Thursday, January 20, 2011

Undead - classified and explained

Scholars previously thought that there are numerous different types of undead, and classified them as different creatures. However, that view has now been discredited. The latest research confirms that in reality, there are only two types of undead, each of which progresses through various stages of development and power. Those stages of development and power were mistaken for different creature types. But in reality, it is just those two types, growing in power over time, making it appear like there are different types.

The two basic types: 1) the spirits of the dead who continue to linger haunting the material world, and 2) the bodies of the dead which have been animated with spirits from the astral world. (A rare third type also exists: humans who intentionally remove their spirits from their bodies in order to ensure personal immortality, which I will discuss as an addendum to this essay.)

Life versus Unlife

In order to understand the developmental path of the undead, we must understand the basis of their "unlife". Undead creatures are spirit beings who have been thrust, by their will or by anothers, into the material world. They are unlike material creatures in that they require "spirit energy" to survive, not the energy of the material world which sustains normal living creatures.

The positive energy of the material world, called mana, originates in the sun. Plants are full of this mana energy, as is fresh water (due to its absorption of high-intensity mana while in cloud form). Humans and other animals maintain their life force by consuming this mana energy from fresh water and plants. Mana is literally our life-sustaining food.

However, mana energy is extremely destructive to the undead. All forms of undead avoid sunlight at all costs, and the surest way to destroy them is through prolonged exposure to direct sunlight. Undead will also be killed by immersion in running water, because such water is pregnant with the sun's mana.

Rather than subsisting on positive mana energy of the material world, the undead subsist on the negative spirit energy of the astral plane. Humankind, being uniquely "two-dimensional" creatures, in which a spiritual soul is combined with a material body, are thus uniquely prey for undead.

Trapped in a halfway-house existence between the astral and material plane, the undead are cursed to a perpetual hunger which can only be satiated through the consumption of astral energy. Thus, the undead are perpetually seeking to feed on the spiritual essences of the material creatures around them.

The Development of Ghost-type Undead

The first type of undead creature begins its unlife as a barely detectable force, with no real power to harm the living. This otherwise harmless spirit creature, however, seeks to cause fear in living targets, or perhaps to leech off the fear and suffering of dying creatures. By feeding upon that fear, which is a release of spirit energy, the spirit being feeds itself and grows stronger. This type of early-stage spirit creature has previously been classified as a Trilloch or as a Phantom (0 hd).

As this spirit creature grows in strength, it begins to develop an ethereal body. Being an ethereal form, it cannot be harmed by normal means, but can only by affected by silver or magical weapons. Using this ever-so-slightly-solid form to affect material objects, its main design continues to be causing and feeding upon fear and suffering. This stage was previously classified as a Poltergeist (1 hd). The Will-o-the-Wisp might be related to this stage, further research is needed.

Its next stage of development, while still lacking the substance to launch physical attacks, sees the beginning of its ability to forcibly possess a living victim. This stage has been called the Astral Searcher (2 hd).

As the creature continues to grow in ethereal substance and power, it appears as a indistinct dark substance, and begins its ability to drain energy from its victims through its unholy touch. At first, this energy draining power is minor, affecting a small amount of STR or DEX, on a temporary basis. This form has been classified as a Shadow (3 hd) and as a Haunt (5 hd).

Shortly, the creature's power grows much greater, able to suck the life out of a human with one touch. This is called its Wraith stage (5 + 3 hd), and as its life-stealing power grows even greater, its Spectre stage (7 + 3 hd).

At its highest stage of power, the creature can suck the life out of a victim who merely looks at it or hears its groaning. By this time, the creature has amassed so much spirit energy in its ethereal form that it is extremely difficult to destroy even with magical weapons. In this stage, the creature has been classified as an Apparition (8 hd), a Banshee (7 hd), a Vision (8 hd), and a Ghost (10 hd).

The Development of Zombie-type Undead

The second class of the undead is made up of dead bodies which have been re-animated with astral spirits. These creatures start out from the opposite end of the spectrum from the Ghost-type undead: rather than starting 99% astral, they start as 99% material. However, their mode of feeding and growth remains the same: consumption of spirit energy.

Like the ghost-type undead, the zombie-type undead feed off of the fear of those who behold them. They also have the advantage of being able to physically attack their victims, in order to consume the spirit energy contained in their material body. Thus, the physical undead are known for devouring the brains, hearts, blood, and other vital organs of their victims, which are the primary locations of a person's spirit energy.

Through the consumption of this astral spirit energy, zombie-type undead become more and more like their ghost-type counterparts. Their body transitions to a material-ethereal hybrid state which cannot be harmed by normal weapons and their touch becomes life-draining.

In the first stage of this creature's development, the creature is slow and barely sentient, has no life draining powers, and is vulnerable to regular weapons. He is classified as the basic zombie (2 hd).

By feeding upon a sufficient amount of astral energy in the form of fresh brains and organs, the creature shifts his body slightly into the etheric state, as well as gains more speed, strength, and sentience. In these stages the creature has been called a Coffer Corpse (2 hd), and a Juju Zombie (3 + 12 hd).

At some point, the creature then gains the ability to drain a moderate amount of lifeforce through its very touch, typically resulting in paralyzation of its victim. In this stage, the creature was classified as a Ghoul (3 hd) or a Ghast (4hd).

Its next stage of development sees a dramatic increase in its life draining power, able to kill a human with a single touch. It has been known as a Wight in this stage (4 + 3 hd).

In its highest stage of advancement, having absorbed a tremendous amount of astral energy, the creature has attained immunity to even some magical weapons. His physical form has attained almost super-human physical strength, as well as the ability to phase shift into a mist-like astral/physical substance, and its life draining power is at least twice as deadly as in its previous stage. In this stage, the creature is known as a Vampire (8 + 3 hd).

The Mummy-type Variant

An interesting variation of solid-type undead occurs when the dead body had been thoroughly wrapped in funeral dressings before being reanimated. The dead body under the rags continues to fester and decay, resulting in walking mass of disease-ridden putrefaction.

It continues to feast upon fear, terror, and suffering, and attains its material-etheric hybrid state making it immune to regular weapons. However, being thoroughly wrapped, it cannot touch for life-draining effects. Instead, its touch spreads hideous diseases. In its various states of development, it has been classified as a Huecuva (2 hd), Son of Kyuss (4 hd), and a Mummy (6 hd).

The Voluntarily Undead

The final type of undead is a result of humans who have removed the souls from their bodies intentionally, as a means of attaining immortality. Magic Users and Clerics who do so are known as Liches, while others who do so are known as Skeletal Warriors.

Splitting their soul from their body, storing their soul in a gem or other non-decaying object, their body is left technically dead. Under normal circumstances, their disembodied soul remains in control of their undead body, but if another gains possession of their soul-containing object, that person can potentially exert control over the undead body as well.

The dark methods used to cause this transformation are known to involve murder of an unwilling victim. It appears that the harnessing of that sacrificial astral energy empowers the undead transition, providing the great physical power and hybrid etheric state that is exhibited by the other powerful undead creatures.

Implications for Game Play

The DM should consider himself free to break out of the "published canon", to mix and match various undead effects, as long as they are appropriate to the "stage of growth". Consider building an undead monster by starting with the HD level.

Thus, break out of the mold! A 4 hd Juju Zombie, whose touch causes loss of DEX, for example... A 4 hd Shadow that attempts a "possession"... An 8 hd Specter that causes aging on sight.... A Banshee whose touch drains levels, the sight of which causes paralyzation, that kind of thing.

It could certainly keep the players on their toes, and bring a certain amount of respect and mystery back to the undead phenomena, which are SUPPOSED to be terrifying and mysterious.

Dare we even dispense the "clerical turning" power? Especially if you run a "pre-Christian" campaign, such as the AZ Adventures primitive milieu, there is no basis for assuming holy men have automatic power over the undead. Strong light and mana-rich substances in general "turn back" the undead, let the players figure it out from there.

It gives a new meaning to the Samhain rituals, doesn't it, as the pagan priests relit the sacred bonfire on the night the dead walked the earth. The heat and light of the powerful bonfire would be releasing tons of mana energy, keeping the undead at bay.


The Jovial Priest said...

I enjoyed this. Thought provoking as always without requiring a total rewrite of the rules. Keep it up.

Justin said...

Thanks, J.P.! Glad you liked it.