I love undead, necromancers, skeletons, ghosts, and all manner of creepy things that have died yet walk. However, I am constantly frustrated by the way there are no true rules or philosophies that hold for these creatures. For instance, why is necromancy evil? What makes a skeleton intelligent or slaved? How does one kill a raised dead? What is the difference between animated dead and the undead?
And death was just as tangled. What is the soul? Can it be trapped? Where does it go after death? And can it remain in the world of the living?
Over the years, the D&D and fantasy universe has introduced countless races and types of undead, as well as tons of afterlives and alternate planes, adding lots of cool material, but also adding to the mess. Some creatures were spawned by magic, others created by gods, some born in cauldrons. Some were intelligent beings with memory and thought, others mindless hulks. Some souls were absorbed into the magic of the world. Others passed on to living hosts.
All I wanted was a simple set of rules that tell us what happens to a soul, and how undead can come about.
So, I made up a set of rules that does just that - categorizes death and the undead into different sections, and explains everything I would want to know about them. This may or may not fit your idea of what an undead is, or your system of life and death, but hopefully it will at least introduce some ideas and rules to base your death and undeath system on.
The Soul and Death
While our bodies are physical, our wills, emotions, memory and mind is a part of our souls, our being and identities in the world. While a body is temporary, a soul is eternal, and no two souls are alike. When a soul is born on Luen, it enters the world and inhabits a body until death, where it passes from the world onto the grey shores, is judged, and passes into the afterlife, where it remains for eternity. The exceptions are hero souls, which are souls that are marked by destiny as being necessary again for life, which pass into the halls of night until they are reborn. Animal souls are not judged, and all pass into the halls of night, where they too are reborn. While the soul is not a physical item, it can be trapped and bound. One cannot extract a soul from a living person, but upon their death, one can trap the soul in a vessel. The soul will then remain in the vessel, until one of three things happen - it is released, at which point it will either find its way into the afterlives or remain in the world of the living; it is placed into its body once more, becoming undead; or it is placed in a willing recipient, at which point it will take over.
As mentioned before, a soul trapped in a vessel can be transferred to a willing living recipient. In this process, spells are cast and rituals are performed to guide the soul into its host, at which point the original soul departs for the afterlives and the new soul takes over. One must open oneself up for the transfer, however, for it to be successful. To paraphrase, one cannot force a soul into an unwilling body. Theoretically, one could obtain immortality simply by passing from body to body - however, there are few people indeed who would give up a youthful body and a full life on earth to another. Once in the body, one controls it just as one did one's own, retaining personality and memories one had in the previous body. The body is susceptible to pain and injury as well, and upon the death of the new body, the soul again will leave for the grey shores, unless trapped again.
Animated dead are all things that were once living, that were brought into a state in which they walk again. Animated dead have no free will, and cannot think beyond the intelligence given to them by their creators. For instance, even an intelligent dead, created and trained as an assassin, will use cognitive thinking to assess situations, but will not feel emotions or think beyond the orders given to him. Animated dead also cannot feel pain, and dismembered limbs will continue to move. Animated dead cannot be killed, but can be incapacitated by being either destroyed completely (via fire or other destructive measure) or hacked into parts that unassembled pose no great threat. They also are not affected by any spells of healing, illusion, or mindbending, as these are all magics that deal with living, sentient creatures. Animated dead created by necromancers are bound to their necromancer until his or her death. Dead that were animated by pockets of magical energy, or dead whose creator has died, may either prowl their lairs, killing anything they see, or (if more intelligent) might seek to fulfill a mission or purpose - for instance, if they were created upon the death of a corrupter, they might seek to despoil woodlands and forests. Animated dead are created for a variety of reasons - to be servants in the lairs or labs of dark wizards, to guard ancient tombs, or to serve as armies. Only necromancers have the power to animate dead, and are always looking for fresh corpses to animate, for an undead made of rotted crumbling bone is of no use when it breaks with the slightest touch. Many dark alchemists have even begun treating corpses in order to prevent decomposition and rot. The true foulness of animating an undead, in addition to the fact that the body is despoiled, is that upon animating a corpse, the soul that once inhabited it is plucked from the afterlife and bound back into its own body, forced to watch as it is used by another. The only way to truly destroy an animated dead is to free its soul, which can be done by casting a spell that breaks the bonds of the necromantic spell. The greater the power that went into creating the undead, the greater the power needed to unbind the soul. If an undead is completely destroyed but not freed, the soul will inhabit the world of the living, and may manifest as a ghost or spirit until it finds the way back into the afterlife. Depending on where the soul is headed, it may choose to stay on earth. These spirits may become visible, but cannot touch the world of the living.
The other, perhaps even more horrifying side of the dead that walk is those who willingly chose to bind themselves in a corpse to cheat death. One must use one's own body as a vessel, as a soul is only built for one body. There are two ways to become undead - in the first, an item, usually an amulet, is created that binds the soul to the body, so that in death, as the soul attempts to leave, it is snatched back and thrust into the body, at which point it awakens. In the second, the body is given to a friendly necromancer, who performs the rituals and spells necessary to call the soul back into the body. Although the amulet is preferred due to speed and reliability, the path of the necromancer is sometimes necessary if the recipient dies earlier than expected. The process is truly horrible and excruciating for the soul, and the transition from death back into the world of the living severely warps and mutilates the soul. In undeath, one retains all memory from life, and one can think and control one's body as well as one did in life. However, the body will begin rotting around the soul, and without preservative preparations, could easily become worthless and crumble to dust. For this reason, not many warriors choose undeath, as a moldering corpse does not make a keen instrument of battle. Like animated dead, undead are not affected by any spells of healing, illusion, or mindbending. Undead do not feel pain, and as with animated dead, can only be truly destroyed by being freed. However, unlike animated dead, whose souls are bound against there wills, an undead soul will try its uttermost to remain in the body, and will be much harder to free. Also, unlike animated dead, one does not have to destroy an undead completely to incapacitate it - a decapitation will suffice. An undead that is destroyed, decapitated, or decomposed completely but not freed will manifest as a spirit bound forever to the world of the living, with no chance of return, although they can be forcibly returned to the afterlife. However, once one becomes undead, one can never leave the body unless destroyed or freed. Willingly becoming undead automatically ensures a place in the 7 hells of eternal torment, although those who are transformed unwillingly (a very rare occurrence) will be re-judged upon return.
Ghosts and Spirits
When a soul departs from a body yet does not find the afterlives, it remains in the world of the living. For most souls the transition is quick and effortless - a feeling of flight, then arrival. However, souls deeply tormented or bound to a thing of earth may not find the way. Other ways for souls to remain in the world of the living include being trapped and released, being bound to a corpse as an animated dead and destroyed, or becoming undead and leaving the body. Some souls simply fly about the world, learning and resting in their travels, but others, particularly those kept on earth by powerful pain or attachment, may manifest as ghosts or spirits. While the shape, size, form, color, and appearance of these specters varies widely, most all share several common attributes - they are transparent, glow, can pass through solid objects, and cast no shadows. While there have been accounts of ghosts that appeared so solid and did not glow to the point at which some thought them to be flesh and blood, ghosts never cast shadows. One can not touch a ghost, although one can pass through one. Some spirits can touch (and harm) you, although these ghosts can also be harmed by magic and magical items. A general rule is, if a ghost can harm you, you can harm it, and vice versa. A harmful ghost will most likely either attempt to suffocate or strangle a victim, lead it to a trap, or call upon a weakened form of magic, the result of a spirit's attempt to touch the weave. All spirits can be returned to the afterlife by spell or ritual, and can be trapped like souls.
While Zombies are not technically dead nor undead, they are not truly living either. Zombies can be created by powerful Mutationists, and are the result of spells that gradually take over the bodies of men and turn them into mindless flesh-eaters. When the spell is cast, in several days the victim will begin to expel all food in his or her system, and will not be able to eat. When the body has reached the limit of starvation, it will begin to decay on the outside, and will begin to gain muscle mass while loosing coordination. At this point, the body will begin to crave raw flesh and blood, for without it the decay will continue to eat away at the body until it rots away into nothingness. The mind will slowly dull and lose its intellect and memories, as the blood hunger takes over completely. In its worst stages, a zombie will be a hulking, shambling mass of muscle, bone, and rotting skin. The nails, hardened into claws around slabs of hands, and the dull eyes, unseeing but for a mad fire in them, are set in a shallow husk of a face, rotted down to the skull in places. Only the blood of the living can bring life to a zombie, which will wander the lands looking for creatures and townspeople, until killed by another or rotted to dust. A zombie can be killed only by removing its head, or stabbing it in the heart, although Zombies can feel pain, and does not take as well to injury as undead. A zombie's soul, once the body is killed, will regain its memories up until the point at which it was cursed, and will transition normally into the afterlife, only being judged for its actions before the curse. The curse itself can be countered by a changer or a healer, or by divine ritual, although this can only be done in the early stages, before the curse takes ahold of its victim. While a city can be crippled by a host of Zombies unleashed upon it, the main reason they are created is for Mindbenders to control, as the Zombie mind can be controlled much more easily than a sentient person.
(Props to Scrasamax for giving me the inspiration on this one)
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? Responses (6)
Me likes. You took a lot of time over this and it shows.
Surely it may not suit every game world, but the precise AND brief set of rules is easy to copy and note any diffences... which is what I am just considering to do. :)
Excellent work sparK! It looks well thought out and delivered, and it answered most of my questions as I read the text. On a technical level it is well delivered.
This is great.
This is a nice addition to anyone who has a necro/undeath/death fetish. Or not. I use the dead and non living in my world often. A by product of religion and choices more often then not. Undead who are created usually have a lifespan and are not eternal. After a period of time the decay and waste away. So nothing lasts forever. Even the undead who makes packs to stay eternal still have to do things to stay that way.
This looks pretty damned good. Nice selection of alternatives.
This is a great treatment of the subject. Nicely done and detailed.