Generating Non-Standard Undead

As part of my slow-burning Saltbox project, I’m working up material on ghost ships.  I think of them in three categories: Ships with divine purpose (La Grande Chasse Foudre, or a more malign analog), ships of cursed undead taking their anger out on passers-by (Flying Dutchman, or the Black Pearl), and boats of monsters that want to eat your face.  Since I’m usually working with either B/X or ACKS (with occasional recourse to the SRD), this breakdown organizes undead monsters like so (this is ACKS, which gives Ghouls an extra HD):

Since I’d also like to present the population of ghost ships in terms familiar to descriptions of ship crews in these rulesets (“there is a Nth level fighter for every X pirates…”), I’m interested in being able to target the gaps in that chart: If I have a ship of ravenous undead captained by a 6HD creature, what is it?  I could just fiddle with the HD of existing creatures, but I’d like to be a little less predictable.

Instead, I’m taking the target HD, using a base attack damage of 1d6, and calculating the armor class of the creature as 8-HD (for B/X) or HD + 1 (for ACKS).  Then I’m rolling as indicated on these tables for special abilities and quirks of appearance (forgive the slight maritime bent):


I expect that the entries will get weirder with use, but I like the way the captains are shaping up so far. As is, they come fairly close to generating the traditional undead monsters as possible outcomes, which I regard as a virtue.

6 Responses to “Generating Non-Standard Undead”

  1. 1 OtspIII
    June 12, 2012 at 5:55 am

    This looks really good to me. Something about the explosion of Fiend Folio-style undead variations somehow bugs me–it all seems unnecessary in a way that somehow dilutes the thematic power of the living dead things with a bunch of gimmicky ‘types’. At the same time, I don’t like the idea of getting all purist with the types of undead you can run into. Having a method for generating unique (semi-unique?) weird and powerful undead types feels like a good compromise for me.

    One thing that seems conspicuously missing from the first table, though, is spellcasting ability. Maybe it’s less appropriate for undead ship captains, but one of the worst things about dealing with higher level undead in Galantri is always being really worried that one of them is just going to drop a lightning bolt on you and ruin someone’s day.

  2. June 12, 2012 at 7:27 am

    I’d say spell-casting ability is a must. The biggest balance problem in Saltbox has always been that a 5th level Magic-User (with fireball) can sink a pirate ship in one attack. At the very least the ghosts ships should have some kind of magic resistance to make them scarier.

    I think you need to fill in that chart with some specifically maritime-type undead. It seems very strange that you would run across a ship full of mummies out at sea, whereas a ship full of (for stupid example) undying Ancient Mariners would feel quite organic. Here are some ideas (you just knew I would have wacky ideas to add to your stuff, didn’t you, Charlatan?):

    Bloats (grotesquely swollen corpses that void noxious gas when pierced)
    Coral Skeletons (as in Full fathoms five… the coralization would improve AC)
    Drowned Sailors who throw their arms around the necks of victims and don’t let go (a la the Pogues song Turkish Song of the Damned, and countless folktales)
    Moon Zombies (as in Pirates of the Caribbean, the best thing about the first movie–they look perfectly normal until the moonlight hits them)
    St. Elmo’s Skeletons (permanent electric shock effect)
    Drowned Ghosts who suck the breath of the living

    I absolutely love your quirks of appearance table, by the way. I like the idea that things that stay at sea too long, too far from the land, begin to change…

  3. 3 richard
    June 12, 2012 at 8:49 am

    I like it – and your mention of the Grande Chasse Foudre – but I’d want to push the maritime angle more, myself.
    What about the classic siren call and/or illusory voluptuous form concealing the dead thing below? Or the illusory ship, that lures greedy characters into the deep (but maybe only after they take something off it, echoing those stories of mutineers who loaded their pockets so with stolen gold that when they made to swim away they sank instead)? What about the ship that sails right up over land to exact its revenge, like in the legend of Cruel Copinger, carried off from his bedroom ashore by a revenant flying ship? Fire ships that conceal their flames below decks or which burn down from the mast-tops in mockery of earthly gravity (and St. Elmo’s fire, either a ward against undead or in the hands of the damned as a weapon). Or ships that constantly re-enact their wrecking – in which case the hazard is immediate if you’re on board, or may come from an unexpected angle if you’re still on your own vessel, and the ghost ship drives you onto the rocks.

    Davy Jones’ shellfish crew was one of the things I liked most about the PotC films. In a similar spirit, how about:
    – multiple-amputee undead like the man-of-wounds but adapted to the perils of the sea – with hooks and peglegs and whales’ teeth and sharkbites?
    – poltergeists armed with a chandlery of shipboard stuff – handspikes and blocks and strangling ropes and sail-darning needles and boathooks and flensing spades and, worst of all, anchors? The poltergeist could operate in creepy-everywhere mode or could cobble together a walking, wheezing form out of on-deck junk to wave the characters off.
    – the ship itself as a kind of mythic underworld – it could be mysteriously larger below decks than it should be, leading into a stinking orlop dungeon (maybe best achieved by simply multiplying the number of decks below the waterline, for a slow-release cumulative horror realisation that the players are getting in too deep), or it could go all psychological Bluebeard’s castle, with rooms of bizarre purpose (Bartok’s version starts simply with a treasury and armory, but goes on to reveal a “sea of tears” and room of mysteries too terrible to be sung about), or it could simply be unreliable – the bottom planks so rotten that when you step on them they break and let the sea in, the ladders twisted and rat gnawed, so you risk falling down them, the spars and rigging just waiting to fall on youtr head, the casks and boxes in the cargo hold containing god knows what.

  4. 4 Charlatan
    June 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    OtspIII: Yes, I should probably add a repeatable entry for spellcasting (as 1/2 HD -> as full HD). I’ve just been handling that by fiat, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t go into the procedural tables. One convenience of the abilities table is that the likelihood of repeated entries declines as it grows. The exception I’d make for actually codifying an undead type is for vampires, since 1) the idea of one running a marauding ship is kind of cool, and 2) some of the standard vampire powers don’t make sense for a seagoing bloodsucker.

    Naraoia: Well, not so much sinking, but it’s true that a fireball can clear the deck of a longship. I love the additional ability ideas! You present me with a quandary about moving from my beloved d12 to the distasteful d16, or even the sterile d20. Let us not speak of percentile tables.

    Richard: That’s a ton of stuff I like, some of which is just in separate encounters, and some of which goes into the broad category of “stuff we should all do in our maritime games”. I promise not to use these tables or their descendants for all the ghost ships, just for when I need some cannibal pirates on steroids. I especially love the poltergeist idea- maybe apparently abandoned ships should get their own encounter table…

  5. June 12, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Unique undead are the way to go — either built from scratch or templated off of an existing undead base. I do it all the time in the Chateau d’Ambreville and it works great.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

June 2012

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