remove the hand.

Perhaps the barbarian cleaved a weak zombie in half and turned to take out another, but the torso of the first crawls forward and grabs his legs- now making it harder for the barbarian to dodge other attacks, slowing his movement, and possibly doing damage as the zombie bites him in the knee.

Don't be afraid to send a literal horde of hundreds of zombies at the players. Of course make it possible to defeat them; each is weak, but with so many, players can't kill them all at once and they begin to latch on to players. Or perhaps there is a choke point in the canyon that players can use, or an old fort with a few corridors still intact enough to offer shelter, allowing players to face the zombies one at a time until they are defeated (or the three hundred zombies mysteriously turn around and leave, or refuse to enter the ruined fort, or something else that adds to suspense and helps the plot). Make use of dead zombies as barriers to zombies coming at the players, so they can literally build walls of the dead. Walls which then can collapse, especially when a zombie wasn't quite dead and is now squirming in the pile.

Perhaps a skeleton rips his own arm off and flings it at the party. If dodged, the arm hits the ground and begins crawling at their feet, tripping them or causing other issues. If the arm isn't dodged, it latches on to a shield, weapon, arm, whatever.

Perhaps when a skeleton is killed, the magical force holding it together explodes- sending shards of bone in all directions, hitting all players (and other creatures) in melee range for damage. Perhaps the bone shards carry some other affect, such as disease, numbing the area they strike, or causing a magical tracking that makes it impossible to evade the horde (which tracks the magic of the shards) until the shards are removed from clothing, skin, and armor.

Perhaps zombie flesh is acidic and damages equipment when it comes in contact with it- including zombie bits hacked off that players step on.

Perhaps flies are buzzing around the corpses, and these flies also attack the players- dealing poison or disease. Or infecting all the parties' food, even getting into their ale. Perhaps they eat the players other provisions, like tents, making it difficult for players to rest and restore hp/replenish spells.

Perhaps it is this disease that turns people into zombies in the first place, meaning the party must find a way to cure themselves before they inevitably become mindless corpses themselves.

Perhaps the party is asked to help such and such town with some problem (unrelated, like bandits or goblins or whatever), but when they show up, the town has been attacked and everyone in it has already become undead. Do they try and complete the original quest, or deal with the undead? Both? What if they prepared for goblins and are now facing skeletons, without any place to purchase new gear, forcing experienced characters into using half-broken maces they find on undead townsfolk?


Play realistic (points 1 to 4), aim for more-than-a-game (point 5)

  1. make your players poor ! money is THE way to wiggle out of difficulty

  2. reduce drastically the number of magical items for example ban all +1 and +2 weapons and all lower-end magical items and replace them with npon-magical "quality" weapons

  3. aplly the law like Dredd re-read the rules - you will generally find that you run a lenient version allowing too much slack on the players. a reason for that is that players also read the rules and will happily inform you on minor points in their favor for ex., I never met a DM who obliged the wizards to actually collect their components

  4. Best scenarios are Conan-like : happy to survive ! 4.a. Take scenarios that are planned for levels 50% in excess of the mots experienced character : yes that means if your group is led by a 4-lvl, take a scenario for 6+ 4.b. Strip down GPs and magic items so that the party stays on its toes even in case of success 4.c. Award experience for avoiding stupid death / bare survival

No point (1-4) is specific to undeads, although the lack of magic will help undead more than lots of monsters.

  1. Aim for more-than-a-game Any game, whatever the difficulty, can be taken with detachment, which defeats the fear thing - and the very purpose of role-playing games.

To make undead scary you need to think like to make a movie : think situations that are stressful, play with their phobias. Two basic plots and one advice

  • characters are in a maze (or just a complicated catacomb) trapped with a nasty anything. They must find the exit while not running into the monster. What will impress the players is that they must speak very low... Here the horror comes from a double-bind paralysis : either you don't move and the monster finds you eventually, or you make noise and the monster finds you just sooner

  • characters are hunted by a vampire who wants one of the group as companion. Fleeing from town to town, trying to protect the unlucky prize from life-draining vists, plus being ousted by everyone who learns what they are up to. Here horror comes from powerlessness, like in nightmares when you run to flee but you can't move

  • advice : atmosphere = soundtrack + your own role-playing / storytelling for ex. : catacomb = slow, loud water drops. Use everything at hand

Hope this helps, have fun :)


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .