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I've been allowing our party's necromancer's zombies to wield Greataxes. Despite the high turnover of zombies, the necromancer picks the Greataxes back up and gives it to the next animated corpse.

After a few sessions of rolling with it, I'm beginning to think that allowing this is just too powerful but I can't find anything to disallow a zombie wielding a Greataxe.

My primary concern is that the necromancer's zombies can hit for d12 with its Greataxe, while a regular zombie can hit for a d6 with slam, and I'm worried about the balance of the spell compared with other similar spells and other classes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What causes you to think that it's too powerful? The difference is only about 3 damage per hit, offset by the time needed to equip the zombies. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jan 5 '17 at 13:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erik That extra 3 damage stacks up when the zombies are continually not dying because of their Undead Fortitude. To borrow terminology from card games (alright, Hearthstone), zombies are pretty 'sticky' and the extra damage is amplified by their staying power. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jan 5 '17 at 14:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe not all zombies are strong enough to wield Greataxes. Or they are inexperienced with it. \$\endgroup\$ – Trilarion Jan 6 '17 at 14:23
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As a direct answer to your question, No, it is not overpowered.

Lets assume your Necromancer casts it on his first zombie (assuming for now, minimum level 5 necromancer). He can cast the animate dead spell twice at his level. So basically you kill a CR 1/4 zombie twice and he cannot cast anymore until a long rest. Even with the bonus you get from casting at higher levels (two per higher level spell slot) at level 10 it is only 22 casts (of Animate Dead) of a CR 1/4 monster. For a level 10 character with a good AoE spell or high single target hit this is not a threat at all.

Other factors:

  • Low dex modifier (-2) also means it is not as likely the zombie will attack first, thus anyone who can one-shot it is likely to easily win.
  • No proficiency on Zombie to wield weapons, not as likely to hit stronger targets.
  • Compare it to other 3rd level spells (such as Bestow Curse), and a few CR 1/4 mobs does not seem that intimidating.

Also a slight addendum based on comments in another answer. According to Page 9 of the Monster Manual, under "Armor, Weapon and Tools Proficiency" it clearly states that you can assume anything listed under a monster is considered proficient with it. However it also states that DM's can swap or change the proficiency as required. At this point, I would say it is at the DM's discretion as to what a Zombie is proficient with.

Personally I would recommend using either the same proficiency as the caster, or having it be based on who is resurrected. For example if you brought back someone with the proficiency then they continue to have it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a note that it is hard to one shot zombies because they have undead fortitude (I think that's what it's called) where they get a save when reduced to 0hp to have 1hp left - I've seen a zombie do this 8 times! \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jan 5 '17 at 20:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM One shotting a zombie from full health should set the Undead Fortitude DC so high that it will be impossible for the zombie to make. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Jan 5 '17 at 21:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adam i dont think thats quite right--the dc is based on leftover damage after the zombie is reduced to 0 hp. The only way to negate the save is to use radiant damage or score a crit. \$\endgroup\$ – D. Ben Knoble Jan 5 '17 at 22:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DavidBenKnoble pg.316 of the monster manual has the zombie stat block. Undead Fortitude there is defined as (lightly paraphrased): "If damage reduces a zombie to 0 hp, it must make a Con saving throw (DC 5+ the damage taken) unless the damage is from radiant or a crit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hp instead." If a zombies drops from 22 (avg) to 0 hp, it must make a DC 27 save, which it cannot make by itself as it only has a +3 Con save. Now, there might be a question "Does the zombie 'take' the leftover damage over what drops it to 0 hp?" but that is a different topic. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Jan 5 '17 at 22:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ The last paragraph, so you would actually want to raise soldier zombies who've had training instead of the villager you murdered. Good idea. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jan 6 '17 at 1:38
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Don't forget that a zombie, as a mindless undead, cannot have a weapon proficiency with a Greataxe. Without proficiency, the reduced to-hit chance should more than offset the extra damage.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ “Nicely” maybe at the very lowest levels, but even at 1st, losing +2 attack to gain +3 damage is a very questionable trade. As the proficiency bonus increases, it becomes a flat-out bad trade. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 5 '17 at 13:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you address my concern of an ogre zombie (which is pretty dumb and uncoordinated, even in life) can have proficiency with a Morning star- a manufactured weapon? Unless I am mistaken, aren't creatures presumed to have proficiency in weapons? Does this mean to say that aside from a Slam Attack, a zombie would have no proficiency in attacks? \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jan 6 '17 at 1:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ A zombie's unarmed attack is it's slam attack. Weapon proficiency is stated, except for weapons a creature is normally carrying and listed under their attacks (which has proficiency built into the +). Example: A minotaur skeleton has a Greataxe attack of +6 to hit. Since it's strength is +4, the proficiency bonus it has received is an additional +2. Unless the zombie block has a weapon attack associated with it, there is no assumed proficiency. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Jan 6 '17 at 2:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ The answers to this question suggest that mindless undead are proficient with the weapons they're equipped with: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/72405/… \$\endgroup\$ – a computing pun Jan 6 '17 at 4:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @acomputingpun Specific to zombies, it only says that a zombie armed with a weapon will use it -- nothing said about proficiency either way. As Lino pointed out, there is no assumed proficiency unless the monster stat block includes it. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Jan 6 '17 at 12:10
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It is not overpowered compared to other magical/spellcasting abilities of a similar level.

However it does afford the necromancer in question the sheer weight of numbers in combat encounters that can overshadow martial PCs like the fighter, ranger, and rogue. Plenty of enemies are in game however use a similar template (skeletons for example) so it hardly seems reasonable to deny players the ability for their raised dead to use weapons and armor since it is commonplace in the game world.

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It makes the zombies more effective against weaker foes, but won't break the game

Even with the zombies having a d12 damage dice instead of a d6, there are plenty of other spells that deal more direct damage. Spirit guardians can deal 3d8 damage over and over again to a larger number of enemies for up to 10 minutes. Heck, the level 1 spell Burning Hands does 3d6 damage in a small cone, which may end up dealing more damage than the 1 zombie. The axe adds, on average, an extra 3 damage which is really only significant against weak creatures with low HP that the zombie can easily hit.

Undead Fortitude isn't really a concern either

You mentioned a concern that Undead Fortitude would make the zombies more effective, leading to an overall unfair boost in damage. But remember that the DC for the save is 5 + The damage taken. As the players fight stronger opponents, the average damage they will encoutner will rise, and the saving DC will grow quickly. For some effects it will become impossible for the zombie to save (Unless you play with critical success saving throws).

For example, Animate Dead can be cast starting from a 5th level caster. At this level, The CR 5 Roper deals on average 22 damage from its bite, giving the zombie a DC 27 save. Given the Zombie's bonus of +3 to Con Saves, this is impossible for the zombie to make alone. A Hill Giant club attack will do on average 18 damage; a DC 23 Save for the zombie. It will only pass with a 20 on the saving throw. A creature only has to deal 8 damage to a zombie for the saving throw to be a coin toss. Zombies have an average of 22 hp, so any creature, like the roper, which can knock it down in one hit is pretty much guaranteed to keep the zombie dead, even with undead fortitude, unless the party uses a questionable amount of resources to bolster its save.

Even if the zombie lasts a while, the damage bump is minimal

Even if the zombie is lucky and gets in 3 hits before it dies, that's on average, a difference of 9 damage. CR 5 monsters hover around 100 hp, so over 3 attacks, they are down an extra tenth of their health. Not that big a deal. Plus This is around the point where the players will face creatures that have resistances/immunities to non-magical damage, or that can regenerate hp. So, unless the players really deck out their zombies, each one may only be half as effective as usual.

For those reasons, I would let the players have their fun and allow the axe zombies.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not to mention the fact that a single axe zombie being in the party is no different in the long run than just having an extra party member wielding axes. I mean in the sense that it's not really op cause you're just tacking on another player essentially. \$\endgroup\$ – The Great Duck Jan 6 '17 at 21:16

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