Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Undead in DragonQuest

Undead are a staple of fantasy RPG adventures and DragonQuest includes the usual suspects.  However, undead in DragonQuest can be a challenge to GM as described in the rules.  In particular, a number of the Greater Undead (Night-Gaunts, Spectres, Wights, and Wraiths) are described as "waxing and waning", "half of this world and half of another plane" or "vary in substantiality in direct proportion to the time of day".  Does this mean that their physical attributes should also vary?  For Spectres, this is specifically stated as true but for the others it is unknown.  The rules suggest that most Greater Undead are Adepts.  Do their Ranks with spells also vary?  Again, except for Spectres, unknown.  No game mechanics for playing out this variability are given in the rules.  Sadly while providing a somewhat different take on undead from other RPGs the DragonQuest designers left a lot of questions unanswered.
Because of some discussion on the Yahoo! DragonQuest groups, and a couple of recent adventures targeted at DragonQuest that featured or included undead, I decided to review again what is and is not there in the DragonQuest rules concerning the undead.


First up is the variable corporealness issue.  Using Wights as an example, we know from their description that:
Wights are a form of ghost. They normally appear in their human form, but vary in substantiality in direct proportion to the time of day. Bright sunlight makes them fade into the spirit world while moonlight and starlight increase their corporeality. When in a corporeal state (usually just after moonrise), they are capable of harming humans just as if they were, themselves, alive.
The implication here is that they cannot harm others when they are incorporeal which seems reasonable enough but can they be harmed?  Perhaps they can only be affected by magic when incorporeal?  The Comments on Spectres says no for them but it is unclear if this is true for other Greater Undead.
Can they cast spells when incorporeal?  If so, who can be affected by those spells?  Just themselves?  Other incorporeal entities?  The living?  For Night-Gaunts, Wights, and Wraiths, no answers are provided.  The Comments for Spectres say that they cannot physically harm a character while incorporeal and then immediately go on to say that they can perform magic.  Left unsaid is whether or not magic cast by Spectres while incorporeal can affect characters but I believe that is the intent.  This would be contrary to the statement that they can't be affected by magic while incorporeal.  Why should they be able to affect the corporeal world with magic when it can't affect them?
Can they be seen when at their most incorporeal?  The description for Wights suggests perhaps no when in bright sunlight though Ghosts can be seen if faintly under that condition.  No insight is provided for Night-Gaunts, which are lesser Wights so the argument could be made either way.  Spectres "may disappear entirely during the day" which suggests that they may be entirely on the spirit plane during the day and that this may be at their discretion.  Nothing is said about Wraiths visibility but they are "much like a wight" so treating them similar to Wights seems fair.
The entries for Wights and Wraiths specifically mention the moon's effect on their corporealness but the entries for none of the others do.  If they are most powerful or corporeal after moonrise what does that mean when the moon rises during the day such as during 1st quarter?  Are they slightly more corporeal during the noon to sundown period while the moon is up?
Assuming you can, what does killing an undead mean when they are partially corporeal?  Is a partially corporeal body left behind?  Spectres are "half of this world and half of another plane."  Presumably, any remains go back to the "other plane".
What about the weapons, armor, or other items the undead are carrying?  Night-gaunts and Wights are capable of using weapons, armor, and shields.  I think it is safe to assume that items they are wearing or carrying also fade in and out with them.  But if a partially incorporeal Wight drops a weapon does that weapon become fully corporeal or does it fade away?  If a Wight, picks up a weapon that is laying about does the weapon now adopt the degree of insubstantiality of the Wight?
What about missile weapons?  If a Wight has a bow can they fire arrows at others when incorporeal?  Does the arrow stay incorporeal, passing through entities and objects with no effect, or does it become solid?
Spectres are able to control whether or not they are incorporeal but this is not mentioned in any of the descriptions for the other undead.  Of interest is that this is presented as an either/or situation and not a variable degree of substantiality and is somewhat in contradiction to the statement that their "characteristics and power of spectres varies in direct proportion to their substantiality" which suggests that their substantiality varies.
Do the Greater Undead have a sense of the sun's and/or moon's position?  Do they know when sunrise/sunset are about to occur?  It would seem that they should since they are so tied to the positions of the celestial bodies.
Can undead, when insubstantial, pass through walls or doors?  Can the incorporeal Wight pass through walls during the day but not at night?  In various horror and fantasy fiction ghosts often can pass through walls and doors but it is also fairly common for ghosts to be constrained or restricted to certain rooms or the interior of a building even when the walls of that building no longer exist.
For my own campaigns, I don't use the waxing and waning concept much at all.  When the PCs encounter undead, it will  be either underground or at night.  In those circumstances I have always played the Greater Undead as being at their most corporeal.  I treat Night-Gaunts and Wights as corporeal beings all the time; their unquiet spirits animating their dead bodies long after death.  Spectres and Wraiths are spirits that can manifest in corporeal forms that may mimic the form they had in life but just as often appear in the more traditional shrouded vaguely humanoid shape.  Spectres can choose their desired form at any time while Wraiths can only assume the more human form at night.

Drain Life-Force Ability

All Greater Undead have the ability to drain life from their victims in the form of Fatigue or Endurance.  What isn't stated, except in the case of Vampires, is whether or not that doing so restores Fatigue or Endurance lost by the undead.  I have never played them that way but I wouldn't argue that it was incorrect to do so.  The Weapons section for Night-gaunts and Wights says that they "may drain the life-force of any character with whom he comes into physical contact."  Does this mean that they may choose not to do so?  I can imagine situations where an undead might choose not to drain life from a victim.
Spectres, on the other hand, are different and their touch is described in the Talents, Skills, and Magic section as being "ice cold" and it directly affects Endurance.  A physical cold sensation is not ascribed to the touch of the other Greater Undead.  The Comments section says that Spectres "cannot physically harm a character while insubstantial" does this apply to their touch?  Spectres have no natural weapons nor are they weapon users so to what does that statement apply if not their drain via touch?
Strike Chances are not given for touch attacks by the Greater Undead.  For the weapon users like Night-gaunts and Wights, the Strike Chance of the weapon they are wielding would apply in most cases.  For Spectres and Wraiths, the Unarmed Combat Strike Chance could be used though no mention is made and no Rank is given for these skills (or any skills).  A Spectre would have an average Strike Chance of 44% at R0 while the Wraith fares a bit better thanks to their oddly high Agility, with an average Strike Chance of 65% at R0.  As a touch attack wouldn't depend upon force, and could just be a fleeting touch, plus neither Wraiths nor Spectres need fear being hurt by weapons, it would seem like they should have a significantly better chance to hit.

Magic and the Greater Undead

First, who the heck teaches them magic?   Do they take night classes at the community college?  I guess that night is when magic from the Entities colleges would be taught but still do you really want a Wight sitting in class with the other students?  Since Wights are often bound to a location there doesn't seem to be a lot of opportunities for them to get any training.  Night-gaunts could, in theory, travel about and perhaps find an Adept willing to teach them but it is not like they can wander into a bar and ask if there are any Celestial Adepts around to teach them.
Even so, a number of the Greater Undead have very high Magical Aptitude attributes with Spectres going up to 30.  All can be Adepts and some are automatically Adepts though what that means is left undefined.  One of the oddest contradictions in DragonQuest is that the College of Necromancy includes a ritual for turning oneself into a Greater Undead but no Greater Undead can be an Adept of the College of Necromancy.
Night-Gaunts - Only Celestial Magics.  No specific division.  Presumably knowledge they already had?  Though they are created by Wights the limitation on minimum spell rank isn't noted.
Spectres - Celestial Magics. Dark Mages only.  All Spectres are Adepts.  It is not clear from the description if they just automatically become Adepts and are granted this knowledge or must somehow seek it out.
Vampires - Are automatically Adepts of the Sorceries of the Mind but they only have what Ranks they had while alive.  If they weren't already Adepts of that college it doesn't say if they automatically gain Rank 0 with all General Knowledge nor if they perhaps also get Rank 0 with the Special Knowledge of the college.
Wights - Celestial Magics (Conjurations of Night and Stars) only.  I believe the parenthetical text is leftover from early drafts of the rules.  Perhaps from before Shadow Mages were added to the college.  The description notes that they are limited to spells/rituals of Rank 10 and above so they are stuck with only those Rank 10 and up spells/rituals they knew prior to becoming undead as they wouldn't be able to improve spells of lesser rank nor learn new ones.
Wraiths - As with Wights but the Rank restriction drops to Rank 8.
In general my Night-Gaunts, Wights and Wraiths are very rarely Adepts and when they are they are usually the big-bad of a dungeon or behind a series of encounters.  With Vampires I give them a few spells out of Sorceries of the Mind as Talents with older vamps having more of them and higher ranks.  In some cases, when their backgrounds had them as Adepts prior to becoming Undead, I've had Vampires that were Adepts of Celestial Magics or Necromantic Conjurations.

Where Do They Come From?

For most of the Lesser and Greater Undead the descriptions do provide information on how they are created or how they come into being.  A few do not and there are also some inconsistencies among related entries.
According to their descriptions, Skeletons and Zombies are both animated by Adepts of the College of Necromancy.  The College of Black Magics includes an Animation of the Dead spell (S-18) that is the same as that of the Necromancers.  The College of Lesser Summonings includes a spell for Summoning Lesser Undead but my take on this is that it is a summoning and not an animation.  Unfortunately for those looking to stock up dungeons with lesser undead, the animation spells only last 13 hours at most.  Since not even Necromancers can permanently animate undead that means any dungeon with zombies or skeletons has to keep a skilled Necromancer on call or the guardians will lay down on the job.  Additionally when the spell runs out the skeletons immediately fall apart and turn to dust.  So no reanimation if you let the spell lapse.  As described I don't really think of these as undead as the animating force is the magic and will of the Adept.  No different than golems or perhaps like the minor elementals that can be created via the binding element rituals of the elemental colleges.
Ghosts come from individuals that die under traumatic circumstances and are generally well-explained in the entry for them.
The rules only tell us that Ghouls are created by other Ghouls.  As one becomes a Ghoul by being bitten - and infected - by another Ghoul, they sound more like a type of zombie including the caveat that you must take out the motor center to stop them.  They are also clumsy, slow-moving creatures much like zombies in many current movies and books.  Ghouls devour the flesh of the living but it isn't clear what would happen to them if trapped in a crypt or dungeon without the occasional adventurer to snack on.  Could really have used some more detail about how and why they are created.
There are two types of Night-gaunts: ones created when a Wight kills a character by draining their Endurance and those created when a character dies while under a geas or oath.  Night-gaunts created by Wights are destroyed when the Wight which created them is destroyed.  The description for Night-gaunts refers to them as "undead oath-breakers" but does dying while under a geas or oath make one an oath-breaker?  Seems a bit extreme.  If a good character swears an oath to protect some place but dies while doing so, would it make sense for them to rise as undead to "serve evil in all ways"?  I could see that they might rise to continue to serve that oath, to protect a location, but wouldn't be doing so for evil reasons.  Seems more likely that someone who dies while under oath, and while intentionally betraying that oath, would be the type to come back with evil intent.  Characters already in service to evil and under the influence of a geas or oath also seem like reasonable choices to come back as Night-gaunts.
From the Comments section of the entry for Wights, they "are individuals who have died under a geas or oath which they have been unable to fulfill in life."  The Ritual of Becoming Undead (R-3) of the College of Necromancy can also produce one as a side effect of performing the ritual.  It is curious that nowhere in the entry for Wights is there a mention of serving evil yet their "offspring", Night-gaunts, are described as doing only that.  Commonly Wights are bound to protect some location by their original oath.
No explanation is given for how Wraiths come to exist or their motivations.  Like Wights, Wraiths can be created as a side effect of a Necromancer's ritual but, in that case, they are tied to a specific location.  I find it interesting that the undead with the highest Agility (25-35) has no physical attacks and needs no Defense as they can't be harmed by weapons.  Because of this high Agility, most Wraiths will be able to take 2 actions during a Pulse and their average Initiative Value of 55 will make them very dangerous to engage if someone is crazy enough to try engage them in Melee or Close combat.
The entry for Spectres also lacks any background as to where they come from or what creates them.  The only mention of the creation of Spectres in the rules comes from Arcane Wisdom under the College of Shaping Magic where an Adept will become a Spectre at the end of the ritual when creating items with a Shaping Index greater than 4000.  Like Night-gaunts created by Wights, a character drained of their last point of Endurance becomes a half-strength Spectre.
Per the description in the DragonQuest rules, Vampires are created by performing the Ritual of Becoming Undead or by being drained of their last point of Endurance by a Vampire.  Given that Major Curse can inflict Lycanthropy I would expect that Major Curse could also cause someone to become a vampire.  Probably something only known to really old gypsy women with some serious Ranks in Major Curse.

So What?

As with most of my blog posts like this that picks at the DragonQuest rules a lot of this is about me looking back over the rules to see what they really said versus how I've been running the game for all this time.  Like many GMs when confronted with rules that don't make sense in the moment of a gaming session I've made off-the-cuff rulings and gone on with the game session.  Then, later, and sometimes much later, gone back, reread the relevant section and said, "Oh. I see now."  In the case of in DragonQuest I can't say that the dozen or so rereadings I did in the course of writing this post has changed my view on the way they are presented.  Some interesting ideas are there that, if more fully developed, might have provided a truly unique take on undead in a FRPG but such was not to be.


  1. Hi Phil. There is at least one tidbit on greater undead and their magic ability that I recall from The Enchanted Wood. There is a random encounter table that denotes the greater undead will be no more than rank 3 adepts.

    1. I can't find that reference. The Ruined Tower encounter has a wight which has R10 in all spells plus her 2 night-gaunt children which most likely have none.

    2. Phil, yes it is buried. The Wulgreth's Tomb Encounter Table on page 28 has a note in it.

    3. Ah. There it is. That's curious but not atypical for the published DQ adventures. Most were written by people that didn't know the rules. I'd say that setting them at R3 or less makes no sense at all. I don't know if this was the thinking behind the R8/R10 requirements but if their spell power also waxes/wanes then having their median spell rank be an 8 or 10 would allow for the spell rank to do the same. Maybe.

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    5. One of your questions you posed was how do greater undead become Adepts. Not sure how much I like this thought myself but perhaps greater undead gain ranks in their magic skills as they exist through full lunar cycles i.e. as they age.

    6. Well once an Adept knows a spell they can go up in it without outside help. It's that initial spell acquisition that I wonder about. You can say that the Powers of Darkness grant them those spells as part of the whole transformation into their undead state but that kind of ties the Celestial Magics college to the Powers of Darkness. That I'm not so sure about.

  2. Very relevant topic for me while working on an adventure with alot of undead. Coincidentally, I corrected a bunch of undead NPC writeups today on their touch attacks today as I had denoted their attacks to be unranked and was improperly adding in MD to their SCs.

    Having rank in unarmed combat would entitle undead to add in their MD to the SC per rule 17.1. Should a small modifier of +10% be added for touch attacks? A defender can't deflect a touch attack from undead with their weapons as they can with other unarmed attacks from living creatures. Thoughts?

  3. Well in Section 65 under the Weapons description says, "Monsters always add their Manual Dexterity to their Base
    Chance with any natural weapon whether Ranked or not" and I think the case can be made that undead are monsters...

    I always give them the MD bonus. As you say, it's not like the defender can deflect their attack. Indeed a defender that does try to parry is looking at taking another D10+2 from Wights. Same for using a shield. If the undead misses by <= the shield defense then they touched the shield and, again, the defender takes the drain attack. You can't keep them from closing with you into Close combat as that requires the use of a Ranked weapon which once again has no effect on them but does hurt you if you actually touch them with it. Want a TPK? Send a Wraith or Spectre against a party that doesn't have 2 or 3 offensive Adepts.

  4. Thanks now I get to re-correct my adventure writeup. But thanks for pointing this out. It makes my undead touch attack bonus thought moot.

    I was able to get a little gaming in with my nephew and neice a couple of weeks ago and my nephews character got wacked hard with a wight with a broadsword. For awhile, I thought things might be headed for some loss in PCs but they recovered.

    How do you adjudicate damage and stun effects when greater undead use a weapon. IMO, the attacks should be handled separately to determine stun effects to properly account for armor PF and the fact that the touch damage is unaffected by armor.

    Since undead touch attacks may not have a very impressive strike chance one other consideration is the parry-riposte rule. Obviously, it would not be prudent to attempt to parry-riposte an attack from a wraith or spectre. In fact they cannot succeed in doing do, I do think the PCs should be allowed to attempt it with no warning). It may be judicious though to parry-riposte a poor attack attempt from a swordwraith or juju zombie.

    1. Same as you are doing it, I handle the drain and weapon damage separately as well. Though it can actually make the attacks more deadly in that the weapon damage might knock them out of FT and then the subsequent drain could kill them if they had already taken EN damage. A combined damage total would have only removed the FT. Never done it that way but I can't say that I would consider it wrong.

      re: parry-riposte - I generally let PCs learn the hard way the first time. :)

  5. Phil,
    I dislike the Animation of the Dead Ritual the way it is written. It is in need of revision to make it a more practical spell.

    I think a more effective means of preventing an Adept from having a skeleton/zombie army is to also cap the number of undead that are under the adept's control to their WP score in addition to 1 skeleton or zombie per rank.

    Additionally what does it mean by maintaining concentration for up to a week? Does that mean not sleeping for a week? If so good luck with that, most Adept's do not possess the high WP, FT, and EN to stay up that long. It also means IMO of reading the rule that you can't perform the ritual to reset the clock on the same skeletons/zombies already in your control as I don't see how one can maintain concentration while attempting to perform a new ritual.

    Of course, the priest skill I've been adapting has another means for making and binding lesser undead. Could use your thoughts over in the GM's group if you have the time.

    1. Animation of the Dead is a terrible spell for all the reasons you listed.

      Concentration spells in general are poorly defined in DQ.

      I don't think that there is much risk of Adepts getting undead armies with the spells as written. The most they can have is 23. While that would certainly be a nuisance to an experienced party it wouldn't be much of an actual threat.

      I'll try and set aside some time to go over the priest skill.