At first glance, the zombie lord looks like end-of-the-alphabet filler. (The Bestiary 4 even describes them as “the fleshy counterparts of skeletal champions,” which isn’t exactly a rousing endorsement.) But after a little reflection, I think the zombie lord has a lot of potential
First off, I love undead with class levels that aren't liches or mummies. As we discussed in the Worm That Walks entry, when a lich or mummy pops up, nine times out of 10 we already know that story. But a zombie lord? That’s a story I don't know. Was she cursed? Did a fluke of the reanimating process return her spirit to her body, or call another intelligence into the corpse? Is she the result of a poorly worded wish that preserved her mind but not her mortal shell? Is the merchant class of that land not allowed access to resurrection or true lichdom? Is she patient zero for a local outbreak of zombie rot? Or is she a zombie queen courtesy of some enchanted crown or scepter? There’s no one default story for a zombie lord, and that’s really invigorating.
Second of all, let’s go back to yesterday’s comments about zombies being surprising when they're unexpected. Zombie lords work especially well in settings where undead are rare. I think I’ve said before that one of the many, many things that made the Dark Sun setting so interesting was that its undead were supposed to be unique—each was meant to have its own intellect, goals, abilities, and weaknesses. In a low-magic Pathfinder game, zombie lords are one great way to emulate that. Each one is a unique NPC, just …dead. So snap on the zombie lord template, add in some variant zombie abilities cribbed from, say, Classic Horrors Revisited, and you’ve got a unique antagonist ready to go.
Finally, most undead have their signature sin: wrath, avarice, cannibalism, and so on. With zombie lords as described in the Bestiary 4, envy is the driving force. Zombie lords so desperately want what others have, even as the one thing they possess rots away beneath them.
Wei-Chen was a born martial artist, but her natural aptitude made her a lazy student. The deeper monk mysteries eluded her, and in her impatience she made a deal with a bottled entity she found locked in her master’s study. Promising her a shortcut to abandoning the concerns of the body, the entity turned Wei-Chen into a zombie lord. Wei-Chen now hides under her old dojo, determined to reverse her condition. Sadly, she still always looks for the easiest way to accomplish anything, and typically attacks magic-users she suspects might have charms to aid her.
Carmilla resented her beautiful daughter from the day Ilsa was born. As Ilsa approached marrying age, Carmilla refused to provide a dowry or introduce her into society. Carmilla’s death by stroke should have freed the poor girl to do as she liked, but Carmilla’s envy proved too strong. She awoke as a zombie lord not half an hour after her death, before the wake could even be scheduled, and triumphantly locked her daughter away. Now the trapped Ilsa languishes while Carmilla uses letters and magical couriers to invite over potential suitors in her daughter’s name. She kills them when they fail to appreciate her new, “still beautiful” form.
Turva is the pickled crime lord of Knave’s Deep. A fall from a factory gangway into a chemical vat pickled Turva so thoroughly that even death was no obstacle for the brutish made man. His fellow rogues still follow him out of fear of his undead condition and his proficiency with a crossbow. All Turva fears is black dragons (he’s heard they dine on briny corpses) and tengus, as it was a crow-man that pushed him off the gangway.
—Pathfinder Adventure Path #45 90–91 & Pathfinder Bestiary 4 286
In my haste to get the Yeti and Zombie entries up yesterday, I completely forgot to mention that Ray Vallese has an entry on yetis in Mystery Monsters Revisited, and Rob McCreary has a chapter on zombies and other walking dead in Classic Horrors Revisited, with lots of adventure seeds and variants (including the first mention of the zombie lord).
A lot of folk, including ward358, have asked whether the Tumblr site has an index. The short answer is to click “Archive” at the bottom of the page—every entry from Gar & Giant Gar is right there. The other option (particularly if you’re looking for letters A–F) is to go to the original Blogger page. There you’ll find all the monsters by date, and they're also tagged by type to help you find the ones you want faster. Happy browsing!
(As I mentioned the other day on Reddit, the reason I link to the Tumblr is that it's way easier for people to share and easier for me to get immediate reader feedback. Also, I can't edit the Blogger site at all without horribly messing up the formatting...I'm assuming because of some bad code that sneaks in when I cut and paste from Word. So if I make a single typo, I have to leave it there for all time or start the whole post over. (The coding issue can even mess up the formatting of other entries—if you’re on the wrong browser, some of my entries near Kamadan, Kangaroo & Thylacine, and Kappa don't even show up because of this problem!) So you can understand my Tumblr favoritism, though I still update the Blogger site every day.)