Lands of the Dead

Book of the Dead (part 4)

settings rpg dnd pathfinder

Paizo's Book of the Dead is a source book about both the dead and the undead, describing the ecology, life cycle, ethics, advantages, and dangers of time spent after all your time is spent. I picked up a copy at my game store, and I'm going to review it chapter by chapter. This post covers chapter 4, "Lands of the Dead."

In the old D&D days (the TSR days, I mean), when you wanted a really unique location, you went out and bought, essentially, a different game. That's a completely valid strategy, and I actually really like it, at least in theory. I love my AD&D Dragonlance source book with its different take on magic use, and the way the cycle of the moons of Krynn affect spellcasting. But in reality, I think you really have to commit to the setting to keep it straight, and that can be difficult. The joy of D&D is the opportunity to explore strange new locations and cultures, to boldly go where no one has gone before. To encase so many great locations in their own line of books, attainable only by a surplus of time and money, seems almost cruel.

So one thing I love about Golarion is that it's a bunch of settings crammed into one. There's a country for high fantasy, a country for Gothic horror, a region for piracy on the high seas, a country for Age of Enlightenment style high society, a high-tech wasteland, and more. And it's all on Golarion. You can change settings just by playing a module set in a different country.

It's easy, efficient, and pretty unbelievable. What keeps the Gothic horror contained within the boundaries of Ustalav? What keeps the undead horrors within the boundaries of Geb? These are oddly obvious questions that nobody bothers answering, but only because nobody is bothering to ask. First of all, we're playing a game where magic exists, so anything's possible. And second of all, it's just too convenient to question. One setting masquerading as all the settings you could ever need? Don't look a gift Pegasus in the mouth.

My point is, this chapter is about 9 regions of Golarion infested with undead.


This is the nation started by the fictional author of The Book of the Dead. Most of its population is undead, but there are "Quick" (the living) there as well. The relationship between the two populations isn't exactly healthy, though. The "rules" for which living people are valid meals for the undead seem a little unclear. If you're alive, the trick seems to be to look like you're supposed to be alive, in hopes that the undead don't eat you.

At 4 pages, this is the region that gets the most coverage. It's written in first person, by a living inhabitant of Geb who works as a trader. This technique provides an interesting picture of the region, from a sociological perspective. If you try to set an adventure here, you're on your own for details about the cities and towns, because there's not much information about those here. But it's a great section for understanding how Geb functions as a society, and that's easily the most unique thing about it.

The Gravelands

There's no shortage of history in the Gravelands. Long ago, the evil Tar-Baphon was killed by the hero Aroden himself (the same Aroden who founded the city of Absalom, brought the Starstone from the Inner Sea in 1 AR, and is now the patron deity of humanity.) Those are a lot of important names and events, but (I guess unfortunately) the story doesn't end there. Tar-Baphon rose again as the Whispering Tyrant, then was defeated and buried under the ruins of the tower Gallowspire, and was guarded by the citadel Lastwall.

That's the history of the Gravelands, and even today it's overrun with undead and cults of Tar-Baphon, with the Knights of Lastwall fighting to contain them.


Ustalav was the first place I thought of when I bought Book of the Dead. I don't remember how or why I know about Ustalav. Maybe I played an adventure or two there, maybe I read about it in a source book. All I know is that Ustalav is the Gothic horror region of Golarion, with ghosts and vampires and all the Halloween tropes you could ever ask for. It's an easy favourite, and it gets a page and a half in this book.

Ustalav was once conquered by Tar-Baphon, and his influence over the land is evident today. But outwardly it manages to appear pretty normal. There's a non-undead (living!) society in Ustalav, with nobility and old families, townsfolk, farmers, and so on. Of course, its dark secret is that the region harbours the the cult of the Whispering Way, a vampire aristocracy, unquiet spirits from an ancient war with the Kellids, and the great haunted Bastardhall.

The Black Coach is a product of the mist-shrouded Bastardhall. It's a sort of phantom carriage that travels the roads of Ustalav once each century, luring unsuspecting passengers into it and stealing them away. Forever.

Places of undead

A few other regions get half a page each:

  • Mzali: A tropical setting evocative of the Aztec empire, with an undead child tyrant
  • Nemret Noktoria: A city deep within the underground Darklands, built by the undead for the undead. It's situated in Osirion, so there's an Egyptian flavour, but mixed with Underdark.
  • Osirion: The primary desert setting of Golarion, featuring its fair share of pyramids, Pharaohs, and of course mummies.
  • Port Valen: Within the Lands of the Linnorm Kings (it's a viking setting), there's a pathway through a treacherous and monster-infested region that some warriors walk as proof of their worthiness. This one is probably the least clear write-up, and it fails to discuss what undead are here and why. I feel like if this counts as a region of undead, then so should any random haunted house on Golarion, but maybe something's just been lost in the summary.
  • Shenmen: Spiders, apostates of Pharasma, shrouded Path Maidens, and ghostly bureaucrats. This is a mix of Asian lore, the Underdark and Lolth, the Dimir from Ravnica, and good old-fashioned spooky ghost stories. This is definitely intriguing and atmospheric enough for me to badly want to read more!

Undead primer

I don't feel like any of the summaries of the lands of the undead was necessarily enough for me to run a full campaign in one. However, I also recognize that it's my tendency to want to do a lot of research into a setting before I run something there. For me, that's part of the fun of running my own stories in an established setting. I "have to" read up on the setting, I have to consume a lot of lore, I have to spend afternoons reading up on it. That's the appeal, for me. No 4-page summary is going to satisfy my curiosity, and that's actually alright.

This chapter is a good primer of major locations, and it gives me stuff to look up, cross reference, research, and enjoy. What is here is intriguing and atmospheric and exciting, and I thoroughly enjoyed what I read.

Book of the Dead cover art copyright by Paizo, used under the community use policy.

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