D&D Monster Monday: Zombie

“WHY WON’T YOU DIE!?” you scream, plunging your longsword into the zombie and watching it, yet again, rise from the floor and charge toward you. You’re locked in a duel to the death with this creature. Your death, that is. 

How have I been writing D&D Monster Monday for two years and have not yet managed to showcase the zombie? This is a staple low-CR creature in D&D. I mean what campaign doesn’t feature a haunted graveyard at some point within the first few levels? Not one of my campaigns, that’s for sure!

The zombie is a simple creature with a fun and unique trait that gives the zombie a chance to not die when they hit 0 HP. This will either frustrate the hell out of the party or give the whole table a good laugh. There’s no in-between. They’re also fantastic low-CR minions to soak up the party’s resources thanks to this trait.

They’re also a versatile creature. Sure, the classic haunted graveyard is the tried and true zombie adventure, but there are plenty of locations that could house an army of zombies. I mean, any necromancer worth their salt should have a bunch of zombie goons to keep adventurers off their property!

Let’s lumber toward the back of the Monster Manual and take a look at the O.G. undead horror, the zombie.

a pale-skinned male zombie with his intestines pouring out of him as he stumbles forward
Zombies have to be one of the scariest low-CR creatures. How do you stand your ground against something like this? Credit: WotC.

Zombie Lore

Zombies are walking corpses. Dead stop. That’s the lore.

To put it more eloquently, zombies are corpses that were risen by necromantic magic. This magic not only gives (un)life to the corpse, but it also binds them to whomever or whatever rose them from their peaceful sleep. The zombie’s only purpose going forward is to serve their master. They have no will of their own.

They have the same appearance they had in life. Well, provided that their corpse still has all of their features. They may be missing skin, a nose, some limbs, or have their entrails trailing behind them, but hey at least it’s still the same body they had in life.

Since they are walking corpses, zombies don’t require air, food, water, or sleep to survive. They are the perfect goons for anyone who is looking for mindless muscle that they don’t need to pay or frankly, give two shits about. Of course, you get what you pay for and in this case, it’s a creature with 3 Intelligence.

Zombie Stats and Abilities

You can find the zombie’s statblock on page 316 of the Monster Manual.

Stats

Size: medium undead
AC: 8
HP: 22 (3d8 + 9)
Speed: 20 ft.
STR: 13 (+1)
DEX: 6 (-2)
CON: 16 (+3)
INT: 3 (-4)
WIS: 6 (-2)
CHA: 5 (-3)

Y’all thought I was joking when I called them mindless. With a 3 and 6 in Intelligence and Wisdom respectively zombies may be one of the dumbest creatures in the entirety of D&D 5e. You’re a fool if you’re giving your zombies any task that requires them to do more than “stay around here and kill anything that isn’t us”.

Their common saving throw abilities are hot garbage at first-glance. However, thankfully they have proficiency in Wisdom saving throws and a whopping +3 to Constitution which makes them decent at making most low-level saving throws outside of Dexterity saving throws.

The zombie’s ability score array is all about trade-offs. They have a ton of low modifiers, but they also have their godly +3 Constitution modifier and a solid +1 to Strength. They’re a min-maxed creature for sure. Zombies are great at what they were made to do which is soak up damage and annoy their masters’ enemies.

Their HP is phenomenal for a CR 1/4 creature which should come as no surprise given their Constitution. Although, their AC and Speed are both god-awful. Their HP certainly makes up for their shortcomings, but they aren’t creatures that thrive in large battlefields or wide-open spaces.

Resistances, Immunities, Saves, and Skills

Saving Throws: Wis +0
Damage Immunities: poison
Condition Immunities: poisoned
Senses: darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 8
Languages: understands the languages it knew in life but cannot speak
CR: 1/4 (50 XP)

The zombie’s proficiency in Wisdom saving throws is their saving grace. Having a -2 for both Wisdom and Dex saves would’ve been a definite death sentence for a creature with 8 AC.

Their immunity to poison damage and the poisoned condition is standard undead stuff in 5e. Regardless, it’s a welcome defensive perk, especially since poison damage is common.

You’d assume that a creature that doesn’t need to eat, breathe, sleep, or drink would be the perfect guard creature. Zombies decent guards, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not the ideal creature to post up as sentries with that abysmal 8 passive Perception.

Let’s be real here. If you can’t sneak past a zombie then you just weren’t cut out for this whole adventurer gig anyway.

Traits and Abilities

Undead Fortitude. If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must makes a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5 + the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.

Zombies would be a walking “basic monster” statblock if it weren’t for this awesome, unique trait. Undead Fortitude brings a buttload of flavor to the zombie’s statblock while also further solidifying their role as a low-CR resource drain-type minion.

Every turn you waste attacking a zombie that rises again due to Undead Fortitude is another turn that the zombie’s comrades can continue assaulting you and the party while taking less damage.

Sure, you can counter Undead Fortitude by getting a nat 20 to hit or dealing a radiant damage deathblow to a zombie, but that could come at the cost of a spell slot or consumable item if you don’t have access to a magical weapon or Cantrip that deals radiant damage.

Actions

Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 4 (1d6 + 1) bludgeoning damage.

He has no style, he has no grace, this kong zombie has a funny face.

If you were expecting the zombie to have an attack that was anything but “throw yourself at the enemy” you’re in for a rude awakening. Zombies are so dumb that they would have a hard time figuring out how to even use weapons. Their body is their weapon.

Jokes aside, a single +3 to hit melee attack that deals an average of 4 damage per turn is a decent attack for a CR 1/4 creature. A single melee attack certainly isn’t the best option for a creature with 20 ft. of speed, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Zombie Strengths

The zombie is a fine creature. 1/4 CR is perfect a perfect rating for what it brings to the table which isn’t much. In light of this, I’ll only showcase the single strength and weakness that I feel are worth highlighting.

A Fantastic Resource Soaker

Think of the zombie as clay golem lite. They’re not fast, they don’t have exceptional offenses, but by god, they will take forever to kill.

Plus, with Undead Fortitude, zombies have a chance to cheat death and stay alive with 1 hp after receiving what should have been a killing blow. In doing so, they will soak up at least one additional weapon attack, cantrip, or even an extra spell, further wasting the party’s resources and/or damage output.

A zombie’s success in combat doesn’t stem from them dealing damage. Their successes are measured by how many resources they forced the party to waste. In this case, the resources will generally be consumable healing items, spell slots, and hit dice. The more your zombies waste, the better they were at their jobs.

Zombie Weaknesses

Painfully Slow

Sure, the zombie’s goal isn’t to kill the party. They don’t need to deal any damage at all to be considered successful at their job of wasting the party’s resources.

But wouldn’t it be nice if they got a couple of Slams in? Even just for the heck of it?

It’s going to be difficult to do since they have, on average, 10 ft of speed less than a typical adventurer. Most PCs are going to be able to kite a hoard of zombies around with relative ease because of this difference of speed.

I’d wager that in most combat encounters with a zombie, each zombie will need to Dash at least once to catch up with the party so that they may get an attack or two in.

While it’s certainly a weakness, decent encounter design can help to alleviate this issue. Dead ends, small spaces, and ambushes can help ensure that your zombies start combat in a more favorable position against the party.

an old black and white picture of a zombie with decaying skin wearing a white shirt and black vest
Most of the time I throw in the old artwork in because it looks silly. The O.G. zombie artwork is possibly my favorite of the bunch though. Credit: WotC.

How to Play a Zombie

More DoTs, More DPS!

Your zombies are not your damage dealers. They are resource soakers, tanks, big dumb creatures that run interference, or whatever else you want to call them, but they should not be your primary source of damage in a dungeon.

Sprinkle in creatures that synergize well with zombies. For instance, the other classic low-level undead minion, the skeleton.

Skeletons are brittle creatures with a vulnerability to bludgeoning damage. They’re the opposite of a zombie. They’re defensively weak, but they deal decent damage AND they have a ranged weapon attack. Mixing a couple of these in with a couple of zombies will make for an awesome encounter.

Alternatively, you could lay into the lore and throw in a magic-user such as a necromancer. The zombies become the necromancer’s meat wall so that they can unleash their arsenal of spells upon the party without worrying about the party’s melee attackers rushing toward them.

Run at the Closest Target

Do you know that 8-10 Intelligence barbarian that is always role-played as a complete buffoon? Well, do that. That’s how you should be playing your 3 Intelligence zombies.

These creatures have no concept of who the optimal target is in battle. All they know is that you are hurting them/their boss told them to kill you so they’re going to attack you. Just throw your zombies and their nearest enemy and hope for the best.

While it’s not the most efficient way to play a creature, it’s not a terrible strategy for a low-mobility creature like a zombie. They’re not speedy creatures so even if their most ideal target in range is a well-armored tank you at least have a chance of dealing some damage this turn as opposed to dashing and hoping for the best.

5 Zombie Plot Hooks

  1. The Spooky Graveyard – Murmurings in the town say that someone saw a walking corpse wandering about the graveyard on the outskirts of town at night. The sepulcher has been sealed shut since this rumor started inciting panic in the town.
  2. Join My Army of the Dead – Grave robbers hit the nearby graveyard last night. Strange thing though, they didn’t just take the valuables buried with the dead. They took the bodies too!
  3. The Wandering Dead – The forest is a dangerous place, but lately even more so. A pack of undead has been spotted roaming the forest, feeding on the flesh of any living creature they cross paths with.
  4. Cleansing the Crypts – The church is looking for a few brave adventurers to do a sweep of the crypts before they perform their annual cleansing ritual. They want to be sure no graverobbers or other such dangers are lurking in the darkness.
  5. IT’S ALIVE! – A necromancer hoped to bring their partner back to life after their untimely demise. Unfortunately, the spell did not work out as intended and they’re now barricaded in their office. They’ve sent you a message, will you answer the call?

Conclusions

If you’re looking for a low-CR undead creature to use in your game the zombie has got to be on your shortlist. After all, they are perhaps the most iconic horror monster of all time.

In D&D 5e the zombie is a solid foe to use in low-level adventures. Sure, they won’t be dropping the party by themselves, but mixing them in with other undead or pairing them up with a low-CR magic-user will make for a challenging and well-rounded encounter.

If you need a creature to run interference (in tight quarters) or an efficient resource soaker then the zombie is a fantastic pick. These low-CR creatures operate within their niche spectacularly and will frustrate the players into spending their limited resources earlier than they intended giving you time to hit them hard with more offensive-minded creatures later in the dungeon or adventure.

Previous Monster Monday – Firenewt Warrior

Next Monster Monday –  TBD

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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