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So, this may seem to be an odd question, and it probably is. In terms of standard fantasy RPGs like D&D, AD&D, Pathfinder, and OSR what really differentiates a zombie from a skeleton in terms of undeath? Is it just that it has skin where a skeleton does not. So if a zombie loses all of its skin does it then become a skeleton? A variant zombie? 

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Good question. In D&D, I remember that originally skeletons were the weakest of the undead (in the Cleric's "turn undead" chart), followed by zombies (OD&D, AD&D, 2e). Then in 3e, zombies were now the weakest (by virtue of being very slow), followed by skeletons.

 

Zombies are one of those undead that underwent major changes over the years according to popular media. Thinking at all the current zombies movies, TV shows and video games, everyone would agree that zombies *are* dangerous (contagious bite) and plenty fast. Heck, most of the corporeal undead can be qualified as higher tier zombies/skeletons. Mummies without wrappings look like well preserved zombies. Liches without their equipment look zombies/skeletons depending on their level of decomposition. Zombie survival games have tons of mutated zombie types.

 

Back to D&D/Pathfinder. Skeletons and zombies are created pretty much the same way and have overall the same threat level, just different flavor resistances.

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I think in (some versions of) D&D and in Pathfinder, there are enough differences in the stats and the manner in which the two undead are made, that you should maintain the differentiation between the two, at least when throwing them against low level characters.

 

Skeletons have higher Dexterity and some weapon familiarity, whereas zombies have partial actions and are generally tougher. This is not a major difference when you are throwing them at 6th or higher level characters. But a 1st level character that, for instance, somehow strips the flesh from a zombie, should not suddenly find himself facing a skeleton (undead). Just a skeletal zombie.

 

I would think that fluff, and flavor-wise, there would be differences, as well. Think of the iconic scene in Jason and the Argonauts, when the teeth of the Hydra are used to summon a troupe of skeletons. It's more immersive to imagine that the ritual of tossing those teeth and chanting those words is what specifically created skeletons. We would think of those as truly magically-created necromantic skeletons, not stripped zombies.

 

In Pathfinder, at least, there are also different flavors of both. Templates that apply well to one, but not the other, both mechanically and flavor-wise.

 

(NOTE: Romero called his zombies "ghouls," which is really what they are. Traditional zombies don't eat people.)

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Well in 5e one of the biggest differences is zombies get this:

 

Undead Fortitude: If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5+the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.

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this isn't really supported by any games I know of but these are the differences in my mind:

zombie, slow, implacable, need to behead or destroy brain to stop them, driven by hunger, can be controlled by magic, if control slips it will eat the magic user.

skeleton, fast but clumsy, weak to being bludgeoned, immune to stabbing, completely mindless, always under the control of a magic user or an artifact, if control slips they just collapse into a heap, easily reassembled by magic.

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The reason I brought this up is that in all the RPGs I'm familiar with both are created by Animate Dead. It was more silliness than anything. Zombies are tougher but slower than skellies so I don't interchange them at low levels. Just a random thought. 

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13 minutes ago, Loim said:

The reason I brought this up is that in all the RPGs I'm familiar with both are created by Animate Dead. It was more silliness than anything. Zombies are tougher but slower than skellies so I don't interchange them at low levels. Just a random thought. 

 

Oh, in that case. I heard that, concerning the zombies that eat flesh, dwarves are the most difficult for to eat (i.e. actually chew), halflings are the easiest, elves are the tastiest, and gnomes give them gas. ::P:

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1 hour ago, haldir said:

Well in 5e one of the biggest differences is zombies get this:

 

Undead Fortitude: If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5+the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.

Which I always fragging forget to do.

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One way to think of it is that in both cases it is the bones that is moving the undead body.

 

For skeletons, the bones are unhampered by dead flesh, so can move faster.

 

For zombies, the bones are protected by the dead flesh, making them harder to destroy.

 

If anyone has seen the Disney film of The Black Cauldron, the way that the bones were being moved by the green mist, like marionettes....

 

But that said, remember, zombies know how to party....

The Auld Grump - Hey, nooww!

 

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When I was young, I was always under the impression that zombies had some semblance of intelligence. They wouldn't go around killing and eating unless hunger takes over or under anothers control.  They had stronger constitution and fortitude because they could not feel pain. Slashing weapons would sever muscles, tendons, sinew, etc and would prevent them from moving. Fire would destroy the body. Destroy the head and the zombie ceases to exist.

 

Skeletons were magical constructs. Kill the caster and all skeletons under that caster control would topple. Simple commands and orders could be given to them. Using blunt weapons you can destroy and splinter the bone fragments so it becomes difficult for the skeleton to be put back together. A skeleton is does not need to rest and even without a head,  it is a functional construct.

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14 hours ago, pcktlnt said:

Skeletons were magical constructs. Kill the caster and all skeletons under that caster control would topple. Simple commands and orders could be given to them. Using blunt weapons you can destroy and splinter the bone fragments so it becomes difficult for the skeleton to be put back together. A skeleton is does not need to rest and even without a head,  it is a functional construct.

Depending on the rule system you use, all undead can still function without their heads.

 

Having the head and body properly coordinated is a different story since most of them still need their eye sockets to see what they're doing (even if no physical eyes exist). Headless horsemen types being a notable case where being headless makes them scarier, because it's just freaky.

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I predate the Night of the Living Dead style of zombie - closer to the classic Voudun zombie - so I do not picture zombies eating unless ordered, or the food is literally shoved in their mouths - which wakes them up. (And why the mouths of zombies are often sewn shut.)

 

Undead that run around eating are more accurately ghouls - from the Ghul of Arabic myth (and where the star Algol gets its name...).

 

And do not get me started on Zuvembie....

 

The Auld Grump

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