Using Undead Intelligently

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on October 23, 2009

Hallowe’en is just around the corner and in the spirit of the occasion we wanted to look at undead and how to use them in your campaign. Of particular interest are intelligent undead and how you as a DM can use those interests to your advantage.

Vampires and lichs hold a special place in D&D lore. Some of the greatest villains have been drawn from their ranks. This is due to their longevity, access to resources and single minded desire to complete their objectives.

As a DM these are motivations that you can use to create compelling villains surrounded by an engaging story. The undead allow you to weave a story that spans centuries, embroiling your PCs in unraveling the plot.

Before moving forward I should mention that the Open Grave sourcebook released by Wizards of the Coast is full of great information to assist you in creating your undead villain. So let’s take a closer look at how you can use intelligent undead, intelligently.

Time Is On Their Side

Undead such as vampires and lichs are effectively immortal. As long as they aren’t killed by adventurers and don’t actively put themselves in harms way, they are assured of a very long existence as an undead creature. This gives them centuries to concot plots and pursue their desires. Undead of this nature take a very long view of things. Failure of their plans doesn’t result in drastic measures, it results in re-examining their errors and starting things anew.

For this reason, intelligent undead should be a thorn in the PCs side long before the PCs are ready or able to confront them. These undead have no real reason to actively seek out the PCs for direct confrontation. Instead they should pull upon their vast resources and have their minions deal with the PCs.

Social Skill Challenges

Intelligent undead, or undead with souls as Open Grave puts it, make excellent subjects to use in social skill challenges; especially vampires who can masquerade as humans quite easily. This gives you the opportunity to introduce your undead villain to the PCs and not have them be aware of the true motivations behind the encounter.

Intelligent Undead in Combat

Villains with long life spans aren’t likely to put themselves in situations where a single lucky roll from a PC might result in their own destruction. If the intelligent undead is engaged in its own lair then the task before the PCs should be even more difficult. After all, if the vampire’s lived in this castle for centuries then it stands to reason that he’s had plenty of time to fortify his defenses and protect himself.

When face-to-face combat does eventually happen an escape route is always on hand. In most cases the PCs will be fighting the villain on their own turf and you should be sure to use that to the villain’s advantage.

Using intelligent undead is a great way to introduce a recurring villian into your campaign. However, these NPCs need to be used with care. They are not throw away mobs, rather they should be handled with care and should cause your PCs endless amounts of grief before their demise is ultimately met.

How have you used intelligent undead in your campaigns? Did your PCs feel a sense of accomplishment when they finally vanquished their foe?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rook October 23, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Oddly enough, with the exception of Ravenloft, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a long term undead villain. That realization is kind of shocking to me! I need to rectify that in the near future. I’m sure my players will “thank you” for that inspiration. ;)
However, I have had more than one dragon as a long term villain. I know your article is focused on undead, but nearly all the points you have made could be made for dragons as well.
(Not really trying to make a point, just an observation.)
.-= Rook´s last blog ..Playing Good and Evil PCs. =-.

2 Wimwick October 23, 2009 at 10:55 pm

@ Rook
You are correct the article could very easily be applied to any number of villians. I just wanted to focus on undead here as they hold a special place in my cold, lifeless heart.

3 SX December 17, 2012 at 1:57 am

I have run a campaign with a persistent threat from Intelligent Undead, (though as invisible assailants they have remained a mystery for some time) maybe a mini-campaign’s length, and the story continues, though the characters have had some success at long last.

My villains are a type of Xill/Undead/Necromancer… with the ability to create armies of undead from their victims. Bad ass right?! Yea, these guys are dangerous, and command groups of super-zombies… to do their bidding.

After fleeing before their (invisibly devilish) wrath ,and their horde of tireless “jasons” (as in Friday the 13th style) the party has uncovered an item that lends them great advantage, and an end to their enemies invisible impunity.

Been pretty hairy, running battles through desert wasteland, howling caverns, and more.. keeping the pressure on, with some small respites here and there as the storm brews….

Funny thing is, when the party was in position to strike and end the threat, they fled… not realizing their enemy threw everything at them but couldn’t defeat the party.

Yea, these guys will continue to be a nuisance for some time.

4 TheBrassDuke August 27, 2014 at 11:43 am

The only long term intelligent undead creature I had in any of my campaigns is–her name was taken from the PrC sample, but she’s bans fleshed out immensely–Calista the Wildfire. Also known by her full name Calista Moriarty, she was a woman who lived centuries ago, on the fringe of a beautiful Elven city. She was a Druid once, who cared and maintained a beautiful grove the elves gave her (because she wouldn’t live long, anyway. Not a big deal, right?). For decades she did as she was taught and communicated between the elves and roaming traders at the latter’s request, never once complaining.

She fell for an Elven male called Ayer, a noble who controlled the agrarian aspects of the city. When the two returned to announce they would be married, the elves were taken aback with disgust. A human and Elven union was simply out of the question, as any offspring would produce an abomination that could spell trouble for their civilization.

The elves reacted the only way they knew how: arrogance, and an urge to prove they held dominion here. They burned Ayer’s vast gardens and killed his trees. To add insult to this they burned Calista’s cottage to the ground and murdered her beloved before exiling the human.

Torn, and robbed of the beauty of Ayer’s form and gardens…angered Calista, to no end. The elves returned to their beautiful city, leaving her with a charred ruin, wilted lawn and death fresh in her heart. She fled into the woods, vowing to take away that which she loved one day.

Of course the Elves were nearly immortal, and they would outlive her several times over. They would recover quickly from whatever she might do to them in the meantime. So away she went to study the magic her old friends had taught her, favoring particularly the spells of reincarnation and vitality. None know what went wrong with her experiments, but she died eventually.

When she stood back up, however, she knew her vengeance would be seen for centuries to come. No longer a Druid, the blighter returned to the Elven city and announced her presence by means of plaguing the land, poisoning their people and burning their beauty to the ground. War raged for two hundred years between the elves and the mad lich, and it would be a matter of time before someone stepped in to right these wrongs.

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