Sunday, June 28, 2015

Undead Psychology

art by reau
There's no such thing as mindless undead.  When you raise the dead, you are not puppeting them, not quite.  You are inviting an alien soul to occupy the body, one that the reanimation spell has selected for certain mental traits: usually obedience, foremost.


Most undead are created intentionally, by necromancers.

Necromancy is illegal in most civilized places.  Partly because of the danger involved when a necromancer loses control of their creations, but also because of the taboo against disturbing the dead and defacing their bodies.  (Most reanimation rituals involve carving profane runes on the skull, a practice that has echoes in golemetry.)

When a necromancer dies, flip a coin.  On a heads, their undead go berserk, attacking every living thing in the area.  On a tails, they immediately devour their necromancer's corpse (even skeletons will masticate a corpse, and paint all of their bones red in the necromancer's blood) before attacking all living things (as if a heads had been flipped).  It usually takes 6 minutes for 1 zombie to finish eating/destroying their necromancer's corpse, during which they will take no action to defend themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, most necromancers are not gaunt, ashen men who live in tombs (though there are certainly many necromancers who match that description).  Many necromancers who practice life-stealing magics are corpulent and jolly, swollen with stolen vitalities.

And of course, there is the story of Hamar Nesmith, a plantation owner who was discovered to be a necromancer only when he suddenly died (runaway wagon) and all 51 of his "field hands" rushed into his mansion in order to devour his body, before attacking the nearby town of Claymere and killing all of its inhabitants.


Skeletons are often considered mindless, because their behavior is extremely constrained.  Basically, the rules of "mindless" skeleton behavior are this: Take no initiative, and fulfill every command in the simplest possible way.

Because of this, you don't see any of the tricky behavior in skeletons that is so common in devils or genies--subversion of an improperly worded command.

But just because skeletons are incapable of subtlety in their behavior doesn't mean that they are incapable of subtle and complex thoughts.  Their behavior is bound, but their minds are not.  Anyone casting ESP on a reanimated skeleton will find that the new soul--the proxy soul--is a raving, fragmented thing that is keenly aware of its servitude and its abasement.

Most skeletons detest their necromancers with a hot, seething hatred.  But being unable to speak or even alter the way they act--they have absolutely no way of expressing it.

That is not quite true, of course.  Skeletons sometimes express their hatred by staring at the necromancer, or standing too close when the necromancer sleeps, or standing slightly farther away.


Zombies are the minds of ravenous animals.  They are not mindless, but they are stupid.

They are famous for walking into fires in pursuit of their prey, or into injurious circumstances without regard.  For this reason, they are considered mindless.

But zombies never charge headlong into circumstances that are immediately lethal.  They don't walk off cliffs or into blenders.  So there must be some discrimination in their minds, between things are injurious and things that are immediately lethal.

So there is not much self-preservation in a zombie, but still more than none.  In fact, the behavior of a zombie is what you'd expect from something that knows it is possessing a temporary body--something disposable and worth risking.


Do you suppose that a lich dies as soon as it reaches lichdom?  Why should so much power cause a creature to die?

In fact, a wizard who becomes a lich continues to live on.  At least for a little while.

As soon as a wizard becomes a lich, they gain perfect control over their body.  They dictate when their heart beats.  They command their cells to divide, and their liver to store sugar.  Arterial tension is simple, blood pH only slightly less so.

A lich's body no longer runs on autopilot.  It runs on full manual control.  This is the source of their great strength and durability.  Stab a man in the chest, and it is like a river spilling its banks.  Stab a lich in the chest, and it is like disturbing a line of ants.  It can quench the flow.

But with this power comes tedium.  A lich's mind is well-suited to managing the billions of sundry operations that occur every hour within the body, each essential to well being.  But the incessant demand of this management comes mistakes, hastiness, abandonment.  Cells forget to make proteins.  Cerebrospinal fluid fails to be cycled.  A small war in the upper respiratory canal is abandoned to its own devices, and bacteria devour the living tissue.

And when the systems start failing.  They snowball into each other, cascade, and collapse.  Sometimes the whole process takes less than 24 hours, and at the end of it all, the new lich is dead.

But of course, there are the exceptions.  Be wary of the Lich Who Yet Lives.

Lich Pychology

The prime example is the lich.  After a lifetime of ambition and eldritch success, a wizard may become a undead creature of undeniable power.  When a lich glares at the sun, it dims.  When a lich feels frustration, a whole nation trembles in their sleep.

So that is the great frustration of liches: nothing brings them any enjoyment anymore.

And there is much to be frustrated about.  Although liches reach one of their goals (immortality) and many others besides, it brings them no joy.  The part of them that allowed them to enjoy those victories died along with their body.  Apples turn to ashes in their mouths.  They look at the face of their best friend and feel nothing except recognition.

Enjoyment and displeasure atrophy.  They cannot enjoy a meal or a symphony.  They pursue their goals, their happiness with all of the devotion of an addict, except without any of the succor when they achieve it.

Some liches are able to rekindle that flame of humanity: to return to life.  Liches that actually achieve this are called Lords Revenant, but they are beyond the scope of this post.

And so liches become devotees of themselves.  Combined with a frequent contempt for the gods (who have tried to stop them so many times and always failed), liches raise a skeletal middle finger at all of the pantheons and become worshipers of themselves.

Nearly every lich has a shrine to their old life somewhere.  Their worship may be literal, with prayers, mythology, and rituals that pay homage to key moments in their former lives.  This is also why they build phylacteries out of objects that they once held most dear.  Childhood toys, favorite books, a father's cap, etc.

Liches have a difficult time caring about anything, even their own destruction.  All liches die with a shrug and a sigh.


I've previously written about how people become ghouls. Like liches, ghouls gradually segue into undeath from life.  The process is a bit like dementia.  They lose themselves bit by bit--the soul decays before the body does.

But unlike liches, ghouls still have attachments.  They can still enjoy the world--and they do, with great succor.

When you encounter a ghoul in a dungeon, there is a 5% chance that they fed recently.  If so, they behave much like living people.  They tend to be sarcastic but good-natured, and they can be reasoned with, and they can often provide information about the dungeon.

Digression: ghouls eat flesh, but they do not digest.  The meat turns to dust in their stomach, which they then regurgitate.  You can identify ghoul haunts by the ashes that collect in the corners.  They do not starve, but if they do not eat for several days, they become bestial and half-mad with hunger, unable to do anything except seek flesh.  They especially prefer old corpses, as long as they are fleshy.  In extreme cases, they engage in auto-cannibalism, and gnaw their limbs down to the bone.  They do not starve--they just feel like it.

Ghouls are known for two things: their ravenous hunger, and their great senses of humor when they are not ravenously hungry.  They are especially known for their well-developed senses of irony.

The great playwright Moachim was a ghoul.  He wrote his plays, including the famous satire The Queen's Pig on the walls of the Blachenrood Mausoleum.  Moachim actually survived to see his play performed several times before he was destroyed (he couldn't resist eating the actresses who played the Queen).

Ghouls retain their old personalities, but they stop caring about things.  They remember their best friends from when they were alive--they just stop caring.

Apathy, hunger, and humor.  The unlife of a ghoul.

art by VegasMike


  1. I know this is an older post, but I keep thinking about lich psychology and how stressful it'd be to manage your entire body like that. All the stuff you write is thought-provoking and brilliant, but this one sticks with me more than the rest because it makes me feel like I'm procrastinating on manually dividing my cells or something.

    1. "A small war in the upper respiratory canal is abandoned to its own devices, and bacteria devour the living tissue."

      ^ has got my brain soup bubbling ~~