Archives of Candlekeep: Ambulatory Corpses
This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty Eight on 11th September 2019.
ROSTRO: Please state the nature of the mathematical inquiry
Ryu: First, you called us, second, what does this topic have to do with math?
ROSTRO: The exercise involved more comparative analysis and referencing information from extraplanar sources than engaging in mathematical activities but my resources remained invaluable. It is also likely the handwritten note provided by Lennon was misinterpreted by Ostron.
Ryu: Let me…oh by Eldath’s garden is this even written in Common? “Work…with…Gath…ahhh. Yeah, that “G” looks like an “M”. I don’t know how you managed that, but you did.
Lennon: I am not blaming this on me
ROSTRO: Might I propose we proceed with the analytical report.
Lennon: Once more into the breach…
Undead are an inexorable part of the D&D universe. The fact that one of the most well-known adventures across all editions of the game focuses on a vampire should be proof of that, as well as the innate abilities clerics and paladins have that specifically relate to dealing with undead creatures.
However, cultural influences from modern popular media have skewed many people’s understanding of the purpose, behavior, and effects of the various undead creatures as they exist in the game currently. Though in some cases applying any knowledge presented here would be considered metagaming from a player perspective, it may also be useful for those creating or running adventure modules or engaging in theoretical character design sessions.
Let’s start with one that’s fairly easy; skeletons. There’s actually very little confusion about these; they’re just animated skeletons forming whatever creature it used to be before all the fleshy bits got removed. Funny note; apparently if they aren’t given direction, the skeletons will continue doing whatever they used to do when they were alive. So a skeletal cow will mime chewing cud in a field. However, the magic that creates skeletons apparently has an unalterable feature where the skeletons automatically try to kill anything that’s alive nearby, so your dreams of a magically animated Halloween tableau should probably be rethought.
Also, Dracoliches are not just dragon skeletons. If you animate a dragon skeleton, you get an animated dragon skeleton. Dracoliches are a whole different thing, and way scarier.
Speaking of Liches, those are another one that people familiar with D&D are usually clued into, but they actually don’t show up in pop culture much, so people not steeped in the lore are less familiar. In short, Liches were very powerful wizards that decided death just wasn’t for them, so they encased their soul in some sort of physical object, called a phylactery. This creates a lich. They get all the advantages of undead creatures plus most of the bonuses of being a wizard, and a few extra tricks besides. While you can destroy their body with a lot of work, in order to kill them you have to find and destroy the phylactery, which smart liches generally make it very very difficult to do. The main antagonist in Tomb of Annihilation Ascererak, for example, has been around for so long and is so devious that nobody knows where his phylactery is.
From the more simplistic examples we shall proceed to the complicated. Zombies have so suffused modern media with varying interpretations and abilities that the label is approaching a lack of concrete definition. The only aspect most sources universally recognize is the aspect of a zombie being an animated corpse. From there it devolves into a chaotic maelstrom of artistic license.
Zombies in D&D adhere more closely to traditional folklorish interpretations of zombies which originate in Haitian and West African cultures. They are created by magic, bound to their creator, possess no sapience or intelligence, and generally follow instructions with overly literal interpretation. They also continue attempts to complete their task until and unless their body is rendered completely incapable of it, and said bodies generally move slower than their living counterparts would.
Also, their condition is not contagious nor transferable.
If you want that effect, you have to go to a different undead creature altogether. Wights are another creature infamous to veteran D&D players but not always familiar to people who haven’t played the game. The reason wights were so scary is that in early editions their attacks could drain character levels. So you could enter a fight with a wight at level 10 and end it at level 8. That mechanic was abandoned even back in 4th edition (partially because the mechanic was unpopular with players, but also because the amount of work required to de-level a 4th edition character would have pretty much ended the session).
Now wights only drain HP, but the drain is persistent until characters take a long rest. The kicker is that if the wights drain a creature to death, the creature comes back as a zombie under the wight’s control. Wights are also one of the thinking undead, with their own desires, motivations, and without anyone or anything magically controlling them.
Another aspect generally attributed to zombies is an insatiable desire for brains, something most people attribute to the movie *Night of the Living Dead*. Ironically the only creatures in D&D specifically interested in eating brains are Illithids, who aren’t even undead and are much more intelligent than most undead creatures.
The closest thing to a brain-eating zombie in D&D are actually ghouls, which are formed from people who make a habit of feasting on humanoid flesh. If you want the terror of trying to escape undead bent on consuming the living, ghouls are definitely the way to go, as they have a paralytic poison as well as a decent move speed and all the immunities and resistances undead usually enjoy.
Another creature whose abilities are often obfuscated by popular cultural sources is the vampire. The lists of abilities and weaknesses attributed to such creatures are long and widely varied. A comparative analysis of all vampiric traits and their application to the D&D Vampires-
Ryu: Would take too long and put people to sleep.
ROSTRO: Your alter-ego is far more accomodating.
Lennon: That’s…wow…I literally never thought I’d hear that…ever. Anyway, is there a short version?
Very well. In summary, D&D vampires are able to ascend walls and ceilings without much difficulty and retain the ability to shapeshift but are restricted to the form of a single bat (rather than a swarm) or a cloud of mist. Vampires’ bodies regenerate damage, and Vampires will form into mist and escape if their body is killed away from their home lair, as defined by the location of their burial container and/or the presence of soil colocated from their place of internment.
They are physically damaged by sunlight and running water, two elements whose presence also eliminates the efficacy of their polymorphing and regeneration abilities. The regeneration can also be interrupted with radiant damage. They retain the restriction on entering residences without explicit invitation.
Puncturing the vampire’s cardiac organ with cellulose weaponry will induce paralysis rather than instantaneous death. Permanent destruction of the vampire must occur while the creature is in running water, sunlight, or on its home soil.
As far as the abilities that make it into the romance novels, D&D vampires still retain their charm ability. It’s slightly more powerful than the spell version, as the victims will willingly submit to taking damage from the vampire, but not as good as some fictional interpretations where the charmed people are essentially dominated. Being bitten and dying creates a vampire thrall, creatures who are mostly just hungry for blood and totally under the vampire’s control. Becoming a full vampire requires either drinking blood from the vampire that bit them or having the vampire that turned them die. Or you could make a pact with a dark god but then your parents get angry and trap you in a demiplane with your reincarnated lover and…yeah, it’s probably just easier to find a vampire with hemophilia.
It’s worth noting also that the modern trope of having vampires and werewolves or other lycanthropes at odds with each other isn’t in place by default. Werewolves in particular have a chaotic evil alignment per the Monster Manual, and one of the regional effects of a live-in vampire is an increase in wolves, so the lore seems to lean more toward vampires and werewolves getting along rather that being at each others’ throats, but evil creatures also don’t automatically have the same agenda, so “Underworld: D&D edition” isn’t impossible.
Despite the limitations on fully exploring the subject, the information presented should be of minimal sufficiency to eliminate common interpretative errors. Other creatures exist in D&D classified as undead, however such creatures either behave in ways consistent with common lore or they are specific to D&D and do not have any non-local source material to inform opinions.
Lennon: Hang on, who actually requested this anyway?
ROSTRO: The individual you are forbidden from referring to as KayDee submitted the original investigative query.
Lennon: Okay, first, I’m really not cool with us doing her favors, and second, why does it get to use the nickname?
Ryu: There are certain things I kind of…avoid talking to her about…
ROSTRO: Relatedly, avoidance of the information in the Scrying Pool will result in a lack of instructive correction and reciprocal adulation. Ostron shall shortly resume ambulatory capability and rendezvous with you there.