Halloween time has come and gone unfortunately because it’s my favorite time of year. I love the crisp autumn air, pumpkins set out on porches soon to become jack-o-lanterns, and the chance that something terrifying could be lurking around the next hedge or fence. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that I like to use undead in my rpgs. Whether I'm playing D&D Next or Pathfinder, or perhaps something like a supers game like Champions or Mutants & Masterminds, it is almost a guarantee at some point the forces of darkness will rise from their graves to challenge my hopefully terrified players. So in the spirit of keeping All Hallows Eve time alive, I thought I would share some thoughts on the undead, and why and how I use them in my games.
Durability and sustainability are probably the biggest reasons I like to include the walking dead in my adventures. The undead require no air, water, food, shelter, clothing, or companionship so they can exist where many other challenges just don’t make sense. If my players open a tomb that hasn't been opened in a millennium and inside find a tribe of orcs, goblins, and kobolds that haven’t had access to food or water they will question this instead of enjoying the adventure. This is the beauty of the dead, they need nothing, save for the consumption of flesh and souls of the living. You can use them anywhere.
Strange environments such as underwater and deep space are excellent environments for the undead as well. Not needing air allows skeletons to be guarding the submerged entrance to a long forgotten pirate’s cove for any amount of time. The characters needing air are disadvantaged by time usually in these situations, and that allows for a little bit of extra scare. Drowning is a horrible way to go out. A pit with several zombies or festrogs down at the bottom ready to tear into an unlucky adventurer is not only a tougher challenge but fear of death will make your players afraid. Scaring the players can be hard to do so take the chance when it is there.
Incorporeal undead are much more challenging than their corporeal cousins in pretty much any type of game they materialize in. The ability to walk through walls allows them to invade secret headquarters with ease and negates many powers a character might use to defeat them. The ability to exist just inside a wall or object and still be aware of what is going on outside can make them excellent spies. Having the ability to hit and run a group of PCs by using the terrain to escape into is an excellent way to hamper a party and keep them on the alert.
The big baddies of the undead world are excellent leaders, terrifyingly tough opponents, and whether mixed with a horde of underlings or all alone can make for a memorable encounter. In almost any campaign there is a place for Dracula or a Strahd type villain. In a modern game a powerful vampire, mummy lord unleashed from a museum exhibit, or a vengeful ghost can bring the terror to investigators, troubleshooters, or agents. In a fantasy game they can lead armies, terrorizing cities, and form nations that strike fear into whole continents. However you use a powerful, leader type undead remember that they are rarely just vicious, savage, rampaging opponents. Most truly memorable villains believe that what they are doing is the right thing for whatever reason.
Now just having undead in your game is not truly terrifying, you have to make sure to set the scene so that they instill fear in your characters. When a player makes a Perception check to listen at a door, perhaps their character hears the clickety-clack of bones on the other side as skeletal warriors shuffle about waiting for an intruder. Do zombies make a sickening sound of a pumpkin being hit with a baseball bat when the cleric crushes their skull with his mace? The stench of a ghast should be more than a roll against Fortitude; it should be a sickening odor that nearly brings the hearty dwarf fighter to her knees.
In most fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons undead have become a lot less frightening in each edition than they were in the previous one. This is especially true of the undead that have level drain. When the touch of a vampire would just cause you to lose two levels that was a terrifying fate. That is just a massive loss of experience points, especially at higher levels. Now we are not going back to that as it was very unpopular and caused the need for a lot of in-game math. So if designers are going to scale back the horror of fighting the walking dead you as the DM really need to find ways to step up their horror factor.
Remember that in almost all cases the undead are without souls, devoid of remorse, and that should be reflected by their actions and motivations in your games. Zombies and ghouls will eat pets and children. Skeletons will attack anything unlucky enough to come near them. A necromancer lich will raise anything from the dead to bolster their undead armies, including children and grandmothers. In my Pathfinder session this week I plan to make my players angry and the characters thirst for vengeance. Their will be zombie children and parents involved.
You can use undead in your game as extra guards, soldiers, minions, or to fill out the ranks of a raiding party. Animals, humanoids, giants, and more all make excellent choices to rise from their final resting spots to bolster enemy forces. Happy Halloween, and let us know how you use the undead in your game. I'll be rotting to hear from you. If you want to check out another pretty good article about the way undead can be used in a game I suggest this one at Dungeon's Master.com. Until next time, Roll Hard!
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