Skip to main content

Creeping (Un)death!

We’ve once again entered that month full of spookiness. Witches, goblins, bats, and other creepy crawlies abound. One particular category of creature has been stuck in our skulls of late, and that's the undead. From skeletons to vampires and zombies, and a great number of spirit types in between, the undead are a large part of the creatures that populate the Halloween season. While scary ghost stories might appear at Christmas as well, this time of year sees a surge of interest in movies, books, and games featuring the undead. Though they appear in stories set year-round, this is when they get their chance to shine in the moonlight. Something's been troubling me though: while there are notable exceptions, the majority of the undead that appear in our stories are humanoid. Why is that and should we work to change it? -A

A: The question of why our undead tend to be humanoid can be difficult to answer. It could simply be a matter of depiction - human/humanoid undead are just easier to portray because that's what we know. We have a better insight at what a driving force might be for these types of creatures, and if we're actually acting out the part, an idea of how we might be able to become them... theatrically, anyway. When you look at non-humanoid undead, you tend to see them either as an accessory, such as an undead horse ridden by the undead warrior, or somewhat anthropomorphized, as opposed to being an actual antagonist (or even protagonist!) that acts and thinks in distinctly non-human ways. Another reason is our human fear of death. It's deeply ingrained in most of us to have a fear of our own mortality, therefore what could be scarier than death taking a form like our own? We seem to be a bit obsessed with ourselves. So we might just seek out alternative versions of our own mortal lives to get the biggest scare, confront our biggest fear, and perhaps understand death a bit better.

If any of those reasons are valid, then it doesn’t necessarily make sense to change that tactic in our stories. It might be a good challenge though to break away from that mold. What would the spirits of animals want? Would undead wildlife be out for brains like zombies so often are? Would a vampire squirrel be as much of a nuisance as a humanoid one? Certainly, a hoard of skeletal moose, wraith dogs or mummy cats could be just as terrifying as humanoid counterparts. It certainly couldn’t hurt to try them out in your games. Despite being born in October, in no way do I consider myself an expert of spookiness. Fortunately, Bugsy has a bit more experience in the realm of horror. Bugsy, why do you feel we focus on humanoid undead and should we change that? Is it a worthwhile pursuit?

B: One thing that makes the undead work, baring the "rapid epidemic" format that was popularized through the original Night of the Living Dead, is their relationship to history. A (comparatively) nude skeleton was a petty generic monster to me as a kid, but any portrayed with bits of rotting clothes or rusting armor were utterly terrifying. Now there was a connection to people who had once lived... but what was the relationship between the deceased individuals and these abominable things? Did they have memories or had they become purely feral? And which of those was the scarier possibility? Ones with crowns may have been the scariest of all - they were marked as specific individuals, and what horrid circumstances had led them to the fate of postmortem animation was a chilling exercise left to the imagination.

And, should they have kept their memories, that presents their own affecting possibilities. Dracula is the most obvious example - whether or not you consider him to be the historical Vlad Tepes or not, he is the (un)living incarnation of a time in human history far more brutal than our own, a brutality extended into the present through suffering and death. But that glimpse into our own past doesn't necessarily need to take human form when we live in a world build atop total environmental domination. In fiction, that monstrous legacy can be literally crushing: there's a scene from Alan Moore's era of Swamp Thing permanently etched into my mind, where a man is trampled by a herd of ghostly buffalo, a preternatural reminder of the devastation unleashed upon them. By connecting it to our own unfortunate history, any number of non-human undead are made possible - we've killed a lot of things, and not only each other.

Finally, I think there's great power in the perverse ways that our own rituals of death and grieving are violated (or, in the case of vampires, grossly repurposed) in stories of the undead. Animals may be treated as raw materials (which, again, offers many storytelling opportunities), but humans, in death, are given honor and respect - so a lich, necromancer, or particularly hands-on AI repurposing the dead feels blasphemous, moreso if one is aware of the deceased's life and circumstance. There's a reason that, when the spell or animating force is lifted, a story will usually have someone comment on letting the undead "rest." Whether or not you believe any of that individual remained in the shell being used, that use is an interruption of that natural, and most human, of states.

Hopefully all this will you give you an idea of how to effectively use the undead in your stories and games. Sure, zombies are fun to mow down, but in those kinds of stories, basically any generic enemy can stand-in for them. (And it may say something about the creators of such works that people are, to them, only an incident away from becoming those generic enemies.) If you want to be really spooky, or even just a bit more interesting, connect them to the lives of the characters (and players inhabiting them) and the history of the world they inhabit. Sometimes, simply viewing things that defy our simple, linear existences, is the most affecting animating power of all.

Send comments and questions to or Tweet them @neversaydice2.


Popular posts from this blog

Whose Labyrinthine Maze is This, Anyway: Dungeon Design and Cultural History

Dungeon . The word with significant historical connotations and some modern ones we won’t get into here, but to enthusiasts of tabletop roleplaying, it means something very specific: it’s ⅓ of the name of the most successful and influential RPG of all time, after all. (We’ll discuss the significance of the “&” another time. (and maybe the other D too - A) ) Early D&D materials refer to “the underworld mazes” (note the preposition, dungeons are considered a default part of the setting), and offer some advice on making them (somewhat) plausible, but never directly consider the societies that built them. While many pre-published adventures do include some information describing long-gone inhabitants, incorporating this kind of detail into original worlds can help create a detailed, rich setting. This week, we thought we’d talk about how to make dungeons and other ruins feel like places that lost peoples made and lived in, and how to share these details in your play sessions. - B  

The Mission Will Be Very Safe and Fun for Everyone: Some Thoughtcrimes on Running Paranoia

  I'm sorry citizen, but the question "why hasn't there been a Paranoia post in over fifteen months" cannot be processed. Records indicate that the previous post, " [Backstory Redacted] - Getting Ready to Run Paranoia " was activated in the Year 214 of the Computer, and, as this is currently Year 214 of the Computer, your internal chronometer must be malfunctioning. Rumors that is has always been Year 214 of the Computer are treason. Please report to Internal Security for cerebral re-adjustment. Have a nice daycycle. So, why hasn't there been a post about Paranoia in fifteen months, anyway? The previous two have been quite popular , and, as I'm fond of saying, I've put more thought into this game than nearly anything else in my life, formal education included. As time went on, I found myself procrastinating on the follow-up. I didn't have enough time to work out everything I'd want to cover, I'd tell myself, or that some other top

Combat Culture

For the past two years, this weekend has seen “ Moments of Silence ” posts, the first in response to the murder of George Floyd, and the second to comment on what had taken place in the ensuing year. This year, the weeks leading up to the anniversary have seen a number of brutal, preventable, man-made tragedies, and, given their nature, the standard litany of finger-pointing -  particularly from those desperate to draw attention from the obvious connection between mass shootings and the ready availability of firearms. In addition to their current favorite targets, both human and conceptual (funny how the blame always falls on the people they were already mad at), and something that can only be described as “architectural victim blaming” (at least Ted Cruz’s comments about doors are being roundly mocked), the old classics were trotted out, including that aging recurring villain: video games. Both of us at NSD were in the same graduating class as the Columbine shooters, so, while we wer

An Introduction to Risus

While roaming the internet in the late nineties/early noughties, I came across a TTRPG that was rules-lite and called itself “the anything RPG.” Want to play a high school cheerleader/samurai-in-training part-time goth enthusiast fast food cashier? The hot pink stick figure art glared back at me. Nah, not interested. But I was wrong. The stick figures were actually purple, and Risus is a surprisingly versatile, handy and down right fun TTRPG. I wouldn’t figure that out though till I discovered it again several years later. Even though it was written as a comedy system (and somewhat lighthearted response to GURPS) you really can use it for just about anything: space opera, high fantasy, pulp, vampires,western, any movie setting you could think of...seriously anything. You can read a far more detailed and interesting history in a number of other places should it strike your fancy. It is time for your Risus indoctrination introduction. Risus really is versatile and fairly easy to learn