Posted on September 3, 2009 by Billzilla
Open A Can of Worms
If there is a single grouping of monsters that are a favorite, undead would probably be at or near the top of everyone’s list. From ghosts to zombies and from vampires to mummies, undead are the critters we love to hate. In Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, Wizards of the Coast offers up a tasty book filled with intriguing information for GMs wishing to get the most out of their players’ encounters with those who refuse to stay dead.
It’s important to note that this volume isn’t a simple monster manual for the Undead. It doesn’t bother to cover the basic types; skeletons, zombies, and even straight-up vampire types are totally ignored, being covered in some depth elsewhere. What it does offer are variations on the standard creature, with strategy tips and useful tricks for effective deployment. When a GM has a jaded group of experienced gamers, nothing’s better than to throw them a curve in the form of a creature that looks familiar, but acts and reacts differently – and has different powers, perhaps — than expected. Also detailed are named undead characters – the godlike, dread, liche lord Vecna, and the self-titled “First Vampire” Strahd von Zarovich for example – suitable for use as NPCs and major nemeses for the player characters.
The first chapter spends a fair amount of space discussing lore concerning the undead; how they came to be, the mythology surrounding them, and their motivations. The second chapter goes into detail for GMs concerning how to use these non-living creatures in various settings and environments, (including a number of sample Skill Challenges) and also touches on powerful magical artifacts pertaining to the undead. Chapter three is all about lairs, including some handsome color maps and a ton of useful ideas. The final chapter, a catch-all, includes new variations, new undead creatures of all varieties, an “Undead Hall of Infamy,”, and a number of templates, designed to “…transform living creatures into servants of the undead and adapt existing undead into even more horrifying and potent creatures.”
Far and away this is all information of the useful sort. For completeness’ sake, I would have liked the more mundane undead listed as basic stat blocs in an appendix; this may be an impractical wish as it would have nearly doubled the size of the book and only rehashes information available elsewhere. Still, the fewer books one needs to consult on the fly, the quicker things can move forward for a stymied GM. It would have been a useful touch, but is hardly a significant fault of Open Grave.
The art in this book is what I’ve come to expect from the D&D line: colorful, evocative and varied. The quality seems a bit uneven in places, though this is most likely a result of different artist’s styles at work rather than a lack of artistic merit. My only real complaint is the cover art — a close-up of, I expect, the face of demi-god Vecna. It appears more as though he is of goatish parentage – somewhat furry about the cheeks and chin — than that his skin is hanging in tatters from his grizzled skull. Snide comments aside, the cover art’s level of detail in the illustration is spectacular, even if the overall execution seems a touch off. The writing is solid and dependable, and the organization is on par. With a $30 price tag in the US (okay – $29.95) Open Grave seems in line when compared to similar products, and especially within the D&D line itself. For GM’s seeking a breath of stale, moldy air to breathe unlife into a campaign, Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead is the first place I’d look.
Review by Bill Bodden