LP R&D: Why Undead Make the Best Monsters

Down the hall from LP Labs is LP Research and Development, where we’re throwing all kinds of ideas against the walls to see what sticks (and believe me, the walls in here have gotten really sticky). The idea behind LP R&D is to be the category for articles that are more abstract than the Labs, but no less useful. First out of R&D is what I hope becomes a series of articles, each advocating for a specific creature type from D&D’s diverse collection of monsters. In here you’ll learn what makes each one special and why you should include them in your game, plus a little advice on how to do it.

A bump in the night. A howl on the wind as it whips between headstones in the graveyard. An innumerable horde of rotting corpses crashing through the barred door. “Undead” is a word recognizable far beyond our tabletop lexicon. It creates a profound sense of dread in anyone familiar with horror, fantasy or action genres. Vampires, ghosts, zombies: the undead in all their forms are terrifying opponents; this is what makes them the best monsters.

As a creature type in D&D, undead have earned their frightening reputation. Undead cover the entire spectrum of challenge ratings, which means they’re a potential threat for an adventurer’s whole career. Mindless zombies and skeletons are bargain-basement cheap as a challenge individually, but lump a whole bunch together and watch the party fall back behind the cleric. (You remembered to bring a cleric, right…?) Incorporeal undead like banshees and wraiths are solid mid-level foes who aren’t easy to escape or defeat. At higher levels, vampires can be special enemies; the lore surrounding them is enough to form entire campaigns. At the highest levels, the DM is one lich away from giving their players sweaty palms.

The variety of abilities and attacks undead possess give them a lot of depth and utility. Taking creatures only from the 5E Monster Manual, undead can:

  • Fly through walls (banshee-CR 4, ghost-CR 4, shadow-CR ½, specter-CR 1)
  • Drain strength (shadow-CR ½)
  • Drain life on a hit (specter-CR 1, wight-CR 3)
  • Refuse to stay down when out of hit points (zombie-CR ¼)
  • Resist a cleric’s turning (ghast-CR 2)
  • Literally frighten characters to death (banshee-CR 4, ghost-CR 4)

…all before CR 5! These are unconventional means of threatening characters’ lives (read as: “outside the normal ‘dropped to zero hit points with no healing available’ paradigm”) that a lot of other creature types lack. Overall, their defenses are strong too, with plenty of immunities and resistances. The flipside to these defenses are that undead tend to share a few “traditional” weaknesses: sunlight, holy water and divine power are your best bets for surviving in combat against undead foes.

Leaving nuts-and-bolts behind for a second, there is another threat when fighting undead that raises the stakes. Obviously undead exist outside the natural life/death cycle of nature. This frequently extends to their victims as well; many undead don’t just kill but are able to conscript their victims into joining their ranks, increasing the strength of the enemy while decreasing the party’s.

Undead at Their Best

As a DM, I relish undead encounters. I don’t mind calling my shot with them either: exploring the tomb in the center of the graveyard after dark? Damn right you’re going to fight some undead! Undead are a lot of things, but subtle isn’t frequently one of them. Due to their varied strengths and abilities it’s hard to come up with a single compact piece of advice for running, so here’s a few.

Mindless undead act just like it says on the tin: mindlessly trying to eat the nearest living creature. Mindless doesn’t have to mean boring though:

Use Help actions and substitute some monsters’s attacks for Grapples as they rush in to spice up what would otherwise be an exercise in a handful of missed slam attacks on the party’s tank.
Have more undead claw their way out of the ground around the party to increase the pressure just as adventurers thought the situation under control.

Incorporeal undead can harass a party in a unique way: through the walls or floor!

Crypts and other labyrinthine settings favor hit and run tactics where the party can’t easily pursue the enemy. And don’t necessarily flee deeper into the dungeon; knowing there are active monsters behind them can add a degree of paranoia to party decision making.

Solitary intelligent undead like liches spend centuries poring over arcane tomes and other esoteric works, gaining more knowledge than a single mind was meant to hold. Their descent into madness is easy to justify.

But “social” undead, typically the kind that feed on the living, would have an entirely different psychology; a rich mine for adventure hooks and role-playing opportunities. What kind of pathos could develop in a creature whose body remains in a state suspended between life and death but still interacts with the living, even if it is only to kill them?

Did You Know?

There’s no real consensus on why elves are traditionally immune to the paralyzing touch of ghouls. WoTC designer David Noonan ascribed it to grandfathering a gaming balance of pre-D&D Chainmail where undead were cheap units capable of overrunning expensive elven defenders without a paralysis immunity. Gary himself attributed it to the “negative energy” of ghouls being canceled out by the elves’ “great positive energy”. Others cite Tolkien as the original inspiration, where the paralysis of undead was an unfortunate side effect of fearing death, which was a foreign concept to the ageless elves.

One creature type down, 13 more to go…

Undead are the best! Agree? Disagree? Have a great undead story to share? Leave it in the comments below!

About cdzura

I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow in the knee. DM-for-hire. Gnoll enthusiast. LP R&D Lead Scientist.

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