Category Archives: Setting or Campaign Idea

Fuck the King of Space

I’ve done something stupid.

I agreed to take over refereeing responsibilities for one of the games I play in.  This means I’ll be running two games every week. The very idea of it is exhausting, and I’m honestly a little worried about how I’m going to hold up. If this blog ends up becoming even more of a word slurry than it already is, you’ll know why.

The first hurdle is figuring out what I should run. Should it be something I’ve already put a lot of work into, like Dungeon Moon?  Or, I could run a second party through ORWA, and let the two groups see one another’s influence on the world. But both of those are post-apocalyptic settings, and I’d really like to branch out and do something new. I briefly considered running a game in a very traditional fantasy world, but as much as I do want to revisit that concept someday, it just doesn’t hold much appeal to me at the moment.

What I really want to do is run a game in space. And I want it to be the opposite of post apocalypse. I want it to be a galaxy of plenty. A society at its peak, but one with enough stark inequality that the players are hungry.

So, here’s my campaign pitch:

Faster Than Light travel is a technology so profoundly ancient, that it may as well be The Wheel. It’s prehistory, interesting only to the dustiest and most arthritic of archeologists. Commensurately, the whole of the galaxy–down to the tips of each spiral arm–was originally charted so long ago that many worlds have been forgotten, rediscovered, and forgotten again many times over.

Every star system of consequences is ruled by a member of one of the 36,000 families. Less consequential systems are nominally ruled by them as well, but usually by some minor relative who prefers living in a manse on a more cosmopolitan world, rather than moving to some backwater to govern it.

To say the hierarchies among the 36,000 families are complex, is akin to saying the galaxy is rather big. There are entire universities of scholars dedicated to understanding the finer minutia of who is in charge of what, and which person is subordinate to whom. But, bloated and directionless as the bureaucracy is, it all manages to muddle along under the guidance of the one supreme authority that is completely indisputable: The King of Space.

The current dynasty came to power four generations ago, in a series of ruthless wars pursued by Kulga “Bloodfist” Osbert. Her son, Ruldin, fought many of her later wars at her side, and was himself a powerful ruler in his day. His son, Trost, was competent enough for peacetime. The current King of Space, Trost’s daughter Bassiana, is a pathetically pampered creature with a cruel sense of fun. The only reason no one has usurped her yet is that dealing with her is slightly less terrifying than the prospect of succession wars.

None of that really has much to do with you, though. You’re just some dirt farmer who grows cantaloupes all year, then loads half of them onto a ship that transports them to some more important world you will never visit, where most will rot before anyone feels like eating them.

Or maybe you work in a factory, making fittings for mounting Repulsor Lift Dishes into Repulsor Lift Housings. You live in company housing, and every day you work a 16 hour shift at the conveyor belt, performing the same rote solder over and over again. Eventually, each fitting will be sold for 2 Darics, which is the same amount you make for every 100 you complete. So long as there are no defects.

Or maybe you’ve seen your share of the finer things in life, as you stood still and silent in some minor noble’s manse. Far enough away that nobody had to think about you, but close enough to respond instantly if any of them wanted a cup from the pitcher of wine you held.

The point is that you’re shit. You’re at the bottom of the pecking order, and always have been. But, recently, you resolved to change that. To take control of your life. With all your meager savings, you booked passage on an independent freighter that came through the local port. You hoped to disembark on some nicer world, and hopefully make a real life for yourself there.

Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out.

The Bozac

Two hundred years ago, The Bozac was a top-of-the-line pleasure cruiser, intended to ferry hundreds of passengers around in style and luxury. After many years of enduring more and more demeaning service, the Bozac was finally headed for the scrap heap, when an enterprising young fella bought it on the cheap.

Nine-tenths of the ship isn’t even pressurized. The remaining tenth is falling apart, but if you cram it full of people and cargo, it runs just well enough that you can call yourself an independent transport.

Things were going well enough, until the ship was ambushed by pirates. The crew and passengers of The Bozac never had a chance. If it had been one pirate with a marshmellow gun on a skateboard, they still would have been too fast and too well armed for The Bozac to get away. One shot crippled the ship’s engines, and one hour is all it took to steal all the cargo worth taking. The crew and passengers were herded into slave pens, and a few minutes after that, The Bozac was a deserted hulk drifting in space.

Deserted, except for a handful of player characters who managed to hide well enough to be left behind. Now all they’ve gotta do is find some way to get the ship moving again, before the life support system gives out.

Gameplay

My hope is that the players find some way to repair The Bozac, becoming its de facto crew. From there, the game would unfold as a sort of open-ended hex crawl, with the ship playing dual purpose both as the facilitator of their adventures (by allowing them to move around the Galaxy), and a lodestone around their neck (constantly eating up resources for fuel and repairs). Over time, they could customize the ship, or just buy or steal a better one.

Of course, the game could develop in any number of directions, and I don’t want to presume too much about how the players will solve their first set of problems. If they don’t end up with a ship of their own, they can always adventure on a single planet for awhile, and book passage on freighters whenever they want to move to a new one.

I’d like to put together a rules document before play begins. Nothing terribly fancy, mind you. Basically just the same rules I’ve been using in ORWA, but with some of the modifications that my ORWA group wouldn’t let me get away with.

A variety of alien species exist, but humans are the dominant race. No alien species has settlements on more than a handful of worlds, and the galactic nobility and monarchy are exclusively human. Player characters are assumed to be human unless some alternative is negotiated in advance. Classes are fighter / specialist / magic user, but I’m open to whatever weird class the players found on a blog somewhere, if they want to play it.

World of Bellumus

The Death of Brutus - Justice for CaesarOf late I have become completely preoccupied by the history of the Roman Republic and Empire In particular, the life of Julius Caesar. I’m in the middle of his Gallic Commentaries, decided to take a break to re-read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, thinking I might have a much greater appreciation for it now that I’m so familiar with the characters and events it describes. It also may help that I’m no longer in high school.

There is a soliloquy, when Marcus Antonius is left alone with Caesar’s body, which captured my imagination. It reads thus:

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Obviously, Antony is speaking figuratively here, but there’s some god damned delightful images.

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Those most loyal to Caesar are transformed. Their fingers fall away and their arms sharpen like blades. Their feet become cloven, and their legs bent. They cannot stop running, and they lust for the blood of vengeance.

“Domestic fury and fierce civil strife Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;”
The land becomes a man-made hellscape of endless war.

“Blood and destruction shall be so in use, And dreadful objects so familiar,” 
No one is an innocent. Women, children, the infirm, none leave their house without a sword in hand. It is uncommon to go a week without needing–or choosing–to kill.

“That mothers shall but smile when they behold Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;”
Damn.

“And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,”
Caesar’s spirit, given new physical form, walks the land aimlessly with Ate the Greek spirit of ruin dancing around him. He seems removed, as though he does not see, hear, or feel anything. If he desires to take a step, 100 men could not stop him. He would crash through a marble wall if he needed to.

The only time he seems to be aware of his environment at all is when someone is within reach of his sword or spear. Without hesitation he will will them, no matter the love he might have shown to them in life. He is no longer a man, but a force of nature.

“the dogs of war,”
Dogs, as large as horses, roam Italy. They are fierce beasts. They will attack any man they see, and have been known to slay entire cohorts.

Anyone within a 6 mile radius of these dogs becomes immediately aggressive and violent, lashing out at whoever they can until they pass from the dog’s presence.

“With carrion men, groaning for burial,”
The dead, though they lay unmoving, shriek and howl with still lips, cursing the living.

 

 

LS and the Fuzz Covered Vessel

Hogwarts, by Mary GrandPreYou know how any time there’s a new phenomenon popular with children, there’s always some group of nutjob adults who make a scene about how it’s corrupting the youth? They’re always kinda funny when they go on TV and rant about how “pokemon” is jap-talk for pocket monsters, and monsters are like demons, ergo the pokemons are subtle attempts by the devil to get into the pockets of our children. It’s less funny when you’re a child and those nutjobs are your parents.

A lot of stuff was verboten for me as a kid, ostensibly because of demonic influence. Sometimes I cared enough to subvert those bans, as I did when I started playing D&D in secret. But other times I didn’t want to risk it. And that’s how I made it to the venerable age of 26 without exploring a single piece of Harry Potter media. It’s really too bad, actually, since I was 11 years old when the first book was released in the U.S. Same age as the series’ eponymous protagonist.

Over the years I’ve seen enough parodies of it that I became thoroughly familiar with the source material, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I decided to sit down and marathon the films and see what I’d been missing. I’ll spare you any review, since I’m pretty sure I was the last person on earth who hadn’t seen them. I will say, though, that I was surprised that they actually lived up to the hype. After a lifetime of hearing about how great this story was, I honestly did not expect to like it very much. But 2 minutes into the movie I felt like a kid again. It was like watching Star Wars for the first time. I was captivated, and plowed my way through the first 3 films in a single day, and all 7 by the end of the week. I got my hands on the books 3 days ago, and I’m halfway through the second one already.

And because I’m me, discovering such an interesting world naturally led to thoughts of what a marvelous tabletop game it would make.

Hogwarts is basically a dungeon-hub. It’s a huge, intelligent castle with countless secrets to explore. In the Philosopher’s stone the children must sneak past a three headed dog, escape from a large entangling plant, find a door key in a room filled with hundreds of flying keys, play a deadly game of life-sized chess, solve a riddle to discover which potions will protect them and which will kill them, and finally confront an evil wizard, all in pursuit of a magical treasure. That sounds a lot like D&D to me. It’s the same in the second book, where the children must find a well-hidden secret passage, leading into a complex of caves, where they eventually encounter and fight a basilisk.

Illogical McGonnigalIt doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate from these starting points. If there is one chamber of secrets, why not twenty? Hogwarts is a megadungeon, and you need to escape from its depths by the end of every session, because otherwise you’ll miss class.

Here’s what I would propose. Players start as first year students. Every student is a magic user of course, but some class-like distinction could be made by allowing the players to sort themselves into one of the school’s four houses. A player in Gryffindor, for example, might have bonuses against fear effects. Whilst a kid in Ravenclaw might be allowed a bardic-lore style check for knowing any random piece of information the party needs. Perhaps further class distinctions could be gained by the choices the player makes in which classes they will take. At the start of the year they choose the classes they’ll attend between dungeon-delving sessions, and at the end of the year they’ve gained some bonus or ability from that course.

Magic would be particularly fun, since magic words are such a large part of the source material. Spells could be divided into “spell levels,” representing the years in which they would be taught to students. There is no limit on the number of spells which can be cast per day, or how many times a spell could be cast. HOWEVER, in order to cast a spell, the player must be able to recite the proper magic words. No magic notes would be allowed at the table, forcing the player to actually keep the spells in their head. (Functionally, a no-notes rule would be impossible to enforce. But in the spirit of fun, I think most players would acquiesce).

Rather than progressing according to experience, players would progress by years of education. In lieu of gold, magic items and “house points” would be awarded for successful adventures.

I can’t be the first person who thought of this, right?

Using an Open-World Video Game as a Campaign Setting

Dwarven Hunter Overlooking Ironforge with his Bear. Original World of Warcraft Trailer.
A screenshot of a Dwarven Hunter overlooking Ironforge from the original World of Warcraft trailer

I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind for awhile now. It’s stupidly simple, but it’s one that I want to share, and get some feedback on. Often when I don’t have any strong ideas about what I’d like to write, I think I’ll just write about this. But I can never quite figure out how I want to express the idea, and so I just come up with something else instead. That’s been going on for almost a year, and it’s about time I got this down on digital paper, so it can stop rattling around in my brain. Forgive me if this isn’t my most elegant or interesting post. More than anything, it just needs to be out of my brain.

As you no doubt have gleaned from my frequent mentions of it, I used to play World of Warcraft. When I type ‘/played’ on my main character, the accumulated time I’ve spent in that game comes to about half of a year of my life. I loved, and still do love that game. I noticed yesterday when I was spending time with a friend that despite the fact that neither of us have played the game seriously in years, we still start arguing about patch notes and design philosophies for WoW anytime we spend more than a few hours together. And every few months, I spend a few weeks listening to the game’s numerous soundtracks, reliving the emotional highs and lows.

For a long while, I’ve wondered if I could run a game in the world of Azeroth, relying on my memory alone to recreate the setting as a persistent world. There’s no reason this idea needs to be limited to Azeroth, mind you. The worlds of the Elder Scrolls games would work as well, as would perhaps another world like those featured in the Fable or Fallout games. I think the only real criterion would be that the world needs to be large enough and have enough going on in it that you could drop a party of adventurers into it and let them run wild without needing to add additional content. For example, the world of Hyrule from the Zelda series wouldn’t work, because it’s extremely small, and there’s really only one thing that ever needs to be done in that world: defeat the arch-villain.

Open world video games seem to be unique in this possible application. With a movie or a book, you may get a very good sense of what the setting is. With a particularly long series of books, you could even start to develop a complete picture of how a world worked and what it looked like. But if you wanted to turn it into a campaign setting, there would still be a lot of work to do. A traditional story is told with a focus on the various characters. The narrative is about them, and their problems, rather than what is going on in the world itself. Whereas an open-world video game attempts to create an entire setting which functions without characters, but is none the less geared towards a player’s involvement. For example, in a book you might read about the far-off threat of an encroaching empire, but if that empire is not central to the plot beyond explaining food shortages, you’ll never learn anything more about it. Whereas in an open world game, there’s almost never any place or group of people which you can’t eventually interact with.

Having spent so much time in World of Warcraft, I have a mental map of thousands of acres of landscape. I know the names of towns and important NPCs. I know that Fargodeep mine has been infested by Kobolds. I know that the town of Lakeshire is trying to fend of Gnoll bandits in the hills, and Orc invaders from Blackrock mountain. I know that Ogres have established a stronghold in the high elven ruins of Dire Maul, and I know that the Grimtotem tribe hold many of the plateaus in 1000 Needles. I have an entire world nearly memorized inside of my head*, and at present I’m not doing anything with that knowledge. So why couldn’t I run Azeroth as a campaign setting?

The best part about the idea is that it would fulfill a long time fantasy of mine. Any time I fall in love with a world, I never really want to leave it. I want to stay there and continue having adventures. Many of my early projects when I first tried working on tabletop games were clumsy attempts to find a way to return to a fictional setting that I didn’t want to leave. The LOZAS system which I’ve been working on is an (I hope) more sophisticated attempt to do the same thing.

Returning to those fictional world in tabletop a  game has another marvelous benefit as well. The players can change it in any way they want. WoW is understandably static in many ways–the quest needs to be there for the next character to complete. But in a tabletop game, you can see the world grow and evolve based on player input in a way which isn’t possible when you’re sharing that world with 11 million other people. You can solve problems in more interesting ways as well, using your wits to develop new tactics which simply woulnd’t possible in a video game. Perhaps in the tabletop version, players could recruit the noble red dragonflight to render aide in the battle against Nalfarion. Or maybe A noble Orc could lead a successful charge against Stormwind, capturing the city and reducing the belligerent humans to a species of refugees, begging for scraps from their allies.

That would really be the extent of the idea. As GM, I would ask the players to choose their races and their starting city, and I’d start them off as level 1 characters in Vanilla WoW at the start of the game’s story. Through their play they might develop the story along a similar path, or they might change everything completely. Though certain events, such as the opening of the dark portal or the scourge invasion would probably be far outside of the player’s control. Doubtless a few details would change based on the holes in my memory, but it shouldn’t be difficult to improvise based on what I do remember.

I know a lot of tabletop players have some inexplicable animosity towards WoW, but what do you think of this idea? Would you be willing to play in a game world like this one?

*Except for Stonetalon Mountains. Don’t ask me why. I’ve got several loremaster achievements, but in all of my years playing, I never once spent more than a few minutes in Stonetalon Mountains. Maybe the fucking drop rate on Basilisk Brains the first time I went there left a bad taste in my mouth. (I don’t care what anybody else says, that drop rate was below 5%).

Playing The Other Side: Mindless Undead

Jason Battles the Skeletons Born of the Hydra's TeethAnyone who plays tabletop RPGs eventually starts coming up with ways to pervert the concept. A group will only play good and neutral heroes for so long before they start to consider playing evil characters. They’ll only play as humans, elves, and dwarves for so long before they start to wonder what it would be like to play as an orc or a goblin. It’s only natural for a person to look for unusual and flavorful experiences, particularly in a game which is already about exploring the fantastical. Even Gygax would purportedly send his D&D players into Western or Science Fiction scenarios–still wielding sword and spell. Deviations like these can be great fun. and it was while entertaining these perversions that I struck upon the idea of having my players take the reigns of mindless undead creatures.

I would start with a dungeon, probably on the smallish side. Perhaps only a single level. It would be filled with everything you would expect to find in a dungeon: interesting rooms, treasure, traps, and so forth. It would even have adventurers. The only thing it wouldn’t have is monsters, because that’s where the players come in. Each player would take command of a single skeleton or zombie with a very simple task: prevent adventurers from defeating the necromancer who was kind enough to animate them. They would be given a map of the dungeon, as well as guidance from their master’s divinations about the location of the invading adventuring party.  They would be free to use any tactics they wished to defeat the adventurers. I, in turn, would move the adventurers through the dungeon, rolling for damage when they passed a trap and buffing them up a bit each time they encountered treasure.

Shambling Zombie by Jim PavelecI would do my best to defeat the zombies, but until the adventurers slay the necromancer, a new zombie or skeleton will always join its fellows within 1d6 rounds of its predecessors death. So no matter how many the adventurers kill, they’re fighting an uphill battle through the dungeon. Any time an adventurer is slain, one of the undead may spend a full round eating its corpse to regain all of their health. Any time the undead succeed in causing a TPK, all of the individual undead involved gain 1HD, and are allowed to add +1 to their damage rolls henceforth.

The cool thing about the idea is that player death really doesn’t matter all that much. When a player has invested a lot of time into creating, or playing a character, it can be a sobering experience for that character to die. It’s one of the big weaknesses of Pathfinder’s involved character building process. But when all of a character’s abilities and statistics are found under “S” and “Z” in the Bestiary, there’s no character creation process to go through. And since the new character appears a mere 1d6 rounds later, I imagine it won’t take long for players to start wantonly sacrificing themselves to create barriers, or to lure adventurers into deathtraps. And while a character who has leveled up might be a little too valuable to just throw away, I doubt any player would grow so attached to a few more HP and a +1 to damage that they’d feel at all sad to lose the character.

The way I imagine it, this would be a pretty fun evening of gaming to run. A brief deviation from the norm to cleanse everyone’s adventuring palette. Little will the players realize the insidious information they’re inadvertently providing to their GM: tactics. It’s just a side benefit really, but I know I’ll be watching my group carefully to see what they come up with. And I’ll be sure to use something similar against them next time they’re unfortunate enough to be level one adventurers taking their first wary steps into a dungeon.

In truth, this is closer to a board game than it is to an RPG. The only reason I wouldn’t call it a board game flat-out is because of tactical infinity. There are no limits to what the players can do to defeat the adventurers, so long as they can convince the GM that the idea is plausible.

Creating an Evil Campaign Featuring the Undead

A Lich raises Zombies, from the cover of Libris Mortis, no textNote: This Friday’s Magical Marvels is written and ready to go up. However, my ladyfriend is busy with coursework, and has not been able to create the art for it. Both of us have really enjoyed what her art has added to this series of posts, so I’ll be holding off on posting it until sometime Sunday, after she completes the image. Thanks for your patience!

A month or two back, I typed a bunch of tabletop RPG keywords into twitter, found some random accounts, and followed them. I’m quite active on twitter, but most of my twitter friends are not tabletop role players, so I was hoping to expand my circle of friends a little more. By and large the endeavor has been a failure. Most of the accounts I followed have since been unfollowed either for being inactive, or being boring. Recently, though, one of those accounts posted this:

Twitter: DMfemme "Buh! Nearly time to start college ,#dnd campaign... When did that happen? Also, any tips for an evil campaign?

Tips on an evil campaign? Why, Evil is my middle name! It’s also my first and last name. Legally, I am Evil E. Eviltan. The original family name is actually “Evilsatan,” but it got anglicized when my grandparents arrived on Ellis island. Anyway, I quickly sent DMfemme a response.

Twitter: linkskywalker "I've actually got some significant experience with evil campaigns. Any idea what you want to do?"

A few days went by, and I forgot about the message. Twitter is more of a chat room than a message board. If it takes someone more than 15 minutes to respond, odds are they aren’t going to. But lo and behold, a few days later:

Twitter: DMfemme "Sorry about delay replying! I would like to do something a bit light hearted, preferably with something of an undead theme.."

Undead you say!? Why, I would say that undead was my middle name had I not already established that all of my names are permutations of ‘evil!’ That was, perhaps, shortsighted writing on my part. None the less, undead are my specialty. I don’t think I’ve ever run a campaign which didn’t include undead as a major element. Ever since my first game ham-fistedly throwing a mummy at my player, to my most recent cloak & dagger style game about the Cult of Vecna. When it comes to monsters, if it’s decomposing and likes the taste of sweet sweet manflesh, I like to include it in my games.

The first thing you should do, if you’re willing and able to spend a little money, is pick up a copy of Libris Mortis. It’s a 3.5 supplement, so if you’re running D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder the book is a must-have. But even if you’re using another system, there’s a lot of good fluff in here. More than I can cover in a single post, and it includes some of my favorite undead monsters. For this post, I’ll focus on things I’ve learned through my own gaming experience, which are not found in Libris Mortis.

I can think of a few ways an evil campaign can be undead based. The players can control undead, the players can work with undead, the players can work for undead, or the players can be undead. And, of course, you can mix and match. All of these are fun, and all come with their specific quirks.

Players Control Undead
If the players control undead, then they are likely of the Wizardly or Clerical persuasion, or some type of magic user at least. Though there’s no need to discount other possibilities. Perhaps the players find powerful artifacts early in the game which allow them to control undead–artifacts which grown in power as the characters level up. Or the characters could take the batman super villain route and fall into an open vat of negative energy, only to come out of it with the ability to control undead to some extent.

The thing about players who control undead, though, is that they become powerful quickly. Why explore a dungeon when you can simply send hoards of zombies into the dungeon as meat-shields. They’ll set off any traps and defeat or weaken any monsters within. Once they’ve done the grunt work, the players can move in and gather up the treasure. Even if they go into the dungeon themselves, encounters need to be buffed up significantly to make up for all the extra attacks players get (“my character attacks, then Zombies 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 attack”).

Still, one can’t deny the feeling of power that controlling an undead hoard gives to players. It’s an exhilarating feeling, and the GM should let them enjoy that. But that doesn’t mean the GM should never take it away. Undead-controlling villains can come up against paladins or clerics, able to cause their undead to flee in terror. Or they might find themselves forced to fight on consecrated ground where their undead cannot tread. Worst of all, they might eventually face a more capable necromancer, able to steal their control of their undead away from them! (You could call him “LS,” mwuahaha)!

Players Work With Undead
Lets say, for example, that rather than being necromancers, the players work for a necromancer. This gives the players a bit more freedom, since the GM doesn’t need to shoe-horn the players into the position of controlling some undead. More freedom means the players have more control, and the players having more control means the players have Player Agency, and player agency is a good thing to foster in your games. This option also gives the players less power over how the undead interact with the game, since they don’t control them directly. And as a third boon, this option gives the GM a convenient “quest giver” in the form of the player’s necromatic master.

Consider, for example, a scenario where the players are in the service of the great Necromancer Alicia. Alicia wants the players to subdue a tribe of goblins living not far from her tower of Brooding Darkness. Perhaps she provides them with amulets to help them direct the undead, but she could just as easily send an NPC along to control the undead, or even just control the undead herself from the aforementioned tower. Or perhaps Alicia doesn’t want the goblins killed, but just needs the players to throw some undead-powder into the goblin’s bonfire, causing them all to choke on the fire’s smoke and become zombies themselves.

Players Work For Undead
The players working for an undead has a lot of potential to play out exactly the same way that the players working for a necromancer does. After all, necromancers don’t die, they just become liches. (…which, I guess, requires dying at some point, but you take my meaning.) However, there are a variety of intelligent undead with the potential to keep the players as their minions.

Vampires are a favorite of mine. I’ve always felt they’re underused in the role of “overlord” style villain. Player quests could include finding humans for the vampire to feed on, help bring about eternal night, or even just work on traditional goals like conquering the world. Just because you don’t have a pulse or show up in mirrors doesn’t mean you don’t still lust for power. Ghosts are another great example. Being incorporeal, ghosts are much less likely to pursue worldly goals, but they could easily have plots of their own. Perhaps they want to return to a corporeal body, or they want the players to enact a ritual which will allow them to pass on to a more pleasant afterlife than the one for which they are destined.

Players Are Undead
Players as undead offers some of the most interesting possibilities. There are plenty of undead types for players to pick from. The party’s wizard could be a lich, the rogue could be a ghost, the fighter a vampire, and the cleric a mummy. Even normally unintelligent undead such as ghasts, ghouls, wights, etc can be “awakened,” allowing them to have an Intelligence score. Players will be happy because their undead have fantastic special abilities. All of them will be immune to crits, most of them will gain special attacks, and massive bonuses to their stats.

The players will likely be so distracted by all their special bonuses that they’ll completely forget all the power they’re handing over to their game master. Yes, the vampire fighter now has +6 natural armor, but they also cannot enter private residences without first being invited in, nor can they go outside during the day. And don’t forget that all undead can potentially be turned, or worse, dominated by a powerful necromancer. Which isn’t to say that you should punish your players for being undead–simply that you should make use of their weaknesses. That’s part of the fun of undead!

Other

There are a few other things I’d like to mention about running an undead-heavy campaign before ending this post.

Origin Many types of undead come with origin stories attached. Some are created when innocents are buried in a mass grave, others are spawned of unrepentant murderers, or children killed by their own family members. (The slaymate is one of my all time favorite undead.) Be aware of these origins, and if a type of undead doesn’t have them, think about creating your own. The origin of an undead can give you a good baseline for that undead’s personality. Or, if the players are out to create a specific type of undead, it can provide them with a gruesomely evil task.

Cliches Aren’t Scary
If you’re running an undead-heavy campaign because you like the creepiness of undead, remember that something stops being creepy once you get used to it. If you’ve only got a few adjectives to describe a zombie–rotting, shambling, grotesque–then your players are going to get bored of them really quick. Be creative, pull out a thesaurus, and make sure you keep giving your players new types of undead to encounter. Your zombies should dribble black gore onto the ground as they shamble, your lich should have half of a nose and a jaw attached to his skull by a wire, and your skeletons should still have bits of shriveled organs piled at the bottom of their rib cage.

Don’t Forget the Classics Often times, game masters get caught up in the big fancy undead, and forget about the little guys. Skeletons and Zombies can be incredibly creepy and threatening at any level. Don’t forget that humans aren’t the only ones who can be corpse-ified! One of my favorite monsters is the skeletal hill giant. And the dragon whose zombie-wings are too rotted to fly on any longer can be a terrifying foe. Even without using a high-CR foe as the base creature, these types of undead can be formidable. I recently threw my players up against a large number of skeletons which had Magic Missile inscribed on their index fingers. My players found it quite challenging to run back and forth across the battlefield taking out the skeletons one by one, getting hit by 1d4 + 1 unblockable damage from each skeleton each round.

And never forget: If you’re running a game with undead, use a Corpse-Sewn Hekatonkheires at some point. It’s just the right thing to do!

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