Zombie Apocalypse Campaign Setting for Fifth Edition aka ZACS 5e | (Part One: PHB Adjustments)

This is a new series (“jeez, Dave, how many series do you have?”) that I thought I might cook up real quick. Basically, I thought I might create some fast and easy ways for Dungeon Masters to create new settings using Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition rules beyond just Forgotten Realms/Ravnica.

I’ve since updated this ruleset. You can check it out here: ZACs 5e for Fifth Edition.

How it works:

  • I suggest a theme. For this particular entry, I’m going to do Zombie Apocalypse (a la The Walking Dead, Romero’s “of the Dead” series)
  • With the theme in place, I offer up the content that you can use from the various books (ie, in our zombie world, you can use guns, and the only monsters you have to worry about are NPCs, zombies, animals, etc).
  • I create the necessary new rules, monsters, etc for the setting (we’re going to need some “gang” members, survivors, and a survivor PC class).

Ready? Let’s get started!

Introduction: What is a zombie apocalypse setting?

If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead (TV show or comic) or Romero’s old films like Night Living of the Dead, Dawn, Day, and (maybe?) Land, then this is the setting for you. A few notes on it:

  • It’s a modern setting that takes place at least within the last 50 years (you could probably set it in the late ’60s and not notice much of a difference between 2018s thanks to the lack of electricity, etc).
  • The player classes aren’t fantastical. There’s no magic, no ridiculous powers, etc.
  • It’s dangerous. Without healing magic and “magic naps”, your characters will die. A lot. And there’s only one player class: Survivor.
  • Since killing zombies all the time might get boring, the setting will lean on a lot of using skills to accomplish tasks such as building fortresses, hunting for food, and dealing with evil NPCs. Expect expanded downtime rules.

Rules Modifications

In this portion, I’m going to go through each chapter of each book and make notes on the changes necessary to bring this campaign setting to live. Feel free to use or delete anything that you don’t think is appropriate in your own setting. A lot of it will be done with bullet points for brevity reasons.

Player’s Handbook

Chapter 1: Step-by-Step Characters

  • Choose a Race. There is only one race available and that’s human.
    • No ability score bump. Since everyone is human, there is no need for an ability score bump.
    • One starting feat. However, all survivors get a starting feat that represents their unique talents.
    • Three starting skills. Skills are not assigned by class. Instead, all humans get one starting skill and then skill proficiencies based on their backgrounds.
  • Choose a Class. There is only one class available and that’s Survivor.
  • Determine Ability Scores. The Zombie Apocalypse Setting uses the point buy variant system described on page 13.
    • Points. Each player only has 18 points to spend on their abilities (a totally
    • Maximum Ability Scores. The maximum human ability score is 16.
    • Sanity Score. ZACs 5e uses the Sanity score as described on page 267 of the DMG.
  • Describe Your Character. Characters have the following changes:
    • Alignments. There is no alignment system in the campaign. Each survivor looks out for themselves and is not bound to a rigorous system of morals and ethics.
    • Backgrounds, ideals, flaws, and bonds. There will be flavor adjustments (see below), but the basic concepts stay the same.
  • Choose Equipment. All survivors start with the same basic gear (see below), plus any allowances from their backgrounds.
    • Money/Gold. Money and gold essentially has no value in the game. However, the worth of certain things such as food, ammunition, and medical supplies are based on “trade value.” More on this in the equipment chapter.
    • Weapons. Weapons are very different and much more valuable in the Zombie Apocalypse Campaign Setting. In addition, tracking ammo is way more important.
  • Come Together. A good story for why all the characters came together is still necessary. They could be a family, co-workers, or just a random string of Survivors.
  • Beyond First Level. As of now, there are only five levels in the Zombie Apocalypse Campaign Setting but character advancement remains the same (300 XP for level 2, proficiency bump at level 5, etc) More details on how ZACS characters work below.

Chapter 2: Races

  • Choosing a Race. There is only one race in the game: humans.
  • Human Traits. The following changes are for humans in the game:
    • Ability Score Increase. There are no ability score increases for humans in ZACS.
    • Alignment. There are no alignments in ZACS.
    • Language. Languages can be real-world structured (English, Spanish, etc) or everyone can speak “Common.” It’s up to the DM.
    • Skills. Survivors start with three skills of their choice.
    • Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

Chapter 3: Classes

  • Survivor. The only class is the Survivor Class. Click the link to learn more.
  • Class Features. The Survivor Class has the following class features:
    • Hit Points 
      • Hit Dice: 1d8 per survivor level
      • Hit Points at 1st level: 8 + your Constitution modifier
      • Hit Points at Higher Levels: 1d8 (or 5) + your Constitution modifier per survivor level after 1st
    • Proficiencies
      • Armor: none
      • Weapons: simple weapons, simple firearms
      • Tools: none
      • Saving Throws: you get two saving throw proficiencies:
        • (a) Dexterity, (b) Constitution, or (c) Wisdom
        • (a) Strength, (b) Intelligence, or (c) Charisma
      • Skills: you get three skills of your choice to start with plus any offered by your background
    • Equipment. You start with the following equipment, in addition to the equipment granted by your background:
      • (a) a knife (dagger) or (b) any simple melee weapon
      • (a) a pistol plus 10 ammunition, (b) rifle plus 10 ammunition, or (b) any simple melee weapon
      • A survivor’s pack (see below).
    • Archetype. At 1st level, a Survivor gains the Archetype feature. The following archetype options are available to a survivor: Strong Survivor, Fast Survivor, Tough Survivor, Smart Survivor, Dedicated Survivor, and Charismatic Survivor. Archetype features will be detailed in the next supplement.
    • Talents. At 1st level, a Survivor has specific talents that they can perform. These work similar to spells cast by Warlocks.
      • Simple Talents. These are similar to cantrips and can be used repeatedly.
      • Talent Slots. At 1st level, a Survivor knows two 1st-level talents of his or her choice from the Survivor talents list (works similar to warlocks).
      • Talent Ability. Wisdom is the talent ability for survivors. However, archetypes can use the ability score tied to their archetype in place of Wisdom (see the Survivor article for more information).
      • Focuses. Talents do not need focuses but may require specific tools or items.
    • Archetypes. Archetypes give survivors special abilities at 1st and 2nd level.
    • Ability Score Improvements. At 4th level, a Survivor can increase one ability score of his or her choice or can increase two ability scores of his or her choice by 1. A survivor cannot increase an ability score above 16 using this feature.

Chapter 4: Personality and Background

  • Character Details. Name, sex, and height and weight can be whatever you want, although, should be based on real-world backgrounds. Bonus points if you make yourself in the game! Feel free to use the same Random Height and Weight chart on page 121.
  • Alignment. There is no alignment system in ZACS 5e.
  • Languages. At the GM’s discretion, languages can either be based on real-world languages or can be one “Common” language.
  • Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. All of these characteristics function the same in ZACS 5e as they do in normal Fifth Edition.
  • Inspiration. Inspiration rules remain unchanged. However, it is recommended that inspiration is awarded only when it relates directly to personality characteristics.
  • Backgrounds. Backgrounds in ZACS 5e are tied closely to real-world parallels (such as jobs, etc).
    • Proficiencies. Each background awards two skill proficiencies detailed in the description.
    • Languages. Some backgrounds allow characters to learn additional languages.
    • Equipment. Each background provides a package of starting equipment.
    • Suggested Characteristics. Backgrounds offer characteristics which you can roll for.
    • Customization. Feel free to customize your background however you see fit (with GM’s guidance).
    • Background Table. For starting backgrounds, please read the article on Backgrounds (coming soon). Tentative backgrounds: Celebrity, Countryboy/girl, Criminal, Derelict, Entertainer, Follower, Hustler, Medical Expert, Politician, Scholar, Skilled Professional, Soldier, Survivalist, Traveler

Chapter 5: Equipment

  • Starting Equipment. There is effectively no gold/money in ZACS 5e. What little there is has little to no value. Instead, items have trade value. Instead of starting equipment, your character can start with 2d4 x 10 trade value. All of this trade value must be used during character creation or it is lost.
  • Trade Value. 1 rations represents 1 trade value.
  • Coinage. There are no coins in ZACS 5e. However, trade value can be estimated by tenths, eg. 45.2. However, it is recommended that trade value be kept to whole numbers for ease.
  • Treasure. In place of treasure, characters search for items such as food, medical supplies, and ammunition to help them survive. All of these items have trade value.
  • Armor and Shields. For the most part, armor is rare in ZACS 5e. However, if your character does discover armor, it works similar to the rules described on page 144 of the PHB. A table with armor types will appear in a future article (coming soon).
  • Weapons. All survivors are proficient with simple weapons.
    • Weapon Categories. In addition to simple and martial weapons, there are also exotic weapons.
    • Weapon Proficiencies. Weapon proficiencies function the same way.
    • Weapon Properties. Changes made as follows:
      • Ammunition. Ammunition functions the same way, however, there are more specifications for the type of ammunition found (for example, a shotgun cannot use the same type of ammo as a pistol and vice versa).
      • Finesse, Heavy, Light, Loading, Range, Reach, Thrown, Two-Handed, and Versatile. Remain the same.
      • Reload (from DMG 267). Some weapons have reload. A limited number of shots can be made with a weapon that has the reload property. A character must then reload it using an action or a bonus action (character’s choice).
      • Burst Fire (from DMG 26). A weapon that has the burst fire property can make a normal single-target attack, or it can spray a 10-foot cube area within normal range with shots. Each creature in the area must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or take the weapon’s normal damage. This action uses ten pieces of ammunition.
    • Improvised Weapons. Improvised weapon rules are the same.
    • Silvered Weapons, Adamantine Weapons, etc. Since there is no “magic” per se in ZACS 5e, there is no real use for these types of weapons.
  • Adventuring Gear. An expanded adventuring gear list article will arrive soon.
  • Equipment Packs. There is only one type of equipment pack, the survivor’s pack. The survivor’s pack includes a backpack, a crowbar, a hammer, a multi-tool, a flashlight, a box of matches, 10 days of rations, and a waterskin. The pack also has 50 feet of rope strapped to the side of it.
  • Container Capacity. Container capacities remain the same.
  • Tools. An expanded tool list article will arrive soon. The two biggest changes will include:
    • Simple Toolkit. This toolkit includes screwdrivers, wrenches, a hammer, and other tools necessary to perform basic maintenance and construction.
    • First Aid Kit/Medical Supplies. Medical supplies allow players to perform healing and can be used up.
  • Mounts and Vehicles. Expanded vehicle rules allow for driving cars, riding motorcycles, flying planes, etc.
    • Barding. Barding is very rare as ZACS 5e is not a fantasy setting.
    • Saddles. Horses will still require saddles. However, military saddles are rare.
    • Vehicle Proficiency. All survivors start with simple vehicle proficiency.
    • Vehicle Categories. Vehicles come with two different categories: simple vehicles and complex vehicles. All survivors come with proficiency in simple vehicles. However, a character can not pilot a complex vehicle unless they have the specific vehicle proficiency. For example, a character cannot pilot a small airplane if they do not have the Small Airplane vehicle proficiency.
    • Vehicle Checks. If you have proficiency with a certain kind of vehicle you can add your proficiency bonus to any check you make to control that kind of vehicle in difficult circumstances. In addition, some feats allow you to add an ability modifier to the check.
    • Mounts and Vehicles List. An expanded list of mounts and vehicles for ZACS 5e will come with a future article.
  • Trade Goods. Since there is no monetary system in ZACS 5e, all items are considered trade goods and have a set trade value based on the value of rations. 1 ration equals 1 trade value.
  • Expenses. A majority of ZACS 5e revolves around survival, therefore the lifestyle expense system is not necessary.
  • Food, Drink, and Lodging. The quality of food, drink, and lodging stays the same (squalid, poor, modest, comfortable, wealthy, and aristocratic), however, has greater effects on gameplay. More details coming soon.
  • Services. Throughout a game of ZACS 5e, characters will discover NPCs who can help them build communities. These NPCs work similar to the way services do in Fifth Edition (PHB p159) and help around compounds. Services are paid for in food (trade value) and do not differentiate between skilled and unskilled.
  • Trinkets. An expanded trinkets list will arrive with the expanded equipment article.

Chapter 6: Customization Options

  • Multiclassing. There is only one class in the game, therefore multiclassing is not an option.
  • Feats. All characters get a feat at first level. In addition, a character can opt to take a feat in place of the 4th level Ability Score Increase. An adjusted and expanded feats list will appear in a future article.
    • Unchanged Feats: Alert, Athlete, Actor, Charger, Defensive Duelist, Dual Wielder, Durable, Grappler, Great Weapon Master, Healer, Inspiring Leader, Keen Mind, Linguist, Lucky, Mobile, Observant, Resilient, Savage Attacker, Sentinel, Sharpshooter, Skilled, Skulker, Tavern Brawler, Tough, Weapon Master.
    • Crossbow Expert becomes Firearms Expert. It gives you the following abilities:
      • You ignore the loading property of firearms with which you are proficient.
      • Being within 5 feet of a hostile creature doesn’t impose disadvantage on your ranged attack rolls.
      • When you use the Attack action and attack with a one-handed weapon, you can use a bonus action to attack with a pistol or handgun you are holding.
    • New Feat: Complex Vehicle Proficiency. You have trained to operate a complex vehicle, gaining the following benefits.
      • Increase your Dexterity or Intelligence score by 1, to a maximum of 16.
      • You gain proficiency with a complex vehicle of your choice.
    • New Feat: Vehicle Mastery. You have mastered the ability to pilot a vehicle you are already proficient in. You gain the following benefits.
      • Increase your Dexterity or Intelligence score by 1, to a maximum of 16.
      • Select a vehicle that you are proficient in; you can add your Dexterity modifier or Intelligence modifier (your choice) in addition to your proficiency bonus to any check you make to control that kind of vehicle in difficult circumstances.

Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

  • Abilities. There are seven abilities in ZACS 5e: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, and Sanity.
    • The Six Core Abilities. The abilities described on Chapter 7 of the PHB remain unchanged.
    • Sanity. Sanity functions as detailed on p265 of the DMG.
  • Ability Scores and Modifiers. Ability scores and modifiers work the same in ZACS 5e. However, the highest ability score a survivor can achieve is 16.
  • Advantage and Disadvantage. Advantage and disadvantage work the same in ZACS 5e.
  • Proficiency Bonus. Proficiency bonuses work the same in ZACS 5e.
  • Ability Checks. Ability checks work the same in ZACS 5e. However, some abilities such as Stealth have advanced rules for ZACS 5e.
    • Skills. The skills list for ZACS 5e is slightly modified. Here are the available skills:
      • Strength. Athletics.
      • Dexterity. Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth.
      • Intelligence. Engineering, History, Investigation, Nature, and Technology.
      • Wisdom. Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, Mettle, and Survival.
      • Charisma. Deception, Intimidation, Performance, and Persuasion.
    • Passive Checks. For simplicity, there are a few passive checks allowed in ZACS 5e. The rules for passive checks are expanded upon as follows:
      • Passive Skills. Insight, Investigation, Perception, Mettle, and Stealth all have passive scores.
      • Passive Stealth. Passive Stealth can only be performed when moving at half speed.
      • Passive Check. A character’s total for a passive check is 10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check.
      • Advantage/Disadvantage on Passive Checks. If a character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5.
        • Rushed. A character that moves at twice their movement speed (using the dash action) automatically makes passive checks with disadvantage.
        • Careful. A character that moves at half their normal movement speed automatically makes passive checks with advantage.
    • Group Checks. Group checks function the same way in ZACS 5e.
    • Dexterity. Due to the dangerous nature of the world of ZACS 5e, all characters have a Passive Stealth score. However, a character must still have optimal conditions in order to hide as detailed on page 177 of the PHB.
    • Intelligence. For obvious reasons, Arcana and Religion are no longer a part of ZACS 5e. However, there are two new skills:
      • Engineering. This measure your ability to build things that last such as fortifications, traps, and other items that can help you survive.
      • Technology. While most technology no longer works, certain things such as radios, broken flashlights, or even chemistry could use your expertise.
    • Wisdom. Wisdom has a new skill:
      • Mettle. This is your ability to overcome fear from terrifying creatures and circumstances. For the most part, it is used passively.
    • Sanity. This ability score is used to recall horrible things and overcome the lingering effects of temporary insanity. It is detailed further on page 265 of the DMG. Sanity has one skill, mettle.
  • Saving Throws. Saving throws function the same way in ZACS 5e as they do in Fifth Edition with the addition of Sanity saving throws.

Chapter 8: Adventuring

  • Time. Time works the same way in ZACS 5e as it does in Fifth Edition. However, there is a greater emphasis on downtime.
  • Movement. The following changes are made to movement:
    • Speed and Travel Pace. The rules remain the same (use the travel pace chart on page 182 of the PHB), although, there are expanded rules for vehicle travel (additional rules coming soon).
      • Random Encounters. Traveling at certain speeds may cause more random encounters (see below).
      • Vehicles. Certain vehicles, such as simple automobiles, can only move on roads.
      • Fuel. Many vehicles require fuel to use.
    • Special Types of Movement. All special movement rules remain the same.
    • Activity While Traveling. Here are the adjustments to activities while traveling:
      • Marching Order. Marching order rules stay the same.
      • Stealth. Characters use their passive stealth score (see above) when they move at a slow pace.
      • Passive Perception. Characters use passive stealth to notice threats.
      • Other Activities. Other activities remain the same, however, the forage option may include more scenarios that are played out.
  • The Environment. All environment rules for Fifth Edition remain the same in ZACS 5e. However, food is also used as a unit of trade.
  • Social Interaction. Rules for social interaction are unchanged.
  • Resting. Resting in ZACS 5e uses the Gritty Realism variant from DMG p267.
    • Short Rests. A short rest takes 8 hours.
    • Long Rests. A long rest takes 7 days.
  • Between Adventures. The time between adventures is important in ZACS 5e.
    • Lifestyle Expenses. Food is required for all characters to survive and it is not assumed that they have any. They must either use downtime to forage or use the resources they have.
    • Downtime Activities. Downtime activities are heavily expanded upon in ZACS 5e to account for fortifying locations, keeping friends and family members alive, training, and more (expanded rules coming soon).

Chapter 9: Combat

  • The Order of Combat. The order of combat is unchanged.
  • Movement and Position. Movement and position rules are more or less unchanged, however, vehicles may enter combat (see below).
    • Vehicle Movement. Vehicles have less control for turning and control. In addition, certain actions performed while operating or riding in a vehicle, such as firing from the window of a moving car, are made at disadvantage or are impossible.
  • Actions in Combat. Most actions remain unchanged with the following exceptions:
    • Cast a Spell becomes Use a Talent. Talents work similar to spells.
    • Use an Object. Some actions involving vehicles such as starting a car or performing a barrel roll in a plane requires an action to perform.
  • Cover. Cover functions the same way in ZACS 5e as it does in Fifth Edition.
  • Damage and Healing. The damage and healing rules are the same in ZACS 5e as they are in Fifth Edition. However, a few of the variants from the DMG are used in ZACS 5e:
    • Healer’s Kit (First Aid Kit/Medical Supplies) Dependency. A character can’t spend any Hit Dice after finishing a short rest until someone expends one use of a healer’s kit to bandage and treat the character’s wounds.
    • Slow Natural Healing. Characters do not gain hit dice at the end of a long rest. Instead, a character can spend Hit Dice to heal at the end of a long rest, just as with a short rest.
    • Injuries. In ZACS 5e, creature sustains lingering injuries under the following circumstances. Injuries are determined using the Lingering Injuries chart on page 272 of the DMG:
      • When it takes a critical hit.
      • When it drops to 0 hit points but isn’t killed outright.
      • When it fails a death saving throw by 5 or more.
    • Massive Damage. ZACS 5e uses the optional Massive Damage rules from page 273 of the DMG.
    • Dropping to 0 Hit Points. The rules are the same in ZACS 5e for dropping to 0 hit points as they are in Fifth Edition with the following exceptions:
      • First Aid Kit Dependency. To stabilize a creature, a character must use a first aid kit/medical supplies on the creature with 0 hit points.
      • Monster/NPCs and Death. Nonhumanoids automatically die when they reach 0 hit points. However, NPCs fall unconscious and follow the same rules as player characters.
    • Death. All humanoids that die in ZACS 5e return as zombies (see the ZACS 5e Challenges Guide article coming soon) in 1d4 hours.
  • Fear Saving Throw. Whenever a creature is confronted by a horrible creature or circumstance, they must make a Wisdom saving throw versus the situation’s or creature’s Fear score DC. A creature that fails its Wisdom saving throw is frightened for 1 minute. The character can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of his or her turns, ending the effect on the character on successful save.
    • Passive Mettle. A creature also has a passive Mettle score. If the creature’s passive Mettle score is higher than the Fear save DC, they do not have to make a Mettle check.

Chapter 10: Spellcasting

  • No Magic in ZACS 5e. There is no magic in ZACS 5e. However, there are Talents, which work similarly.
  • Talents While Wearing Armor. You can perform any of your talents while wearing armor.
  • Using a Talent. Using a talent is similar to casting a spell but with the following changes.
    • Casting Time. Casting time is relabeled “Performance Time.” Otherwise, it works the same way.
    • Range. Range remains the same.
    • Components. There are no components in ZACS 5e. However, some talents require the use of tools, weapons, your voice, or hands to perform.
    • Duration. Durations remain the same.
  • Schools of Magic. Instead of schools of magic, there are talent archetypes. Those archetypes are: Strong, Fast, Tough, Smart, Dedicated, and Charismatic.
  • Targets. The rules for targets remain the same.
  • Areas of Effect. While areas of effect are rare with talents, the rules remain the same. Some weapons, especially firearms, may use areas of effect.
  • Saving Throws and Attack Rolls. The rules for saving throws and attack rules are the same in ZACS 5e.

Chapter 11: Spells

Appendix A: Conditions

  • Conditions. All conditions function the same way in ZACS 5e as they do in Fifth Edition.
  • Exhaustion. Exhaustion functions the same way in ZACS 5e as it does in Fifth Edition, however, note that a long rest is 7 days instead of 8 hours in ZACS 5e.

Appendix B: Gods of the Multiverse

  • No Fantasy Gods. While religion may play a part in a ZACS 5e campaign, there are typically no mythical gods of the multiverse that can interact with characters.

Appendix C: The Planes of Existence

  • Welcome to Earth. There are no other planes of existence in ZACS 5e. Just earth.

Appendix D: Creature Statistics

  • Real World Creatures Only. Most of the creature statistics found in Appendix D of the PHB remain the same, with the following exceptions:
    • These Creatures Don’t Exist: dire wolf, giant eagle, giant spider, imp, pseudodragon, quasit, skeleton, and sprite.
  • Zombie Changes. The zombies in ZACS 5e function differently than the zombies in Fifth Edition. Make the following changes to the zombie stat block:
    • New Trait: Fear Score. A zombie has a Fear score of 12.
    • Grappler. A zombie can use its slam attack to grapple instead of deal damage (escape DC 11).
    • New Action. The zombie gets the following action:
      • Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature the zombie is grappling. Hit: 3 (1d4 + 1) piercing damage and the target must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or become infected with zombie bite disease. The diseased target can’t regain hit points, and its hit point maximum decreases by 10 (3d6) for every 24 hours that elapse. If the disease reduces the target’s hit point maximum to 0, the target dies, and it raises as a zombie in 1d4 hours.

Thanks for Reading!

So far so good. With these plus the survivor character, you should be able to start putting together your adventure.

Look out soon for changes to the DMG and MM (including new types of zombies, of course), as well as expanded downtime rules.

To learn more about ZACS 5e, be sure to follow along with the blog. Sign up using the opt-in box on the right side or down in the footer.

See you soon!

Art by Games Workshop.


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