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Undead
A Brief Look Back at the Undead
James Maliszewski

Last month we saw the release of Dungeon Command: Curse of Undeath. Plus, as we toil through these dark days of the year (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), we wanted to take a brief look back at the history of the undead in the game, brought to us by Grognardia's James Maliszewski!


T he now well-understood word “undead” was earlier popularized in the English language by Bram Stoker, in his 1897 novel Dracula, whose subtitle was “Or The Un-Dead.” Though originally referring only to the titular vampire, over time the term came to be applied to other types of reanimated corpses. Dungeons & Dragons uses the term more broadly still, referring even to the incorporeal dead—such as wraiths and spectres—as undead beings. Since their inception, the undead have been among the most feared monsters in the game since their debut in the original edition of the game published in 1974. (Though it should be noted that ghouls, wights, and zombies had previously appeared in the Fantasy Supplement to Chainmail, making them the "original" undead.)

Fear the Dead

In the earliest days of the game's history, there were only eight types of undead: skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights, wraiths, mummies, spectres, and vampires. These were joined by the mighty liches in Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975) and by ghasts and ghosts in the Monster Manual (1977). Shadows also appeared in Greyhawk, but their original description specifies that they “are not 'Undead' per se,” whereas the Monster Manual reverses that, calling them “horrible undead creatures.” Intriguingly, the rulebooks contained in the various Basic Sets published in 1977, 1981, and 1983 follow Supplement I; most other versions of D&D (including the present edition), however, follow the Monster Manual's lead.

With the exception of skeletons and zombies, which are essentially mindless and brought into existence through evil magic, undead were noteworthy among D&D's monsters for their ability to reproduce themselves. Anyone slain by most types of “higher” undead would eventually rise as one of the undead himself, often under the control of the creature that slew him. (This may explain why shadows were later deemed to be undead, since, from their first appearance, they created more of their kind by slaying victims). That's frightening enough, but probably more frightening is how many undead formerly slew their foes—by draining “life energy,” which is to say, character levels.

Unlike, say, the paralyzing touch of a ghoul or the fear aura of a mummy, there was no saving throw against energy drain, meaning that the mere touch of an undead being like a wight or a wraith resulted in the loss of a level and all the abilities that came with it. This most assuredly made undead dangerous foes for characters, but it also made them much hated by players, since these monsters could take away one of the game's most fundamental rewards. Consequently, as early as OD&D's first supplement, a means to reverse the effects of energy drain was introduced in the form of the clerical spell restoration. Subsequent editions of Dungeons & Dragons have introduced other approaches to level drain intended to take some of the sting out of this potent attack form without rendering it completely toothless.

Famous Undead

One of D&D's great strengths over the years has been its ability to inspire the creation of memorable villains from amongst the ranks of its menagerie of monsters. The undead have provided more than their fair share of such antagonists, with Gary Gygax's 1978 module, Tomb of Horrors, introducing the world to Acererak—who was, in life, “a human magic-user/cleric of surpassing evil.” He later took “the steps necessary to preserve his life force after death,” a process that made him a lich. “Over centuries, the lich form decays and the evil soul roams planes unknown even to the wisest sages,” becoming what is known as a “demi-lich.” Despite its name, a demi-lich is one of the most potent forms of undead and the name of Acererak struck fear into the hearts of players everywhere.

In 1983, Tracy and Laura Hickman gave the world another even more memorable undead villain: Strahd von Zarovich, a vampire who appears in the module Ravenloft. In life, Strahd was the ruler of the land of Barovia, who spent his life warring on its behalf against foreign invaders. As he grew older, he came to regret his “wasted” youth and “made a pact with death—a pact of blood,” a pact sealed by murdering his younger brother on his wedding day and precipitating the suicide of his brother's bride, a woman Strahd sought for himself. Strahd then became a vampire and perhaps the most famous undead creature in the entire history of Dungeons & Dragons, appearing in multiple adventures, novels, and inspiring an entire campaign setting for the game.

Enter the Cleric

Less well-known to the gaming world than Strahd, but perhaps just as important, was another vampire who appeared in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. Known as Sir Fang, he was played by David Fant, who drew inspiration for his character from Christopher Lee's portrayal of Dracula in the Hammer Film Productions movies. He was, therefore, an extremely potent opponent, possessed of abilities that made him hard for the heroes of Blackmoor to combat.

Drawing on both the same Hammer horror movies that gave inspiration to Sir Fang and the late '60s Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows (which featured a vampire as its protagonist), Dave Arneson envisioned a “monster hunter” character class on the model of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, played most memorably by Peter Cushing. Van Helsing employed a variety of tools to fight off the undead, including a crucifix from which vampires recoiled. Since D&D is rooted in the European Middle Ages, it was a small leap from a crucifix-wielding Victorian monster hunter to a medieval priest calling on the power of God for defense against the powers of Hell. Thus was born the cleric. His initial role as an undead hunter would, in time, expand to include spells based on the miracles of Biblical prophets and Christian saints, but one of his key abilities—turning undead—would remain at the core of the class through every edition of the game since 1974.

The inspiration for the cleric ought not be a surprise to anyone, as D&D has a long history of looking to both books and movies as source material for its monsters. Some of its earliest undead creatures, like the wight, owe their existence almost entirely to works of popular entertainment, while others are wholly original and unique to the game. Over the years, the ranks of the undead have swollen as the game's designers have added more and more creatures from beyond the grave, often reflecting the shifting trends of contemporary culture. This is a testament to the power of the undead over the imagination. Going all the way back to Count Dracula, these shambling horrors are, for many, both frightening and attractive—which makes them perfect foes to challenge Dungeons & Dragons characters!

About the Author

James Maliszewski started roleplaying in the late fall of 1979, when he opened up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which was edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes and originally purchased for his father. More than thirty years later, he’s still playing. He works as a freelance writer and blogs about old school gaming at http://grognardia.blogspot.com.

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