Undead; Six Ways to Scare Without Getting Lethal

author: Ruemere (Patryk Adamski)
email: ruemere@poczta.onet.pl
date: 2002-09-22
status: test

Are you afraid of ghosts?

One of the many things people should be afraid, when role playing in d20, are dead things afoot. Well, most players are not. After all, how can anyone get scared of a slow moving shambling corpse with pathetic combat abilities and awful smell? Zombies are cannon fodder of all hard working necromancers, yet, because of their statistics, undead things lose a lot of their fearful aura - no sane cleric or fighter will even begin to consider such a lowly halflife form to be a threat.

So, how can we help them? Them and poor ghouls, delicate shadows or clickety-clack skeletons? By adding some special abilites, which would add to their power without making them pushover monstrosities from hell.

Below, you will find a list of ten different ways to enhance your ordinary undead, along with a set of house rules for producing them. Most of them can be combined - do not forget to increase Challenge Ratings appropriately!

#1 Hungry Dead, template

Hungry dead need your flesh, bone and sinews. And they are not afraid to let you know about their needs.

"Hungry dead" is a template which can be applied to any undead, provided that their death had to do something with starvation or eating.

A hungry dead uses all the base creature's statistics and special abilities except as noted below.

Special Attacks: Mind numb (Sp) [Fear] [Mind-affecting] - as a free action, the undead with this ability project their dreadful need into the mind of its intended victim. The victim is affected if a Will save at DC 10 + half Hungry Dead hit dice + Hungry Dead Charisma bonus is failed. Affected victim either does nothing (if the Hungry Dead is able to approach) during victim's next turn or actually moves toward the Hungry Dead (if the Hungry Dead is unable to approach), i.e. executes one move action at half normal Walking speed in general direction of the Hungry Dead. This special attack can be executed only if the victim hasn't already engaged in any melee (or other strenuous activity) within last half an hour and total number of hitdice of the Hungry Dead who try to Mind numb the victim equals or exceeds the hitdice of the victim. The Hungry Dead can combine their abilities to affect more powerful targets. Those who resist the attack cannot be affected again until the next evening.

Challenge Rating: Increase by 1/2.

Alignment: Change to Evil.

Manufacturing: In order to produce Hungry Dead, a necromancer has to use remains of a creature which either died of starvation or was cannibalized. The necromancer must use his Knowledge (Undead) (DC 20 check) to correctly apply negative energies and Craft Wondrous Item to properly enhance dreadful hunger. The effort consumes 10 xp per undead hitdice (experience is used up regardless of project success) - other costs should be applied as required per spell used to create undead.

Story tips: Have you seen Ravenous, a movie by Antonia Bird? Imagine a sect of cannibals raiding villages along a coast, and, in the aftermath of such raid, tens of discarded corpses could be lurking quietly near deserted harbors, beneath waves, for unwary travellers.

#2 Wallcrawlers, template

Is there a good vampire flick without something quietly slithering headfirst down a wall, toward a person standing in a door?

"Wallcrawlers" is a template which can be applied to any corporeal undead. The said undead must be capable of climbing. Typical wallcrawlers can be found among ghouls, ghasts and wights. Assume that one in five possesses this template.

A wallcrawler uses all the base creature's statistics and special abilities except as noted below.

Special Qualities: Wallcrawling (Sp) - The wallcrawler is capable of traversing vertical surfaces at its normal walking speed and scaling horizontal surfaces (such a ceilings) at half normal walking speed. While wallcrawling the undead is not subject to normal penalties associated with climbing. Moreover, the Undead gains +20 racial bonus to all climbing checks.

Challenge Rating: Increase by 1/2.

Manufacturing: Instilling Wallcrawling ability in an undead requires that a necromancer spends a night preparing a corpse to be animated. The preparations include casting Spider Climb spell and reinforcing spell effects with his life energies by applying Craft Wondrous Item feat (associated experience cost is 10 xp per undead hitdie). Just before dawn breaks, the necormancer finishes the process by casting animating spell.

Story tips: Many a time storming a castle could be quickened by a dead avant garde scaling walls. Also, a good murder mystery may feature a being able to hide in darker corners of high ceilings.

#3 Springer, template

How do you feel when a cold, lifeless body jumps at you out of darkness?

"Springer" is a template which can be applied to any corporeal undead. The said undead must be capable of jumping. Most springers are ghasts and wights, though some ghouls are lucky to be born with this ability. The lucky natural talents however must possess Strength ability at 16 or more (assume one in ten to qualify for this template).

A Springer uses all the base creature's statistics and special abilities except as noted below.

Special Attack: Springing Charge (Ext) - a creature can perform an advanced version of Charge action. Along with penalties and bonuses associated with Charge action (+2 to attack, -2 to armor class for one round), the creature may immediately perform a full round attack action or Bull Rush action.

Special Qualities: Springing (Sp) - a creature is able to perform exceptionally long standing jumps. The Springer can always take 10 on any action which requires Jump skill. The Springer gains +10 racial bonus to the Jump skill.

Challenge Rating: Increase by 1.

Manufacturing: Springer are most difficult to create. They just happen though reinforcing ordinary necromantic spells with Bull Strength helps, as Strength prerequisite of 16 must be fulfilled. Night must be spent on preparations, necromantic energies must be enhanced by Craft Wondrous Item feat and the personal cost of 10 xp per undead hitdie must be paid. Just before the dawn, as the final spells are cast, determine randomly the undead strength - with this prerequisite met, the undead gains template.

Story tips: People are afraid of darkness for a good reason. But sometimes it is a good thing to remind them why by making the darkness come to them. The dead, spring out of darkness, extinguish all the lights and proceed with carnage - it could make a basis for a good horror story.

#4 Howling Soul, template

Wolves' howling sends shivers down your spine.

"Howling Soul" is a template which can be applied to any undead with Charisma of 10 or more and able to utter sounds. Natural Howling Souls are usually found among Ghouls and Ghasts (assume one in ten).

A Howling Soul uses all the base creature's statistics and special abilities except as noted below.

Special Attack: Howling (Sp) [Fear] [Mind-affecting] [Sonic] - As a standard action a Howling Soul is able to utter an inhuman, blood chilling howl affecting everyone in 15 feet spread centered on the creature. This attack causes all who fail Will saving throw at DC 10 + half Howling Soul hitdice + Charisma bonus to become shaken (-2 penalty on all attack rolls, ability and and skill checks, saving throws). Successful saving throw allows to ignore this and subsequent Howling attacks until next evening. The Howling Soul may repeat this attack in order to strneghten effects. Second failed saving throw means that shaken creatures become frightened (all shaken penalties apply, the victim attempts to flee, will fight only if cornered), frightened creatures become panicked (as shaken, 50% to drop carried items, flees in random direction and any subsequent dangers, but away from all threats, cowers if cornered). Those affected by panic are free from Howling influence as soon as they either drink some strong alcoholic beverage and 10 minutes pass or, in the absence of strong spiritual means, an hour passes by. Shaken and frightened conditions pass after 10 minutes or taking a dose of a strong (spiritual) anesthetic (Remove Fear spell or similar counter abilities could help, too).

Challenge Rating: Increase by 1.

Alignment: Change to Chaotic.

Manufacturing: Howling Souls are a dangerous tool, as their ability affects all but most stalwart souls. Their abilities affect their controllers. Nevertheless, enterprising necromancers can produce an undead of that variety, though special means must be employed. First of all, a body of a mortal who died in great pain must be procured. Then, the undead must be animated through standard means, though through all these endeavors the spirit to be used for animation must be controlled by Emotion spell enhanced by Craft Wondrous Item feat (cost 10 xp per undead hit die). Finally, at the end of the process, the Howling Soul must be taught to express its pain - casting of sonic attack spell is required (Shout spell suffices, though any 3rd or more sonic attack would do).

Story tips: As the saying goes, no pain, no gain. Unfortunately, sometimes the pain itself becomes a living thing which seeks to control its host - there are many stories of restless dead seeking vengeance, coming back to pay back their tormentors or simply trying to ease their own suffering by inflicting it on others.

#5 Vessel of Evil, template

Those who confront supernatural of undead variety, rarely escape unscathed. Fortunately, time often heals deepest wounds.

"Vessel of Evil" is a template which can be applied to any undead of five hitdice or more. Exceptionally powerful Ghasts and Wights, along with Ghosts and Shadows, are known to exhibit this ability (assume one in twenty).

A Vessel of Evil uses all the base creature's statistics and special abilities except as noted below.

Special Attack: Evil Touch (Sp) - Negative energies coursing through this undead are so strong, that each time this undead inflicts a successful and damaging touch attack, the victim acquires a curse as per Bestow Curse spell. The nature of the curse varies, but all of them may be resisted with successful Will save versus DC equal to 13 + the Undead Charisma bonus. The curse lasts either until the undead is finally put to rest, one day per undead hitdie passes or Remove Curse spell is applied. The Evil Touch can also be used to spoil milk, kill small animals like mice or sparrows, spook children, cause nightmares and cause fits of panic (treat as Cause Fear spell with range - touch, and duration of d4 rounds).

Challenge Rating: Increase by 1.

Alignment: Change to Evil.

Manufacturing: Manufacturing Vessels of Evil is rather simple, though often pretty risky as all a a necromancer must do is to overload an existing undead with negative energies by casting the same spells that created the undead twice more over a period of one night. Because of the energy overload, the undead must be successfully controlled after each casting, and at the end of the process effect has to be reinforced by successful application of Create Wondrous Item feat (cost: 10 xp per undead hitdie).

Story tips: People whose hair go white overnight, abnormal number of the sick, incurable maladies are all signs that a great evil is tainting an area. Sometimes though, it is a better idea to flee than to investigate as some secrets come at a great price.

#6 Undead, Masterwork

Many necromancers, disgruntled with the ease with which ordinary undead are dispatched, experiment with enhancing minion abilites. Of course, if you are one of the masters, with legions of apprentices at your disposal, casting more powerful spells in order to create undead or golems is an option. However, what are you supposed to do, if you are barely making two ends meet and you lack both necessary experience and laboratory?

The answer is: use tools of the common folk. Tan leathery skin, cure and dry meat or replace it with a more durable material, add some metal contraptions to limbs and, above all, strengthen sinews with a good stitching.

There are some risks, of course. Most spirits used for animation are incapable of surviving long term trauma and quickly depart dissected bodies of former zombies and ghouls. However, a good and skilled expert can assure that the failure happens only one in four or five times.

All of the processes described below require that a skill check is made. The DC is 15 for adding the first enhancement, 20 for the second, 25 for the fourth, 30 for the next and so on. The failure means, that the animating spirits have departed and the undead is no more (corpse usually crumbling to ash, the materials remain). The necromancer overseeing the process must possess Knowledge (Undead) at 5 ranks. For every 5 ranks above 5 in Knowledge (Undead) add +2 synergy bonus to skill check. The order, in which enhancement are applied does not matter unless specified otherwise. All of the enhancement require the use of Craft Wondrous Item feat and cost 10 xp per hitdie of the undead. Also, of the enhancements require the presence of already created and controlled undead. Finally, each of the enhancements takes one day per undead hitdie and consumes 5 GP per day.

The enhancements are as follows:

Coordination (CR +1, Skill: Craft (Weaving), Haste spell) - The muscles and sinews of the undead are stitched or replaced with strings to provide it with better coordination. The undead can take one additional partial action per round (this does not stack with Haste bonus).

Leathery Skin (CR +1/2, Skill: Craft (Leatherworking) or Profession (Tanner), Armor spell) - The undead is flayed, its skin is reinforced by craft application and finally made more durable with spells. The undead armor is increased by 3 natural armor bonus.

Leathery Carapace (CR +1, Skill: Craft (Leatherworking) or Profession (Tanner), Armor spell, double the time to produce) - The process is similar to the one give below, but instead of reinforcing the original skin, it is replaced by an actual Hide armor reinforced with iron rings and solidly attached with nails. The undead armor class is increased by 4 armor bonus. The undead also gains Toughness feat.

Leather Guts (CR +1, Skill: Profession (Tanner) or Craft (Armorsmithing), Hold Portal spell, Mending spell) - the insides are replaced with cured leather and meat. The undead gains one hit die. Cannot be combined with Iron Guts.

Iron Guts (CR +1, Skill: Craft (Blacksmithing) or Craft (Armorsmithing), Hold Portal spell, Mending spell) - the insides are replaced with wire, stone and cured leather. Due to very significant changes in undead structure, the DC of the skill check is increased by +2. The undead gains damage reduction 5/+1. Cumulative with Skeleton Replacement (increase damage reduction to 10/+1). Cannot be combined with Leather Guts, though Leather Guts can be replaced with Iron Guts.

Skeleton replacement (CR +1, Skill: Craft (Blacksmithing) or Craft (Armorsmithing), Hold Portal spell, Mending spell) - the whole skeleton is removed, reinforced with iron (or wooden) parts and then placed back. Due to very significant changes in undead structure, the DC of the skill check is increased by +2. The undead gains damage reduction 5/+1. Cumulative with Iron Guts (increase damage reduction to 10/+1). Cannot be performed on Skeletons.

Combination (CR +1 1/2 [use stronger creature], Skill: Knowledge (Undead) and Craft (Weaving) [two checks], Animate Dead spell, Mending spell) - you attempt to combine two undead of the same type to form one, stronger and larger by one size category [use abilities of a stronger creature]. Increase undead hitdice by two or to the next size category (whichever benefits more), increase appropriately hitdice-dependent bonuses. Due to very significant changes in undead structure, the DC of the skill checks is increased by +2. If the donors were intelligent, the new undead is not controlled (may be taken over as usual, just like in the case of Create Undead spell). This enhancement must be applied before other enhancements (and cannot be applied more than once).


So far, I have used only few of these templates. All of them served well, though the game balance was not affected (the clerics and fighters saved the day, though they were a bit scared). Still, all of this should be tested before it can be labeled safe to use. After all, the point is not to kill, but to scare. In other words, the goal is to make undead more durable, more surprising and more versatile as compared to standard sluggish corpses, smelly ghouls or bleak run-of-the-mill shadows.

That's it. For now. Good luck and let me know how it works in your games.


2002-09-24: Corrected a few errors. Added a few adjustments per Chrysa's suggestions.