Since Halloween is nearly upon us, I’m sure many of you are expecting to see some familiar monsters pop up in your game sessions — if you haven’t already. While there is nothing wrong with using these creatures for a seasonal flair, many of them come with a great deal of trope-heavy baggage that makes their use about as interesting or suspenseful as…well, nothing. They’ve been reduced to cliches. My advice? Don’t use them. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t play a game that is bereft of the critters that make Halloween what it is. I’m proposing that you consider introducing some underused monsters – monsters that are not the featured villain in a Universal film. I could spend countless hours offering up substitutions for Halloween-flavored beasties to unleash upon your players. But, since tomorrow is the big day, I thought I would discuss the most common of these horrors and submit for your perusal a threat that could prove far more intimidating, menacing and compelling in your story.
Zombies have been consistently popular for quite some time now. Folklore notwithstanding, they’ve been a pop-culture mainstay from Night of the Living Dead to Resident Evil to The Walking Dead. Legions of mindless undead shuffling around craving the flesh of the living, leaving only you and your rag-tag group of misfits to survive this nightmarish insurrection. Sounds cool, right? Indeed it is – once. You’re playing a tabletop game to experience the weird and unexpected, so how many times can a zombie apocalypse possibly occur within the story of your game – let alone run one without your players deftly navigating a minefield of tropes? These days, not many if at all. So, let’s consider what makes something like zombies scary and see if we can’t distill that into something a bit more ominous.
Zombies are, in essence, simple souls. Their only desire is to shamble about looking for living people to whom they can spread their contagion, crack open skulls and gorge themselves on all that warm, delicious, smart-making pudding. Their danger comes from their numbers and the fact that they are no longer burdened by being alive — thus unable to succumb to things like heart disease, motor vehicle crashes, athletes foot…whatever. The upside of zombies (which, incidentally, is the name of my Cannibal Corpse cover band) is that they aren’t capable of thought beyond that which is granted to them by the nearest necromancer or chemical impulses brought on by that recently escaped weaponized virus. How can we make this more interesting?
Let’s turn a horde into one zombie, just a lone monster. Make it just as smart as it was while alive. Give it all the benefits of being essentially immune to things that hurt the living (bus crashes, foot fungus, etc). Give them a HUGE chip on their shoulder about some slight, real or imagined, then send them in search of those who done ’em dirty. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – The Revenant! This unique creature has several interesting options for insertion into your game.
Imagine your party of adventuring types finally manages to ice the Big Bad Evil Guy or one of their underlings. Odds are they died with some unfinished business or are just really…really, resentful that it was your characters who did them in. Something can bring them back to give them the opportunity to even the score. Obviously, what that force or power is will vary from game to game. A pact with a diabolical entity, an ancient Eldritch horror, a bored necromancer – anything that fits your narrative. This type of revenant is closer to the zombie side of the spectrum, but it is by no means a limitation. However, keep in mind the old adage: “They aren’t dead unless you see the body…and even then it can be tricky”
You could complicate matters involving this newly-risen avenger with some clever interpretation of the actual definition of the word revenant, that being “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.” There’s two more useful variables in there. Did you see them?
First, “A person who has returned from the dead”. That doesn’t have to mean they are undead as in, they are not a valid target for such things as Turn Undead or suffering adverse reactions to holy water. They aren’t alive, they aren’t undead….or even dead – they’ve become something else. This interpretation is more spiritual. Odds are some force greater than death itself has brought this person back. It could be revenge, love, honor, duty or any combination of those things. It depends on who that person was, how they died and who killed them. More forces at play which bring them back from beyond, more layers and depth you add to what may have otherwise been a throwaway NPC and in turn you’ve added a fair bit of complexity to your game.
The other option alluded to by the definition would refer to a person who has returned from a supposed death. Are your characters absolutely sure they killed the bad guy? Did they actually SEE the grizzly bear maul and subsequently eat them? No? Good news! They may have just created a villain or worse, given an existing villain a far greater reason to hate them, hunt them down and otherwise make life difficult for your intrepid adventurers. This interpretation leaves us still well within the realms of the living. Now you have a bad guy who exists for no other reason than to see your characters and only your characters six feet under. That horde of zombies is starting to look like the lesser of two evils now.
This Halloween, I urge you to momentarily set aside the horrors of the hungry dead and give that one soul a chance to return from the grave and spend the rest of the campaign setting the wrong things right. Just make sure you have that table of cold weather DC’s handy in case someone tries to hunker down a winter night inside a dead horse. As for the mime face paint and trench coat… it’s October so I’ll give you a pass on that one.
A mindless horde of the undead is scary, but a soul back from the brink of death or beyond on a quest for revenge is truly the stuff of nightmares.