Undead Unlimited!

June 2013

Written by Bryan Fazekas

This article was originally published in & Magazine Issue 2 in August 2013.


Most adults have seen at least one of the plethora of zombie movies that have spawned like blowflies on a corpse since Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1968. In most of the movies the undead multiply as the people who are wounded or killed but not eaten all rise as zombies. They multiply without bounds, threatening to overrun the world, and wiping out all uninfected humans. One version of The Apocalypse.

Now consider undead in AD&D. Undead such as skeletons and zombies don't multiply, they have to be created. Liches and mummies are also constructed, so they don't multiply either. But ghouls, ghasts, and level draining undead reproduce by killing or draining mortals. The following excerpts are from the AD&D Monster Manual (MM):

What stops these undead from proliferating like the heavies in a George Romero movie, eventually obliterating the campaign world? Practically speaking, nothing. The average zero level human, or one HD dwarf or elf, has little chance in dealing with the least of these monsters and absolutely no chance of survival against the most powerful.

If a vampire kills one person per week, that adds up to 52 people at the end of a year, 5,200 at the end of a century. If each kills rises as a vampire? Vampire Apocalypse. Now add in the spectres, wights, and the like. The living don't have a chance.

Why Does Anyone Care?

Is this a real problem? The Dungeon Master (DM) can hand wave (e.g., ignore it) and the problem doesn't even exist. So why worry about it if it's a non-issue?

Some people want "realism" in their game, they want things to make sense. For those that don't care about realism and things making logical sense? This ruling on how undead spawn is a gold mine of ideas for the DM to use. Following are ideas for limiting the spawning of level draining and carnivorous undead, and how the DM can use the rules to manufacture interesting role playing scenarios.

Level Draining Undead

Spectre and wight victims become a half strength undead of the appropriate type under the control of their killer. Vampire victims become an appropriately strengthened vampire under the control of their killer. [Note: the vampire reference indicates that the victim retains their original class, augmented by vampire powers, but this isn't explained.]

One way to limit undead proliferation is to limit the number of undead which can be created. One choice is to set the limit equal to each monster's hit dice, which means a vampire can create and control eight thralls, a spectre can control seven, and a wight can control four. If that's too much for the campaign, cut the numbers in half to 4, 3, and 2 for vampires, spectres, and wights (respectively).

What is the rationale for this limit? Undead have a connection to the Negative Material Plane (NMP). The connection is through the master and there is a limit to the amount of energy that can be channeled to the thralls.

Ghouls and Ghasts

While the description of ghasts does not indicate they reproduce as do ghouls, the author treats ghasts as "super" ghouls and uses the same rules for both.

What is the limiting factor for ghouls?

While hit dice could be easily used the same way as described for level draining undead, it doesn't "feel" like a good fit. Some other mechanism should be used.

Time can be used as a limiting factor. What if ghouls have a limited un-life span? They last for a finite period of time, a week, a month, a year? At the end they collapse and molder. Alternately that time limit could start from their last meal of humans, especially if the time span is short, say one week.

Ghouls could completely destroy the humans in an area, run out of food, and all molder. Or the DM can choose that when ghouls make a kill they immediately begin feasting, which will strictly limit the number of kills made.

Role Playing Ideas

Wights are of average intelligence and lawful evil. They are smart enough to understand how to cooperate and intelligent enough to resent and envy their master.

Scenario #1:

A wight has plagued a town, killing all caught outside after dark. The party arrives to deal with the problem, and finds easy clues to track the wight back to its lair, where they dispatch it. Unknown to the party, the thralls of the master wight have been making indiscriminate kills and leaving trails back to the master's lair. The first night after the party destroys the master, the former thralls go on a killing spree, each producing 4 thralls of its own. The number of wights goes from 5 to 20 in one night!

Scenario #2:

Rooting around in an old tomb while looking for valuables, a young adventurer-wannabe was "infected" by the moldering remains of an ancient ghoul. It appeared that a cut got infected and the infection rapidly spread and killed him within a day. Three nights later he rose as a ghoul, broke into the home of his closest friend, and slaughtered him and his family. The ghoul devoured the father but left the bodies of the friend, friend's mother, and two younger siblings. Three nights later they all arose and raided a friend's home, slaughtering and devouring all within. The ghouls kill everyone they find, each devour a person, and any others rise three nights later. Within a few weeks the terrified survivors of a once thriving town are badly outnumbered by ravenous ghouls. The party wanders into town and find themselves badly outnumbered.

Campaign Choices

In the author's campaign, when any player character killed by an undead (of any type) the chance of that character rising as undead is 100% unless measures are taken. Do the players know this? Of course not! For new players this will cause consternation and horror. More experienced players should expect something bad to happen and take appropriate measures to avoid problems.

A parting thought why would anyone in a D&D world use any treatment for their dead that did not include burning or some other method to ensure the dead will not rise?

Not Enough Undead?

What if it's not enough? What if the DM needs more undead of a given type?

The classic method is the strongest undead rules the others. Numerous types of undead could be welded together by a strong vampire, mummy, or lich. Or the DM could use multiple levels of thralls of a single undead type.

One choice is for each thrall have its own thralls, say each can create half as many as its master, e.g., a vampire thrall can create four sub-thralls. Or the DM can produce something like a family tree, where each thrall can have half the number of thralls its master has. Thus a master vampire can have 8 thralls which we can refer to as "children". Each "child" can have 4 "grandchildren", each "grandchild" can have of 2 "great grandchildren", and each "great grandchild" can have 1 "great great grandchild". Any people killed beyond these numbers are simply dead.

That's a lot of vampires!

Another choice is that when a master vampire is killed its thralls all become master vampires, and each sub-thrall level is bumped up. The party kills the master vampire only to discover they just made things worse, now they have 8 master vampires to deal with. And people previously killed may now rise as vampires now that there are openings in the ranks.

Another thought is that a group of vampires may not all have the same master. Killing one vampire may have no effect upon the others. Ideas are limitless, bounded only by a DM's inventiveness. Too complicated? Stick with the original idea of one level of thralls ...

Author's Note: This article was spawned by a discussion in the August 2010 thread "alternative 1e undead (no energy drain)" started by GengisDon on the Dragonsfoot forums.


Sidebar: Old School Undead

Tim Kask TSR employee #1, editor of the The Dragon magazine, and editor/author for several OD&D supplements and AD&D has a Q&A thread on the Dragonsfoot forums where he answers a lot of inane questions, including mine. (http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=23223) I posed the following question which he kindly answered.

BF: I'd like you to make another trip in the Wayback Machine! In reading the descriptions of level draining undead, the MM descriptions typically indicate that victims become half strength monsters under the control of their killer. I always assumed this to mean that they were half hit dice, e.g., a wight's victim became a 2HD wight. Is this what was intended, or am I interpreting it incorrectly?

TK: As I recall, and the memories from back then are very dusty, we (contemporary DM's) made them half their original HP, or a 2HD wight, whichever was greater. It was more about turning on their former fellows than any other consideration. As an example, from my old campaign: a ftr-type with 35 HP gets totally drained; he becomes an 18HP, 2HD monster (an oxymoron of sorts). HD were used on one combat table and had to do with ST back then. In the example above, if the afflicted survives, (the players flee or drive it off), then the next time encountered, if there is a next time, the former PC-turned-wight is now a 4HD wight with max HP. But that is just the way I handled it.

I also ruled that a fresh wight could not immediately know how to drain a full level per touch; during the melee in which they were "created" they can only drain half a level per touch. If, as happened above, it survives to encounter another day, it has full powers.

Very early on, I seem to recall that an entire low-level party was "wighted"; the original drained a 2nd lvl, which then drained a 1st lvl, and so on until the entire party were wights. What fun!

Last year Tim along with Frank Mentzer, James Ward, and Chris Clark formed Eldritch Enterprises, a new company to make products for old School games. Their web site is http://eldritchent.com/


Copyright 2013 Bryan Fazekas