All Men Are Created Equal… Except the Revenant

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 8, 2009

Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling. Since the first edition of D&D players have had a wide variety of fantasy races to choose from when creating their characters. With 4e D&D the list of races is quite extensive and it continues to expand with every new version of the Players Handbook and with every monthly update of the character builder. The worlds of D&D are full of tolerant people willing to accept everyone based on deeds rather than their race. No matter what race your PC happens to be, he’s usually accepted as a hero and welcomed into villages, towns and cities. An adventuring party that consists of a Dragonborn, a Drow, a Half-Elf, a Tiefling, a Half-Orc and a Gnome doesn’t draw attention, ridicule or suspicion as they enter a tavern for the first time. We don’t question it; we just accept that this is how things work when you’re playing D&D.

The latest race to be introduced to the worlds of D&D is the Revenant. You can now create a character that is undead. Think about that for a minute. Your PC is literally a walking corpse. The description of the Revenant leaves no doubt that you are undead and look the part. As someone who loves D&D and buys in to the fantasy that racism is practically non-existent in a world made up of so many different and diverse races, I’m willing to accept and even overlook a lot of things and just accept that they are part and parcel of a fantasy world. But I think I have to draw the line with the Revenant. Unlike other monstrous races I just can’t accept an undead creature as a PC.

When Savage Species came out for 3e D&D I thought it was a new and interesting take on character creation. Until its release, the races contained within were known only as monsters. Now they were available to play as PCs when creating characters. A lot of the monsters, like Giants for instance, weren’t that difficult to see as PCs. But most of the creatures in Savage Species were humanoid and intelligent. Yes, it seemed odd that a PC playing a Troll wasn’t really given a hard time when he entered the tavern but that’s just the way things work in D&D. I know a few DMs who tried to role-play the awkwardness when these savage races interacted with the civilized world, but mostly it was just accepted.

When 4e was launched things didn’t really change that much. We got a few new core races with the promise of more to come. It’s made for a lot of interesting race/class combinations. As in previous editions, the racial melting pot still existed and the people populating the fantasy setting were still unfazed by strange new races. The Revenant will change that. Even if the PC is the holiest Cleric of the most lawful good deity in the land, he’s still undead. People always have and always will fear the undead – rightly so, in my opinion. Undead creatures are scary.

There are going to be players that don’t care about the in-game, role-playing implications of playing an undead character. They just want to role up a PC and start killing monsters. If that’s all you’re looking for then I say do it. Create the most unique or powerful PC that you can imagine. If you want to play undead then play the Revenant. But if you’re not the kind of player who’s just in it for the hack and slash then my recommendation is to think long and hard before creating a Revenant.

I totally understand the desire to play an undead character. It presents very interesting role-playing situations. Over the years, I’ve played in a few games where PCs have become vampires. The undead are cool and powerful. There’s definite appeal to being undead. But undead creatures are almost always evil. No matter how open-minded and tolerant the people of D&D campaign worlds might be, I just don’t see them accepting the Revenant. Undead is undead.

In a recent article on the Wizards of the Coast website Revenant: Spotlight Interview, game designer Matthew Sernett had this to say about the Revenant, their appearance, and the role-playing implications.

To make them [the Revenant] fit into games, they couldn’t look like hideous rotting corpses or cause people to run at first sight. That was the plan from day one. Their appearance now suits their story and mechanics, and it gives them a look that allows them to be members of normal society. It’s also not an ugly appearance, and in my experience, players prefer races that look cool, cute, or pretty.

Given their rarity, few people in the world should know what they’re looking at, and that means a revenant is just one unusual looking person in a world chock full of strange and rarely seen races. When the party rides into the frontier village of humans and halflings, the populace should be more concerned that a band of armed adventurers came in than if one of them is a half-orc, an elf, a goliath, or a revenant. But if you want to have you revenant look like a corpse or even a ghost and deal with the roleplaying repercussions, more power to you! That sounds like an exciting game.

It’s been a long running inside joke with my gaming group that people in fantasy RPGs don’t see races, they just see people. I guess it’s one more way in which D&D is a fantasy game. But no matter how blind the locals are they’re going to notice Revenant characters and it’s going to create ripples in the idyllic setting D&D is played in.

Am I way off-base with this one? Am I blowing this out of proportion and making a big deal over nothing? Put yourself in the shoes of your PC and ask yourself if you’d be willing to accept an undead creature into your adventuring party? If you owned a tavern would you welcome a Revenant as you would any other PC or would the idea of an undead creature sitting at the bar just be too strange to accept?

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sean Holland October 8, 2009 at 9:34 am

I have always thought that playing certain races should create interesting social tensions in a game. Or even, on occasional, playing ‘normal races’, if you are playing an elf traveling around in a human Kingdom that has fought a hundred-year long war with the elves, you are not going to be Mr Popularity.

But given the extreme danger that undead represent, you would think even ‘good’ undead would make most people nervous.
.-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..Review – Remarkable Races: the Anumus =-.

2 Anarkeith October 8, 2009 at 9:34 am

OK, Ameron, it doesn’t work for you, but it will work for some games and players. I remember when playing a Drow character was considered radical (and possibly unacceptable). I just wanted to be a badass, kicking other badasses in the teeth.

The idea of a steely-eyed, gaunt, chalk-faced undead sneering at some demon and saying, “you can’t frighten me with death, worm. I am death!” could rock, IMO. So, in the right context, sure it’ll work. Just as an Elf PC might run into some conflict in an Orc village, a Revenant might run into the same in a village of fundamentalist followers of the Raven Queen.

Your argument seems to contain a little of the bias that used to pigeon-hole paladins: “a lawful good character would never do that!” We’re playing a game of fantasy and imagination. Rather than saying “no” because of some internal bias, we should be saying, “yes. Show me what you have in mind. Show me something new.” Of course you’re also free to house-rule them out. That’s the beauty of choice.

3 David Wright October 8, 2009 at 10:11 am

Racism of any kind (vs. drow, vs. undead, vs. those dirty dwarves) offer an excellent opportunity for role-playing… ONCE. After that, it’s just so repetitive. The reaction is always the same (fear, hatred, torches & pitchforks), because–guess what!–the reaction really is always the same.

In our very own real world, there is not a varied and exciting expression of racism. Generally, it’s the same, same, same. I suppose you could mix it up a little: here’s a group who’s trying too hard to “just get along,” here’s a group who have armed themselves specifically for slaughtering the offending race, here’s a group who pretends acceptance while plotting destruction, etc.

But more often, we’re looking at: party enters town, villagers shy away from [race], rince, repeat.

4 Toldain October 8, 2009 at 10:27 am

I hate to bring MMO’s into the question….no, wait, I love to bring MMO’s in. WoW has had an undead race from the start. They have a story. They aren’t evil as such. In the right kind of world, with the right kind of story or background, it will work just fine.

Terry Pratchett’s novels have the occasional zombie or vampire character, and it seems to work. That’s because he has a particular tone to his campaign.

I can’t say that I can see them fitting in well to a typical Forgotten Realms campaign. Unless a good part of the campaign was focused on the story of the revenants.
.-= Toldain´s last blog ..Life Beats CGI =-.

5 Spenser October 8, 2009 at 10:45 am

@David: I’ve had plenty of varied “racist” moments in my games that provided great roleplaying: dwarven nobles joking about the PCs bringing their “pet” half-orc to a banquet, rural townsfolk suspicious of the drow PC even while placing their fate in his hands, and cityfolk stricken with fear at the sight of a necropolitan cohort. I think it’s just a matter of maintaining the tension of racist sentiments going while only making that issue the focus when it enhances the scene.

That said… @Ameron: Undead characters can work, even in settings which undead are (as you say, rightly) feared. They just end up hiding behind a thick cloak, dark hood, and respectable-looking allies, and blame their raspy voices on a lung condition. A little formaldehyde never hurt either.
.-= Spenser´s last blog ..What Are The PCs? =-.

6 George October 8, 2009 at 11:12 am

This kind of character is great in certain situations. I ran a campaign where all of the characters were family members and at the end the father got injected by some zombies.

The goal was to later continue the campaign. This is perfect because the father could now become a revenant. It adds to the story. It does not work in all cases.

In general I would not want to party up with some undead though.

7 Wyatt October 8, 2009 at 11:16 am

I made an undead race for my setting, who are created from stitched parts of other corpses and animated by necromancers as servants. The law treats them as victims of a crime, and so do other people, because they were created against their will and dignity. There is no racism to be found there. So in my campaign world, Undead have it well as long as they behave. They even get welfare in certain Nations.

For the Revenant, they’re not just any undead. They’re on a divine mission for the Raven Queen even if they don’t always know it. Anyone who’s against them is against her. I’m pretty sure that’s enough of a contextual spin to have them tolerated in society. Farmer Jeremiah Bob Jenkins Jr. is probably not going to bet his afterlife on running one pasty dude out of town.

So yes, you are blowing it out of proportion. It seems like you don’t want to imagine any possibility of the Revenant as an inclusion. I’m with you on that boat – I hate the Revenant and think it is ungodly stupid. But even I can imagine ways to have them work. Hell, my ways are more complex than the classic solution – wear a cloak, be mysterious and generic.
.-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Injury Mechanics: A Different Way To Look At It. =-.

8 Dave October 8, 2009 at 11:28 am

I would definitely agree that it depends on your campaign and the creativity of your group. Having different races treated differently doesn’t have to be a one-time trick that gets boring because every session has an oh-no-the-villagers-don’t-like-my-race moment. Just because _some_ people have that vanilla negative reaction doesn’t mean _everyone_ does. For example, dragonborn did not exist in my campaign until a new player joined and wanted to be a dragonborn cleric.

To make it work, he was generally hidden by church and always wore a big cloak to hide his appearance. Yes, looking like a monster scared some of the villagers, but he found a couple of interesting ways to use his racial difference to his advantage. The party encountered a hill giant and decided to talk to it rather than attack right away. The cleric revealed himself as a dragonborn and explained that if the church could accept him, surely they could find a way to accept a hill giant (how can argue with that logic?).

Later, the party needed some information from an elderly scholar. After asking the scholar if he was interested in rare creatures, the dragonborn revealed what he was and offered to let the scholar study him in exchange for the information they needed. Again, a clever use of race that didn’t result in the standard we-don’t-like-you-because-you’re-different response.

9 DrOct October 8, 2009 at 11:41 am

I’m unclear why it is you seem so convinced that the first time anyone sees a Revanent they’re instantly going to know they’re undead. It seems to me that the quote you put in there from the designers makes it pretty clear that Revenants aren’t supposed to look like they’re rotting and falling apart. Why do you think every villager who sees them will instantly know without a doubt that they’re undead?

In most mythologies, vampires aren’t immediately obvious as vampires or undead (assuming you see them out of the sun. A person bursting into flames, or turning to dust, in the sun is usually a pretty good sign that they might have been a vampire), why are you so sure Revenants are different?

To be honest I can’t really understand why you put that quote in the article at all. It seems to refute one of the main premises of your article, but you never address why it’s wrong.
.-= DrOct´s last blog ..Amnesiac RPG Characters =-.

10 Ken Marable October 8, 2009 at 11:48 am

Maybe it’s because I’ve just started watching True Blood on DVD recently, but I really like their take on it. When vampires walk into the bar, the people aren’t “Oh no!! Grab the wooden stakes!! AHH!!!” but aren’t just accepting either. It’s a much more realistic where everyone just gets silent and stares with that “Oh no, it’s a vampire – don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me” vibe.

I imagine in standard D&D settings it would be similar. When the revenant or troll PC walks into a tavern, personally, I would imagine a lot of silent stares. After all, no matter how drunk “Ivan Townsfolk” is, he still knows these creatures spend an average day slaughtering things that a mere glimpse of would cause Ivan to wet himself. Plus, although they can barely stomach seeing these creatures in the tavern, they know Bob the InnKeeper lets them in because ever since Martha the Innkeeper’s Wide died last winter, he’s needed all the gold he can get to help raise their 8 kids. So, yeah, the ordinary patrons feel that they have a perfectly enjoyable evening ruined, and that family that was going to spend the night here decide to move to a different inn, but who is going to tell an undead carrying a sword bigger than you that he has to leave? The townsfolk just hope that the adventurers don’t decide to slaughter a bunch of them for fun, so that they can go home, hug their families a little tighter that night and say a couple extra prayers to cleanse themselves from being in the presence of that sort of creature.

At least that’s how I would play it. Definitely not open arms welcoming which would be absurd in most any setting outside of Plancescape, but certainly not panic and screaming in terror – at least in any major city that is cosmopolitan enough to deal with adventurers on a semi-regular basis.

In fact, the more I think about it, the speed at which the tavern clears out when any adventurers walk in is probably inversely proportional to the population of the city/town/village. So in a major city, a few stuffy people stomp out showing their displeasure, but most just stare and grumble about where the world is going to. In a smaller town, you’ll get the place clearing out, but in a “Oh yeah, I just remembered I have to be somewhere else” sorta way. In a small village you would probably get the panic and locked up homes until they left.

Also, it’s been many, many years since I read the Icewind Dale trilogy, but my recollection was that the people of Ten Towns generally reacted to Drizzt as glad that he’s out there protecting the towns, but also glad that he is OUT THERE period and not hanging around town.

So, this got a lot more long-winded than I planned, but I honestly hadn’t thought it through as much as I should have before. But for me, I see the middle road between just accepting and running in terror as the most common. It is the tolerance of knowing you could be killed instantly by them, so best just mind your own business.

11 DrOct October 8, 2009 at 11:57 am

To clarify, if you want to have a world in which people know what Revenants are, then I think your idea makes sense (though I think it makes for a few possible interesting role playing opportunities, and not just racism, some people might recognize Revenants and try to worship them or they might be respected by some societies as divine agents or something like that, there are a lot of interesting directions to take it besides everyone just being scared of them). But if you set up a world (as the designers suggest) where they’re extremely rare, I don’t think people are going too instantly know these people are undead. They’ll probably think they look pretty scary, and strange looking, but I don’t see that people would instantly assume they’re undead.

Looking over the original Revenant article, reading the description and looking at the artwork that attends it, they look to me like gaunt pale people with dark hair and fingernails. Really they just look like slightly stylized versions of people I see at goth clubs all the time! ;-)
.-= DrOct´s last blog ..Amnesiac RPG Characters =-.

12 Ameron October 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

@Sean Holland
It sounds like we’re pretty much on the same page with this one. Racial tension should exist (from a realism perspective) but usually doesn’t in fantasy games.

@Anarkeith
As I mention in the article, if you’re just playing for the kick-ass elements of D&D then go nuts and play a Revenant. They do sound like an interesting and fun race to play. I also see how being undead can make for some fun role-playing (your example is awesome). I’m just saying that when a Revenant PC is between adventures and the rest of the PCs head to town, the Revenant shouldn’t assume that he’ll be as welcome as everyone else. Obviously as he earns a reputation (based in part on the choices he makes due to his alignment) people may become more accepting. Until then I would expect that undead are going to be feared if their non-living nature is detected. I don’t think I’d forbid them from my game, I do think they have a place in D&D, but I think PCs choosing this new race need to realize that it comes with baggage.

@David Wright
You’re so right. Role-playing the racial card once and a while is an interesting experience. Having it happen every single time is boring (and not why we play D&D). But just because we’re not actively playing it out doesn’t mean it’s not there. Revenant PCs need to be mindful of that fact.

@Toldain
Undead can work in D&D as PCs. I’m not denying that at all. I’ve read novels and played in adventures where the heroes were undead (vampires). It can be a lot of fun. But playing an undead creature means that the player will have to do some homework. They need to come up with a compelling background and motivation for this anomaly. As you suggest the Revenant’s “quest” may very well play into the larger story arc.

@Spenser
This is exactly what I’m talking about. If the Revenant is played in a smart way it will most certainly work. You can’t just walk around and brazenly display your undead nature without drawing the wrong kind of attention. If you lay low and carefully pick the moments you revel yourself in social encounters it will have a lot of excellent role-playing value.

@George
This is a great example of how the Revenant will work in a typical campaign. The PCs have a reason for accepting this undead and there is a clear goal in place.

@Wyatt
I’m always impressed by your unique view and the way you’ve incorporated so many of the things discussed on the various blogs into your own setting before any of the rest of us even think of it.

I like the idea that people understand that Revenant PCs are “on a mission from god” whether the PC realizes it or not. As such the population doesn’t just automatically group them in the scary undead category.

I don’t think the concept of the Revenant is stupid, but I do see it having broader implication for a player than if he played an Elf or a Dwarf.

@Dave
Good point, some areas and social setting might very well be more tolerant than others. Think of Karrnath in Eberron, they’re already very tolerant of undead. Having Revenant PCs walking around probably wouldn’t phase them at all.

Your examples of ways to use the race’s uniqueness to the PC’s advantage are great. This is exactly the kind of role-playing experiences that I’d expect to see from someone playing the Revenant (or any atypical race).

@DrOct
I’ll admit that upon first reading the description of the Revenant I did assume rotting corpse (smell and all), but as you point out the designers knew that going that route wouldn’t work. However, the Revenant does still possess undead traits as described in the quoted text. So you’re probably right that the PC wouldn’t immediately be seen as undead, but unless he took steps to hide his race any close interactions would most likely revel that he’s undead. I guess it’s all in how each DM chooses to see the Revenant. Perhaps my interpretation is more extreme than that of other DMs.

@Ken Marable
I don’t watch True Blood, but this is more where I’m going with my point. Just because people realize the Revenants are undead doesn’t mean they want to do anything about it.

I really like your take on how this might play out. People will probably stop, stare, leave, or just mind their own business. I like your parallel between the Revenant’s social awkwardness and that of Drizzt. I think the situations would be very similar. One you got to know the Revenant (personally or just by reputation) he’d encounter less racism.

@DrOct
If the Revenant race stays as rare as the designers intend then I agree that they might be mistaken for “goth.” But people tend to latch on to character concepts that are on the fringes and suddenly everyone’s playing one (Drow we’re looking at you). I suppose ultimately it’s up to the DM to determine how prevalent this new race is in any gaming world.

13 DrOct October 8, 2009 at 3:51 pm

You certainly have a point about players choosing to play “rare” races all the time, and you can decide as a DM and group how much you want that to reflect in your games. Personally I see most games/campaigns as independent of others, so I as a DM would probably say that Revenants are very rare, even if people play them all the time in other games (although the idea of them being less rare or even fairly common is an interesting one too. how would a society be different if such people were fairly common?).

To me the most (maybe really only) trait that they seem to have that would be a give away that these people were more than just really gaunt creepy looking people, would be the red eyes. But again, in a world where it’s common to see Dragonborn and Tieflings, and where magic is a none-too-uncommon thing, I’d say that could be explained away pretty easily. Certainly they’re going to get stares, but I still don’t think that people who don’t know what they are are going to necessarily jump to Undead all that quickly.
.-= DrOct´s last blog ..Amnesiac RPG Characters =-.

14 Zachary October 9, 2009 at 12:03 am

Perhaps I’m way off base, but to me this just seemed like a spin-off of WoW’s Forsaken–filling that niche in D&D.

I’m with you though–undead as a player race isn’t my cup of tea.
.-= Zachary´s last blog ..RPG Blog 2 Says Thank You With Super-Special Deals! =-.

15 Jason October 9, 2009 at 8:56 am

I’ve been playing a revenant for a few weeks now. During the course of our normal campaign, my character was violently killed, and the Raven Queen gathered me into her service, and basically “sent me back”. Personally, I think it has allowed for a number of interesting roleplay opportunities. From the warlord of the party wanting to “put me out of my misery” to the invoker, a servant of the Raven Queen, defending me, and trying to help me explain why I was sent back.

Then dealing with the townsfolk, when we made it back to town…

All told, I certainly agree it’s not for everyone’s game, but in our campaign, it has been a fun alternative to making a completely new character and trying to introduce him into the party.

16 JesterOC October 10, 2009 at 5:37 pm

I think of Revenant is much like a Harrowed in the Deadlands game world. It is possible that the PC himself may not realize that he is undead. They look just like humans, with only a few subtle signs that they are not quite right.

With those parameters I see nothing wrong with Revenants in the game world, especially with Teifling warlocks walking around.

17 Ameron October 20, 2009 at 9:36 am

@everyone
Sorry for the delayed response, I was on vacation last week.

@DrOct
I guess worlds with such diverse humanoid races may not be as quick to realize that the Revenant is indeed undead. Ultimately it’s up to the DM to decide how common they are and how people react to them both initially and in the event that their true (undead) nature is discovered.

@Zachary
As one of the few D&D nerd who doesn’t play WoW, I’ll have to take your work on this one.

@Jason
It sounds like your group is handling the Revenant in much the same way mine would. The experienced gamers are happy to try something new but realize that there can and will be role-playing implications. Thanks for commenting.

@JesterOC
A Revenant that doesn’t realize he’s undead… I like it. That’s a very interesting approach to this new race. I’d be a lot more willing to have Revenants become part of the campaign with that kind of interesting background. Great suggestion.

18 Dominic September 3, 2010 at 1:09 am

I can see where you would get the ideas about revenants, about them being a terrifying undead race, hell, I’m surprised they don’t have a racial bonus to intimidate. But I like to think of them, at least I, as DM, do, as having at least some resemblance of what they once were. For example, I was trying to imagine what a Revenant with tiefling chosen as its pst life, might do if, say, they were a rogue and wanted to use the tail feats given in the player’s guide to tieflings, well in my mind, I picture a gray and gaunt tiefling with a thin tail and possibly broken horns. I think revenant would work very well, depending entirely upon the world your campaign would take place in, for example, the Undying in Aerenal would appear as evil to someone in the silver flame who did not know what they were, in the same way a goliath or a half-orc would cause some fear in all human areas. I can understand your standpoint where the outsider fads might cause some friction in actual gameplay. I like to use the example of the Fey’ri from 3e for that kind of situation. I mean, imagine the 1 fey’ri in the country filled with other fey, eladrin elves, half-elves, drow, even wilden, the fey’ri would barely be recognizable as fey due to its abyssal ancestry.

19 Luthiel October 24, 2013 at 11:53 am

In 4e, so many broken combinations, rules, and powers have been hit by the nerf bat, all in the name of game balance. Many more powers, that were clearly not broken, were also spanked (for one, I can think of the cleric — which was nerfed into practical irrelevance).

And then we have the revenant… who, in essence, gets 50% more hit points than everyone else. Yes, yes, I know they’re dazed and still have to make death saves when below zero hp. But clearly accessible feat build combos make dazed and death saves nearly irrelevant. Even worse, certain feats, like stormhawk’s vengeance, turn being below zero into an offensive boon, dealing an additional 10-30 hp in damage each time you get hit. So, if you’re still dazed, you don’t even need the extra action. And this doesn’t even begin to get into belt shenanigans…

So, in essence, you can have a striker that deals striker damage just by taking hits and, for no other reason than being a revenant, out tanks the tank.

I suppose I wouldn’t dislike the revenant so much if the one in our current party weren’t being played by the most selfish ass-hat I’ve ever run into as a player. But that’s another issue entirely. As-is the race is broken, far more broken than the poor nerfed cleric ever was, and yet has remained untouched by the nerf bat.

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