The Design & Development article series premiered on the D&D website back in September 2005, and has been a staple ever since. With the approach of 4th Edition, and our designers and developers focused on the new edition, this column will be the primary vehicle for 4th Edition coverage. We’ll not only give you peeks at what’s forthcoming, but also the “how” and “why.”
Keep in mind that the game is still in a state of flux, as refinements are made by our design and development staff. You’re getting a look behind the curtain at game design in progress, so enjoy, and feel free to send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The simplest monsters are cooler in the new edition of the D&D game, and zombies are no exception. But even though they're soulless animated corpses, zombies don't have to be dead simple. The 4th Edition designers threw the new zombie a bone, coming up with a few ways that everyone's favorite corpse creatures can function in the game to give more chills and kills.
To this end, in the Monster Manual, three exotic zombies appear. The first is the chillborn zombie, the coldness of the grave given just enough volition to be bent on murder. The corruption zombie is a paragon of rot with a great throwing arm. The final new zombie is the gravehound zombie.
That list might spark some preconceived notions about what these undead do. All three possess the implacable resilience of regular zombies, but each comes with an added spin. You might expect easy clichés and predictable performances, but the ideas behind these new breeds of zombie aren't dead on arrival.
A chillborn is cold, but it's not merely an icy zombie. Whatever accursed rites or foul maledictions gave a semblance of life to the chillborn made it even tougher than normal, its body and mind hardened by the freezing hand of death. Life-sapping cold streams from the creature, and the more chillborn zombies in a group, the deeper the freeze. As might be expected, the remorseless fists of the chillborn deal some cold damage, but when a chillborn strikes you, you just might freeze in place, still able to fight back but unable to flee the biting aura the zombie exudes. All chillborn deal more damage to immobilized victims, and your inability to maneuver certainly benefits anyone relying on the chillborn to provide a defensive front line.
One creature that requires such a line of defenders, although probably provided by allies other than the chillborn, is the corruption zombie. This creature is so tainted that its body constantly exudes putrid flesh. It tears off chunks of its own rotting body to hurl at its foes, but leaving itself unharmed due to the supernatural nature of its tissues. If one of its thrown motes of corruption strikes you, however, you're in trouble -- not only does the gobbet hurt, but the unclean flesh also weakens you. Your instincts might dictate charging the zombie to stop its ranged attacks. But the stink of death is so strong near the creature, so sickening, that it can overwhelm the fortitude of the hardiest warrior, slowing his movement and enfeebling his attacks. Even so, if you can stand the smell, pressing the corruption zombie into melee might be an effective way to put an end to the creature.
This isn't true of a gravehound zombie. So named because it's usually created from the corpse of a sizeable dog, a gravehound zombie is a melee monster like many other zombies. It's much faster than normal zombies, and its bite makes up in damage what it lacks in accuracy. The real problem with gravehounds is that their bite causes continuing decomposition around the wound. That trouble can persist even after the gravehound is destroyed. When the gravehound goes down, it lashes out one final time. If it hits you, its jaws lock. Until you can use brute force to open the death grip, you have to drag the hound around and deal with the decay its teeth cause. Being hindered like that during a battle can be more than just a minor nuisance.
When you're playing D&D, you want exciting entertainment. Defeating these exotic zombies is all the more satisfying, the possibility of horrible death all the more threatening, given their terrifying abilities. They set a great precedent for the zombie category's future expansion, and the prospect of even more terrifying fun.