A Dungeons and Dragons Monster Review by Jonathan Wojcik
From mindless, moldering zombies to fashionable vampire counts, the living dead have long been popular culture's favorite monstrous realm and a given in any fantasy adventure setting. To say that Dungeons and Dragons is no exception would be a gross understatement, having introduced gamers to legions of ghosts, ghasts, ghouls, wraiths, specters, liches and groaning, shrieking cadavers for every conceivable scenario. As you might imagine, the living impaired take on some pretty extreme forms in the gaming world, and we're going to look at some of the weirdest, creepiest, most imaginative carcasses ever offered up by TSR or Wizards of the Coast!
The Vitreous Drinker
What's not to love about any monster completely coated in eyeballs? Perhaps disappointingly, the vitreous drinker doesn't literally drink vitreous, but uses its long tongue to "somehow" steal its victim's sense of sight, growing a new pair of eyes on its body in the process. It sounds like it was really just intended to suck out and retain whole eyeballs, but somewhere along the creative process it was toned down. Once it's blinded someone, it can see out of their useless eyes (or empty eye sockets, as I prefer) whenever it wants, an ability I thought of for one of my own monsters years ago, but it's a pretty simple one to come up with.
The Vitreous Drinker also creates and controls spectral ravens. Okay, sure.
The Crawling Head
At first glance, a crawling head doesn't look or sound like much more than, well, a crawling head, but these undead are spawned specifically from the heads of giants, they grow and mutate even bigger in undeath, they can crawl up walls with their veiny tentacles and they collect more heads from the creatures they've devoured, storing them in sacs just under their slimy flesh. They can even command other forms of undead and may set up elaborately booby-trapped lairs, making them boss-caliber foes. I could so easily see one of these disgusting things as a Jabba the Hutt sort of villain, leading an unlife of debauchery in a subterranean palace surrounded by grisly minions. He might even want to find himself a nice desert palace, too, since as tough as they seem, crawling heads are dissolved by nothing but ordinary water.
The Atropal Scion
Far too metal for its own good, the lovably ridiculous Atropal Scion is literally a rotting fragment of a stillborn god, and does all the things you might expect the rotting fragment of a stillborn god to do; turn everything around it into part of an undead army to wreak havoc upon the living out of sheer hate and malice. It's corny, but that's half the fun, and the Libris Mortis illustration is unforgettably repugnant. The fractured skull, strings of flesh and blue baby-head veins are so deliciously nauseating, it's no surprise that fourth edition softened the scion to just some floating zombie-looking guy. Disappointing, but no surprise.
The Skin Kite
Fans might notice that a lot of this list comes from the third edition Libris Mortis: The Book of the Undead. I intended it to be a little more diverse than that, but they really went the extra mile and packed some wonderfully weird ideas into this book. This personal favorite of mine is just a ragged, rotting mass of skin that flaps through the air like a horrible misshapen bat, melds itself to a living thing then peels itself back off and flies away - taking a bunch of the victim's skin with it to replenish its body and make new little skin kites. I really like how much this illustration resembles a horrible, meaty angelfish.
The Skulking Cyst
This putrescent beauty is the final result of a sadistic magical spell called necrotic cyst, which does exactly what you think it does. When its host finally dies, the cyst continues thirsting for the blood of the living, hiding in the shadows until prey comes within grasp of its tentacular intestines. Latching on like a gelatinous tick, it sucks blood until satiated, drops off, and casts necrotic cyst on the poor sap for good measure, I guess because it's lonely. It often drags around or hides inside the withered remains of its original body, and somehow or other, it can comprehend any language the original host could speak. I'd love to know when and how that would ever become relevant...what are you going to do, ask it nicely not to give you cancer?
I always wondered if the artist actually intended the cyst to look like a bug-eyed, goofy face. I think it was a happy accident.
The Tomb Mote
These cute little wads of miscellaneous hair, teeth and other bodily detritus are a sort of peripheral undead, brought to life from leftover scraps by latent necromantic energy. The donut holes of the undead, if you will. Amazingly intelligent and quite fast, they sneak around like tiny, scuzzy imps and attempt to bite intruders, transmitting a disfiguring and painful disease called "corpse bloat." Who really needs the A-list undead? Hundreds of tomb motes sound a lot more effective than a dozen or so mummies.
The Moilian Heart
I've always loved disembodied organs as monsters, but as lovable as tentacled brains and flying eyeballs always are, it's nice to see some other body parts getting attention. The Moilian heart is a pretty fascinating example, a completely sessile creature that begins to beat in the presence of living things, draining health and spreading a wave of magical frost. Those slain by a Moilian heart may eventually rise as Moilian zombies, frozen bodies who likewise only animate long enough to drain a victim's health before they collapse and return to their inert state. These represent the last remnants of an entire lost civilization now known only as Moil, the City That Waits.
So, we have a whole frozen city littered with frosty corpses, hibernating forever until they can suck the life out of some hapless visitor, and somewhere there's a pulsing undead heart that will turn you into one of them. This is possibly one of the most badass things I've ever heard.
The Sheet Phantom
Everyone makes fun of the poor sheet phantom, as if there's really anything wrong with an undead monster resembling a transparent bedsheet. That's a fundamental category of undead monster! It only needed an artist to give it a tattered, whispy design and people may have taken it more seriously, not that I don't find its freshly ironed towel-like appearance perfectly serviceable. Sheet phantoms are rumored to be either actual sheets possessed by evil spirits or even a delightful undead form of Lurker Above, often employing the same drop-down hunting method. Flashing a pair of luminous green eyes as it strikes, the spirit wraps around and merges with a humanoid host, transforming them into sheet ghouls.
According to more recent text, sheet ghouls attack by squirting a long, thin stream of acid from their mouths. According to their original Fiend Folio description however, they shoot acid from their nose. Gross!
The Corpse Gatherer
What's worse than zombies rising out of their graves? How about the whole damn graveyard coming with them? Yes, the Corpse Gatherer is literally a huge, haunted hulk of tombstones, grave soil and corpses constantly driven to "feed" by engulfing more bodies into its mass, which just sort of writhe there helplessly - soul and all - until the gatherer is finally destroyed.
And then the hundreds to thousands of bodies it amassed all get up and come after you anyway, because they're all zombies now. That's...kind of worse, actually. At least you knew where they all were when they were one giant monster.
I love this incredibly unnerving design, though it may have been a little more disturbing if it were the former humanoid its anatomy implies. Instead, this crusty husk of salty dust represents a dehydrated water elemental, perpetually tormented by its dried up state and sucking moisture from any living thing it encounters. It's a little over the top, and I'm not sure how a formless spirit of water dehydrated down to a hypercephalic gremlin, but it's still too horrific a visual to criticize. We may not be supernatural masses of water, but we're certainly made of enough water to relate to its suffering. Those raw, bloody looking joints really get to me.
Far too obscure for something so phenomenally awesome, the Ulgurstasta was created by the mad cleric-turned-demigod, Kyuss, for a simple and glorious purpose: to eat lots of people, digest all their soft tissues, and regurgitate their skeletons as minions. They are literally skeleton factories in the form of giant, undead maggots with dozens of eyes. Kyuss, you are a man after my own heart. As a bonus, Ulgurstasta absorb memories from prey and steadily increase their intellectual capacity, a characteristic unforseen by their creator and their sole motivation in hunting for fresh bodies. The more skeletons they make, the smarter they get. Also, the more skeletons they get. It's win/win!
Inexplicably peculiar and delightfully fun, the Gravecrawler or "ancestor worm" carries the rare distinction of being a more or less benevolent undead being, wanting little more than to unlive in peace. Able to speak with the dead once per week, it can even dispense valuable information to those who seek its help, but there's one minor problem: all flesh within thirty feet of a gravecrawler, living or dead, slowly petrifies into a crumbling stone that the creature feeds upon. It has no control over this aura and can never shut it off, so as much as you might want to, you can't just hang around having a nice chit-chat all day with your dead parents and a faceless slug. Get in, get to the point, and get the hell out before it's munching on your petrified face. Nothing personal, of course.
Design-wise, the Gravecrawler is fairly interesting, but actually inconsistent with its description, which notes that it possesses a mouth, but "not even vestigial" eyes. I'm not sure which face I'd find cooler, but design aside, I can think of so many interesting narrative uses for a creature so morbidly useful yet so unavoidably dangerous. Why don't I ever hear more about this thing? There's no excuse for a monster so intriguing to be so overlooked.
Apologies to illustrator Raven Mimura
One question nags me, however: just where do these particular "undead" come from? Everything else we've gone over has at least a vaguely implied origin, but the Monster Manual II offers nothing close to an explanation for the gravecrawler. They had to come from something alive once, right? Undead can't just evolve into stone-eating caterpillars, can they? Did a whole race of geophagous telepathic worms just turn into ghouls overnight? There's some flavor to chew over.
Fascinating though the Gravecrawler is, we have one last Undead monster to go over, by far the greatest in every possible respect, for reasons I will expound upon to their finest detail:
The Crawling Apocalypse