To Tweak or Not to Tweak

…that is the question.
Is it better to have tweaked and lost
than never to have tweaked at all?

There is a thread on the the ICE forums about undead and sunlight. (

This is exactly the sort of question that I think screams “Setting over Rules”. The very question of how undead are created, how they ‘live’ and how they die are all entwined with the magical system in which they are created. Some people see Necromancy as a wizardly thing, others a dark priestly thing. I can certainly see the argument for a hybrid Channeling/Essence (Chessence?) Necromancer.

I like Skeletons. When I think of Skeletons I think of Jason and the Argonauts where the wizard throws down the bone fragments and the Skeletons emerge from the ground.

In my vision, Mordrig’s idea of sunlight effects on the undead has no place. These are more Essency than Channelly Skeletons.

In all those 1970s and 80s Zombie movies, night of the living dead types of films, sunlight had no place to play.

On the other hand, I ran a zombie apocalypse adventure for my players recently and in that session the undead came out at night and retreated before sunrise. I used the dusk until dawn mechanism simply because I was sending impossible odds against the players and the objective, although they didn’t realise it was to survive until dawn. It was never going to be possible to fight their way out unless they had solved the clues and left before sunset, and with my group that was extremely unlikely to happen!

If you did introduce a rule that directly sunlight harms or kills the undead then that piece of information becomes vitally important. There is a good time to go undead hunting and a very bad time. Earth Law suddenly becomes a  really useful spell list if you can cracks call the ceiling and bring sunlight  down into crypts and dungeons.

So Creatures and Treasures has some rules on the effects of sunlight. Vampires are the only ones with explicit damage from sunlight. My own Vampires and Vampire Spawn, converted over from the D&D 5e SRD both have the flaw of…

Sunlight Hypersensitivity. The vampire takes a A Fire critical
when it starts its round in sunlight. While in sunlight, it has -25 on
attack rolls and skill checks.

So this puts the 5e vampire firmly in the Bram Stoker/Hollywood camp. This is also where the C&T vampires lay.

The question is are there many forms of undead in your world with different creation methods, natures and ultimately game mechanics or just one unified mechanic that means all undead should behave in a coherent and consistent way.

I like the plurality of different mechanics. I like the idea of lost souls becoming ghosts or will ‘o’ wisps, mages sacrificing their mortal souls to achieve lichdom and necromancers reanimating corpses. Some have bodies, some don’t, some are purely magical and no more spiritual than a golem or animated suit of armour. Others are the willing a show of power by a dark god. I do not see a need for one mechanic or one unified Undead Lore.

Just as a bit of a straw poll, how do other GMs see the whole spectrum of undead? Is there a need for a common set of rules to bind them or is the entire concept of Class I-VI undead doing them a disservice?


9 Replies to “To Tweak or Not to Tweak”

  1. I think there is such a need, but only because the labeling itself says “we can group all these entities by these rule(s).” All of the things above could be described as “The creation includes–in part of in whole–the death of another being.” If that’s all they share well “undead” is still accurate, but not terribly useful.
    Perhaps settings could use a few more categorical labels.

    1. I am not 100% convinced that ‘death of another being’ is even an absolute necessity. The Skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts are grown from teeth collected along the way.

  2. I reflexively like the idea of a unifying mechanic, but maybe that’s just me being a kind of Nazi of logic. I like it when systems behave in a unified and rational way. But I have to admit when I really think about it, the wide range of undead that has been handed down to us by books, films, videogames and other cultural phenomena doesn’t really have a unified core. So I think it would be rather hard to try to fit all undead into one pigeonhole.

    And I still think of that scene from Jason and the Argonauts whenever I think of a skeleton. We actually had Ray Harryhausen speak at my university by teleconference just before he died, which was a real treat for me, because those skeletons have always stuck with me. In the talk, he said that he felt the secret to why those stop-motion creatures looked so fantastic was that they weren’t perfectly realistic. They had a bit of an air of artificiality about them that he thought distinguished them from some of the modern CGI, and gave them their own enduring charm.

    1. I have the same reflex, one simple rule is easy for every one. The undead as roleplayers know them come from such different sources, Egyptian mummys, eastern European vampires, the Greek and Roman underworld (I always get the spelling wrong but they are something like Lemurs which could be small monkeys or shades from the underworld, pick which ever one makes you smile!)

      With so many sources and things we are trying to model, is it right to expect one mechanic to cover everything?

  3. I’m in the thick of re-evaluating this for my campaign, right now. I’ve got a pretty thorough theology for the various deities, and how they relate to demons. How they relate to undead is a bit different, and I’m working out what the unifying theme(s) will be. Since different parts of my world worship different gods, do the undead found in those parts vary? Or are they universal? Are they undead because they have negative life energy, or because they have a lack of Essence to keep them fully alive?
    I liked the earlier post on undead and how there are those that are simply animated dead matter, or those with malice and life of their own. The latter are the part I’m focusing on, including what kind of undead are appropriate but don’t exist in the standard rules?

    1. I think your approach is right. If the undead are coherent with the world then everything is good. You may decide that half of them simply do not exist. Maybe Skeletons and Zombies are the norm as animated corpses but wraiths and spectres don’t exist. I would rather go the other way and make the animated dead the result of pure magic (essence) and the incorporeal or more spiritual deal the result of channeling and the gods.

      1. That’s actually the way I’m leaning, Peter. In “lack of Essence” I was using Essence as the stuff all things are made of. I don’t know if it’s just my interpretation of Essence, but I think of it as giving everything structure, but a living thing also has some Essence that makes it a living thing. Undead could be undead because that energy/Essence is missing in whole or in part.
        In the main pantheon of my world, where my current campaign is running, there is an evil god who created demons as his army against the good god that made him. There’s also a good goddess of life, and a goddess of magic and balance, who works between the good goddess and the evil god. Demons are clearly evil. Animated corpses would be seen by the good goddess as a mockery of life, but are not necessarily evil. Because of the fact I have a goddess of magic, the line between Essence magic and Channeling can get blurred. Spiritual (aspiritual?) undead would be somehow broken forms of life. Right now, I have each church giving a different explanation of how exactly that works, and I think the ambiguity will make for some interesting story prospects.

        1. The Forgotten Realms also has a Goddess of Magic (Mystra) which then makes her high priest also and extremely powerful wizard. In RM terms her priests could well be sorcerers being Channeling/Essence hybrids to get access to both realms.

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