“You’re just in time for our weekly Necronomicon Study! Sit down, have a glass of kool-aid.”
The concept of death inspires some of the oldest fears known to civilization. The end of life, the end of all we have worked for. The finality to our existence. While many fear death, the idea of undeath proves to be far more horrifying to many. The idea of losing ones self, the very essence, coming a shriveled shell that exists as a mockery of its former self. These are the fears of the undead. For that reason and more, they are a menace to civilization on the average.
Why are the undead are considered a menace to the living? For a variety of reasons, of course. Many of these reasons derive from ethics over necromancy, while others are because of their often destructive ways. None embody the latter more than a secretive cabal known simply as “the entropic gloom”. This quasi-religious order is dedicated to eradication of the living, assimilating them into the ranks of the dead. The reasons for this? Cloaked in shadow, much like themselves. It could be out of contempt for the living, some utopian ideal of unity or perhaps even a penchant for heinous acts of violence. While much of the ranks of this cult are typical undead, some have been transformed into truly incredible servants of dread forces.
Author’s Note: I loving making undead nasty nasties! This is no surprise, for those who know me well enough… So with that, here’s an assortment of living dead monsters to torture your players with. After reading up on monstrous synergy via Tome of Foes, I’ve plucked a few ideas to boot! Also, priest characters, you’re gonna have a bad day.
The so-called Death Curse seemed like a contradiction at first… we were robbed of our ability to die! Oh, how wrong we were! – A tattered letter from Camp Righteous
A dark shroud has enveloped fair Toril, it is not of this world. A powerful force of raw necrotic energy has made its way into this world. What was once a mere Lich is slowly becoming something more, in part from his Death Curse. Worse yet, a powerful artifact is making the effects of this hex far greater and far more widespread too. But, for what purpose? Perhaps to empower him or possibly provide an endless font to create feats of magic locked away from even the gods! Adventurers are needed, as always. Many have fallen to the madness of the curse, becoming little more than empty husks who attack anything with a semblance of life force left. Go forth and bring life back to this world and don’t you dare go hollow on me!
The world of Abeir-Toril is fairing poorly against a strange incursion by a powerful entity known as “Acererak”. Stories travel around other prime material planes. These stories tell of foul magic, undeath and annihilation. Not long after the monster’s arrival, people found themselves somehow alive when they should have been dead. At first, people rejoiced! But soon, they caught on. Their hearts had stopped, their complexion faded, they began to look more like walking corpses. Many lost their mind, aimlessly attacking those who still show some signs of life. Some fear that this Acererak is not alone, aided by a far more malevolent force.
Author’s Note: Sure, the new adventure is coming soon or whatever. That said, here’s an idea I’ve been bouncing around for a while! What if, instead of merely wasting away from the Death Curse, victims would lose themselves to a slowly spreading and corrupting undeath. Then it hit me, this is Dark Souls! So, I mashed the two together in a sense. Below are a retooling of my Curse of Undeath as well as how to mesh it with Tomb of Annihilation. View the original here. Also, find more content for Chult here.
One final thing. This article contains major spoilers for much of the module. Do not read on if you plan on playing this module!
You are a creature created from the impossible, either unnatural life given back to a body or from a birth most foul. In either case, the death infused are considered abominations by many. In some cases, they were created from revival rituals and necromatic magic gone awry. In other cases, merely the results of trying to achieve immortality… with horrific results. Arcane experiments in general are the source of the half-undead, either to crossbreed horrors or to create a new form of unlife entirely.
While the Death-Spawn are tainted by different forms of negative energies and dark power, they tend to share similar aspects in traits. They convey a sense of lifelessness or at least an uncanny sense of life. They typically lack the warmth of a living body, feeling clammy and/or cold to the touch. Some are lucky enough to have bodies perfectly intact, looking indistinguishable from other average humanoids. The unlucky look akin to shambling corpses and disheveled zombies.
Author’s Note: I wanted to take a crack at races again. So, here’s a new race of undead-touched creatures inspired by a handful of resources: The Raven Queen, The Crow, Pathfinder’s Dhampir, the Half-Undead from Dragon Magazine and so on and so forth. Just a heads up, this is a rough draft and none of these have been tested yet. I am likely to revisit this at a later time though.
“One vampire, I can handle! But, a whole army? I didn’t sign up for th- AAAAHHHHH!”
The vampire, an immortal creature of darkness. These creatures are soulless and damned, cursed by a thirst to leech off of human blood; they are parasites upon the living. Those who had a fateful encounter with them were likely to either die or worse, become recruited to their dastardly cause. For the longest time, it was assumed that those who succumbed to a vampire’s dark powers suffered one of two fates: those who did not drink a vampire’s blood would become a ghoul with some slivers of their original self and those who drank the blood would become vampire spawn that were driven mad and violent by the corruptive power. Such creatures range from mindless abominations to frenzied and insane mockeries of their former selves. They are nothing like the true vampires that recreated them as they are now.
This leads to a strange new revelation, it’s more than possible to create more true vampires. While usually not as powerful as a vampire who has fully mastered their abilities, they are an incredible force none the less. Such creatures are more than capable of using their talents learned as a mortal with the unnatural abilities of the vampire. Their progenitors are already a menace to those around them. Combined with potent magics or martial prowess though and such an opponent becomes all the more deadly.
Author’s Note: Inspired by my “Vampyr” post from last year, I wanted to make a small handful of vampiric minions to throw at players that aren’t like the quasi-ghoulish spawn or the very powerful MM vampire. Also, I decided to marathon through the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga after the Adult Swim announcement some time back, so I took some inspiration from the first and third arcs… and a little from the second.
“Corpses. Lumbering, rotting cadavers. What contrivance could have wrought this… this abomination!? Diseased science…? Blasphemous occult rituals? How can something so… so dead, be so alive?” – Maximilian Roivas, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
The Ancients are awakening, as they gather forces to fight in their onslaught on the grounds below. And what better army than the countless dead, reconstructed to work as puppets for more death. And once more are slain, they too are recruited to the shuffling mindless masses. This doesn’t even take into account other vile things, far detached from our own realities. Whether born of brutality, the esoteric or the absolutely mad; these zombies exist in agony and awareness that cosmic forces use them as toys. Worse yet, they often have no capacity to do anything about it. Many of these undead puppets are merely just that, puppets. They have no control over their actions beyond the necromancer-like orders that the old ones give. For the most part, they are told to attack the living as well as defeat any old one creature with a rival alignment.
While more numerous than the eldritch horrors conjured from the realms of the ancients, the undead are terrifying for a different reason… they were once us! They are but mere corpses reanimated and altered to serve their respective aligned ancient. They are often spawned where the lines between our world and the realm of the ancients tend to be weaker and where rifts can be more easily established. This is often the resting place of dark powers, sites of deranged rituals or former homes of those terrorized by ancient horrors.
Author’s Note: Eternal Darkness is one of my favorite games of all time. Some of the madness effects still give me chills. So, why not bring even more monsters from the game to D&D 5E? Here’s a handful of the variant zombies you encounter throughout the game.
“Captain, there’s far too many!” “I think I am well aware of that!”
Zombies, disposable minions of the undead. Alone, these near mindless shambling corpses pose little threat. But woe to those who get too close to a horde of them, for they risk being torn apart by a walking mob of death. Zombies come in many stocks, destroying all that they encounter. In some instances, a single living dead can spell disaster for anything it comes into direct contact with. Such zombies are loaded with corruptive pathogens that create more walking dead when their victims fall. Others are brought back through a mixture of divine rites and deadly neurotoxins, forced to work off the sins they committed in their past lives. Others are the foul manifestations of negative energies, twisted and corrupted for likely malicious purpose.
No matter the origin, the zombie is a creature synonymous with absolute horror. Its shambling remains exist to cause destruction and misery. Only by slaying them can you hope to put their miserable souls to rest. Sometimes that is not enough; consecration, utter annihilation, reburying the remains and burning everything are typical ways to rid the undead plague. Sometimes, pushing the problem elsewhere is the only action that can be taken.
Author’s Notes: Zombies, for when you run out of ideas and need a horror monster on the spot! But in all seriousness, I love zombies in all sorts of games, even though they are typically the result of a creative dry spell. That said, building zombies is always fun, so I wanted to make some monstrous variants as examples of you can make legions of living dead at the disposal of necromantic masters. Also, be on the look out for the finale of my Gothic & Gaslamp theme!
EDIT April 2018: Check out my updated take on this alongside some neat ways to change up Tomb of Annihilation (again) here!
“Yooou who reeeekindle the Flaaaame, embraaaaccceee deeaatttthhhh!”
Sometimes, the sweet embrace of death is all but impossible for countless damned souls. They are forced to continue to walk a dark path. For them, they seek to regain an essence of life and restore their shattered minds, lest they be lost to an abyss of emptiness and madness. Such a curse can be from a variety of sources; an exploitation of a life source at a deific level, exposure to/using evil magics for too long, a hex brought upon by a powerful caster or even a destructive force bent on draining life from all reality.
The Curse of Undeath is a vile magical power that breaks the soul and leaves the body as little more than a husk. These drained husks share little with their once living counterparts. They are merely corpses controlled and warped by dread energy. Any remnants of mind left in these creatures are stretched to madness and driven to violence. While many of them retain enough knowledge to fight as though could in life, it is impossible for them to engage in rational dialogue let alone interact peacefully.
Author’s Note: Dark Souls III is out and I love it! With that, here’s an optional rule for handling a curse similar to the Undead of the Dark Souls universe. If you don’t want to literally be running Dark Souls, it shouldn’t be too hard to reflavor this into a different dread curse of sorts. If you’ve ever played Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, Anthony’s chapter certainly comes to mind. One last disclaimer, these are mostly random ideas in my head, in an attempt to make a Dark Souls inspired mechanic. As such, it’s more than likely that this idea is a bit clunky. It will probably receive a revision in the future, if reader interest is there.