Thursday, September 8, 2016

Monster Archaeology - Greater Undead

 If animated corpses, ghouls, wights and wraiths make up the common undead, D&D has always had room for more dangerous abdead foes, and unlike ghouls wights and wraiths, these more powerful undead are not simply increasingly dangerous versions of the same creature.  It's unclear exactly what purpose greater undead, as I've taken to calling spectres, mummies and vampires, serve in Monsters & Treasure, are they tougher versions of wraiths and wights to threaten higher level players, are they puzzle monsters designed to threaten mid level parties in small numbers or leaders of undead factions?   Whatever the intent powerful undead are an important part of the higher level random encounter tables and each represents a significant threat to characters.  Following the trend established with Lesser Undead, the danger from the more powerful creatures is largely the result of immunity to some attacks and the ability of their attacks to do permanent damage in the form of status effects.

Warhammer Fantasy has this wonderful way of breathing life into the cliche
MUMMIES: Mummies do not drain life energy as Wights and Wraiths do, but instead their touch causes a rotting disease which makes wounds take ten times the usual time for healing.  A Cleric can reduce this to only twice as long with a Cure Disease spell if administered within an hour.  Only magic weaponry will hit Mummies, and all hits and bonuses are at one-half value against them. Note, however, that Mummies are vulnerable to fire, including the ordinary kind of torch.

Mummies are strange creatures then, not much stronger then Wraiths, but more accurate and very slow (they have the same AC and 5+1 HD to a Wraith's 4), moving a a rate of '6', the same as zombies and skeletons.  They have a seemingly less terrible special attacks then wraiths and wights, causing a disease rather than draining life force but they are invulnerable to regular weapons, not just missiles.  It almost sounds like the Mummy is a stronger form of the animated corpse, the skeleton/zombie, rather then a quick, self-willed form of revenant like the ghoul, wight or wraith.

The most complex aspect of the mummy is it's special attack seems like a clumsy and confusing mechanic, especially in a system where a common convention is re-rolling HP at the start of each session.  My own take on "Mummy Rot" is that the disease prevents magical healing and reduces HP total to 1/2 the rolled amount at the start of each session. I'd also add a permanent -1 to HP even if the rot is cured by cure disease spell, plus the rot is disgusting and makes the character smell bad. Obviously there's a lot of room for a far more horrible disease, something with statistics loss and progressive HP damage culminating in death.  I'm not really sure if it's necessary as the consequences as written have a pretty nasty overall effect.  The only plus side of death by Mummy as opposed to death by Wraith is that the victim of a Mummy will not rise as a Mummy.

The Mummy's immunity to normal weapons and damage reduction is another interesting aspect of the creature, strange in the context of other powerful corporeal undead (or at least semi-corporeal) like the wraith lacking this ability, but quite understandable if one assumes hacking at a leathery corpse doesn't do much to stop the eldritch unholy power animating it.  I see the Mummy striding forward, struck repeatedly and ignoring all attacks to reach out with its filth encrusted hands and crush the life out of foes.

I like the implacable shambling mummy, something heavy and plodding, more a form of animated corpse then the increasingly ethereal ghoul to wraith progression.  I do wish it had more mechanical emphasis on its strength, perhaps a damage bonus akin to an ogre, a deadly grapple attack or even multiple attacks.  As it is the Mummy is strong only for its powerful defensive ability, but its low speed and the ability of fire to do full damage make the mummy, especially a single mummy, make a mummy more of a trick monster for low level parties then a real powerful opponent. Groups of mummies might be danger in a mid level game, but again they are easy to escape from and trap.

It's notable that beyond the descriptive term "Mummy", there are no details about Mummy appearance, picture or ecology, just mechanical information.  This isn't uncommon with creatures in Monsters & Treasure, but it does place the burden of characterization on the individual GM.  An OD&D Mummy is not then a movie monster, wrapped in bandages, cursed with ancient magic and fond of scarabs.  Beyond being a slow, disease inflicting undead entity that is immune to non-magical weapons, the OD&D Mummy is whatever the GM needs it to be.

Still the Mummy statistics and limitations make it a far less varied monster then Ghouls, Wights or Wraiths (and also Spectres or Vampires) and they make it far weaker in some ways. The Mummy as plodding corpse also makes it seem far less of an intelligent monster then a Wraith or even a Wight, and my own impulse would be to use them as a sort of naturally occurring or greater zombie guardian, raised into a stumbling somnolent 1/2 intelligent guardian by a curse or magical pollution. In this form a Mummy becomes purely a trick monster to set up as a singular enemy of low level parties - too slow to get into melee except through ambush or player mistake, but utterly deadly (the hit chances of a 5+1 HD creature alone should mean a Mummy rarely misses) if engaged from short range. Alternatively a mass of Mummies becomes an obstacle or trap for higher level parties, presenting a puzzle about how to get enough fire into one place quickly enough without damaging any treasure.  In both of these cases the Mummy is not the powerful undead melee combatant that I perhaps want it to be, an ancient king or champion that acts with physical powers rather then the spooky menance of level drain and commands its dead legions from a tomb fortress, the Mummy as written (speed, additional attacks or better damage could transform it) is a tougher zombie and even more a puzzle about contagion, clearly one of the lesser undead.     

SPECTRES: These monsters have no corporeal body which makes them impervious to all normal weaponry (but can be struck by all magical weapons), including silver-tipped arrows.  They drain two life energy levels when they score a hit. Men-types killed by Spectres become Spectres under the control of the one who made them.    

An excellent sort of killing spirit
Spectres are real apparitions, the first (and only) non-corporeal undead provided in Monsters & Treasure.  They are powerful, being 6 Hit Dice monsters (thus attacking the same as Mummies, but with more HP), whose attacks will kill anything with under 3HD instantly and raise humanoids as additional Spectres.  Spectres also have have the best possible AC and an enormous ground and flying movement rate. The Spectre should be a terrifying opponent for even powerful characters, but it has one weakness compared to the clumsy plodding Mummy - the Spectre can be struck by magical weapons and silver weapons and its lack of damage reduction make it less robust then a mummy. 

The Spectre's weakness to silver suggests an interesting way of handling silver weapons.  Traditionally silver weapons in D&D have been a weaker version of magical weapons, damaging certain creature that are immune to normal weapon but less 'powerful' then others.  In a setting or game with a flatter power level, such as the world implied by Monsters and treasure this limitation loses some of it's rationale. In OD&D there is little need for a challenge level concept, as with flatter power levels even a low level party can take on powerful monsters (like Mummies), albeit with some difficulty. Having a single tiered system for weapon immunity/resistance seems unnecessary.  I prefer the idea of a variety of special magical materials that are effective against broad classes of enemies.  Perhaps silver, being associated the the moon and night, is especially effective against undead, while hexed weapons are necessary to strike demons or other outsider entities that would entirely ignore silver.The Muumy's immunity to silver then suggests that it's something more then just undead, a possessed corpse perhaps.

Spectres are terribly powerful for an OD&D monster with their speed, good AC, high HP, hit chances and multi-level draining attack.  Like almost all undead the issue with Spectres is limiting contact with them.  My own inclination would be to give Spectres the paralyzation powers of the Ghoul/Wight/Wraith line though with their speed it's hardly needed as it's nearly impossible for characters to flee from a Spectre.  Because of this it's hard to know how to use Spectres, and like Vampires, Spectres seem to be an enemy with a gravity that demands explanation and a name - defeating a Spectre or hive of them is a major achievement.

That the victims of most undead raise as undead becomes especially interesting if that reaction is nearly immediate - not a day or week later, but maybe 1D6-2 rounds later.In the case of spectres, which are near impossible to escape from due to their speed this could be very dangerous, especially for groups that depend on large numbers of lower level henchmen.  That the Spectre is the only incorporeal undead in Monsters & Treasure is rather telling.  In the world implied by the OD&D books hauntings are either purely aesthetic/harmless, more akin to mechanical traps (sprung by entry into a specific area and with a mechanical effect that does not lead to combat) or the result of one of the most unstoppable and deadly monsters in the game.  The sheer power of Spectres to reproduce themselves (from 0-level humans especially) implies that they have some limiting force (likely geographic or behavioral) otherwise the only setting they could exist in would be a world of ghosts, where any remaining living creatures are hidden and furtive, just waiting to be devoured by spectral legions they cannot fight and cannot flee from. 

VAMPIRE: These monsters are properly of the "Undead" class rather than Lycanthropes.  If they are exposed to direct rays of sunlight, immersed in running water, or impaled through the heart with a wooden stake they are killed; otherwise they can be hit only as Spectres, but such hits do not kill them but only force them to assume gaseous form if they lose all hit points. Vampires drain two life energy levels as do Spectres when they hit an opponent in combat. They regenerate during combat as do Trolls, but they do so immediately upon being hit at a rate of three hit points per turn. Vampires can command help by calling to them from 10 to 100 rats or bats or from 3 to 18 wolves. They can polymorph themselves into either a huge bat or into gaseous form, doing either at will. They Charm men-types merely by looking into their eyes (treat as a Charm Person spell with a minus 2 for the object's saving throw against magic). Vampires cannot abide by the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of a cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.  They must always return to a coffin whose bottom is covered with soil from their native land during the day-light hours. Men-types killed by Vampires become Vampires under the control of the one who made them.

Slightly slower then spectres, able to fly (presumably only as a giant bat), with an AC of 2, seven to nine HD, a life draining attack and appearing in groups of up to six, vampires would be bad enough if they weren't also effectively immortal and capable of magical charm and monster summoning. Mechanically these are dangerous opponents - largely invulnerable to weapons, and likely to return after being defeated - a 'boss monster' to be sure, and clearly the most dangerous form of undead.  Their weaknesses to various mundane conditions or attacks certainly limit their power, and they become more a clear trick monster, nearly unstoppable except for the special tricks that can quickly run off the vampire, defeat or even kill it.   Every vampire encounter seems to impose a quest as well, to find the vampire's coffin and kill it via a stake through the heart.

The newest incarnation of Ravenloft has just been published and Tracy Hickman commented in its introduction that the idea for Strahd and Ravenloft came to him from find Vampires on the OD&D random encounter tables.  It seemed absurd to Hickman that a vampire - the singular, sophisticated arch villain of Gothic horror would be waiting around a dungeon corner to jump adventurers.  Hickman is right here - it also seems silly to me to lump Vampires in with all the varied funhouse denizens of the OD&D monster tables, as long as those vampires are the handsome aristocrats in black cloaks.  Vampires are the most powerful Undead in Monsters & Treasure, which lacks liches or any other magic using undead.  As such they are the statline most appropriate for great  undead lords or faction leaders.  There is plenty of space for undead with a powerful level drain, who reform after being destroyed and the Vampire shouldn't be limited to horror film cliches - they could be many things and fill many other classic fantasy niches - the death knight and the liche both come to mind (perhaps with a few levels of spell casting or some magic weapons to better play these roles).  It's really a matter of description - is the vampire a spectral figure clad in magnificent, but decaying armor?  A withered husk in ornate robes that stands at the center of a vortex of air distorting magic?  An grey skinned, scarred, legendary, immortal assassin?  This sort of re-skinning while retaining the classic vampire weaknesses is not uncommon both Death Frost Doom's ancient general and the various factions of Red and Pleasant Land are vampires with little mechanical change from the archetype in Monsters and Treasure.

This isn't to say Hickman's complaint isn't legitimate, Strahd is a perfectly great way of mining the rich well of vampire pop culture, but it's more gonzo/campy then I want for my current game.  At a more general level while placing powerful intelligent enemies on random encounter tables is fun, doing so in the sort of wild manner that OD&D suggests (Dragons, Hydras and Giants are all on the same table as Vampires) does seem a bit absurd.  Perhaps it makes sense for the classic 'Gygaxian Mythic Underworld' for the 6th level table to include the entire selection of high Hit Die enemies, if only because of the unnatural Manichean nature of that underworld, which is metaphorically hell.  In the sort of setting I like, and presumably the sort Hickman likes as well, a bit of naturalism helps create the setting environment and make it a bit more interesting - based in exploration (with a logic to unravel) or story (with a climax and structure) rather then a series of increasingly difficult encounters and tests with no underlying logic.

A less "Fun-house" approach to stocking wilderness maps, random encounter tables and keyed adventures with powerful monsters almost requires that there's an explanation for these creatures.  While each vampire or spectre might not be a named NPC or faction unto itself, small groups of these creatures will certainly dominate any region or dungeon level and demand some larger story connection.  The Vampires' dependence on pop cultural cliches to make it an effective trick monster is also somewhat difficult to use in a non-standard fantasy setting (a standard fantasy setting is more or less 'all the cliches! all the pop culture!) and this is part of Hickman's Strahd complaint/solution.  To reskin such a particular creature takes some thought.

When the undead come back the do so for many reasons, but through only two basic causes, the internal and the external.  When the dead bring themselves back, usually through strong negative emotions or unfulfilled promises made in during life, the soul itself returns, along with some measure of intelligence, drive and planning ability.  Undead animated by external forces are something else entirely, puppets made from ensorcelled flesh bent to the will of a sorcerer or other arcane intelligence.  The majority of reanimated dead are weak and paltry things with flailing limbs and a barely a spark of arcane energy to keep their flailing ungainly fragments together.  Sometimes however, when a wizard pours a great store of power into a corpse and traps another entity within it, perhaps the spirit of the dead man himself, perhaps another spirit or often an outsider entity.  Only powerful wards and lasting charms (or more rarely the desires of the entity animating the corpse) can keep this sort of the amalgam animated and create something far more potent, a spirit trapped in a prison of its rotten flesh and by necessity mad or maddened. These greater undead servitors are known as Mankins and are created for two purposes, either to lead armies of lesser dead in a semblance of officership, allowing a necromancer to send units (mobs really) of shambling corpses beyond immediate control, or as guardians.

Dragonlance's Lord Soth - totally a 'mummy', maybe a 'vampire'
The Imperials created Manikins, at first from criminals or fanatical devotees of the Imperial cult, later from anyone they could catch, sometimes in huge legions, to guard tomb complexes or the shrines and sanctums where trapped or leashed outsiders (demons and heavenly thrones), were held ready to deploy. Some of these guard forces of ancient dead were hundreds or even thousands strong, and are still alleged to exist deep in the wastes of the ever burning heart provinces.  Newer Bonebinders, the sorcerous lunatics attracted to both the potent magics and large amount of easily available dead on the borders of the heart provinces, sometimes develop the power to raise these more powerful forms of animated corpses and program them with a feeble grasp of language and thought and use them to lead their 'armies', often atop resurrected steeds and clad in elaborate armor (which helps protect them from fire).  Even though these Manikin generals may look powerful and frighten the superstitious citizens of the resurgent Kingdoms into believing they are great Liche Lords or similar mythical undead animated by their own will, they will never be more then sad crazed reverberations of personality, puppets programmed with a few orders, responses and goals by their creators. Still a small group of Manikins charging on bone horses and wearing heavy plate to ward off fire can provide a dangerous enemy.

It should come as no surprise that the Central Imperial Cult's still makes heavy use of Manikins - perfumed, wrapped carefully in silks and masked, but still clumsy undead servitors with only unthinking devotion to the Emperor, the clergy, and the Great Hierophant to guide them.  Manikins thus come in many guises, though all share great strength, limited communication ability and slow simple cognition and most can be recognized by the glowing sigils that mark their flesh, binding and empowering the spirit trapped within as well as warding the Manikin from physical harm, making its bones steel hard or repairing injuries at unnatural speed.

Spirits abound in the ancient world of the Empire, as mans' presence weighs heavy on the tired world, and the numberless dead stretch back beyond memory.  Most spirits are a voice in the wind, or a dust in abandoned rooms stirred briefly by unnatural hands, but a few are manifest, and fewer still are manifest and dangerous.  These killing spirits are powerful indeed, but like all spirits, and most undead, they are things of obsession and predictable impulse.  Killing spirits almost always haunt a specific location (and sometimes a specific time as well), and they are not intelligent in the sense of being pragmatically malicious, most are the echoes of especially cruel deaths, and most seek revenge, absolution or some other form of emotional release from the living they encounter, though this is almost always fatal to the object of their obsessions.  For example the spirit of a lost child may just want to be carried home, and will rush forward to any it encounters seeking their protection and comfort, but draining them of life in the process.

Like Manikins, killing spirits rarely look similar, and can appear as anything from a perfect representation of a living person or a mass of fog and strange lights, but its a general assumption among the grave robber's caste that immaterial undead capable of interaction with the living world and visible manifestation are also capable of killing and should be avoided.

The most dangerous of killing spirits haunt the depth of the ruined Heart Provinces, places where entire cities died in moments or in agonizing torture at the prisons, asylums and temples built by the Demon Emperors to glut their patrons with human misery.  In these places killing spirits form packs or colonies that knowingly prey on anything living, reproducing themselves and forming colonies of wailing inconsolable misery, endless hatred and skin burning malice.  Such spirit hives are so charged with necromantic power that they threaten to become festering portals between the skein between the living and the dead.

There are no Vampires in the lands of the Empire, or its former dependencies. No bloodsucking
superhumans that pretend to life. However life draining powerful undead do exist, and they come from a variety of sources, most of them the return of exceptionally powerfully willed individuals or intentional transformation into a semi-immortal being by necromancy, diabolism, blood sacrifice or a variety of other evil magics and sciences.  Collectively these creatures are known as Liches, Liche lords, or more commonly they are known by their individual names and titles.  Like the most powerful demons and celestial thrones (or their hosts) many of these creatures pretend to be something else - a god, a normal human or something in between.

Darkest Dungeon Fan Art - that works to.
Because they vary so much in Fallen Empire Liche lords are usually singular monsters, but unlike other undead they are also fully capable of independent and strategic thinking. Liches have goals much like living being - from being left alone with their hobbies to ruling the world atop a throne of gold and skulls. Because they have intact minds, Liches can learn and with so much time to do so they often have many highly developed skills and powers.  A Liche could practice warfare and swordsmanship for a thousand years, becoming a master of both, or be the universe's singular expert of some obscure subject.  Most however develop strong magic in addition to their undead vigor, strength as this is often the logical continuation of the path most take to immortality.

The only similarities between liches is that they are all effectively immortal, thier soul kept safely elsewhere, or capable of fleeing their body when its destroyed and possessing a new host or rebuilding a new body quite quickly.  Likewise all liches have a weakness to certain mundane things, though what exactly can harm their mortal form, or expel and extinguish their corrupted souls varies greatly: sunlight, salt, silver, cold iron, cats, living wood or blessed implements are all fairly common, though some liches have contrived to have more obscure weaknesses.


  1. While (I understand) some tables re-roll hits at the start of every adventure, other tables re-roll them at level up, or just roll the new hit points at level up.

    In these cases Mummy Rot is scarier. Also, I like your idea of the infliction of a permanent -1 hit. Like, each hit dice level will have that -1 after it. 1d6 becomes 1d6-1 and so forth.

    1. It becomes even uglier (-1 HP per die) when you use HP progressions that only give a d6 every couple levels for non-fighters. I do this for everyone except fighters, but even the LLBs limit MU HP to less than an HD a level.

  2. As much as I love your interpretation, I believe you read the spectre entry wrong: "makes them impervious to all normal weaponry (but can be struck by all magical weapons), including silver-tipped arrows." The position of the parentheses means the spectre, as written, is immune to silver-tipped arrows.

    Your blog, especially this series, is fantastic, btw.

    1. You are absolutely correct - rules of statutory interpretation and all that... Still one of the joys of the LBBs for me is deciding on interpretations of all the gaps, omissions and oddities. In this case I like the idea of a variety of magical weapons that effect different kinds of enemies - and the "Silver kills the dead" idea allows mummies to be possessed corpses which amuses me. I mean they can also be undead baddasses, though in that case I'd chose a wraith given I decided they were corporal.

      I'll say one of the joys of Monsters and Treasure is that it's so sparse - each monster is less a distinct foe and more an archetypeto pour a variety of unique enemies into. I.E. When running desolation of Zubrab/Fallen Empire the PC's had some fairly positive interactions with a 'Vampire' some 'ghouls' and 'berserkers'. They mostly killed 'giant rats', 'berserkers' and 'skeleton/zombies'. Everything was of course heavily reskinned.

    2. I think these posts are great for exactly the reason you've said: inventing the monster from the stats is more interesting than the other way around, and you are making Fallen Empire super interesting by doing it.

  3. Great food for thought Gus, as usual. Check your title - I think you meant to spell archaeology.

    On the mummy and mummies disease, there is a bit more info in Supplement 2: "Advanced Leprosy: ...afflicting all mummies...cauuses wounds to take longer to heal...automatically contracted on contact with a mummy. If not cured within three days, there is a 95% chance of fatality, with a 2% decrease each successive day. Any character that succumbs to this disease may not be raised from the dead; they are permanently dead."

    1. Thanks for the spellcheck and more for the text reference. Three days seems a very short time when accurate time records must be kept.

  4. @ GusL:

    This is really awesome stuff (as usual). Sorry I wasn't able to make your session Saturday...I've just been swamped since getting back to the USA. Thanks for inviting me!

    1. I didn't even know I knew you on G+, I might run it again in a few weeks,and if it happens I'd be glad for you to join.