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I love a good ghost story, even when they permanently damage my fragile psyche.
I love a good ghost story despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they're so effective on me. To this day, I have a hard time watching a movie when the tension starts to rise, and I've never even dared watch The Exorcist, The Descent, or dozens more quality horror movies due to sheer terror. When I do end up catching a horror movie (I'm thinking specifically of Paranormal Activity), I'm instantly transformed back into the same little kid I was after I'd had an ill-advised viewing of Poltergeist. That movie permanently damaged my fragile psyche.
Of course, being scared is what makes ghost stories so much fun. No wonder every culture has, and cherishes, its own ghost stories.
While I was traveling through New Orleans this summer (a haunted a city if ever there was), our guide told us about burials that took place just before massive rains; the high water table would then push the coffins back up against the gravestones, causing a loud "knock knock knocking" from below. Also, premature burials have always made good fodder for stories. It's horribly fascinating to see old coffins rigged with bells that signal those holding vigil—such was the fear of being left for dead.
This fall, I also visited London (another great haunted city). I walked the streets of the financial district, where the city was rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666 (but structures were placed according to its old medieval footprint). That made for one spooky evening. Here were the narrows streets, alleys, and mews where plague victims were buried hastily, body snatchers plucked corpses to sell, and Jack the Ripper later prowled. Naturally my favorite part of the trip was taking part in a ghost tour of the city.
So, what's all this to the D&D game?
With Halloween fast approaching, it's appropriate for a brief look at the game's ghoulies and ghosties. We have no shortage of contenders. In fact, the undead category alone extends from allips to zombies; plus, witches return in Heroes of the Feywild, and we have demons and devils aplenty.
To narrow things down just a bit, let's look at some of the classic movie monsters in the game. What makes for a classic movie monster? Using extremely scientific and rigorous criteria, we'll go with those monsters that have appeared in cereal form (thinking specifically of Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo Berry, Fruity Yummy Mummy, and Fruit Brute).
We can narrow this down more by looking at past projects, too. Let's revisit a few choice oddities from the early days of these creatures. Now, vampires we've covered in our look back at Ravenloft, and golems have been discussed in past blogs. Frankenstein's monster we'll classify as the quintessential flesh golem, although over on the Magic: The Gathering site, they're discussing whether the monster is more of a flesh golem or a zombie.
That leaves us with our hairy friend, the werewolf.
Howling at the Moon
Let's start with the wolfman—that is, lycanthropes in general (a topic brought up in our hybrid article). In the original edition, this category included the werewolf, bear, boar, and tiger. Wererats had to wait until the Greyhawk supplement, but they gained the benefit of having greater intelligence (holding persons for ransom), employing weapons while in hybrid form (while other lycanthropes could not), and controlling normal rats as a vampire does bats.
In popular culture, werewolves are arguably the most widely known lycanthropes. In Greek mythology, Zeus transformed Lycaon into a wolf (where the term lycanthropy might have originated; granted, Zeus was often transforming himself or others into various forms). Other cultures have their own tales of people turning into wolves as well as other creatures: jaguars, foxes, lions, the cannibalistic wendigo, to name a few. Over the years, the D&D game has expanded its own category of lycanthropes, so that by 3rd Edition we also had werecats, crocodiles, serpents, and sharks -- not to mention the jackalwere and the drow werebat (from Lost Empires of Faerûn).
In the original edition of the game and beyond, anyone seriously wounded (say, 50% hit point loss) by a werecreature could suffer the curse of lycanthropy. The Blackmoor supplement and early Dragon magazines devoted further material on the subject, in some cases adding truly bizarre details concerning the werestriken.
For example, Dragon 14 ("Lycanthropy—The Progression of the Disease") states: "Lycanthropes of all sorts will tend to become more hairy when in their human forms. Note that this will be human hair, growing in the ordinary human patterns. A man's beard, for example, would become more thick and heavy, brows grow together, and body hair become more evident. Women, however, will not grow beards unless they are already disposed to do so."
And in Blackmoor, the following mystery was added: "Another aspect of lycanthropy is that men who are bitten by an animal will assume that animal's form, but retain human direction and intelligence. The reverse is true if an animal is the victim."
Blackmoor also stipulated that lycanthropes gained additional hit points, Armor Class, and ability bonuses, making the curse more of a potential boon. So much so that the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide devoted several pages to the issue, noting that "there have been many different approaches to the disease of lycanthropy. Many are too complicated to understand or are structured so poorly that the werecreature dominates the game."
The Dungeon Master's Guide also provided further descriptions of each type of lycanthrope, noting that weretigers occasionally keep normal cats for companions, wererats always volunteer to be in the rear of a party's marching order, and wereboars "are the most foul-tempered of the lycanthropes. Their temperament is such that they will not join a party unless they can be the leader. If they do join one and are not its leader, they will argue bitterly with anyone who disagrees with them. This action may cause them to change into their wereform from the stress involved in the argument." Additional tables also presented the chance of a transformation depending on the phase of the moon, and the damage taken from bursting out of one's armor while doing so. (If it's embarrassing to be scratched to death by a house cat—a theoretical possibility for magic-users with low hit points—imagine the shame of a lycanthrope dying because he failed to break free from his own armor.)
The Saddest Costume Ever
I tell this story only to transition to our next creature. Never a fan of elaborate Halloween costumes, I wrapped myself in toilet paper and went dressed as a mummy one year. Lame, I know. It gets worse. At the party I went to, I ended up standing too close to a candle (the rooms were themed to the elements, and I ended up in the "fire" room). My costume went up pretty quickly, and my quick-thinking friends had to douse me in beer to put out the flames. I lost both my costume and an eyebrow.
Moving on. The 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guideprovided elaborate charts for the types of diseases a given character might contract. These charts included everything from disorders of the nose and throat, connective tissue, and urinary system to parasitic infestations of the skin and hair. DMs were encouraged to check each month for every character, accelerated to each week if conditions were particularly favorable (and when weren't characters operating in conditions favorable to contract some strange disease?). Yet, for all these chances, I'd wager that most characters never caught a random parasitic infection, and that most cure disease spells, as the only known cure, instead went to staving off mummy rot.
In the original edition, spectres, wights, and wraiths (described as higher-level wights) inflicted damage in the form of level drain. Mummies inflicted their damage as mummy rot, which caused wounds to heal ten times slower than normal. (This at a time when characters regained 1 hit point per full day of rest, though it was stipulated that "regardless of the number of hit points a character has, 4 weeks of continuous rest will restore any character to full strength.") By the 1st Edition Monster Manual, their disease further negated all cure wound spells and proved fatal after 1-6 months, with characters also losing 2 points of Charisma per month of affliction (leprosy tending to cause unsightly lesions). Being slain by a mummy also caused problems, with a character's body forever rotting away unless the right spells were cast quickly after his or her demise.
As discussed in the past, monsters from all manner of sources have populated the D&D game. With mummies, they clearly were pulled from their Hollywood incarnations rather than actual Egyptology. Liches, for instance, have their souls preserved in phylacteries, which makes for a wonderful story element (just ask Lord Voldemort and his horcruxes). Mummies, similarly, had their organs preserved in canopic jars in the belief that they would need them again in the afterlife. Yet, I don't believe this element has ever been made part of their published adventures. (I'd love to be proven wrong. Just let me know in the comments field.) Likewise, mummies were buried with any number of shabtis, or figurines, who would toil as their servants in the afterlife. This is another element absent from their tombs in published adventures (where deactivated golems could play the same role).
When it comes to published adventures, I3-5 Desert of Desolation is the series most commonly associated with the game's mummies—or at least, with their setting. Taking place around the desert wilderness, these adventures concerned finding and conquering the tombs of the Amun-re, the Efreeti Pasha, and the Cryptknights of Martek. (These adventures also contained the wonderfully obscure warning, "Woe to anyone hit by a flying mummy!") Later appearances by these creatures would be made, appropriately enough, in Ravenloft (particularly Van Richten's Guide to the Ancient Dead), as well as the creation of further variations (Anhktepot's Children, the spellcasting greater mummy, and more recently Monster Vault's scroll mummy) and templates (with Savage Species allowing for a huge new variety of mummified creatures).
That said, although it was problematic to be slain by a mummy, it was outright devastating to be killed by our next creature. In an extremely oddly worded statement from the Monster Manual, "Any human—including dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings —killed by a ghost is forever dead."
The Unfriendly Ghost
Finally we come back around to ghosts, which are described as "the spirits of evil humans who were so awful in their badness that they have been rewarded (or perhaps cursed) by being given undead status." These do not sound like the Patrick Swayze version, but more of the angry, vengeful spirits in Paranormal Activity.
Although mentioned in the original edition (listed in Eldritch Wizardry's undead category, along with will-o'-wisps), ghosts were fully detailed in the 1st Edition Monster Manual and they made for decidedly difficult opponents. While remaining ethereal, ghosts could possess their victims through use of magic jar (a spell that allowed for domination; magic-users needed to first place their life essence in an intermediary vessel to do so, while ghosts apparently did not). They could also materialize, with their attacks not inflicting physical damage but instead aging their victims 10-40 years. Even the mere sight of a ghost would cause you to age 10 years and flee in panic (while the mere sight of a mummy caused you to become paralyzed with fright).
As with mummy rot, aging a character made for a fiendishly devastating attack. Death and dying might have been commonplace in the game, but so too were the means of resuscitation. As the Dungeon Master's Guide stated, "the character faces death in many forms. The most common, death due to combat, is no great matter in most cases, for the character can often be brought back by means of a clerical spell, or an alter reality or wish." However, once a character reached her maximum age, there was little hope. Once dead, you stayed dead. Potions of longevity could postpone the inevitable, but the Dungeon Master's Guide provided tables that showed the effects of aging on a character's abilities: Wisdom and Intelligence were gained as one grew older, but at the cost of Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution.
After that, a character's only option was to start researching lichdom.
And with that, we bid you a Happy Halloween!