Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bring Out Your Undead

There certainly are a lot of different types of undead in D&D and games inspired by it, aren't there?  As Zak pointed out in his Alphabetical Monster Thing, the D&D way seems to have been find a synonym for the name of a monster you’ve got, and you’ve got a new monster (e.g. ghost, spectre, wraith, phantom, etc.)

So what do we do with all those? Fight them, sure--or ignore huge swathes of them, maybe. I wander though, if one assumes all those undead types exist, what does say about the metaphysics of the world that includes them? Are the names distinctions without a real difference (other than game mechanics), just variations among individuals, or do they represent some sort of like a power level hierarchy in some fighting anime?

Characters might not know (or care) about the answers to these questions, but they might impact the setting in some interesting ways they would be in a position to uncover.

Any thoughts on the use (or lack of use) of the multiplicity of undead?


JimShelley said...

Hm...interesting thought - what if they were all some sort of metaphysical caste system that isn't really based on a specific distinction. A cool game hook might be aiding a rebellion among the Prols against the upper classes.

Tim Shorts said...

One of the best books I've read on this was GURPS Undead. It breaks each undead type down and categorizes them.

Simon Forster said...

Maybe all undead fit under one type, but have different powers based on how old or powerful they were in life; perhaps they are trapped between worlds and the longer they are trapped, the more powerful they become?

That would make turn undead more like opening the passage to the other realm, rather than just blowing them to bits with divine power.

seaofstarsrpg said...

I see it as partly coming from the different cultural attitudes toward death and varying religious realms of the dead / underworlds. The undead caused by chi imbalance are different from lost souls which are not at all like corpses animated by mystical pseudoscience.

What they share is the being in the quantum state between life and dead, animate and inanimate.

Porky said...

I'd guess the roots are in maximising the range and squeezing the flavour out of the words, but with so many spaces to fill and great words to use, that seems a smart move.

I like the idea the undead could be a catch-all term for inidividuals and forces generated by a variety of mechanisms or systems within a world, and that these might then all interact with one another and other actors in particular and even bizarre ways.

Trey said...

@Jim - I like that: A Revolution in undeath. Mieville's world of Bas-Lag has a country (High Cromlech) where something like that could happen.

@Tim - Agreed. It gives a lot of good variations and things to think about.

@Simon - The varying power thing seems to be the easiest implication to take from the D&D system. I like your portal idea. Maybe the more powerful they are the bigger the conduit they are for negative eneryg (or whatever)?

@seaofstarsrpg - I can see that, though D&D's undeads mostly seem squarely in the Western European fiction/literature mode. The only problem with this approach is it doesn't allow you a "unified" metaphysics--which may not really be a problem, depending.

@porky - Yeah, I can certainly see the appeal. Perhaps a way to phrase the approach one and seaofstarsrpg is talking about is: "unlife" is the phenotypic expression of many a metaphysical condition/state?

Bard said...

Trial and error could be one way to explain the plethora. One might imagine Orcus not just as Prince of the Undead, but the creator of them (I suspect someone must have thought of this before me – I'm not fully versed in Orcus-lore). In which case, one could easily envision him in the long lost mists of time experimenting in the creation of unlife, and gradually getting better with each attempt, creating the weakest first and then improving on each model, producing more fearsome and more varied servants as he perfected his craft. All just stepping stones on the path to the ultimate undead servant. Perhaps he even let the secret to crafting some of them fall into the hands of the living races, whose necromancers then eagerly took advantage to animate the dead in many of these various forms to serve their own needs, while simultaneously spreading Orcus' sphere of influence.

David R said...

I don't have a systemic answer to the question, but here's a couple of random thoughts:

One, you could mix things up by swapping the synonyms back around in play. So, call and even describe a ghost and spectre as the other.

Two, when I have time and inspiration I put my own spin on monster manual monsters. So for example, my ghouls are living men who dabbled in cannibalism and were cursed for their sin with an unnatural hunger. I run them as cowards but hungry and desperate, so they're more likely to shadow a party than jump into combat, but you don't want to show weakness or they'll rush you. (Stats are still straight out of the book except they can't be destroyed by turning as they're still alive.) Ghasts are ghouls who have passed on but weren't buried in hallowed ground so they rose again, driven on by their hunger. (So, true undead and stats as published.) I haven't come up with as many of those as I should, I still run some stock monsters, though I'm starting to realize I'm leaving something on the table by doing so.

Trey said...

@Bard - I like that! Various undead could be a sign of individual necromantic self-expression. It also raises the question of what the fully perfected undead model might look like.

@David R - Good thoughts. I particularly like the "ghoul as undead wendigo."

satyre said...

All for disunified mechanics when it comes to undead - Tanith Lee's Kill the Dead has always flavoured my view of noncorporeal undead.

I remember mapping undead by racial type one point - will have to see if I can find those notes. Two words - drow banshees. Be very afraid...

Trey said...

You should post those if you can dig 'em up. I haven't read that bit of Lee, but passed on the other stuff I've read by her, I'd like to see her take on undead (besides vampires).

Von said...

A while back, I thought some preliminary thoughts about a taxonomy of the undead based on unified mechanics.

It ran on the distinction between (using Old English terms, since that's how I got started thinking about this, with medieval death) a 'wight' (a living person) and a 'lich' (a dead person).

Within those categories exist other distinctions:

- a living person who's too attached to corpses and displays signs of mental or physical illness or degeneracy as a result (a necrophage or necrophile).
- an undead person with a body but no soul or psyche, and, consequently, without an independent identity or an interest in self-maintenance.
- an undead soul without a body and, consequently, having a limited ability to interact with the material world and dependence on magical or technological aids.
- an undead person with both a body and a soul/psyche, who must feed on the living (blood/flesh/soul/energy/whatever) in order to maintain these, in essence consuming material to preserve their bodies - they have 'unlife processes', if you will.

The names for these are culturally variant, as are the means of creation/animation/disposal, but as a general idea – ghoul, zombie, ghost, vampire. Variations can and do arise depending on Circumstances - I like the idea of the ghast as a dead ghoul that hasn't been disposed of properly, and the spectre or wraith would be ghosts that have attained some degree of interactive potential or possess particular attitudes (Zak's take on the wraith as exactly the sort of malignant undead that hangs around corporeal entities is spot on).

Needles said...

Personally the idea I've always had was that negative energy unleashed by necromancers was a cancer that spread across a world unleashing hoards of the undead. The stuff spawning different types like a sort of undead mutation across the planes. Summoning Orcus might also cause more of this because his spells & himself might be the source of undeath because he's using negative energy as his fuel source. The more of this stuff is released the more powerful he becomes. Perhaps the rise of zombies isn't an accident but a design by his cultists. Food for thought here. ;)

NetherWerks said...

Garth Nix handles this nicely in The Abhorsen Trilogy. Also just take a look sometime at how many types of vampires are in folklore. You could easily make a case that each one should be unique. Or you might have a few specific types, like in Captain Kronos.