Building a Better Zombie Pt 2: Pestilent Dead

Thief 2x substantially changes how undead are handled. In Thief 1 and 2, Zombies are all but unkillable unless you have explosives or holy water. Thief 2x zombies retain this invulnerability, but you can hack off their limbs and head. Of course this means that you end up with creepy gross unkillable torsos with legs wandering around, not doing much and unable to hurt you, but likely to alert other Zombies and haunts to your presence. Not to make things easier, some Zombies now have breath attacks, where they spew some dark green liquid and a swarm of insects at you if you don’t chop their heads off quickly enough. They can kill you pretty quick if they sneak up on you, and they attack in groups.

As you don’t have near as much firepower as Garrett and no access to holy water, there’s not a lot you can do put these guys down completely. Unless, of course, you fulfill the optional quest where you round up the disparate parts of the Necromancer’s corpse and tossle him into the incinerator to break the curse that animates the dead in the Masouleum.

So, for those who are interested in mixing things up with your undead and taking your players by surprise, here’s a new zombie type that you can supplement your regular undead with. Cackle with glee as your players wonder why this one particular zombie seems to be fighting harder and taking more hits than the rest of the swarm, and hey, why isn’t this one turning!?

Pestilent Dead

AC: 8
HD: 2***
Move: 90’(30’)
Attacks: 3
Damage: 2 claw 1d4 / 1 breath 2d4
No. Appearing: 1-4 (2-12)
Save As: F1
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Chaotic

The Pestilent Dead are a particularly noxious variety of zombie animated by powerful curses and evil magics. As all undead, they may be “Turned” by a cleric but are not affected by sleep or charm spells or any form of mind reading. They typically appear with other undead (1-3 Zombies for each Pestilent Dead). If close enough (10′) and possessing its head, Pestilent Dead will vomit forth a vile liquid accompanied by a swarm of stinging or biting insects. Victims may save vs. breath for half-damage. When a Pestilent Dead is hit, it receives no damage (though allow the players to roll for damage); instead roll a d6. 5-6 an arm is severed; 3-4, the head is severed; 1-2, nothing happens. Subtract 1 from the roll if using a blunt rather than slashing weapon. Subtract 1 from the roll for each severed arm. Players may attempt to target a particular appendage with 75% accuracy with a slashing weapon and 50% accuracy with a blunt weapon (roll after a successful to-hit roll). Pestilent Dead lose attacks corresponding to the appendages destroyed. When both arms and head are lost, the Pestilent Dead is not vanquished but impotent; they may flee aimlessly, alerting other monsters to the PCs’ presence. Pestilent Dead may be damaged and destroyed normally by fire; treat them as having 6HP, + 3HP for each arm and head remaining. Pestilent Dead are turned as wraiths.

Haunts: More Thief-Inspired B/X Undead

If the Zombies in Thief were scary, the Hammer Haunts were absolutely terrifying.  The second that one of them knew where you were, many of the rest of them would know soon as well.  From well over 100 feet away, a Haunt that saw you would not only know where you were but know how to get there by the shortest means.  Even if you could get away, they would keep looking for you, and unless you found a really good hiding spot, there was a good chance they would still find you.  If a Haunt saw you and there was nothing between him and you, you were pretty much done for – unlike many of the human guards or the rather weak Monkey Men, Haunts are far better swordsmen than Garrett; even if they don’t block your first or even second attack, they will quickly slice you pieces in a matter of seconds.  There’s little worse than in Return to the Haunted Cathedral when all three of the patrolling Haunts in the main Cathedral floor are alerted to your presence and make a beeline for you, even cutting through boarded up doors to do so.

Fortunately, once you were out of the Cathedral and into the second half of the mission, you could set up a kill zone in the quad between St. Tennor’s and St. Jenel’s; after killing the first one or two with backstabs, you’d have multiple zombies, multiple haunts and a ghost all looking for you, and you’d have to carefully toss out mines and bide your time lest one of these grim dudes gets within 50 feet of you.  It took about 10 minutes of patience and planning, but if you were lucky, the undead carnage on the quad would account for most of the remaining enemies in that oh-so-dreadful mission.


HD 4+2 (15HP)
Move: 120’(40’)
Attacks: 3
Damage: 1-6 or weapon
No. Appearing: 1-4
Save As: F4
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Chaotic

Haunts are vicious and incredibly dangerous undead warriors whose fanaticism in life has carried over and beyond the grave into their unlife.  Haunts are surprisingly human in their apparent behavior and may well be mistaken for the living until approached or seen head-on.  As with all undead, haunts are unaffected by Sleep or Charm and are unaffected by mind control.  Unlike many lesser undead, Haunts are clever hunters and can easily (4 in 6 chance when within 50’ or less) locate nearby living trespassers, including those hiding in shadows.  A Haunt will pursue its prey until one or the other is vanquished.  Haunts may only be turned by clerics of the gods they served in life.  If taken by surprise (1 in 6 change), a Haunt may be dispatched single successful backstab.

Building a Better Zombie

One of the problems that D&D has, I feel, is that low level undead just aren’t all that scary.  Ghouls are frightening because they have paralysis and aetherial undead are terrifying because of their level drain, but Zombies and Skeletons tend to be kind of boring mooks who are usually less threatening than encountering a group of 1st level human bandits.  Besides, they can be turned!  The only real ‘scary’ part is that they don’t have to make morale checks, so you have to kill all of them.  As such, the only way that skeletons or zombies are a real threat is if you throw a ton of them at the party.

Thief: the Dark Project is one of the few places where small numbers of undead are truly scary – they’re very different from how your living (even monstrous living) opponents behave.  While Ghosts are creepy and hard to kill, and Hammer Haunts cut you to pieces in seconds once they find you (and they WILL find you), I think that how Thief treats Zombies is particularly special.  They’re always in the way, they’re always groaning loudly, and, unless you’ve got things planned just so, you can’t kill them.  One zombie can be an annoyance, but two zombies can be downright deadly.  Once you have 4 or more zombies on you, it’s time to hit the quickload button.

So here’s a reimagining of the B/X zombie based on those found in Thief: The Dark Project.


AC: 8
HD 2 + 3* (15HP)
Move: 90’(30’)
Attacks: 1 weapon
Damage: 1-8 or weapon
No. Appearing: 2-8 (4-24)
Save As: F1
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Chaotic

Zombies are undead humans or demi-humans animated by powerful curses and evil magics that stone and steel alone cannot unmake. As all undead, they may be “Turned” by a cleric but are not affected by sleep or charm spells or any form of mind reading. They typically resemble normal rotting and bloated corpses, and when still may be indistinguishable from a normal corpse.  If approached by a living creature foolish enough to linger about (3 rounds), the Zombie will rise and attack.  Treat prone Zombies as having 3 HP; upon rising, a Zombie will have its full 15 HP.  After receiving 12 HP of damage, a risen Zombie will fall prone and remain so until a living creature remains nearby for 3 rounds, at which time the Zombie will rise with full health.  Zombies will always attack last regardless of initiative.

Zombies can only be killed with fire or Holy Water.  Holy Water will do 3d6 damage to Zombies.  Zombies that are turned do not run away but will fall prone.

I’ll probably be stating out some more monsters from Thief over the next few days, including Burricks, Hammer Haunts, Insect Beasts, Fire Spirits, Crab Men and  Crab Beasts, and Monkey Men.  I’ll be working on a few base assumptions, including d6 hit dice and Garrett as a d4 thief of around 4th level; I may even stat him.

Siege of Alfort (Morgansfort): Tower Defense Style – Prep Work Part 4, Factions for Flavor

This is going to be a briefer post than the others, largely because it does not involve number crunching. In fact, the purpose of this portion of the prep work is to reduce the amount of number crunching.

The battle and conflict as it’s statted out and scripted in the previous posts does not reflect the battle as a whole. While the 200+ Hit Dice of evil elven undead represents a formidable force more than capable of overwhelming the PCs and the fortress’s defenses, it doesn’t connote that “army” feel. It’s not big enough. Now, admittedly, this is going to be window-dressing, but it will certainly help the battle feel bigger.

Other factions –
Imperial expeditionary force – I’m not sure what all will have happened between the time I am writing this and when the encounter will happen, but one possibility is that Portsdam is destroyed by an earthquake. Whether that happens or things have just been so bad in the colony that word has gotten back to the empire, let’s say that an expeditionary force has landed north of Alfort and is on its way. Maybe 2000 strong, this force, while small will certainly distract a chunk of the Elf King’s undead army, preventing it from bearing its full brunt against the fort. If the PCs haven’t cleared out the Zombraire’s estate module, this force will probably be ambushed from west and arrive significantly weakened and unprepared to stand against Caelden’s army.

Eastern Goblin Coalition – The Southeast and Northeast goblin tribes have formed a military alliance. They understand that a limited human presence in Alfheim is preferable to the land being awash with undead elves. Sometime between now and when the battle is run, the PCs will be presented with a chance to dislodge the Northwest goblin tribe from the Old Island Fortress (if the PCs don’t go along with it, the goblins will later take this on their own). The Old Island Fortress will be used as a staging ground for the eastern goblin tribes to lend their support against Caelden’s army.

Northwest Goblin tribe – I’ve retconned my setting a bit to eliminate Orcs as an indigenous people of Alfheim; while Orcs are there, they’re mostly imperial mercenaries (note to self, the imperial expeditionary force should be comprised largely of Orcs). That said, I’m rewriting Starisel’s dungeon to be inhabited by goblins (with Orc stats) instead of the orc tribe. These will be part of the same tribe who were trying to take over Malek (the Nameless Dungeon) until they were slaughtered by undead. If the PCs can reconcile with these goblins (successfully run Cave of the Unknown), there is a good chance that they might be willing to commit to fight against Caelden.

So we’ve got a Battle of Five Armies, here, a perfect climactic fight for the campaign.

To incentivise the players to gather these allies, I might even take away the last two waves via some sort of plot-flash.

Siege of Alfort (Morgansfort): Tower Defense Style – Prep Work Part 3, Enemy Combatants

So, this part is going to take some tweaking, and maybe even some test runs, so these numbers are far from final.

Let’s have a run-down of the various undead we have to work with:

Skeletons 1 HD 20′
Zombies 2HD 40′
Ghoul 2HD* 30′ (paralysis)
Wight 3HD* 30′ (Level Drain)
Wraith 4HD** 40’/ (Level Drain)
Mummy 5+1HD* 20′ (disease)
Spectre 6HD** 50’/100′ (Level Drain x 2)
Vampire 9HD** 40’/60′

The bulk of the monsters are going to be skeletons & zombies, low hit dice monsters who should probably be ignored, if possible, in favor of the bigger baddies coming through. So, let’s come up with some ground-rules for how each of these monsters operates:

Skeletons – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense and ‘go away’.

Zombies – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense and ‘go away’.

Ghouls – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense and ‘go away’ so long as there are at least 3 HD of defense present; otherwise, remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present and continue along path.

Wights – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present. When no defenders are present, continues along path.

Wraiths – move by flight through walls & buildings towards currently targeted zone. Remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present. When no defenders are present, continues along path. Once, Nuromen may use “Sleep” to allow the elimination of 2d4 HD of defenders.

Mummies – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present. When no defenders are present, continues along path.

Spectres – Considering their special ability of creating new spectres, I’m highly considering omitting these guys. We’ll see. moves by flight to towers, eliminating tower & rampart defenders. Remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present. After reaching zone 6, will enter the chapel.

Vampire – moves along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense per round, though continues along path without stopping.

Here’s a sample elven army.

60 skeletons
30 zombies
15 ghouls (accursed elves)
5 wights (undead elf knights)
4 Wraiths + Nuromen (undead elf mages)
4 Mummies (undead elf clerics)
2 Spectres (undead elven princes)
1 Vampire (Caelden, lord of elves)

Wave 1
10 skeletons
10 zombies

This wave might even be completely turned.

Wave 2
10 skeletons
5 zombies
5 ghouls

Some of this wave might be turned; I expect this to be the first wave to do some damage in zone 1.

Wave 3
10 zombies
5 ghouls
1 wight

This is something of a wakeup call with the wight. If the heroes are fighting from the walls, it should be apparent that someone is going to have to go down and deal with it.

wave 4
5 zombies
5 ghouls
2 wights

Things being in earnest now. Clerics within the castle will likely have run out of turning, and the wight’s level drain could be a serious problem.

wave 5
10 skeletons
2 wights

Boss wave. While the skeletons just march onto reduce various zone HD, Nuromen will be casting spells and with the two wights who accompany him, he’ll be pretty tough, even with his limited HP.

Wave 6
10 skeletons
2 wraiths

Consider this a sequel to wave 5, but at least these wraiths aren’t casters.

Wave 6
5 skeletons
1 wraith
1 mummy

The mummy is going to slowly tank his way through the defenses.

Wave 7
1 wraith
2 mummies


Wave 8
10 skeletons
1 Mummy

Consider this wave a reprieve?

wave 9
5 skeletons
2 Spectres

If things aren’t already really bad, this may be the end of things. The heroes might seriously consider running at this point.

Wave 10

The vampire more or less makes a Beeline to the bank, the apartments, the chapel, then the keep. He’s got important things he wants in those places.
Ultimately, the castle is meant to fall. The main goal the heroes should have is staying alive or maybe stopping Nuromen (wave 5). Anything after that point ought to be gravy, though they should probably try to either escape through the Chapel Tunnels, the Keep Tunnels or any other possible means.

On the off chance that 8 waves are defeated before the chapel falls, I would consider this a decisive “win” for fort, if it weren’t for those pesky spectres. While Caelden might ‘retreat’, there would be a ton of dead that would need quick sanctification or things could easily be worse than before, in which case, the fort falls anyway. If the heroes manage to somehow defeat all 10 waves, Caelden likely retreats to lick his wounds. In this final case, he’ll probably be treated like any other vampire and sent to his lair (I might stick him in the Gibbering Tower) to be hunted down.
Up next, I’ll detail the tactical scenario leading up to the siege.

N – Necromancy

Necromancy is one of the greatest failings as a system of magic and a systematic explanation for things in the world in Dungeons & Dragons. One of the general rules of world creation is that the world must follow a set of rules which, while not necessarily realistic, must be at least internally consistent. And this goes for systems of magic. Indeed, one of the biggest complaints about the Harry Potter setting is lackadaisical way that magic works: it is apparently science enough that it may be taught in schools, but it adheres to no actual consistent system that might explain the various hows and whys. Contrast that with Earthsea, in which magic, while powerful and mysterious, in its own way adheres to Newtonian physics: matter, while transmutable, can neither be created or destroyed, for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and, as the world is all interconnected, magic must be used judiciously because using it affects the flow of matter and energy in nature and the world.

What does this have to do with Necromancy in Dungeons & Dragons? Necromancy, except, so I hear, in various splatbooks, is one of the least practical and slowest to develop schools of magic. It takes a tremendous amount of power (and levels) to begin creating even small amounts of basic undead. The problem is that Dungeons & Dragons takes place in a world where low-level undead are as plentiful as anything else, as though Necromancy resembled its Diablo II representation rather than the hard and fast rules presented in the assorted rule books.

Necromancy in D&D is largely non-functional for Player Characters, and NPCs often do not get justification for their powers. Not their character sheet or stat-block powers, but their powers in terms of strength, resources and undead man-power. A clerical necromancer could take control of a small army of existing undead, but the problem remains of how they got there in the first place. It’s just that the necromantic powers spelled out in the book just simply cannot explain or account for the necromancy within the setting. And that’s a problem. If D&D were a more flexible system, it would be easier to hand-wave, but it IS a concrete set of rules and the world should be able to conform to those rules or be explainable in some terms by them.

I think that one of the reasons why Liches in B/X (BECMI, actually) are so terribly out of sorts is because Mentzer made them powerful enough to mechanically justify the vast armies of undead they surely control. But let’s face it, individuals of levels that high simply don’t exist in most game worlds. Campaign Mastery at one point did a breakdown of how many individuals of various levels would exist within certain populations. I’d link it, but my web filter at work blocks them. But suffice to say that you’d meet very few individuals in the world with the power to actually create enough undead to account for their population in game worlds, never-mind their distribution.

One game system where Necromancy also works strangely is the Elder Scrolls games. Sure there are ‘necromancers’ but necromancy isn’t really a proper school of magic. And undead are not created, but rather ‘gated’ in via conjuration. This has to do more with gameplay and story separation. In Morrowind, the undead tend to be animated constructs rather than true undead. The only true undead in Morrowind are aethereal in nature (ancestral ghosts, dwarven spectres, etc.). Aside from the fact that there are no in-game ways to follow the proscriptions for the creation of animate dead, it’s still relatively consistent with the story descriptions of how necromancy works. There are even instructions on what NOT to do when preparing corpses for animation. Why the comparison with D&D? Because Necromancy is just a flavor of magic, rather than an actual school. Yet in the game system where there is an actual school, it feels more like just a flavor of magic. The difference is, in Morrowind, you know that there are individuals with those powers described, you simply don’t have/use/have the ability to acquire them; it’s simply a case of a disconnect between story and gameplay that has plenty of plausible, if not specifically spelled out, justification as to why that separation exists. In Dungeons & Dragons, the powers are just not there in the rules period. It requires assumptions to be made that things occur outside of the scope of the rules. Which is fine and well, but the important part is that YOU MUST MAKE IT CONSISTENT FOR YOUR WORLD.

So long as you can come up with a consistent explanation for why necromancy works the way it does in your setting despite the rules saying otherwise, you can make it work.

Personally, I like idea of accursed undead: places where a) really bad things happened and b) powerful magic items have remained for a long period of time would tend to be places where undead would ‘naturally’ occur. Of course this has another interesting implication: undead might be well likely to have powerful magic items. I like the idea that magic items have some intelligence to them. They might want to be protected or test worthy owners. Hence the undead act to guard and serve as a test for those who might want to acquire those items. Or the magic of the weapons simply runs of and mixes with the feelings and sufferings and anger of the inhabitants, and they are driven to rise and roam in that familiar place. Whatever. Run with what you like. Just make it make sense!


I might note that traffic has been down somewhat despite an inflated post count.  I could attribute this to everyone being so busy with writing their own A-to-Z blogs that no one has time to read very many others, or there’s just a general drop-off of interest in Cirsova in general.  Are there any topics anyone would be interested in this May?  Any topics that might be driving traffic away?  

Another Long and Rambling Post About Elderscrolls Games

I’ve gone back to some Morrowind for a bit. I have a character who’s now up to level 40 or something, has 100s in all stats except for luck and is, for all intents and purposes, a god.

While one of the biggest problems I have with Morrowind is the ‘static’ nature of game world, especially in terms of things going on after you’ve finished a quest arc, I find myself going back to it over and over. There are some truly awesome and epic missions in the Tribunal Temple arc, particularly those out of Ghostgate, where you’re asked to make forays into the heart of godforsaken and accursed badlands of Red Mountain and retrieve lost relics of the temple from the hands of Dagoth Ur’s minions. But once you finish those last quests, you’re told “Congratulations, you’re the Patriarch now. Goodbye!” and your involvement with the Temple is effectively ended, save for the massive boost in faction/individual relationship ratings.

That part of your character’s life is ‘done’ so you can go on to do the next thing. “But I’m the pope of the dark elves!” I wish that had a bit more bearing on the game, I guess.

And in some ways it does. Once you’re a faction leader, members have a hard time refusing you things. Maybe the fact I was grandmaster of the Morag Tong made a fetch quest for some Telvanni shlub easier since the Morag Tong guy was all “Oh, hey, sure, have this thing.” I don’t know. It could’ve just been a personality check to begin with. I do like that being the Dark Elf Pope means that your underlings don’t murder you for heresy when you go around claiming to be the Nerevarine. But it does say a lot about the weight and worth of the rank of Patriarch of the Tribunal Temple when Vivec tells his own pope to screw off and not bother him if the main quest hasn’t started. Man, the theological implications!

I’m actually saving wrapping up the Mages Guild arc, partly because I like having that arc open ended, with everyone I run into at the halls pleading for me to replace Trebonnius, but also because I want to do his last quest. The one where he asks you to murder all of the Telvanni mage lords. And I’m doing the Telvanni great-house arc to become the head of the Telvanni first, because murdering all of the other Telvanni mage lords seems like such a Telvanni thing to do. I just hope I won’t have to kill Divayth Fyr; for some reason I find him one of the most likable characters in Morrowind, even if he’s a bit of a creep. Most people are playing politics for religious and world domination; Fyr just wants to cure an incurable disease.

I like Morrowind and keep coming back to it, I think, because it FEELS like a big world, and the towns FEEL like towns. Small towns, sure, but you always have the sense that they are, in fact, communities and places, not just for existing for the adventurer’s benefit. I think part of how it does this is by having lots of places that just aren’t really worth going. Yeah, the hero PROBABLY isn’t going to check out the various small houses, homes, hovels or apartments in a town, because there’s nothing THERE except for the basic implements of living for its inhabitants. But those places ARE there, which gives the towns more depth and a realistic feel. I’ve never checked out the (albeit very small) residential part of Northeast Ald Ruhn, but IT’S THERE! And the fact that the town is big enough to have a part that I can say “There’s a part of town I don’t go to” makes it feel bigger than it really is. Like some of the Canton’s of Vivec; there’s stuff there to do and check out, even if there’s nothing that would ever really prompt you to go there.

Even though Morrowind is, landmass-wise, a smaller world than Oblivion, it feels larger because of how it handles these town and random NPCs. Having a dozen or more people who can answer (from stock responses) 10 or more questions, for some reason, feels better than having a dozen people who have one very specific thing to tell you each, because if that thing that they tell you isn’t relevant, and that person isn’t a questgiver or merchant, you find that you’re asking yourself ‘was this person not fully implemented? Was there a dummied out quest where this person was relevant?’. That’s the way that half the characters in the imperial city feel. But some dude who is out hoing in his field, I am happy to see him out there hoing and am okay with the fact that he doesn’t know much relevant to me but can tell me a handful of generic things about the region around his farm. Keep rockin’, farm dude! The plethora of irrelevant characters makes this okay, because they’re there to make the world feel populous, and it does! But in a sparsely peopled game like Oblivion, if there is a farmer, and all he has to say is “I’m a farmer, these are my fields!” I feel let down; he is taking up valuable space that could be occupied by someone who could give me a quest!

Another irony is that Vvardenfell feels so much less ‘ruined’ than Cyrodiil. I mean, yeah, I get that things must have been bad under the Pretender, but Cyrodiil a lot of times feels more dead than alive. ALL of the forts are ruined. Lots of super ancient elven ruins are everywhere. In most cases, any place with that many ruins would have long since cleared them away and used their materials to build new and better structures. You’d think that the great and mighty empire would’ve at least engaged in some sort of renewal program, rebuilding and fortifying what forts they could, demolishing those that were too far gone and using them for materials. The immediate answer that comes to mind as to why they haven’t done this is that there just aren’t enough people. The imperial legion consists of maybe a dozen guys patrolling the highways. There’s no WAY they could actually man the ruined forts. Heck, the best the entire province could muster to stand against an extra-planar invasion force is two or three dudes from each city. Contrast this with Morrowind. While the Velothi towers are technically ‘ruined’, many of them are in excellent structural shape, and several are home to as many as a dozen people. In fact, you’re more likely to find a these towers peopled by wizards or retainers of great houses than monsters or brigands.

So why do I say it’s ironic? Well, Vvardenfell is JUST NOW being recolonized for the first time ages, and most of the structures are from the 1st age. But there are enough people in Vardenfell to actually fix up these places, fill them with furniture, and hang out there, which really lends to a feeling that there are LOTS of people here in the world, as opposed to ‘here is a thoroughly ruined castle’s underworks that is now inhabited by brigands with bedrolls.

Another thing I like about Morrowind is the abundance of tombs. I’ve written lots about tombs and undead and necromancy here, and Morrowind has the best handling of haunted tombs of any setting. The tombs are mostly small, often don’t have a lot of significant treasures other than those left as gifts to the ancestors. The guardians are ‘undead’ magical construct created by the tombs’ families made for the purpose of discouraging tomb robers. These are made from the bones of ancestors, so it is the family’s ancestors protecting their tomb with the magic of the present and past working together. I remember there was also some discussion of the ‘ash pits’ and the idea of mixing together the ancestral remains to strengthen the bonds of family after death, and part of this somehow tied into the creation of the ghost-fence. But what’s important to me is that they are not haunted in the traditional sense.

In Oblivion, and the world of Cyrodiil, to add to the feeling that you’re in a dead world, it seems like every place is haunted. Ruined forts, caves, and elven ruins are, more often than not, crawling with undead. Rotting zombie corpses, skeletons and aethereal undead are all over the place. These aren’t constructs created magically and put in place as sentinels, these are things that are appearing because all of the places in cyrodiil are reeking of death and evil. The reappearance of Mannimarco could explain this to some degree, but a lot of the places aren’t touched by the necromancers; they’re just haunted. I know that part of this is probably so they could create ‘undead’ as a levellable creature type, but it definitely contributes to making Cyrodiil feel like a place where the dead significantly outnumber the living.

Man, I’ve really gone overboad and in all directions in this post! So, what lessons can be drawn from this? Population can make a world feel more ‘real’; we don’t interact with everyone we see each day, but the fact that we see them and they are there gives us our impression of the world, and when that is missing from an imaginary world, we notice. Having more ruins than towns in a kingdom gives the feeling of a ‘dead world’, especially if we’re expected to believe that kingdom ISN’T in ruins. Especially if that kingdom is CROWDED with ruins. Most stable kingdoms, if able, will repurpose old structures or will demolish them to recycle the building materials. Having a kingdom that is filled with as many ruins as Cyrodiil will give the impression that the kingdom lacks the resources or manpower, very likely due to depopulation, to reclaim or recycle older buildings. Lastly, I say give the dead their own places. It’s fine to have haunted caves and castles now and then, but tombs are a great and consistent place for undead to lurk. Wherever they are, though, give them a good reason to be there! It shouldn’t just be ‘because it’s an evil place’. Your world deserves more depth than that. Heck, even feel free to use my ‘magic as chemical runoff’ model.

(apologies in advance for all of the ES proper name misspellings that I may not get around to correcting).

“Our ________ are different”: Shadow People

MV: 240’ (80’) AC 0 HD2** AT: 1 , By Object Thrown, Touch (energy drain)

Shadow people are like ghosts in many ways, however their form is only manifest in humanoid shadow shapes.  The distinction is a subject of some debate, and while some shadow people have been associated with specific dead souls, many others cannot be and may never have been human to begin with. 

Unlike ghosts, Shadow People are always malevolent.  Their aetherial quality makes them very difficult to spot and to hit.

Shadow People will not immediately attack intruders, but will resort to locking doors and extinguishing lights, attempting to frighten others away.  Shadow People attack by throwing objects of various sizes or by touching an individual.  A Shadow Person’s touch does no damage, but does 5,000 XP Energy Drain.

Shadow People are immune to non-magical weapons and are unaffected by Wizard/Elf spells except for Dispel Magic, which causes 2d8 damage to a Shadow Person.


Note that in the system I’m working on, Energy Drain is by fixed XP damage rather than level.  Part of this is implemented as a balancing factor for magic characters late game, who are amassing XP for enchanting Items.  I still don’t know if I’ve priced the XP for item creation too high, but creating a +2 item is the XP equivalent of moving from level 4 to level 5.

“Our __________ are different”: The Rotting Man

Another idea I had for an undead…  These creatures are similar to revenants but, fit in better with the implied setting of my system.  Imagine unkillable, undead Inigo Montoya bursting into flames and issuing a challenge.


MV: 120’ (40’) AC 3 (or armor) HD 3 AT: 2 By Weapon, 1d4 Burn.

Rotting Men are undead heroes who have the appearance of an eyeless rotting corpse.  Usually, these individuals failed in some very specific and critical task and have been doomed appropriately.  In undeath, Rotting Men have one task or objective that they must carry out for all eternity.

Rotting Men have the appearance of intelligence, are usually honorable and honor bound to the criteria of their tasks and will not interfere unless interfered with.  However, often their task involves guarding a specific place, object or passage, and are known for issuing challenges in single combat for the right to access.

Upon engaging in combat, Rotting Men will burst into flames.  Any successful melee or touch attack by or against a Rotting Man will trigger an attack roll for burn damage.  This attack roll ignores non-magical armor bonuses. 

Rotting Men are Immune to fire.

Rotting Men cannot be killed, however when defeated will honorably yield to the victor and his/her companions.  Any individual attacking a yielded Rotting Man must save vs. Death: if the save is successful, attacker loses half remaining HP; if the save is a failure, attacker is left at 1HP.  The Rotting Man will strike down and chastise the attacker’s lack of decorum.

My Problem with Necromancy

I’ve always been bothered by how necromancy and undead work in games. Lots of low level dungeons out there feature a handful of undead, such as skeletons and zombies, and maybe some 3rd level schmuck ‘necromancer’. There is next to no mechanical explanation or justification for the presence of these undead, especially in the service of low-level magic users.

First of all, there are no ‘necromancy’ spells at lower levels. Yeah, I know in AD&D there are some spells in the Necromancy school at those levels, but they’re pretty piddly. The books give no detail on how undead are created. One can only assume, then, that all dead are created via some combination of Animate Dead and Permanency, both of which are pretty high level and beyond the capabilities of those 3-5th level petty mages and their unexplained 1 HD bone squads. Also, use of these high-level spells seems like a pretty inefficient way to create mooks for L1 dungeons.

Secondly, many of these tombs and lairs of ‘necromancers’ will have some pretty sweet traps and illusions. But these illusions are typically things far beyond the mechanical abilities of the resident wizard. Of course, we handwave a lot of these things, simply because it can suck the fun out of the module’s narrative. Still, how did that guy who has Sleep, Floating Disc, and Light memorized for his daily spells end up with all of those skeleton friends and crazy magic puzzle traps in his lair?

So, for undead, and how they work, if there is no magical mechanical means for their creation, we must assume that undead are part of nature, in that if a place sucks bad enough, Skeletons & zombies will just sort of rise and animate on their own. Maybe magic is like chemical fertilizer; when enough old people use it, the run-off gets into the water and the next thing you know there are dead things popping up for miles around.

Anyway, I was inspired to write this post because of Papers & Pencil’s post on Hidden Tomb of Slaggoth the Necromancer, which I am in no means slagging (it’s a fun little module, you should definitely check it out!). But the (spoiler) prize of a spellbook containing “any necromancy spell up to 3rd level” and the really cool mirror puzzle got me thinking.

Every now and then, I come across a module where the low-level necromancer has some plausible explanation, such as some 3rd level bum has found an evil artifact that he’s kind of figured out how to use and got some low-level undead servants, but more often than not, undead themed dungeons often tend to be “some evil wizard died and now his tomb is haunted by 1-3 HD undead because he was super evil” or “a group of 1st-3rd level necromancers/evil priests have a small legion of skeletons & zombies for no reason.”

Anyway, Slaggoth herself is a pretty interesting character, as is her apprentice, and I’d be interested in seeing a sequel to this module.