Iconic Antagonists: Zombies
Given, in the above example, they were actually talking about vampires, not zombies, but the point remains the same. Our modern society has an odd fascination with the walking dead in all of their myriad forms. Be they the shambling walkers of The Walking Dead, the runners of Dawn of the Dead, the feral ghouls of Fallout 3, or the bio-engineered monstrosities of Resident Evil, zombies are everywhere and tabletop games are no exception. Nearly every tabletop game I have ever experienced has zombies in it, often various types so that Gamemasters can use whatever flavor of zombie they might choose. There are even some games, such as the famous All Flesh Must Be Eaten that is entirely about zombies, role-playing in a true zombie apocalypse.
Zombies can be used in just about any campaign setting, save for ultra-realistic ones, obviously. Be it fantasy, modern day, horror, action-adventure, epic, mundane, mystical-focused, scientific-focused, or a combination of any or all. Zombies are a good stand-by minion for any evil villain from mad scientists to dark necromancers. You can find them just about anywhere, from hidden laboratories to dark crypts and expansive dungeons. Players must tread carefully when the potential for a zombie attack arises, as the dead cannot be expected to stay dead. Who says cutting off a zombie’s head is the best way to kill it? Maybe it will just get back up again. Player assumptions become just as much a threat when dealing with the walking dead as the dead themselves, a fact that causes so many Gamemasters no small amount of glee.
What makes zombies so great? What makes them compelling antagonists? Simply put, it is because they are, or were, people. They resemble people without actually being people, thus allowing players to do with them as they wish without having to worry about the consequences of doing harm to actual human beings. They are just corpses, after all, and if you don’t end them, you will join them. In addition, zombies also do not attack alone. Often, they are a part of a hoard, which in itself can be a major allure of using zombies as antagonists for a Gamemaster. They are not one, but many. They are legion. Zombies can also be easily altered to your specific game’s needs. They can be stronger or weaker than normal people, faster or stronger. They can be infectious or not. They can be as cunning as you need them to be, as fearsome as you need them to be, and as frightful as you need them to be. In short, zombies are close to what is basically the ultimate antagonist for any party of characters. They also represent disease, plague, and the primal fear of death itself, allowing players a chance to fight against those fears in a very real and visceral way. It can be amazingly therapeutic to lay waste to a hoard of zombies with a wizard’s fireball or cleave through their rotting flesh with a halberd, all within one’s own imagination. Still, I am never one to discount the therapeutic benefits of imaginary violence.
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