Rolemaster deconstruction: questioning the undead.

The “Undead”–a popular creature class drawn from a wide range of cultures, legends and mythology. Rolemaster has Egyptian Mummies, European Vampires, and Ghosts combined with the established D&D creatures like Wraiths & Ghouls. But are all of these actual “Undead”? If not, what are Undead? Are they:

  1. Animated corpses? If they are just magically infused bodies/skeletons are they truly undead anymore than an enchanted sword?
  2. Re-Animated corpses via a “spirit” or “will”? Is the body/corpse/skeleton infused with a soul or spirit? Is that Undead or is that a imbedded intelligence?
  3. A non-corporeal entity via a “spirit” or “will”? Does a persons dis-embodied spirit define an Undead?
  4. A being created via a spell or magic ritual? Does a entity that becomes something else, post death or beyond death meet the definition of an Undead?
  5. A possessed corpse? Is a corpse possessed by another entity an “Undead”?
  6. Something else?

Certainly in it’s more simplistic form an Undead is merely a creature or entity that is functional “after death”. The problem with that all-encompassing definition is that it embraces a wide variety of  Undead tropes.

  1. Only be hit by silver weapons.
  2. Only be hit by Holy weapons.
  3. Only be hit by Magic weapons.
  4. Only be affected by “turning”
  5. Can or cannot be banished.
  6. Immune to stuns/bleeding etc
  7. Causes a stat or level “drain” of one sort or another.
  8. Affected by the “moon” (if only one) or sunlight.
  9. Susceptible to “Clerics”.

So what is the underlying mechanic or philosophy behind Undead? Are animated corpses “undead” or just magically infused meat puppets? How does one draw a spirit from beyond? How are Undead created? How are special Undead created? Why do typical Undead need to follow common western European tropes (Mummy, Vampire, Wolfman, Zombie?). If you were to create a world from scratch, would you just populate it with common fantasy Undead? Is there a better, more consistent way to create Undead? What is “draining”? How does it work? How do you recover lost stats or levels? What spells protect against Undead? What type of Undead Does a Clerics spell turning work against a animated corpse? Does the Clerics patron god allow for powers against Undead or that specific type of Undead? If you allow many types of Undead, should they require different spells to deal with them? Do the Undead fit into the setting, afterlife and “soul” mechanics of the world?

Once you take away the Judaeo-Christian concept of Undead/Possession and symbology (crosses, silver, holy water), I’m not it’s clear what the strict definition of an Undead might be.

What do you do?


23 Replies to “Rolemaster deconstruction: questioning the undead.”

  1. I think the first and foremost action should be deciding what undead exist in your world, as GM.

    If you are playing in a world of spirit warriors and shamen then european vampires have no place in that game world.

    In the same way that one should not import en mass all the optional rules from every companion one shouldn’t import en mass every monster in creatures and treasures I, II, III and beyond. I think it was MrApollinax that pointed out that there are 8 million Pathfinder monsters that could be converted to RM.

    I think once you have a coherent concept of what undead are actually in the game setting and how they are called, summoned, created etc then the necromancy magics that make them should start to make sense.

    If shamen can call up ancestral spirits to create undead then other shamen breaking that same bond also makes sense.

    1. So drill down a bit deeper–what defines an “Undead” insomuch that it would be affected by the metaphysics of clerics and/or turning spells?

      Should a skeleton simply animated by Essence magic be affected by a “Turn Undead” or should it be affected by dispel or cancel Essence?

      Should a “spirit” (in any form) need to be evil or malevolent to be impacted by a cleric?

      Is a Zombie on “The Walking Dead” qualify as an actual “Undead”?

      1. Looking at Wikipedia, it seems that Bram Stoker was responsible for much of the modern usage of the term undead. Broadly, undead are beings that are not alive but act as if they were. However, that includes incorporeal undead and flesh animated either by supernatural forces, including by demons. Which means that a lot of really quite different creatures fall under the same category.

        Regarding The Walking Dead (and the Romero zombie by extension), they tend to be animated by disease, not supernatural forces.

        1. So perhaps it’s too a broad a definition? These are questions I’m addressing with BASiL and certainly the setting will also drive much of this. What creatures would/should be affected by a “Protection from Undead” if the definition is overly broad? What about “Slaying Undead”? Does the use of “Slaying Undead” or similar powers assume that the Undead is inherently evil?

          To me, it feels like more hand-waving and D&D legacy–corpses and skeletons are animated in some mysterious fashion to become undead.

          1. It is perhaps too broad a definition. Manufactured undead, I think I could argue that those could be considered constructs (like a flesh golem), summoned (with a summoned spirit moving the flesh) or possessed (by perhaps part of the caster’s spirit).

            1. I like that distinction Egcdltd: constructs, summons, and possessions. I guess that would make Frankenstein’s monster a construct?

              I like the basic Rolemaster idea that undead can be either animated dead bodies (non-intelligent undead, like meat puppets), or dead bodies with spirits infused in them.

              1. I think Frankenstein’s Monster could be some type of Flesh Golem, albeit one made by technology rather than magic (haven’t managed to finish the novel though).

                I have a concept (in an incomplete supplement) of a type of zombie powered by clockwork. So they are really dead, not undead, which will make any spells and abilities that have an effect on the undead useless. They are also highly flammable (formaldehyde).

          2. I don’t see the need for slaying undead or similar to be inherently evil. That would be like saying a bullet proof vest would only stop evil bullets.

            If the slaying undead worked using the same method as the creation method then the two could coherent. I mean, for example, if undead are created by binding spirits to recently deceased bodies and the slaying weapon worked by attempting to release the bound spirit both could work just as effectively on a ‘good’ undead (Casper?) as an evil undead.

            I have an adventure hook supplement called Alchemical Zombies which is a typical zombie apocalypse adventure but the zombies are the completely innocent towns folk under the influence of an alchemist. So they are Zombies but technically still alive and therefore no clerical/turning/repulsions etc. is going to work on them and they are still alive so a bit of moral dilemma thrown in for good measure.

            1. ok, so leaving out any moral aspect, it still feels like XXX Undead is still too broad? Sort of like having a XXX Animal spell or item. Is animal to broad? How do you define it? Intelligence? Mammal? Species? Are Monsters and Animals the same?

              1. This is something I have wondered about as you can summon animals and demons but not monsters.

                I am guessing the designers breakpoint was on intelligence.

  2. Back to the deconstruction, much of this is the result of a monotheistic religion (Catholism, Christianity) versus the “Devil/Evil”. Where the religious agency is represented by a Priest using holy symbols and the Undead/Possessed are the agents of the Devil. Transplanting that into fantasy RPG’s made sense 40 years ago, but does it stand the test of time?

    1. No if you put all your undead in one basket but yes perfectly if you have customised your available undead and your priests/magic/spell lists to the entire summoning/creation/dispelling/destruction are a coherent whole.

    1. Christian:

      First off, great chart in navigating the “undead ecosystem”!! With that said this is so meta! Only in Rolemaster would you have someone design a flow chart!

      Both you and Brad below make great arguments for RM Undead, but they are expos facto explanations to rationalize the existing system. In deconstruction I want to tear down the assumptions of the current structure. Your flowchart reinforces my point that the current system might be too convoluted? Granted, as a generic system RM might want to embrace every RPG undead style; but at what cost to complexity and rule set identify?

      1. I think you are right about the complexity and identity.

        If we accept that RM is a generic fantasy RPG with no tied setting then it is almost required to provide potential GMs with enough creatures from all possible settings for them to be able to play their games.

        WotC produced a monster book called Monsters of Faerun that takes the creatures from all the other monster books and puts them into a single setting specific reference.

        Another option, and my preferred option, is to include monster stats and descriptions in setting specific books and or adventures. So the Shadow World books will include all the monsterous races found it the regions being covered. Adventure modules will include the monsters in that adventure and so on. This helps keep the monsters out of the players hands. An Ancient Rome source book then contains all the monsters for playing RM in ancient Rome. the Arabian nights companion contains all the Djinni and Efreeti stats and so on. Having Egyptian mummys in an Egyptian Adventures companion makes perfect sense and European Vampires in a Gothic Transylvanian Adventure makes sense. Swap the monsters and you have a Scooby Doo adventure on your hands.
        Scooby dooby dooby Doo!

    2. In fact the chart inclues all way to create undead i found in the books. Specifically the way of the Evil Cleric based on the baselist Necromancy (SL p.61). And additionally the two ways outlined in RMC2 p.47 using Necromancer base lists.

      ● The Necromance’s process create normal undead will give you non-intelligent creates.
      ● The process create spirit bound undead creates intelligent undead.
      ● And finally the Evil Cleric’s process creates semi-intelligent creatues.

      However there are some odd things I would like to dicuss with someone who wants to dive in this topic.

      Most important: I think there is a flaw in the process to create spirit bound undead as described in the book (RMC2 p.47) that gave me some headache. Sep 3 tells you to use Master Undead on a spirit. However, Master Undead is designed for corporal undeads. What you are trying to do in this step is to force the spirit into the body. Control Dead (or its advanced version Dead Spirit Mastery) is exacgly designed to achive this. So I simply swapped the spells for the chart.

      There is some special kind of undead you can get, when it becomes unbound from the Necromancer. It is a free spirit within a dead body. I suggested that you may get the same result if and unmastered spirit possesses a body.

      The Evil Cleric’s semi-intelligent undead were also a litte bit tough to explain. The process does not require a spirit/soul, so where does the inteligence comes from? However the process requires that death is no longer than one week ago. So I assumed there must be something that is there directly after the death, but degenerates or vanishes over time. So I came up with the idea of a soul residue. (In my opinion this is also consistent with death itself – as soul depature is more of a process than an event in RM2.)

      Cheers Chris

      1. Your idea of soul residue would also help explain how some spells work such as Detecting Ways 11th level Detect Death. That can detect anything that died in the past 24hrs. A tiny amount of soul residue would explain what exactly the spell was detecting.

  3. That’s a very interesting chart, Christian! Thanks for that. I assume that pertains specifically to the Necromancer Base Lists?

    I do think, after perusing very many Pathfinder Undead and Creatures & Monsters, that the wide-ranging differences in (non-created) Undead are primarily due to the events surrounding their deaths. They manifest differently as the Essence (or whatever) is twisted and shaped by both the parameters of the event and the raw force of their spiritual desperation, and thus they appear differently. But it is the initial bending of the standard ‘Law of Death’ that creates the ‘abomination’ of an Undead. This seems to me – in Rolemaster terms – to fall under the purview of Essence, whilst certain kinds of divine magic is required to restore the broken order.

    1. Brad:

      I am not an expert on realms and how they are composed. However, I did my studies. And reading the books, let me think that RM2 intends that Necromancy is in fact channeling by the books.

      Here is how i come to that conclusion.
      The Evil Cleric is a pure spell user of Channeling.
      The Necromancer is a hybrid spell user of Essence and Channeling. (So it seems that necromancy tends more to Channeling than towards Essence).

      The Necromancer shares the spell Summon Dead (used to create spirit bound undead) with the Shaman. The Shaman is a pure spell user of Channeling.

      The Necromancer shares two spell lists (Aimate Dead, Summon Dead) with the Maleficant, who is a hybrid spell user of Channeling and Mentalism. So the overlapping realm is Channeling. What will give me the conclusion that the two shared spell lists are Channeling lists.

      Cheers Chris

  4. It’s interesting that RMU has shifted Necromancy to Evil Essence now. I’m sure if I wanted to trawl the threads I could find out the justification for that decision, but I’ll hopefully save time by asking if anyone here knows why!

    For myself, I agree re Channeling, but I do find it mildly persuasive that the RM2 Necromancer, as the premier practitioner of Necromancy was a hybrid caster of both Essence and Channeling. Perhaps Channeling provides the raw divine power required to break the common procedures of death (soul departure and whatnot) but the highest refinement of the art requires the use of Essence as well?

    Or maybe the RoCo2 designers just wanted the Necromancer to access the more potent Essence lists as well….

  5. I had not noticed that change in RMU. I would much prefer Evil Channeling to have the undead summons/creation, and Evil Essence to have the demon summoning and control.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *