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The Ancient Dead
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

C ontinuing our October undead theme, we turn our focus this week to two forms of corporeal undead with a great deal in common: mummies and liches.

Divine Guardians: Mummies

Most mummies are guardian undead, preserved through special embalming and divine rituals to serve as guardians for tombs, temples, and other locations with sacred (but evil) significance. As part of the embalming process, their bodies are wrapped in long strips of linen. In undeath, mummies perform the cultic rituals that priests or temple functionaries would normally perform.

The resulting undead creature is strong, but slow, and it is ever vigilant against those who would rob or defile the place it guards. A mummy attacks with its fists, which deal damage and transmit the wasting disease called mummy rot. The divine power that animates the mummy instills fear in those who behold it—a paralyzing terror that roots would-be intruders to the spot. For those seeking a weakness in this guardian, they need look no further than its physical form: a mummy’s wrappings and dry flesh make it particularly susceptible to fire.

If a mummy fails in its duty and tomb robbers get away, the mummy is relentless in pursuit of revenge. In some cases, a mummy stalks its prey far from the place it was originally guarding, still hunting robbers or the treasures these thieves stole. In other cases, the mummy’s vengeance takes the form of a lingering curse that plagues everyone who touches the stolen items.

These more common mummies are rarely found in numbers above half a dozen, and they are more often scattered throughout a site than gathered in a single chamber. Greater mummies (or mummy lords) are rarer still, and they are almost always solitary.

Mummy lords were evil high priests in life. Rituals performed by their minions ensured their transformation into guardians after their lives ended. These mummy lords also lead the rites and rituals of their temple of death, and they command a number of ordinary mummies. They can mummify those they kill with their diseased touch and bind these victims into their service.

Greater mummies retain all their divine powers in their undeath, including the spellcasting ability of a cleric of at least 9th level. Thus, although they can bludgeon foes to death with their fists as lesser mummies do, their spells and other abilities make them far deadlier foes.

Seekers of Secrets: Liches

Like mummy lords, liches are powerful spellcasters preserved past the boundaries of mortal life into undeath. There the similarity ends, however. Liches are arcane spellcasters—almost always wizards—whose thirst for the magical secrets of the universe drives them to seek this twisted form of immortality to facilitate their ongoing quest.

Unlike mummies, there is no common form of lich. Each lich is uniquely individual, with its own spells and abilities as well as its own personality. A lich was a wizard of at least 10th level in life, and it might have advanced many more levels since its transformation. In its quest to master magic that requires more than a mortal lifetime, it might have researched its own spells. Some of these researched magical effects might result in the lich developing persistent abilities, such as an aura of fear or cold or the ability to paralyze by touch.

Most liches are solitary, secluding themselves in remote towers or crypts to conduct their research and experiments in secret. Some, however, take on a role as a leader or mastermind, with a host of undead minions or armies, construct servitors, or allies bound in tenuous treaties doing its bidding. Even when a lich acts as little more than a mortal conqueror, sending its undead minions out over the land to subjugate the populace, it almost always does so with an ulterior motive in mind. A lich does not seek temporal power for its own sake, but an act of conquest can facilitate the acquisition of a magical artifact from a neighboring land, create a supply of subjects for magical experiments, or provide the opportunity for testing new spells of mass destruction. Because of a lich’s focus on specific goals, it’s not uncommon for a lich to amass an army, launch a war, and then abandon the effort in the midst of a battle when the lich’s true objective has been achieved.

Liches are hard to kill. Their physical forms are relatively frail, but a key part of the process of becoming a lich is creating a phylactery that holds the lich’s soul or life force. As long as the phylactery remains intact, the destruction of the lich’s body is merely a temporary setback, as the lich’s spirit returns to the phylactery. From there, the spirit can reform and reanimate the damaged body, or possess a living creature and take over its body (changing its appearance in the process).

Liches are so preoccupied with their search for magical lore that they can sometimes forget details of their mortal lives and even their own names, instead accepting terrifying pseudonyms and titles given to them in folklore and legend. As a result of this memory loss, an adventurer who learns the lich’s true identity and confronts it with its real name and elements of its mortal life could potentially secure an advantage over the lich. For example, a lich might be confused by the intrusion of its past life into its present, or it could be weakened by the renewal of ties to its former self. Since most liches are incredibly ancient, though, information about their original identities can be very difficult to acquire.

What Do You Think?

So what do you think of these descriptions of undead?

 How well do the mummies we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?  
1—Imhotep is spinning in his sarcophagus.
2—Mummies need a stronger and better story than this.
3—I like one of the mummies but not the other. (Comments!)
4—Yeah, I recognize those as mummies.
5—I would trust these mummies to guard my treasures.

 How well do the liches we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?  
1—Azalin is fuming in his tomb.
2—Power-mad wizards—ho-hum.
3—The basic outline is fine, but it needs more.
4—Yeah, I recognize that as a lich.
5—This is the lich I would be if I were a mighty wizard!

Previous Poll Results

How well do the skeleton soldiers we've described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?
5--I would like an army of these skeletons, please. 1345 75.2%
4--I have just a quibble or two. 283 15.8%
3--I can see a skeleton from here. 106 5.9%
2--Animated by necromancers, sure, but I don't buy the rest. 36 2.0%
1--Sounds like it was written by a mindless undead. 18 1.0%
Total 1788 100.0%

How about the relentless zombies?
5--Movies should be more like these zombies. 962 54.8%
3--I can see a zombie from here. 465 26.5%
4--They should be more like the movies. 289 16.5%
2--Animated by necromancers, sure, but I don't buy the rest. 28 1.6%
1--Sounds like it was written by a mindless undead. 11 0.6%
Total 1755 100.0%

And the hungry, hungry ghouls?
5--Movies should be more like these zombies. 961 56.3%
3--I can see a ghoul from here. 441 25.8%
4--Yeah, I recognize that as a ghoul. 208 12.2%
2--That's more Night of the Living Dead than D&D. 77 4.5%
1--I don't know what that is, but it's not a ghoul. 21 1.2%
Total 1708 100.0%

Should people killed by ghouls turn into ghouls?
No, leave that to vampires and wraiths. 971 55.5%
Yes. In fact, people who were just scratched or bitten by a ghoul should be at risk. 427 24.4%
Yes. They always have and they always should. 350 20.0%
Total 1748 100.0%

And the thirsty, longing vampire?
4--Yeah, I recognize that as a D&D vampire. 919 51.8%
5--You're actually Strahd in disguise, aren't you? 557 31.4%
2--Too much Anne Rice/Stephanie Meyer, not enough Bram Stoker. 161 9.1%
3--It's a vampire, but it's not a D&D vampire. 119 6.7%
1--It sucks. 17 1.0%
Total 1773 100.0%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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