Undead Tactics: Vampires

I’m going to begin my discussion of vampires with a digression: Years ago, I read a book titled (I swear I’m not making this up) Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count. It was written by Loren Estleman in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, and as I recall, it was less cheesy and far more entertaining than you might assume . . . although I don’t think I’ve read it since I was in college, so take that with a grain of salt.

Anyway, there’s one bit of that novel that sticks in my mind as being particularly cool: At one point, Dracula walks right into Holmes’ room, in the middle of the day, and Holmes expresses surprise that Dracula can go out in broad daylight. Oh, sure I can, Dracula says; it’s just that I don’t have any of my supernatural powers when I do.

I thought that was an interesting spin on vampire abilities. One of the crucial elements of horror is exploiting the fear of the unknown: we’re most afraid of a monster when we’re not sure what it is, what it can do or how far it can pursue us. One of the best ways to spice up a D&D game is to take familiar monsters and give them unfamiliar powers, or have the familiar powers manifest in unfamiliar ways. Trolls, for example, are great for this: use the variant that allows severed limbs to keep moving and even fighting independently, and have the troll periodically pick up its limbs and stick them back onto itself, and watch your players wig out. (You may already be aware that this version of the troll originated with a scene in Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.)

It’s so taken for granted in our popular culture that vampires are burned by sunlight, the thought of a vampire who’s merely weakened by it, not hurt—let alone destroyed—would never occur to most of us. The vampire in the Monster Manual is the conventional burned-by-sunlight variety, but what if you removed that weakness and substituted one that merely disabled the vampire’s special features in daylight?

Try this sort of variation out—if not with a vampire, then with some other monster whose powers players assume they already know.

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Undead Tactics: The Mummy Lord

So, yeah, mummy lords. This is a totally different league of monster from your rank-and-file mummy—and the power difference between a mummy and a mummy lord is much wider than that between an orc and an orc war chief, a hobgoblin and a hobgoblin warlord, or a gnoll and a gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu. Mummy lords are bosses on par with adult dragons and tougher than giants. Only experienced adventurers need apply.

Their array of powers makes them complicated to run, so this is going to be a long and thorough breakdown.

  • Abilities: Average Dexterity and Intelligence; very high Strength, Constitution, Wisdom and Charisma. They’re brutes, but they’re not fools. And they have personality. Conceited, toxic personality, but personality nonetheless.
  • Damage and Condition Immunities: same as regular mummies but with an added immunity to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. They’re not the slightest bit afraid of your pigsticker unless it’s got a plus in front of it.
  • Damage Vulnerability: Fire, same as regular mummies.
  • Saving Throws: Hefty bonuses on Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma saves. That’s two of the big three and two of the little three, and with Strength 18, it doesn’t need to worry about that one, either. The only gap in this fortification is Dexterity. However . . .
  • Magic Resistance: Even its lower (only in relative terms) Dexterity isn’t too much of a hindrance, because it makes all its saving throws against magic with advantage. Whoo.
  • Rejuvenation: You can’t even kill it unless you jump through the extra hoop of destroying its heart. (For this purpose, I recommend fire.)
  • Spellcasting: More on this in a moment.
  • Legendary Actions: Every turn, it can perform up to three legendary actions on other characters’ turns. These include an out-of-turn Attack, an area-effect blinding, an area-effect stun attack, suppression of healing and turning momentarily incorporeal.
  • Lair Actions and Regional Effects: All the preceding applies if you happen to encounter a mummy lord on the way to the bodega to get milk. A mummy lord in its lair is even more powerful, conveying advantage on saving throws to other undead creatures in the lair, providing them with the equivalent of radar, and giving anyone else who tries to cast a spell a punishing necrotic jolt.

Like I said, a boss. With the attitude of a boss to boot. The mummy lord’s rational and justifiable assumption is that you ain’t jack.

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Undead Tactics: Ghosts and Mummies

We now return to two of our more cinematic undead creatures: ghosts and mummies. Aside from being horror-film staples, they don’t have a lot in common with each other, except for one thing: each is bound to a specific location. A ghost has “unfinished business” and haunts an area closely related to whatever trauma it needs to resolve; it’s compelled by the urge to resolve this trauma. A mummy is the guardian of a tomb or other burial place, compelled to punish transgressors against either the tomb itself or, sometimes, the person buried there. (In the latter case, the mummy may leave the tomb to hunt down the transgressor. In the former, it always stays put.)

Ghosts may be malicious, but they don’t have to be. (A malicious ghost that for some reason is permanently prevented from resolving the trauma connected with its death may end up as a poltergeist instead.) They may want to punish people who wronged them in their previous lives, but they may also be sorrowful, lonely, lost or even deceiving themselves that they’re still alive. Revenge against those who wronged them might satisfy them, but so might making amends to those whom they wronged. You really can’t have a decent ghost without a backstory.

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Undead Tactics: Specters, Wights and Wraiths

Ghouls and ghasts are flesh-eaters; specters, wights and wraiths are life-drainers. Driven by malice, envy and despair, they compulsively consume the vitality they themselves can never possess again. They all possess darkvision and shun the sunlight, so they’re encountered only at night; in some shuttered, haunted locale; or underground.

Specters are incorporeal: they have no material existence and can pass through solid objects and other creatures, although they can be harmed by stopping inside one. They have a very fast flying movement speed of 50 feet per turn. Their only exceptional ability scores are a Dexterity of 14 and a Strength of 1. They’re immune to most debilitating conditions, although they can be blinded, deafened, frightened, incapacitated or stunned. They’re immune to necrotic and poison damage and resistant to other forms of damage, except for radiant damage and physical damage from magical weapons. Being of normal humanoid intelligence and Wisdom, they have the sense to back off from an opponent that starts inflicting these types of damage upon it.

A specter might be expected to identify and zero in on weaker victims, and if it were an evolved creature, it might act that way. But specters operate are driven by their compulsion, not by adaptive survival instincts. When they sense the presence of a living victim, they don’t evaluate how easy or hard it will be to devitalize. They just wanna kill everybody, and it doesn’t matter who’s first.

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Undead Tactics: Ghouls and Ghasts

Ghouls and ghasts are a classic pair of flesh-devouring undead creatures dating all the way back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, ghasts being the more dangerous of the two. Unlike skeletons and zombies, which are created by necromancers casting animate dead, ghouls and ghasts are purported to have demonic origins (although there exists a spell usable by player characters, create undead, to produce them as well—here the lore and the rules contradict each other).

Both ghouls and ghasts are immune to poison and to being charmed or exhausted, and both have darkvision. They have high Dexterity and Strength, in that order, and can either claw or bite. The bite attack does more direct damage, but the claw attack has a greater chance to hit as well as a chance of paralyzing its target, rendering it incapable of action, movement or speech, granting advantage to all attacks against it, and turning all hits on it into crits. (Ghouls’ claw attack doesn’t have this effect on elves, but ghasts’ claw attack does.) Although its chances of success are low, its potential effect is so powerful that it has to be considered the attack of first resort, except against elf PCs. Finally, ghasts have the Turning Defiance feature, which grants advantage on saving throws against turning not just to themselves but to any ghoul within 30 feet of them. (They have resistance to necrotic damage, too, but that’s probably not going to be your players’ first choice against them.)

In my last article, I stated that undead creatures are driven less by survival than by compulsion—whatever compulsion the method of their creation imbues them with. In the case of ghouls and ghasts, this is hunger for the flesh of the living. This, combined with their average-level Wisdom, suggests that they possess a stronger self-preservation instinct than mindlessly obedient skeletons and zombies, since the whole point of eating is to fuel one’s continued existence. It also suggests that their goal is to obtain living flesh to eat, and that once they’ve achieved this goal, they have no particular reason to keep fighting.

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