March 7, 2014

Creepier Undead

I believe the undead category of creatures has been badly nerfed ever since  the first FRPGs came out, and I’m looking for ways to make them more formidable to players.

EDIT: That should be lower-level undead. Liches are scary enough, thank you.

Consider the Skeleton in D&D for example: though very plainly a creature that shouldn’t exist in a sane world, encountering one doesn’t necessitate any kind of fear check, and if you’ve a blunt weapon it’s really quite easy to destroy one. And once you’ve got a cleric, you really don’t fear skeletons anymore.

Contrast this treatment to horror-film and the darker sword and sorcery fiction takes on skeletons, zombies, and the like. In one Conan story, the final battle takes place against hordes of zombies raised by the sorcerer-queen Vammatar the Cruel, and the horrified Cimmerian and his Aesir comrades almost cannot bring themselves to strike because many of the dead were their own living sword-brothers only the day before.

Worse, the undead simply can’t be killed: ordinarily mortal injuries don’t bring them down, and even those that have been hacked to pieces still try to grasp and bite with severed hands and heads. The Aesir despairing skald gasps ‘How can the dead die twice?’ Tellingly, Conan doesn’t win that battle; he only manages to get the Aesir chief’s daughter Rann on Vammatar’s horse, and then is overwhelmed by the undead.

So what could we do to make undead more respectable? The clue’s right there in their name – UN-DEAD, the NOT DEAD. They shouldn’t be alive, but they are. They break the rules of life and death. Let’s see how we could game that.

I don’t advocate a fear check, unless you’re running a game that’s more horror than anything else. Players don’t enjoy actions being forced on them by the rules, so fear checks are usually no fun.

Instead of a fear check, I’d give undead a Terror bonus to attack, to represent the paralyzing effect of dread that they bring. If I bring in a fear check, it’s to determine whether or not this Terror bonus will continue to apply.

Second, I’ll make putting down undead more complicated. I remember one Pendragon session in which we battled some kind of barrow wight, which had an awesome enchantment upon it: it could only be killed permanently if we defeated it then had someone watch the corpse all through the night without break, or it would awaken again. Now that was AWESOMESAUCE.

And it gives me the idea I want. To make undead both more terrible and more unique, come up with unique ways to give them permanent death. Some ideas along this line:

  • The undead has to be burned;

  • The undead has to have earth from its own grave thrown over it;

  • The undead must have a funeral rite recited over it;

  • The undead can only be commanded to return to its grave by a certain person, or kind of person, such as a woman, or a member of a certain family;

  • The undead’s head must be taken away and buried in holy ground – and the rest of it’s going to try to get it back!

The GM can also consider why there are undead in a certain location, and how they came to have that curse. The method of putting them down should be related to that origin. For example, in The Mummy Returns movie (2004?) the mummies could be ordered back to rest, or turned against their original awakener, by reading an incantation from the Book of the Dead.

Whatever you do to flavor your undead, the thing to avoid is making undead encounters an auto-response opponent for your players. Simply breaking out the holy water and pushing the cleric out front is just so 1970s.

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