Review of Undead

Hunters of the dead

settings rpg dnd pathfinder

Years ago, Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) published a few "splatbooks" for 3rd Edition D&D, and one of these books was titled Undead (with Mike Mearls as a credited writer). I've been reading it lately, because I play Pathfinder, which is essentially 3rd Edition with revisions, and I love player options. Because I'm currently reading AEG's book on the Undead, I've decided to review its six chapters in as many posts. This is the second post, covering the chapter "Hunters of the dead."

Skills both new and old

Just when you've settled in for a nice prosaic read about the very worst of the undead, chapter 2 up and introduces mechanics. I'll admit that the transition isn't entirely smooth, but probably if I'd read the back of the book I'd have expected mechanics eventually. And anyway, I'm not really complaining about getting new mechanics in an RPG book.

The first mechanical section in the book is all about skills, both new and old. The (on-the-nose) new skill introduced here is Craft (Autopsy), a mix between science and mystical investigation of cadavers. Without this skill, I feel like most Game Masters would have just called for a Heal check, but defining Craft (Autopsy) has its advantages. Suggested DC numbers are provided for a few results, including a DC 10 check to determine the cause of death, and a DC 25 to detect residual magic, exotic poisons, or weapons. Obviously you don't need a specific skill for these kinds of determinations, but then again it's nice for a player to be able to specialize in something meaningful. Imagine starting up an Expedition to Castle Ravenloft campaign armed with Craft (Autopsy), playing as a Van Helsing style doctor. It's perfect.

There are also some suggested new uses for existing skills. For instance, you could use a Heal or Knowledge (Arcana) check to determine how a certain undead creature creates more of its kind, and if you have 5 or more ranks in one or the other skill, then you get a +2 synergy bonus to reflect how the two disciplines inform one another.

My favourite idea, though, is to use Knowledge (Religion) to determine the correct burial rites required to bury and sanctify a creature such that cannot be reanimated. I admit it probably doesn't come up all that often. Heck, a Turn Undead sends the undead running and Destroy Undead ends them, and how often do you actually see a necromancer going around re-raising the bodies of your foes? And yet, I love the power this skill suggests. This is thwarting the scheme of the evil necromancer before it even gets started, and that's just so satisfying.

Prestige classes

In the d20 system of 3rd Edition and Pathfinder, a prestige class was a special class players could take, so long as they met certain prerequisites. The change of you stumbling into the exact requirements of a prestige class that you happen to think is exciting can be rare, so this mechanic was definitely aimed at the kind of player who builds their character with longterm goals in mind. But if that's you, then prestige classes are fun things to build toward, and the rest of the chapter is dedicated to them.

The Dying (Any alignment) is by far the best prestige class in the book, in my opinion. It allows you to delay a terminal illness essentially until the end of a campaign (or until you actually do die by some other means.) When you adopt this class, you forstall Mummy's Rot or a similar disease, and you gain an uncomfortable affinity with the undead. You're able to Turn Undead even though you're not a cleric, you gain the ability to continue playing even with some negative HP, and you regenerate HP like a revenant. Then again, your eyeballs rot and you become blind, and you detect as Evil even when you're not.

And you haven't cheated death, you've just made a bargain with it. Eventually and inevitably, you do actually die, and you may rise again as an undead NPC. Is it worth it?

Honestly, I think it just might be.

There are other fun classes, including:

  • Chirurgeon (Any non-good): The term "chirurgeon" is an archaic term for "surgeon," and so this class specialises in chopping up bodies and grafting limbs and organs onto living creatures for mechanical bonuses. Did I say The Dying was the best prestige class? Actually, this one might be the best...too.
  • Faith Hunter (Any): A very cool enlightened fighter class. You're immune to the Charm of a vampire spawn and the Domination of a vampire, you get a Sneak Attack style bonus (1d6 for each Faith Hunter level) when staking a vampire, Detect Undead, and a new favoured enemy for an undead creature at levels 4, 7, and 10. For the last time, this one may well be the best of the book.
  • Hunter of the Fallen (Any non-lawful, non-evil): A little like a Faith Hunter, but for general necromantic enemies.
  • Knights of the Eternal Eye (Any lawful): This one feels more like flavour than feature. You become undead, you gain some related abilities. It feels a little like a light version of The Dying, but I think that's its true value. You get the flavour without the body horror, and I can respect that.
  • Paladins of the Pale: Concentrate on the merciful death part of the Paladin's code. This is another one that feels a little more like flavour than feature, but then again so does the Paladin class sometimes. Giving into the tradition and lore of the Paladin class is part of what makes it such a great class, so I see the value of this one.
  • Raider: I have no idea how this fits into the Undead theme but I don't care, because it's so great. This prestige class makes you Indiana Jones. You get boosts to researching lairs (I guess of the undead? also called tombs?), it grants you, essentially, a once daily Legendary Resistance, a bonus to acrobatics, some cool anti-trap abilities, and basically everything you need while raiding lost archaeological sites and uncovering national treasures.
  • The Exorcist (Any non-evil): Super thematic name, but kind of a mish-mash of a class. You can Turn Undead, you can Banish "spirits that have lost their bodies" once a day, and you get a bunch of general anti-undead abilities. There's so much overlap with a cleric that I'm not entirely sure what makes this prestige class unique.
  • The Risen: You actually become undead, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails. I admit, I'd probably play this class as long as it didn't mean I'd have to be evil. There are friendly ghosts, at least, so I think the intent is that you can keep your alignment even after undeath.
  • Sacred Theurgist (non-evil): Become an expert on the undead, gaining abilities like De-animate Dead, Master of the dead, and the Holy Fire to roll d8 instead d6 when using Fireball against undead.

There are also some evil or evil-adjacent classes. I don't play with evil player characters, so I find it difficult to asses them, but there

  • Puppet (Any non-good): You're under the control of an undead entity. You're empathetically linked to the puppetmaster, you gain toughness, and a corruptive influence that makes Cure light wounds as ineffective as possible without being negated. I guess this class must be primarily a game master tool to apply to monsters.
  • The Unbeating Heart (Any evil): Cultist with blood magic, which leads to tainted blood.
  • Wasteland Druid (neutral evil): The "controlled burn" school of evil druids. Too many living creatures requires a lot of death, or undeath.
  • Champion of the dead (Evil): Control undead of lesser hit dice than you, disrupt opposing cleric spells.

But wait there's more!

There is more to this chapter, including a few new feats and some nice collections of gear (a hunter's kit, a coroner's kit, and a healer's kit.) Plenty of good stuff to either use in a Pathfinder game, or else use as inspiration for a later edition.

Black and white art from AEG Undead.

Ravenloft art copyright by Wizards of the Coast, used under the fan content policy.

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