Saturday, May 9, 2020

OSR: Entropic Undead - Or, The Physics of Evil

I'm back from midterms, and the site just got a makeover! I've been mulling over the title of the blog for some time. 'Espharel' was a nonsense word that came to me in a dream years ago, and when I started this blog I intended to create a world in which it was the name of a city; not so anymore. So I've renamed it, to give a little hint of what Espharel actually meant to me -  a faraway chiming bell, hinting at something great and sublime.

Now, on with the post!


The common characteristics of life are complicated. Living things consume and use energy, reproduce, and work to maintain an adequate living environment. But if you're willing to cut some corners, living things essentially have one thing in common.

Life is a local anti-entropy mechanism.

Life builds order out of the primordial soup, metabolizes to construct a world more suited to itself. It's not quite the same thing as Law and Chaos either. Both Lawful and Chaotic people, places or societies are low-entropy domains. A high-entropy domain is a cloud of stale gas, expanding forever. 

So if living creatures are anti-entropy machines, what does that tell us about undead?

Legion of Entropic Gloom – A Dastardly Undead Cult | Daemons ...

Entropic Undead

Undead creatures don't share this property. Their vital essence has departed. The appearance of a vampire's functioning body is an illusion; the poor coordination of a zombie hints at their true nature. They are puppeted about by the energy of their possessing spirits, not by the mechanics of a functioning body.

The ordinary, under-the-hood workings of a living body; the renewal of broken parts, strengthening from trauma, the deeply-meshed systems that correct each other. These are absent. An undead creature is controlled by conscious effort, sometimes of many small minds, sometimes by a single, powerful one. Either way, the demands of a living body exceed their mental load.

In other words, undead creatures are incapable of fighting back entropy. Even the most powerful of them aren't really capable of healing severe damage. Nor, for that matter, can they improve their abilities. It's a state of constant degradation, briefly stalled but never reversed. As undead deteriorate further, even the most intelligent lose their drive. They no longer want to reverse entropy. They are condemned, and are more than willing to drag others down with them.

For our purposes, there are three kinds of undead: corporeal, spectral, and greater.

Corporeal Undead

Corporeal undead are reanimated corpses, inhabited by a controlling spirit. In the case of those raised by necromancers, this spirit is most often a fragment of the caster's own will, which creates a constant drain on focus. In the case of corpses which continue to shamble after their creator is gone, it is because they are possessed of minor spirits, which bicker and argue endlessly. Their right hand can't agree with what the left hand is doing 90% of the time.

Either way, those bodies are dead and rotting, and they can't be repaired. You can put a skeleton's broken leg in a splint, but it'll never heal. The flies which burst out of the flesh of a zombie will soon become a common occurrence. These undead have a very short lifespan, especially if they see heavy use. They are used, and thrown away. Those trapped deep underground, such as tomb guardians, might last longer, but it's just delaying the inevitable.

Spectral Undead

Spectral undead are untethered from their old bodies. So they wouldn't be subject to the same degradation and rot as their corporeal companions, right? Well, sort of. Intelligence needs a body with which to interact with the world, and the interactions available to spectral beings are narrow. They can sense the presence of the living, of other spirits, and of magic. They can't hear or see in a meaningful sense, let alone smell, touch and taste.

For the unfortunate soul that ends up as a ghost, their senses are very suddenly stripped from them. It is almost impossible to gather information on your surroundings. The little sensations they took for granted in life will never come back. They exist in sensory deprivation until their spirit just gives out. When a ghost forms as a ragged version of its living self, it's trying to reestablish what it felt like to be alive. When it endlessly repeats itself, it's trying to remember what social interaction was. Gradually, they always forget, and become nothing but whispering shadows.

Greater Undead

Casting Call Club : The Sword Interval Comic Dub
The Hierophant
From the Sword Interval webcomic

Here we find the heavy hitters of the undead world, namely liches and vampires. These creatures give the closest approximation of life, sometimes even passing as humans. They've held onto their faculties jealously, and so can still reason, sense the world around them, and in many cases practice magic. They are animated by a single, overwhelming ego.

But do not mistake the approximation of life for life itself. Though many greater undead can repair damage to their bodies, they can only do so by draining the life force of the living. They too walk down the unrelenting road to feral, mindless existence; they may do so more slowly and with more pit stops, but they may never turn back. They expend enormous effort trying to maintain their old identities, building shrines to their old selves, or demanding the same form of dress and decorum they knew in life, no matter how much the world has changed. They attempt to form families, by spreading their curse to others or by enslaving their minds, but these never hold the same fulfillment as a real child. Whomever they turn or enslave is always the lesser for it. The world leaves them utterly behind, and they have the faculties to understand that fact acutely.

What They Want

The common denominator among all undead is this: they are doomed. They are slowly slipping down a torturous path to complete obliteration. If an afterlife exists, chances are good they're not going there. It's just a matter of time until they're dust on the wind.

Some undead, in the early stages when they still have a sense of their old identity, choose to destroy themselves in order to end the pain. Your party will not encounter these beings.

If an undead creature is a threat, it is because it has realized the truth of its position and decided to take it out on everyone else. Overwhelmed by existential rage and envy, they set their sights on the destruction of what they can't have. They want to end life. They want to maximize entropy.

Their great enemy is the very system of life, the cycle of reproduction and death which they are barred from. Living creatures are necessarily mortal to make room for the next generation, each one better adapted and more capable than the last. By this mechanism, the individual sacrifices itself for the collective, and the collective becomes stronger. The individual takes on mortality so that the lifespan of the collective may be unbounded. Undead creatures exist in total opposition to this principle, and refuse to believe they may be on the losing side.

Undead creatures are extremely inefficient energy hogs. A greater undead's healing is powered by stolen life force, but the absence of working bodily systems prevents them from properly metabolizing the energy. They practically have to bathe in life force to get any effect. Lesser undead require many times more energy than a comparable living creature just to remain sentient. By nature, they can only steal and parasitize from the living creatures around them. The very existence of an undead creature increases the amount of entropy in the world.

Forget Law and Chaos. The fundamental battle between the living and the dead is one for the fate of the universe.

1000+ Night Sky Stock Images · Night Photography · Pexels · Pexels ...
If you want a picture of the future, imagine each light winking out -  and never coming back

Thanks for reading the blog! I write here a least once a week (even i fit's only a session report) and love to hear what you have to say. Be sure to follow the blog to see new articles as soon as they pop up. Have a great day!

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