Posted by: allhailthoon | April 12, 2010

Creature Feature: the Undead

When it comes to monster types that can be used frequently without losing their sparkle, undead are really one of the work horses of the game.

Allip (MM1): A great low level atmosphere/plot seed monster. Put the Allip in a crumbling building and create a legend around them. Make the building one of those places where local children dare each other to spend the night, then have them come out mad and babbling the next morning. Have the local tough guy go in only to have the party find him later, curled in a corner, weeping blood from where he cut his own eyes out with a shard of glass.

The less time the party spends in direct contact with this sort of monster, the scarier it is.

Atropal Scion (LM): Don’t they have a version that’s twice as strong in the Epic Levels book? I don’t really like either, especially because the entries seem to imply that there’s more than one. I could see it working if it was made into a unique creature, maybe the enraged, rejected dark secret of some good or neutral god that the party worships or works with. Also, making it look like a giant dead baby makes it hard to take seriously.

Banshee (MM2): Make her the widow whose spirit wanders the lonely halls of a crumbling castle searching for the husband that never returned or the children she murdered, then wrap her in layer upon layer of rumor and local legend. Let the party hear her screams in the distance on moonlit nights and have the horses prefer to be whipped to death rather than coming in sight of the castle. Build a full adventure around putting her to rest and you’ve got something going.

Bleakborn (LM): Scary, brutal, and strangely sympathetic. All systems go.

Bodak (MM1): I’m sure there can be some great games where bodaks are wandering through a twisted, profane landscape following the passage of whatever ‘ultimate evil’ lead to their creation in the first place, but that doesn’t help me shake the feeling that these are just an excuse for the DM to be an asshole.

Crypt Thing (FF): I love Tales from the Crypt. This guy should be witty, amiable, and an all around decent guy. He can give warnings and tell stories about the people who have come before and died horrible deaths, then teleport everyone around the dungeon when they don’t heed his warning.

Deathbringer (MM2): Never dealt with one in any way in a game, but I love them. I think it’s just the picture.

Devourer (MM1): I’m all over the concept, but the picture is just too Total Recall for me to take it seriously. Give it a makeover and I’m game.

Famine Spirit (MM2): Makes me want to make a council of evil based on the seven deadly sins and go from there.

Ghost (MM1): It’s hard for me to get behind ghosts as monsters, even the vengeful kind. I love them as plot hooks, atmosphere, puzzles, quest givers, and bearers of various cryptic messages. Make them walk through the corner of the PCs’ vision or rattle their chains in the darkness, but please don’t just make them something to be beaten to death (again).

Ghoul (MM1): A gaunt, intelligent, feral metaphor for uncaring hunger. Awesome. Make them hunt in packs and stalk PCs for a while. Let players glimpse them in the shadows from time to time, but don’t reveal what exactly they are until shit has well and truly gotten real.

Jahi (MM2): I think there’s potential here, but reaching the boss villain only to find out they’ve been possessed by a tiny incorporeal undead the entire time just seems silly. They could be a good henchman for the boss though. Throw them in every so often with a new mind slave to spy on the PCs of foil them.

Lich (MM1): If any monster comes close to being all things for all people, it’s the Lich. They can be the back bone of an entire campaign from low to high levels if you handle them right, especially if you handle them with a little dark humor.

Rather than making them determined to straight up murder the PCs, have them toy with them on and off for months or even years. Think of a lich’s actions as an elaborate, methods to their madness joke with the PCs as the butt and their deaths as the punch lines. Let the relationship evolve. At low levels, the lich can send be a mysterious and manipulative patron, then as they gain levels, a foil and recurring villain. When the PCs are high enough level to actually kill the lich, the process itself can be a series of quests.

Think of Koschei the Deathless (the original Russian version, not the Fiendish Codex version). Make the PCs seek the old witch in the woods and do her bidding before she tells them where to find the source of the lich’s life, then make them work hard just to get it. And don’t be afraid to add extra conditions beyond just breaking the object. Hell, make them work to find out the conditions too. Make the lick both the maze and the monster.

Mohrg (MM1): Never fought one. Never saw the appeal.

Mummy (MM1): Better as a prop than a monster. It’s hard to be scared of them when they’re walking around, so just make them creepy preserved corpses.

Shadow (MM1): Good for atmosphere, effective in combat, can be summoned by necromancers at a low-ish level. No problem here.

Skeleton (MM1): Decent, you can bring them out from time to time and even make them creepy if you hype them right. Plus they don’t distract from later, cooler undead. Pretty much the white bread of the deceased.

Swordwraith (FF): Beyond an overgrown path through the woods, leading off a road that locals refuse to travel when the sun starts to set, the party comes across a vast field littered with broken stones and rusting scraps of metal. When night comes and the moon is full, the dead soldiers return to fight their final battle over and over again. Very cool.

Vampires (MM1): Need their own entry.

Wight (MM1): I think they’re just Scottish ghouls.

Wraith (MM1): Another utility undead. I really wish there were more incorporeal undead that didn’t look like evil dishtowels.

Zombie (MM1): There’s always room for zombies, but once you get past the pop-culture trend, they’re pretty boring. And George Romero is a one trick pony. There, I said it.



  1. I think you’re right about bodaks being a DM’s screw-you to the party. I know the only time I’ve ever managed to kill 2 PCs in 2 rounds was with a room filled with a half-dozen bodaks, disguised among dozens of corpses. One poor player literally finished rolling up his character, ran into the room to join the party, and got Death Gazed. Next round his twin brother arrived looking for him 😛

    My favorite undead? The Dracolich. It combines two things that I love into one horrifying package. It gets even better in Forgotten Realms, where the Cult of the Dragon is a Nostradamus-esque cult that believes the key to ending the world is apparently making more Dracoliches. I think the Cult of the Dragon is a perfect group of minor villains – deluded and slightly comical, but at the same time with the potential to unleash a terrifying undead creature into the world if they’re not stopped.

    • I wish I could agree, but I can’t help but feel that the Dracolich exists entirely to make the PCs shout, “Oh shit! It’s a dracolich!”

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