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About a week ago in-game (half a year IRL), a series of deadly events occurred resulting in two PCs becoming undead. One used to be a tabaxi, the other a high elf. Both of them are now undead versions of themselves: the tabaxi by making a pact with a neutral evil demi-god of the Death Plane, and the other by dying and being resurrected as a result of this pact-making process.

According to What are the mechanical consequences that arise for a PC with the undead creature type?

By RAW, per Quadratic Wizard's answer:

Undead type has no inherent mechanical effect in D&D 5e.

So ever since these events happened, I've been finetuning the following homebrew traits.

Characters that became undead

  • Hybrid Nature.[*] You have two creature types: humanoid and undead. You can be affected by a game effect if it works on either of your creature types. For the humanoid traits, use your original race description. Additionally, you gain the following traits from being an undead humanoid:

  • Undead Defenses. Vulnerable to radiant damage; Resistant to necrotic damage.

  • Undying Resilience. Cannot be healed by conventional healing (e.g. spells, potions), but can sometimes be healed by cantrips from the necromancy school (such as Chill Touch). Make a Constitution save (with advantage) versus the spellcaster's Spell Save DC. On a success, you are healed for the amount of damage dealt. On a fail, nothing happens.

  • Desecration. Advantage on ability checks, saves and attack rolls while standing on a desecrated surface.

  • Ill Will. 14th level necromancers can command you at will, while you automatically fail the first three Wisdom saves.

Question

I'm trying to find a balance between benefits and downsides for becoming undead, so that undead humanoids are more powerful in combat than mere mortals, but not so strong (or without significant handicaps) that everyone wants to turn undead. My reasoning for this: with great risks come great rewards, but even greater downfalls. With "mere mortals" I mean (player) characters that are "just" humanoid while of the same level and class. So preferably the undead traits carry a danger to them, to keep the more careful characters (and players) from wanting to delve into such practice. Through interactions with the world setting and narration the dangers of undead seem clear to the players, but I'd like to emphasise this further through combat mechanics (of which some they can still discover).

The party has found out about all undead traits mentioned above, except from the final two (Desecration and Ill Will). I'm wondering whether I should add an additional benefit (such as a raised Constitution, or some other defense), and whether the desecrated grounds feature is too powerful already for a PC to have (as soon as they find out). I'm mostly wondering how the current undead hybrid type will unbalance combat at my table.

Other possibly relevant details regarding my campaign:

  • Party composition (level 12): minotaur paladin of conquest, animated armor eldritch knight/wizard, undead tabaxi ranger/assassin/warlock, undead high elf mastermind, tiefling warlock.
  • Every PC has Healing Surges.
  • The main story arc heavily features undead creatures: mostly enemies but some (powerful) allies too.
  • The BBEG is a devil attempting to become a lich (so will also become undead as a result).
    • From party level 15 onwards, an apocalyptic inter-planar war strikes down on the Material Plane (featuring mortals, angles, demi-gods, devils, necromancers and countless undead). The party is currently preparing for this coming war.
    • Current allies of the party include an important figure within the clergy of Helm (one of the most popular gods in my world, though only this one cleric knows of their undead nature), some secret wizards, and the mentioned demi-god (undead necromancer) of the Death Plane.
    • The organisation that hunts down the party consists of radical extremist paladins of Tempus that bring "redemption" to all magic users – they plan to slay 'm all. These are adversaries by default, but some individuals could change their minds by the party's initiative.

[*] based on Unearthed Arcana: Centaurs and Minotaurs

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Let's take a look at each of the features of this "Racial Template" (a term that hasn't really been used since 3.5, but I think is appropriate for what you're doing with this) and see how they stack up:

Hybrid Nature

In most situations, this feature is strictly downside. It expands the range of effects that can target you, and the vast majority of effects that can affect undead but not humanoids are negative for the recipient. For example:

  • You receive extra damage from a Paladin's Divine Smite feature (notwithstanding the Undead Defenses feature you've also given them)
  • You can be affected by spells like Protection from Good and Evil or Magic Circle

But also, because you're a humanoid

  • You can still be targeted by low level charm spells like Hold Person, Charm Person, etc., despite being undead

How much this feature is downside depends on whether you regularly fight foes that could take advantage of these issues or not; my general sense is that most campaigns don't involve enemies that depend on spells like those to defend against PCs, so for now, we'll treat this feature as a "Minor Negative".

Undead Defenses

In most campaigns, Necrotic damage is more common than Radiant Damage. We'll call this a "Minor-Moderate positive".

Desecration

This feature is powerful, but desecrated land is pretty rare. It could be more common because of your campaign setting—stopping a Devil from becoming a Lich sounds like something that could involve a lot of Desecration, so to speak—but as DM you have control over that; therefore, this is "Minor positive"

Ill Will

This feature can be crippling, but it depends on how many 14th level Necromancers your party faces. Again: your setting seems like it could have quite a few, but you control that as DM. "Minor negative".

Undying Resilience

I saved this feature for last because it's the one that obviously needs tuning; not entirely for balance reasons, but that's definitely a part of it.

For starters, the ability to provide healing to a creature through use of a Cantrip must not be underestimated. In theory, this means that these characters can be fully healed between any combat encounters (not just one, like a Healing Surge/Short Rest might provide), so long as they have a spellcaster with access to cantrips that deal Necrotic damage; this is much more powerful a positive than the negative of being unaffected by "normal" healing spells is.

The fact that they require additional Saving Throws (more on that in a moment) only has combat implications, making healing-in-combat difficult. That's not nothing, but if characters can heal to full between combat encounters, it can make tuning combat more difficult, especially since both characters (theoretically) have ways to mitigate in-combat damage, depending on how many levels of Assassin the Tabaxi took (they need 5 levels for the Uncanny Dodge Rogue feature).

Sidebar: since Healing Surges feed off the Hit Dice pool a character would otherwise be spending in a short rest, this mitigates this issue somewhat; but Healing Surges are limited to once-per short rest, so it's not a total mitigation, and it still means that pool of dice becomes difficult to exhaust.

The second issue is that the feature is kind of kludgy, in two ways.

The first kludgy aspect is the additional saving throw to get healed, meaning every single cantrip cast in an attempt to heal one of these characters involves 3-4 d20s being rolled (1-2 for the Attack Roll or Saving Throw of the regular spell, and 2 for the Advantage roll of their Saving Throw), in addition to the actual damage/healing dice of the cantrip itself. That's a lot of dice, especially on the d20 side of things. I'm not necessarily saying the feature is unbalanced for this reason, just that it slows the feature down, is all.

The second issue is that how the feature calls out which healing is valid and which isn't needs to be better clarified: "conventional healing" is a very squishy term that could be interpreted in a lot of different ways, and if that's the wording you're going to present to your players, there's definitely going to be questions raised about what counts and what doesn't—stipulating "Potions and spells" won't cut it—especially because, lore-wise, those are the least conventional of any healing methods in Faerun.

Here's a few things to consider, though: the vast majority of spells that confer some degree of healing expressly call out Undead as invalid targets:

A creature you touch regains a number of hit points equal to 1d8 + your spellcasting ability modifier. This spell has no effect on undead or constructs.

Cure Wounds, Player's Handbook, pg. 230

So because of the Hybrid Nature feature these characters have, any healing spell that has this stipulation would not work on them. Even for spells that don't have this limitation, many of them are spells like Life Transference or Enervation, where the healing is provided by dealing Necrotic damage to another creature; you can make a call on this one, but thematically, I don't think it's inappropriate to allow these kinds of spells to restore health to these characters.

So the few left behind are spells like Aura of Vitality or Regenerate, the former of which is a class-exclusive spell (Paladin) and the latter of which is a 7th level spell (and it doesn't do a ton of healing for its level; its benefits are mostly in the ability to regrow limbs & counteract Death Saving Throws). Then you have spells like Aid and Heroes' Feast, which can't stack (because they have durations) meaning you couldn't use them more than once in the 8/24 hour duration of each respective spell.

So because your other feature already handles this, I think it's appropriate to instead phrase this ability like this:

You cannot recover hit points from potions.

If you want to make sure that no spells may recover hit points (including the exceptions I listed above), you can revert to the previous wording, minus the "conventional healing" part:

You cannot recover hit points from spells or potions.

If you want to go with my suggestion, but make it explicit where you can or cannot recover hitpoints with spells:

You cannot recover hit points from potions, or from Evocation spells

protip: all the spells that exclude Undead come from the Evocation school; the rest are all Transmutation, Necromancy, or Aura of Vitality as the one odd spell out that is both Evocation and can affect Undead. There's also Healing Spirit as a Conjuration spell, but it does have this restriction.

From this point, if you really want to allow Necrotic-damage Cantrips to confer healing, well, that's your call. I'd advise against it, but it's your campaign. I would recommend finding a different mechanic though: maybe get rid of the extra Saving throw and instead cut the damage in half (take into consideration the fact that the character has resistance to Necrotic damage anyways?).


Conclusion

So realistically, the one feature you need to cross-examine is Undying Resilience. All the rest are perfectly fine, ranging from "mundane/unimportant" to "powerful, but situational", and since there's a blend of both upsides and downsides, I don't feel the need to advise balance changes on those other features.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent pro-tip! And I understand your critique regarding possibly slowing down combat with the additional saves, good point. And the rest of your answer is much appreciated too :) \$\endgroup\$ – Vadruk Apr 9 at 17:42

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