This is one of those posts that have been bouncing around my head for at least one year, but I finally think I have all the pieces I needed. I jump from a style of play to another, but I keep returning to some kind of weird folk cocktail. The main ingredients of this cocktail are:
- J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (and, while I don’t like Peter Jackson’s movies, this scene from his Hobbit trilogy)
- Neil Gaiman’s books, especially Stardust and The Graveyard Book
- European folklore
- A bunch of black metal/ambient/dungeon synth artists, such as Summoning or Caladan Brood
As you can guess, I don’ aim to a 100% historical representation of folk myths, but more to a “folk-ish” feeling, with a sprinkle of gothic fairy tale in it. In this, Undead have been a pain in the ass for quite some time. I love the concept and feel like they should play a major role in my aesthetics but all the executions I’ve found felt like lacking.
This post is the unholy child of a bunch of posts/tweets/games I’ve found in the past years. I’m going to post them in the chronological order I’ve read them, because it was only once I’ve read the last one something clicked and I felt like I had the right inspiration for this post:
- The Pious Undead of Medieval Europe
- A Twitter thread on level drain, especially the idea that you can cure the level drain by killing the undead which cursed you.
- OSR, Entropic Undead - Or, The Physics of Evil and Undead are Pockets of Stopped Time, which were posted in this thread in the OSR Pit forum.
- The game Thousand Year Old Vampire, which I’m currently playing solo.
- You are doing Undead Wrong, which is the post which made everything click.
I’ve always thought that each undead should be unique. Maybe the mindless ones could be a little less unique, but I dislike the feeling I get, either as a player or as a DM, when somebody can just point out things like “it’s a vampire, we already took two down” or “it’s a ghoul, use fire”. You can have groups or categories for undead with common traits, but each one of them should be able to stand on their own.
The first question you need to ask yourself when creating an undead horror is: what brought it back from the grave? This is going to define at least part of your world and can be an useful clue (if learned or guessed) for the players in order to defeat the creatures.
|3||The will of a powerful sorcerer|
|4||An higher calling|
|5||An unspeakable sin|
|6||The deceased’s strong willpower|
|8||A pact with an evil god or powerful demon|
The second, extremely important question, is does it feed on something? If yes, what?
|1||No need for feeding|
|2||No need for feeding|
|5||Specific parts of the body (brain, liver…)|
The third question should help you define the creature’s behavior: what does it want?
|2||Obey its master|
|3||Freedom from its master|
|5||Complete a task|
|7||Return to the livings’ fold|
|9||A domain of its own|
|10||A quiet place|
The fourth question is something the players would want to know but not learn from experience: what power(s) does it have? The more powerful the undead, the more times you will want to roll on this table.
|1||Spread the curse|
|2||Drain life force|
|9||Control lesser undead|
|15||Immunity to some source of damage|
|16||Aura of terror / terrifying gaze|
The last question is another one the players would like to know in advance: what are its vulnerabilities? Again, you can roll more than once if you feel like it fits your theme
|5||The cry of a newborn child|
|12||The last blood spilled by an aged warrior|
|13||A maiden’s beard|
|17||Dirt from their own grave|
|21||The destruction of a relic|
|22||Dust from a specific person’s grave|
|24||A magical herb|
|25||A toad’s breath|
|26||A specific kind of bread|
|30||The voice of a loved one|