Describing zombies: a dungeon master’s reference

With a little bit of effort, a DM can make far more disturbing zombies than this. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Author’s note: if you are having a meal or snacking at your keyboard or smart phone as you read this, you may want to finish eating before proceeding. This post describes the natural decay of human remains in a rather graphic manner, which could affect a reader’s appetite.

Zombies are a staple of most fantasy and horror role-playing games, and have become so common in films and comic books that little effort is required on the part of a Dungeons & Dragons player to imagine what a zombie looks or acts like. It is so easy to imagine zombies, in fact, that many dungeon masters don’t devote much effort toward describing them, since players can mentally fill in the necessary level of detail for purposes of play.

Assuming that is true, why would a DM make a point of describing zombies more vividly? The answer is that doing so can make an ordinary zombie encounter more dramatic and memorable, even if the monsters used in every zombie encounter are mechanically identical.

Of course, providing more detail as a means of improving the play experience is nothing new. This blog has posted on the topic of improving read-aloud text for that express purpose. But, as few of us have extensive experience with human corpses, what details should a DM add?

Fortunately, a DM can turn to almost any medical text or Web site on the subject for answers. Since most fantasy RPGs make the basic assumption that the natural decay process is suspended, or at least greatly slowed, by whatever force animated dead tissue in the first place, knowledge of what a corpse looks like as it naturally decays can provide a DM with a snapshot of how a given corpse may look at the time of animation – an appearance that it will likely keep for the duration of its unlife.

According to Wikipedia, the human body undergoes five stages of natural decay: fresh, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, and dry remains. The rate at which a corpse proceeds through these stages varies with a wide variety of factors, including temperature, exposure to air, weather, humidity of surrounding air, and exposure to scavengers and insects.

Fresh: This stage begins as soon as the heart stops beating. The physical changes in this stage are minor, mostly related to the pooling of blood. Areas where blood would settle, such as the back and buttocks for a supine corpse, turn purple with accumulated blood, while drained areas turn a ghastly white. Shortly after death, the muscles stiffen into a condition called rigor mortis, which later passes as muscle and joint tissues decay. During the next two to four days, a greenish color typically appears on the lower right abdomen, which begins to spread. Inside the body, bacteria and other organisms naturally present in the human digestive tract begin the breakdown of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins, although the fruits of their handiwork don’t appear until the Bloat stage, below.

Bloat: Bacteria often give off gases as waste products, which humans eliminate from either end of the alimentary canal as necessary during life. Post-mortem, such elimination doesn’t take place, so the gases build up. Typically, enough gases have accumulated to stretch the skin by five or six days after death, and putrid blisters often appear on the skin at this point. As the skin begins to stretch, tiny tears in the skin allow oxygen to re-enter the remains, providing opportunities for aerobic organisms, such as maggots, to take part in decomposition, especially in the facial orifices and structures just under the skin.

Active decay: After the remains have been decomposing for about two weeks, skin blisters burst and skin peels off in large patches. In some cases, gas pressure builds up to a point where the abdomen bursts. Fluids issue from the mouth, nostrils and ears, and the eyeballs liquefy; these fluids are viscous, and tend to form a pool around the remains in what scientists call a cadaver decomposition island, or DCI. The odors associated with this stage of decay are overwhelming. Usually, this stage ends when the maggots leave the remains to pupate.

Advanced decay: After about four weeks, most of the fluid is gone from the remains. Virtually all soft tissues have been rendered to a vile, semi-liquid mass. Insect activity has, for all practical purposes, concluded. If the remains fell upon vegetation, most plants within the CDI will have died, providing a mute indication of how putrid the remains have become.

Dry remains: After two months, virtually all of the soft body tissues have decayed. Bones, ligaments and some tendons may still remain, if untouched by scavengers. At this point, for game purposes, the remains would no longer qualify as a zombie; a skeleton would be more appropriate.

Special considerations

Bodies immersed in water take about twice as long to decay, and absorb water in addition to bloating, making them almost unrecognizable. Worse, immersed remains (or remains otherwise deprived of air) can also undergo a process called saponification, through which body fat is converted into adipocere, or grave wax. This substance generally appears on areas of the remains that had concentrations of body fat in life: the cheeks, buttocks, abdomen and breasts. Adipocere has the consistency of soapy wax, and helps to arrest further decay; unfortunately, its scent is positively rancid. Corpses preserved in this way are called “soap mummies.”

Bodies left in especially arid climes will dehydrate much more quickly, effectively being mummified naturally.

Applying this information to the game

A DM can use this information to advantage when designing encounters with zombies. By deciding which stage of decay the remains were in when the zombies were created, the DM can apply appropriate details to enliven the encounter. Thus, mechanically identical encounters – five zombies against an adventuring party – can feel very different to the players. Zombies animated from fresh remains may still be recognizable as acquaintances; recently submerged, bloated remains may not even be recognizable as human or even as undead; remains animated in a desert may be confused with mummies; and a “soap mummy” almost defies description.


7 comments on “Describing zombies: a dungeon master’s reference

  1. Brandon says:

    I just happened upon your site, and I love the information you have here. This is a great article as I am always telling new DMs that just because the stats are the same, you can have a ton of different types of the same creature and this is a perfect example. Great write-up!

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