Posted on March 24, 2008 by Flames
The subtitle is The Book of Undead and that accurately captures the thrust of this entire work. For me, this work was long coming as I still have my copy of the 2nd Edition Necromancer’s Handbook on my gaming shelf (okay, shelves). That book allowed us to live out our darker desires in D&D; a game whose objective morality often prevents those who want a little taste of the dark side from enjoying themselves. That handbook, like Libris Mortis promises us the chance to peer deeper into the unlife of undead from every angle. Let’s face it, who doesn’t sit at work some days, when your boss is breathing down your neck, and Sheila from accounting is emailing you thirteen times an hour for the TPS reports, and dream of summoning a horde of the undead to wipe them all out.
It can’t be just me.
If you dream of cursing your enemies with a slow rotting disease; if you imagine yourself as the evil Ash in Army of Darkness; if you have always wanted to be a mummy but chafed under all that 2-ply; this is the book for you.
This book is one of the more perfect supplements to come out for 3.5. In seven chapters and only 190 pages it manages to greatly enrich the place of undead in D&D for players and DMs alike. Undead have always had a special place in the minds role-players, this book finally gives them the close examination they have wanted for so long. Undead are the creature most removed from our normal life that require the most imagination and suspension of disbelief to accept. This book does a wonderful job of exploring the details of undead “realities” without getting caught up in the minutia.
For players it offers not only how to play an undead mechanically but also how to actually role-play a member of the walking dead. A creature that for most of D&D’s 30 year history, has been assumed to be outright evil and worth little more thought than a quick turn undead.
The opening chapters describe the undead physiology and psychology. How the walking dead and you as the player of one of these creatures, might see yourself in the greater world. They also answer questions you may have never thought of such as: Do undead still have sense of smell? Or taste? It is this sort of minutiae that can help you as a player stretch your role-playing muscle and take on the attitudes and persona of something so far removed from human life.
For DMs, this book is just as compelling. If you bought this book for the monsters it would add to your game world alone, it would not be a wasted purchase. Undead are supposed to be something terrifying to the PCs at your table, but most of the tried and true favorites such as
skeletons, zombies, vampires and wights, have been used so many times they are about as exciting as an orc thug to your players. Enter creatures like the angel of decay a continually rotting mockery of an angelic being, the atopal scion, a malformed chunk of a dead god given sentience and the wheep, a creature constantly wailing in a gurgling voice as a vile black ichor spills from eye sockets filled not with organs, but with iron spikes. Those are creatures that should at least give your group some pause and perhaps, even spark some of the terror these creatures are supposed to carry. In addition to the great monsters, the book also has a nice section of maps for undead â€œhauntsâ€ and lots of prebuilt undead of varying challenge ratings. This is a great tool for a new (or lazy) DM who wants to use undead, but is intimidated by the lengthy process of creating a high leveled creature and then applying a complex template on top of that.
Wizards of the Coast undoubtedly spends a great deal of money on art. Sometimes I wonder if they are truly getting the bang for their buck. This book has its fair share of art pieces that make you wonder if WoTC is letting their kindergarteners submit pieces, but it also has its fair share of truly stunning works as well. The art from Wayne England, with his wispy and almost gossamer lines works particularly well in a book suited to incorporeal spirits and the walking dead. Also well represented is the ever astonishing (and unbelievably prolific) Wayne Reynolds who must now be chained in the basement of WoTC for all the art he is doing for D&D and M:TG. Overall, the books art comes out average, there have been worse (Complete Warrior spring to mind), but few better. The key is to only show your players the pieces will truly inspire fear, and rely on imaginative description for those more questionable works.
The writing in this book is done well and does not pretend to be anything more than it should. The stats and stories are delivered in a clear and competent fashion with simple and easy to read layouts. My one complaint here is that the book may be too technical. This book could have been a great opportunity to work some dark flavor or story into the spell and monster descriptions. Instead, it reads more like an operator’s manual for the walking dead – clear and precise, but not thrilling.
Libris Mortis excels in its rules. From the opening chapter we learn how to enforce the hunger of the undead and to how to bring an undead into a normal adventuring group as a PC. There are sample monster stat blocks and encounter tactics, this is a rules paradise. The downside of this overflowing font of superlative rules is of course; 4E.
For those of you not in the know, Libris Mortis is based on the 3.5 rules set of D&D which soon (June 2008) will be going the way of the dinosaur, the dodo and reasonably priced coffee in America. This change poses both problems and opportunities for this book.
If your group is not an early adopter and wants to stick with the 3.5 platform for the foreseeable future, then this book is a no-brainer. It will provide your players with countless new options to expand their role-playing potential. As a DM it will provide you with many new and truly awful ways to murder the characters in your stead while simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of their controlling players. The only section of the rules that are lacking to me are the prestige classes. The prestige classes in this book are simply uninteresting with one notable exception; the Dirgesinger. Melancholy bards that raise the dead with their lilting and morose songs are a concept I can get behind. Unfortunately the captivating stops there. After that we have a rehash of several undead-destruction-focused classes that don’t add anything new to the other 4,832 undead-destroying-focused prestige classes in existence. There are also watered down reprints of old favorites, such as the Pale Master and a Mystic Thurge copy in the True Necromancer which on the page seems far more trouble than it is worth.
If your group is going to 4E this book may still be a worthwhile purchase. Again, it has a nice section of maps and undead home locations that are edition proof as well as information on the behaviors and physiology of undead as mentioned earlier. Fluff like this is useful no matter what the underlying mechanics are, hence the reason that Necromancer’s Handbook is still in my library.
Great options for DMs and PCs alike
Wealth of new and terrifying threats
Examination of undead in new and detailed ways
Rules becoming obsolete with 4E
Bad selection of prestige classes
Not enough horrifying flavor in the descriptions of spells, items and locales
Style: 3 (Some great art and very frightening monsters, but no Wow factor)
Substance: 5 (Despite the new edition coming, for 3.5 this was as crunchy as it could get.)
Review by Vincent Venturella