— Emma Dent, 1877
Inspired by the most recent episode of Wandering DMs, I’m making the case for more undead in old-school D&D-style adventures. I’ll consider how to leverage their unique characteristics to create memorable, horrifying encounters. If you’re an experienced referee, chances are these ideas won’t exactly be revelatory, but hey, maybe you’ll enjoy this post anyway.
Undead Throughout D&D History
The undead of Original D&D already feature most of their defining characteristics: skeletons and zombies aren’t susceptible to morale checks; ghouls paralyze non-elves; wights and wraiths drain levels and are impervious to normal missiles; mummies inflict a rotting disease and are vulnerable only to magic weaponry and fire; spectres are incorporeal and drain two levels. “Men-types” slain by ghouls, wights, wraiths, spectres, and vampires rise as undead of the same type that they fell victim to.
Advanced D&D grants skeletons resistance to bladed weapons and introduces the lich. Zombies now act last in the initiative order. AD&D also specifies that undead are immune to charm, cold, hold, and sleep-based effects. Mummies gain a fear effect, and creatures killed by mummies now rot away after six hours and can no longer be raised from the dead.
Basic/Expert D&D specifies that zombies make no noise until they attack and that characters slain by spectres, wights, wraiths, and vampires rise after one day, three days, or 1d4 days, depending on the monster. There’s no mention of characters slain by ghouls rising as ghouls.
I get the impression that the ability of characters with infravision to detect undead has long been a topic of contention. However, the Rules Cyclopedia states:
Characters with infravision can even see items or creatures the same temperature as the surrounding air (such as a table or a skeleton), since air flow will inevitably show the viewer their borders, outlining them in a faint lighter-blue tone. Until they move, they will be very faint to the eye; once they start moving, they become blurry but very obvious light-blue figures.Page 24
The third edition of D&D reduces the potency of undead in mostly minor ways. Skeletons and zombies largely function the same, though the associated mechanics change in 3.5. Ghoul paralysis has a low saving throw DC. Wights are now susceptible to all attacks but still inflict level drain. Wraiths, however, drain constitution rather than levels. Mummies now take half damage from physical attacks and take reduced damage except against magic weapons. They’re now vulnerable to fire. In 3.5, mummies have flat damage reduction against all sources. Characters slain by spectres, wights, and wraiths now rise in 1d4 rounds.
The undead of fourth edition, on the other hand, are barely recognizable. The basic skeleton has a whopping 45 hit points. Level drain is gone. Weapon types no longer matter. Insubstantial creatures have no immunities and instead take half damage from all sources. There’s much less differentiation between undead and any other monster.
Fifth edition represents a partial return to form but presents undead with kid gloves. Rather than being resistant to bladed weapons, skeletons are vulnerable to blunt weapons. Zombies are no longer quiet—they have a -2 penalty to stealth. Ghouls still paralyze, but the saving throw DC is even lower. Specters, wights, and wraiths remain merely damage-resistant. They don’t drain levels—they reduce maximum hit points. The specter is now a challenge rating one monster.
Regardless of how one feels about level drain or invulnerability to mundane weapons, it’s undeniable that undead in modern D&D don’t pack the same punch as their classic counterparts. The zombie’s “undead fortitude” is the sole silver lining and carries some potential to instill dread.
My impression—albeit one based solely on observation and anecdotes—is that undead fell out of favor in adventure role-playing games. One might attribute this not only to the relatively toothless undead of modern D&D but also to an oversaturation of undead in popular culture that coincided with the release of fourth edition D&D and the emergence of the OSR.
The Dead Rise Again—Arguably Far Too Much
The new millennium heralded a glut of undead-related popular media that reached its peak in the late 2000s. 28 Days Later released late in 2002, proceeded by Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003 and Shaun of the Dead in 2004. I Am Legend premiered in 2007, and then 2008 brought the first Twilight film, the original Left 4 Dead game, and Dead Space. Then in 2009 came Zombieland, the first Twilight sequel, Plants vs. Zombies, Left 4 Dead 2, and more. The pilot of The Walking Dead premiered on Halloween of 2010.
Zombies, it seemed, were everywhere, and gamers—in particular, I expect—developed undead-fatigue. For many, undead lost any shred of novelty and horror they had left. I believe undead still have much to offer.
The Discreet Charm of the Necromanc-ied
Undead have several characteristics that make them promising threats:
- They never retreat.
- They can be silent.
- They can be difficult to detect with infravision.
- They are immune to charm, cold, hold, and sleep-based effects.
- Some are impervious to mundane weapons.
- Some inflict harm more grievous than hit point loss.
- They do not require food, water, air, or rest.
Let’s focus on that last point.
There’s nothing wrong with embracing the dungeon as a mythic underworld or gonzo funhouse, but for those who aim for some degree of Gygaxian Naturalism or dungeon ecology, undead offer unique possibilities.
If you’re the type of referee to place venomous pit vipers in a safe deposit box—what’s up with that, Gary?—then your players will grow to expect danger in every nook and cranny. However, if you tend to place monsters in environments with sufficient food, water, and air, then undead may provide an opportunity to catch players off-guard.
Undead As Traps
- Consider placing undead in unexpected places: in tar pits, sealed in spaces without ventilation, buried under heaps of treasure, in a murky pool, grasping at swimmers.
- Place undead in hazardous areas: caverns contaminated with toxic gas, rooms deprived of oxygen, chambers infested with creeping slimes. Here, undead pose a double threat as both unrelenting aggressors and as snares that hamper retreat.
- Place a slow-moving but invulnerable undead creature within a dungeon to stalk the characters. They will need to arrest its movement or remain in motion, foregoing rest and careful searches.
Minor spoilers for Deep Carbon Observatory in the paragraph below:
The Crows in Deep Carbon Observatory provide one example of the horrific potential of undead fully realized. Their tactics include employing undead to stalk the characters, ambush them, deprive them of sleep, and drown them. I’d recommend it to anyone seeking inspiration for how to creatively leverage undead and lean into their unique potential for creating horror.
Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier also makes great use of undead-as-traps, though I won’t go into specifics as it’s a newer adventure.
While level drain is a divisive mechanic, I see value in its singular capacity to instill dread. That said, like mind control, it’s the sort of thing I’d clear with players during a session zero.
On the other hand, James Madigan makes a compelling case against level drain, and James Maliszewski of Grognardia expresses a degree of skepticism. For the level-drain-averse, I recommend this excellent post over at Necropraxis that introduces a way to restore drained levels. (My personal favorite adaptation. I see potential here to expand the ways in which characters can restore drained levels—a permanent setback thus becomes a temporary one with a built-in adventure hook). And as discussed in the Wandering DMs podcast, Dyson Logos has a d30 list of unique undead powers to replace level drain.
That’s All For Now…
If you’ve come up with creative uses for undead in your own games or know of more modules that do, I’d enjoy hearing from you! Thanks for reading.
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