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."
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.
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:
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
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.