Let’s Talk About Undead, Baby.

The undead are a staple of fantasy roleplaying. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons for this – certain themes and memetic devices spring to mind – but what concerns me is how undead fit into the world of the Three Pillars.

There is plenty of room for various themes of undead in this setting, but we have to consider the Principle of Thematic Consistency. It is no good to simply plonk down zombies and vampires without first considering how consistent they are with the “feeling” of the world, and the lore. Which Pillar is necromancy associated with? How does the Congregation of the Carathan Empire say about undead? What about the Sword Schools of the south? Do we have a need to accomodate all forms of undead, or should the focus be narrowed to only a select few?

There are a few varieties of undead that will not fit into this setting, some that fit perfectly and some that will need to be tweaked or changed to make something unique to the setting. At the time of writing I am considering having ambulatory undead (skeletons and zombies), ghosts, and a form of greater ghost that has a physical manifestation (think of a lich, death knight or mummy). Ghouls, ghasts and vampires have a place but changed so that they have a feeling in keeping with the setting. Things such as wights, wraiths, spectres (among others) will be subsumed into the aforementioned categories, rather than being a distinct creature type.

So how does all of this come together?

The true Undead are almost always the product of a spirit of Order. These entities are attracted to powerful commands and oaths like moths to a flame. Simple ambulatory undead are the result of an Order spirit taking control of a dead body in order to fulfill a command the victim was given in life, or to relive a particularly dramatic scene, or simply to repeat a strong pattern of behaviour. Such spirits are not very strong and the undead is little more than an automaton, repeating the same moments over and over again. Some examples might include skeletons who guard an abandoned tower, just as the living guards did in life; a troop of decaying corpses patrolling a section of road; there have even been reports of simple undead who repair a section of wall of a long abandoned castle, ignoring the living entirely.

An oath is a powerful thing in the world of the Three Pillars, forming a strong pattern that Order spirits find extremely compelling. Sometimes, when death results in an oath remaining unfulfilled, such spirits will take on the patterns of behaviour of the oathbreaker, becoming a ghost. The spirit is locked into this form until the oath is fulfilled. In some cases this could be forever. The ghost itself is an idealised or exaggerated version of the oathbreaker , existing not quite in the world and not quite in the Umbra. Such spirits are dangerous as they brook no interference in their ‘duties’, often attacking with ghostly weapons or manipulating the environment – like a poltergeist. Some of the more powerful may even be able to manifest Feats of Order. The best example of this kind of undead would be the Dead Men of Dunharrow from Lord of the Rings.

Powerful individuals who die with unfulfilled oaths or strong commitments can attract a greater magnitude of Order spirit. These are able to possess a dead body and preserve it against decay. They display an impressive mastery of Order Feats and can be nearly impossible to destroy. They have an independent will, having the ability to choose multiple means to achieve their ends. Examples could include barrow-wights, powerful knights sworn to protect the burial site of an ancient king, or a lich, being the formiddable will and drive of an ancient magister.

In most cases the best way to defeat Undead is to break the pattern that binds the Order spirit to this world. Even the weakest undead will reform a physical body over time and so magical means is often employed. Chaos spirits excell at breaking the bonds that manifest undead, but even that may not be enough. Oftentimes the only way to remove an Order spirit that is manifesting this way is to fulfill the oath or commitment that brought them into the world in the first place.

I will leave  discussion of ghouls, ghasts and vampires for another time since they are not Undead in this setting, but something else altogether.

Comments, thoughts, questions? Fire away.


~ by occam99 on April 20, 2012.

2 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Undead, Baby.”

  1. Cool…
    All makes sense to me and fits into your campaign background.
    How are you going to manage some of the normal powers attributed to more powerful undead that don’t fall into those available under the “Sphere of Order”? Things like befuddlement/mind control, cold attacks or life force drain?
    Two options as I see it… Either you say they don’t have these powers in your world, or you develop a special branch of the Arcane Sphere only available to undead, necromancers, certain witches etc. I think it would fit into your thoughts on Arcane being powered by life essence or blood. I also think it will give you a basis for the development of vampires…
    Just some thoughts…

  2. Bear in mind that we haven’t seen the higher tiers of Order powers yet. Sticking to just what is available to Order achieves mutiple ends: Thematic consistency is maintained since we don’t have to justify why Order spirits have access to non-Order magic, mechanical consistency is maintained since we don’t have to make up a new system just for undead and associated antagonists, and we Tweak Existing Paradigms by maintaining a familiar element that has a flavour unique to the setting.

    We can, however, use existing mechanical systems to represent certain effects that aren’t exactly a Feat from one of the spheres. Draining Willpower, for example, is an easy system that can be justified thematically in a numebr of ways including life-force drain or a creeping mental paralysis.

    Your thoughts on the relationship between vampires and Arcane magic mirror my own. There will be a post later this week – vampires, ghouls and ghasts will get a detailed treatment, including reasons why vampires will not be a good character choice.

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