Way back at the turn of the century, Wizards of the Coast decided to adopt open source methodology by developing the Open Game License (OGL). This marked not just the 3rd Edition of the game, but also the opening of the market for supplementary D&D material. After the 3rd Edition was released, there was, not coincidentally, an influx of D&D paperback supplements. Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) published a few of them, and I particularly enjoy their books because they have the convenience of a magazine but the content of a very focused player's handbook. One of these books was titled simply Undead (and Mike Mearls is a credited writer for it), and I've been reading it lately, and not not just for nostalgia. The great thing about 3rd Edition is that persisted long after it was official ended, in the form of Pathfinder. I still play a lot of Pathfinder 1e, so it's still as relevant as ever for me, and I'm happy to convert between 3rd Edition to Pathfinder 1e and Pathfinder 2e. Because I'm currently reading AEG's Undead, I've decided to review its six chapters in as many posts.
The introduction, such as it is, is a page of fiction, and I love it. It sets the tone of the book perfectly: this is a book that is, for all intents and purposes, non-fiction. I mean, it's obviously entirely fictional, but it's written very nearly as if it were an academic work. I guess most RPG books are like that. They discuss fictional worlds in an academic way because you need to know the "facts" of the fictional world so you can implement the simulation of that world for your game. This book feels a little different, though, because there's no upfront disclaimer that this book is about a roleplaying game, no explanation of what an RPG is or what dice you need to play. The introduction quotes Father Einik of the Order of Weeping and Wailing, and it doesn't pause to explain who and what those are. It's a page from some unknown story, and it has the exact same effect that the flavour text on a Magic: The Gathering card has. It makes you want to know more, and lacking any further explanation, it inspires you to create at least impressions of the story yourself.
The first chapter is about 25 pages long, and it's mostly prose with a few (amazing) graphics. The text covers the concept of undead in a kind of matter-of-fact way that seems to assume you've never seen a zombie movie or read a Lovecraft story before. That might seem patronizing, but actually I really enjoyed it, because it sets expectations and defines the setting. The book itself is meant to be setting neutral, so this chapter does the important task of defining terms. Luckily, the subject of undead legion has reached a kind of popular standard, and that's largely what AEG's definitions cater to. Still, there are important definitions here for people who aren't indoctrinated into popular gaming fiction, so don't yet know the difference between a spectre, a ghost, and a poltergeist, or what a lich is, or more importantly why a lich would even exist.
The chapter also talks about why death and undeath are distinct, and how religions deal with both death and undeath, and how souls and spirits interact with dead, undead, and living bodies. This all might seem elementary to read in summary, but the chapter is full of inspiration and what I guess I'll call inspirational context. When you're playing a character in an RPG, or building a world for an RPG, you want to understand the imaginary foundations of fictional logic. In real life, there's no such thing as the state of undead, and while you can find people who believe there is such a thing, or who believe that death en masse is a logical solution to world problems, it's really really not worth a trip into the heart of darkness just to drum up believable death cults for your Thursday night game. This book saves you the trip. It outlines the imaginary logic of undead tropes in a way that makes it seem real in a game. It gives you all the megalomaniac rationale for lichdom, for harvesting "negative energy" (that's not a real thing either), for vampirism, and much more. This is the chapter that the harried researcher in all your favourite movies are reading from just before they make the discovery that a demon cult has been killing and then resurrecting government officials. It's the forbidden knowledge the old arcanist gives to the young heroes before they're sent off on their quest. It's the book of the undead.
What grabs my attention the most, though, is the persistent inclusion of flavour text. There are little glimpses of fictions that don't exist beyond what's written here, but they make you want to immediately incorporate them into your game. There's information about the Coven of the Tainted Kiss, led by the wight Calpursar, and the power it has over the Senatorial Congress of Bedros. There's a bit about the city of Balthezar, a city whose most influential nobility are undead, and how they have a strangle-hold on the peasants and even the Wizard's Academy. And there's Ibn'Qadar, a desert city that falls deathly silent every day at sundown, to ward away an ancient pharaoh's curse. I don't know whether any of these stories have beginnings or endings, I don't know whether any of them are based on anything that exists elsewhere, but most importantly I do know that I don't know the full story. And that's inspiring. And if it's not inspiring, that's fine because it's at the very least fodder for rumours, ancient texts, and other decorative lore for any given adventure. I hate it when a player asks about a book or a scroll they've found in the game world and I'm not able to give them something interesting. I don't need to or even want to necessarily give them something connected to the campaign, but I want to give them somethnig connected to the game world. Little snippets of lore like the micro-stories found in Undead are perfect for exactly that.
The first chapter contains no mechanical information. It sets the tone, it defines terms, and it's an afternoon of really good reading. The next chapter contains some new skills, new feats, and prestige classes.
Black and white art from AEG Undead.
Ravenloft art copyright by Wizards of the Coast, used under the fan content policy.