Intelligent undead are one of the most used villains in fantasy roleplaying games, and no wonder, their sole existence is evil enough. But roleplaying a super-intelligent villain who has eternity to burn, doesn’t need to sleep and has nothing better to do than take over the world can be a challenge.
You sit in the Three Stags common room with your group, just easing your way down to the bottom of a mug of ale and talking about your last adventure. A freezing wind howls outside, blowing from the north, bringing snow and sleet but inside it’s warm and cosy. The fire in the fireplace casts dancing shadows on the wooden walls as you listen to Larael, the minstrel, play through one of his epics. The smell of spiced rabbit fills the air and you thank the heavens that you don’t need to spend the night outside.
Suddenly the door opens. Snow and wind rushes in, dousing a few candles in the chandelier above the bar. A dark, hooded figure holding a staff appears in the doorway. Every guest turns silent and watches as the figure enters the tavern.
“Oi, mate, close the…” Oliver the barkeep, someone you’ve known for most of your life, shouts but suddenly stops, blood draining from his face. “Korilar… but … but… we vanquished you,” he stutters.
The dark figure removes his hood. As the figure steps into the light you see that it is a man, or what’s left of him. The skin of his face is shrivelled and dry, his eyes shine with unearthly and unholy light. The air around him is foul and reeks of decay and mold. Korilar looks around, spots the red haired serving girl Desery, Oliver’s only daughter. He raises his hands, points his finger at her and utter a few arcane syllable, his voice dry as a desert’s sand. Desery clutches her throat as her skin goes gray, the fiery colour draining from her hair and her eyes dull.
“No! Please, don’t kill her,” shouts Oliver, his eyes welling up with tears, as he watches his daughter’s life being drained away. Desery desperately clings to her last breath.
“I told you that night thirty years ago,” the dark figure says, turning his attention to the barkeep, “I would return. I told you I would destroy everything you hold dear, paladin. And no, you and your pitiful band of friends did not vanquish me. This is just the beginning.” With a flick of his wrist Korilar ends Desery’s life, her lifeless body falls limp to the floor. In a flash of light Korilar disappears, leaving nothing behind but the awful stench of the undead.
Villains and antagonists are a key element in any fantasy roleplaying module. Liches, vampires, mummies and other intelligent undead are some of the most common villains you find in fantasy roleplaying games. And no wonder, these creatures are evil to the core, their very being itself is an abomination to everything that is right and good in the world. Intelligent undead also tend to use other evil beings and particularly others undead creatures as servants, making it easy for characters to recognise a friend from foe. Also, as cliches go, the one about the evil intelligent undead monster scheming and plotting to claim more power or take over the world is rooted so deep in the fantasy genre that it’s more of a rule nowadays.
Intelligent undead as antagonists
If you read through many modules and novels it’s surprisingly easy to thwart the evil plans of the villains. Ravenloft aside where you have a built in fail-mechanism in the setting itself, I often find super-intelligent undead antagonists incredibly impatient and their plans often a bit simple. After all, these are beings who have both eternity to waste and gold pieces to burn. Why wouldn’t they take all the time in the world to see their plans come into fruition? Why would a creature of really high intelligence, often quite wise as well and really powerful, not foresee almost every possible outcome of their plans?
Playing an intelligent undead can therefore be problematic. First of all, their sense of time differs from the characters. What are 3 decades or even 3 ages to an eternal and undying being? This does put the characters at a disadvantage, because they might try and stop one part of the undead monster’s plan, not knowing that next part won’t see the light of day until after half a century, when some of the PC‘s might even be dead from old age.
The second problem is that we as human beings are probably somewhere around average intelligence. Only a handful of us have really high intelligence. Our imagination is therefore limited by our own intelligence, we can’t even fathom how an alien undead creature like an Alhoon or a vampiric dragon would think. We therefore have only our best estimates to rely on.
Finally, any intelligent being has reasons for its action. The same goes for intelligent undead. They try to claim more power, take over the world or enslave other beings for a reason, not merely because they are evil. It’s their actions and the reason for these action that define them as evil.
“Trolls are like onions.”
It has been said that trolls are like onions, they have layers. But the same might apply for the plans of any super-intelligent being. Their plans are layered in contingencies, fall-back plans and with every possible failsafe you can possibly think of. And more so if you are an undead creature that has more than enough time on your hand and magical powers to match.
When creating an intelligent undead adversary, especially if it’s the BBEG of the module or campaign, this is something worth taking into consideration. If the villain has had many years, even decades, to plan something, to think about every possible outcome and counteracts, the plot should not only be pretty hard to foil but also rather obscure and difficult to see through.
“Patience you must have, my young padawan.”
Beings like vampires and liches have an eternity to spend, they literally have all the time in the world. Why wouldn’t they be willing to wait for years, even decades, to see their plans unfold and all the pieces fall into place? Waiting for the opportune moment, where the chances of them succeeding are almost certain, is something they should excel at.
Patience is therefore a virtue that probably most intelligent undead probably learn rather quickly and adapt their plans accordingly. When you are introducing a villain of this sort, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to allow the player characters to learn how the evil plans have been in motion over a long period of time.
“I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.”
A super-intelligent being, one that has much time on its hands, will probably have something to occupy its mind from time to time. And why not try and test every possible part of the plan? Why not see how the monastery where the Netherese scroll is hidden away will react to fire, goblin attack or a doppelganger taking the place of some of the monks?
To use a more modern way of thinking, an intelligent undead would probably approach parameters of its plans using scientific methods like A/B testing and then use what has proved to be most successful.
“And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”
When the PCs enter the picture, once they have discovered that there is some evil and sinister plan in action, the intelligent undead will probably react. And its reaction should be one that is similar to something they have already done. Why, you might ask? Because that is something they know, something they know that has worked before and trust will work again. They would assess the situation and evaluate what the best course of action should be.
In fact, the intelligent undead could be compared to a chess grand champion, one that has over 4000 ELO points. Every piece is moved across the table after disciplined, tried and tested methods. When encountering something new, something unexpected, next steps are cautious and well thought out.
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
The plot to take over the world, to usurp the power of a god or some plans that have a global, even multi-planar effect, is something of a cliche. I’ve often found that those plots that have the local effect, are even contained and confined to a small place or relate to the player characters on a personal level, most successful.
Why shouldn’t a lich, vampire or even a death knight just be a vindictive prick? After all, they still experience human emotions, though most of their feelings are negative and full of malice. Their hate knows no boundaries and is not locked in the confines of time.
Being undead does not however mean that you are without honour or a sense of duty. In fact, when you read about Lord Soth, Strahd, Szass Tam or many other similar beings you notice that they all have their own code of honour, so to speak. They are not evil just to be evil, they are selfish and egotistical but still have some almost relatable reasons for their actions. After all, these were once humanoids and still retain their personality.
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Undead villains are extremely dangerous and make great and memorable adversaries. As a gamemaster you want to make these villains unforgettable, hard to beat and yet almost likeable. Strahd could invite the player characters to dinner, Szass Tam admire their ingenuity and Lord Soth applaud their honourable approach to problem solving.
When you create your intelligent undead villain make sure you note the backstory of the villain and think about what choices it made that lead it down the path to undeath. Each of the three aforementioned undead took different paths to their undeath, be it love, lust or hunger for power.
And in the end…
Intelligent undead are often powerful beings. But they are also devious, clever and have more than enough time to plot, plan and scheme. Therefore their plans need to be layered and complicated. There’s no reason to think that super-intelligent beings wouldn’t use scientific methods to find the one method that is most successful in this or that situation.
Still, many intelligent undead creatures used to be humanoids and still retain much of their personality, though it has gained a much darker hue. They make great adversaries for a group of heroes, especially as recurring ones.
When you create your villain, be it an intelligent undead or any other intelligent being, the same rules apply as when you create a player character. Personality and backstory are important, and you need to take all things into consideration, to make sure it all makes sense. When you have everything in place, you’ve created something else. You’ve created a monster worth fighting.