The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘complex of zombies’


Session 6B: Return to the Depths

In which a sheen of blood signals terrors from beyond the grave, and numerous clothes are ruined much to Tee’s dismay…

The Complex of Zombies - Justin AlexanderThis installment of Running the Campaign is going to discuss some specific details of The Complex of Zombies, so I’m going to throw up a


for that published adventure. (Although I guess if you’ve already read this week’s campaign journal, the cat is kind of out of the bag in any case.)

Interesting conundrum:

  • D&D has zombies.
  • D&D can’t take advantage of the current (and long ongoing) craze for zombie stuff.

Why? Because zombies in D&D were designed as the patsies of the undead world. In the early 1970’s, when Arneson and Gygax were adding undead to their games, zombies were turgid, lumbering corpses that had been yanked out of a fairly obscure film called Night of the Living Dead. (Even Romero’s sequels wouldn’t arrive until 1978, and modern zombie fiction in general wouldn’t explode until the ‘80s.) Even skeletons, backed up by awesome Harryhausen stop-motion animation, were much cooler and had more cultural cachet.


From a mechanical standpoint, the biggest problem zombies have is their slow speed. In AD&D this rule was, “Zombies are slow, always striking last.” (Although in 1st Edition they were probably better than they would ever be otherwise, as their immunity to morale loss was significant.) The 3rd Edition modeling of this slow speed, however, was absolutely crippling: “Single Actions Only (Ex): Zombies have poor reflexes and can perform only a single move action or attack action each round.”

They were further hurt by a glitch in the 3rd Edition CR/EL system: The challenge ratings for undead creatures were calculated using the same guidelines as for all other creatures. But unlike all other creatures, undead (and only undead) could be pulverized en masse by the cleric’s turn ability. This meant that undead in general were already pushovers compared to any comparable opponent, and zombies (which were pushovers compared to other undead) were a complete joke.

(The general problem with undead was, in my opinion, so limiting for scenario design in 3rd Edition that I created a set of house rules for turning to fix the problem. There’s some evidence that these house rules are actually closer to how turning originally worked at Arneson’s table.)

In short, you could have a shambling horde of zombies (as long as the horde wasn’t too big), but it wouldn’t be frightening in any way.

Which is kind of a problem, since “horror” is literally what the whole zombie shtick is supposed to be about.


My primary design goal with The Complex of Zombies scenario was, in fact, to reinvent the D&D zombie into something which would legitimately strike terror into the hearts of PCs. James Hargrove described the result as, “… more or less Resident Evil in fantasy. Which rocks. And it rocks because it’s not just zombies but zombie-like things. Bad things. Bad things that eat people. Bad things that are just different enough from bog standard zombies to scare the crap out of players when they first encounter them.” Which I absolutely thrilled at seeing, because that’s exactly what I was shooting for.

One could, of course, simply have gone with a souped up “fast zombie, add turn resistance”. But I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to create a zombie-like creature that would actually instill panic at the gaming table. And the key to that was the bloodwight and its bloodsheen ability:

Bloodsheen (Su): A living creature within 30 feet of a dessicated bloodwight must succeed at a Fortitude save (DC 13) or begin sweating blood (covering their skin in a sheen of blood). Characters affected by bloodsheen suffer 1d4 points of damage, plus 1 point of damage for each bloodwight within 30 feet. A character is only affected by bloodsheen once per round, regardless of how many bloodwights are present. (The save DC is Charisma-based.)

Because the bloodsheen was coupled to a health soak ability that slowly transformed desiccated bloodwights into lesser bloodwights, the resulting creature combined both slow and fast zombies into a single package. The bloodsheen itself was not only extremely creepy, but also presented a terrifying mystery (since it would often manifest before the PCs had actually seen the bloodwight causing it).

Eventually, of course, the players should be able to figure out what’s happening and be able to put a plan of action in place to deal with it. (“Cleric in front, preemptive turning.” will cover most of your bases here.) But the design of The Complex of Zombies is designed to occasionally baffle or complicate these tactics.

Which, in closing, also brings me to another important point about using scenario design advice: I’ve had a couple different people who purchased The Complex of Zombies contact me and say, “Hey! Why isn’t this dungeon heavily jaquayed? Isn’t that your thing?”

The Complex of Zombies - Map

Well, no. My thing is designing effective dungeons.

The Complex of Zombies uses a claustrophobic, branching design in order to amp up the terror. Multiple doors create “airlocks” that prevent you from seeing what’s ahead, but also cause you to lose sight of what’s behind you. Its largely symmetrical design creates familiarity and allows the PCs to benefit from “unearned” geographic knowledge, but that familiarity is subverted with terrible, hidden mysteries so that the familiar becomes dangerous. The progressive, three-layered depth of the complex meant that every step forward felt like a deeper and deeper commitment to the horrific situation. Finally, virtually every navigational decision meant turning your back on a door. (And the myriad number of doors became daunting in and of itself when the bloodsheen could be coming from behind any one of them.)

There was one stage in design where I considered linking Area 4 and Area 11 with some form of secret passage. But there are only three possible uses of such a passage:

  • The players use it to “skip ahead”, which wouldn’t really give them any significant geographical advantage due to the nature of the scenario, but would disrupt the “pushing deeper, committing more” theme of the scenario. (I wanted depth in the dungeon’s design and this would have flattened the topography.)
  • The players miss the first instance of the passage, but find the second. After a moment of excitement, they end up backtracking to an earlier part of the dungeon, which in most instances is going to be accompanied by the “wah-wah” of a sad trombone sounding the anti-climax as they trudge back to where they were and continue on.
  • The bloodwights could use it to circle around behind the PCs and ambush them. The bloodwights were so deadly, however, that a clear line of retreat was really kind of essential for the whole scenario not to become a TPK. (There’s still a risk of this happening if the PCs don’t play smart, but that’s on the players.)

To sum up: Design guidelines are rules of thumb. Following them blindly or religiously is not always for the best. In this case, minimal jaquaying was the right choice to highlight the terrors of the bloodwights.


Session 6A: Blood in the Depths

In which a hole in the wall leads to an unexpected labyrinth, and one pest problem quickly leads to another…

This section of the campaign is notable because the dungeon complex they begin to explore at the end of it was directly adapted into the The Complex of Zombies, a mini-module which you can purchase on Drivethru (among other places).

Adapting material from your personal campaign into a published form can be very rewarding, but there are a number of pitfalls you need to avoid.

The first thing you have to do is purge the material of any material inherited from other creators. Personal campaigns are, I fervently believe, strengthened beyond measure by becoming a beautiful mélange of influences and inputs. Copyright law, on the other hand, has other opinions.

In the case of The Complex of Zombies, fortunately, I’ve already “translated” Monte Cook’s Ptolus into my own campaign world (which I’ve been running and developing since 2000), which often has the effect of preemptively scrubbing off many of the serial numbers. But some work still needed to be done.

This process is less simple than it may first appear because you can’t just go through and delete everything. That would leave the material feeling hollow and incomplete. Nor, in my opinion, can you just replace other people’s creative content with generic versions of the same: “Generic” isn’t good. Generic lacks identity. Generic lacks interest.

So you have to go in, take this one really cool thing that has a bunch of specific context and content that you can’t use, and you have to replace it with something really cool and creative and detailed in its own right. And that usually has a cascade effect, as one change affects another. A well-designed scenario, after all, isn’t a bunch of unrelated stuff: So once you start changing some elements, the rest of the scenario can and should change, too.

(This process is often beneficial, though: Re-contextualizing material from one context into another often lends richer and unexpected depths to the new context which you might not otherwise have considered or created.)

For The Complex of Zombies, the most notable example of this was swapping out the deep background of Ghul’s Labyrinth (beneath Monte Cook’s Ptolus) for the research complex of the Sons of Jade. If I recall correctly, the Sons of Jade were an original creation for the adventure module, but I tied them into the mythology of the Jade Magi and the Lost City of Shandrala, which I had originally developed for the background of the gemstone golems I’d designed for the Penumbra Bestiary (although that background was stripped out of the final book) and which had also featured in a proposed mega-adventure in the pre-3.5 says of the D20 license. (A project which I occasionally play with the idea of returning to, but probably won’t all things considered.)

And although this didn’t really apply to The Complex of Zombies, the other thing you have to be wary of when going from table-to-page is trying to recapture the campaign instead of the scenario. For example, I’ve actually encountered multiple published scenarios where the author, seemingly out of the blue, suddenly starts talking about what the GM should do if one of the PCs falls in love with a seemingly random NPC.

This is almost certainly because that’s what happened in their campaign. In one case, this ended up being an extended subplot that chewed up almost half of the published scenario. Twenty or thirty pages of material. And I’m willing to bet hard currency that it was an absolutely, positively amazing experience at the table; probably one of those gaming memories that you’re still talking about fondly twenty years later.

But I’ll also guarantee you that literally no one else playing in that scenario will ever duplicate that precise experience. And you have to be cautious of those moments — at both the seemingly obvious macro-level, but also at the more insidious micro-level — when attempting to offer the material to other people. If you do your job well, then the odds are that the other GMs running your scenario will experience similarly amazing, spontaneous, and memorable acts at the gaming table. But they won’t be the same moments that you experienced. (No matter how much you try to craft a railroad to force that moment to come again. It’s like when things go sour in Groundhog Day as Bill Murray’s character tries to recreate the perfect day.)



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