Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Undead Revisited

As I've mentioned several times, I really love undead monsters, so when Paizo released Classic Undead Revisited, I knew I'd have to buy it and review it. For those of you unfamiliar with the “Revisited” line, it’s a series of books that aims to give you a closer look a select few monsters (or, in one case, magic items) by detailing aspects of them that there was no room for in other books. Although none of the things in the “Revisited” books are new (they can all be found in previous Paizo publications), the information is. Therefore, if you’re just looking for lots of fluff and some new ideas on how to use old monsters or items, these books are for you. If, on the other hand, you just want new mechanics, new items, and new monsters, these books will probably disappoint you. Now, those of you who are familiar with the “Revisited” books, you probably know that there has already been a Classic Horrors Revisited book which discussed such undead monsters as vampires, zombies, and skeletons. That being the case, you might be thinking, “What makes this book so different? Haven’t they already covered the important undead?” You’ve certainly got a point; when most people think of the word ‘undead,’ vampires and zombies are probably the first things to come to mind. Undead Revisited, however, is quick to point out the difference between the two books: Classic Horrors focused on traditional creature-feature monsters such as Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein (i.e. vampires, werewolves, and flesh golems), whereas this book focuses on some of the monsters more common to tabletop gaming: bodaks, devourers, and (of course) liches. As someone who likes using a lot of undead, I think this is a great idea. Sure, zombies and skeletons are cool, don’t get me wrong. But they’ve been done to death (no pun intended). At this point, are people even surprised when a decaying corpse rises from its grave to feast on the flesh of the innocent? My players certainly aren’t. I need to spice up my necromantic nemeses, and this book has given me some great ideas on how to do that.

The book starts off with the incredibly creepy bodak. In addition to looking fairly menacing, it has a pretty awful backstory: bodaks are created when someone sees something so horrifying that it literally destroys their soul. They like to turn other people into bodaks, but, failing that, they’ll settle for just ripping out people’s eyes. There’s a lot of interesting information presented here (this chapter, along with all the others, is divided into multiple sections: basic description, ecology, habitat & society, campaign role, treasure, variants, and where you can expect to find them on Golarion), as well as stats for a bodak with a few class levels in Antipaladin. These terrifying yet tragic monsters are a great way to kick off the book, and I’ve already found a place for them in my current campaign.

Next up, we’ve got devourers. Devourers are great, aren’t they? They’ve really got it all, even before you see their fluff. They’ve got that classic undead look, with rotting flesh and exposed bones; they’re physically intimidating, being very tall and often covered in spikes; and they eat souls. You don’t get much more evil than devouring souls, right? The only way to make them more sinister would be to give them a species-wide affinity for kicking puppies. However, rather than making devourers the vengeful spirits of people who really hate dogs, Paizo made them the twisted pawns of unfathomable eldritch gods from beyond the farthest reaches of the multiverse. Now, I know some people aren’t really into cosmic horror, but… well, as I’m typing this, I’m staring at my giant copy of The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft, so that ought to tell you how I feel about the matter. Much like the bodaks, I hadn’t intended to use devourers in my current campaign, but after reading this chapter I think they’ll fit right in.

The next chapter focuses on graveknights. These are powerful warriors who have been reanimated by an unknown force. They are, as the book points out, essentially the combat version of liches. The main difference is that whereas liches actively seek undeath, graveknights just sort of… chance into it. Basically, if you’re really, really evil and really, really strong, there’s a chance that you’ll turn into a graveknight when you die. Of course, there’s also a complex ritual that you could go through to try to become one, but there’s no guarantee it will work. Graveknights act as a good counterbalance to liches; they’re the Sword to a lich’s Sorcery, and I think the game needs that. While their fluff isn’t particularly enticing, there are a few cool things you can do with graveknights; they’d make good generals in an undead army, because they’re very hard to kill and can regenerate. Plus, their armor would make for some very interesting loot.

A book of the undead wouldn’t be complete without liches. They’re pretty much the most iconic undead in tabletop games. However, because they’re so well-known, most readers will probably already know the information in this section. The highlights of this chapter are a short but interesting section describing how liches interact with each other and a tiny preview of the demilich monster that will be appearing in the upcoming Bestiary 3.

Following liches, we’ve got mohrgs. Although they look like simple skeletons with purple entrails, mohrgs are far more sinister: they’re the reanimated bodies of murderers, seeking to continue the grisly deeds they perpetrated in life. There’s some good info in this section, including how different kinds of mohrgs are formed, as well as their motivations for killing. The book also presents a cool variant, the demonic mohrg.

Next, we have a chapter on nightshades. Nightshades are basically the exact opposite of living creatures. They are the embodiment of undeath. They are negative energy, cranked up to eleven. They are creatures formed when immortal beings (specifically, demons and devils) fall into the void that exists where the Negative Energy Plane meets the Shadow Plane. That’s right, they are created by tossing an immortal demon into a black hole formed at the point where a world fueled by death combines with a world fueled by darkness. There is no possible way to be more evil than that. Asmodeus, King of the Nine Hells, lookslike a saint next to these guys. This chapter really helps flesh them out, too; it goes into detail about their actions on not only the Material Plane, but the Shadow Plane and Negative Energy Plane as well. Plus, it vaguely hints at the existence of a nightshade god, which I find very intriguing. Oh, and there’s a new kind of nightshade included, too; a spider-like one that kind of reminds of Pennywise’s true form in IT. The scary-sounding version from the book, that is, not horrible special effects failure from the movie. This was a very good chapter, and I’m definitely much more interested in these monsters after reading it.

Raveners are the subject of the next chapter. Raveners are basically dracoliches: very powerful undead dragons. They didn’t get a lot of fluff in Bestiary 2, where they first appeared, but this chapter certainly makes up for it; there’s a lot of good fluff dealing with ravener lairs, treasure, and special abilities. Also, they’re constantly surrounded by the souls of people they’ve eaten, and use those souls to fuel their magic. Which is kind of awesome. All in all, a pretty solid chapter for a pretty cool monster.

This chapter focuses on shadows (pretty self-explanatory name). I have to admit, I didn’t think I’d care much for this chapter, but it surprised me. It has some decent fluff, and there’s a nifty sidebar about shadow lairs that was very spooky. There are also some very good tips on using shadows in the ‘Campaign Role’ section. They’re certainly more interesting than I was expecting them to be, and I’m glad they got a place in this book, because the tiny bit of description they got in the Bestiary really didn’t do them justice.

The next chapter, entitled ‘Spectral Dead,’ actually covers four different types of undead: allips (spirits of insane people who committed suicide), banshees (the ghosts of murdered elven women), spectres (ghosts who are bound to the mortal world by rage or arrogance), and wraiths (similar to spectres, but weaker and more eager to kill random people). Since this chapter is divided amongst four spirits, none of them get as much attention as the other monsters in this book, but there is still good info regarding them, including tips on how to give incorporeal creatures equipment and treasure. If you like running ghost stories, this section ought to be helpful.

The final chapter is all about wights. There are various kinds of wights, but regardless of origin, they all share a few traits: they’re very angry and very tough. There’s a lot of interesting information on them, too; this book describes at least five different ways a wight can be created, as well as fleshing out their tactics in a fight. Plus, come on. They’re wights! Anyone who's read Fellowship should have some affection for wights. Just seeing the title of the chapter made want to run a one-shot session for an all-Halfling party…

So, that concludes Classic Undead Revisited. All in all, a solid book that gave me quite a few ideas. As someone who really enjoys undead (and fluff books in general), I certainly feel like I got my money’s worth. If my brief descriptions (or the ones found in the Bestiary) got you interested in some of these monsters, I’d recommend this book, as it has lots of interesting information on each creature. If you like using, or plan to use, the monsters in this book, it’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy it; even if you don’t care about fluff, each chapter has a section marked ‘Campaign Role’ that’s filled with good tips and advice for GMs, and there are variant characteristics and a sample monster included in each chapter as well. However, it’s not a book that you need to run out and get; missing out on this one isn’t a huge deal. Oh, and of course, if you’re not big on undead/horror campaigns, it’s not going to be of much help to you.