Folktale Undead

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.

Sources

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:

  1. The Pious Undead of Medieval Europe
  2. A Twitter thread on level drain, especially the idea that you can cure the level drain by killing the undead which cursed you.
  3. 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.
  4. The game Thousand Year Old Vampire, which I’m currently playing solo.
  5. 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.

d8 Origin
1 A curse
2 Unfinished business
3 The will of a powerful sorcerer
4 An higher calling
5 An unspeakable sin
6 The deceased’s strong willpower
7 Another Undead
8 A pact with an evil god or powerful demon

The second, extremely important question, is does it feed on something? If yes, what?

d8 Dietary needs
1 No need for feeding
2 No need for feeding
3 Flesh
4 Blood
5 Specific parts of the body (brain, liver…)
6 Souls
7 Emotions
8 Magical energy

The third question should help you define the creature’s behavior: what does it want?

d12 Motivations
1 Feeding
2 Obey its master
3 Freedom from its master
5 Complete a task
6 Revenge
7 Return to the livings’ fold
8 Rest
9 A domain of its own
10 A quiet place
11 Justice
12 Roll twice

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.

d20 Power
1 Spread the curse
2 Drain life force
3 Paralyze
4 Mind control
5 Flight
6 Shapeshifting
7 Dark magic
8 Regeneration
9 Control lesser undead
10 Gaseous form
11 Spread illnesses
12 Flesh sculpting
13 Supernatural speed
14 Supernatural strength
15 Immunity to some source of damage
16 Aura of terror / terrifying gaze
17 Invisibility
18 Foresight
19 Mind reading
20 Possession

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

d30 Vulnerability
1 Silver
2 Gold
3 Wood
4 Holy ground
5 The cry of a newborn child
6 Virgin’s blood
7 Holy water
8 Sunlight
9 The cockcrow
10 Crow’s feathers
11 Running water
12 The last blood spilled by an aged warrior
13 A maiden’s beard
14 Moonlight
15 Fire
16 Smoke
17 Dirt from their own grave
18 Salt
19 Seaweed
20 Stone weapons
21 The destruction of a relic
22 Dust from a specific person’s grave
23 Swan blood
24 A magical herb
25 A toad’s breath
26 A specific kind of bread
28 Horseshoes
29 Holy symbols
30 The voice of a loved one

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(Io raccomando caldamente la prima opzione, eh)

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