Ask The GMs: When Undead Go Stale, Part 2

We’re part-way through a comprehensive answer to the question, both direct and implied, by Jesse Joseph. Last time out, I repeated the basic advice I would offer to anyone in his situation, and looked at ways to make low-level undead more respectable opponents so that GMs weren’t forced to use Undead Royalty just to have an opponent who could carry the plot. Today I’m going to look at two of the broader subjects implied by Jesse’s question. Just to refresh recollections, let’s start by refreshing memories of the question.
Ask the gamemasters

Jesse wrote,

“Hey, I’m running an undead campaign of sorts and I need a strong end point villain. I know the obvious like a powerful vampire or Orcus, but I’m hitting a bit of a wall in finalizing it all. I know its a bit of a simple question but I would like some advice from another DM.

So far I’ve introduced vampires as a sort of higher evil in the game, also the characters released a powerful necromancer into the already polluted world.”

Here’s the agenda for this 3-part article:

  1. The Immediate Answer
  2. General Principles: Making Undead Scarier – without going too far
  3. General Question: The Implications of Undead
  4. General Question: Where do Undead come from?
  5. The Generalized Question: Tying dangling threads together
  6. Further Reading

Items one and two were ticked off in part one of this article. Part two – which you are reading right now – will tackle items three and four. That leaves items five and six for part three.

General Question: The Implications of Undead

The very existence of Undead in a campaign carries deep theological and philosophical implications for a campaign. While it’s not necessary under most circumstances to delve into those issues, it’s always useful (and a boon to internal consistency, which greatly enhances verisimilitude) to do so, and becomes far more important when Undead are central to the campaign, simply because those deep questions are therefore also going to be central to the campaign.

I’ve divided the issues into two related general questions – the first looking at them generally, and the second looking specifically at the general question of the origins of Undead and what they imply.


There is obviously something, some qualitative difference, that distinguishes living things from non-living things. In an existence without Undead, this something is obviously the thing that animates the living, enabling them to move around and do things, to grow, and to reproduce. Introducing Undead into the mix separates the ‘animation’ part of this something from the rest.


What survives into Undeath? One of the clearest distinctions between Royal Undead and Lesser Undead is that the higher Undead retain the mind and personality of the original person. If this is accepted as a functional distinction, it clearly places Ghosts in the “Royal” category, and possibly related forms of Undead; if this is merely a trait of some forms of undead that happen to include Royal Undead, we establish a spectrum – Lesser Undead without Minds and Personalities, Greater Undead with, and Royal Undead with.

This question relates to the relationship between types of Undead, whether one type can become another, and to how Undead should be roleplayed by the GM.

You can even argue that all undead retain the mind and personality of the original person – that is certainly the case in Piers Anthony’s ” Xanth,” for example. The expression of personality is then clearly simply a matter of making the appropriate substitutions in the Hierarchy Of Needs of the Undead.

This line of thought led to the creation of the Golden Empire in my Fumanor campaign – an Empire of Undeath, in which the economic, military and social implications of an Empire of Undead were/are explored. (In brief: Undead don’t need to eat, don’t need to sleep, and don’t grow tired. Overrun an enemy and the enemy’s dead become new recruits – lesser forms of citizen, to be sure, but that can change. Undeath is a form of immortality, and so the society has evolved in such a way that the living lead lives of abject luxury, supported by dozens or hundreds of undead servants, then repaying the state that has provided this largess with eons of service. While no one needs to work, civil service while living demonstrates a level of support to the state that is rewarded by “ascension” to a higher form of undeath at the moment of Death.

Economically, I worked out that one Undead is worth about 10 mortals in terms of economic productivity, about 3 mortals in terms of combat effectiveness (six if the enemy fear Undead, which is (supposed to be) most living things). Not having Children is viewed as anti-social; increasing the population base eventually increases the number of tireless Undead workers, so large families – ten, twelve, fourteen are normal. This is practical because children receive unconditional support from the state, incurring a life-debt that is to be repaid in their Undead Years; work during the Living Years permits a reduction in this Life Debt.

Once a Life-debt is repaid, the living citizen can begin amassing credits toward the costs to society of making you a Noble Undead when the time comes. Education and skills acquired in life are preserved in Undeath, so Education is provided by the state, divided into two branches: Basic and Practical costs more Life-debt (on the premise that practical knowledge will enable the student to earn and hence repay life-debt), but for those with the right aptitude, Higher Education is viewed as contributing to society during Life, and pays off existing Life-debts. There’s a lot more, but I’m just hitting the high points here, as it’s a bit of a side issue.

It was also this concept that led me to the principles espoused in Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species in 2014, and to those enunciated in Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans three years earlier.

The very fact that some forms of Undead retain the mind and personality that the person had in life makes it obvious that this is another aspect of living that is divorced from the essential difference between Living and Non-Living. (This is a useful point because it also permits the natural evolution of Sentient Magic Items as a concept).


Death is clearly a process, and one that goes a long way beyond simply ceasing to live. This is obvious because the process can be interrupted, resulting in an Undead. This process is very hard to study in real life, because it’s very hard to interrogate anyone who has experienced it; but Undead in games imply the capacity not only to breach the veil, it usually takes place in games in which the Gods themselves are capable of bi-directional communication with mortals.

How much the Gods have revealed and how much of that doctrine is truthful is another open question that the GM of an undeath-centric campaign needs to answer for themselves. You don’t need to get too specific, but certainly you need to answer that question in broad terms – together with the implied question of ‘why’ if there is any deception involved. Again, this can be as simple as keeping dangerous knowledge out of the hands of “children” (i,e. Mortals), or it can be to preserve their own monopoly on power, or it might be that the knowledge leaves one open to corruption and heresy, or it might be in the nature of a rule to teach the value of rules (the “Forbidden Fruit” justification).

These begin to define, or redefine, the relationship between Gods and Mortals.

It is even possible, from simple logic and information built into most game systems which incorporate Undead, to outline at least some of the broad stages in the Death Process.

  1. Physical Death – in some cases, with luck and skill, the person can be resuscitated, but the window is small.
  2. The ‘difference’ between Living and Dead separate from the physical being. At this point, self-aware Undead can be created.
  3. The identity, personality, and mind separate from the body and attach themselves to the ‘difference’ (we know this because communication with those in the Afterlife is possible using various spells and spiritualist techniques, and the spirit retains the personality, memories, and self-identification of the original. At this point, ‘mindless’ Undead can be created. They may or may retain some or all of the knowledge acquired while living – even if it’s just enough to walk and articulate “Braaaains”!
  4. The ‘difference’ and identity commence their transition to the afterlife. The body is now just a shell. The capacity for the body to be transformed into some form of mindless undead persists for a period of time that may or may not be linked to the duration of that transition process, but eventually the ‘clock’ runs out.

There could be quite a lot more to the process, but those steps, in that order, have to take place to make sense of the things we already know. Steps 2 and 3 are combined if all undead retail their identity and awareness.

It can be even more complex than is implied; for example, the experiences and personality might leave a physical ‘imprint’ like a mould, enabling the deceased person to be both within the afterlife and reanimated as an Undead at the same time. There are no wrong answers so long as the basics listed above are observed – and you can even change those, if you want; it just means changing other elements of the game world. Remove the various ‘talk with the dead’ spells, for example, and you can have the personality/mind simply evaporate unless extraordinary measures are taken, adding additional complications to the creation of Royal Undead.

Constituents Of Life

So far, then, we have two or three separate constituents to the living thing, plus the physical body. Learned Skills, education, and Personality; The Animating Principle; and the magical ‘something’. You could argue that these in combination comprise what we call the ‘soul’, or you could define the ‘soul’ as that something – and noting that this is all fictional theology! It’s my understanding that the latter is the more conventionally-accepted real-life Western theology – and that the separation between the components is how that theology reconciles scriptures with the discoveries of modern medicine – but I could be wrong!

There is a great deal of similarity between this view and that of the Ancient Egyptians, who also defined the soul as the difference between life and death, and divided the soul into three parts that had to be dealt with separately for the soul to be at rest in the Afterlife. was essentially the personality; Ka was the ‘vital spark’ that permitted animation of the body, amongst other things; and Akh, which was the Mental ability or Mind or Conscience (it’s meaning changed a number of times over the history of Ancient Egypt). The Death Process involved the reunion of the Bâ and Ka with the Akh in the afterlife. You can read more about this at the Wikipedia article on the Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul.

Applicability to Other Races & Species

It’s a very useful concept to the GM, because it permits the substitution of other constituents, making races and selected species spiritually unique, explaining various natural abilities (and, perhaps, limitations).

I first applied this concept to explain those creatures who were inherently magical, like Golems. It then occurred to me that creatures like Dragons (who can fly magically) could also fit. The more I thought about it, the more useful the concept became.

Let’s hit a few high points from a few short minutes of rumination:


Plants, in most fantasy games, and trees in particular, have inherent similarities and differences to Animals/Creatures. Tolkien introduced the concept of Elves running around “waking up the trees”, and of Huorns and Ents – the latter of which morphed into the Treants of D&D. This was also the origin of the concept of “Elvish Forests” being inherently different to those of other forests, a staple of the fantasy genre.

Treants and Ents have all the attributes of standard “souled beings”, though they something in place of the magical Something, barring them from the Afterlife.

“Awakened Trees” have minds, and at least some learned skills (languages, for example), but (generally) lack the animating principle – they don’t walk around naturally – though they have the capacity for it, and can be imbued with it, enabling them to attack, or even to travel relatively slowly, especially under the direction of Treants, Elves, or Druids.

In the Fumanor Campaigns, I made the Treants more humanoid, an artificial species crafted by Elvish magic, and renamed them Verdonne, enabling me to make “Treants” a little more treelike and use them as the “Animated Trees”. You can read more about the Verdonne in Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3, if you want to develop them for use in your own campaigns.

Another idea that I came up with specifically for the Fumanor: One Faith campaign that GMs might find useful was that of basing a tree’s personality profile on external appearance. Oaks, with their broad arms, are matronly and mothering; Birch trees are vain, Spruce are excitable, and so on. One variety that especially attracted bird life and which was often found in the company of other trees – I forget which one it was – was an inveterate gossip, incapable of keeping a secret. Vines – some of which can be very tree-like when mature – were classified as a ‘cousin’ of trees, and inordinately curious, unable to resist poking metaphoric noses into every nook and cranny, and (generally) too busy asking questions to answer any.

I also had ‘unawakened trees’ as being less self-aware but still with a spark of sentience; an Elf or Druid could speak with one, relay messages from one tree to another, and so on. A Druid could use any plant as a spy, with degrees of awareness limited to the size of the plant.

I once read somewhere that Trees are especially sensitive to certain changes in the environment, to the point where the health of a tree can be used diagnostically. And, of course, there are the infamous experiments which were claimed to prove that plants react to other plants being in distress of various sorts – Cleve Backster’s theory of Primary Perception, which may have been busted by Mythbusters in 2006, but which might still be valid to whatever extent you want in a fantasy game. It’s not a great leap to put those two things together, conceptually, to suggest that Trees have some sort of “Environmental Affinity” or “Environmental Awareness” that most other species lack. This, in turn, might be a manifestation of whatever Trees have in place of ‘humanoid souls’ – call it ‘The Gaia Principle’.


It seems obvious that the various inhabitants of the Elemental Planes, commonly referred to generically as Elementals, would have the appropriate form of “Elemental Force” as a substitute for the “Vital force”.


Elves themselves are an interesting race, unlike any others in many editions of D&D, unable to be resurrected, and immune to various things. It is simple to link these facts together (if they apply in your campaign) and explain them by having something else in place of the essential component of “Life” that permits mortals to become Undead.

Dragons, Beholders, Abberations in general?

Some creatures are considered inherently Magical, enabling them to exist and function despite logic and rationality suggesting otherwise. The obvious implication is that they have raw magical energy in place of the ‘something’. But, if you go down this route, it would take undead dragons back off the list – unless you do something special to create them, of course. Like harvesting mortal souls until you have enough to imbue ‘life’ into a Draco-Lich – or any other form of Undead Dragon that you wanted to create, from a GMing perspective!

General Comments

You don’t have to go down this metaphysical pathway if you don’t want to. It’s a theory, and one that can explain a lot – but to what extent it is true, and which species and races it applies to, is entirely up to you.

Nor does this really look too deeply into the possibilities of replacing one of the other constituents of life with some substitute. I’ll leave that possibility to the creative juices of each reader, because I have to move on!


The concepts of Undead and an Afterlife of some kind are fairly difficult to separate (it can be done, but it’s a lot of work). The general concept of Undead is that something that would normally progress to the Afterlife is intercepted somehow and stuffed back into the body from whence it came, or into some other body. The “Process” of death is interfered with, in other words, to create or become Undead, and that inherently raises the issue of what would happen without that intervention.

Definitions of Perfection

Most Afterworlds are an idealized environment of some kind where everything is “perfect”. But Perfection is in the eye of the beholder – the Norse Valhalla is very different to the Christian afterlife in concept. It’s entirely plausible, even reasonable, that in a fantasy environment such as that of a D&D campaign, each society or each race has its own variation of “the afterlife”.

This can be a key into unlocking elements of the general personalities of the those races, just as it can be an expression of those general personalities as defined in the relevant sourcebooks. Formicas, for example, are an ant-like species. If aspects of their lives are modeled on those of real insects, they will have both wars with other colonies and civil wars, as explained in this post at Quora: Do ants ever go to war?

Their view of an afterlife might well be one in which the All-Queen, Matriarch of all Queens, rules, and all Formicas reside in the Great Nest in perfect harmony, with food and water aplenty. It’s conceivable that Formicas are uncomfortable unless surrounded by their fellow Formicas, and that the Great Nest is one in which no Formian is ever alone because there are too many residents for that. Crowding of that sort would drive humans nuts and certainly not be their idea of heaven, but for a Formian, it might be, well, Heavenly!

Orcish “Heaven” might be more like Valhalla, but with tribes led by the different Gods engaged in perpetual conflict – with Feasting and Females afterwards. Or, if the Orcs are more ‘liberal’ and expect the Women to serve on the front lines and be judged like any other Orc, the Feast might be followed by pairing up – a mate for every Orc, regardless of gender.

Use what is known about a races’ society to decide on the nature of their afterlife, then use that concept of the afterlife to shed further light on their society, theology, religious practices, morality and cultures, then use those refinements to further tweak and enhance the afterlife.

Judgment, Denial & Refusal

It’s very rare for an Afterlife to be open to just anyone. There are exceptions, especially amongst Eastern religions in which one’s stay in that afterlife is only temporary (unless one achieves the perfect state of Nirvana). In almost all cases, the dead face some form of judgment. In some cases, the spirits travel or are taken to a place of judgment that is distinct and separate from the afterlife itself, while in others, the judgment transpires at the gates to the afterlife. The latter always seemed cruel to me – letting someone get to see the ultimate reward and then taking it away from them – but that’s a personal impression.

Judgment implies that some are denied entry into the afterlife, and that means that some determination has to be made within the Social Cosmology created by the GM for what happens to those who don’t make the cut. Or is that an answer to the second subject of the day?

At the same time, the mythology of ghosts suggests that someone who is unwilling to accept their fate or is unwilling to accept while ever they have ‘unfinished business’ can and will refuse the afterlife. The people of Joraldon (discussed in The Ultimate Weapon, part 5 of the Spell Storage Solutions series, were killed by a plague so quickly that they didn’t even know what had happened to them – they simply ‘woke up’ the next day and went about their ‘lives’ as usual. This was inspired by some “real-life” ghost stories that I read many decades ago, except that in those stories, the deceased spent most of their time trying to find out exactly what had happened to them, or searching for family members who passed on centuries/decades earlier, according to the reports I read/saw.

….Hmmm… A ghost who attacks anyone who suggests they aren’t alive for saying such “cruel and hateful mis-truths”… not a bad idea for an encounter!…


Everywhere needs someplace to be – which might seem to be a tautology, but it makes perfect sense when you have individuals with the capability of traveling to that someplace, wherever it is. Just as a combination of the concepts of Adventuring and other Planes of existence implies the existence of means of exploring those Planes, so the existence of those means of traveling the Planes implies that somewhere amongst them will be found the Location of the Afterlife.

Unless you want to work the Afterlife as an Earth-Two from the Silver Age of DC Comics, of course – the Afterlife is all around us, our world made perfect in every way, separated from our own by nothing more than a blink and the limits of our perceptions.


So how do dead spirits find their way to it? Either they have to be guided, or they have to wander until they find it on their own, or the process of dying itself thrusts them into it, or there has to be some sort of connection that can be followed. All of the above have been proposed by different groups at some point in the history of human theology, and more besides! On top of the real ones, it’s possible to dream up more – an “all roads lead to Rome” concept married to the notion of a mountain that must be climbed because heaven is at the summit, with a pass so narrow that the living cannot fit through it, for example.

Most of what I’ve read about the subject in terms of fantasy gaming (especially D&D) is based on reported experiences of Astral Projection, but these often felt ‘tacked on’ and not fully integrated with the metaphysics contained elsewhere. The implication was that when you Astrally Traveled, you were entering the “pathway to the afterlife”, possible only because you were leaving your body behind, but that you were bound to that body by a tenuous silver thread which you could follow to return ‘home’ again. At the moment of death, you were thrust into that Astral environment and the silver thread cut.

Thankfully, 3.x did away with this confusion, separating death from the concept of Astral Travel, but replaced it with new confusion by not providing anything in its place. But that simply means that the field has been cleared for each GM to come up with his or her own decisions in this respect.


Transition is rarely considered to be instantaneous; it is usually depicted as taking hours or days, most commonly three days. It is routine in fantasy gaming for the duration of this passage to be linked to the potential for resurrecting the dead – or reanimating them as Undead. What the ‘Spirit’ experiences en route is something that is rarely discussed in fantasy literature, let alone anywhere else. It’s something that I knew I was going to have to dig into in my Rings Of Time campaign, but that campaign came to a premature end following the death of one of the two players, so I never got around to it.

Since various sections of the remainder of this article deal with the subject, we’ll be exploring it for the first time together!

Escorts & Guardians

By far the most common mythological construct or device for getting the dead to the afterlife or to their final judgment is for there to be some sort of escort or guardian. If all they had to do was guide the spirit, that would be a fairly dull sort of experience; that’s something that I had to grapple with when creating Cyrene, the deity central to Assassin’s Amulet. For those who may be interested, you can read about those struggles in The Creation Of A Deity: The Origins Of Cyrene and get an extremely truncated version of the outcome from Cyrene Revealed: an excerpt from Assassin’s Amulet. The Deity in the Assassin’s Amulet pantheon responsible for escorting the dead is Thanastis, the God of Death.

Things get a little more interesting (from the point of view of a mortal seeking to visit the afterlife prior to his death) if the escort also serves as a Guardian, because that implies that the shade is vulnerable while in transit – dangers that the Guardian needs to protect the soul from, and that such independent travelers may encounter.


So what sort of dangers might there be?


The newly-dead who aren’t satisfied that their lives have run their course could easily be manipulable by Demonic temptations. Or, if not swayed, it might be that Demons could enslave the soul, consume it, or both – a larder on metaphysical legs that earns its own keep with hard labor.


The same obviously goes for Demons, who tend to be more naturally manipulative and less prone to whimsical violence for its own sake. It’s sometimes said that Devils should never do anything without reasons lined up neatly in a row!


Necromancers fuel their magic with souls, frequently killing those who current posses those souls in order to gain access to them. How much more convenient would it be to be able to gather a number of souls who have passed naturally? At the very least, if the body falls into the hands of a Necromancer, the soul could be sucked back into the body in the process of reanimating it as an Undead.


Other creatures might well be able to feed off souls. If there is a ‘food resource’ or something that can be used as one, inevitably something will arise to take advantage of it – which might be the origin of Demons, or it might indicate that there is something else out there.

‘Environmental’ Dangers?

There could be all sorts of ‘Environmental’ dangers to be skirted – anything from a Reef Of Lost Souls which entraps the shade to brushes with the positive or negative planes of energy.

Put all these potential dangers together and you get a gamut that needs to be run. If the ability of the Guardian to protect the shade is dependent on the virtue of the life led, a ‘natural selection’ takes place in which those who have died unworthy of Paradise fall victim to some danger along the way. Perhaps, en route to the shade’s final rest, the Guardian has to revisit with them the key moments of their life, in terms of their virtue; this would mean that each individual would have a slightly different path to follow, and no two shades would experience exactly the same dangers.


I’ve mentioned Necromancy already, but clearly the nature of Life and of the Soul is intimately connected to the Darkest Practice. Although I’ve never seen the notion written into any game mechanics, in fiction, the most necromantically-desirable souls are always those who fit the extremes – the darkest and the most virtuous. This would largely be a function of the good/evil axis of the alignment of the shade, and could be a nice piece of color to drop into a campaign.

Why Create Undead?

One particular question that needs to be addressed by the GM is why Necromancers create Undead in the first place. A servant of limited capabilities but of guaranteed loyalty? Learning the craft of doing so in order to preserve their own lives when the time comes? Both of those are entirely acceptable answers, but they are by no means the only ones. There is also the “pure research” answer, which those using it would consider amoral at worst. Clerics who seek to better understand the processes of death and life and the minds of the Gods would also come under this umbrella.

Wrapping Up

That naturally segues into the next subject, but before we get there, I want to reiterate one final point, the one with which I opened this discussion. Take a look back at the breadth of topics that became entangled with the very existence of Undeath in the preceding analysis – Philosophy, Cosmology, Theology, The nature of the soul, Medicine, Fantasy Biology, Dragons, Abberations, Plants, Elves, Elementals, Races, Magic, Economics, Politics, Sociology, Divinity, Morality, Devils, Demons, and more besides. The very existence within of undead within a campaign has implications in all of these areas, and more; between direct implications and flow-on effects, I doubt there’s very much in a campaign that isn’t affected, one way or another. All of those are “in play” the moment the first Zombie shuffles out of a graveyard.

General Question: Where do Undead come from?

In the course of the previous discussion, I presented a list of the stages of the process by which Death occurs. That list glossed very lightly over the question that I have just placed squarely under the spotlight.

There isn’t a great deal of information in most rulebooks devoted to the question. A snippet here and there – a little under the descriptions of various forms of undead, some information in published game modules (much of it relating to editions other than whichever one you are currently playing), perhaps a little under Flesh Golems, and no doubt some within appropriate character classes.

Librus Mortus (WOTC) actually does a great job of discussing aspects of the situation, while Undead (AEG) covers the question in much less depth but touches on aspects of the question that Librus Mortus doesn’t. (Amazon has affordable, even cheap, copies of both through the links offered).

In the absence of official canon, there’s a lot of room to grow your own answers, and these can have profound effects on a campaign. This is demonstrated by a synopsis of the concepts behind another of my campaigns, The Tree Of Life.

When DnDNext was in its playtesting phase, I reasoned that most playtesting would focus on one-off adventures to test the fundamentals; I deliberately created a campaign for my playtesting to test the cumulative impact of the rules over many game sessions and adventures. The core concept was that heaven was full, and the only way for someone to enter it was to “bump” someone else, who reappeared in the campaign setting “wearing” whatever was left of their body, restored to life, in the condition they were in when they met their demise. Of course, most had died for good reason – throats cut or whatever – and immediately died again. Others, who had led a less virtuous life, returned as ‘spontaneous undead.’

The more recently you had died, the closer to the ‘edge’ of the afterlife you were, and the more likely to be ‘pushed out’. The more virtuously you had led your life, the greater the momentum with which you reached the afterlife, propelling you closer to the center.

Loved ones and deceased family members were reviving. Widows suddenly had two husbands eying each other. Criminals found their dead victims returning to testify against them. Executed criminals were back to their old tricks. Murder cases collapsed because the victim stood up and walked away. Several past rulers showed up to argue over who was the rightful King, leading to civil war.

But it wasn’t just people. You couldn’t consume a meal without the risk that it would revive in an hour or two, vanishing straight out of your stomach. Fruit trees could be picked clean only for the fruit to reappear. Trees could not be felled. Furniture and walls and structural timbers were vanishing from buildings and reappearing as the trees that they used to be. Dangerous animals that had been cleared from ‘civilized’ areas began to reappear. Starvation and social unrest was rife, and the more people died (from whatever cause), the worse the problems became. Howling mobs, terrified beyond rational thought, roamed the streets and burned indiscriminately. Many felt that the situation entitled them to kill for the slightest offense against their person, because the death was only temporary.

On top of all that, Devils and Demons were running amok, and the Gods had stopped responding to any Prayer above 3rd level (because, of course, that was as far as the spell-book of the playtest went, at least at first, but that won’t wash as an in-game explanation)!

The campaign came to an end with the close of playtesting, with the PCs – all formerly deceased individuals from different historical and social periods, now transformed into unexpected contemporaries – only just getting to grips with what was happening and never discovering the cause.

That cause: population growth had outstripped the growth capacity of Heaven. This in turn had jammed the metaphysical “machinery” that performed the process of death, which froze the ‘living’ embodiments of those metaphysical functions, the Gods. Only those gifts that were bestowed automatically without Divine Approval worked. And the reason for the original problem: the chief villain of the campaign, a Necromancer, had been ‘inspired’ by a top-level Devil (I hadn’t yet decided which) to create a way to siphon off the growth of Heaven for his own purposes, not realizing that he was being tricked into (literally) breaking loose all of Hell, and paving the way for that Devil Lord to assume primacy over the others. Once undisputed Lord of the Nine Hells, he would release the Siphon, and things would more-or-less return to normal, just as they did after a riot, or after a flood.

There was more to it of course, but those are the relevant details.

As you can see, in an undead-centric campaign, the question of where Undead come from is of critical importance.

Other Solutions

There are lots of alternative answers that can be – and in some cases, have been – formulated. Perhaps the process of creating an undead is similar to splitting the atom – some of the energy is liberated for the creator’s use. Perhaps the soul leaves a “mould” that can be filled with an intercepted soul – that won’t quite fit, causing the ‘imperfections’ in the resulting undead, and (again) making the excess available for use by a Necromancer. Perhaps Undead are merely a vehicle for a sentient plague. Perhaps Necromancers and Higher Undead can harvest part of the “soul energy” of undead that they have created for their own purposes – a harvest that, like blood in the living, will naturally regrow.

If you find yourself in Jesse’s situation, and haven’t addressed this issue, you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back. While it’s still possible to devise an entirely satisfactory end-of-campaign plotline that gathers all the threads of the campaign together and ties them in a nice bow – as I demonstrated in the first part of this response – it will (usually) be a lot more work than it needs to be.

Which, in the concluding part of this three-part article, will be the focus of attention – how to take a bunch of disconnected plot threads that have already been played and merge them into a mighty rope.

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The Ultimate Weapon: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 5

This entry is part 6 in the series Spell Storage Solutions
stone cross by Bob Smith

Photo credit: / Bob Smith

This is the (almost-) final part of a very intermittent series that examines alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games. Today, We look at Relics and Artifacts.

Artifacts are some of the most misused categories of magic item, and some of the most controversial and disliked by many GMs.

It doesn’t have to be so, it shouldn’t be so, and – after reading this article – it won’t be so…

The Old-School Origins

The third volume of the original D&D introduced Artifacts all the way back in 1976. It included no less than 22 of these wondrous creations, and they were prominent in AD&D, which was the first game that I played – or GM’d, for that matter. And right away, there were problems with most of them. From that high-water mark, it seemed that the games’ producers – whoever they happened to be at the time – began to retreat from the idea. There were only three of them listed in 2nd edition’s DMG, and the later publication of a standalone book on the subject, the Book Of Artifacts – a tome so rare that I didn’t know it existed until I started doing background research for this article (there are copies still available through Amazon if you’re interested) – containing no less than 50 of them.

The 3.x Core rules listed only a few of them, though other popular ones reappeared in published adventure modules. Many of them were relegated to the ranks of “Epic Magic Items” in the optional Epic Handbook, continuing the line of thought initially espoused in the Book Of Artifacts, that these were optional content to be included only if the GM deliberately and explicitly permitted them within his campaign.

It’s a similar story for 4e, and 5e contains a mere seven of the best.

Why is that? Because, to a lot of people, Artifacts represented everything that was wrong with D&D. So much so that the Book Of Artifacts found it necessary to spend most of the introduction answering the eight most common of these criticisms.

The Resulting Problems

“Artifacts are too powerful.” “Artifacts have horrible curses that keep them from being useful.” “Artifacts are just collections of random powers.” “Artifacts created by gods that shouldn’t be involved in the campaign.” “Artifacts are only in the GREYHAWK® game setting.” “Artifacts can ruin the campaign”. “A character with an artifact will ruin the adventure. Any adventure.” “Artifacts are nothing but a headache.” Those – slightly paraphrased and edited – are those criticisms.

Let’s boil these down and take a closer look at what’s left.

  • Artifacts are highly powered, perhaps even over-powered. A valid criticism. The tales of a PC coming into possession of an artifact and becoming virtually invincible are many, or they used to be. Many GMs were forced to resort to opposition with their own artifacts – a combination that effectively incinerated all the other PCs, as no-one without one could hope to withstand one.
  • Artifacts are perceived as ‘the random finger of fate’ bequeathing one PC with disproportionate power. A criticism with a couple of kernels of truth. AD&D did have an “00” result on the random magical treasure tables that was “artifact or DM’s choice”, which many seemed to read “artifact of the GM’s choice” – no matter how ridiculous that was in the context of the encounter. The rest of the time, artifacts weren’t part of the treasure tables, they were intended for deliberate placement by the GM. And the second part of the criticism is entirely valid – one member of the party immediately became disproportionately powerful and the central figure of the campaign. Those without one often felt left out, overshadowed, or in the firing line of foes they couldn’t possibly defeat.
  • Artifacts take the campaign to a cosmic level, at least in most cases. This is a consequence of the power levels involved. They, like the PC who wields one, certainly become the focus of the campaign immediately – again, regardless of what was going on already.
  • Artifacts are the ultimate example of Monty Haul syndrome, or are perceived as such. The power is often counterbalanced by equally-horrific penalties and curses, making the entire campaign over-the-top. All too often, a GM would give one away without realizing what they were getting themselves into simply because they often had evocative, cool, names.
  • Artifacts are incoherent collections of abilities without rhyme or reason. In many cases, this is a justified criticism, especially of the early examples. There were a few that had, or evolved, coherent through-stories that elevated them, and these are the ones that have survived into later rules incarnations – The Wand Of Orcus, The Hand Of Vecna, and so on. The original idea was that anything not provided explicitly by the rules/write-ups was for the GM to create so that they would integrate with his campaign, but this wasn’t well explained or prominent enough – and even the content that was provided was subject to editorial revision by the GM. This is a notion that began to fall out of favor with 2nd Ed, and was almost completely lost by the time of 3.0, leading to the advent of “old-school gaming” and the edition wars.
  • Artifacts are a contaminant of ideas from one campaign being force-fed into another. Again, this concept stems from a misuse of the concept; while the artifacts in the AD&D DMG were intended for, and derived from, the Greyhawk® campaign setting, other campaign settings had their own artifacts, just as 3.0 Faerun had it’s own bespoke spell lists. They were never intended to be campaign-portable, never mind universally omnipresent.

Those six complaints/problems begin to boil that litany of problems down into specifics. For a modern campaign, there is absolutely no reason not to include an artifact – provided that these five criticisms: Power, Balance, Price, Coherence, and Integration – are dealt with.

The simplest way of doing so is to evolve a set of principles and creative rules and then use them to create your own as a deliberate part of your campaign. No artifact from any other source is permitted unless it is put through the same wringer, i.e. edited and rewritten as necessary.

The Limited Artifact

Before we go there, however, there is a solution that occurs to many GMs, or should – the Limited Artifact. An artifact that meets all the conceptual parameters of an old-school artifact but is so constrained by some additional restrictions or handicaps that it has no impact on the campaign beyond that which the GM intends.

No matter what the individual descriptions of these may say, they are all made of Plot Devicium. They are employed by the GM to set up some additional game conditions that are needed to create a particular challenge, or to solve a challenge that would otherwise be insuperable.

I have an examples to offer from my own Fumanor campaign. From the third Fumanor campaign, we have The Gates Of Joraldon (actually spelt “Goralden” but too many people got the pronunciation wrong, so I decided for this article to make the spelling more explicit). (I was going to add a second, but ran out of time).

Example: The Gates Of Joraldon

The party were being escorted to an offshoot of the Temple Of Thoth by Brother Jirome, a priest from the Temple who was following instructions laid down a century earlier by his deity without explanation. The temple is located in the township of Joraldon, which no-one has even heard of in living memory.


From my adventure notes [with annotations];

The path has just ascended toward a crest on the side of a mountain named, according to Jirome, “Mount Karven”. As you crest the ridge, it begins to descend quickly into a hidden valley. While the center of the valley is packed with small farms, most of the region is filled with a vast forest of red-leafed trees. “The Rudd-trees keep this color all year round, and the valley is heated by hot springs at it’s upper end end; Goralden lives in a perpetual autumn,” he explains. To the right of the narrow path, Mount Karven looms almost vertically, while to the left there is a weak stone railing no more than a half-dozen cm high, beyond which a sheer drop plummets to the valley floor. Winding around the face of the mountain, the path shows clear signs of Dwarven construction, having been cut directly out of the mountainside rock – “Hence the name, Mount Karven,” explains Jirome; “It’s rumored to have been sculpted into a completely different shape than that which nature bestowed by Dwarfish picks hundreds of years ago.” Half-way down to the valley floor, the path turns sharply left, where it crosses a narrow stone bridge, of unbelievable unsupported length. At the point of the turn onto the bridge are two small towers which, to Auralla and Ceriseth [two of the PCs], glow with a subtle magic.

On the far side of the gently arching bridge, the path begins to climb quickly through a series of switchbacks toward a sizable ledge on which the township of Goralden is located. The architectural style is very different to anything you have seen before, with one building sharing all four walls in common with another, flat-roofed buildings built on top of other buildings, like a stack of children’s blocks. At the back of the town, nestled against a sheer cliff face, is a large commons crisscrossed by paths and sheltered by high stone walls. In the center of the town-side of the commons is a tall plinth-shaped structure with pyramidal cap, towering almost 180m into the air (Think of the Washington Monument, but bigger, if you’re not sure of the shape). Three watchtowers [near the bridge] permit approaching enemies to be continuously raked with arrows from the time they cross the midpoint of the bridge, and the path (and bridge) are so narrow that troops can march only two abreast. The only weak point, in terms of conventional warfare, is that from this ridge you can see across into the town and have a fair idea of the defensive layout; but it’s a debatable point, because the layout is so intimidating that troops attacking the town would be suffering morale problems before even coming under fire.

Observing the town, it seems clear that they are aware of your approach, but not overly concerned. A handful of archers lounge, unconcerned, on the tower battlements; farmers till the fields and gather the last crops of the summer; and what clearly seems to be a welcoming party are gathering at the town entrance.

Notes to PCs:

[retroactively synopsized]:

Various party members had the ability to detect magic, and the whole town reeked of it, even from this distance, which seemed to radiate from the watchtowers.

A PC cleric (who had a high Wisdom) was able to use that characteristic to determine that the Mages’ pronouncement was self-evident if you only had the wit to observe instead of merely seeing.

From my prepared note to the player:
“Showoff Mages, blurting out the blindingly obvious – of course the towers have an Arcane component. They are, after all, in perfect condition after a century of virtual neglect. What they don’t realize, because you haven’t told them yet, is that they are primarily spiritual in nature, and are clearly NOT of the Chaos Powers. So far as you can tell, they bestow some exotic variety of blessing on all who pass, or live in their vicinity.”

Some Explanations:

The central tower is the Temple. It casts an illusion over the entire town of the way life was for the long-deceased spirits of the dead inhabitants who haunt it with no idea that they are actually dead. They live their lives perfectly content, farming, caring for their children, celebrating minor triumphs and festivals and so on. Because these are the actual spirits of the formerly-living, they were capable of reacting to, and interacting with, the PCs. None of this has been previously discovered because the town is so isolated (it had taken the PCs almost a month to journey there, and they had a guide who was following a magical map and prophetic instructions from the deceased God Of Knowledge, Thoth.

More important are the Gates, i.e. the space between the three watchtowers. These are an artifact crafted by Thoth shortly before he wrote his prophetic instructions and then erased all knowledge of instructions, town, or relic from his own mind – something only possible to the God Of Knowledge, because that divine attribute would prevent anyone else from eliminating the knowledge. They have the power to turn any illusion into reality within its range of effect – the entire township.

Background Info:

From my adventure notes [with annotations];

You get the impression that the reception committee is out-of-practice at this. They are still getting organized when you reach the gates into the town. There are 4 people waiting to welcome you to Joraldon, and a substantial crowd of onlookers, women and children for the most part, with a sprinkling of guards in chain mail. You notice that the crowd is behaving in a slightly-odd fashion – none of them are crowding in so closely that anyone is in physical contact with anyone else.

Of the ‘official’ group, Person #1 is clearly better dressed than the others. He’s a large, portly man, in elaborate red robes and a broad velvet sash, with very ruddy cheeks. Persons 2 and 3 are identical twins, giants of men standing almost 7 feet tall. One is dressed as a farmer, and the other is in brightly polished chain mail with a purple cape. The fourth is a small man, wizened with age, with narrow, beady eyes. As you approach, they appear to be debating which of the twins protocol demands be introduced first – the elder or the one with higher rank. Suddenly they notice you, and with a sharp gesture, the fat man cuts off the debate and steps forward in your direction, his palms open and extended outward from his body, looking intently at Rocky [the party cleric].

“In peace, I greet you,” he announces, as he executes a complicated salute. “My name is Jann Thew, and I am the governor of the village of Joraldon. These worthy gentlemen are my councilors, Farley,” (he indicates the farmer), “Hebrom,” (the Warrior), “and Neveritt” (the old man). “We bid you welcome to our humble township, Most Holy. A small feast has been arranged in your honor, but I must first advise you of a local custom which you may not have encountered previously, and whose transgression could cause ill-feelings amongst the townsfolk toward you.

“Almost a century ago, a succession of terrible plagues swept over the town, and in defense against them, it was decreed by my predecessors that none may touch one another save husband and wife. Although the need has long passed, the practice persists; it has come to be seen as a gesture of respect to one another. It would ease your visit, if you would respect this custom while within the town or its surrounding farms.”


Synopsized from the adventure notes:

Jann Thew gently probed for the reason for the visit, and made the necessary arrangements when told that the party need to consult with the Priests of the Temple. The “feast” was relatively simple fare, but well-cooked; service is by a smörgåsbord arrangement. Toasts are offered, etc etc. Brother Jirome did not attend the feast, returning to the Temple and report.

It slowly became apparent that not all was as it seemed. A couple of children, too young to obey the rules, were playing and one was observed by one PC to run straight through the other. There are plants growing in the garden that are impossible for this climate. Various other clues come to light. The mystery of what was going on was not solved until they actually went to the Temple, where they learned that Thoth had personally left a letter to be hand-delivered to the group who matched the description of the PCs.


[synopsized from later campaign notes, and not known to the players/PCs at the time]:

I’m not going to go into huge detail on this because it all tied in with the (extensive) campaign background, which is far too lengthy and involved. In a nutshell, Thoth had decided that as the God of Knowledge, he should have knowledge of the Chaos Powers, i.e. the enemies of the Gods, responsible for all evil and corruption, against whom the Gods had been struggling for millennia. Recognizing the dangers that this posed through his knowledge of the future, he prepared Joraldon as a fail-safe with instructions on how to destroy his own existence, after the plagues completely wiped out the populace, and set various things in motion that would eventually create the unique assemblage of PCs, who would be the right people to take advantage of the instructions he was leaving them. And then set up backup plan after backup plan in case it was necessary. This was the knowledge that he had expunged.

He then attuned his mind to the ‘forbidden knowledge’ and learned that doing so exposed him to the corruptive force of the Chaos Powers, converting him into a willing pawn to their cause. He then, at their direction, began planning their ultimate victory with everything at his disposal, as he knew in advance that he would. In keeping with his personality, he wrote everything down that he needed to know in order to make these plans – force assessments, information about the Chaos Powers, tactics, who needed to be corrupted and how they could be influenced, where the plan was susceptible to interference, and so on. The magic imbued into the “lost temple of Thoth” meant that it retained a copy of all this information, stored away in a particular volume of records that no-one else would ever have any need to consult – until the PCs followed his pre-prepared trail of breadcrumbs.

The key to success was the perfect preservation of Thoth’s personal notes in the form of an evolving illusion without his knowledge (it had long earlier been established that since Illusions were not real, he had no knowledge of them).

Plot Devicium:

The gates were a plot device, pure and simple, that enabled me to bootstrap information into the hands of the PCs that was completely impossible for them to obtain in any other way, the springboard to the 3rd Fumanor campaign’s big finish. Each 80′ tall, virtually invulnerable to harm, weighing hundreds of tons, they were completely immobile. They were limited to doing what I wanted them to do. In fact, to prevent “Dark Thoth” from learning what the PCs now knew, there were specific instructions on hand to end the illusion, effectively destroying the artifact, and on how to use a far less powerful artifact that had previously been recovered – without operating instructions of any kind – by the party Druid, unknowingly following another of Thoth’s breadcrumbs to shelter them from Dark Thoth’s abilities.

In fact, the party had previously discovered that they were unique in that the Chaos Powers couldn’t ‘read’ or ‘influence’ them, though they never knew why that was so. This was revealed to be another of “Good Thoth”‘s machinations, a byproduct of the plot of the first Fumanor campaign.

The Story Continued:

In fact, “Good Thoth”‘s entire plan worked – after an epic struggle. Five armies, volcanoes being raised as tactical barriers, marching forests, lots of fun. The PCs had left the Gates Of Joraldon in ruins, and thought no more of it. Campaign number 3 revealed that Thoth’s plan had one colossal oversight: he couldn’t anticipate the actions of another deity (or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in this case). Through a carefully-planned encounter, Lolth – believed to have been killed a century earlier but who has more lives than a cat – learned of the gates, traveled to them, reprogrammed them, moved them to the Elven Lands, and reactivated them to corrupt the entire race and bend them to her will. Only those Elves who were outside their native realm and the Drow that she had abandoned and who had been converted by Corallan in her absence were immune. This set up some of the major plot threads of the “Seeds Of Empire” and “One Faith” campaigns. But, once again, Lolth can’t move the Gates, and can’t leave their vicinity, without losing her tenuous grip on True Divinity, which had been her motivating ambition throughout the campaign – something that the PCs learned, in part, in the first campaign, and in part, in a “coincidental” encounter en route to Joraldon – which was me deliberately setting up the seeds of the next Campaign.

Redefining Artifacts: Relics

Whew! That was rather longer than I originally expected. Anyway, moving on: because of their limited nature and definition as Plot Devices by the GM, “Limited Artifacts” are a side issue (though very much the sort of thing that this series was intended to explore). The real story here is what to do about “True” Artifacts, which I will describe hereafter as “Relics” so as to avoid any confusion between old-school “Artifacts” and the reinvented model that I am about to present.

The place to start is, as usual, by defining the key characteristics of Relics; once those have been determined, I’ll show how to use them as a fill-in-the-blanks blueprint for creating a Relic.

Key Characteristics

A Relic has 12 defining characteristics:

  • Persistence
  • Undetectable by normal means?>/li>
  • Immutable State
  • Exotic Form or Exotic Otherwise
  • Buff, Boost, or Both
  • Scaling Abilities
  • Usually Worn, Held, or Wielded
  • A Part Of History
  • The Price Of Ownership
  • The Difficulty Of Acquisition
  • The Difficulty Of Rejection
  • The Plotline Impact

As usual, these need to be discussed in greater detail to be meaningful.


The magic in the item is not consumed when the effect it contains is released, or instantly renews itself, and either way, the item itself survives.

Undetectable by normal means?

In AD&D, the rule was that artifacts were not detectable with “Detect Magic”. This was obviously done in response to a looter’s mentality on the part of players: “We put all the loot in one pile and cast Detect Magic. Anything that glows is worth attention, we flog the rest for cash.” (Flog: Australian slang for ‘sell’).

By making objects that looked mundane, did not respond to this Detect Magic, the GM was encouraging his players to respect all the effort that he had put into compiling descriptions, and in some cases, backstories, and possibly even important clues, for the treasure. The problem was that there weren’t many official Artifacts, and it was easy to separate anything that met their description, or even came close.

This ignored me so much that I started including rare coins and hidden compartments and the like in a number of my treasures. I had gnomish pranksters enchant coins and random objects with Nystal’s Aura, and so on. Very little of which had any real impact other than permitting me to ignore the basic problem of Artifacts and Detect Magic, at least for a while.

When I looked back into it, I decided that Artifacts might not be detected when they were lying passive, but when they were activated, they were instantly recognizable by the strength of the reaction. That meant that I needed some activation mechanism for the artifact itself, above and beyond that for any individual ability; I decided that the simple process of “taking it to heart”, of “claiming it as your own” was sufficient to activate the item the next time the person doing so touched it, and that there was a co-mingling of souls – the souls sacrificed to create the artifact having imbued it with a kind of pseudo-soul and its own distinct personality, a bond that was extremely difficult to break. Thereafter, for as long as the possessor lived, the artifact was his – extraordinary intervention notwithstanding. This mingling provided the ‘seed energy’ to ‘awaken’ the artifact.

All this, was, of course, a long time ago – the early 90s. When I looked back on it, I realized that this was an attempt to achieve the same thing as the original literary device of not having an artifact react to detect magic, and that it had been no more effective in that respect. While I liked some of the campaign color that resulted, that was all it was – so, when it came to the Fumanor campaign, because that ‘color’ didn’t completely fit with what I wanted for that campaign, I quietly set the notion aside, transferring the “activation principle” to necromantic magic and recasting ‘soul’ as ‘life force’. In Fumanor, artifacts were magical objects the same as any other – just more subtle, and often with many disparate schools of magic involved in their creation, which would be revealed when the aura of an object was successfully analyzed by a mage.

This is a decision that every GM needs to make for themselves. There are three possible answers: No detection, detect under certain conditions (eg ‘activation’), or detect as an ‘ordinary’ magic item. Make the choice that works best for your campaign, depending on what you decide artifacts actually are (as a class of object).

Immutable State

It’s very rare for these items to change in any way, though there is often a visual expression of a power when one is invoked.

Exotic Form or Exotic Otherwise

One touch that I always like to throw in is to make Relics and Artifacts exotic in construction. Either they are unusual in form in some way, or they are made of some exotic material, or both. This makes them inherently more valuable and notable as objects. Nor do I restrict myself to ‘real world’ materials – gloves may be in a potion bottle in a liquid state, until you open the bottle and they crawl out and coat your hands, giving them a mercury-like surface. Relic should be memorable, and a touch of the exotic helps make them so.

Scaling Abilities

Here’s an important point: the abilities that are bestowed by a relic or artifact should be proportionate to the abilities of the owner. They should scale with the character, rather than being in full bloom from the moment they are claimed. This means that Relics are no longer so overpowering that they take total command of the campaign, and no longer let one character completely overshadow the rest of the party. This one change alone is enough to take the heat out of several of the standard criticisms.

What’s more, it effectively adds a new plot thread to the campaign: the deepening bond between character and relic, and the increased abilities that result.

If a first-level character finds a sword relic – drawing it from a stone seems traditional – it may be nothing more than a +1 weapon with potential. But if that weapon gains a further +1 to attack rolls with every even-numbered level, and +1 to damage with every odd, and grants a new ability every 5 levels, then 4, then 3, 2, and finally 1, then by the time the character reaches 15th level it is a +8/+8 weapon granting 5 special abilities. As magic weapons go, that’s incredibly potent.

It’s also a long way short of the power levels of ‘traditional’ artifacts, depending on what the special abilities are. These should also start fairly small and grow in effectiveness with successive abilities. It’s important to note that these abilities can go outside the normal rules structure; most magical item capabilities can be described simply by listing a spell that is granted x times a day, or whatever. Relic abilities should be special, should deliberately avoid this pattern, enhancing the difference between this class of magic item and more mundane examples. Get creative!

Buff, Boost, or Both

Relics can add abilities, or enhance existing abilities that are measured by some numeric value on the character sheet, or both. The last is probably the most common.

Usually Worn, Held or Wielded

Almost universally, Relics have to be held, wielded as a weapon, or worn. However, there are some that go beyond this; for an example, contemplate “Howl’s Moving Castle” (Wikipedia entry, available from Amazon in a Blu-Ray/DVD Combo and strongly recommended) (bet you thought I was going to mention Baba Yaga, huh?).

A Part Of History

There’s a reason I included so much detail on the Gates Of Joraldon earlier – it was to show how strongly the existence and origins of the artifact was entwined within the campaign history and background. While it’s possible to have a Relic appear from nowhere, the gift of a Lady Of The Lake, never heard of before, this sort of thing should be rare. No, make that “Exceptionally Rare”. Why? Aside from countering some of the verisimilitude-distorting impact of the Relic itself, this is an opportunity to reveal and even extend the campaign background to an audience that suddenly has every reason to be attentive.

The right relic at the right time can bring parts of your campaign to life instead of leaving them dry words of limited relevance. But this won’t happen by accident; when planning Fumanor Campaign #3, the first thing I came up with was the “Dark Thoth” concept, the second thing was the “Gates of Joraldon concept”, the third thing was working out what the PCs would need to use (b) to resolve (a), and the rest was drawing a path from where they were (in terms of knowledge and abilities and campaign circumstances) to where they had to go, plus some filler, some color, some flexibility for the players to do whatever they wanted, and some plot seeds for what eventually became campaigns #4 and #5. And always, looking at repercussions and reactions to campaign events both planned and unplanned.

It’s only tangentially relevant, but a neat (and informative) metaphor occurred to me while writing the above that I thought I would share.

A campaign is – or should be – a ship on a storm-tossed sea. The GM is the Captain and has the tiller, the PCs are the wind, waves, and currents.

At any given moment, the players determine the direction that the forces of nature move the ship, and can even overwhelm the GMs control if they so desire; but over the long haul, the GM determines the course that the ship sails so that it reaches its chosen destination.

Think about that for a minute. Does that describe your campaign? Because it describes all of my most successful ones.

And remember: no ship is unsinkable if the Captain makes foolish mistakes. Or if the players exert too much force.

The Price Of Ownership

Possession of a Relic should never be straightforward. There always has to be a price, and one that is commensurate with the power and potential power that the Relic can grant. But the price should never be so great that it becomes the dominant force within the campaign or the character, unless that is made clear to the character by strong>known myth and legend before he accepts possession of the relic.

The Difficulty Of Acquisition

You know what’s wrong with the King Arthur myth of the Sword In The Stone? It’s too easy, smacks too much of a Deus-ex-machina. When Arthur (or anyone else) grasps the sword, they should be (spiritually) transported to a place in which they are tested and must prove their worthiness. Succeed, and you are returned to the instant from whence you came with strength sufficient to the task; fail, and you return suffering the full effects of fatigue, exhaustion, and long struggle. Outwardly, you may be unchanged, but your strength has been completely sapped by the experience, and you are thus unable to draw the sword from the stone. It’s even possible that you would retain no memory of the experiences you have undergone; or, perhaps, you return with full knowledge that you have been tested and either found worthy or have had your disqualifying flaws paraded before you in hopes that you would learn from the experience and become a better person.

A thirty- or forty-second montage of scenes would have been sufficient. But it didn’t happen.

It’s a truism that Relics should never be placed in a campaign arbitrarily or randomly; it should always be an informed and deliberate act by the GM. What is not so self-evident is that it should never be a trivial exercise to acquire one that has been placed. A Relic needs to be earned, it should never simply be given away in a pile of arbitrary loot.

The Difficulty Of Rejection

This comes directly from The Lord Of The Rings – it should never be a trivial matter to reject ownership of a relic, no matter how opposed to it your character might be morally or philosophically. The power of the Relic might represent an easy answer to an otherwise-difficult problem, or it might be seductive, or it might hold some other appeal, but it should never be a straightforward choice to reject one. Evil Relics will appeal to any weakness or flaw in the character’s personality; there might be hints (probably false) that a sufficiently strongly-opposed character might be able to hold the evil of the item in check, or even ‘reform’ it.

Even if an evil character accepts an evil Relic, the character should not be totally evil (not yet) and every good instinct or facet that the character has should rise up in opposition to what the character has done.

For me, the very best example of this is the story of Tremble in Knights Of The Dinner Table. Even beyond the Bag Wars epic, this was the plotline that secured them a life-long fan. This plot through-line started in Issue #14 with the ascension of Lord Gilead and slowly built up to an epic finish in Issue #95. It actually comprises several smaller story arcs that build on each other in succession; you can read a synopsis of most of it at this KenzerCo page, starting with the “Protégés Story Arc”, continuing into the “Doomsday Pack Story Arc”, and concluding in the “Tremble/Marvin Story Arc”.

This is as much a matter of matching the Relic to the PC during the design phase of the Relic and of creating the right campaign circumstances. As was said earlier, it rarely happen by accident.

The Plotline Impact

From the moment it enters the campaign, a Relic has to matter, to become a key factor in the campaign history that is still to be written. That’s most easily achieved by looking ahead and working backwards (refer to my comments on “A Part Of History”, above, and consider the example of The Gates Of Joraldon that I offered earlier.

From the moment that the PCs actually reached Joraldon, half my prep was devoted to the current and-near future in-game situation (i.e. the big finish to the current campaign) and half was devoted to preliminary work on the next campaign, and how best to utilize the potential of the plot seeds that I had scattered (while I’m not going to deal with this subject in any great detail here – this article is big enough already – you can read more about the process in these two posts: Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part One of Two: Campaign Seeds and Part Two: Sprouts and Saplings).

In this particular case, various powers and groups would learn of the existence of the Gates, and of their supposed destruction, even if the PCs chose to try and keep the story quiet. How would they react? What would they do about it? Some (Group one) would attempt to create facsimiles, only to find that it was not as easy as that (no Plot Devicium). Did I want one of them to succeed? Others (Group Two) might doubt that the Gates really were described and set out to find the place for themselves. A third Group might have similar thoughts and decide to claim them just to be sure they could not be used against them. A fourth group might suspect that some residual magic might exist in them, and set out for the place. Some would dream of what they could do with them if they were restored. What would that be? Did I want one of them to succeed?

By now, you know that the answer to this last question became a ‘yes’. Groups two, three, and four encountered each other along the way and either fought a bloody battle or backed off; by the time the victors (and it didn’t matter which faction they were part of) arrived to lay claim to the Gates, they were gone.

The answers to these questions were worked out in time to include mention of events in the epilogue to the Campaign’s big finish, letting it serve as springboard into the sequels (originally, there was only going to be one, but one of the players moved and needed a separate game for about 6 months).

Legacy Items – a modern 3.x take on Artifacts

Long-time readers at Campaign Mastery may be thinking that a lot of this sounds very familiar. It was by following these same lines of thought that I created the concept of Legacy Items for Assassin’s Amulet, the 3.x/pathfinder game supplement that I co-wrote with Johnn Four and Michael K. Tumey, and which feature heavily in the bonus extras that come with the e-book. But they evolved in their own direction, due principally to the concept of Legacies as the creative principle behind the origins of such items. Nevertheless, Legacy Items are a subset of Relics (as the latter are defined in this article).

  • You can read an excerpt from ‘A Player’s Guide to Legacy Items’, one of the sections of the Assassin’s Amulet supplement here at Campaign Mastery (it’s in two parts: Part 1, Part 2).
  • You can read about Assassin’s Amulet and see a list of the extras that have been published at the Legacies Setting page, also here at Campaign Mastery.
  • You can get the Free Preview of Assassin’s Amulet (73 pages with lots of behind-the-curtain content) at this link.
  • Or you can skip straight to the main attraction – the 300-page game supplement and all the extras published to-date by clicking here (US$20).

Blueprint for a Relic

A slightly-edited version of that list of characteristics forms a fill-in-the-blanks blueprint for creating Relics.

I was actually going to explain the process by way of presenting an example, created as-I-went, but time is beginning to be a factor, so I’ll do that in a separate post some other time (No, that’s not because I spent so much time writing up the Gates Of Joraldon for this article, that had been done in advance). Let’s see… If I move that, and delay this, and shift this other to there, then I can squeeze it in early in October, about two weeks from now… Done!


Every Relic starts with a central concept or idea, from which inspiration can be drawn. This can be broad or vague, or it can be detailed and refined – to be honest, I think that better results stem from the ‘broad or vague’ category, as too much detail can get in the way. Ideally, you want to be able to sum up that idea as succinctly as possible so that you can keep it in mind as you progress though the creative process.


I will usually jot down a couple of ideas instead of a full description and move on, returning at the end of the process to fill in this section properly. In fact, I will usually do that for the whole list. Why? Because one idea triggers another, sometimes quickly, sometimes not – but getting too caught up in writing one idea down in detail can derail the mental train; by the time you’ve finished, you’ve forgotten what you were going to write in the next section. So run through as fast as you can, then come back and expand on these rough notes.


How does the owner get the Relic to do whatever it does? Does it have any autonomous, all-the-time functions? Is there one trigger for all the abilities, or does something different have to be done for each? (Note: we haven’t actually defined those abilities yet). Are there any abilities that persist even when the object isn’t being worn/wielded/whatever? How about if the item is merely being touched? How do these choices reflect the core concept?

Abilities and how they scale

Given the note in the previous section, this is also the time to jot down some ideas about what those abilities are, then rank them in some sort of logical progression.

There are a couple of such progressions that you could use, depending on the nature of the Relic. It could be in terms of effectiveness or power – that’s a fairly standard approach. It could be a progressive shift from relying on the internal “power supply” of the Relic to empowering the character to use his own characteristics, or it could be the reverse, starting with whatever the owner is bringing to the party and then slowly supplementing that as the bond between the two strengthens. A fourth option is to transition from inward-focusing effects to outward-focused ones, and a fifth is the reverse of that. A sixth option is to start with abilities suitable for relatively friendly and comfortable environments and progress to those suitable for more hostile conditions, and – once again – the reverse sequence is a seventh. There are many others, I’m sure.

There are also two ways abilities can be expressed: all-at-once or strengthening with levels. All-at-once means that the ability is at full strength the first time it becomes available; Strengthening with levels means that the power of the ability is indexed to some other value. This might be character levels gained since taking possession of the Relic, or it could be a stat value, or number of ranks in a skill, or whatever.

One option that often serves fairly well is to define a new cross-class skill (or system equivalent), “Usage of Relic [X]” (because we still probably haven’t given it a name) and then index the powers to that. This gives the player some control over the pace of advancement – he can become proficient really quickly, but only by compromising his progress in other areas, or he can pace himself. Players generally love that sort of thing because it makes them feel in control of the process.

The Price Of Ownership

Now that you have a vague idea of what the Relic is going to offer its owner, it’s time to consider the downside, and make sure that it is commensurate with the advantage. You may be tempted to weight this one way or another, for example inflicting the worst of the downside before advantages begin to accrue – this is the concept of an investment in the Relic – or of letting the advantages pile up until the character is too tightly-bound to the Relic to resist the penalties. While it is possible to do a little of this sort of manipulation, as a general principle, it’s nowhere near as good an idea in practice as it seems in theory.

Remember my pointing out that players love feeling in control? Either of these options has the opposite effect. You can get away with a little bit on general trust, and a little more if you’ve chosen the “Usage of Relic [x]” Skill option, but that’s it.

Another good question is how many downsides there should be, and how severe they should be. Do you choose one per ability? Or one less than the total number of abilities? Should you count a more severe or progressive penalty as filling more than one penalty “slot”?

It is worth remembering that the Relic is probably going to fall into the hands of a PC, whose player will have an extreme allergic reaction to any downsides, exaggerating their impact in his mind simply because most magic items don’t have them. If the player is to learn of these downsides only when they manifest, they will easily be doubled in significance, perhaps even tripled, within his mind.

Finally, indexing the powers of the item to anything other than Character Level can be viewed as a downside in and of itself. It requires the character to commit to raising whatever the indexed power is (unless another of the Relic’s abilities does that for the character, of course). Even the “Skill In Relic [x]” option commits the owner to investing some – potentially many – of his skill points away from the usual source.

The Difficulty Of Acquisition

The more powerful the Relic, the harder it should be to acquire – assuming that the player sets out with the ambition of obtaining it. If he does not, the dangers should still be commensurate with the reward, but the reward should be assessed not on the ultimate power that the Relic presents but at its immediate level, plus an allowance for future potential.

Careful thought needs to go into this aspect of the Relic. And you also need to pay attention to the logical question of why it is so hard, within the in-game context. Who has made it so? Why? How?

The credibility and verisimilitude of not just the Relic but of the whole campaign can rest on getting this right – though that’s a worst-case assessment. So make notes, but on your second pass through the work-list, take the time to get it right.

Part of this problem is also consideration of the clues that you as GM are going to emplace around the Relic as to its nature, power, and history. There is a fine line between making these clear and making them too obvious, and an even finer line between making them too obscure (Players can be sharp – or thick as two planks – at the most inconvenient times). The correct level is for them to be fully obvious in hindsight once the Relic is claimed, and remembered until they become so, and for them to be noteworthy even if the significance is not appreciated in the meantime. In addition, some should become at least partially interpretable the moment a PC lays eyes on the Relic – enough to divine its basic nature as a relic, at the very least.

These objects are supposed to be important.

And remember that every clue has to have been deliberately left by someone – who and why?

The Difficulty Of Rejection

There’s no point in emplacing a bardic Relic if none of the PCs is, or wants to become, a Bard. Similarly, if a Cleric is to be the Acquisition target of a Relic, you won’t get far if it appears dedicated to some other Deity than his own – things become a little more flexible if he is the priest of an entire Pantheon, but D&D / Pathfinder aren’t typically set up that way.

You need to take into account the goals of each PC, the personality of each PC, and the personalities of the players concerned – then target an in-game element of the “pitch” at each of these. There may be times when an item will appeal to several PCs – and there are players who will deliberately alter their PCs plans to accommodate Relics. Even if your intent is for the PCs to undertake a quest to destroy the item, that doesn’t always work out – remember Frodo and the One Ring in the heart of Mount Doom?

At the same time, you need to beware making things too clearly targeted at one specific PC. It’s very easy to fall into the position of being accused of playing favorites. One way to compensate for this is to clearly and deliberately go light on the treasures suitable for the targeted character for a period of time prior to the discovery of the Relic, but this can also be fraught with danger because it can make the player feel pressured to accept it, lest he fall farther behind the other PCs in magical equipment. The best solution is for at least part of that targeted “slowdown” to take place after the character comes into possession of the item, and for this to be communicated to the player in advance.

This, too, is a tricky balance to get right, and requires considerable thought.

History of the Relic

Once you have some ideas about all of the above, you can start thinking about the history of the Relic. Who created it, and why? Was it used in that way, and if not, why not? Either way, what happened? Who then came into possession of it? How did it come to be where the PCs found it?

Was the entire reason for Gollum’s creation by JRR Tolkien to answer the questions of how the Ring came to be where Bilbo found it? Or was it all about Gollum’s reclaiming of the Ring at Mount Doom? Given that The Hobbit was written before The Lord Of The Rings, and that many of the ideas in the latter were not fully represented in the former, I suspect the first – Gollum was simply present as an means of getting “a magic ring” into Bilbo’s possession, and half of his role in the latter book was by asking the question of what Gollum would do once he had lost the Ring. Answer that question, and its’ a very small step to the logical conclusion of his ultimate role in the plot of the trilogy.

Even if the PCs are never going to get more than hints, the GM needs to work all of this out for himself, so that those hints can be logically consistent except where the GM chooses otherwise as a reflection of history being distorted by time.

Impact of the Relic on History

This is equally important. The direct contributions to history should be fairly evident, or developed in conjunction with, the preceding section; but you also have to think about all the indirect contributions that the Relic, or its absence, may have made.

Again, the Lord Of The Rings is informative – just look at everything that happened because Sauron no longer had the ring, and everything that took place to recover it once he knew it had been found again. It was Saruman’s search for the Ring that led to his being ensnared by Mordor and corrupted, and that in turn led to Wormtongue and the Ents and the Corruption of the Rohan, and the creation of the Uruk-Hai. Gandalf and Aragorn spent years in search of Gollum to learn of how he came to posses it, and in the hunt for additional ring-lore. The Ring had at least as much influence over people because they didn’t have it as it eventually had when its existence was rediscovered.

The Relic In Myth

It would be a rare thing for something so astonishing and pivotal not to generate its own myths and legends. Heck, you don’t need power to do that in the real world – just be impressive in some way. It’s commonly believed, for example, that Napolean shot the nose off the Sphinx in a demonstration of the power of his weapons, or perhaps, of his ego. In fact, that has been conclusively shown to have never happened.

This is also a great dumping ground for any ideas that don’t work out – abilities that were too weak, or too powerful, pieces of history that didn’t make sense when the final story was assembled, etc.

The Plotline Impact – Immediate: The Search For Knowledge

Almost certainly, the immediate impact of the Relic will be a search for more information about it. This can be underplayed, or a dominant element of the campaign. Rumors of information can be a useful plot device for getting the PCs into adventures.

There will be far greater impact if it becomes obvious or known that the new owner is in possession of the Relic. Political alliances have been broken and forged over less. There are those who will be envious, those who will deem him less worthy than they are, those who don’t care how worthy he may be (they just want it), those who don’t want anyone to have it, those who will want him to do things with it (that may or may not be possible – refer to the myths section above), those who will strike before the Relic can be used to prevent whatever it is that they want to do (even if they aren’t really ready), and those who will want it destroyed – at any price. The Relic will become the pivot around which politics throughout the known world changes. And, of course, all sorts of rumors and misinformation will spread about who has it, and what their agenda is, or might be.

Even if it is a total fraud, a relic has Massive consequences for a Campaign. Quite often, it will be easy to read “Relic impact” into an event even if the event has nothing to do with the Relic – which means that everything has to do with the Relic.

The Plotline Impact – Medium-Term

In the medium term, even if the new owner tries to hide the fact, it will slowly become known that the Relic is out there. There are too many sources of information in a fantasy world for a secret that big to stay hidden forever. That whole long list of consequences and reactions are inevitable.

On top of that, we have the consequences of its’ actually being used, and the reaction of the owner to the expectations of what he will do, and the reactions of the public and various social groups and political bodies to the consequences of its use.

And finally, a Relic should never be emplaced within a campaign without some idea of where the resulting plotline is heading. The medium term is when that begins to make itself felt, though it may not be appreciated for it’s true significance.

The Plotline Impact – The Campaign Scale

That ultimate direction is the ultimate impact of the Relic on the campaign, and – hopefully – the reason for its presence within the campaign in the first place (you should always have a reason, even if it isn’t a good one, and if it isn’t a good one, come up with a better one eventually).

But it doesn’t end there. Now that you’ve finished with it, what happens to the Relic? Even if it gets destroyed, there will be those who believe otherwise. Its’ absence will continue to shape events, as discussed earlier. Only when those just old enough to be aware of events are dead and buried will it fade from immediate relevance – though it may start doing so in a mere generation or so. Call it between 70 and 100 years. A generation or so after that, and it will again begin to retreat into myth and legend – unless something occurs to keep the story current, of course.

Elves have very long generations….

Other Game Systems

It might be stating the obvious, but everything that’s been said in this article can also be applied to other campaigns, from magic in 7th Sea to uber-powerful super-science devices in Sci-Fi.

The (slightly premature) Wrap-up

“Artifact” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It can be the ultimate expression of Fantasy in a Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Too much of the stigma associated with them derives from misuse and inadequate preparations. Avoid those mistakes and you too can ride the whirlwind!

An artifact, or the somewhat watered-down representatives called Relics in this article, immediately becomes the central focus of a campaign, whether the participants realize it or not. Respect them, and take that seriously, and put the effort in that anything of that magnitude of importance demands, and all will be well.

Artifacts and Relics: the ultimate magic items, so powerful that they don’t even have to obey the game mechanics, so awesome that they can rewrite the rules – in specific and limited fashions. A fitting place to end this series.

Except, of course, that the series isn’t quite over. I still have the example Relic that I devised especially for this article, and then had to excerpt. So there will be a kind of postscript to this series.

But, in the meantime:

Next here at campaign Mastery: On Thursday/Friday, The Essential Reference Library For Pulp – 2nd Shelf, and next week, Part 2 of ATGMs42: Musical Puzzles – if all goes according to plan! Of course, I’ve already changed that plan once twice and counting!

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