Excerpts Archive | 12/15/2008
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Excerpts: Origins and Society
Open Grave

In today’s Open Grave preview, we introduce the origins, the outlook, and the society of the undead.


Death and the Afterlife

After the death of the body, a soul lingers in the world for a few days or even longer, and during that time the body can be returned to life with a powerful enough ritual. The soul of a hero is particularly likely to remain, determined even after the death of the body to hold on just a little longer. Other souls immediately depart, slipping into the Shadowfell and flashing across its dim expanse like falling stars. Even then, a soul can be called back to life with the proper ritual, such as Raise Dead. The vast majority of souls that are not called back flow through the gates of the Raven Queen’s abode, and from there pass beyond the cosmos . . . to where, even the gods cannot say.

A favored few souls are called by their gods after death to serve in the god’s dominion. Some (the exalted) are selected because of the great deeds they accomplished in life in support of that god’s ideals, whereas others (the damned) might be selected for punishment, because they were subjected to a curse, or because these individuals sold their souls when they were still living mortals.

Devils and other foul creatures also crave the souls of mortals. Such creatures sometimes hunt the Shadowfell, looking to gather bodiless souls, but rarely with any success. Only exceptional effort allows a living creature to affect a bodiless soul in any fashion whatsoever, and even great devils lack this ability. Thus, these creatures have learned to arrange for taking mortal souls into custody while those souls yet inhabit living bodies. An individual who makes a deal with a devil usually comes to this sort of end.

Theories abound regarding the origin and creation of undead, from the hushed tales told by simple peasants to the exotic research performed by sages and wizards. None agree, and only one fact is certain: Undead exist in the world and have since time immemorial. Their numbers are vast, and their motivations are often an enigma.

The origin of undead can be traced back to a time eons ago, when the primordials thrived before the first foundations of the world were even a rumor. Immortal in the sense that they knew no age and withstood any hurt, these were beings of manifest entropy. They coveted mastery over all the cosmos.

The cosmos was young in this age, and the detritus remaining from its formation still swirled in the void. From this cast-off stuff of the universe’s emergence into being, the world coalesced (with the primordials’ aid), and with it, echoes of the world. One of these echoes was bright and fey; the other was darker and ominous, though both thrummed with strange and unexpected power. The primordials witnessed and helped birth the Feywild and the Shadowfell.

Then the gods made their presence known, both through indirect influence and purposeful design. The gods, too, wished to make their claim on creation. Their interference enraged the primordials, and soon the two forces of creation were at war.

In these earliest days, souls shorn of their bodies simply departed the cosmos, taken to a place beyond all reckoning. When the primordials first crafted the world, they had little regard for the fate of souls. But some among them recognized soul power as a potent force, and they hungered for it. These entities stopped up the passage of souls. With nowhere to go, many souls were either consumed by primordials that had a taste for such spiritual fare, or, finding no further road or final purpose, sputtered out and dissipated, gone forever. Others persisted, becoming undead.

The gods also recognized the potential of souls, and one of their own established himself as the guardian of a new realm of death. There souls would gather after death, either having been chosen to join the gods in their dominions or passing on, as before, to an ultimate unknown fate. In this way Nerull—and later his successor, the Raven Queen—became the guardian of the dead.

Outlook and Psychology

The most dangerous and powerful undead are intelligent beings (which, fortunately for mortals, are a small minority of all undead). Some of these creatures became undead by choice or through repeated evil acts; others attained this state as the result of attacks by other undead or chance encounters with dangerous magic. Regardless of how they came to be undead, all of them now think very differently from the way they did in life. Their minds have changed as much as their bodies.

Undead Mentality

When discussing the psychology of the undead, it is first necessary to distinguish between the three sorts of undead minds.

Mindless Undead: The simplest kinds of undead, such as skeletons and zombies, have no psychological traits. These beings are mindless creatures capable of no more thought or emotion than a clockwork mechanism.

Soulless Undead: Creatures such as specters, wights, and wraiths are soulless beings that retain only remnants of the minds they had in life. They can be exceedingly cunning, and some can freely draw upon their living memories. However, these undead have been irrevocably changed by their transformations. Lacking souls, they are perpetually filled with a tormenting hunger for their lost souls, a hunger that can only be sated by devouring living creatures. These undead hate the living in part because they possess souls that the undead lack.

Some of these soulless undead are little more intelligent than cunning animals, whereas others retain the same intelligence they had in life. In either instance, their minds are far more focused than before. These undead have only two desires: to survive and to devour the living. They have no thoughts, emotions, or plans that do not involve attempting to satisfy these two drives. The most intelligent and strong-willed of these undead can make complex plans, but these plans consist of nothing more than ways to insure a continued supply of mortals to feed their hunger.

Soulless undead retain memories of their previous loves, passions, and interests, but these are little more than distant remembrances. Even the strongest feelings now have little more than a passing faint significance. Occasionally, one of the soulless undead might pause to stare at something that fascinated it in life or might allow a former loved one to go free rather than devouring him. However, such actions are rare. Most soulless undead will devour one of their children as readily as they would a stranger or an enemy. Except on rare occasions when they are driven by memories of their former lives, the psychology of these undead is that of a ravening, ever-hungry monster that kills because its hunger can never be sated and because it hates all life—especially life that reminds it of its former existence. These undead have no culture or society, they create no art or literature, and they ultimately care about nothing other than their hunger.

Undead with Souls: In vivid contrast, the few kinds of undead that retain their souls, such as death knights, liches, mummies, and vampires, are intelligent beings that retain all the passions and mental complexities they possessed in life. These creatures are dangerous and cunning foes, and on rare occasions even more dangerous allies.

Some are driven by desires that approach the intensity of the soulless undead’s need to kill, but these desires do not utterly control their behavior. For instance, although vampires hunger for the blood of the living, this hunger is not the center of their existence. For many, it is simply a need that must be met, and they continue to focus their attention on many of the same passions they had when alive.

Because their undead state eliminates many of the distractions of life, both positive and negative, undead that retain souls can be exceptionally careful and patient planners.


Undead have no unified culture and claim citizenship in no nation. However, they can still be defined by how they interact with other creatures, especially how they interact with societies and nations. Though most undead prefer to exist on the fringes of living nations, some are more refined in their sensibilities. Undead can be societal outcasts, secret members of a society, acknowledged citizens, cult members, or even members of a bleak nation (a society made up significantly or entirely of undead).


Most undead are not part of any society. They are animated through chance or malign power, they lurk for years in or near a grave, and if they need to feed, they scrabble and claw their way to their desired sustenance as best they can. They continue this behavior ceaselessly until they are destroyed. Mindless undead make up the bulk of the outcast undead, but any undead, regardless of its intelligence, can fall into this basic predatory existence.

Secret Citizens

Undead that can hide their presence in a city or its outskirts, or those that have sufficient skill or magic to disguise their lifeless nature, sometimes partake in living society. Undead that naturally appear alive, particularly vampires, commonly employ this trick. In this way, some undead never leave the city or nation where they resided when they were alive, though their habits change to support their masquerade.

Undead that choose to retain their ties to living society do so for several reasons. For instance, some undead believe that retaining the contacts and entertainments they enjoyed as living creatures adds to their existence. Additionally, infiltrating living society also provides the undead with a constantly renewing pool of potential victims. Other intelligent undead have requirements beyond simple nourishment.

Liches, in particular, enter their unliving state in order to prevent mortality from curtailing their arcane research. Some liches are content to entomb themselves for eons of private study, but others want access to the latest magical theories and research. These undead maintain the charade of life to ensure their continued access to such resources as magical academies, spellcaster guilds, and libraries of lore.

Friday: More on the society of the undead: the fabled nation of Hantumah, a realm populated entirely by the unliving!