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The Walking Dead
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

I n honor of the month of Halloween, I figured I'd spend a few weeks talking about the undead. In our discussions, we often landed on a single word that encapsulates a given variety of undead, so you'll see those words in boldface throughout this article and the next couple.

Skeletons and Zombies

First, let's start with the basics: the most common undead. Skeletons and zombies are the undead you're most likely to find at low levels and in large numbers. Both of them are little more than animated corpses, with no memories or attachment to their former lives. Both of them are commonly created by spellcasters using a spell like animate dead. But the differences between them are more than a matter of Hit Dice or level.

Skeletons are soldiers. When a necromancer wants to create an undead army, the undead of choice are skeletons. Skeletons are undead foot soldiers, perfectly loyal and unquestioningly obedient. Not very bright, they require careful orders and aren't good at adapting to changing circumstances, but they follow orders to the letter. Even though they're more or less automatons, they're skilled in combat—they fight with weapons (albeit rusted and notched ones) and wear (rusted and tattered) armor. They can load and fire a catapult or trebuchet, scale a siege ladder, form a shield wall, or dump boiling oil (or necrotic sludge) on those who dare attack the necromancer's fortress lair—all assuming they've been given careful orders to do those things.

They're not smart (their Intelligence score is around 6), but not entirely mindless. They lack any sense of self (with a Charisma score of 3). They're particularly effective in mass warfare because spears and arrows (and piercing weapons in general) have little effect on them, passing between bones without striking flesh. Because they're made of dry bones, though, they can shatter apart easily when struck by bludgeoning weapons.

Rare skeletons retain more intelligence and the ability to lead others of their kind. These skeletal warriors are more independent and can give orders, not just follow them, so they often serve as subcommanders beneath their necromancer master. Even more rare are skeletons infused with other magical energy, such as burning skeletons or skeletons encased in ice.

Zombies are relentless. Anything but disciplined soldiers, they shamble in whatever direction they're pointed, pummeling any enemy in their path. They can follow very simple orders and distinguish friends from foes, but that's about the best you can ask from a zombie.

What makes them fine minions is that they're so hard to kill. Pain doesn't bother them—light a zombie on fire or shoot it full of arrows and it will just keep coming. After all, it's a rotting corpse—if rot doesn't slow it down, damage doesn't do much more. To bring a zombie down, you need to deal so much damage that its body just won't hold together anymore. Fortunately, it's not hard to hit a zombie. They're slow, they don't wear armor, and they're not smart enough to make use of cover.

In D&D, not all of the tropes of modern zombie movies (and games) apply. Perhaps most importantly, zombies don't spread their infection to create more zombies (though there might be rare exceptions—special varieties of zombies that are created by a necromantic plague). They're slow, in terms of walking speed, in their initiative and Dexterity score, and in their thinking (such as it is). They're not particularly susceptible to damage to their heads, and they don't eat brains.


Ghouls are defined by their hunger. They're the undead that eat human flesh, driven by an unnatural compulsion (not a need for nutrition). So powerful is their hunger that ghouls will often paralyze a target and drag it away to feed while the rest of the ghoul mob is still fighting. (Incidentally, it's worth noting that the creatures in Night of the Living Dead are never called zombies in the movie—they're called ghouls, because they eat human flesh.)

Ghouls paralyze people they hit with their filthy claws. This is a magical effect, not a natural toxin (as opposed to, say, the paralytic slime that coats a carrion crawler's tentacles), and for some reason elves are immune to it. Ghouls are strong and quick, and not especially bright. They're individually cunning, though they attack in a disorganized mob, not a coordinated pack, and they rarely take advantage of tactical opportunities offered by their numbers.

Exceptional ghouls, called ghasts, can unite a ghoul mob into an organized pack. Their paralytic touch does affect elves, and their carrion stench can sicken living creatures around them.

Here's a question for the polls: When we talked about ghouls in the office, we decided that they were cursed—basically, the gods curse people who feed on human carrion—and that people killed by ghouls did not automatically turn into ghouls themselves. At some level that makes a lot of sense: the majority of people killed by ghouls become food for ghouls.

But pointing out the link between ghouls and Night of the Living Dead made me wonder if we made the right call on that. What do you think?

In either case, a ghoul is not the person it was in life. It retains no class levels, and it has nothing more than the barest memories of its previous existence.


If ghouls are defined by hunger, vampires are all about thirst. There's more to that than drinking blood, though of course bloodsucking is a central characteristic of vampires in D&D as in legend and fiction. But that thirst also points to the twisted romantic side of vampire stories—they are creatures of longing, of undying and insatiable desire. Strahd von Zarovich is the classic D&D example, whose desire for Tatyana (his brother's bride) was the source of his curse and the object of his unlife. The classic adventure Ravenloft is partly about Strahd's attempt to make a living woman who appears to be a reincarnation of Tatyana into his undead bride.

That suggests a somewhat tragic character for vampires, which is significantly undermined if adventurers encounter packs of vampires who bite out human throats, like little more than wolves. We want vampires to be uncommon, encountered alone or in very small groups that are almost like families. These groups would have a sire and a handful of spawn, all of which are distinct individuals.

As their unfulfilled longing suggests, vampires retain full memories of their time among the living and are driven by the same goals, ambitions, and desires. Many vampires have character classes, and (like Strahd the necromancer) they retain spellcasting and other class features. At the same time, they gain superhuman strength (comparable to a hill giant) and preternatural quickness.

A vampire generally chooses to attack using whatever weapons or spells it used in life, but if necessary (or in the case of a particularly savage vampire) it can use fists and claws to attack, making use of its great strength to grapple, strangle, and throw its victims.

Vampires possess a number of other special abilities, most drawn from folklore. They're stealthy, they can climb up or down sheer walls like spiders, they can adopt the form of a bat for a quick escape, they turn into mist when killed away from their coffins, and they can summon wolves, rats, or bats to overwhelm or distract their enemies. When a vampire has a chance to gaze deeply into a victim's eyes (in other words, outside of combat), it can charm the victim into letting the vampire feed. A vampire can be killed only while at rest in its coffin, by staking it through the heart or cutting off its head.

On the flip side, being a vampire comes with a host of weaknesses and restrictions as well. A vampire is bound to its coffin or tomb. It is injured by direct sunlight and generally rests in its coffin during the day. It can't cross running water, it doesn't appear in mirrors (and recoils from them), and it hates holy symbols (and is thus particularly vulnerable to turn undead).

When a vampire drains the blood from a victim who is then buried or interred in a tomb, the victim will rise as a vampire. The sire (the vampire who killed the victim) can control its spawn while in their presence, but it can't exert that control over long distances. Spawn are often willful, and they can't be relied on to obey orders when their sire is no longer present.

What Do You Think?

So what do you think of these descriptions of undead?

 How well do the skeleton soldiers we've described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?  
1—Sounds like it was written by a mindless undead.
2—Animated by necromancers, sure, but I don't buy the rest.
3—I can see a skeleton from here.
4—I have just a quibble or two.
5—I would like an army of these skeletons, please.

 How about the relentless zombies?  
1—Sounds like it was written by a mindless undead.
2—Animated by necromancers, sure, but I don't buy the rest.
3—I can see a zombie from here.
4—They should be more like the movies.
5—Movies should be more like these zombies.

 And the hungry, hungry ghouls?  
1—I don't know what that is, but it's not a ghoul.
2—That's more Night of the Living Dead than D&D.
3—I can see a ghoul from here.
4—They should be more like the movies.
5—Yeenoghu and/or Doresain would be proud.

 Should people killed by ghouls turn into ghouls?  
Yes. They always have and they always should.
Yes. In fact, people who were just scratched or bitten by a ghoul should be at risk.
No, leave that to vampires and wraiths.

 And the thirsty, longing vampire?  
1—It sucks.
2—Too much Anne Rice/Stephanie Meyer, not enough Bram Stoker.
3—It's a vampire, but it's not a D&D vampire.
4—Yeah, I recognize that as a D&D vampire.
5—You're actually Strahd in disguise, aren't you?

Previous Poll Results

Orcs: Do you think the bestiary statistics for the orc match up with the story we’ve presented?
1 -- No, they're off base. 32 3.0%
2 -- More or less. 319 30.2%
3 -- Yes, they're spot on. 539 50.9%
4 -- I haven't seen the bestiary. 168 15.9%
Total 1058 100.0%

Gnolls: Does this refinement make the gnoll description better, worse, or the same?
1 -- Worse now than it was before. 25 2.3%
2 -- The same, and I didn't like it before. 60 5.6%
3 -- The same, but I was happy with it before. 210 19.4%
4 -- Better, but not quite there yet. 291 26.9%
5 -- Better, and it's just about right. 494 45.7%
Total 1080 100.0%

Goblins: Do you think goblins as presented here are strong enough opponents?
1 -- No, they're too weak. 228 20.8%
2 -- Yes, they're just right. 846 77.3%
3 -- They're too strong. 20 1.8%
Total 1094 100.0%

Do you think the bestiary statistics for the hobgoblin match up with the story we’ve presented?
1 -- No, they're off base. 30 3.1%
2 -- More or less. 297 30.2%
3 -- Yes, they're spot on. 492 50.1%
4 -- I haven't seen the bestiary. 164 16.7%
Total 983 100.0%

Bugbears: Does this refinement make the bugbear description better, worse, or the same?
1 -- Worse now than it was before. 44 4.1%
2 -- The same, and I didn't like it before. 52 4.9%
3 -- The same, but I was happy with it before. 192 18.0%
4 -- Better, but not quite there yet. 336 31.6%
5 -- Better, and it's just about right. 440 41.4%
Total 1064 100.0%

Kobolds: Dragon blood?
1 -- No dragon blood. 221 17.6%
2 -- I like the wishy-washy answer. 731 58.1%
3 -- Definitely dragon blood! 306 24.3%
Total 1258 100.0%

Lizardfolk: Am I wrong to hold my ground on primitive lizardfolk and demonic lizard kings?
1 -- Lizardfolk should be more advanced, but I'm fine with demonic lizard kings. 155 13.8%
2 -- Lizard kings should not be demonic, but the technology you described is fine. 297 26.4%
3 -- Lizardfolk should be more advanced and lizard kings should not be demonic. 175 15.5%
4 -- I didn't like them at first, but you've convinced me. 77 6.8%
5 -- I liked them before and I still like them now. 423 37.5%
Total 1127 100.0%

Troglodytes: Laogzed or Torog?
1 -- I want hungry, hungry trogs who worship Laogzed. 183 15.0%
2 -- I want cruel, torturing trogs who worship Torog. 112 9.2%
3 -- I like having a choice, or different tribes serving different gods. 730 60.0%
4 -- Troglodytes don't need gods to make them interesting or distinct. 192 15.8%
Total 1217 100.0%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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