Bestial half-decayed creatures that were once your neighbours. Sharp-toothed aristocrats with an aversion to sunlight and a habit of taking in strangers “just for the night”. Shrieking skull-faced flickers of white that whither skin with a touch. Endless varieties of undead terrorize mortals in a myriad of ways, but they all have one thing in common: They were once like us, now they are not.
Libris Mortis: The Book of Undead, outlines how to use undead, how to fight them, and a legion of new ramshackle monsters to infest your campaign.
Undead are an all or nothing option for me. I find it hard to justify that a villain would use just a bit of undead. If he is willing to cross the line and reanimate the dead, he is sacrificing a chunk of humanity. I knew I would only pick up Libris Mortis if I planned on going all out undead crazy. So when I finally did buy it, I expected this to replace all my villain books except my Monster Manual. Even then, I would only need the Monster Manual for classic undead and for monsters to apply new templates to.
At a Glance
I like the style of the cover – wrap around artwork with the thinnest of boarders- but am not a fan of the artwork. More specificaslly, I am not a fan of the prominent figure, a horned liche that just strikes me as silly looking. All the skeleton warriors he’s raising are appropriately frightening, in particular one on the back cover with a snake running from its back through its jaw bone and out its open mouth. Its just that one prominent figure that ruins an otherwise excellent cover. I could complain that the border separates it visually from the Draconomicon, technically another book in the same series, but the border is so inconsequential and adds a nice dimension to the cover that the Draconomicon didn’t need, so I have no issue with this particular lack of continuity.
Braving the horrific images I expected within, I opened the cover. And was disappointed. This is the book of undead, and yet so little of the first three chapters disturbed me. The first example of appropriate dementia of design was the Stitched Flesh Familiar by Steven Belledin. The photo-realistic illustration, with wonderful texturing to the fur, helps make this horror jump off the page. Even then, it hardly chills me to the bone.
Thankfully, Steven Belledin’s next piece was just as impressive a piece of art, and stabbed me viscerally at first glance. Necrotic Burst illustrates a tortured victim of a vile spell. Not only is the series of pustules grotesque, but the subject of the spell is horrified. It is like he is begging for a death knell or fireball centered on him to end his torment.
By Chapter 6: New Monsters, we are served some real treats, the first of which is the Angel of Decay by Jeremy Jarvis. I gagged when I came upon it, and I declare this the most horrifying creature in any Wizards of the Coast book ever.
Contrasting all the doom and gloom is a beam of light, the Master of Radiance by Steve Prescott. A fair skinned elf with golden blond hair and lightly shaded armour, she is a beacon of optimism amongst a volume of decay. Which stylistically speaking may be a nice break, but within the context of the book I have other feelings.
Quality Feat Selection
Undead have as many vulnerabilities as they do immunities. In a random encounter or surprise undead twist, this may be level the playing field. However, against a well prepared adventuring party, an undead villain has Frosty’s chance of surviving a summer in Florida. Libris Mortis offers up a variety of feats that minimize undead vulnerability, like Endure Sunlight and Positive Energy Resistance. The Corpsecrafter feat tree builds a better necromancer, enhancing the potency of created undead through higher ability scores, turn resistance, and more.
Another set of feats allow a DM to run with an undead theme. Why give a necromancer a common house cat familiar when he can have a spellstitched frankencat? The rare undead druid normally loses the ability to Wild Shape, but Corrupted Wild Shape lets a forestborne liche release his decrepit wild side! Then there is the Tomb Tainted Soul feat tree, granting a mortal the immunities of undead. Imagine the look on the cleric’s face when, after several failed turn undead attempts on the withered old wizard that lives by the crypt, heals with negative energy, has resistance to critical hits, and forgoes sleep, he finds out he’s been fighting a mortal human.
If you’re more of a fighter of undead than a lover of undead, there are feats for you. Spurn Death’s Touch offers clerics and paladins other options for removing the side affects of many undead attacks, like paralysis. Enduring Life lets a character ignore penalties from negative levels. Bards can use Requiem to affect undead with their bardic music. Or they can use my Bard rules with the Minstrel Bard School. Either or.
Monsters, Monsters, and More Monsters
Who knew there were still so many new directions undead could be taken? Chapter 6: New Monsters introduces nearly fifty new baddies, almost all of which are undead. There are classics like the half-vampire and the swarm-shifter. Great new concepts like the Skin Kite and Slaymate. Undead versions of traditional villains that could not be killed, like the Grave Dirt Golem and Necromental. Even occult standbys, like the Brain In A Jar (ah, memories of Groovy Squad vs Dr. Brain).
The fun doesn’t stop there. So many Monster Manual undead are “some assembly required” templates, thus Libris Mortis provides tones of new sample ghosts, liches, skeletons, vampires, and zombies. Need a ghost medusa in a pinch? Look up Golgona, page 146. But wait, there’s more! Undead Monster Classes lets a DM challenge lower level PCs with less advanced versions of powerful undead, or play Dr. Frankenstein and build their ideal monster from scratch.
As if that wasn’t enough, Libris Mortis takes Monster Classes to new levels by introducing Undead Prestige Classes. More than just a prestige class, these are three level prestige classes that can be added to Monster Manual undead to advanced monsters with unique powers. A Lurking Horror is an undead that specializes in creeping about, like Jason Voorhees in the zombie-era Friday the 13th films. Master Vampire is more than just a keeper of thralls, he is an undead army general.
Handy Tables may not seem like a great selling point for a sourcebook, but in the case of Libris Mortis, Table 1-4 through Table 1-8 are amazing bookkeeping tools. Want to know how Bless Water affects undead as opposed to Mass Heal? Table 1-4: Positive Energy Effects. Took some heavy hits from a variety of undead and can’t remember which spell cures what? Table 1-7: Restoring Ability Damage and Drain, Table 1-8 Restoring Negative Levels and Lost Levels.
These five tables spread across three pages are vital to any undead encounter. The amount of time saved by keeping this information handy will revolutionize how your run undead encounters.
Who Is This Book For?
90% of this book is for DMs. Chapters about using undead, running undead encounters, and making the best undead villain you can imagine. Then there is that 10% for players. If it were just about options for necromancer PCs, there would be nothing wrong. By mixing in undead fighting options, a DM must allow his players even minimal access to a book of his plans for challenging them. And I mean mixing. There is not a chapter dedicated to anti-undead options. They share space with information that a player can not have.
What’s worse is that there is so little player content in this book that anyone picking it up for the few feats and prestige classes will be completely ripped off. It has no business in this book, especially with books like Complete Divine already offering players options for fighting undead.
There are more options and more types of options in Libris Mortis than any monster sourcebook in memory. Even though this proves just how flexible undead can be, the fact remains that they are still a single monster type. Too many undead encounters and the party rogue will be tired of enemies he can’t sneak attack and the party cleric will be tired of constantly turning. Plus a specifically built cleric can make short work of undead encounters, unfortunately. Because of the mechanics of turn undead, a lot of time and energy spent building a perfect undead encounter can be ended right quick, and a lot of potential wasted.
There are lots of spells and some new magic items introduced in Libris Mortis that found their way into the Spell Compendium and Magic Item Compendium. A lot of the Libris Mortis artwork was reprinted in the Rules Compendium.
Libris Mortis also reused a lot of material from other releases, collecting undead content. This means that Libris Mortis content can be found in books released before and after it.
Variant diplomacy rules for appealing to an undead’s lost humanity could get old quick if overused, but there’s no discounting the cinematic moments this rule conjures up. Ash finding the necklace in Evil Dead II, Luke pleading to Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, and all the poor horror movie victims that failed their diplomacy checks tearfully saying “It’s me. Don’t you recognize me?”
Evening Glory is the death goddess of love, for Romeo and Juliet romantics.
Mother Cyst is a creepy but original feat that grants access to necrotic spells.
Positoxins are potions that affect only undead, a nice way around that undead immunity.
Undead Grafts are another option to bring undead powers to mortals, and function much like magic items.
The second half of a campaign I ran involved a spontaneous infestation of undead, and I bought Libris Mortis just for the occasion. A mindflayer vampire with the Endure Sunlight feat. Because he already had a bite-attack (well, mouth-based attack) and was prancing around outside at noon on a cloudless day, the fact that he was undead was completely lost on the PCs until late in the fight.
That same campaign concluded with a True Necromancer with the entire Corpsecrafter feat tree. He made a super powerful legion of skeletons. This was to counter the party cleric’s undead fighting prestige class. But he used all his turn undead attempts before the final battle. That fight went a lot longer than I had planned.
Recently I used a Deathlock, although he was a low-powered minion to a higher level threat. The Deathlock did not last very long.
Libris Mortis acts best as a campaign setting book for an undead heavy campaign setting with a homebrewed history. It has so many great options but only so many that can be used in any given campaign. If you want to spice up your undead and don’t mind using minimal options, Libris Mortis is a good book. If you have house rules that control how turn undead works so encounters are not cut short, this is a great book. And if you want to run a campaign about undead but don’t care for Ravenloft, this book is perfect.
If You Liked This Book…
Though not one of my favourites, Complete Divine does offer options for fighting undead. Just watch for balancing issues.
Monster Classes debuted in Savage Species. It offers rules similar to those in Libris Mortis about advancing and customizing monsters, more than just undead.
Draconomicon is to dragons what Libris Mortis is to Undead.
Release Date: October 2004
Date Reviewed: May 2008