The long tradition of Dungeons & Dragons bestiaries continues with next week’s release of Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead. Surprise appearances by old favorites and new twists make this a great way to add some maggoty, rotting evil to your game world.
I’ve always loved these types of sourcebooks, whether it was the 3.5 Libris Mortis, the old van Richten’s guides, or two binders stuffed with Monstrous Compendium sheets. Open Grave doesn’t disappoint – it is a worthy addition to the Fourth Edition lineup. The book starts out with a healthy dose of fluff, explaining the difference between soulless undead, and undead with souls (something called “the animus” gives soulless undead their get-up-and-go). There’s a lengthy and thoroughly creepy chapter on undead anatomy. Did you ever wonder whether ghouls enjoy the taste when they devour flesh? Open Grave has the answer. The chapter has some interesting talk on the moral implications of slaying undead with souls – does some part of the formerly good being survive in that rotting shell?
The Dungeon master’s section takes up the bulk of the book, and it has lots of crunchy new rules. A host of new shambling, rotting, dripping, reeking creatures are waiting to gnaw upon your players. The Bonewretch Skeleton is singularly disturbing. Though only a level 4 creature, it’s…the animated skeleton of a child. Dude. There are some really cool ideas for undead encounters that don’t involve combat, such as using undead as traps or skill challenges. It’s a nice touch that should give creative DMs lots of new, diabolical ways to challenge PCs. Open Grave also has a small selection of boss-type high-level villains. I was happily surprised to find 4E stats for Strahd Von Zarovich, along with Vecna, Kyuss and a few demi-liches. Noice!
The book is more than just a DM’s toolbox, though. It presents undead lairs in a wide range of levels for players to explore (and loot). One intriguing section offers some long-term campaign arcs that allow undead critters to plague PCs (literally, in one case) throughout their careers. The political machinations of a suave vampire, the predations of a lich or an actual plague of undeath are great ideas for recurring villains and truly epic storytelling.
If your 4E campaign is lacking life, maybe it just needs more undead. There isn’t a problem in the world that a few dozen zombies can’t fix.