Note: This Friday's Magical Marvels is written and ready to go up. However, my ladyfriend is busy with coursework, and has not been able to create the art for it. Both of us have really enjoyed what her art has added to this series of posts, so I'll be holding off on posting it until sometime Sunday, after she completes the image. Thanks for your patience!
A month or two back, I typed a bunch of tabletop RPG keywords into twitter, found some random accounts, and followed them. I'm quite active on twitter, but most of my twitter friends are not tabletop role players, so I was hoping to expand my circle of friends a little more. By and large the endeavor has been a failure. Most of the accounts I followed have since been unfollowed either for being inactive, or being boring. Recently, though, one of those accounts posted this:
Tips on an evil campaign? Why, Evil is my middle name! It's also my first and last name. Legally, I am Evil E. Eviltan. The original family name is actually "Evilsatan," but it got anglicized when my grandparents arrived on Ellis island. Anyway, I quickly sent DMfemme a response.
A few days went by, and I forgot about the message. Twitter is more of a chat room than a message board. If it takes someone more than 15 minutes to respond, odds are they aren't going to. But lo and behold, a few days later:
Undead you say!? Why, I would say that undead was my middle name had I not already established that all of my names are permutations of 'evil!' That was, perhaps, shortsighted writing on my part. None the less, undead are my specialty. I don't think I've ever run a campaign which didn't include undead as a major element. Ever since my first game ham-fistedly throwing a mummy at my player, to my most recent cloak & dagger style game about the Cult of Vecna. When it comes to monsters, if it's decomposing and likes the taste of sweet sweet manflesh, I like to include it in my games.
The first thing you should do, if you're willing and able to spend a little money, is pick up a copy of Libris Mortis. It's a 3.5 supplement, so if you're running D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder the book is a must-have. But even if you're using another system, there's a lot of good fluff in here. More than I can cover in a single post, and it includes some of my favorite undead monsters. For this post, I'll focus on things I've learned through my own gaming experience, which are not found in Libris Mortis.
I can think of a few ways an evil campaign can be undead based. The players can control undead, the players can work with undead, the players can work for undead, or the players can be undead. And, of course, you can mix and match. All of these are fun, and all come with their specific quirks.
Players Control Undead
If the players control undead, then they are likely of the Wizardly or Clerical persuasion, or some type of magic user at least. Though there's no need to discount other possibilities. Perhaps the players find powerful artifacts early in the game which allow them to control undead--artifacts which grown in power as the characters level up. Or the characters could take the batman super villain route and fall into an open vat of negative energy, only to come out of it with the ability to control undead to some extent.
The thing about players who control undead, though, is that they become powerful quickly. Why explore a dungeon when you can simply send hoards of zombies into the dungeon as meat-shields. They'll set off any traps and defeat or weaken any monsters within. Once they've done the grunt work, the players can move in and gather up the treasure. Even if they go into the dungeon themselves, encounters need to be buffed up significantly to make up for all the extra attacks players get ("my character attacks, then Zombies 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 attack").
Still, one can't deny the feeling of power that controlling an undead hoard gives to players. It's an exhilarating feeling, and the GM should let them enjoy that. But that doesn't mean the GM should never take it away. Undead-controlling villains can come up against paladins or clerics, able to cause their undead to flee in terror. Or they might find themselves forced to fight on consecrated ground where their undead cannot tread. Worst of all, they might eventually face a more capable necromancer, able to steal their control of their undead away from them! (You could call him "LS," mwuahaha)!
Players Work With Undead
Lets say, for example, that rather than being necromancers, the players work for a necromancer. This gives the players a bit more freedom, since the GM doesn't need to shoe-horn the players into the position of controlling some undead. More freedom means the players have more control, and the players having more control means the players have Player Agency, and player agency is a good thing to foster in your games. This option also gives the players less power over how the undead interact with the game, since they don't control them directly. And as a third boon, this option gives the GM a convenient "quest giver" in the form of the player's necromatic master.
Consider, for example, a scenario where the players are in the service of the great Necromancer Alicia. Alicia wants the players to subdue a tribe of goblins living not far from her tower of Brooding Darkness. Perhaps she provides them with amulets to help them direct the undead, but she could just as easily send an NPC along to control the undead, or even just control the undead herself from the aforementioned tower. Or perhaps Alicia doesn't want the goblins killed, but just needs the players to throw some undead-powder into the goblin's bonfire, causing them all to choke on the fire's smoke and become zombies themselves.
Players Work For Undead
The players working for an undead has a lot of potential to play out exactly the same way that the players working for a necromancer does. After all, necromancers don't die, they just become liches. (...which, I guess, requires dying at some point, but you take my meaning.) However, there are a variety of intelligent undead with the potential to keep the players as their minions.
Vampires are a favorite of mine. I've always felt they're underused in the role of "overlord" style villain. Player quests could include finding humans for the vampire to feed on, help bring about eternal night, or even just work on traditional goals like conquering the world. Just because you don't have a pulse or show up in mirrors doesn't mean you don't still lust for power. Ghosts are another great example. Being incorporeal, ghosts are much less likely to pursue worldly goals, but they could easily have plots of their own. Perhaps they want to return to a corporeal body, or they want the players to enact a ritual which will allow them to pass on to a more pleasant afterlife than the one for which they are destined.
Players Are Undead
Players as undead offers some of the most interesting possibilities. There are plenty of undead types for players to pick from. The party's wizard could be a lich, the rogue could be a ghost, the fighter a vampire, and the cleric a mummy. Even normally unintelligent undead such as ghasts, ghouls, wights, etc can be "awakened," allowing them to have an Intelligence score. Players will be happy because their undead have fantastic special abilities. All of them will be immune to crits, most of them will gain special attacks, and massive bonuses to their stats.
The players will likely be so distracted by all their special bonuses that they'll completely forget all the power they're handing over to their game master. Yes, the vampire fighter now has +6 natural armor, but they also cannot enter private residences without first being invited in, nor can they go outside during the day. And don't forget that all undead can potentially be turned, or worse, dominated by a powerful necromancer. Which isn't to say that you should punish your players for being undead--simply that you should make use of their weaknesses. That's part of the fun of undead!
There are a few other things I'd like to mention about running an undead-heavy campaign before ending this post.
Origin Many types of undead come with origin stories attached. Some are created when innocents are buried in a mass grave, others are spawned of unrepentant murderers, or children killed by their own family members. (The slaymate is one of my all time favorite undead.) Be aware of these origins, and if a type of undead doesn't have them, think about creating your own. The origin of an undead can give you a good baseline for that undead's personality. Or, if the players are out to create a specific type of undead, it can provide them with a gruesomely evil task.
Cliches Aren't Scary If you're running an undead-heavy campaign because you like the creepiness of undead, remember that something stops being creepy once you get used to it. If you've only got a few adjectives to describe a zombie--rotting, shambling, grotesque--then your players are going to get bored of them really quick. Be creative, pull out a thesaurus, and make sure you keep giving your players new types of undead to encounter. Your zombies should dribble black gore onto the ground as they shamble, your lich should have half of a nose and a jaw attached to his skull by a wire, and your skeletons should still have bits of shriveled organs piled at the bottom of their rib cage.
Don't Forget the Classics Often times, game masters get caught up in the big fancy undead, and forget about the little guys. Skeletons and Zombies can be incredibly creepy and threatening at any level. Don't forget that humans aren't the only ones who can be corpse-ified! One of my favorite monsters is the skeletal hill giant. And the dragon whose zombie-wings are too rotted to fly on any longer can be a terrifying foe. Even without using a high-CR foe as the base creature, these types of undead can be formidable. I recently threw my players up against a large number of skeletons which had Magic Missile inscribed on their index fingers. My players found it quite challenging to run back and forth across the battlefield taking out the skeletons one by one, getting hit by 1d4 + 1 unblockable damage from each skeleton each round.
And never forget: If you're running a game with undead, use a Corpse-Sewn Hekatonkheires at some point. It's just the right thing to do!