Worldbuilding: Raise the Dead

If you have undead in your world, how do they work?

Don’t count undead out of an SF setting. I ran across a good short story where vampirism was caused by a symbiotic bacteria reanimating someone nearly dead; hence the vulnerability to garlic (antibiotic) and sunlight (UV disinfectant). I’m sure nanotechnology and future genetic engineering will come up with even more options. And can an AI based on a person qualify as a ghost, or at least a repeating phantasm?

But mostly I’m going with fantasy here. So, first off, where do your undead get their energy? Sure, many of them attack and drain the living of strength and blood; wights, wraiths, vampires, and ghosts have all been known to feed on human life energy, not just flesh. But that hardly seems an equal energy exchange to fuel predators that may fly, shapeshift, turn ethereal, throw telekinetic fits, and exhibit superhuman strength. Some of that energy has to come from somewhere else.

Old-style D&D came up with a neat solution, establishing Positive and Negative Energy planes “overlaid” on the Prime Material Plane of the “ordinary world”. Healing energy, as seen in creatures like unicorns and eladrin, was drawn from the positive plane. Necromantic energy, sustaining undead and fueling various spells of harm, came from the negative plane. There were never any real in-depth explanations for how a specific undead ended up linked to a whole ‘nother plane, but at least you could point at “zombies keep moving until destroyed because they keep pulling in more negative energy”.

Cultivation systems as shown in recent wuxia and xianxia settings have similar elements. There’s righteous cultivation, people working with natural forces to accomplish superhuman feats, and then there’s resentful energy, created by vice, disorder, resentments, and living beings dying with all of the above. Murder creates ghosts; ghosts can soak up enough energy to manifest, and really ticked off ghosts can raise their bodies as fierce corpses. AKA fast smart zombie time, and run like hell. You can see the inspiration for Kabane. Or maybe it’s the other way around, given traditional Chinese undead corpses hop.

(Yes, I’ve been watching the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation animation on YouTube. It’s a great example of Beware the Nice Ones. Not to mention some excellent foreshadowing when Wei Wuxian uses resentful energy the first time almost by accident, protecting himself and a rabbit from being torn to shreds. After all, if a genuine Nice Guy is willing to do that for a rabbit, what happens when someone threatens people?

…Cue the chaos of the series in a nutshell.)

So once you’ve decided what energy fuels your undead, then you need to decide if it’s something humans can mess with. In traditional fantasy, the answer is generally yes, dark necromancers are classic villains. Also traditionally, it’s not a good idea. Not for any human that wants to stay sane, healthy, and on this side of the grave.

So is it possible to have a good guy necromancer? Do they all eventually slip into evil? Is there any way to mitigate that? Is it an unstoppable spiritual corruption, or is it more like working with radioactivity: dangerous, but if you know what precautions to take, you’re reasonably safe.

Whether or not someone can create undead or only control existing creatures is another consideration. Vampire and zombie bites are fairly well known in modern works as spreading undeath, but in folklore attacks by any unloving creature might drag an unlucky victim into undeath as well. And then of course there’s spontaneous generation: murders, suicides, and evil people dying all tend to leave a restless something behind.

If all you want in your world is the occasional murdered ghost stalking the battlements to pour out a tale of woe in Denmark, maybe you don’t need explanations for “how”. But if undead are frequent enough that “vampire hunter” is a legit occupation, it’s time to figure out not just how, but who, what, why, and where!

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44 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Raise the Dead

  1. So is it possible to have a good guy necromancer?

    And if it is, can anybody tell?

    I mean, if working with the negative energy soaked beings makes you look like Death complete with speaking in small-capital-letters, it’s not like George of the Local Small Town can tell trouble-shooter necromancer from raising-for-fun-and-profit necromancer.

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    1. While not a classic necromancer, the recent D&D expansion _Tasha’s Cauldron of Everyhing_ gave me an idea for a character that might qualify. One of the new rogue subclasses in that is the phantom, who captures dying souls and can utilize them to do things (not undead proper, just harnessing power from the spirits; most abilities they can do involve releasing the spirit). The character I have in mind is someone who goes around taking out bad guys, then capturing their souls to give them a chance to atone – one last good deed before they go to be judged kind of thing.

      Probably not someone who would be given unrestrained adoration by the populace, but not necessarily a bad guy.

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    2. Garth Nix in his Abhorsen series has a good guy necromancer. One family, magically bound to put the undead down instead of raise them. The tools are the same, so they, too, are called necromancer. I forget how one tells, if one doesn’t know the person.

      My kid has been playing Elder Scrolls Skyrim, and passes on a phrase from the lore: morals of a necromancer.

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    3. There is one well-known literary example of a Good Guy Necromancer – the Anita Blake: Vampire Executioner series. Necromancy is an inherent power in that world, to the point where if she doesn’t use it in a controlled manner, it ‘leaks’ out of her and a whole bunch of dead small animals start doing a local revival (heh) of Pet Semetery; that power got her forcibly excommunicated from the Catholic Church. So Anita is part of a business that among other things raises the dead for legal court testimony. *shrug* Necromancers also carry out writs of execution on vampires since they are partially resistant to being thralled. Did I mention vampires have legal rights?

      Anita does go from a Good Guy White Hat to a dark grey character, but mostly due to her Vampire Master boyfriend… and werewolf boyfriend… and wereleopard harem… Anita pretty much has turned into Mary Sue wish fulfillment now (IMO).

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      1. I wouldn’t list Blake as a good guy because by about book six I was starting to wonder if it was an elaborate in-universe justification to show that her quitting her birth faith for one that was more permissive was a bad idea that did, indeed, result in her going “hey, look, a Moral Limit– let’s break it!”

        She went from “don’t mess with my head, vampire guy” to mind raping people to have living vampire sex with them.

        The progression did make sense in series, though….. The only big buy-in was her birth Church (I can’t even remember if it was Catholic or Lutheran, just that it had well established theology) didn’t have a working response for “some people will accidentally cause suicides to rise up and walk around.” Eyeballing it with a writer’s hat on, I don’t think she was quite sure if she wanted supernatural stuff to have been recognized before that or not– wasn’t her werewolf boyfriend studying cryptozoology in college but vampires were just recently out of the shadows?

        Interesting premise, but our hostess here did it better, simply by paying attention to what she established.

        (I’ve quit reading the books like a dozen times, and I’ll be unpacking after yet another move, find one of the first half dozen or so and go “the can’t really have gotten that bad”– then get reminded, yes, it did. It’s much more obvious if you’re reading book two and then pick up #12 or #14 or so.)

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      2. Anita was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, and started attending an Anglican church after that (presumably they didn’t care so much about the Raising The Dead thing).

        IRL excommunication means you can’t take sacraments or assist in church services. Excommunication can be reversed and the Church (nowadays) wants that so the sinner can be forgiven and rejoin.

        In AB:VH by order of the local bishop Anita is barred from physically entering Catholic churchs.

        Anita probably doesn’t go to any church services now, since she sees herself as one of the monsters instead of a person.

        BTW, Anita has committed the local equivalent of an Unforgivable by using magic to kill people (she raised most of a graveyard to kill humans in self-defense) which legally has a mandatory death sentence. It didn’t help with her self-image.

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      3. Anita was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, and started attending an Anglican church after that (presumably they didn’t care so much about the Raising The Dead thing).

        Thank you; now I remember, it was one of those “my mom is hispanic” setups.

        IIRC, it wasn’t for having the power, it was for using the power, which was why I did not dump the book then and there, although once it was touch and go for an explicitly involuntary exercise.

        You simply cannot be excommunicated for an inherent trait, only for your response to it. People who are sexually attracted to three year olds? Have not done anything sinful unless they act on those impulses.
        (that includes entertaining thoughts, but I wanted to choose something that is abjectly and objectively evil without having an argument)

        Even then, I had to head-cannon that she’d been poorly served in being properly informed about the specific theology, via the usual “being a necromancer MUST look like this, they say this thing is not OK, therefore they say being a necromancer is not OK.”

        To try to convey the degree of difficulty in accepting this design, it’s like someone was insisting that a guy will go to hell for, ahem, the distinctively male physical evidence of excitement. It makes sense if you assume someone along the line misinterpreted deliberate self-abuse to include the physical response in all cases, but not for an established theology.

        See also, the trope of “elves are damned for being elves” which makes me want to beat folks over the head with the relevant part of the Summa….

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      4. Ah, the tired old ‘the Church hates teh majik’ trope. I prefer the general thrust of Lois Bujold’s The Spirit Ring, where the Church licensed mages and tried to keep them within ethical boundaries.

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      5. Butcher did a great job in Dresden Files, obviously looked into actual writings and even had his magician summon a demon in a classic modern way that did a LOT of world building without making it obvious.

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    4. Another plug for the Abhorsen series for a setting where the protagonists are up to their necks in death magic for very good reasons (making sure the dead stay dead).

      Another one that is more recent is the Korean web novel/comic “Solo Leveling (Only I Level Up) where the main character ends up getting stuck in the Necromancer class. Aside from using raised/bound dead to fight with… the main character also uses them to keep an eye on his house when he’s not there and guard the people he does care about from other monsters they could run into. Although there’s hints something else might be going on when it turns out there’s another army of raised dead out there who are… very surprised to be fighting the main characters army of raised dead when there’s only one crazy powerful eldritch being who can raise the dead in the first place…

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      1. Dresden Files also had the rule that raising humans was always black magic and forbidden, but raising animals wasn’t. Human zombies were more powerful than animal zombies, but the longer something had been dead also increased its power. So a T. rex that’s been dead ~65 million years….

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      2. Re: Solo Leveling

        Apparently for a few years, after Moonlit Sculpter, a bunch of Korean novels had necromancer heroes.

        I haven’t read Solo Leveling.

        But on royalroad, I came across a fic with a review that discussed this as to why the fic should not be considered a Solo Leveling rip off.

        Review mentioned Seoul Station Necromancer, which I’ve read part of.

        Liked by 1 person

    5. Well, the old Dominic Deegan: Oracle For Hire! webcomic had several plot threads about necromancers, and The Ultimate Necromancer… hm, wanna avoid spoilers, but he was much more a Force Of Nature than anything else — sort of Lawful Neutral, but with a definite kind streak when he wasn’t “on the clock.”

      Also, SFnal Zombies (tongue in cheek):
      https://www.schlockmercenary.com/2005-09-28

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  2. I have to admit that after about a decade of hanging around SpaceBattles where the denizens are relentless in their deconstruction of various fictional systems I actually enjoy settings where the macro-scale and even some of the micro-scale stuff isn’t understood.

    Like “I can make a zombie with by sacrificing a chicken, some rum, and doing a funky dance, but I can’t tell you exactly why that works on a mechanical level.” It doesn’t even have to have actively present divinities like the D&D pantheons. Just has to be internally consistent.

    While knowing the mechanical nuts and bolts of how something works can be fun, it can also take away from the fun depending on why. If your hero/protagonist or villain/antagonist is going to employ that nuts and bolts knowledge to flip the table or pull off otherwise believed to be impossible feats because they learn of those nuts and bolts and gain insight into the system it can be an incredible, awe inspiring moment.

    On the other hand if they’re going to do that, but those nuts and bolts are relatively well known it can – and really should – shatter your suspension of disbelief into tiny little pieces unless there’s a very good reason why nobody has ever done that before and said reason comes home to roost on the hero or villain because they did that.

    But if it’s nuts and bolts just for nuts and bolts sake…I’m increasingly finding such to be a major detriment to a story. It’s like having treknobabble in a Star Trek story because it’s a Star Trek story instead of because the treknobabble was related to how they solved the Problem of the Week.

    One example is the Heisenberg Compensator. From what I remember it was just dropped into an episode for the sake of it instead of as part of a greater part of the plot. I know that out-of-universe it was because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle making transporters unworkable in the real world, but we had years of them working in-universe. There was no need to include that in that particular episode. If they had to have it included, then stick it in a tech manual which is explicitly for the nerdy fans.

    I feel it’s the same with this that you’re proposing here. Unless it actually impacts the plot of the story I don’t think we need to know exactly where Vampires get their energy in a story where they’re common enough for Vampire Hunter to be a job. You do need to be consistent in how they operate, how they’re organized, etc. But the nuts and bolts of how they obtain their energy? That’s only really needed if you’re planning to make it a plot point, such as a Vampire Hunter creating a method of cutting off that energy even if they feed from someone, or you intend to turn it into an epic quest to end all Vampires forever.

    If it’s just a story about a guy who hunts vampires or is set in a world where you can visit the nearest city and hire a Vampire Hunter to deal with your local Vampire problem then digging too far into the nuts and bolts of how things work and why can be a serious detriment.

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    1. There’s a difference between thinking things out, and including those things in the actual story.

      Always a trade off in what value comes from the thinking parts. This series is kind of both a collection of prompts, /and/ a guide to building a world more detailed than the story needs, for the purpose of creating a story that has verisimilitude because all details selected in the story have had their implications thought out. If your story design does not include trying to generate that degree of verisimilitude, you just want to use the prompts to see what they inspire.

      For my worlds set on a real Earth with a United States, I tend to think about what the variant American political history is. Including which differences in presidential electoral victories.

      I have one where George Wallace won, and one where Ross Perot won. The George Wallace one does not really look at all the implications, I mainly picked it because of the desire for a Naval nuclear carrier named Curtis LeMay. Not a serious story where history is concerned.

      I have a story that takes the politics and political history quite a bit more seriously, yet I very much do not want to have that explicitly discussed in the story. So, while I know what has occurred with the Republicans and the Democrats, I’m not even going to mention those words in story. I’ve been seriously considering whether I want to both avoid labeling American political parties in story, and say that for the purposes of my own notes the parties are the Authoritarian party and the Wonderwaffe party.

      I need to know some of the information about US internal politics to write the story. Otherwise, I just have a Bizzaro world Japan, and around 4/5 of the necessary meddling foreign powers.

      If an exercise in partisan propaganda would have satisfied my desire to write the story, I could have been finished a long time ago. And including partisan propaganda in the story makes it partisan propaganda. Partisan propaganda also has a very short shelf life.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. P.S. Nearly two years into the project. I want more than a few weeks of shelf life.

        Bizarro world Japan is basically the point of the story. But if the Chinese communists, the TSAB, an underworld polity, and official and rogue elements of the US/Five Eyes are meddling, they have to actually feel like Chinese communists, etc. If my Chinese communists are all of sudden sincerely worried about freedom of conscience and human rights, I’ve written them in a way that nobody will believe. Ars Poetica on Achilles.

        I’m basically betting that readers will be willing to buy a insane political mess involving a dozen Japanese prime ministers and wannabes, and buy that it can be resolved with a small Duel Monsters tournament. They might possibly buy that if every other aspect of the world comes across as true, and the development of events seems reasonable.

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    2. “But the nuts and bolts of how they obtain their energy? That’s only really needed if you’re planning to make it a plot point, such as a Vampire Hunter creating a method of cutting off that energy even if they feed from someone,”

      …Which is exactly the kind of thing that comes up if you have a good guy necromancer.

      I may not need to get the nuts and bolts written into a story, but if I’m going to write it, I need to know in the background how they work. Even if it’s handwavium of “they’re attached to the Negative Energy plane”.

      *Shrug* That’s how I work when I write. Your Mileage May Vary.

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    3. If it’s just a story about a guy who hunts vampires or is set in a world where you can visit the nearest city and hire a Vampire Hunter to deal with your local Vampire problem then digging too far into the nuts and bolts of how things work and why can be a serious detriment.

      Plot Dependent Powers are a problem, too, though.

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      1. I think maybe I wasn’t as clear as I thought I was.

        Defining how often a Vampire needs to “eat” is important. So is whether they merely dislike the sun, become lethargic while the sun is out, or revert to being straight up dead is also important. Similarly do they simply shrug off physical injuries and use their powers as they like, or does “healing” from broken bones or using their powers burn energy that needs to be replenished. That too is important.

        What I don’t consider important – unless it plays a role in the plot – is defining the metaphysics behind it. We don’t need to know whether they actually subsist on blood or if it’s some sort of metaphysical thing where the act of taking the blood causes a sympathetic reaction with some other plane of existence that provides the energy. We don’t need to know every little thing so long as what we do know is consistent with itself and pertinent to the story.

        No matter how much fun it can be to world build the hell out of things.

        Vathara manages to actually do that sort of worldbuilding and STILL write a story. I’ve lost count of the number of story ideas that have died without a word written because I dove headfirst into the worldbuilding and eventually just lost interest.

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      2. Ah.

        Every single creative writer I’ve come across has things work differently. Maybe a little differently from another writer, maybe a lot.

        Because the projects have a lot of complexity, and they are carried out within one mind for consumption in others. And minds can be very, very, very, different. Look at writing advice, consider it, test, but be very cautious about how much you trust it. If you take it too seriously, you will always eventually find a situation where sources you otherwise trust do x, and you are trying to make x work, when it simply will not work for you.

        I can point to lots of authors I’ve enjoyed who work in wildly ways from what I can manage. Some is potentially something I can do with enough skill. Some is a ways off from any skill I will ever develop. (Forex, I like history, but I’m not going to be familiarizing myself with the latest academic historical research, because that is skill, money, and access that is probably never going to be a good choice for me to spend/develop.)

        That said, I’m still in very early days where learning about what works for me is concerned.

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  3. So the Eberron setting has Positive Energy undead called Deathless.

    That made me wonder if you could have a “positive energy” necromancer, which would be like a cleric, but with a direct tap to the Positive Energy plane instead of a god.

    Now imagine someone constantly infused with positive energy.
    They’re happy!
    Cheerful!
    Always!!!!!
    Not quite manic, but incapable of resentment or sadness, even when that’d be appropriate.

    And they’re on a quest to dial it back before they lose their sanity entirely.

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  4. Or if you have someone being sneaky: my brother and his friend are talking about running some characters in a campaign where the warlock and the paladin never talk about their patrons, because the warlock’s patron is a Light Deity and the paladin’s is either a Dark Deity or the god of thieves. (They’d been talking about a kleptomaniac paladin.)

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  5. /But mostly I’m going with fantasy here. So, first off, where do your undead get their energy?/
    Well one method I’ve seen a couple of times to explain where vampires get their energy is that they feed on lifeforce much like the other creatures you mentioned. They just use blood as a conduit/medium to drain said lifeforce.

    Which could potentially translate to less energy being wasted/lost during the transfer compared to ‘lay one hands’ methods other undead use. And as a result they have more energy to work with meaning they can use more power-hungry/exotic abilities.

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  6. I would recommend a story on Royal Road; “The Humble Life of a Skill Trainer”

    Distinct from other LitRPGs, skills are very challenging to get, requiring significant directed effort.

    Also, dead bodies tend to spontaneously reanimate if left alone.

    Then they discover that the more powerful “aberrant” undead are caused by the deceased having powerful passive skills… which they retain.

    Then it occurs to them that some passive skills enhance thinking ability, making *intelligent* undead.

    Then it occurs to them that the mages guild is full of old, powerful people with skills that enhance their bodies and minds…

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  7. My RPG homebrew is still in the ‘incoherent notes’ stage, otherwise I’d be putting it up on Amazon and/or DrivethruRPG and lamenting that people don’t grasp my ‘obvious’ brilliance, but I’ve got a few design decisions on the subject.

    ‘Mancy’ being the suffix for divination, necromancy is the magic of compelling the spirits of the dead. That is, it starts as ‘bring them back to ask questions’, but at some point there’s the realization that if you can make them come back you can probably make them do other things. The Mummy of the classic movies trying to bind his bride’s soul into a living woman? Necromancy.

    ‘Mortifexy’ is the term I came up with for magic using the bodies of the dead, based on ‘corpse cursing’. There are benign uses and edge cases, but it’s mostly hostile magic. Necromancy and mortifexy tend to reinforce each other, so in the popular awareness they’re usually conflated.

    That said, I want a ton of different magical traditions, with the assumption that player characters will tend to seek them out according to personal interest, so there’d be multiple ways to compel the spirits of the dead or curse their bodies. And, as I’ve said in other comments, no perpetual motion machine zombies. Breaking entropy isn’t something done easily.

    -Albert

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  8. Well, there’s really no reason to use dead bodies for anything motion-related, and information from dead bodies is pretty dubious. Anthropologically, you do have the Taoist vampire-masters who are hopping the dead home to their ancestral villages, but we have cars and planes now. I suppose you might want them to vote, but that’s been digitized too.

    So basically, you’re left with your classic ancient shaman dealie of enslaving the spirits of the dead, to do your bidding in either the spirit world or the real world, or keeping around your buddies and ancestors to continue hanging out with the tribe, with various shadings between super-slaves and minor gods. But that’s not as scary to moderns as dead bodies, I guess.

    Maybe if you had a shaman story taking place in the dream world or the spirit world. Then you might have the situation of a material being fighting spirit monsters or something. But hopefully we’d be talking buddies or mentors, not slaves.

    There’s Dresden’s skull buddy, now that I think of it.

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