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(In my world...)

Some undead are raised for evil purposes, and are motivated to extinguish any life they encounter. But some undead were so dedicated/faithful in life that they do not leave their post, even in death.

My PCs have great ranged options. So at range I want to be able to describe these two types of undead distinctly enough that players have a chance at deciding. But they've all been weaned on "undead are all acceptable targets" culture, so I'm swimming upstream.

Undead that do not attack unprompted have not done the trick. Undead described as "an incorporeal guard" instead of "a wraith wearing the armor of a soldier" have not done the trick. I don't really want to give them voices, for reasons.

Any successful experience distinguishing among undead "alignments" in a way that's evident at range?


(Some previous discussion in chat starting here.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Should I take the part about having already used incorporeal guards/wraiths to mean that distinguishing them based on type of undead is not viable? My first thought was 'spirit' undead (good) vs 'corpse' undead (bad), but if good/evil of both already exist that wouldn't be an option for continuity's sake. \$\endgroup\$
    – CTWind
    Sep 2, 2017 at 3:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CTWind it's not great, because that'd mean non-zero homebrewing for me, but if that's worked for you definitely throw it out there. Nothing's off the table =) \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Sep 2, 2017 at 3:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Many of these answers are not really demonstrating experience but are "throwing out ideas" with no indication they've been tested or how they worked out in real play. That can get your answer downvoted/deleted and/or get the question closed if there's enough of it. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Sep 2, 2017 at 13:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Along the same lines ^^ there are a lot of comments coming in that are "try this" suggestions with no obvious relation to their parent posts. Those I'm flagging ("not constructive" partial/undeveloped/unsupported answer-in-comments) with extreme prejudice. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Sep 2, 2017 at 18:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, despite the question asking for experience, we just have a wide array of clearly brainstormed answers here with no evidence these techniques have been tried on real groups and how they worked out. We made a couple attempts of getting them back on track but the continuous parade of "ooo try this" items means we're closing the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Sep 4, 2017 at 18:29

10 Answers 10

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I haven't this problem with undead specifically, but I've definitely gotten frustrated at my players for not getting hints when I want them to notice something and behave differently. Having explicitly described them as guards and not had them attack unprompted, and having had no luck with that, I think your problem here is not that you're not telegraphing appropriately; it's that your players don't know to look.

Tell your players right out that not all undead are evil.

In order to overcome the culture that you mentioned, it sounds like you'll specifically have to plant the idea of not killing all undead on sight. Of course, that doesn't mean you need to go OoC with it; have the PC's run across an NPC or a book with bit of lore about these guardians and the function they serve within your world. That has the added advantage of being a step towards whatever storytelling or setting-establishing goal you presumably have for these not-monstrous-just-stubborn undead.

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    \$\begingroup\$ OoC can work if this is a common enough in the setting that their characters should already know. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 2, 2017 at 4:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, OoC always works, but in this case I think IC is more fun without really sacrificing anything. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 2, 2017 at 14:30
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You'll likely need to go through several steps to achieve your goal. In the description below, for expediency, I'm going to refer to your two types as guardians and destroyers.

Awareness Make your players aware that there are in fact two types, by ensuring that you always prominently describe the distinguishing characteristic.

How to achieve: Identifying anything at a distance, without magical abilities, requires relying on senses, usually sight and/or hearing, but also possible smell. They could have a visible aura: Silver for guardian, green for destroyer. They could invoke a sound: hymnal chanting for guardians, moans of the damned for destroyers. They could have a strong odor: funerary herbs for guardians, rotting decay for destroyers. There are unlimited possibilities here, pick something that works within the aesthetic of your campaign.

Understanding Associate the characteristic with overt behavior.

How to achieve: This might require an NPC to verbalize the difference for the players, depending on their uptake abilities. You could have an encounter where guardians are actually defending something from the destroyers. A wounded knight could describe how guardians chased of the destroyers that would have otherwise killed him. The point is to make the difference overt, palpable and unmistakable.

Caring Give them a reason to care about the difference.

How to achieve: This is the tough part. A lot of gamers automatically file the world into things you can kill without repercussion, and things you can't. That's not always a bad thing. Not every game centers around moral murkiness; some gamers just want to plow through mooks. You do want to make a distinction, and have the players act accordingly, so they need motivation. The guardians could have just saved the life of a valued NPC. One or more of them could be the protector of an NPC that the PCs need to shepherd through an escort mission (the undead protector of the crown prince, who must be delivered to the treaty signing.) They could be tacitly accepted as guardians by an authority figure whom they do not wish to anger. One could be the only key to gaining the PCs entrance to a tomb or ruin. If they kill him, the way is sealed; if they respect him and say the proper invocation, the gate opens. The point is to tie the difference into some action or decision the players must make, and that has some consequence they care about.

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Purposeful Undead are active and have blazing eyes, whereas zombies are just dead.

The description of a Revenant, a purpose-driven undead, states (MM 259)

The revenant reclaims its mortal body and superficially resembles a zombie. However, instead of lifeless eyes, a revenant's eyes burn with resolve and flare in the presence of its adversary.

Likewise, the purposeful, but evil Wight also has glowing eyes (MM 360)

When a wight attacks, this life essence glows like white- hot embers to its dark eyes, and the wight's cold touch can drain the spark through flesh, clothing, and armor.

On the other hand, a zombie is less "alive" (MM 315):

A zombie retains no vestiges of its former self, its mind devoid of thought and imagination. A zombie left without orders simply stands in place and rots unless something comes along that it can kill.

Likewise, while zombies merely stand and rot until commanded (INT 3), purposeful undead like the Revenant are smarter (INT 13).

Therefore, especially from a distance, it might be difficult for your players to even tell that "faithful guardian" undead are even undead, aside from specific undead detection methods. The guardians could continue to behave like ordinary guards, albeit with strange glowing eyes, that make patrols, interact with each other, or maybe even clean their surroundings.

There's probably no way to explicitly tell your players that these undead are not "bad", but making them more lifelike will give your players pause.

Tell your players what your characters know

Out of character, I find it useful to simply tell players what their characters know. For example, in my game, I simply tell my players stuff like, "You only know of 4 elemental planes, so you think it's unusual that this guy is mentioning a fifth". In your case, you could tell your players "These undead do not seem to be behaving like any undead you've seen before". Such knowledge would be obvious to the characters, having lived in that fictional world, but it's not obvious to the players, who might not know the specifics of your fantasy world.

I find that these kinds of statements actually benefit immersion, because then your players can control characters that have existed in the world. Otherwise, you end up with players using their IRL biases, like "all undead are evil," in a world where their characters, who may have interacted with undead, would know better.

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What do these creatures want? Are they smart enough to pursue their goals intelligently?

A knight of Hieroneous guards an ancient shrine in which a relic is hidden. The knight dies, one day, but continues to guard the shrine even after death. The knight wants only disciples of Hieroneous to enter the shrine. It can't speak, but it can still write, so it makes a sign: "HALTT! ONLEY THE PUR OF HART, DEVOTID TO HIERONEOUS, MAY PAS AND ENTER THE SCHRYNE!"

(I usually assume that paladins use Intelligence as their dump stat.)

How about NPCs? Are there any undead guardians that have peaceful contact with NPCs?

The lighthouse keeper spent many years on the top floor of the lighthouse, and death did not stop his vigil. His nephew came to visit him one day and found him dead, so he put a sign on the lighthouse door: "Dear Visitor, Please Do Not Disturb My Uncle Frederick, He Is A Little Bit Dead But He Is Harmless So Long As You Don't Mess With The Light."

On the other hand, it's possible your PCs are wandering in the wilderness and they see a great big undead guy with a giant sword. They say to themselves: "well, this guy might be friendly. Maybe we should go talk to him. On the other hand, maybe we should destroy him from range and not take chances." In this situation it's hard to blame them for taking the safe choice.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer made me chuckle. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Sep 2, 2017 at 8:15
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If you really want to drive the point home: Don't just tell them OOC, don't even just tell them in character through an NPC, but make it the entire focus of an adventure or scenario.

You'll obviously have to tailor this to something the fits the specifics of your campaign, but maybe the descendant of one or more of the guardian-type spirits needs something done in the vicinity of the spirits-- something which the spirits will by their nature oppose, but the sponsor of the adventure lays down the absolute condition that the spirits not be harmed. The spirits (in that specific scenario) become a puzzle to be solved rather than a monster to be killed.

Something along these lines not only conveys the information to the players, but helps them internalize it by forcing them understand the knowledge and interact with it.

After that scenario, they're on their own.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any experience you can reference on how to provide this information successfully via such an adventure, if the advised goal is to not tell them OOC or IC? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2017 at 9:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener There is a misunderstanding: The suggestion is not, "Don't tell them in-character," but is, "Don't JUST tell them in-character," i.e., don't just have an NPC drop knowledge in passing. Rather, tell them and make that knowledge integrally important at least once. Literally everything in the answer after that is an example of how to do so-- give them a mission, with instructions, which requires them to act in accordance with the knowledge you want them to have. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Sep 5, 2017 at 0:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok, that was definitely a misunderstanding on my part. The other part of my request though was to add some analogous experience of how this works out -- too many brainstorming answers with no evidence of successful usage got this question closed. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2017 at 7:33
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Make the difference matter

This doesn't really seem like a unique problem with undead. It seems the players have various choices, but one choice seems safe and always does the job. If they can just disable any undead from afar without any drawbacks, why shouldn't they? If you want your players to act differently, make the choice meaningful!

There are plenty of ways to do so:

  • Give them undead guardians that are too strong to kill
  • Let an undead guardian have crucial information they need to obtain
  • Let a friendly NPC use an undead guardian to guard his house and if they kill him, they have to pay the damages (the same way if they would have killed a guard dog)
  • Give them some kind of stealth mission, where they cannot kill the guardian without raising an alarm
  • Let the guild of guardian-raisers contact them about accumulated damages
  • Let the deity of undead guardians contact them and reprimand them for needlessly killing faithful servants
  • Tell them stories about undead guardians to make them appear more human, so they feel bad about killing these poor creatures, which just want to do their duty and earn a place in the after life... which they cannot if they are destroyed before their duty ends...
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Another way to get the players to notice what you're trying to tell them is to give them no other option. Clearly they are powerful enough to destroy the guardian-type undead, and do so, because that is the simplest option for them. They do not have any reason to even consider that the undead might be something other than a target to destroy.

A way of taking away the brute-force option is to put so many of a strong undead type that they cannot hope to defeat them (and they will notice this at a distance!). They cannot defeat them, so will have to come up with something else, and then they will start paying more attention to the clues you are giving them.

A similar option is to give the undead guardians a guardian - something the players would think twice about engaging, or something the players do not normally associate with evil.

Hopefully you only have to do this once, and then they get the hint and pick up the clues in the future.

A more subtle method is to consider why you have these undead guardians - what repercussions will happen when they are destroyed? Can you make those repercussions affect the player's characters somehow? Maybe the area they protect is sheltered enough for cute little rabbits to thrive, but a week after the PCs return to the area after wiping out the guardians, the poor bunnies have been massacred; or the holy shrine that was once protected is taken over by a cult that uses the power of the shrine to spread their influence over the area; etc.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you cite experience of any of these methods working effectively in communicating what's going on? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2017 at 9:52
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A minor encounter to show them.

Something like, they come across a family being attacked by something with an undead warrior holding off the attackers.

include some special physical attribute in the description of the non evil undead, glowing white eyes or an ethereal aura. For contrast the attackers could be regular undead, stress the differences.

If they recognize there's something up then the family can explain that the protector is [family member] who died protecting them then continued protecting them after death.

If they murder the face off it then the family can be distraught and lambast them for destroying their only protector [explanation], leaving them doomed.

If they murder it, the attackers and then the family then you might need to rethink your campaign.

Then later, if you want them to encounter guardian undead stress the same physical differences.

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Not sure I see this as being a uniquely undead problem. That ambush we came up on the backside of - Wehrmacht or Ukraine insurgents? (same equipment). Guardian types will tend to be better organized, and fly flags and wear uniforms. Marauding reavers won't have much regard for those things. You can just say that right in your description, it's what the characters would notice.

You come upon undead, at a guardpost approaching a lost keep of a noble, LG-aligned kingdom reknowned for their use of scimitars. The guardpost flies a tattered flag of the kingdom and the undead guards have scimitars.

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If you really want to drive the point home: Don't just tell them OOC, don't even just tell them in character through an NPC, but make it the entire focus of an adventure or scenario.

Novak has the right idea. You need to show your players that not all undead are inherently evil.

In order to achieve that, I suggest making an NPC that will help the players before they can realise that this NPC is undead.

I think it would work best when there is already pression for the players to act upon the help that the NPC will provide such as during an overwhelming combat encounter or a trapped room filling with poisonous gas.

For example, the NPC could unlock an escape path by throwing down a rope to climb out of a pit trap or it could be a switch that opens the door from the outside of the trapped room.

Maybe there is a whole squad of them that are tasked with defending an area against the "evil" undead. While they died a long time ago it did not stop them from defending their part of the dungeon, keep, castle (whatever you want). Since they lost their commanding officer and none of them can communicate clearly they follow their last orders as much as they can (which will lead them to save the players). After meeting the players they decide that since the players can speak (give orders), or because the players are all righteous enough, they should take command of the squad as such they stand at attention as soon as they are in the same room. Maybe the players need to eliminate the local necromancer or undead boss to put them to rest and finish their original quest. You could also have a journal on a nearby table that briefly explains the situation on the last (written) page. Should they attack one have the remaining attack the one that your players attacked. This should drive the point or at least make them pause for a bit.

This could actually be decent for a small adventure. You have a fortification that is infested with undead and the wealthy noble, merchant, city official or pleading villagers from the nearby town wants the player's help in cleansing the area. Maybe the local priest wants to bless the land after they are done or even while they are fighting (possible escort mission ?). The undead squad brings a little twist to an otherwise classic and simple quest.

You can also score some points with description. Here are some themes that I would use to differentiate the two types when you describe them.

The "classic" undead

  • aggressiveness (probably looks like a very angry but otherwise normal humanoid from far away)

  • Rotting / Decaying (clearly not natural)

  • always searching (for something to kill or eat)

  • clearly evil intention in their eyes (for those that still have them)

The "good" type

  • doing everyday action (such as storing the dishes, opening or closing doors, putting a chair back on its leg or even playing cards, guards get bored sometimes)
  • Sickly white (not decaying, they will remain so long as they have to)
  • an "aura" or a sense of determination to accomplish their duty

Depending on how you want to portray them and how common they are you could put one in a village. Here are a few ways to make them look more normal to the players before they can realise that they are undead.

  • No one remembers how or when he came to the village but from as far as anyone can remember the mysterious and mute stranger has always helped the villagers (he is an amazing handyman, blacksmith or anything that can help the villagers).
  • It is very dangerous to get lost in the forest when nightfall comes. Since he always patrol the edge of the forest with a torch. While he does not do it voluntary, the light of his torch helped many villagers escape the forest before the freezing night or the creatures in the woods killed them. The villagers thinks he saved each on purpose which makes them idol him.

Should the players attack him, bring out the pitchforks, they are no longer welcome here.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you cite relevant experience of how this has worked out and how it can be done successfully? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2017 at 7:33

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