Readers Respond => How to Make Undead Scary

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0629

A Brief Word From Johnn

Freelance Traveller Reviews Faster Combat

Timothy Collinson vivisects my book, The Game Master’s Guide to Faster Combats, for the Freelance Traveller zine. It’s the most detailed review of my course yet. His main question is, are the lessons and information of value to Traveller and non-D&D GMs?

His answer is in this PDF, starting at page 21: FT058-201410-ANSI-A.pdf

Also, if you are a Traveller GM, you can get all the back issues of the Freelance Traveller zine here (it looks like a fantastic resource): Magazine

New Books On My Shelf

The postman brought me something grim, gritty, and dangerous this week.

Dungeon Crawl Classics just hit my mailbox and it looks like a great, old school game.

Dungeon Crawl Classics Image

Character creation is fabulous. The premise is you start with 0 level characters. Farmers, peasants, and commoners who are somehow involved in risky adventure. Perhaps their Baron has recruited them for a dangerous mission, or they’ve shipwrecked on a mysterious island and must band together to survive, or their village is attacked and they are the sole survivors and homeless.

Each player gets a few characters and tries to help as many survive as possible. By the end of the intro adventure, only the strong or lucky are left, and these become first level PCs with a class and your standard PC abilities.

This approach is like gaming your character’s backstory. It’s low fantasy and gritty, which I’m finding a nice break from the high fantasy stuff I’ve been consuming in recent years.

Anyway, thanks to Noble Knight Games for the fast shipping and excellent packaging of my used edition. The book came through with nary a scratch.

Get some gaming done this week, if you can swing it.


Readers Respond => How to Make Undead Scary

A little while ago I shared ideas on how I’ll make undead fun again in my new campaign. After years of GMing skeletons and zombies, I want to shake things up.

In response, several readers wrote in with great suggestions on the three themes I presented:

  • Mission
  • Culture
  • Mechanics

Here are their ideas – maybe they will add some ghoulish spice to your campaign, as well.

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Infection & Spawning Ideas

From Andrew Y.

As a method of evolving the undead, I like the idea of infection and spawning. I don’t know exactly what you had in mind, but here a few ideas.

1) Infection Evolution

More powerful undead can infect lesser undead. As in, a vampire can turn a zombie into a vampire thrall with a bite, or mind control, or whatever. And slimy tentacle ghouls can lay their slimy eggs inside a vampire and turn it into a clutch of baby slimy tentacle ghouls.

Of course, zombies (now that they’re intelligent enough to act as NPCs) don’t want to be vampire thralls, and vampires don’t want to be slimy tentacle ghoul nests/breakfast buffets.

2) Spawning Evolution

Undead grow in power as they spread their curse or disease. A vampire with one thrall is little better than a zombie, but a vampire with one hundred thralls is a match for a soul-sucker shade. But any vampire thrall that gets its own vampire thralls gains that power for itself, it doesn’t all funnel to the original sire.

And intelligent undead will be just as jealous and wrathful as mortals, so they won’t just pool all of their resources under a single figure, at least, not on purpose.

3) Source Evolution

What if your undead were being driven, not just by a handful of powerful leaders, but by a natural (or unnatural) phenomenon? So, the undead evolve with time, but not necessarily with age, as dragons do.

A zombie spawned on Day 1 will have x power. On Day 5, that zombie will have x+4 power (or 5x power, whatever the pace is), but a zombie spawned on Day 5 will also have x+4 (or 5x) power, even though it is freshly spawned and not yet “finely aged,” because all of the undead are evolving based on the growing power of the phenomenon-source.

4) Ritual Evolution

The undead are static beings, in spite of their seemingly dynamic existence (being formerly dead and all). To evolve, they must individually undergo long, strenuous rituals that rip their rotting flesh to engorge their stiffened muscles, burst their decaying blood vessels as pure magical energy courses through them, or remodel their very skeleton as spines and spikes grow from spurs along their spines and arms.

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Create Energy Zones

From Joel Roush

I thought about your undead evolution problem. Perhaps an interesting way to go is to have the low-level undead grow more powerful.

According to the D&D mythology, the undead are suffused and energized by energy from the Negative Plane. I conclude that the more negative energy present, the more powerful the undead.

As the undead horde of zombies and skeletons kills its way through the countryside, they create more low-level undead. As a result, the amount of negative energy present is greater. Therefore, the original horde of skeletons and zombies becomes augmented by this energy, strengthening them. Zombies get faster, skeletons earn extra attacks, etc.

So, not only is the undead horde greater in number, there are also “elite” undead among them. This is also a nice way to keep the fights interesting as your PCs get higher in level.

This strengthening can take on the form you mentioned in your blog post, evolving them into higher forms of undead – ghosts and such. For me, I’m not into this as much because I like the D&D mythology for the function and purpose of each type of undead creature.

For instance, ghosts are bound to specific location, a wight is made from a person of great vanity and desire who calls out to a demon upon his or her death, and a wraith is made from a person of great evil.

I think it’s important to keep the different flavors of undead distinct so they can be used for different storytelling purposes.

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Think Long-Term

From Ashley

I love your undead tips – they’ve inspired me and I think I have something special to run for my group next time we get together. I want to note two areas I see potential challenges with:

Giving Every Undead A Voice

Part of the mystique of the undead is the faceless, shambling horde. Sure, maybe the zombies will have differences between them as individuals (it’s practically required now that one is overweight, one has long fingernails, and one is very strong, etc.) but the potent part of undeath is “they don’t listen, they don’t care, and they don’t stop.”

You’ve got to be careful how you stick your personalities in – if you end up with a cowardly skeleton or an artiste ghoul, it either needs to be a plot point (“Maybe this one will help us!”) or else it needs to somehow keep the theme of alien, unyielding, familiar, grotesque death.

However, and this is what inspired me: what if all of them do have a voice…and then the players realize they’ve been running into the one lone type which doesn’t? Maybe someday they’ll find out why ghasts only scream and never speak.

Game Balance

A mild note of caution on giving undead the ability to infect PCs with undeath, especially at low levels: it will raise the challenge of the encounter, possibly to an unbeatable level, if you don’t do it carefully.

Even if it’s just “don’t roll a 1 on this save”, someone’s going to roll a 1 – and it’ll probably be the party paladin or cleric, with my luck! If things go badly, you might end up with the players protesting, “But I don’t want to play a skeleton for six levels!”

Some ideas for low-level consequences that hopefully keep the ick without the potentially expensive consequences:

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Longer-Term Stuff

When the character dies, he’ll become a zombie, skeleton, or whatever bit him. Doesn’t have to happen right now. Some players might be bothered by this. Some might not care. Either way, it removes the immediate “must go spend a lot of gold on a cure” impetus.

And it gives you the option of making no cure available – the players might just have to try not to die for the rest of the game, while engaging in the sorts of derring-do players usually perform, the whole while with the knowledge they might turn on their friends if something happens.

Kind of dark, but it might be what your group likes.

An Unhealthy Connection To Death

The character starts having nightmares, prophetic visions, seeing ghosts, etc. Useful to deliver plot points if you like a little supernatural in your info-sharing. No obvious way to remove it, but since it’s passably useful (though under your control) the players probably won’t try to remove it.

The important thing is not to forget you’ve cursed the bitten player(s). Nothing’s worse than getting a character-altering boost and everyone at the table forgets about it!

A Benefit Of Some Sort

The character now has a nose for the undead, his wound itches when they’re around, etc. One could even grant a specialized ability of some sort. Track (Undead) might be amusing to see on a sheet.

Perhaps give it a downside (though not enough to make one of those “must find a cleric to remove this curse!” things). Maybe the undead seek the character out and try to persuade him to their side. Maybe he sees dead stuff all the time and it’s really gross. Maybe he wakes up with a hit point or two less every night or his healing rate slows slightly.

PCs Can’t Get Infected

They’re already dead and they just don’t know it yet, or they’ve got the favor of the god of death, whatever. If you do this, make sure to send lots of henchmen and NPCs their way to get infected right before their eyes, and don’t tell them they don’t get infected – make them roll for it, and when they roll 1s, pass them notes that say “Nothing happens…. YET.”

Keep the tension alive as long as possible, and if they start to question, let them dig into it as a matter of plot. This might not be such a good idea at higher levels, where True Resurrection is just a few gold away, but at lower levels, it might save your game. Never let the outcome of the campaign rely on a single die roll.

Just be sure you have a plan to remove this mystical protection once they hit the point where infection no longer holds appropriate terror for them. “Oh crap. Wee Jas says she can’t protect us anymore, we’re beyond the reach of her power.”

As Big As The Sum Of Its Parts

For the evolution idea, have the skellies visibly reconfigure themselves into bigger, badder monsters at the beginning of each fight with the PCs. They’re intelligent, they presumably know how the other skellies died (give them little undead rats for spies), and they’ll work to prevent themselves from dying in the same way.

The image of skeletons tossing each other rib bones and clacking their bones together to form massive, four-legged beasts as they prepare for the PCs is enough to make my skin crawl, at least!

Alternatively, take stats of a bigger, more powerful monster and apply them to the description of the weaker monster. Maybe the ghouls now have four attacks because they’ve sewn arms to themselves. Maybe the zombies are getting faster and smarter as the night wears on.

What will really make the players’ skin crawl is the moment when the weaknesses start disappearing. “Crap! It’s immune to fire!”

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They Absorb Others

From Manolo Sampaio

There are creatures called Arcbound in Magic the Gathering. They are more constructs than creatures. When one dies, the parts that make him can be transferred to the others on the field.

If you are planning to create a leader, why not use necromancers to heal the dead as the priests heal the living? And by this I mean, undead would take down targets to absorb what make them powerful…wings, extra limbs, more muscle.

Perhaps they are also continuously decaying, so they would need more and more parts to endure time.

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Less Is More

From Michael Garcia

I have been thinking of the undead theme a lot lately, because my latest campaign (I have two running at present), which just started, will give them a main role. We’re doing AD&D circa 1986 or so, and one villain in the region is a modified death master (from a Dragon article).

In one way, I agree with you. I want something more than the stock monsters (zombies, ho hum). On the other hand, I definitely do NOT want flying undead zombie dragon-minotaurs. My players and I love the classic feel of night of the living dead, and I want to give it to them.

The problem is that the monsters are so old and predictable. So I will put a twist on them, and cause them to evolve as you suggest. Yet, the feel of the campaign will be much more realistic. Sometimes less is more (and this is one of those times).

I think I might approach undead evolution as follows:

First, the corpse will be animated like a zombie, but it will also be infectious from the start, so physical combat (or even contact) with it is dangerous. In the beginning, its bite is the real danger. As the corpse festers (after a few days), it may be able to scratch and infect PCs (claw attacks).

Side benefit: When a PC previously wounded by a claw attack now sees a claw attack can infect and kill, he will no doubt wonder if he is infected. Eventually, mere contact with the corpse’s infected fluids or blood may even infect PCs if they are splashed with the guts during combat.

Perhaps if they do more than 6 points of damage on one, they must save against poison (or perhaps they must save versus poison if they deal 4+ with an edged weapon or 6+ with a bludgeoning weapon).

Finally, when the creature’s guts liquify, it may spawn a different creature entirely (a la Aliens), perhaps by using a PC or other human as a host. I have been dropping hints of some wyrm-like creature “pale as a grave worm.”

I have purposely blurred the wyrm/worm distinction, partially to raised doubts and confusion, but also to foreshadow some vile creature they may face. I imagine some ancient underground creature (which is also the focus of a local cult) to be the source of the zombie infection. Perhaps it spawns little worms by means of the above evolution, though I’m not yet sure what purpose these have.

These zombie-things will not be stock monsters (that will cause confusion and doubt). They will evolve (only enhancing the confusion and doubt). Contact in any way will put PCs at risk (making them hesitant to engage…as befits a horror movie). This subtle approach should retain the desired horror atmosphere (that flying minotaurs and other high fantasy tend to destroy).

As for intelligence… this is tough. I think undead were originally so horrifying because intelligent people have been transformed into mindless (and sometimes cannibalistic) things. Giving them back their intelligence makes them less scary, not more. There are exceptions (vampires and ghosts), but smart skeletons are not scary to me (they’re just brittle bad guys).

To preserve the gist of what you wrote, I will have the death master be intelligent (18 intelligence). Perhaps he can direct the actions of the undead, giving them no real intelligence, but a frightening appearance of group thought. For example, the zombies all stop their random meandering around the fields, turn as one toward the PCs, and simultaneously lumber toward them. That could be creepy.

On a related note, years ago I took my first stab at Gothic horror. I had some zombies in the cellars beneath this Dracula-esque castle on a cliff. I had done a serious build-up in true Gothic horror style, and these were the first supernatural creatures the PCs were encountering.

In the end, they were just zombies, but the atmosphere was thick. I needed them to find a certain item, and they suspected it was down there. Where to hide it?

I decided that since the undead were results of the villain’s brainwashing experiments, there could exist a few that “went really bad.” So in one of the underground cells, I had a zombie that was frantic and strong, slamming itself against the bars like a mental patient. This tiny twist horrified the players (much to my surprise and delight).

Though they had worked out a systematic way to kill zombie after zombie in that cellar, they all balked at going into that room.

PC to PC: “You want us to go IN there with THAT thing? Hell, no!” It was hilarious.

When they did enter, I decided I needed to capitalize on this. I doubled its hit points and attacks. It took three of them to manhandle this thing, and it dealt them savage blows before succumbing. They found the statue they sought, but they were so creeped out they beat a hasty retreat rather than stick around searching for treasure.

Even better, it raised serious questions. What the hell was that? Where did it come from? What is it doing down there? Are you telling me no one KNOWS it’s down there?

The whole episode cast suspicion on all the good guys living in the castle, and it also raised the tension level. Great memories!

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Make It Uneven

From Jeremy Brown

In Mystara, I believe it was, there was a type of double undead that appeared to be zombies, but when you killed them, they returned within like 1d3 rounds as a wraith rising from the decaying corpse. This made for a very nasty encounter, and a surprisingly difficult one for higher level players who discounted mere zombies.

As to how to increase your threat level throughout the game I recommend don’t increase it. Instead, make it uneven.

Create scripted areas and situations party level or lower. But create other areas of the campaign deliberately too tough. Give the PCs free reign. They will quickly learn to do research, gather information, cast divinations, and do whatever it takes to know what kind of combat they’re walking in to and how to give themselves an edge. In the kind of campaign you described, I think this is a more realistic and faster way of handling difficulty.

The scripted railroad track laden scenarios still ramp up with party level. But if the party goes to Joe’s Bar at 4th level and gets their asses kicked, go to Joe’s Bar at 7th level and gets their asses kicked, and then at 10th level finally survive the experience, it gives the PCs a lot of “Wow, we’ve progressed” moments. Further, if they kick Joe’s Bar’s ass at 9th level because of clever planning and forethought, it makes them feel good.

When I ran my horror campaign, there were two situations that illustrated this well. At 2nd level, my party entered a house with a monster that nearly performed a TPK. The party went back at 4th level, and again, near TPK. They did research, and took steps to protect themselves. They went back at 6th level and discovered there were two of the monsters, not one. Finally, when they defeated the twin perils, they were happy. I was too. I had recycled the same area and the same monster for four different encounters.

The second situation involved a haunted water tower. The first two times the party went there they encountered only ghostly manifestations of two boys. However, once they stirred up the major evil entity of the town, the third time at the tower they encountered one of its servitors, a chuul. The chuul almost performed a TPK. My party, getting smart, bought fishing tackle and a spear gun. They used a heavy fishing net to entangle the chuul and then the spear gun to help kill it. They felt deeply vindicated by this maneuver, and it helped them to see the campaign world wasn’t static.

You could do the undead as an increasing plague or infection. Perhaps the easiest way to do it would be just to make infection resistance more difficult over time.

Another way would be to make infection a simpler mechanic, akin to the massive damage save of d20 modern. If a character ever takes their constitution score in damage they have to save versus infection. This isn’t likely to occur until higher levels, so you can make the difficulty nasty.

One last thing: if you want undead to truly be horrific, besides infection, consider using some form of fear or madness. The Adamant Entertainment system in the back of their Victorian Monstrosities book works well for this. Or you could adapt the system from True 20. Both are simple, fast to run, and use simple saving throw language to determine success.

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Kamikaze Ghouls

From Paul Simmons

Have you thought that skeletons could strip the flesh off corpses then return to their enclave to have it grafted on their bones, thus evolving?

You could also use the “Black Cauldron” as a method zombies evolve. Two or three sacrifice to create a greater undead.

Ghouls could require a Kamikaze sacrifice that in doing so raises them as ghosts.

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There Can Only Be One

From Gary Williams

As far as evolution goes, why not XP or the equivalent? They get points for kills, but also points for story actions and successes, bypassing traps, and living through PC actions. How bad is it if the PCs are trying to exterminate a group but if they miss any, those get stronger?

Another idea, out of The Chronicles of Prydain, is to have the undead in bands, and as you kill members, the rest get stronger? If you do it right, the PCs could be responsible for creating an unstoppable juggernaut.

Combine the prior idea with a Highlander scenario, “There can be only one!” and you have a recipe for an all out undead war.

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A Sorcerous Band

From Phil Hickey

If you recall the children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain, in addition to the Cauldron Born (who were essentially almost unkillable zombies) there were the Hunstmen of Arawn Death Lord.

These were evil men bound together in a sorcerous band, and whenever one of their number was killed, the remaining ones in the band became that much more powerful, which made it dangerous to kill them (obviously).

Maybe some undead who are somewhat similar, in that they are created as a group (perhaps having been the former bodyguard of a slain king, a group of wizards a holy order, etc.) who are even linked together after death, in such a way that killing one of them results in the growth of power of the rest of the group.

Just a thought, brainstorming and all that.

Good luck with your campaign.

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Abyssal Element

From Naoise McHugh

I don’t know if you’ve heard about Shadow of Mordor, a recently released PC RPG/hack n’ slash. Anyway, I think that’s where the idea originated, but it’s called the Nemesis system. Basically, any time an enemy escapes from the PCs, they gain a little bit of depth.

So, where Shadow of Mordor takes a goblin grunt who happens to get away from Talion (the PC) and makes them into a chief, the next time Talion encounters them, in your undead situation, you could have a generic mindless skeleton survive fighting the PCs and gain the intelligence to be called a ghoul, now with a name and memories of its encounter with the PCs.

Were I running it (and I may give something similar a try), I’d lash some abyssal element onto one or more of the PCs, which starts reanimating corpses. Limited exposure to it makes the zombies evolve, if they get away before the party massacres them. To add a little bit more depth, I’d wait until the PCs had sold a few artifacts containing the elements, so’s to make sure they couldn’t just destroy their own artifacts and be done with the problem.

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Make An NPC Class

From Heiko Mueller

Thank you for the undead ideas. I also like to make them dangerous again and surprise my players.

For evolving them I see it unrealistic (oh, what word in a fantasy rpg) to alter skeletons to zombies, zombies to ghouls and on this way for evolution.

I would prefer to level them up but keep their initial stance. So an evolved skeleton still looks like a skeleton but sports 1 HD more, +1 on attack and AC. At Level 4 they may get incorporeal. At Level 6 they might drain levels.

So there might be an undead class or template for NPCs, where all these abilities are described like in PC classes, according to the game system used, handling attack, AC, saves and special abilities.

For gaining levels, I think best is to base it on kills. Depending on undead level, distinct kills are needed to advance. Real kills. Not bringing someone to -1 HP. So these do not stop if a PC or NPC falls to the ground. They continue until they are really dead. That’s the fuel they are longing for! A level gain also puts them back up to full HP.

A first level undead (e.g. Skeleton) needs 2 kills to get level 2. A second level undead needs 4 kills to get level 3, doubling every next level. For a vampire it is tough to level up, for the minions it is much easier.

People killed by these evolving undead loose also more than their life. Their life force is consumed on the kill. So raising them is more complicated, more expensive, and riskier than normal kills by normal enemies.

Think of a horde of level 1 skeletons attacking a farmer village. The PCs, even when at level 5, have to hurry to defeat them before they kill many townspeople and grow stronger. 🙂

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From Chuck

Perhaps instead of all undead being intelligent, you make just the leaders possess this unusual talent. The grunts might still be mindless corpses.

I’m thinking intelligent undead must have some sort of spirits bound to their bodies. For some, perhaps an ancient mage who learned the forbidden art of Spiritbinding imprisoned them. For others, perhaps they were exposed to some source of spiritual energy, such as a rift in the astral plane or a magical item bound with more than one spirit. Some spirits may even have voluntarily bound themselves into a corpse or item of power.

And powerful magical items and artifacts are in fact items that have been infused with a once autonomous spirit. Created by the same necromantic rituals that bind undead.

Evolved undead are those that have absorbed the spirit of another being, such as a living person, a magical item, or another undead. When an undead absorbs enough energy of its own, it can then imbue a corpse or item with that energy to create or strengthen a thrall or bound item, at a cost of weakening its own spirit. Mighty undead almost always carry powerful magical gear.

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Desecrated Areas

From Joe Z.

I am running a campaign that has undead as one of the main types of antagonists. So I happen to have some tricks and methods for evolving undead.

I don’t let undead change types unless there is a thematic “upgrade” already in the books (ghouls to ghasts, for instance, wraiths to specters). Instead I use “advanced” templates or add extra hit dice.

Undead are powered by negative energy. They don’t eat or drink or sleep. So, to make undead more powerful, you give them more negative energy. What I use as the justification is the desecrate spell. It’s an area of cursed earth that makes undead powerful. I use this as a foundation for a cursed location that over time causes undead to grow in power. Desecrate attunes that area to negative energy, making it stronger and more easily available.

Once there, an evil priest can use his various harm spells to infuse the undead with negative energy, accelerating the process. You did mention having undead with intelligent leaders, right? Well, these locations would need some sort of focus…so either a spell caster or some sort of focus/macguffin to make them work.

The longer one of these sites is allowed to infuse the undead, the more powerful they become. So, this allows you to tailor the power level to the PCs. The last one of these locations will usually be the one that’s been around the longest and so the most potent and nasty undead will be found there.

This also gives the players a sense of satisfaction as they take down not just some random undead but the cursed site that makes them. It also gives them hints and clues as to what to look for….for others like them.

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Roleplay It

From Bryan Crosswait

I think undead advancement should be role-playing based. You mentioned skeletons and zombies will become NPCs. How about companies, squads, and platoons?

The undead are separated, either based on who and what they were in life (an entire platoon of soldiers killed specifically so they can fight in death) or in death.

This creates some fun opportunities:

The 3 Legged Dog Squad. Losers of this undead army, front-line shock troops never meant to ‘live’ too long, lead by a ghoul determined to show his leadership skills will eventually pay off. Even though the ghoul suffers defeat after defeat, he manages to gather around him a group of rag-tag irregulars that eventually get ‘promoted’. But being more than monsters, now these ghasts and ghouls have a unique power or two, something to throw the PCs off and add character. An insignia or badge is a must, as is some lovable/hated character tropes – think Inglorious Basterds.

On the flip side, you have the Elite Troops, a division or battalion expected to do well from the word go. These guys are tough. And while they started out like everyone else (zombies and skeletons) muscle memory and training helps them rise to the top. The twist is, their leader and his commanders rise to match the PCs as they grow. They are Lawful Evil, they live (unlive?) by a code, they respect tough opponents, they salute accordingly. They are, in a way, the dragon-rider that killed Sturm in the Dragonlance books. Like everyone else, they also have a badge. The players know what they are facing when it helps the story. Certain mid-level leaders will become apparent over time (Gragnock likes to ambush, Lyndon leads from the front, at least for the first three rounds, Zorn and his devil-dogs use missile weapons to great advantage).

By using badges and symbols, players will get to know who is who. As the leaders manage to escape to fight another day the PCs will begin to identify them. The players will get to plan while the baddies do too. Now everyone is plugged in, the players and NPCs are plotting alike, and as the players level so do those that lead the legions the players have thrown themselves against.

The final battle(s) will seem like a pre-ordained event, a homecoming of sorts, until the players encounter their first surprise and realize these undead are actively thinking and have the players in their cross hairs.

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Acheron Brandy

From DM Atticus

Is your undead settlement relatively tolerant of the living? If I’m not mistaken, most undead according to D&D lore despise the living to the point of murdering them on sight. So why not introduce some alchemy in the form of a scheming drug peddler? Humanoid settlements definitely have issues like these low lifes.

The alchemist creates a potion or consumable goo. Let’s call it Acheron Brandy. It gives people horrifying mutations like extra limbs, whiplike tongues, eyes on all sides, incorporeal-at-will powers, life draining skin, etc. However, the undead who receive this goo have been targeted because of either their station or usefulness, as the last dose the dealer gives them also enslaves them to a particular type of mind control, maybe off of a command word.

Watch this cutscene from Bioshock (a major spoiler if you ever plan to play it, but it’s a good idea to use and abuse).

The now enslaved and hyper-mutated undead serve as assassins and obstacles for the party, controllable by the alchemist and perhaps whomever hired him to go through all this trouble. The undead begin to evolve more and more as the party mills about the town by the day, or by the encounter. Make them feel like they can’t just spend all day shopping for a designer mithril waffle iron by having some of those recently slain undead that jumped them in a back alley return with extra parts sewn or grown on them, and make it a recurring encounter! If the party finds a way to slay them for good, throw in a few more with different abilities that test the party’s prowess in different ways (the plagues you mentioned in the article would work nicely for sure!).

You could roll a d% for this type of encounter starting with a certain number (let’s say 15%) and add on 10% every time they go from place to place, resetting it to the base number after each encounter.

Another idea is to have the undead evolve into higher tier undead because the party’s very presence in an undead town causes it. Much like mice wandering into a house full of cats, the undead are tame until they see living flesh, which make the gluttonous ones ( I’m looking at you, ghouls!) turn mad for fresh meat. Some may visibly try to resist the urge so the party understands it’s not just typical undead doing what typical undead do, but rather their presence alone causes problems here.

You could also have a town that remains civilized only because of magic or alchemy that sates those supernatural urges to devour flesh and gives the mindless undead some sentience too. Though when the party arrives, they soon find out the undead are slowly leaning towards those typical tendencies because the magic that kept the undead civil has been tampered with or stopped altogether. The party will have a fire under their butts to complete their adventure when all the friends they’ve made begin turning on them out of lack of self control.

Also, I think it would be cool to have an undead with some kind of fungus growing in them that gives them unique powers, like spores for hallucinations, control over other creatures (and undead), etc. The fungus is the one doing the controlling and spreading around of its own kind. Perhaps this could be the plague you mentioned in the article?

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Four Ideas

From KindredWolf

Idea #1: Plotting

Create a stronger undead by applying the “Entropic Creature” template from the Planar Handbook (pg 122-124) (Level Adjust +2)

Use the Necrosis Carnex from MM4 pg 104 with the above template for added oomph.

I would run intelligent undead as field commanders and spies in an RP heavy game where the end results of failed missions or encounters on the PCs’ behalf would allow the undead to attain specific military/cultural growth points.

For example: Main low level villain defeated…but the unwholesome site becomes a desecrated evil place without further PC intervention, allowing the villain to return as undead.

Above ground random encounters start including more underground type creatures. (Umber hulks, bullets and purple worms are being controlled or manipulated into new areas and disrupting local underdark environs to create a necropolis.)

Clue the PCs into the disruptions through underdark NPC interactions.

Branch out from there with various plots and devices to hook and snare the PCs.

Branches in plot each carry consequences that might bite the PCs in the back, sometimes taking several adventures to fully realize. Perhaps bolstering the city guard at the gate during a night time attack allows a vital NPC to die or run away (no longer accessible in a later fight). Taking the time to properly disperse an undead’s remains allow its multiple lesser henchmen to get away and wreak havoc through the countryside – causing the local military to be unavailable for the final fight. Directly influencing the mayor to leave office and become a professional whatever results in worsening town conditions due to the new mayor being a pawn of the big bad evil guy.

Assign new sub-commanders at specific party levels, maybe removing old ones (use them up as a means of party harassment or plot development), and perhaps boost or hinder the enemies when certain party goals are achieved/failed. This is slightly different than the above plot branches – running independently of plot points.

Idea #2: Monster Template – Antipodean

Can be applied to any undead creature whose life is based on negative energy.

Creature subtype changes from Evil to Good, any aura and energy effects the creature has based on negative energy are now based on positive energy – healing instead of damaging living creatures (and damaging instead of healing undead).

Uncontrolled mindless undead will actively avoid an Antipodean. Free-willed undead will seek to actively destroy an Antipodean.

You’d have to use a little imagination when creating an Antipodean Vampire. Perhaps its draining bite becomes a kiss of life?

Idea #3: Ritual Enhancement

Certain rituals created or discovered allow battlefield enhancements to everything undead (like an entropic field, linked undead health pools, negative level slam attacks, turn resistance, etc.).

Rituals can be disrupted, stolen before use, falsified, sabotaged, or modified further by a ritual of the PCs’ own.

Idea #4: Mirrored Evolution

Give the big bad undead guy a direct soul link to one or more of the PCs (think Harry Potter) but it directly affects what class, level, or power the big bad guy and his minions have.

Perhaps a Mirror of Opposition is what spawned the villain to begin with, and revelation of this fact would cause lots of reputation loss for the party.

BTW – I’ve had this idea in the back burner zone for a loooong time: the big bad is a Lich (perhaps a former living rival) who found or created a mirror of opposition and has already defeated her own duplicate, thus placing her phylactery jewel as the top center piece of the mirror’s frame. Would be extra fun if the lich/PC specializes in mirror magic.

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A Consumable Resource

From Scott

Maybe there’s a special resource that must be consumed somehow, like life-force or gold. And if it’s based on a special resource, the PCs might even be able to control or slow it down (and others might try to speed it up) somehow.

Or you could work it so the change is inevitable, based on the phases of the moon for instance. Once the PCs are aware of it, they know how much time they have and will be keenly aware as time runs out. Perhaps every new moon all the undead advance one stage. That gives the PCs plenty of time between evolutions, maybe partially being taken up by travel or endangered by other important obstacles or obligations.

Borrowing from the previous idea, perhaps different factions of extremely powerful wizards or druids exist that could be convinced to speed up or slow down the phases of the moon? In this case, they might create even more adventures, some of which may be impossible to complete by combat (the Circle of Nine can be convinced to temporarily alter reality, for a price, but they can’t be attacked or threatened into doing anything!). This might spawn more adventures (the price is the ancient MacGuffin of Doom that must be recovered).

Additionally, what will the gods think of such things? Maybe each deity will sponsor a champion to see the evil plan fail or succeed (thus keeping it “fair”) creating built-in character concepts for PCs and NPCs.

The more I think about it the more I want to run it!

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Ghoul Friends

From Brent Davis

The last Savage Worlds game I ran was a fantasy city based thing. In the undercity (mega dungeon) there were ghouls. The ghouls were ruled by The Baron. I took a lot of inspiration from Lovecraft, in that a Greater Ghoul could assume the form of anyone he (or she) has eaten a significant portion of. They also gain a portion of the knowledge of whomever they eat. I figure in a level based game they could have forms per hit die.

Lesser ghouls were like D&D ghouls with paralyzing touch and infection if killed by one. I had it where if a character took a wound per SW rules then they had to roll to fight off disease. To become a Greater Ghoul they had to eat people. The more they ate, the stronger and wiser they became.

The Baron had a pact with the King of the City State. The ghouls were NOT allowed to kill anyone. They could only eat “unclaimed dead” that had been left for more than three days. The Sewer Patrol knew of and protected the ghouls, as long as the pact was kept. The first time the PCs encountered the ghouls (a pack of lesser ghouls), the creatures cowered away and hissed about “the Pact, the Pact” and wouldn’t fight back until a few were slain. Then it became no-holds-barred mayhem because SW ghouls have hella high Agility.

Brought before The Baron, he explained the Pact, sort of. I kind of took a bit from the Vampire/World of Darkness type games with a sardonic undead thing that looked like a handsome teenage boy. The Baron alluded to food or something to convert the PCs if they slew any more of his subjects and told them to get out of his area of the undercity. My twisted mind had the idea of the milk of a female ghoul forcibly fed to the character to “peacefully” convert someone to being a ghoul.

Anyway, after that a female ghoul was encountered in one of the dance clubs of the city in the form of a woman the PCs had tried and failed to protect. She came pretty close to seducing one of the PCs. Not sure what kind of repercussions THAT might have had…ghoul infection maybe? I did have the clue that, no matter what, a ghoul always smells faintly of death. I figured they level up just like a PC. Doing whatever ghoul society things would gain them experience points, and eating people to gain knowledge and powers.

It did make a more dangerous monster out of something my ex-D&D players thought of as a push-over.

There was also a faction of ghouls who had split away from the Baron and were involved in the manufacture of a narcotic called “the Blue.” It’s a euphoric hallucinogen that slowly turned the user in to a ghoul. Slowly and painfully as they started to rot and have leprosy-like symptoms. It’s a fine blue powder. Coincidentally, the color of ghoul milk is blue. The drug was being distributed by the city guard, through a married troll couple who lived in the undercity. They had a “pet” young boy they used to catch children to eat.

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Flesh Currency

From James Singaram

I thought of a possible mechanism for advancing undead. In a similar way to how souls grant power to fiends, flesh could grant power to undead. All undead would have the capability to cast a Flesh Harvest Ritual on humanoids and beasts slain within the last ten days. For each minute, one unit of flesh is collected, up to a maximum amount determined by the target’s size:

  • Tiny – 5
  • Small – 20
  • Medium – 50
  • Large – 200
  • Huge – 500
  • Gargantuan – 1000

The ritual would preserve the flesh harvested with necrotic magic to prevent decay. Harvested flesh would be used for currency with undead as well a system for advancement. All undead would have a second ritual, Consume Flesh, that would allow them to merge flesh with their body at a rate of 1 unit per minute. Undead would then advance through the ranks by how much flesh they have cumulatively grafted onto itself.

  • Skeleton – 0 (all undead start here)
  • Zombie* – 50
  • Ghoul – 200
  • Ghast – 500
  • Mummy or Wight – 1000 (undead’s choice)
  • Vampire Spawn (if Mummy) or Wraith (if Wight) – 2500
  • Vampire (if vampire spawn) – 5000
  • Lich (if vampire) – 15000

At a cost of 250 flesh a Mummy may be transformed into a Wight, or vice versa.

Weapon and skill proficiencies are retained upon advancement. For example, a zombie would be able to wield weapons after advancing from a skeleton.

Flesh could also be used to create more specialized undead, taking one minute per flesh consumed in the ritual.

  • Shadow (Wraith only) – 100
  • Specter (Wraith only) – 200
  • Will-o’-wisp (Wraith only) – 500
  • Banshee (Wraith only) – 1000
  • Flameskull (Vampire Spawn, Vampire, or Lich) – 1000 + humanoid skull
  • Revenant (Vampire Spawn, Vampire, or Lich) – 1000 + humanoid body, decays after one year
  • Flesh Golem (Vampire Spawn, Vampire, or Lich) – 2500
  • Demilich (Vampire or Lich) – 10000 + ashes of a slain lich*
  • Dracolich (Lich only) – 25000 + skeleton of a dragon
  • Phylactery destroyed

All undead created through these rituals are bound to the undead that created them. There is no limit on how many creatures an undead can raise, giving rise to entire armies created over centuries.

All undead above ghasts are able to create a skeleton using a fresh corpse. There is no cost in flesh to raise a creature, however the flesh on the corpse cannot be harvested before or after the ritual. The time taken is two minutes per available flesh on the corpse. For instance, a mummy could raise a recently slain human by casting a 100 minute ritual. No flesh would be collected or consumed during this process.

Undead follow a hierarchy in a similar fashion as devils. Lesser undead would collect flesh for and carry out the will of its leaders, who would in turn reward skill or loyalty with flesh and advancement. A lich would rule over an entire undead realm with a dozen or so vampire underlings. Each vampire would lead a city, assisted by a half dozen vampire spawn and upwards of twenty wraiths. Vampire spawn and wraiths would both lead mummies and wights, who would in turn command ghasts. They would direct ghouls. With only the faintest spark of intelligence, zombies and skeletons would be at the bottom of the ladder.

Ghasts and higher undead would deal with disobedient or treasonous underlings by using the Flay Flesh ritual, taking one flesh per minute cast from the target undead, possibly demoting the victim in the process. Skeletons and zombies possess neither the cunning or inclination to cheat their masters for their own progression, so such measures would primarily be used against higher undead.

Because demotion is a real possibility for undead who fail their master, some commanders will flay their underlings to advance themselves and complete their objective. Having its flesh stolen is the only time undead feel pain. Upon being demoted to a skeleton an undead will lose all memory of its previous existence. These memories will be missing even if the undead advances in the future. Because of the violent nature of this ritual, only 50% of flesh taken is salvageable.

Certain undead enlist mortal followers in their armies. Often these mortals appear slender and gaunt. To prove their loyalty they are required to make a flesh sacrifice to their master. In addition to providing useful skills, such as spell casting, they do not require payment in flesh and are more easily able to infiltrate mortal settlements. In times of need, these mortals can be harvested for flesh.

Some undead prefer a peaceful existence over that of domination. In these rare circumstances, undead will seek out alternative methods of flesh collection. Cattle farms and fishing ships crewed by skeletons are not unheard of. More advanced undead might seek employment in a morgue where they can steal flesh from their clients. In exceptional cases, advanced undead will live with subterranean humanoids, such as kobolds. In exchange for the colony’s dead, they provide magical support in times of need and alleviate the need for corpse disposal pits.

All listed undead above were created using the 5E MM.

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Check Rolemaster

From Alex Ulmer

You might want to check out Rolemaster’s treatment of undead. They use many levels of the same basic undead type (5 or 6 skeleton levels). As the undead gain strength they also gain powers. Rolemaster also says the stronger undead drain constitution points. In a d100 system, draining 1-5 points per round doesn’t kill the PC quickly, but it does drive home the point that the constitution drain will be deadly in the long run. For a D20 based system, you might increase the time before the drain happens, maybe points lost per minute instead of per round.

Another thought would be to have monsters imitate undead. In my campaign, I have a band of goblins that prey on grave robbers, using a puppet ghost, chains, and moaning horns. They selectively target victims one at a time, picking them off. The goblins use the dark of night and tombstones to hide their actions and gain cover.

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Evolve Through Death

From Mark

I have used a slightly different method in one of my games: undead get more powerful when they are destroyed. Doesn’t work well on the lesser undead, but a wight (weakest of the higher undead in my game) who is killed can later come back as a spectre or a wraith (both more powerful types of undead). If the soul of the person is so strong it can come back from death, then odds are it can do it again.

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Go Mythic

From Paul Frische-Mouri

I too wanted to have an evolution mechanic that would make the lesser zombies still a threat. My solution is using the Pathfinder Mythic rule set. I’m treating the zombies as being reanimated and sustained by a magical disease that will be the source of their mythic powers. Perhaps the PCs share a genetic anomaly that allows them to resist the transformation, or they discover an ancient antidote in the crypts of the castle that halts the progress of the disease but doesn’t leave them completely unaffected. Either way, the players will be infected early on as the city is quickly overtaken. Their mythic progression represents the disease evolving in them, and thus will be the tracker for the rest of the infected (think Resident Evil).

For the lower minions I’m planning on making a progressive template. For a few tiers it will be universal in adding some buffs to the base creature. But it soon begins to branch into different “species” of undead creating fast zombies, strong zombies, smart zombies, zombies with extra limbs, zombies that explode, zombies that cast random magical spells, flying zombies, invisible zombies. I plan on making a table and rolling for the templates used. This means each encounter could have some nasty surprises if the players aren’t careful and don’t scout.

The big bads will have their own tiers in addition to the templates. What I hadn’t considered until your email was the idea of having these different species creating a society. This opens up so many possibilities! I could see clan wars or even civil wars sprouting from this.

And since the undead will be animated from a disease and not from negative energy, positive energy will not harm them (and might actually heal their wounded, dead flesh). This is my explanation as to how the disease spreads so easily, catching those wielding positive energy completely off guard as they are overwhelmed by undead that defy all their training! Should be a good initial surprise to the party.

Have you ever used any kind of sanity rules? I haven’t but would like to incorporate that with the PCs and NPCs as the destruction of their way of life and the horrors of the evolving undead weigh on them.

Reply From Johnn: Just in a Cthulhu game. We went crazy pretty fast.

A simple mechanic would be a pool based on PC WIS score. After any horrific event, PCs make a save. If they fail they get +1d3 Insanity. If Insanity ever matches WIS the character is insane but can be healed. If Insanity exceeds WIS the character is permanently insane.

Then I would create several adventure-based triggers for healing Insanity, like elven glens and halfling parties and magic pools. Maybe an ancient potion or two.

I would also make an insanity table that allows players to continue playing their insane PC, but like the Confusion spell where a roll determines how a PC behaves temporarily, a roll on the Insanity table determines PC actions for awhile. Also add some triggers so the player knows when insanity rolls can be expected.

Hope this helps!

How To Deal With Idea Overwhelm

This issue is full of a ton of ideas. I get overwhelmed when I read articles like this or when I find long forum threads full of awesome.

How do I grapple with all these ideas, put them into some kind of order, and integrate them into my campaign?

Here’s my iterative process.

Step 1: Setup Your Idea Container

Paste all the content and ideas into MyInfo, Evernote, OneNote, or tool of your choice.

Create a container for these ideas so they are separate from your other notes and you can find them quick.

  • In MyInfo, create a parent document in the tree and file your ideas underneath as child documents.
  • In Evernote, create a Notebook for your campaign and create new notes in it tagged “Idea”.
  • In OneNote, create a Page in a Section of your campaign’s Notebook, and paste ideas into themed sub-pages as you go.

Step 2: Paste Ideas In

Copy the article, posts, or content into your ideas container.

Also paste in the URL or make a note about the source in case you want to refer back to it later. For example, “Undead Ideas RPT #629”.

Then make all the text italic. I do this so I know the text isn’t my writing (for copyright, attribution, etc.). It also helps separate my thoughts, which is important for a later step.

Step 3: Read & Comment

With a good, findable, and reliable spot for all my ideas created, and text pasted in from an article and italicized, next I read through the text and write ideas inline as I go.

I keep my ideas in regular text, not italicized. You could make your text bold, red, or whatever you like to identify it as your writing.

As I read, I write any ideas that come to mind below the text that inspired me. So eventually the article is a bunch of alternating text, with the original article interspersed with my thoughts and reactions and ideas.

If there are long passages I don’t find useful or inspiring, I delete them. You don’t have to do this, especially if you want to preserve all the original text. But I do this to shorten up my docs, as I’m focused more on the ideas I produce from this exercise than on keeping a library of articles.

Comments I make include ideas that pop into mind as I read, thoughts on how I’d integrate the ideas into my campaign, and who or what the idea might get attached to.

For example, if an idea is good for a PC, I’ll write the PC’s name at the start. “Roscoe: undead pick HIS pockets.” In my current campaign, Roscoe is a rogue, so it was an amusing idea to me.

I might also “tag” ideas with NPC names, locations, “history”, region names, “treasure”, and any other labels that might apply. This just gives me an idea later on where my head was at with the idea. “Ok past Johnn, how were you thinking of applying this to the campaign? Oh, this is a trap idea – got it.”

In addition, I can search by keyword or tag now, and find ideas by topic fast. For example, I can just search for “Trap:” or “Roscoe:” and hit search again and again to cycle through all related ideas.

Step 4: Iterate & Crunch

I’ll keep doing pass-throughs from top to bottom of the article and flesh out my notes and ideas more as I re-read each time.

Ideas that suck I delete or leave alone. The best ideas I highlight or add even more details to.

As I iterate and refine worthy ideas, I make notes about crunch needs. At the end of each note or idea, I’ll write something like, “Class: XYZ” or “NPC: ABC”. This means I need to do some game design and create rules or crunch for these particular ideas. I don’t need crunch for history, plot, or kingdom ideas, but if the idea is for, say, an NPC that might see combat, I’ll need a full combat stat block for them.

In other words, I flag stuff that needs prep so I don’t get caught mid-game.

I will also add background colours to idea labels and crunch tags. Plot and encounter hooks get highlighted in yellow. NPCs in pink. Fluff and history in orange. Treasure in gold. Etc.

In addition, as I re-read and update good ideas, I’ll start weaving in campaign details, especially pronouns. Names of people, places, or things the idea relates to.

Step 5: Integrate

Ok. I’ve now got a doc full of great ideas. And I know what ideas are the winners. Next, I have to decide what to do with them. There are three options:

  • Leave them in this doc for future inspiration
  • Copy them into standalone campaign notes for future use
  • Integrate them with existing campaign notes to help flesh out my campaign right away

Some notes I’ll leave in my Ideas Bucket because they have no better place right now. When I get stuck, I will read through my Ideas Bucket for inspiration. There’s always something there, so this is a fantastic resource I build up for myself over the life of the campaign.

Other notes will be awesome future campaign additions, but they aren’t needed yet. So I just file these into my 5 Campaign Buckets (Gazetteer, Cast of Characters, Quartermaster, Plots, Rules) ready for gameplay when needed.

And last, ideas that build on stuff I’ve already created get added to existing notes. I’ll “pile and file” first, then go back if I have time and integrate, re-write, or update the info to include the new developments.

This way, with these three tasks done, I have my ongoing ideas bucket in its own area of my campaign information – an R&D lab where I snarf stuff from the internet, use it for inspiration, and see what bubbles up as useful or interesting for the campaign. Then I have future content ready for use when needed. And then I have refinements and additions to existing canon so my campaign info is always up to date.

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This sounds like a lot of work, but that’s because I broke the process into steps to explain it all. It feels pedantic, but really I’m just using stuff from Roleplaying Tips and other sources to fuel ideas for my campaign. I write ideas down as they come to me, flesh them out a bit, and then slot them into my campaign notes.

There’s a big added benefit to this approach as well. As I read, write, re-read, and refine, I’m cramming more stuff into my long-term memory. I find I often don’t need to refer to my notes during games with this stuff, because I’ve gone through it and processed it a few times. This means I ad-lib and improv much better, and I GM faster because I don’t need to look stuff up as often in my notes.

So even though it’s fun getting inspired by great articles and ideas from others, it’s also fun having this stuff in your brain’s back pocket to summon up on command whenever you need ideas.

Gambling Table: 1d20 Card Game Events

A character in my campaign is addicted to gambling. So I made this table up for him. Maybe you can use it in your game too.

  1. Magical cheating (dice enchanted to roll certain numbers, cards are enchanted to change face, partner working the table & “sending” card hands held to one of the gamblers).
  2. Pick pocket works the table.
  3. Rumours, gossip, and news. 1-2 False information. 3-4 True information for current adventure. 5-6 Hook for new adventure.
  4. Item is offered as a bet. 1-2 Cursed, stolen, forged, or malfunctioning item. 3-4 Relevant to current adventure. 5-6 Hook for new adventure.
  5. Something swoops through a window and tries to snatch up the pot. 1-2 Wild animal. 3-4 Summoned creature. 5-6 Familiar.
  6. The City Guard bursts in! 1-2 Gambling is illegal here. 3-4 They make an arrest. 5-6 They want dealt-in – and they’re sore losers.
  7. One of the players goes into a trance and forecasts the future for one of the players at the table. 1-2 It’s bad news. 3-4 It’s false news. 5-6 It’s good news or a solid clue.
  8. A PC has a lucky winning streak. However, other gamblers are making this happen to make a fortune on side bets when the winner gets fleeced.
  9. A casual comment at the table is interpreted by another player as a deadly insult.
  10. Stickup men crash the card game, knowing there will be lots of money on the table. Everyone assumes one of the other players tipped them off, and a wild, multi-sided fight ensues.
  11. Someone throws a gem, ring, or identifiable item into the pot that comes from a hoard the PCs are searching for, or which is strangely familiar to one of them.
  12. A local variation of the game requires players to play while getting progressively drunker. Someone cheats and uses a magical form of toxin resistance.
  13. Someone figures one of the player’s tells. 1-2 The PC has the tell. 3-4 It’s between two NPCs. 5-6 The PC spots an NPC’s tell.
  14. A card from a divination deck is drawn instead of a standard card.
  15. You can bet immaterial things like years, love, joy, or talents this one time.
  16. The money the PC wins is fake.
  17. One of the card players dies. 1-2 Heart attack. 3-4 Natural causes. 5-6 Poisoned/assassinated.
  18. This isn’t a card game, it is a ritual of a secret cult. If the PC wins, something bad happens to the city. If the PC loses, it’s a bad event for the PC. If the PC folds, bad event happens to an ally.
  19. One player is a doppelganger.
  20. A player bets something awful. 1-2 A slave. 3-4 The antidote to a poison he put on the money during previous hands. 5-6 A talking skull.

Thanks to the following for their great ideas: Ivan Sorensen, Kabuki Kaiser, Brett Slocum, James Holloway, MoonSylver