A View to an Open Grave

February 2, 2009 at 6:00 am
filed under Roleplaying

I got my gnarled, mold encrusted hands on a copy of Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead. It’s the analogue to Draconomicon, and although I could go either way on dragons, I do like undead, as I’d like any other staple of D&D or the fantasy genre in general. 

It’s also aimed squarely at DMs, so you won’t see anything much for players in here; the only real content for players are a rituals and, to a lesser extent, artifacts.

With that out of the way, here’s what I think.

Fluffy & cuddly

I enjoyed reading the chapter about undead physiology, psychology, society, and the like. I think sometimes there’s too much detail on specific topics in the fluff-related chapter; for instance, the discussion of mindless vs. soulless vs. undead with souls is weirdly specific. I can see why they put it in there, as it’s important to have some rough idea of the metaphysics. There’s not much, so it’s not excessive or boring. Still, I feel like most of that stuff’s not likely to come up, and it’s stuff that’s perhaps best left to DMs to determine.

All right, sure; I’ll freely admit I’m being a jerk, and perhaps a hypocrite, as one of the things that bothers me about this hobby is harping on trivialities. A smart DM will run it however he likes, so I’ll move on.

Worth noting is the discussion of sentient undead attitudes towards the living and what motivates them. Although you might not be terribly interested in how you might roleplay sentient undead, I’d argue that it’s still important when devising a plot involving undead of this flavor. The kind of undead that hate the living and seek to destroy them at all costs is one kind. A lich obsessed with exterminating all goblins, an ally who might later turn out to be a foe, is another sort of NPC altogether.

What’s that smell?

What book about the undead would be complete without more undead? Let me first say right off the bat that a lot of these guys are old school. I’m not sure whether they’re new; by this, I mean chiefly that they’ve got that old D&D vibe. Call it the retro stupid, if you like: Deathtritus (animated piles of refuse), Brain in a Jar (you heard me), Crawling Claws (exactly what you’d think), undead oozes, and more. Obviously you don’t have to use this stuff if you think it’s dumb, but there really is something glorious about a Brain in a Jar. I also appreciated a wider variety of go-to undead such as skeletons and zombies.

On top of all that, you’ve got section of the big guys. In here, you can find none other than Strahd von Zarovich and the great Vecna. Vecna’s level 35 and based on a glance, dude can mess you up pretty good. Good times. Interestingly, Strahd is at the high end of paragon tier, which seems appropriate to me. Paragon tier is sort of the sweet spot, so it would make sense for Strahd to be at the end of a mid- to late-paragon tier campaign arc.

Another feature of the book that I appreciate is the DM’s chapter. In particular, the example campaign arcs that progress are quite illuminating, to the point where I wish there were more than three.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention something about undead grafts. I hadn’t heard about these before, and was surprised to see them. They’re almost like templates you apply to NPCs or monsters to give them undead-like characteristics, such as a Mummy’s Eye or Wight’s Claw.

There’s one last section worth talking about, but unfortunately I haven’t read it. It’s a big old section with undead lairs. I’m afraid to read it because I don’t want to spoil these lairs for myself, while at the same time this is exactly the kind of thing that would make for one-shot material, or serve as a nice departure from the main plot on an off night or two. (This is, incidentally, why I’m looking forward to Dungeon Delve, and why I’m at all tempted by Draconomicon.)

Final word

I approve. In particular, I look forward to using a number of the monsters in this book; trolling it for ideas for my next short-term campaign; or for a pick-up game or one shot using one of the pre-fab dungeons in the book.

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