Wednesday, 28 September 2011

serried ranks of the dead

The undead are many and varied; while some would conflate the dead into a band of homonymous animated cadavers and restless apparitions, they have distinctions and diverse motives that not only serve in their understanding but also in their destruction.  Mistaking one for another often ends badly for the would-be undead hunter.  This kind of knowledge is hard-won and often surrounded by folklore of dubious merit, consider the lore surrounding vampires as an example of the misinformation that can be spawned.  This skims the surface of undead creation.  Detailed analysis reveal cultural mores behind the death masks.  Necromancers work against these to perfect their arts.

Necromancy brings us many forms of undead - from the relatively simple animation of skeleton or zombie to the complex rituals that create ghouls, ghasts, mummies or mohrgs and even those said to grant their adherent lichdom or vampirism.  There are other rituals for undead like crawling claws, juju zombies or wights.  The motives behind such workings are never benign, sophists argue for using skeletons as tireless labourers in an eternity of service without parole.  More malevolent undead have even less justification for existence - arguably no just regime would consider this punishment fit for a crime.  Creating undead as a curse is tradition - one with horrific consequences.

Yet necromantic practices aren't the only motivation to pass into undeath; sheer malevolence is enough to spawn certain undead.  The eyes of a wight bear malice that rooted in it's life.  Wraiths are spawned of 'evil and darkness'. A sobering thought next time you hear of an evil warlord or wizard slain; will they rise again?  This may be doubly true for those denizens of the Underdark slain before their time, many are evil-natured and powerful and proper burials are often ignored.  The truly evil may arise as a spectre though this will only happen following the most heinous of crimes.

The violation of taboo raises corpses and causes spirits to abjure the next world for this one.  Ghouls and ghasts arise from cannibalism and terrible hungers.  Huecuva rise from heretics or fallen priests. Spectres and wights may arise from murder and violence, which makes the ever-turning wars between dwarves, giants and orcs a likely breeding ground.  Perhaps most horrific is the revenant whose focus on the murderer and things precious to it makes it an unpredictable foe.  Unquiet spirits show equal variety - the allip rises from suicide brought on by madness.  Ghosts and spectres are denied eternal rest - the latter possibly due to their deeds or nature.  Even the poltergeist is bound to it's place of death.  Banshees are unique to elvenkind, yet the drow are plagued by them.  Betrayal is frequent with dark elves who perhaps have powerful clerics out of necessity...

The shadow is an anomaly, existing solely to destroy amid ancient ruins yet these denizens of the Plane of Shadow pale against the horrors of the nightwalkers, spawned of raw entropy capable of destroying cities.  The otherworlds hold horrors capable of blasting life and soul from the unwary, twisting them into bodaks or devourers.  Whether this is taboo violation or the corrupting nature of evil is something for clerics to debate.  The perils of worlds like the Plane of Shadow or Negative Plane and the Lower Planes are increased further by the presence of undead.

This skims the surface of undead creation.  Specific races and cultures have their own intepretations of undeath, necromancy and protections against them.  More detailed studies may follow, though such knowledge comes with risk.  Philosophers claim we become what we think about.  If this is so, there is a danger knowing too much means a fate worse than death.


  1. I am also of the opinion that more types of undead make for a more interesting game, but you do need a framework to explain where they come from. Though the undead that create more of their type by killing people, like Shadows, can be problematic.

  2. Nicely done. I good concise statement on the "why all the undead?"

    @seaofstarsrpg - I agree--though I'd also add competing frameworks might work--you don't have to nail it down definitively.

  3. Multiple causes for undeath prevents 'do X for all undead' which risks making undead banal.

    That said, I'd like to see necromancy spells to create more undead but think some need to be beyond the ken of a necromancer's talents - some need a touch of the unknown horror.

    The shadow is definitely an anomaly among the ranks of the dead despite their Classical roots.


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