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.

Life

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.

Mind

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

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

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’.

Elementals

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?

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!

Afterlife

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!…

Location

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.

Connection

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

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.

Dangers

So what sort of dangers might there be?

Demons?

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.

Devils?

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?

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.

Others?

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.

Necromancy

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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