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Undead-Friendly Society

posted Aug 7, 2013, 6:25 PM by Christopher Ellison

I've run a variety of campaigns in the past.  Some have been very morally black and white; others have been much more morally grey and complex.  In those more complex campaigns, I've always tried to eliminate those default-alignment suggestions from your creature guide of choice.  The very idea of an always-chaotic-evil race always seemed to me to be incompatible at its core with those more morally complex campaigns.  After all, the moral choices placed in front of the PCs are that much harder if they can't simply assume that all of the orcs they encounter are viable targets.  I think I've largely succeeded at doing this, but there is one area where I know I've fallen short of my goal:  dealing with the undead.

Most of my morally-grey campaigns in the past have involved negative energy as part of the opposing forces.  It's been hard for me to justify the creation of undead for good within the context of the campaign.  Generally, the campaign's mythology is that the undead are created using negative energy.  This makes it harder to justify the use of undead as an innately-neutral act.  That, combined with most societal aversions to the dead, that is.

For a long time, I've been wanting to run a campaign where it is easier to justify the use of undead as a neutral action rather than an evil one.  This means two things, in my mind:

  1. Changing the mechanics of undead creation to make the action more easily justifiable, and

  2. Defining a society where the conjuration of undead isn't necessarily considered revolting or evil.

The first point is fairly easily addressed; there's really nothing that says that the underlying mechanics of undead creation can't use a different force than the default.  Positive energy seems to be a good direct substitute, or there's always the catch-all "magic does it" excuse.  Using either of these mechanisms means minor tweaks to how a lot of spells work on undead, but the difference isn't terribly significant when you consider that most of those spells already have both positive- and negative-energy variants (e.g., heal vs. harm).

To me, it's more important to define a self-consistent society where the use of these undead minions is culturally acceptable.  I feel that creating this society is both more important and more difficult than dealing with the mechanics.  The societal rules will necessarily need to be unique but also self-consistent.  Before running a campaign involving this society, I want to be sure I’ve asked a reasonable set of questions regarding how its members deal with the undead on a day to day basis.

Quite a few questions come to mind immediately.  How do undead fit into the daily lives of the populace?  How will funerary rites differ for a society that accepts that people can sometimes be brought back as nigh-immortal creatures?  How does the culture deal with those who serve as the gateway between the first death and the person’s “rebirth” as an undead?  What about sentient vs. non-sentient undead - how does the culture deal with zombies, say, as compared to liches?  To answer these, I’ve been trying to think back to how this culture would have started.  Can I, for lack of a better term, organically grow the culture by thinking about its history?

Because I feel like failing to address these questions properly would lead to either unnecessary silliness or, worse, irritated players, I have held off on working on this type of culture until now.  Recently, though, I started making some notes on my gaming wiki. I’m hoping that, with no currently-active campaigns, I’ll have some time to think about the society more fully before I try to roll it into a future game.