May of The Dead
Undead and Loving It
As part of the May of the Dead blog carnival I’ve put together some thoughts on the undead and running them in RPGs. The core ideas is coming up with a single emotion or passion that drives each undead type, and applying that to their outlook and the ways of playing them. I’m focussing on specific types of undead, largely some of the standard ones that feature in D&D or similar FRPGs although they can be used for any other RPG (for example, Liches appear in Cthulhutech as well). I’m not going to bother dealing with non-intelligent undead, such as Zombies, as they have likely been done to death elsewhere (if you’ll forgive the pun).
Given that ghouls feast on the bodies of the dead, they’re something of a nuisance to necromancers and more powerful undead. They are driven by hunger and tend to congregate in packs, perhaps with an hierarchy (which explains ghasts). Their defining emotion is one of greed, tearing apart bodies to get to the choicest flesh, and perhaps squabbling over morsels. They may even start chowing down on the wounded of their own kind, abandoning combat to feast on the fallen or wounded of either side. Ghouls usually become undead through the consumption of corpses – perhaps during a siege where there is nothing else to eat – but it leaves them with a gnawing hunger that cannot be satiated.
Like the Ghouls of Lovecraftian lore, they tend to stay close to their food source, tunnelling deep beneath cemeteries in burrows that are likely poorly maintained – as undead they don’t need to breathe or light. Their burrows are narrow, damp and confined – and prone to collapse. They also tend to congregate together. Ghouls may even be families – the family that eats together, stays together.
Wights are undead that haunt ancient ruins and their tombs. They are aggressively territorial and hang on to their half-life, guarding their former possessions and territory. Their refusal to give up their worldly possessions are largely responsible for their undead state, and Wights are obsessed with retaining them. This obsession is their key emotion: if something is stolen from their hoard, they will stop at nothing to retrieve it. Wights are like the Terminators: they do not get tired, they will never give up, and they have no qualms about killing innocents. Wights are also intelligent, possibly concocting elaborate schemes of revenge, even raising other undead (such as creating wights of their own) in order to track down those who have transgressed against them.
Wight’s burial places, tombs or barrows, are likely arranged in a very specific manner that allows a Wight to keep an eye upon all their possessions easily. They are fastidious about checking their possessions; possibly in as obsessive compulsive fashion, so everything must be in a certain place or order. They may even keep other undead around as guards, although they probably distrust all other free-willed undead.
Wraiths occupy a shadowy twilight world bereft of colour, warmth, and light. Their entire existence is one of freezing cold, and they are drawn to the warmth of living beings. Wraiths are always seeking the warm life energies of living beings as a result; nearly bereft of rational thought except a need to warm themselves, even if it is for a brief time. Wraiths create other wraiths but have no concept of cooperation, perhaps as they can barely see them, and the presence of other wraiths may cause a wraith “feeding frenzy” when they encounter mortals.
As Wraiths will feed off any living being, even plants, and areas where wraiths prowl will be devoid of any life, usually dark and shadowy places – they shun brightly lit places. Vegetation is dead or blighted from frost, and the area will be shunned by wildlife. Such places are also dark and still, perhaps with the light dimmed to such an extent that even during the brightest part of the day, the area remains in shadow and twilight.
Ghosts are tragic creatures, by definition their existence is one born of tragedy. Their whole existence is geared towards one of repeating the events leading toward the circumstances of their death. Their entire emotional focus is one of sorrow and regret: so much so that they are focussed on nothing else, replicating the same events over and over. They are pretty distant, ignoring mortals as they focus upon their own concerns; although mortals may find themselves caught up in the ghostly enactment of events which can be just as deadly as those in the physical world.
Ghosts haunt the places of their death, often ruins or other old buildings. Depending on the power of the haunting, the whole area could be part of a manifestation: the ruin becomes a stately home once again, the battle is re-enacted, the murderer stalks the town again. These “phantom shifts” can easily be used as plot devices – the PCs are drawn into the events leading up to the Ghost’s death, and may even have a chance to lay the ghost to rest – TV shows like Supernatural may give you some ideas. Sometimes, a building or vehicle itself can be the haunting – see Shalebridge Cradle in the video game, Thief: Deadly Shadows; or the Event Horizon starship (in the movie of the same name).
Specters (or spectres) are usually created by a violent death of some sort, which has also unhinged them somewhat. They are “angry” ghosts, consumed with hatred and malice towards the living, likely resenting their death and those left alive. This cold anger likely manifests itself as an almost predatory glee as they stalk, terrify, and kill their victims – often turning them into undead Specters like themselves. Over time, this anger manifests itself as a perverse need to cause as much terror and disruption as possible – they may manifest fully, partially or not at all, but still cause problems for mortals.
The places where Specters dwell are shunned by animal life. The presence of these undead means that they will often torture and kill anything that they can find. Their lairs, or ruins, where they live are likely to be devoid of anything that isn’t smashed or broken, as the Specters hurl things around in rage or break things maliciously.
The Mummy is usually an ancient ruler or powerful individual interned and mummified. They are used to being in control and being in a position of authority. They are unused to having peers of any kind, and expect their orders to obeyed. Some may even consider themselves to be living gods. Their undead state renders them effectively immortal and they are likely to be hugely powerful (e.g. Imhotep in The Mummy movies). They respect power for power’s sake; and they are highly intelligent. They are a little archaic in their mannerisms and languages and may not be capable of communicating with lesser beings, should they deign to do so. Mummies are overwhelmingly arrogant and imperious: they have cheated Death itself.
The link between Mummies and their domains is a powerful one. By domain, we’re not just talking about their pyramid or burial site, but they may also have strong ties to their former kingdom or family (see the The Gods of Lankhmar in Fritz Leiber’s Fahrd and the Grey Mouser series). Should a Mummy become aware of such things being threatened they may act. Mummies may not necessarily be aligned with evil, but they certainly come across that way – mortals are there to be used. They are unlikely to work with other undead or directly for necromancers without some form of bargain (or a powerful compulsion) that likely serves the Mummy’s ends. They don’t share power willingly, and will likely plot to remove any mortal who seeks to control them.
As Liches are undead spellcasters, they continue to do what they do in death as they did in live. Liches are obsessed: they were once compelled to seek ancient knowledge that allowed them a form of life beyond death. With that goal attained, Liches continue to seek out new knowledge such as lost spells or magical techniques that are new. This obsession may also carry into hoarding behaviour of another kind, possibly because the Liche still retains some ties to a mortal life. Liches are likely to be become almost pathologically obsessed with obtaining items for acquisition.
Liches themselves are undead but do not necessarily associate with other undead beings, although they may freely create them. As they do not need to breathe, they may have sealed their lairs to protect scrolls or books, in a similar way to climate-controlled archives in the real world. The air may be bad or even absent as a result – would-be robbers may find themselves unable to breathe! Liches jealously guard their knowledge and are unlikely to leave their knowledge for anyone to find, perhaps protecting it in such a way (such as with a firetrap spell) that if the Liche can’t have it no one can. As with other undead, Liches will spend a great deal of time protecting their lairs (and ultimately their repositories/collections), using spells and minions. No one should be able to simply walk into their lairs.
Vampires are the most “human-appearing” undead. They willingly involves themselves in the affairs of mortals, often in such a way that they can go unnoticed. Most Vampires live a life of hedonistic excess: they may indulge themselves in emotionally charged events, seduce mortals, or live a life of blood-soaked debauchery. Their taste for blood may manifest itself as a drug or an addiction – for instance they may only drink the blood of the terrified (perhaps hunting down and applying tactics designed to scare the victim) or the very young as examples. Doctor Dominiani in the AD&D adventure, Feast of Goblyns, has developed a a taste for the spinal fluid of the insane within the asylum he runs for example. They are largely driven by their passi0ns in all things although older vampires may have more refined tastes (such as Faethor Ferenczy in the Necrosope series).
Vampire lairs also tend towards extreme displays of wealth or ostentation, or seek visceral experiences like those of battle. They may often surround themselves with things of beauty or extreme ugliness (such as artwork, dwellings, and servants), as a feast for the eyes or other senses. They may seek to immerse themselves in politics and intrigues, often under a human guise. Vampires constantly seek to keep themselves amused, perhaps to the extent where they may even “play with their food,” setting elaborate traps or schemes designed to ensnare mortals. In this respect, vampires are like a cat playing with a captured mouse.
There’s probably more undead out there that you can apply these capsule emotions to, but hopefully this short article has given you some ideas on how this sort of thing works. You can also apply capsule emotions to any monster.
What we do in life echoes in eternity
- Maximus, Gladiator
I began clearing out a lot of old bookmarks the other day. I’m surprised at how many sites have disappeared from the ‘net over the last few years, many of which were actually quite useful! While sites like http://web.archive.org are useful, it got me thinking just how much stuff is lost on the net – looking back over some of my early blog posts, I’ve realised that I first started blogging in 2006. There’s something very sad about the disappearance of many of these other sites, many of which were RPG resources that were at least of some use. I currently have an online presence in a number of formats outside of themandragora.com so if the website ever becomes archived, most of the posts will at least continue to be available at places like Facebook, Twitter, and LiveJournal. So I guess there will always be a part of me out there on the ‘net.
Many independent websites likely continue to exist out there, but they are often rarely updated. Usually they start off with the best of intentions but run out of steam within a few weeks. Often the hosting provider folds or the expense of keeping a website going (both time and money) leads to them getting buried. So here’s to all those RPG websites that failed their save vs. deletion.
It’s very much the fact that there are huge amounts of people blogging now about RPGs, where once there would have been a handful. More and more frequently there are posts that are little more than opinionated rants, rather than anything useful (I’m as guilty as the next person of this though!). It seems that the days when you could actually do a search on a particular RPG or subject, and/or download materials has now become a quaint custom. There’s been a huge change in the last few years with more emphasis on portal sites and web 2.0, like Obsidian portal, enworld.org and rpg.net.
I’m participating in the May of The Dead blog carnival, with a post on the 18th about playing Undead. Whilst I’d like to do more I just can’t find the time – it’s also why I don’t like posting or visiting forums such as Enworld, as there’s so much chatter or noise that it becomes difficult to follow or things just become unpleasant (like RPG.net’s occasional overzealous mods and those posters who seem to take umbrage at anyone with a different opinion). However they do have their uses, especially if you’re looking for new players. I’ve never used Obsidian Portal but it also looks like there are many dead games on there too, so it suffers the same problem. I think, in the end, there are too many damn gaming forums!
Here’s a case in point: there’s been so much talk about the next version of D&D (a.k.a DNDnext) that I’ve given up trying to follow it online. Everyone and their dog has an opinion on it, on a game that hasn’t really been created. Instead, I’ll get the playtest rules when they come out at the end of this month – at that point I might start paying attention to the online speculation, but right now I just can’t be bothered wading though it all.
RPG plans for Summer 2012
I’ve got quite a bit of things planned over the next few months, both on the site and at ORC Edinburgh. And its not just me: there’s a mini-campaign of the Dragon Age RPG kicking off, a Pathfinder game, a GURPS Swashbuckling Superhero game, as well as my own Marvel Super Heroes game.
I’m also thinking of participating in a Blog Carnival about the Undead as part of May of the Dead next month. Although I’ve never been enthused about zombie films or similar, they and other undead have often featured prominently in my games. I’m probably going to focus on what drives them. I may also look at haunted houses too.
I’ve also got vague plans for running a good old-fashioned Dungeon bash – it may even take the form of a tournament, wherein two different parties take on the same dungeon. I’m leaning towards a Liche-created series of traps and a menagerie of monsters, but may also feature some ideas I came up with for a Thieves Guild trial in Ashes of Freedom. Essentially, I improved upon those shown in that sequence in the 1st D&D movie, featuring Richard O’Brien (reprising his role from the Crystal Maze TV show, “Get through the maze and win a prize!”). I’m considering running it under Pathfinder or The Secret Fire RPG rules, both of which lend themselves to this kind of game.
As we get through to the end of summer, I’m looking at the return of my Ashes of Freedom D&D game. I’m hoping to get a number of the original players back for this, although it’ll likely have a few new folk.
Now that I have largely finished a lot of the work that I was doing for TSF I’ve got a bit more free time (despite upping my game at ORC. This means that I may finally get a chance to start work on a couple of stalled projects: an implementation of the FATE RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom, and the Arunstoun setting/adventure for Call of Cthulhu. Both have had some work done on them but as usual, I’ve not followed up on them due to the time constraints involved.
Any day now I’m hoping to hear more about the global D&D playtest (AKA D&Dnext or 5e) for the next edition, so may also work that into my schedule. I’m not sure how good or bad it will be as there’s a lot of information bouncing around the net, but so far it sounds like it will likely provide some kind of framework to run any edition or implementation. Not sure how that’ll work as each edition tends to have overcompensated for the faults of the previous one. Well, we’ll see.
And finally: I’ve got an idea for NaNoWri month in November (National Novel Writing Month). It’s likely to be a bit of a mystery but played out through the eyes of three different characters in three different times. Should be an interesting experiment!