Imagine a tavern in a large city, the City of Drona. Busy streets surround it and inside are some humans, a few elves, a dragonborn or two, and perhaps a gnome. It is the start of so many fantasy adventures. A human wizard sits alone in a corner, his nose buried in his books. A half orc paladin is in the thick of the action, settling potentially violent disputes with her own particular brand of cheerful diplomacy. A human fighter edges away from the commotion and further into his drink. Upstairs a Kenku (humanoid raven) rogue sneaks in through a window.
As the evening passes, one by one the patrons depart for their respective rooms. They all enjoy a restful sleep and awake in the full expectation of whatever it was they had planned the evening before.
Immediately, they sense something isn’t right.
The half-orc, two humans, and Kenku all begin to individually get the feeling that something is definitely wrong.
Every window is broken.
Some of the doors are hanging off their hinges.
Why didn’t the sound of such destruction wake them?
Exploring further, the quartet discover each other and find they are the only people left in the building. There’s no sign of any of the other patrons, the bartender, or serving staff.
For that matter, there isn’t anyone outside in the streets.
As the human fighter ventures outside to take stock of the situation, he finds a deserted city. All the buildings he can see are in a similar state of decay and disrepair as the tavern.
Just as the man is about to retreat back inside, he hears something.
The uneven shuffle of footfalls and the wheezing moan of a breath. Turning, he sees a young half elven woman stagger around a corner. As her rotting face turns toward him and her arms rise to attempt to claw at him, more zombies emerge from other streets and stumble their way forward, my players all know what’s happening.
What they took to be a classic fantasy Dungeons and Dragons setting now appears to be turning into undead armageddon.
The Zombie Fascination…
Zombies have long fascinated me.
I find myself drawn with horrified fascination to all kinds of the shuffling dead. And it occured to me that the post-apocalyptic world of zombies in a fantasy setting was severely under-explored (GOT being the exception). Any fantasy world that has been swarmed and overwhelmed by a hoard, seemed a fresh idea. The reason for this not having been explored much before could perhaps be because in a time and place where the undead are relatively well known, logically people have ways of dealing with them. Therefore, it would seem less likely fantasy worlds would be in danger of being wiped out.
Undeath isn’t known, understood, and efficiently dealt with.
The worlds that do have zombie issues are the ones in which the lore pertaining to dealing with the undead is archaic. People knew how to prevent zombie hoards, but that knowledge has passed out of living memory.
Game of Thrones is the perfect example of this.
People no longer believe in zombies, so they’re in the same predicament as the modern world.
But how do we have a believable zombie apocalypse in a high fantasy setting without removing the belief in such forces?
Fortunately, I have a solution…
As my players continue down my (admittedly slightly on rails) world, they discover they have been transported a hundred years into the future.
After the battle, a halfling who scoops them up also seems uncertain and curious about the fact that two of the group are actual bonafide humans. When she brings them home to her fortress, which is heavily fortified by magic, and acts as a community homestead, they see tieflings, half elves, half orcs, a few gnomes, but no humans.
The Problem With Magic…
So why can’t we have a fantasy society overrun with undead?
Well, there’s magic for a start.
Obviously the spell casters would be able to deal with the problem before it got out of hand.
However, what if the plague that caused people to rise again, after they died, was not only invariably fatal for the pure human populace, but was airborne?
A pathogen that, once contracted, caused the victim to walk again, even after dying of something else entirely. And even though the non-human victims all survive the plague itself, they all must live with the knowledge that one day, their corpse will shuffle across the land…
In this scenario (much like in The Walking Dead) every human has The Plague of Undeath and will someday become a zombie.
As a result, the party of somewhat unwilling adventurers (after taking their first breaths in this new and doomed world), have unwittingly tied their fortunes with that of the rest.
After spending a day in the unfamiliar situation, the four wake to find themselves back where they had expected to wake up 24 hours before. The tavern below them is bustling with activity, and outside the (undamaged) windows are the healthy, bright eyed, and definitely alive citizens of Drona.
Was it all a dream, the four time travelers wonder?
The only differences they notice in themselves are the whistles they were given during the zombie apocalypse are still there, hanging around their necks. And their disturbing memories…
What our hapless band of infected misfits don’t know is that there is a cosmic power struggle going on, in another plane of existence.
Myrkul, god of death, has decided to sink all of Sydon into a sea of his undead vassals.
He selects a necromancer and inspires her with a new and better way to create undead.
Helm, god of protection, gets wind of this and leaps into action.
He wages battle against Myrkul, in defense of the peoples of the material plane.
Calling to the other gods for assistance, Helm only manages to reach one. Mask, god of thieves, is not normally all that interested in the goings on of either gods or people, unless they are stealing something interesting. Something Helm says manages to catch his attention, however.
If Myrkul is allowed to enact his plan, all life will eventually be reduced to a state of undeath, and there will be no more thieves and no thievery.
This is unacceptable to Mask.
So the god of thieves snatches four people, stealing them from their own time and casting them far into the future, to witness the disaster that is coming, for themselves.
Then, just as the four are beginning to gather an idea of what is really going on, and where the plague has come from, they are flung back to their own time.
What chance do four people have of preventing the devastation they have seen?
Can they put all the pieces together and stop the plague before it starts?
Or have they brought the disease with them?