Undead need a reason. Otherwise, they would just be dead. In classic ghost stories, this is something that was left undone, something that couldn’t be accomplished in life or a need for revenge. For zombies, it's a gluttonous desire to consume. In D&D, it’s… desire to kill the PCs, I guess? Undead play a large role in my home campaign (thanks in large part to Death Frost Doom), and they are fun villains. What GM doesn’t like throwing level drain, paralysis, sleep-immune hordes at her players? But the undead mostly end up just being “the bad guys.” So with the hopes of spicing up my own game a bit, here are some variations on undead, focusing mostly on their reason to be.
Reasons She's Undead, Instead of Regular Dead
- She was a scrawny wizard-in-training growing up at Conan Elementary School. All the taunting for being puny wizard surrounded by big strong warrior man made her literally die of shame. Now she’s a needy ghost who just wants a hug, but, being a ghost and all…
- Or, now she’s a hostile, rude skeleton wizard who hates all warriors and whose absurd bravado covers up real self-esteem issues caused by the bullying.
- Like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, she’s a metaphor for capitalism. Only it’s not really subtle because she actually just really wants treasure. Willing to spare everyone (except maybe that tasty-looking hireling) if they’ll give her their treasure.
- Her spirit was too lazy or scared to make the trip to the plane where dead souls go. Now it’s been so long that she’s forgotten how. So she sits around elaborating on her Rube Goldberg dungeon, killing adventurers. When you’ve got eternity, you need to do something to stay entertained. And the dead adventurers who stick around usually make good company.
- “I’m still alive, actually. What’s that? Am I sure? Yes. Of course. …Why? Is there something on my face?”
- She was resurrected to serve as a guard, or part of some immortal necromantic army. This is a boring result and probably a boring unlife for her. So she’d probably be happy to see her magical bondage end.
- She belongs to a cyclical species. Any time someone from the village aboveground dies and is buried, her corpse rises 3 days later to join the undead cult below ground. Anytime a rude adventurer kills one of the zombies below, a human woman above becomes pregnant. Not surprisingly, there are some weird age disparities in this area.
- She was a chef of great unparalleled skill and ego, and claimed to be able to make even dragon meat taste good. Cullos, God of the Culinary Arts, cursed her for her hubris. Now she can’t rest until she actually manages to prepare a meal using dragon meat that tastes good. Killing the dragon is the easy part.
- Or she was part of an adventurous eater’s club with tastes too out there for society to handle, so they hid in this underground dungeon, eating strange foods that mutated their flesh and preserved life beyond death.
- Like Countess Elizabeth Bathory, she bathed in the blood of virgins as part of a dark ritual to preserve her youth. Also like Bathory, it didn’t quite work as she had hoped. Now hideously deformed and rotten from centuries of life, she requires ever-more blood for her bath to prevent further deterioration of her body.
- She was cursed to die in childbirth. Learning of this while pregnant, she had the baby killed to preserve her own life, and forsook all thoughts of motherhood. Now she is old enough to desire death, but it will not come until she nurses child.
- She is infected with a hyper-intelligent fungus that feeds on rot. Now her deteriorating body sustains the parasitic intruder that sustains her in a gross symbiotic mockery of life.