Monday, January 12, 2009

Undead Beginnings I

Well, let’s skip a rant today and I’ll just record some of my thoughts about Undead.

I’m a fairly traditional DM regarding that—I still use the original turning undead table from the DMs guide, mostly because I’ve not bothered to rewrite/rework it to fit my world or to find a copy of whatever system 3.0 or 4.0 is using. I don’t have a lot of undead in my world, mostly because the energy drain power is so very painful to characters and because, really, the less appearance they make the more flat-out frightening they are when I actually have one occur.

Rather than about turning, I’d like to talk about how an undead gets made. I’m sure that there must be other things about it out there, but I haven’t read them—and I can’t be bothered to buy such information as may exist. I’ve seen very little about the subject. Please take this as an alternate opinion to whatever published material may or may not be out there.

I’ve never played the modern film rule that being struck by zombies makes one a zombie, mostly because it isn’t in the rules and because the zombie-movie phenomenon wasn’t so pervasive when I began playing. Most historical/cultural zombie lore does not actually include this happenstance. Still, I suppose that might be interesting to play it that way, though zombies would have to be worth a hell of a lot more experience and I doubt very much that ANY character would be willing to fight them hand to hand. After all, the chances of one of them fluking out and rolling a 20 is just too freaky possible.

Zombies, as I’ve played them, do not make more zombies. Just as skeletons do not make more skeletons. Both exist because they have been raised, at some point, by the spell intended for the purpose, and are the bodies of human beings without the souls which once inhabited them. Unlike higher undead, where the soul is trapped in the undead prison, I see both the lowest forms of undead as being the animated flesh with some lower entity from hell having taken possession by means of the spell. This entity lacks any real intelligence and acts only on instinct. Thus zombies and skeletons are basically hack-monsters for lower levels to whet their appetites and raise their experience.

Not that they have to be played that way—but by a strict adherence to the Monster Manual text, there isn’t much to either one. Higher forms have been added, skeletal warriors and such, when they’re needed, and having low level undead is useful. My present party, with its sixth level cleric, isn’t even threatened by them anymore; the cleric can deal with scores of them.

Ghouls do create ghouls and ghasts create ghasts…provided the creature they attack is actually killed. The zombie one-hit method isn’t enough. Even so, the paralyzation feature for ghouls always brings out a good emotional response from my players, though being 6-8th level and with bonus saving throws from armor and such they can usually handle 3:1 odds, not so well with ghasts, as the carrion stench is fairly pervasive. We can lump shadows in with these as well, as I’ll accept the reduction of strength to zero will transform a living creature into a shadow.

But I do limit this to intelligent creatures. After all, what’s to stop a shadow from turning hundreds of thousands of flies into “shadow-flies” simply by reducing their strength to zero merely by waving its arm through swarm after swarm? Ordinary flies obviously couldn’t have a comparative strength above one, could they? And if shadow flies land on a character, do they have the power to drain one strength each per round? Enormously terrifying, sure, but not particularly game worthy. So ghouls, ghasts and shadows I must limit to intelligent creatures who previously had a soul.

The question arises, however, what created the first shadow? Or ghoul? Or ghast? I’d rather avoid chicken and egg controversies…and there is no spell with spontaneously produces these low intelligent yet present undead. So I prefer to go with circumstance.

Most undead, according to the principles I play, occur because something went wrong with the burial of said individual, or that the circumstances of their death was so horrific that standard burial procedures were simply not strong enough to put the soul to rest. My parties have learned the folly of failing to bury the dead after any violent affair. While it does not always happen that undead do arise when humanoids are killed, they’ve learned to be better safe than sorry. Which is fine with me; I’ve never liked the habit of D&D players to simply leave bodies out for the vultures because they can’t see any reason to put the work in to bury or cremate them.

If a creature dies defending its home, or as a soldier, or from old age or ordinary disease or from an accident, then I don’t generally think such a creature will rise as undead. In a medieval setting, being killed because raiders show up in the village isn’t especially unlikely, and is—honestly—fairly impersonal. If the dead are peasants, and are left to rot without being properly buried, then probably their souls will happily ascend into its proper afterlife without resistance. After all, the fixed concept here is that the soul remains on the prime material plane after its body is dead because it RESISTS leaving—unfinished business, some unnatural motivation or because of revenge.

For ghouls and ghasts, I like to think the first one will rise because it has been laid to rest in a desecrated graveyard. Properly, graveyards are tended, but occasionally one that was once tended falls into ruin, or the piety of the caretaker is much less than it should be. This fits in with Victorian literature about “a pauper’s grave,” reminiscent of the sort of graveyard which a pious man would avoid on principal. Once a particularly evil soul is laid into desecrated ground, even if the proper words are read, the soul will not rest and will rise again as a ghoul.

If, then, the creature dies and is left on such ground without being buried and with no words read at all, the creature goes one step further and becomes a ghast. This might happen because the graveyard has become overgrown and lost to sight…that a battle happens and its not even recognized that the scene actually is a very old graveyard from hundreds of years ago. Or perhaps a building has been raised on top of a graveyard, and the denizens therein died of some natural cause—denizens who inexplicably have been violent in nature and xenophobic, on account of living above such a location—or because they murdered one another. And now the building is inhabited by ghasts, who have caught passersby and increased their number.

An interesting scenario for a party might be, once this idea is explained, the discovery of several tombstones between the bushes and trees after a battle has occurred. Has the party accounted for all the orcs they killed? Might there be a body in the cemetery/woods somewhere, that crawled away before it died? Which must now be found, before the sun sets? That might be an interesting low-level encounter.

I want to write more about this, but that’s enough for today. I’ll pick up next with the origin of shadows.


  1. My "zombies" that infect others by bites aren't zombies in the undead sense of the word but are a type of living dead due to the disease. They can/do eventually die. I think in my head, zombies like from the Voodoo myths are different than the zombies from movies. Call it splitting hairs, but that's how I see it.

    I like that whole idea of the dead rising... plunder a kobold lair and try to return later... might not be such a good idea...

  2. To me, most modern movie "zombies" fall under the Ghoul/Ghast category in D&D. They're fast. They're very aggressive and they home-in on the living whom they want to eat.

    The old-school movie zombies, shambling and slow, still seem to me to be slow-moving ghouls. Still, ghouls and ghasts are known to eat corpse flesh and specifically the flesh of dead sentients. Movie zombies seem interested only in living flesh.

    Zombies may or may not be undead, it depends on your flavor of Voodoo or what you're trying to achieve with your game.

    A Zombie is similar to an Homonculous because they are both servent creatures. Whereas an Homonculous is created by stitching parts of dead bodies together and enchanting the composition, a Zombie is created by casting a spell on a living sentient who then "dies" (I put that in quotes because it's possible they aren't actually dead, but appear to be) is subjected to a burial ritual and then dug up later by the spellcaster or her/his minions. Once dug up, the Zombie is now in the full control of the spellcaster, just as the Homonculous (or Golem) is under the spellcaster's control when the spell is successful. The spell makes the zombie "live" forever, but I think you could cure a zombie and return them their free will.

    Low to mid-range, self-directed, corporeal undead (ghoul/ghast/wight) being created by improper burial is a pretty good explaination. The servant or minion-class undead like zombies and skeletons must be created by a spellcaster.

    For me, all incorporeal undead (allips, shadows, wraiths, ghosts, etc) come from sentients who were murdered or committed suicide (self-murder). The circumstances that create an incorporeal undead determine which type of undead is created. Ghosts were victims of a great personal betrayal. They were unjustly murdered by a spouse, a lover, or a parent -- I suppose others are possible, but the deepest betrayal is what creates a ghost. A wraith is a very selfish (chaotic-evil?) sentient who was killed before they could fully-realize some terrible goal. Allips were insane and died by suicide. Shadows are suicide victims who regretted their actions too late.

    This is fun. I have no idea if any of this is covered in any of the books, except Allips, which I think I got from the Monster Manual.

  3. In 3.5 the spell Create Undead (or Create Greater Undead) produces those shadows, ghasts, and ghouls you were talking about, though your explanation is pretty creative, and I don't know what edition rules you are using.

  4. I am using no edition. I'm using my noggin. I do not consider the existence of undead by spell in keeping with human mythology, and in fact find it pretty silly and lacking in depth.

    But I guess that's the best those freaks who wrote 3.5 could come up with.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.