5 Reasons Intelligent Undead Became Undead

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 24, 2012

Becoming undead isn’t something that many PCs aspire to; in fact I don’t think it’s an aspiration anybody aspires to. Death may be terrible and even unexpected, but why would anyone want to become undead? I guess it really depends on what kind of undead we’re talking about and why the individual wants to extend their natural lifespan.

In most cases the transformation isn’t by choice. An unsuspecting victim becomes undead because they were killed by some un-living creature. The most likely possibilities are that you were bitten or scratched by a Zombie, Ghoul, or Vampire before you died. If this happens to a PC it’s game over for that character and time for the player to roll up a new one. The character’s undeath is treated the same way as the character’s death.

For players who really want to play undead characters they have to make that decision during character creation. They can play the Revenant or Vryloka races or they can choose the Vampire class. But if these options don’t appeal to players, a willing DM might allow a few other options. After all there are intelligent creatures that deliberately and often willingly become undead, take the Lich and Mummy, for example.

It’s assumed that a lot of the intelligent undead creatures took deliberate steps while they were alive to ensure that they could live on in undead form. Although D&D usually depicts powerful, intelligent undead as evil monsters, there is a good chance that before this villain became the undead entity the party is desperately trying to defeat he was a mortal being with a solid plan and a good reason for becoming undead.

By identifying the reason behind the transformation DMs can make intelligent undead more than a stat block. After all, the being likely lived for decades or even centuries before the PCs came along. Knowing what drove the monster to become undead will give him a personality and make him a more interesting opponent. It’s even possible that the undead creature doesn’t see himself as evil at all, and if the PCs ever discover his back-story they too may come to that realization.

With that in mind I’ve come up with 5 reasons intelligent undead became undead. I see these examples serving two different proposes. The first is to enrich the undead villain’s background. The second is to act as adventure hooks. Are the PCs trying to help or stop the would-be Lich from becoming undead or willing to take steps to ensure it happens?

1) Find the Cure

We’d do anything to save ourselves or the ones we love. When a man that has lived a long and fruitful life is diagnosed with a terminal illness he faces death without regret. However, when he learns that this disease was likely passed down through his bloodline and that his family will one day face a similar fate to his own, he devotes his remaining time to finding a cure. He realizes that he may not live long enough to find the cure so he decides to take a radical step and deliberately seeks a way to become undead. This will give him all the time he needs to find the cure. If any members of his family fall ill he will transform them into undead creatures as well. His hope is that once a cure to the illness is found he can cure everyone and revive any who have become undead, including himself.

2) Thirst for Knowledge

Some people want to know everything. They read as many books as they can find, they study as many subjects as possible and try to talk with every expert they meet. This might be a selfish quest for personal enlightenment or it could be a desire to learn about something very specific. Many Wizards fall firmly into this category. They must know everything and won’t let something as trivial as mortality get in their way. This is a common drive for those who become Liches.

Over time the desire for knowledge often becomes one with the desire for power. The scholar is no longer content with tales from books and knowledge of the world around him. The thirst for power and forbidden lore drive him to learn spells, rituals and anything else he can use to gain even more power.

However, the thirst for knowledge can be a noble purpose. Perhaps the scholar learns that in 500 years a great evil will return to the realms. It will take a long time to uncover a means to stop it so he seeks a way to extend his lifespan and becoming undead is the only answer. This transformation allows him to continue his research for centuries uninterrupted.

3) An Undead Guardian Angel

There’s being a protective parent and then there’s being an over-protective parent. When most of his family is killed a man decides to dedicate his life to protecting his few remaining heirs from danger. He takes steps to become an undead creature so that he can always be there, watching and protecting them. As his family ages and new generations are born the undead protector continues his signal goal – keeping his family safe. If the family knows he exists do they welcome him as part of the extended family or do they pretend he’s not there, ignoring him and denying him direct contact? Maybe he faked his own death before becoming undead knowing that his family would object to his plan. Now so much time has passed none of his living heirs would even know he was once the family patriarch.

4) My Way is the Right Way

Some people believe that they are right. Nothing that you can say will dissuade them. And sometimes they are right. When a king or other ruler believes that he is the best hope for his people and his country he realizes that when he’s gone they will face terrible turmoil. So he does what any good leader would do, he finds a way to stay in power forever. Unfortunately the only way to do this is to become undead. Some people may not like the methods but they’ll ultimately agree with the results. By keeping such an important figure in power the country will remain prosperous forever.

5) In My Image

A weak and powerless nation has no hope. The people struggle to survive and the leaders lack the resources to implement change or make things better. A desperate man decides that radical change is the only way to make things better. When he discovers the means to become undead he takes it. Using this knowledge he transforms the people closest to him into undead as well. Eventually the undead start to outnumber the living and things really start to change. With everyone becoming undead the problems of old no longer matter. But what new problems will eventually arise from this sudden and unnatural change to the population?

Have you ever worked an intelligent undead’s reasons for becoming undead into a campaign? Have you ever used an intelligent undea as a sympathetic villain  Have you ever allowed a PC to become undead and then continue adventuring?

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1 Svafa October 24, 2012 at 11:43 am

We have two undead in our current campaign. One’s an NPC Revenant allied with the party and the other is a Vampire PC. Both are of the cursed-with-undeath variety. The PC is newer so hasn’t been explored fully, but was cursed by an evil enemy. The NPC, on the other hand, was cursed by the goddess of death as punishment and now serves as a handmaiden and psychopomp.

The main villain is sort of an undead too. Technically, he’s some sort of pseudo-immortal a la Torog, but it has some similarities to undead though a better description might be unlife or something.

2 Joe October 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm

I had a great NPC undead in my home game. The party started near the frontlines of a long-running war between “The Alliance” and the orcish hordes. They connected with the driver of a coffin wagon who called himself “The Unknown Soldier”. He was a revenant who didn’t know exactly who he used to be, but was certain that he had been a soldier, and that his unit had been slaughtered. He hoped that by delivering the bodies of dead soldiers to their families, maybe he’d jog some memory and figure out why he was brought back. Plus it was a great way to take the PCs from place-to-place, and our cleric worshipped the Raven Queen, so she felt responsible for helping families deal with the deaths of their soldier sons & daughters.

Eventually, though, they entered a human nation and the hometown of a zealous Avenger of the Sun they’d met earlier. Turns out the avenger’s brother was one of the bodies. However, when they got there, the Unknown Soldier started talking strangely, and he looked a bit more muscular. When he got his hands on an orcish axe, though, it all became clear.

When the party found him, he was leading a revolt and had opened a portal to allow the other fallen warriors of Grummsh to come inhabit the bodies in his cart to slaughter the civilians of the town, getting revenge on the Avenger who’d slaughtered his unit while they slept. The party had to defeat their former friend, but also deal with the aftermath when the Avenger came home.

3 Philo Pharynx October 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm

I’ve had a PC that voluntarily became a psionic lich as a path to godhood. After all, it worked for Vecna. In his early life, the character was a halfling tired of being talked down to, patronized and abused becase he was smaller and weaker than most people (even most halflings). When he developed psychic powers he made sure such actions were punsihed appropriately. (He was lawful neutral and made sure that the punishment didn’t exceed the crime). The halfling patheon we were using didn’t have a god of just vengeance. He figured they needed one. Everytime a halfling had to deal with being the butt of bigger folks’ jokes, he would gain power. Sdaly, the campaign ended before he acheived his goal.

4 Sunyaku October 26, 2012 at 1:19 am

I really liked this post Ameron. One of the main villains in my home campaign is a Dragonborn Wizard Lich… and while I have thought a fair amount about his character motivations, I have not decided “why” he became a Lich. The power excuse is too convenient… so thanks for the inspiration to come up with something more original!

5 Omegaweapon November 25, 2015 at 3:23 pm

This was from forever ago, and I’m not sure anyone still reads this, but I can still think of 3 more reasons:

6. Service in death, as in life

This one is aimed at divine caster characters, particularly clerics of death gods. When one’s patron deity holds power over the domain of death, there is little reason to not simply be reanimated. Whether it is the choice of the cleric or the deity depends on the ones in question. For a worshiper or Nerull, death would be a sign of cowardice and lack of faith; anyone with the ability to persist after death MUST do so or suffer the consequences. On the other hand, a disciple of Wee Jas would be given a peaceful, eternal unlife as a reward for a honorable and steadfast service. This case also permits good undead, so long as they remain honorable. A mummy paladin, for example, would not be out of the ordinary.

7. Only now that I am exempt from nature’s law, can I fully devote myself to it

Two words: druid lich. It is mechanically possible in 3.5, but how would one make a story for this kind of creature. This would essentially be an amalgam of reasons 3, 4 and my 6th reason. In a druidic order, where knowledge is passed down by oral means, while the majority is simply lost to time, there, in the branches of the colossal tree in the center of the forest, dwells the Lorekeeper. One of the first druids in the order, he now lives on as a lich in order to watch over nature’s safety, as well as to makes sure that his order does not stray from their path.

8. I…am afraid

Fearless lives are already forfeit. The truly fearless, are ones who throw caution to the wind, for some (ig)noble cause, or simply because they think themselves invincible. Only in their final moments do they realize how wrong they were.
…but what if the opposite is true? What if one wades through forbidden knowledge and blood of innocents in order to save themselves from the whim of gods and planar wanderers. This is somewhat reminiscent of “The Thirst For Knowledge”. In this reason, however, the knowledge is merely a means to an end in planting one’s roots in the Material Plane, away from the whim of gods and planar travelers.

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