This June, Dragon Magazine releases a new playable race, the revenant, described as follows:
Most of the time, death is the end of the story, but sometimes, it's just the beginning. A revenant arises not as an aimless corpse of a life lost but as the embodiment of a lost soul given new purpose. Such a creature walks in two worlds. Though the revenant moves among the throngs of the living, it has a phantom life—a puppet mockery of the existence its soul once knew. The revenant is an echo haunted by the memory of itself.
In today's interview, we ask the revenant's designer, R&D's Matthew Sernett to better preview this race.
Wizards of the Coast: So Matt, beyond this initial description, can you tell us what exactly is a revenant? How will playing one be different from the current races? Or, for that matter, different from traditional fantasy races?
Matthew Sernett: Boy, that's a doozy of a question! The revenant is completely different from every other D&D race in many ways. It's not a race in the typical sense. They don't procreate. There are no societies of revenants. In fact, the player who plays a revenant might be the only revenant in the world (or least the only one the PCs know about).
Revenants are souls re-embodied by the Raven Queen to achieve a specific end in the mortal world. They're not the undead remains of someone, but they are undead to a degree. The revenant's goal might be something the soul failed to accomplish in its previous life, but it's just as likely something the goddess of fate wants done. Of course, other powers can negotiate with the Raven Queen to have her make a revenant, and then the goal depends on the power behind the plot. There's a ton of roleplaying potential in discovering who raised the PC as a revenant and why. A revenant might know why it has been returned to the world or it might not. It might doggedly pursue that goal or avoid it. Also, the revenant doesn't have a clear memory of the previous life. That complicates things too. As you'll see in the article, every member of the race has huge story potential.
Wizards of the Coast: Can you tell us about the genesis of this race’s design? How did you go about the initial design work of the Revenant—what concepts did you wish to create, and how did you design mechanics for them?
Matt: The origin of the revenant comes from the coolness of the basic concept. It has existed as a monster in previous editions, and I think there might have been a version of the idea as a race somewhere in 3rd edition. The revenant is an undead that seeks to achieve some aim. It seemed like great fun to roleplay, but the mechanics of how it should work have always been a bit of a puzzle. We could have made it so that a PC of any race turns into undead and gets some extra feat choices, but that presents balance issues at low level, and it's hard to accomplish that flavor when most of what your character does in the game is the same as a living PC.
Instead, we devised the idea that the Raven Queen, who is in charge of the dead after all, reincarnates souls. That's a lot of fun because then the PC might be a soul who has been dead for a few thousand years ("I was alive when Bael Turath was but a glimmer in the eyes of avaricious men!") or the PC might have died last week and be able to fight his own undead corpse. That also gave us latitude with the mechanics because we could create racial abilities and not worry about replacing existing racial powers.
That said, all revenants are not the same! If you want to have been a dwarf paladin in your previous life, your revenant warlock can choose options that gives him some mechanics from his previous life. This built-in flexibility offers a lot of new territory for people who get excited by game mechanics and character building. That was my goal from the outset: Make a race that makes all kinds of players excited to play it, whether for its mechanics or flavor.
Wizards of the Coast: Flavor-wise, what fantasy or perhaps horror inspirations helped influence the creation of this race?
Matt: Certainly the 1st-edition revenant was the starting point, but having the undead corpse of your buddy in the party might be hard to swallow for a lot of folks. So we made a backstory and unique appearance for them that should work in most games. However, if you want your revenant halfling to be Small and look like he did in life, that's up to you. As it says in the article, players and DMs are free to devise the backstory for revenants in their games. The article offers a cool starting point for inspiration, and it's certainly what I'd use in my games.
Of course, there were a couple of other inspirations. I can't ignore that The Crow was a big one, but that's a chicken and egg question. Lot's of other stories and legends inspired The Crow, which wasn't even a comic when the first Fiend Folio came out. Also, I remembered the 2nd edition revenant (I think) and the rules that made it basically deathless until it accomplished its end. I always thought that was a neat idea from a story perspective. Of course, we can't have a deathless PC race, but you'll see some mechanics that help the revenant be . . . formidable.
Wizards of the Coast: Wizards: Can you explain more of the rarity of this new race? Why did you choose a more rare direction?
Matt: The rarity is an important element. While its fine to have a whole party of PCs be revenants, we thought it silly to have cities of them, given their backstory. Baby revenants don't make any sense (although one could make for a very creepy plot to an adventure).
The rarity just makes sense for the concept, but it also helps DMs incorporate it into their games. Often a new race means carving out large sections of the world for them to live in or putting them in as NPCs all over the place. There's no need for that with the revenant.
Wizards of the Coast: Let’s discuss generating the visual style of revenants. The article initially presents the following:
Revenants are souls of the dead returned to a quasi-life by the Raven Queen, but they do not appear as undead horrors or even anything like their former selves. When the Raven Queen reincarnates souls, they exist as her special creations, and they have the bodies of her choosing.
What visual concepts did you explore for this race, and what direction did you go in for their appearance?
Matt: To make them fit into games, they couldn't look like hideous rotting corpses or cause people to run at first sight. That was the plan from day one. Their appearance now suits their story and mechanics, and it gives them a look that allows them to be members of normal society. It's also not an ugly appearance, and in my experience, players prefer races that look cool, cute, or pretty.
Given their rarity, few people in the world should know what they're looking at, and that means a revenant is just one unusual looking person in a world chock full of strange and rarely seen races. When the party rides into the frontier village of humans and halflings, the populace should be more concerned that a band of armed adventurers came in than if one of them is a half-orc, an elf, a goliath, or a revenant. But if you want to have you revenant look like a corpse or even a ghost and deal with the roleplaying repercussions, more power to you! That sounds like an exciting game.
Wizards of the Coast: The Raven Queen would seem to have a new and prominent role in the cosmology of 4th Edition. For those somewhat new to this edition, who is the Raven Queen? And is Orcus jealous of the Raven Queen’s new roles and responsibilities with the dead?
Matt: I really like the concept of the Raven Queen. She's a goddess who acts something like Hades in Greek mythology. I think D&D has been missing that role for a long time as in previous editions souls were often assumed to just go to their gods in the afterlife. But what about souls who don't worship a god? If all souls go to their gods, where do undead come from? Having the Raven Queen answers a lot of those questions and provides a ton of great hooks for adventure concepts.
For revenants, the Raven Queen might be a big part in their "lives." She might send them omens or speak to them in dreams. She might have agents hunting the revenant to reclaim that lost soul. She might have raised the revenant PC for another god in exchange for some favor and not a give a wit about the PC. The PC's soul might be some kind of chess piece in a game between the Raven Queen and Orcus. The story possibilities are endless.
As to Orcus, I think he hungers for all that the Raven Queen possesses, including the power to make revenants. The Raven Queen takes her responsibilities seriously and doesn't cut a soul loose to the world willy nilly. Orcus would probably flood the world with them.
Wizards of the Coast: How might revenants affect the overall dynamics of a character’s life and death in a campaign? Do you have any personal experience with returning, regenerating, or otherwise resurrected characters in your own campaigns?
Matt: I suggest in the article that a player might have a PC come back as a revenant after the PC dies. I think that has a lot of story potential, plus it gives the player the chance to try new mechanics without forcing a new personality into the party.
It's also interesting to think about creating a character with a predestined end point. If my revenant will give up the ghost when he's killed his brother's murderer, it provides a point where I know I'll be creating a new character and introducing it to the group. That allows me to prepare that concept a lot earlier. Maybe I work with the DM to have that character be a friend of the party before my revenant dies.
As for the dead returning in my games, well, when I'm a DM, I make a good show of being deadly and allowing the dice to fall where they may, especially if the players get sloppy. In practice though, I'm a softy. I want the players to have edge-of-their-seats experiences, but in the end, I want them to win. Most deaths in the campaigns I've run occur early when the players don't have access to returning from the dead, but once they've learned their lesson, I often cheat a little to bring things right up to the edge without going over. (Shh! Don't tell them that.)
As a player I tend to play D&D to survive. I feel like I "win" when I end the encounter with the most hit points, when I'm the last PC standing, or when I get through a fight without a scratch. If I do die, I use typically use it as an opportunity to make a new character. There are so many options to explore, it seems a shame not to.
That said, I love the story possibilities of bringing folks back from the dead, and now that we have the revenant, I can play that concept from 1st level.