There is something about “undead” that tantalize GMs and players. Maybe it’s because their very existence in a game world hints at fundamental questions about what life is. Every GM will, sooner or later, run an undead-dominant campaign or adventure arc.

So it’s kind of a pain that so many of them suck in so many games. Most are weak, easily splattered by Clerics and Paladins, and they never seem to live up to the promise hinted at.

Today’s question in Ask The GMs focuses on Undead at the immediate and superficial level, but the deeper and more general question is how to take a campaign that’s been running for a while without a plan and gather the threads together to tie the whole thing together into a dramatic and spectacular campaign wrap.

I’m tackling this question without the assistance of my usual coterie. There’s a lot to get through, so let’s get started.

Ask the gamemasters

Jesse Joseph 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.”
 

There was an obvious immediacy to Jesse’s need for advice, so I dropped a reply by email as soon as I received his question. As I explained last time, I no longer have access to the email exchange itself, so I can’t say definitively, but I have a vague recollection of a reply saying that it was exactly what he needed – which may be my memory making a narcissistic distortion of the reality. Certainly, I didn’t receive a response asking for clarification, expansion, or steering the question in a different direction – if I had, that would have been preserved, with response, for use in writing this article (I have one of those cases coming up).

So I have to assume that even if the advice offered didn’t satisfy Jesse’s immediate needs, it at least sparked the necessary thought process for him to fill in the blank space on his own.

Here’s the agenda for this 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

There’s no way that I can get all that done in a single response. In fact, It’s going to take three – items 1 & 2, items 3 & 4, and items 4 & 5 in each respective post.

The Immediate Answer

This is the reply that I sent to Jesse:

We have a bit of a backlog built up on Ask-The-GMs at the moment due to other projects taking more time than expected, so it might be some time before a full answer makes its way onto the site. In the meantime, here are some preliminary thoughts:

  1. There’s a big difference between an end-of-plot-arc villain and an end-of-campaign villain. If you want the first, take an NPC who the characters already know and trust and have him be the big bad villain – possibly for the noblest of motives.
  2. But I get the impression you’re talking about the uber-villain about whom the whole campaign has been revolving all this time (but no-one’s figured that out until now). Once this bad guy is taken down, it changes the campaign setting so much that it ends the current campaign; anything that follows is a sequel campaign (even if it has the same characters).

I would start by inverting tropes. You’ve been hitting them with undead, especially vampires, who feed on life; invert that to create a character who secretly lives on death. Every time one of his undead minions kills someone, he consumes the part of the spirit that normally ascends into an afterlife, leaving only the pseudo-undead shells running around and causing more mayhem. Why pseudo-undead? Because they don’t necessarily suffer the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of real undead (though they may have thought that they did and have been behaving accordingly – until now).

What’s more, every time a cleric turns such undead or they are destroyed by positive energy, the undead are essentially being pumped full of artificial life and then killed – which also feeds the power of Mr Nasty Britches.

What’s his master plan? Well, the more death the better, at least in his book – so he’d be trying to set up perpetual warfare between nations, blood feuds, and the like. He’d be trying to unleash terrible plagues – and note that his undead would be immune to those. Oh, and when he’s soaked up enough power, he might try and kill the God(dess) of Life.

How would this plan manifest? Treat everything that’s happened in the campaign so far as skirmishes and the positioning of forces in key positions, and perhaps the occasional piece of misdirection. The *real* campaign starts *now*.

The PCs arrive at a major city, to find it being ravaged by a plague that’s come out of nowhere. They have to make hard choices, condemning innocent people to death, sealing off those parts of the city that are affected and waiting for everyone in there to die – mothers, children. They notice people trying to smuggle valuables and people out of the affected regions, and go to confront them. To their surprise, they are vampires – even though it’s the middle of the day.

That sets the tone, and gives the PCs the clue that can eventually lead them to the real enemy. Until they get there, just keep doing what you’ve been doing – but set things in the daylight instead of at night, and keep plagues of various types floating around. Perhaps throwing in a famine or plague of locusts around now would also get the PCs attention. And have lots of Temples to the God(dess) of Life getting smashed up when no-one’s looking.

Eventually they will ask the right question of the right person and discover the identity of the Death Eater or Soul Eater, or whatever you decide to call it. Set it’s lair under the plague-ravaged city where all this kicked off – will the PCs brave the plague, knowing that one or more of them will probably die from it, to end this menace?

That’s what I would do. What you choose to do might be something entirely different. I hope this helps.

While this is all sound advice, it won’t fit everyone’s needs. So the bulk of this article looks at the general issues raised by Jesse’s question, in two major categories: Undead-in-depth, and Plotting A Big Finish at the 11th hour.

We’ll start with Undead…

General Principles: Making Undead Scarier – without going too far

Low-level undead simply aren’t all that scary, even to low-level PCs. If you want undead that the players will respect or even fear, forget the zombies and ghouls, you need to wheel out magic-item equipped Mummies or Vampires and Liches. In fact, there’s a huge “undead gap” between these undead royalty and the run-of-the-mill undead.

There are three solutions to this problem, and none is complete in and of itself. The first is to make Turning that little bit less effective, the second is to make low-level Undead that little bit more dangerous, and the third is to make them that little bit scarier to oppose. Put those three together and you give low-level undead a whole new respectability.

Weakening Turning

This is a little tricky because higher forms of undead are already dangerous enough; whatever changes we make need to leave them untouched. That means altering the low-level undead, in my view, rather than anything more fundamental in terms of the rules. The simplest answer is to have them impart a penalty to Turn Attempts made while they are within the radius of effect. That also gives us grounds for differentiating between different types of undead based on their “gregariousness”. The other aspect of turning that we might tinker with is whether or not “destroyed” is a permanent outcome or just a temporary reprieve; but, if we do that, we also need to specify a means by which the destruction can be made more permanent.

Let’s look at 6 broad types of undead, and how these additional abilities can be used to differentiate between them. I’ll be using D&D 3.x because that’s the system that I know best.

  • Zombies
  • Skeletons
  • Ghouls & Ghasts
  • Wights
  • Vampire Spawn
  • Zombies

    Zombies come in all sorts of varieties.
     

  • Zombie, Kobold at CR 1/4
  • Zombie, Human commoner at CR 1/2
  • Zombie, Troglodyte at CR 1
  • Zombie, Bugbear at CR 2
  • Zombie, Ogre at CR 3
  • Zombie, Minotaur at CR 4
  • Zombie, Wyvern at CR 4
  • Zombie, Umber Hulk at CR 5
  • Zombie, Gray Render at CR 6

 
That’s because Zombie is a template that can be applied to almost any other kind of creature in the rulebook. These are just examples; if you want a Zombie Red Dragon, there’s no reason you can’t have it. Zombie celestials might turn heads, however!

But there is a fundamental divide that starts with Zombie Minotaurs in that list, and it stems from the habits of the creatures when they were living. Kobolds, Humans, Troglodytes, Bugbears, and Ogres are all typically encountered in groups, often large groups. Minotaurs are either solitary, paired, or in gangs of three or four; and similar patterns hold true for everything that follows them on the list of examples.

That means that it would be fine to introduce another fundamental divide beyond the examples on the list: Any creature of CR 7 or more to whom the Zombie template is applied retains it’s base intelligence. Zombie Slaad or Zombie Frost Giants immediately become far nastier propositions, bridging the gap between “Noble Undead” and “Ignoble Undead” with sheer power.

It also means that we can introduce our “Turn Resistance” effect and restrict it to Zombies of CR 1 or less, which you would normally expect to encounter in groups.

What we want is a progression that slows down with increasing numbers so that it is naturally self-limiting. Only Zombies within a cleric’s “turn radius” are counted. A bonus with straight numbers quickly becomes too large, or is too insignificant at smaller numbers. We want to make a Zombie Horde something that’s scary.

For my money, the Fibonacci sequence starting with 2,4 seems about right. A Fibonacci sequence is a string of numbers in which each entry is the sum of the two numbers that preceded it in the list. I like this pattern because it grows at a slower pace than a geometric expansion, which is the usual way these things are handled (doubling each time, for example), and because Fibonacci numbers are actually found in biological patterns all the time.

So:

Creature Count: 2 4 6 10 16 26 42 68 110 178 288
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

I seriously doubt that you would ever encounter more than 288 zombies at a time! But if you need to, it’s a simply matter of addition to extend this table as necessary.

So, what happens: The cleric rolls his turning attempt as usual; the GM counts the number of Zombies within range of the turning attempt and consults the table above, the subtracts the modifier from the number actually rolled by the cleric before working out what happens. That means that Zombie Hordes become harder to Turn or harm by Turning as they increase in size.

The other part of this story is the “automatically destroyed” result. This happens (if the cleric so desires) when his class levels are two or more times the number of Hit Dice that the zombies have, and enables the cleric to destroy any that he would normally Turn. Since our modifier reduces that number, it also reduces the impact of the “automatically destroyed” result.

If you want to further reduce this effect, restrict the “class levels” to “class levels that add to clerical Caster Level”. In practice, that will probably have minimal effect, but even a small effect is enough. But I don’t recommend this.

Another thing that GMs need to understand is the relationship between CR and a fair fight, when it comes to Undead.

Doubling the number of creatures doesn’t double the effective CR of the group; it adds +2 to it. That means that to add +1, you multiply by the square root of 2, or 1.414. This breaks down with creatures of CR less than 1, becoming one rightward step on the list of CRs – from 1/4 to 1/3 to 1/2 and then to 1.

Zombie Kobolds have a CR of 1/4. So:
 

  • 1 Zombie Kobold has a CR of 1/4.
  • 1.4 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1/3. But there’s no such thing as 1.4 zombies; it’s just a mathematical abstraction.
  • 2 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1/2.
  • 2.8 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1. I would round this to 3, and consider the result valid, because…
  • 4 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 2.

 
From that point, the normal progression can be applied. To get a collective CR of, say, 7, count the number of +2s from 2 to 7 (three)l that’s the number of doublings. If there’s a number left over, apply the x1.414 to the result. So: we start with 4, double it to 8, double it again to 16, double it a third time to 32, then multiply that by 1.414 to get 45.25 – call it 45.

The other half of this equation is the level of the PCs. With most creatures, you can use the same principles to work out an effective CR for the party based on their character levels, permitting the calculation of a “collective CR” that defines a fair fight. This principle breaks down when we’re talking about Undead and Clerics, because Clerics have an additional “damage/destruction mechanism” (Turning) that can be applied. You can view this ability as either permitting Clerics to punch “above their weight,” i.e. having a greater “effective CR” than class levels alone would indicate, or you can view ordinary PCs as punching “below their weight” when it comes to Undead, with only Clerics at full effectiveness.

Either interpretation requires some sort of conversion to the party’s “effective Collective CR”. In theory, this sort of thing is handled by adjusting the CR of the creatures, but this doesn’t happen with zombies, whose CR is unchanged from that of the base creatures on which the undead is based, and it doesn’t happen with Undead in general because party composition has a disproportionate effect.

You might assume that the “advantages” of being a Zombie equal the “disadvantages”, including the vulnerability to Turning, but that doesn’t scale with increasing numbers, it’s still individual to each Zombie and each Cleric. So that counter-argument doesn’t fly.

Time to grasp the nettle, then: are 3 Zombie Kobolds a fair fight for a first-level fighter? If yes, then clerics punch above their weight and are effectively a higher number of “class levels” with respect to undead than the straight numerical value listed; if not, if they are too much for a fair fight, the every non-cleric class should count for less where Undead are concerned (of course, this ignores the elephant in the room – the painful possibility that the truth is somewhere in between these two interpretations).

Zombie Kobolds have an attack bonus of +1; most PCs will have an AC of about 17 (+2 stat and +5 armor) – either contribution to AC could be greater or less, I’m looking for a typical fighter average. So Kobold Zombies will hit on a roll of 16 or better, which is to say, about 25% of the time. The average damage by a Zombie Kobold using a spear is 1d6-1, or an average of 2.5, boosted by the critical of x3 on a result of natural 20. So, 4/5ths of the time when they hit, they will average 2.5 points of damage; 1/5th of the time, they will do 7.5 points. If they use Slam, they forgo the critical and average 1.5 points of damage; if they use a ranged crossbow, they are at an additional +1 to hit (succeed 30% of the time), do an average of 3.5 except on a critical, which happens on a 19 or 20 (so 2/6ths of the time that they hit), and does 7 points on average. Assuming that Zombie Kobolds only get one shot with a crossbow before needing to switch to spear, we have:

30% x [(2/6 x 7) + (4/6 x 3.50]
= 30% x [2 1/3 + 2 1/3]
= 1.4 points per Zombie Kobold, combat round 1;

and,

25% x [(1/5 x 7.5) + (4/5 x 2.5)]
= 25% x [1.5 + 2] = 0.875 points per zombie Kobold on subsequent rounds.

The typical 1st level PC fighter will have d10+2 HP (or better); call it 7.5.

Three Kobold Zombies do an average of 3 x 1.4 = 4.2 HP while the fighter closes to melee range. That leaves 3.3 hit points to inflict. At 3 x 0.875 (=2.625) points of damage in a round, that will take 1.257 additional combat rounds. Since .257 is less than 1/3, the likelihood is that it will be on the second Kobold Zombie’s roll in the third round of combat.

Now, the other side of the equation: how long would it take the typical fighter to dispatch three Kobold Zombies? This is rather trickier, because there’s such a variety of weapons available, and because the Kobold Zombies have damage reduction of 5/slashing. We can assume that the typical fighter has his STR as his highest or equal-highest stat, and an additional +1 bonus can have a huge impact. But a few more assumptions (“broadswords are typical” for example) enable a similar calculation.

Under the scenario presented, round 1 damage = 0.
Subsequent combat rounds, the fighter does 6.5 damage on a hit, unless he scores a critical. The Average Kobold Zombie has AC 13 and 16 hit points. Even if the fighter hits every round, something that seems unlikely, it will take 2.46 rounds of combat to kill one zombie. In fact, he will only hit 50% of the time – and has a 10% chance of a critical, doing 13 damage. Taking those factors into account, we get 4.47 combat rounds per zombie. And that still ignores the damage reduction. Adding that to the equation takes the total to 7.44 rounds – for each Zombie Kobold.

In no way is a 1st level fighter equipped with a broadsword a match for one Zombie Kobold, never mind three.

But wait – what if he has a mace – the typical weapon of a cleric? His average damage, to-hit, and critical chance are unchanged, but he then gets to ignore the damage reduction, and that makes a big difference. 4.48 rounds per Zombie Kobold. Which is still way more than the 1.257 melee rounds that the Kobold Zombies would take to dispatch him. But, if you do the math on ONE Kobold Zombie, it’s a lot better than the 13.26 rounds that it would take a lone Kobold Zombie to defeat him.

You can play around with the numbers all you want, but the summary is that 1 Kobold Zombie is no match for a typical 1st level fighter, regardless of his equipment, and a typical 1st level fighter is no match for three Kobold Zombies. Logically, two to one is the closest to parity. Which means that the fighter is punching below his weight – effectively, he’s 2/3 of the character he normally is.

That means that everyone except the cleric should be assessed as having only 2/3 of their character levels when determining what a fair fight is for a party. But that’s a complication that GM’s don’t really need.

Now contemplate the impact of the change that I’ve proposed, which reduces the effectiveness of the “extra weapon” that a cleric has, especially against a group of Zombie enemies. As a rule of thumb, is it not reasonable to suggest that it brings the cleric into line with the other PCs – effectiveness of about 2/3 of his character levels? At the very least, it moves him closer to that value.

And that means that instead of being XP-fodder, a “fair fight” of low-level undead is actually a very difficult fight. A party of four first-level PCs against 12 Kobold Zombies? I know who I’d be backing.

Now, it’s only fair to point out that as characters gain in character levels, many of the variables that have such a big cumulative effect in determining the parity change. Even a party of 3rd level characters would have a fair chance in a “fair fight” with Zombie Kobolds. Attack chances go up, hit points go up, hit point bonuses stack, and so on. The change proposed makes zombie groups scarier, but is not overbalancing except against low-level PCs.

Skeletons

Skeletons are just like Zombies – a template that is applied to a base creature. That template shows that Skeletons are supposed to be more effective combatants than Zombies, but a Skeleton Horde doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. I would reduce the impact of the Turning Penalty:

Creature Count: 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

…and give them some other advantage to compensate. I rather like the notion of a Skeleton being able to reassemble itself from the bones of other dead creatures, for example – a limited form of regeneration, one that takes them out of battle for a round.

Ghouls & Ghasts

These are typically encountered in smaller groups than either skeletons or zombies. By making the initial values smaller, the Turning Penalty mounts more quickly:

Creature Count: 1 3 4 7 11 18 29 47 76 123 199
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

But even this probably isn’t enough on it’s own to make these scary. What’s more, this is NOT a template; if you want a Hill Giant Ghoul, you will have to build it yourself completely from scratch.

Wights

Wights are not usually encountered in numbers. I would further lower the numbers needed for a Turning penalty and skip every 2nd result:

Creature Count: 1 2 3 5 8 13
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

…which makes them VERY hard to Turn. But I would go further, and state that, even though they don’t use weapons or armor, each has such (if they were a combat-character) or has been buried with some treasured item (if not). Unless that item (or those items) are found and destroyed, even a “destroyed” Wight will reform in it’s tomb in d4 days. What’s more, Wights are able to track such items and those who have taken possession of them, and will hunt down the thieves and recover their property. Selling the item merely adds another victim to the list, it does not relieve the initial ‘thief’ of the danger.

The next thing that is required to make these far more terrifying is to give them some means of being able to bridge that Nd4 days head-start that the party have – N being the number of times that the party have ‘defeated’ the Wight. They have a movement rate of 30 feet, which is much the same as that of the PCs. But, if we presume that they never need to rest, and can ignore terrain-based movement reductions in overland movement, then every night that passes they will regain at least 1/3 of a day of lost time, possibly more. Inevitably, eventually, the Wight will catch up, again and again.

Next, wights stick together. A wight in pursuit of a ‘thief’ will be joined by any other wight he encounters en route. One will become two; two, three; three, five; and so on. (This is another Fibonacci sequence, one that starts 1, 2).

What makes this particularly bad for PCs is that any of the loot they have carried off from the Wight’s tomb or surrounding area might be the Treasured Item. Such items can be detected once the Wight is in pursuit as Cursed, and the Curse can then be lifted once the Wight has again been destroyed. The rest of the time, Detect Curse and Remove Curse are ineffective.

Of course, there’s a problem: there is no such spell as “Detect Curse”. The DMG states that Cursed Items may be detected with Identify (1% chance per caster level) or Analyze Dweomer – but these aren’t trivial spells. Identify is only 1st level, but has only a small chance of identifying the item, per casting. If your chance is, say, 10% (caster level 10), would anyone care to hazard a guess at the number of times it would need to be cast to be reasonably sure of success?

My math says 110 castings gets you to 99.999% certainty.
88 castings will get you to 99.99% certainty.
66 castings gets you to 99.9% certainty.
44 castings gets you to 99% certainty.
22 castings gets you to 90% certainty.
11 castings gets you to better than 66% certainty.
7 castings gets you a better than 50-50 chance.

Things improve markedly at higher caster levels. It only takes 52 castings to get to 99.999%. 42 castings is 99.99% certain. 31 castings is 99.9% certain. 21 castings is 99% certain. 11 castings is better than 90% certain.

At Caster Level 25: 41 castings to 99.999%, 33 castings to 99.99%, 25 to 99.9%, 17 to 99%, 9 to 90%, and three castings gives you a better than 50-50 chance.

You see, each time you cast the spell, the gain in confidence is reduced. At Caster Level 10, you have a 10% chance of success – but, if you fail (which you will, 90% of the time), you then have 10% chance again. So, with two castings, your total chance of success is the initial ten, plus 90% of the initial ten for the second casting – because you wouldn’t cast the spell a second time if you had already succeeded. 10%, 19%, 27.1%, 34.39%, and so on.

It makes more sense if you work out the chances of failure. The first time, you have 90% chance of failing. The second, you have 90% of 90% of failing with both rolls. The third time, 90% of 90% of 90% with all three rolls, and so on.

You’ll know you’ve succeeded when the attacks stop.

Vampire Spawn

One reason Vampires like to have Vampire Spawn around is so that when a Cleric attempts a Turning, they can take the hit instead of him. If Vampire Spawn are treated like Ghouls and Ghasts and confer the resulting bonus on the Spawning Vampire,

In fact, the same logic holds for all higher undead – it gives them a reason to keep lots of low-level undead around.

Making Undead more Dangerous

What if contact with undead transmitted some sort of taint to the soul – and, if that taint exceeds the character’s capacity for it, if and when they die, they become undead of the type that caused the taint? Answer: nice in theory, too much work to track in practice.

Obviously, this would not have applied to “noble undead”, all of whom have very specific pathways to creation, in-game. But something keeps making more Skeletons, Ghouls, Zombies, and so on. Can you really lay all the blame at a few higher undead and the occasional malicious Cleric of a dark deity?

Most systems make the assumption that if you are killed by an Undead, you become that sort of Undead. But in a world with even moderately competent adventurers running around, that isn’t enough to explain their numbers.

To do that, we need to examine and counter other assumptions.

Let’s start with an obvious one:

Hallowed Ground

There is a theory going around amongst most adventurers that if you lay a potential Undead to rest in Hallowed Ground, it will not rise again, that the ‘sanctity’ of the grounds will thwart the evil.

What if the opposite was true? What if the presence of an undead Defiled a cemetery, leading those who are subsequently laid to rest there vulnerable to become more Undead of the type “in residence”.

If we were to couple this with the “Tainted Soul” concept, we would go quite a long way towards explaining the prevalence of Undead in appropriate locations.

It would not be 100% effective; there would need to be some further part to the story. Perhaps it only works with Evil characters. Perhaps there is a time limit – and, if the body is sufficiently protected by coffins and crypts that the ‘seeding undead’ can’t reach them within that span of time, it doesn’t happen. Say, one day plus one day for each hit dice of the undead? That would give Zombie Kobolds 3 days and nights, an iconic sort of number.

Skeletons and Wights might get additional span of time if the prospective victim died violently – that’s important, because they are generally lower in HD than Zombies, but are equally if not more prevalent.

Perhaps there’s a limit to the number who can be converted at a time, again based on the number of hit dice the creature has – and only the seeding Undead can spawn more. But kill it, and any surviving Undead become a new generation of “Patriarch / Matriarch Undead”. Or perhaps Undead breed at the rate of Death, assuming they can fulfill the other conditions described.

Lots of options there.

Withering The Soul

Lots of undead are described in fiction and legend as having an impact on the living, should they turn hostile. This effect, if it exists, would be minor in comparison to the abilities some Undead already gain in this line, but they should have something.

Perhaps the Turning Penalty is also the modifier to a PC’s Will Save that they have to make in order to attack – or simply not to recoil from the touch of – Undead? You could even scale and customize the impact of this effect by the type of undead. Zombies cause violent nausea, preventing the character from attacking. Skeletons cause the victim of a failed check to recoil, reducing the character’s AC for a round. Ghouls and Ghasts might do 1d6 temporary hit point damage on a failed check – damage that is instantly healed at the end of the round, but that might make the difference in a close fight. Wights could force the character who fails his save to relive the Wight’s original demise. first-person i.e. as though it were them, potentially inflicting psychological harm on the character. The touch of Vampire spawn might sap the will and make the character aware of his own mortality, tempting the weak-willed to join their band and live forever.

As the Zombie Kobolds example showed, you don’t need much. The highest Turning Penalty I’ve listed is 10, and that requires an extraordinary number of Undead. Most of the time, the target would be far lower – maybe three or four. Most PCs will make their check easily – unless they roll a 1.

Taint, again

Just because it’s too much work to track in the case of PCs doesn’t mean that the concept needs to be thrown away altogether. It might only be effective if the subject has fewer hit dice than the undead. That means that a commoner touched by an undead has a fair chance of becoming another undead when they die – possibly too high a chance.

Making Undead Scarier

Fear is a dangerous thing for a GM to play with, because it potentially means a player losing control of his PC while it is in effect. What we need to do is make the Undead scarier to the Player commensurate with the fear that we want them to induce in his character.

The easiest way is to make undead more dangerous in numbers. Not much, just a little – maybe 1/2 or 1/3 of the Turning Penalty – as an attack bonus or an AC bonus when they are present in numbers.

If that seems excessive, it might only apply to as many undead as the Turning Penalty. Confront 20 Human Zombies – a Turning Penalty of 4 – and four of them each turn get +1 or +2 to hit, just from the size of the group. In fact, if this limitation on the effect is in place, I would be tempted to make the amount 1 to 1 for the Turning Penalty.

This simulates being swarmed under, and makes a group of Undead that little bit scarier – which is what we want.

Other techniques that I’ve seen – because I’m not the first person to muse upon this need – is for Undead to radiate an anti-life field that sucks away one HD in all attackers for every 2 HD of Undead within melee range. A fifth-level character up against three 2HD zombies finds themselves with – effectively – only 2 HD. That gets scary in a hurry.

But it’s also a lot of work if you have to recalculate attack numbers and so on. So let’s simplify it and simply subtract that many average dice in hit points, plus CON bonuses.

The Net Effect

The combination of these three changes to undead don’t overly change the danger represented by one Undead. But they greatly ramp up the danger posed by a group, and give higher undead reasons to maintain a group of “follower undead” that insulate them from an easy defeat.

And with that, I’m completely out of time. Next time: Making low-level undead more dangerous, and making them scarier. Don’t worry, I’m building to something…

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