Halloween, things that go bump in the night, and all things spooky, creepy, scary, or just plain haunted. This month’s Blog Carnival, hosted by Scot Newbury at of Dice and Dragons is devoted to the subject… and this is Campaign Mastery’s contribution. BWAH-HA-HA-HAAA…

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I’ve got a problem with Undead, and I think it’s one that every good GM would share. Just what does the world look like to Undead?

You have to be able to answer this in order to choose what undead do when encountered. Even mindless creatures can only respond to what they perceive in the world around them, no matter how simplistic that world-view, and undead run the spectrum from essentially devoid of higher-functioning brains to frighteningly intelligent.

Everything that my body “consumes” in some way is something that I can sense. I can see, touch, smell, and taste food. I can see and touch clean water. I can feel air moving through my mouth when I breathe, especially if I do so forcefully, and can feel the pressure differential when I suck on something, such as a straw. I can feel sunlight on my face. If it’s essential to my continued existence, I have a way to sense it, because without that, survival is strictly a matter of blind chance.

Undead are usually viewed as consuming the life of their victims directly. The implication is that they can see or sense life. So it turns out that the relatively innocuous question with which I opened today’s article is just another way of restating the question. “What Is Life?”

Wow, that escalated quickly, didn’t it? In one of my very first articles at Campaign Mastery A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs, I advocated taking the time to answer the big questions because those answers would manifest in important and practical ways throughout the campaign. This is a perfect example of what I was talking about.

What is life?

So, rather than shying away from this rather tricky question, let’s try to answer it, at least so far as a game is concerned. Note that if you offer a different answer to this rather fundamental question, you may get completely different answers to the corollary questions spilling out of the magic box of speculation!

The state-change from alive to dead

To answer any question this profound, you need an avenue of insight, a way to get a grip on what is presently a very tenuous issue. One of the most useful such avenues that I have found, from a game perspective, is the question of an afterlife.

There are three basic models of the D&D / Pathfinder universe that are differentiated by answers to that question.

  • There is an afterlife of some sort where souls go after death;
  • Souls are reincarnated into new bodies;
  • There is no afterlife, and dead is dead.

If there is an afterlife, then the property of being alive relates to a connection between whatever goes to the afterlife – call it the soul if you wish – and the physical body.

If there is reincarnation, then the property of being alive relates to a connection between whatever gets attached to the next incarnation and the physical body. To all intents and purposes, for the purposes of this particular line of inquiry, there is no difference between these two.

If there is no afterlife, then Life is some form of energy that is present when someone is alive and that is lost or dissipated on death. Whatever that form of energy is will have a profound impact on the question, but however you slice it, this is a fundamentally different answer to the first two. So let’s set it aside, for now, and deal with the more common answer first.

A receptacle for positive energy

D&D / Pathfinder employ the concepts of “Negative” and “Positive” energies without really putting enough salt on the tail of these constructs. These essentially describe energy fields of some sort that can be manipulated directly by various forms of magic, but that form an inherent connection to the motivational force within the body. Life draws vitality from positive energy, while undeath (in most of its forms) draws vitality from negative energy. It is this capability that is lost when the body dies, so this is a property of the Soul or the Spirit or whatever you want to name that part of the person that persists into the afterlife.

By virtue of that ability, the spirit is nourished and sustained by the ambient positive energy within the environment, and – arguably – so is the connection between living being and soul or spirit. Undeath, by drawing upon an opposing ambient energy, is disruptive upon contact with positive energy.

So far, so good. These answers are all fairly conventional as far as the underlying game “physics” of the D&D / Pathfinder universe goes. It’s only when you look a little closer at the specifics that it begins to fall apart.

Equal and Opposite?

I want to plant a couple of thoughts at this point so that it can lurk in the shadows of the conversation for a while. I’ll come back to them later in the discussion, if all goes according to plan!


Most people associate the terms “Positive” and “Negative” with the labels for electrical potential terminals on a battery, and this shapes the way we think about these artificial constructs of the Fantasy World. Superficially, this makes some sense, provided that you treat the battery terminals as being fundamental opposites; as soon as you look at what these ‘battery terminals’ actually are, the picture begins to fail. Specifically, if you slice a battery in half so that each half has only one terminal, the battery stops working. You actually need both types of terminal for anything to happen, and in fact, the process of dividing the battery creates a new opposing terminal; they always come in pairs, it’s simply a question of engineering a connection point between both ends of a potential electrical energy flow from one terminal to the other that creates the other “terminal”.

In other words, the visible battery terminals are simply connecting points, and “Positive” and “Negative” are simply different “ends” of a single potential process. There are two alternative ways to interpret the battery analogy – either it’s correct, or it’s not.

The first holds a definite appeal to the modern mind, because we are used to natural cycles in the processes that make up the world around us. The water cycle – sea evaporation to clouds to rain to rivers to seas again. The Oxygen-Carbon Dioxide cycle that shows animals in symbiosis with plants. The Nitrogen cycle. Why not a positive-energy-negative-energy cycle, with living beings forming the bridge from positive to negative (ie ‘used’) energy?

The alternative also has its attractions, because it is more in keeping with the world-views of the civilizations that existed prior to the discovery of these natural cycles. The water cycle was known, but it was a unique property of that essential liquid.

Not going anywhere with this just yet, just wanted to put it on the reader’s radar as context for other discussions. Personally, I like the confluence of the battery analogy and the reincarnation cycle as an abstract concept, it seems to have some artistry to it, but that’s neither here nor there.


As soon as we start talking about “opposing forces”, there is an inherent assumption that the two must be equal in potential. This notion is appealing; with fewer individuals drawing on negative energy, there is potentially much more available per individual, justifying undead as a kind of super-being. And that’s a proposition that explains why some individuals deliberately choose to become undead. This concept stems from the concept that there is an equilibrium between these forces, giving PCs something to defend and NPCs something to upset. From a narrative point of view, there is a lot to make the notion appealing.

What is alive?

Having planted those two thoughts in the back of the reader’s minds, let’s get back to what’s wrong with the “positive vs negative” concept as an answer to the question of “what is life”.

Are trees alive? Can Undead subside by consuming this life? This question immediately throws the simple model into a state of confusion, introducing the need for some point of distinction between the life of a tree and that of a person – and most of the possible points of differentiation, such as sentience, are rapidly undermined in many fantasy games. If Elves and Druids can communicate with plants, in however limited a fashion, then plants must be sentient in some way, and so sentience ceases to function as a point of difference.

Ain’t Got No Soul

The most obvious answer is that trees and animals have no souls. But this seems to contradict one of the central tenets of the broader “reincarnation” model, so it is only viable in a “with-afterlife” game world.

Concentration Of Life Force

One possible answer exists when one considers the “consumption” of life force by Undead. Living things need food and water and air in addition to the positive energy that makes them alive. Undead need none of these, substituting negative energy at all turns for these needs. This decreases their vulnerability by making them dependent on fewer environmental resources, but at the same time it increases their dependence on a form of energy – negative energy – that can be disrupted without harming non-undead. In effect, they place all their energy “eggs” in the one basket. While this answers the immediate problem, it does so by undermining the appeal of undeath implied by “equal and opposite”. As an answer, then, it is – at best – incomplete.

Rate Of Energy Flow

The “battery analogy” can actually come to our rescue by proposing an alternative solution. Rather than the energy concentration being the reason for the inability of trees and lesser life forms to supply the “needs” of Undeath, perhaps it’s rate of energy flow. Trees, being long-lived and slow-moving (like, not at all under most circumstances) need only a trickle of positive energy. Smaller animals “consume” their energies more quickly, but their small size means that they actually need even less. A tree might have as much overall positive energy flow as a field mouse, for example; much more than an insect, but still minuscule.

Since undead sublimate all their other energy needs into the one “need”, it follows that they must consume more negative energy to sustain themselves than a living being must consume positive energy. The implication is that only larger creatures have enough positive energy flow to satisfy them.

Hold on – Undead consume more negative energy so they need more positive energy? There’s a hole in our logic, somewhere. I’ll come back to this in a moment. But first:

The Elvish Problem

While we’re at it, here’s another curly one: If Elves can’t be reincarnated (which is the state of D&D affairs pre-3.0), do they have souls? If no, why aren’t they immune to the “touch” of undeath; if yes, why can’t they be reincarnated? In other words, are Elves alive? Or are they some manifestation of the forests and environments in which they live?

There are multiple possible answers to this problem. One is to say that elves do not have an individual life force in the manner that humans do, but instead exist in some symbiotic relationship with the collective life force of their environment – redefining the entire species in the process. If the connection between individual elf and the collective can be disrupted by undead, this covers all the bases.

Another solution to this question is to invent some reason why Elves can’t be reincarnated even though they fulfill all the requirements for having that capacity. If their life-force is bound more tightly to their spirits than is the case for humans (stealing a concept from chemistry), that might work, though it should influence their level of vulnerability to undeath.

Still a third possibility is that Elves do not have Spirits or Souls per se, but nourish their living beings directly from positive energy – as though receiving continual positive energy transfusions instead of having to digest their “food”.

Bound up in, but not addressed by, this discussion are the questions of Elvish Immortality and Mortality in general.

Other answers could no doubt be contrived. But these are proof enough that answers to the problem can be devised, so that’s enough for now. Let’s move on.

The Living-Undeath relationship

The breakdown of logic in the discussion of “Rate Of Energy Flow” as a solution to the question of why Undead could not be sustained by the consumption of the life of trees has brought us face-to-face with a major problem, one that threatens to destabilize everything that’s been considered so far.

Some of the analyses of this state of existence have been founded on the notion of undead living on negative energy, and others have implicitly assumed that they stole life force from the living. This elemental contradiction is at the heart of my undead quandary. The central problem is this: what is the relationship between living and undead?

As usual, multiple solutions present themselves to me for consideration.

Moths To A Flame

The simplest answer, and one that works for low-level undead, is that they are drawn to the living as moths to a flame. They contain negative energy, and the living contain positive energy, and the two are drawn to each other because they are opposing forces. The implication of this answer, which many GMs have used, is that the touch of Undeath is as disrupting to the undead as it is to the living, and that simply doesn’t fit the modus operandi of Undead in any version of the game.

This answer uses the annihilation of matter by anti-matter as an analogy for the relationship between positive and negative energy. Which sounds all nice and dramatic, but such annihilation transforms the two states of matter into energy; what becomes of the positive and negative energy that mutually annihilate?

Having failed on all fronts, this view must be abandoned.

Overcoming of Positive Potential

A more complex version might solve the problems, though. What if negative energy did not exist, per se, but instead was the absence of positive energy? This concept has its roots in the Plum-Pudding model of the atom, a positive energy field with negative “holes” in it. As positive energy is consumed by the living, it is constantly replenished from the “universal store” of positive energy, but the transformation into a state of undeath denies that replenishment to the Undead; accordingly, they need to get their positive energy by stealing it from the living. If their net positive-energy “debt” is supplied externally, by clerical magics, the undead cease to exist as “unliving” beings, but simply stealing the life from a living being is only enough to meet their immediate consumption needs; if they steal too much from the living, those living specimens, devoid of positive energy, become new undead, losing their connection to the universal store.

Under this model, low-level undead are instinctively seeking to end their own existence within this state, but the paltry lives they can consume are in no way adequate to their needs because of the greater consumption rates suggested earlier, so all they end up doing is creating more of their own kind.

Low-level undead are analogous to a cancer growing perpetually within the collective class of “living things”. The greatest exemplar of this class of Undead is the lycanthrope, because they retain their native sentience and connection to the replenishing positive energy flow at least part of the time, but remain net energy sinks because strength and invulnerability to normal weapons increases their consumption of energy to a greater level than the replenishment can provide. I would also suggest that the sense of greater power that results might be addictive. Possible links to the moon and the night remain to be explained, as does the vulnerability to silver, but this is at least a working model.

High-level undead – Vampires and Liches – are a different story to the lower types. It can be suggested that they use the negative energy within their bodies to “block”, in part or in whole, the replenishing flow from mortals, diverting the positive energy flow for their own use, Thus, they harvest the living, functioning as parasites. But the potential for many such flows to be diverted to the benefit of the one, conferring great personal power and a limited form of immortality, explain both the great power of these undead and the attractiveness of the condition to certain personality types. What’s more, this positive energy surplus would explain how they are able to force the subservience of lesser undead, including Vampiric thralls.

Light At The End Of The Mausoleum

The preceding holds great promise as a solution to the general questions of “What is life?”, “What are Undead?”, “Can Undead consume the life of Trees?”, and so on. With this as a starting point, it would be possible to backtrack through the earlier discussions, winnowing out those suggestions that don’t fit the solution, adapting those that almost fit, and progressing to resolve questions that aren’t directly answered by the proposition.

It’s not the only possible solution; you can derive a very different set of answers by considering the negative energy of Undead as a waste product that they are attempting to rid themselves of, a set of answers that has less pathos and more villainous overtones.

Furthermore, this answer works even if there is no afterlife; it is broad enough to survive the removal of that concept, though some of the fine details might change.

Where there’s one answer, there are many; this is a principle that underpins most of my adventures, and that I have enunciated many times in these pages. There are enough solutions that each campaign and GM can evolve a unique set of solutions; this particular answer is not one that I’ve used in any of my campaigns, probably because this is the first time that I’ve ever looked at it with the undead question as my starting point before (I usually start with “What is Clerical Magic” or “What are the Gods?”).

The first step is always asking the question. Only then can you construct an answer, whose implications will then shape the campaign around it. The only certainty is that the cosmological model of the standard D&D / Pathfinder game is inadequate and incomplete – and, by permitting differentiation of campaigns and concepts, that’s perhaps a good thing.

What are Undead, that thou art mindful of them?

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