Life’s a Lich
What are the undead?
The undead are creatures that were once living but have been reanimated by magical forces or the powers of a deity. While a living creature maintains life by the forces of nature, undead creatures rely upon magic and spiritual powers to maintain their semblance of life.
Because of the different forces that cause undeath, the results of undeath are incredibly varied. Some undead maintain their intellect and personality during the transformation as is the case for liches and vampires. In other instances, the creatures mind is entirely lost during the transformation or the body is the only part that is used, as is the case for skeletons and zombies. In other cases, a semblance of the mind and soul is retained, but dramatically affected by the processes of death and undeath. This is often the case for ghosts who might be caught in a moment from their life, or struggle for intelligent thought.
Due to their physiological differences, undead creatures are often immune to powers that affect the mind (particularly as many are mindless servants of their creators) as well as powers that cause sleep, poison, disease and death.
There are generally 6 accepted ways in which a creature can become undead:
Intentional, personal reanimation – In some instances, an individual can voluntarily choose undeath such as is the case with liches who undergo a ritual to become undead. Usually, these individuals are evil, with many choosing to undergo such a transformation for purposes of power, immortality or to overcome maladies.
Minions – Powerful magical and spiritual beings can raise undead servants from the bodies of deceased individuals. These beings become servants to the creator. This form of magic is known as necromancy. Such creatures often include skeletons and zombies.
Atrocities – Sometimes, a person would perform an act so terrible, that upon their death, they would be warped into an undead being. Sometimes such events are caused by a curse, but in other instances, it can seem random whether an atrocity causes undeath.
Unfinished Business – In this instance, no-one purposefully turns the being undead, instead, some overriding desire to see something through to completion causes the creature to become transformed into an undead being when they die. This is often the case for creatures like ghosts.
Dark Forces – Sometimes, evil forces would simply raise undead creatures through seemingly random events (though some suspect such events to be planned).
Wounds Caused by Undead – Certain undead creatures can create more of their kind simply by killing its victim or causing them to be wounded. This is the case with vampires, whose bite can cause another being to become a vampire.
Types of Undead
There are many types of undead and these types are usually determined by 2 things; the method used to make a creature undead and the type of creature that has been made undead. For example, a humanoid that goes through the process of lichdom becomes a lich, while a mindflayer that goes through this process becomes an alhoon and a dragon that does this becomes a dracolich.
Similarly, zombification can afflict all manner of creatures from humanoids to beholders. The possibilities are terrifying. While not official lore, it’s possible something like an elder brain dragon could transform into an elder brain dracolich to achieve immortality.
Below I’ve classified and listed all the undead creatures in DnD 5e found in the Monster Manual, Monsters of the Multiverse and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (as a highly undead-centric setting book). I’ve included descriptions, challenge ratings and source books to help you decide what undead creatures to use in your campaigns.
- Alhoon (CR 10): MPMoM – Mind flayers that have pursued magic and obtained a shortcut to lichdom and immortality.
- Boneclaw (CR 12): MPMoM – Wizards that try and fail to become liches, may instead be transformed into a boneclaw. Such a wizard is to weak to compel their soul into a phalactery and instead, their soul bonds to another, more powerful wizard in the vicinity.
- Demilich (CR 18): MM – The remnants of a lich that has failed to feed itself with mortal sould. Its body has withered leaving only a skull.
- Dracolich (CR 17): MM – A dragon that has sought to preserve its life by becoming a lich.
- Lich (CR 21): MM – Powerful spellcasters that have sought immortality through undeath.
- Bone Naga (CR 4): MM – A naga that has been transformed into a skeletal undead being.
- Death Knight (CR 17): MM – A paladin that has fallen from grace might be transformed into a death knight until they can achieve redemption. Lord Soth was a death knight.
- Flameskull (CR 4): MM – Fashioned from the remains of dead wizards, flameskulls are often used to protect lairs from tresspassers.
- Gnoll Witherling (CR 1/4): MPMoM – Skeletal gnolls determined to kill all in their path.
- Minotaur Skeleton (CR 2): MM – A skeleton raised from the body of a minotaur.
- Skeleton (CR 1/4): MM – A skeleton raised from the body of a humanoid.
- Skull Lord (CR 15): MPMoM – Skeletal spellcasters formed from three powerful beings that all plot against each other.
- Warhorse Skeleton (CR 1/2): MM – A skeleton raised from the body of a warhorse and can be used as a steed.
- Nosferatu (CR 8): VRGR – Vampiric creatures that have the thirst for blood, but lack the intellect or grace associated with most vampires.
- Vampire (CR 13): MM – Undead beings that must feed on blood to sustain their vitality. Vampires can transform others into vampires.
- Vampire Spawn (CR 5): MM – A vampire that develops a lust for blood, but remains under the control of a true vampire until that vampire allows the spawn to feed on its own blood.
- Vampiric Mind Flayer (CR 5): VRGR – Mind flayer servants of the God Brain of Bluetspur, and the flawed result of experiments into immortality through vampirism.
- Vampiric Mist (CR 3): MPMoM – Fog-like beings that are all that remains of vampires that could not find their resting place.
- Beholder Zombie (CR 5): MM – Beholders that have been zombified and mindlessly obey their master.
- Death Tyrant (CR 14): MM – Formed from the maddening nightmares of a beholder, death tyrants are similar to zombies, but far more powerful and retaining a greater sense of their own will.
- Ogre Zombie (CR 2): MM – Ogres that have been zombified and mindlessly obey their master.
- Swarm of Zombie Limbs (CR 1): VRGR – A writhing mass of zombified limbs.
- Zombie (CR 1/4): MM – A humanoid that has been zombified and mindlessly obeys its master.
- Zombie Clot (CR 6): VRGR – A mass of zombies that attack together in large scale zombie infestations.
- Zombie Plague Spreader (CR 4): VRGR – Zombies capable of spreading zombification to their victims via a toxic miasma.
- Mummy (CR 3): MM – A shambling creature cursed into undeath through unholy burial rituals. These creatures often slumber until their tomb is disturbed.
- Mummy Lord (CR 15): MM – Mummies created from the corpses of tyrannical monarchs and high priests.
- Allip (CR 5): MPMoM – Allips are formed when someone discovers a great secret protected by curses and powerful magic. This individual is transformed into a spectral creature, wracked with knowledge of the secret and a desire to impart a shard of its knowlkedge.
- Banshee (CR 4): MM – Elven maidens that have lived cruelly and have been cursed to continue their undeath in distress, bound to the point of their death.
- Eidolon (CR 12): MPMoM – Ghostly spirits formed from devoted adherents, Eidolons are used by deities to protect a sacred place.
- Gallow’s Speaker (CR 6): VRGR – The collective conscience of many dead beings, arising at sites of mass death.
- Ghost (CR 4): MM – The soul of a once living creature, bound to haunt a location in their undeath.
- Necrichor (CR 7): VRGR – Intelligent beings formed from the ichor of evil gods and failed liches, they seek to gain a body, using servants to exact their will.
- Poltergeist (CR 1): MM – A rage-filled soul, prevented from passing to the afterlife, similar to a specter.
- Shadow (CR 1/2): MM – Dark exaggerations of mortals that feed on living creatures.
- Specter (CR 1): MM – The soul of a humanoid prevented from passing to the afterlife.
- Sword Wraith Commander (CR 8): MPMoM – Valiant commanders that have died on the battlefield, these spirits haunt battlefields, attacking those that question their valor.
- Sword Wraith Warrior (CR 3): MPMoM – Ancient warriors that were slaughtered in battle.
- Will-o’-Wisp (CR 2): MM – Malevolent souls of evil beings, appearing as balls of light. They seek to lure creatures into danger.
- Wraith (CR 5): MM – Mortals that have made a pact with a fiendish creature may be consigned to an afterlife as a wraith, a creature suffused with negative energy.
- Bodak (CR 6): MPMoM – The remains of a worshiper of Orcus that has undergone a horrible ritual to transform into this creature to exact Orcus’ will.
- Devourer (CR 13): MPMoM – Transformed from lesser demons by Orcus into a mummy-like being that transforms others into the undead.
- Ghast (CR 2): MM – Ghouls infused with a greater does of abyssal energy retain a cunning mind and can lead a pack of ghouls. These creatures become ghasts.
- Ghoul (CR 1): MM – Created from the servants of Orcus, these creatures dwell in foul dwellings, feasting upon the flesh of humanoids.
- Boneless (CR 1): VRGR – Undead creatures raised from the remains of creatures that have experienced a particularly brutal end like being skinned or crushed. They are, as their name implies, boneless, moving as a mass of skin.
- Brain in a Jar (CR 3): VRGR – Preserved as just a brain in a necromantic fluid, granting immortality and psychic abilities, but making the being devoid of a body.
- Crawling Claw (CR 0): MM – Severed hands of murderers, reanimated by dark magic.
- Death’s Head (CR 1/2): VRGR – A disembodied head that terrorises mortals. The head can be from any creature, and takes on some of the abilities of the original creature.
- Deathlock (CR 4): MPMoM – The result of a warlock that breaks their pact with a patron, becoming undead and forced to perform the will of their patron.
- Deathlock Mastermind (CR 8): MPMOM – Semi-autonomous deathlocks that command lesser creatures to enact the will of their patron.
- Deathlock Wight (CR 3): MPMoM – Deathlocks that have received a special punishment, being stripped of most of their magic and transformed into a wight.
- Dullahan (CR 10): VRGR – Decapitated undead consumed with a desire for vengeance.
- Jiangshi (CR 9): VRGR – A soul trapped within its own corpse, becoming a jiangshi. These floating undead have rigid limbs due to the effects of rigor mortis.
- Nightwalker (CR 20): MPMoM – Spellcasters that have attempted to draw upon the powers of the negative plane, but have proven themselves to weak, and have instead been replaced by these undead creatures.
- Revenant (CR 5): MM – A mortal killed in a cruel and undeserving manner that has returned in undeath to seek vengeance against their killer.
- Wight (CR 3): MM – Once evil mortals, wights are those that have died, but their soul has called out to dark powers to return them to the mortal world through undeath. If this desire is granted, they become wights, undead beings that retain their memories but now serve whatever dark power has revived them.
How to use undead in a campaign
Undead make great enemies and villains! Think beings like Vecna, an archlich, or Lord Soth, a death knight. These are powerful beings granted immortality, but at the cost of dreadful, evil acts.
Not only this, but there’s a huge variety of undead creatures to choose from, and it’s easy to vary up your skeletal horde (or other undead) with homebrewed versions for other creatures. A skeletal t-rex anyone? What about a zombified tarrasque?
Below, I’ve put together some ideas for how you can include undead in your own campaigns:
- Undead minions: Necromancers and many other creatures love having undead minions to perform their will. Corpses are never in short supply and they tend to make mindless servants that don’t answer back. Use undead to guard a villain’s lair or as a meat shield for your BBEG confrontation.
- Unfinished business: Many undead, particularly of the incorporeal kind, have become so because they have unfinished business. Putting such beings to rest can create a natural objective for characters. It might start as a banshee haunting the village well, but why, and how to put the creature to rest can create a puzzle of sorts. This becomes an extra challenge at low levels if players realise the creature they’re facing is more powerful than they are. Not every creature needs to be killed to be gotten rid of; some undead will depart if you can solve their problems.
- Ridding the world of undead BBEGs: Some of the best BBEGs are undead, normally because they’ve done unspeakable things to achieve immortality. Liches must feed their immortality with the souls of mortals. Orcus transforms mortals into undead servants. Strahd Von Zarovich murdered his household when he became the first vampire. Removing these evil beings from the world can only be seen as a service to society, so pit your players against some of the biggest, baddest, evilest guys out there.
- Haunted house: Ghost stories are great and haunted houses offer a chance for multiple beings to have their stories told and their problems resolved (or just destroyed). They’re great ways to have weird and terrifying events happen to players. I love a good haunted house but they can be tricky to create. Consider using the House of Lament scenario in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft as inspiration or to run with your players. It’s an excellent example of how to run a haunted house.
Other monster types
Thinking of including something other than undead in your campaign? We’ve got you covered. Below are our guides for all the different monster types in D&D 5e: