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.

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at and regularly play RPGs.