Editor's Note: Listen to a review of this rulebook in Radio Active #9
Undead get the prestige treatment in Libris Mortis, the second of Wizards of the Coast's highly-focused, hard-cover and color-illustrated monster source books.
Like the Draconomicon before it, Libris Mortis starts off with an overview of undead, delving into physiology, psychology, society, and religion. Although brief, it hits on the major points of the undead life cycle, including their creation and connection to the Negative Energy Plane, rules for "hauntings" (locations infused with negative energy, but not proper undead) and new rules for undead cravings. The cravings -- a ghoul's hunger, a vampire's thirst -- are addressed both as part of the undead's unnatural ecology, and as a motivating force for them. It also gives a brief rundown of the various undead deities, including the major powers from the traditional Greyhawk pantheon (Nerull, Wes Jas, etc.) as well as a few new lesser and demigod additions.
Enhancing the Undead
After getting the preliminaries out of the way, the book delves into its meatier content. An extensive feats section introduces a variety of new options to spellcasters looking to enhance their undead, either through "corspescraft" feats that enhance a monster's speed, give it chilling negative energy attacks, or cause it to explode when destroyed or through feats that enhance the spellcaster, like one that bolsters undead turn resistance, another that allows bardic music to affect undead and divine feats that bolster allied undead's hit points.
There are also a host of monstrous feats that allowing a ghost to manifest as a free action, a vampire to endure sunlight, and a ghoul to transform its paralyzing attack into a contagion that will infect anyone who touches its initial victim.
There are far fewer martial feats -- most of those are "tomb-tainted soul" feats that slowly transform a normal person into something resembling undead, with many of the undead's strengths. Bards see only a single feat, and there are no expressly barbaric or druidic feats.
The "Character Options" section presents the mohrg, mummy, vampire spawn and wight as character classes, demonstrating how these undead could gradually come into their powers. "Prestige Classes" presents several new prestige classes, including Death's Chosen (a sort of living bodyguard for the undead), dirgesinger (a bard who gains new abilities that can affect undead) and the master of radiance (a good-aligned, undead-fighting druid. More importantly, it presents a new, better version of the "true necromancer" prestige class that offers better progression and a more well-rounded version of the class that first appeared in the Defenders of the Faith splatbook.
I'd like to have seen at least one straight-forward fighter prestige class to serve as an advanced minion; the Death's Chosen class is too tied to a specific undead master to be useful a shocktrooper.
The "Monster Prestige Classes" are excellent for turning traditional undead threats into something exceptional ... and unexpected. The "Vampire Master" allows a vampire lord create more spawn than normal, enhance those spawn with additional ability bonuses, gain a turning bonus for the number of spawn near him, and designate one spawn as his chosen, providing it with even more bonuses. The "Tomb Warden" provides traditional undead guardians like mummies with more powers, like turn immunity while its within its tomb and the ability to automatically sense any intruders in its lair. There are four monster prestige classes in all -- the other two are lurking terror (and exceptionally stealthy undead) and ephemeral exemplar (toughened incorporeal undead).
My only complaint with these prestige classes is that there aren't enough of them; I'd like to have seen three or four more, perhaps providing us with variant vampires, enhanced ghouls, and super skeletons.
The Power of Voodoo
Libris Mortis introduces several pages of new magic items. A handful of new weapon and armor characteristics can be found in the book, such as "profane" weapons, which can only be wielded by the undead, and do bonus damage against the living, "sacred" weapons, which deal similar damage against undead, and "ectoplasmic armor", which works against incorporeal foes as well as it does against material ones.
Meatier content lies with the wondrous items, which introduce such horrors as the ghoul globe (a glass globe that contains the flesh of an individual; touching it allows the wielder to ask questions of it as per a speak with dead spell. There's also the "unholy shrouds" which causes anyone wrapped in one to rise from the dead as some sort of undead monsters. I was disappointed by the lack of named magic items -- particularly lesser artifacts. Named magic items are an important part of the tapestry that is D&D; classic artifacts like the Hand and Eye of Vecna or the sword Blackrazor are signature items that have spawned a wealth of history. D&D needs more of that sort of thing, and these prestige books are the perfect place to introduce them.
Continuing the damning work of the Book of Vile Darkness, the book includes undead arms, limbs and organs that can be grafted onto a character granting abilities like a vampire's blood drain or a ghoul's paralyzing touch. It's an excellent way of powering up an NPC while simultaneously preventing a magic item from falling into PC hands, but I'd like to have seen more of these, as well as guidelines for creating new grafts.
Unfortunately, Libris Mortis continues with a pet peeve of mine: creating alternative "poisons" for undead, in this case "positoxins". Although not technically poisons, they function like standard d20 points, with the same application types, initial damage, and secondary damage. What pisses me off here, as in the Book of Exalted Deeds, is that we get this half-assed poisons when the real world has a wealth of folklore for us to draw on. Why not give us d20 stats for those, rather than giving us something that dilutes the impact and uniqueness of poison in D&D?
D&D necromancers needed more spells even after the infusion from the Book of Vile Darkness, and Libris Mortis fills that void. There are plenty of nasty new spells in this tome, including "Consumptive Field", which kills all characters within 30 ft. that are at 0 hit points or less (the greater version kills those with 9 ore less hit points). "Awaken Undead" complements the earlier undead creation/augmentation feats by giving normally mindless undead intelligence scores. "Avasculate Mass" causes a living creature's veins to explode outward, horrifically damaging the target and entangling near by allies. "Necrotic Cyst" allows a necromancer to implant an undead tumor within a character. Once implanted, the necromancer can scry, influence and even kill the recipient. The spell may be of limited use, but I can certainly see using it in an extended city or dungeon campaign in which an undead cult is a recurring enemy ... perhaps one that the players aren't aware of.
Monsters & Lairs
The rest of the book is given over to new monsters and old monsters revisited in their lairs. Some of the new monsters expand on existing concepts like ghouls and wights, but others are wholly original. I'm always a sucker for new monsters, and I liked the ones I found in this book: while a few might be a bit cheesy (earth elementals with tombstones sticking out their back?) most are different enough to have your players scrambling for help and backup after their initial encounter. I particularly liked the ooze-like blood amniote (which I'm presently terrifying my Maure Castle campaign with) and the swarm template, which lets you create villains that can dissolve into clouds of bats or sand, as in the recent remakes of Dracula and The Mummy.
As with the Draconomicon, Libris Mortis details several archetypal monsters and their lairs. There are ten different ghosts, six liches, 19 skeletons (small to gargantuan) ten vampires, and fifteen zombies (small to huge). Each of the intelligent undead have bios that accompany their statblocks as well as unkeyed sample maps. There are also short but detailed adventure sites for low to high level adventures, and four brief write-ups on undead cults.
I loved this section; while most of the stuff I run in my campaign is homegrown, I'm not above dropping a ready-to-run adventure location into my game, or snagging an NPC or two to pad out an encounter. They're also great for idea fodder; building high level villains is tough, and its great to have some ready made examples to refer to.
Libris Mortis isn't an essential source book, but it is a useful one. Game Masters who intend to run a lot of undead encounters, or plan to feature an undead foe as a prominent villain should definitely pick it up. For everyone else, it's a nice resource to have around, but it's not a must buy.
- Libris Mortis
- By Andy Collins and Bruce Cordell
- Wizards of the Coast
- 190 pages
- ISBN: 0-7869-3433-6
- MSRP: $29.95
- Buy it from Amazon.com
- Rating: 9/10