In the interest of varying the content a bit, I’ve decided to run homebrew RPG material on Thursdays, along with an explanation of the choices I made in designing it. For our first one, we’re going to look at the concept of an undead PC, an idea that has a lot of thematic resonance with the Forsaken of Warcraft or stories about heroes whom even death could not stop.
What do we need in an undead race? They need to be biologically distinct from the living–poison, lack of breathing, and decay shouldn’t affect them in the same way it does living creatures. In D&D terms, that’s a huge advantage, so we need to balance it with some kind of drawback. The general design of 5e races includes ability score modifiers, generally totaling to +3, one or two “major” racial features that give the race its feel, one or two minor features (usually under the subrace) that further distinguish the race, and one or two appropriate skill or tool proficiencies. Races may also have a “ribbon” feature that doesn’t affect power too much but provides another opportunity to distinguish the race. These are rough guidelines, certainly, and I’m aware that some have tried to develop a numerical system that quanitifies this more precisely, but this pretty well describes all of the PHB races.
For myself, I like 5e’s design choice to include subraces, so I also want to leave an opportunity for that. We’re developing an undead race, so I’ll go with a more skeletal and a more zombified option as our two subraces.
I present to you The Risen.
Magic does not always have positive outcomes. Sometimes the living suffer destruction through an unwitting hand, but it often births new (if derivative) intelligent life. The Risen are among them.
Rumors vary as to the actual origin of these creatures. Whether the unfortunate victims of a curse gone awry or rotting material accidentally given sapience and animation by necromantic energy, the Risen possess the same desire for recognition and belonging shared by living creatures. In their quest for acceptance, many of them have banded together for protection, forming small societies based on the organization of other creatures. Most sapients want nothing to do with them, but they often find more open minds on the road to adventure. Their unnerving qualities and lack of actual life often prove advantages when delving dungeons.
As a Risen, you possess the following racial traits and choose the Withered or the Wasted subrace:
- Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 1.
- Size. Risen, for whatever reason, are about the same height as elves, though their emaciated builds mean that they weigh considerably less. Your size is Medium.
- Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
- Darkvision. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t distinguish color in the darkness, only shades of gray.
- Unholy Fortitude. You have resistance to poison and necrotic damage and advantage on saving throws against poison or the poisoned condition. (Major racial feature–strong defensive ability)
- Unliving Humanoid. Although your creature type is humanoid, you are considered undead for the purposes of any effects that can target them or restrictions on beneficial effects (such as a cure wounds spell). You do not heal naturally during a short or long rest unless you have access to at least 1 lb. of fresh meat, which you must consume while you rest. You cannot be magically aged, and Risen have no known drawbacks to old age—though they are recent enough that no one truly knows what an “old” Risen might look like. (Overall, this is a major drawback because it opens the range of things that can hurt you and [minorly] restricts long-term healing. We include this so we can have more power in our subrace options. The not aging part is an example of a “ribbon.”)
- Languages. You speak Common and one other standard language of your choice, determined by your previous life experiences. Risen remember some of what they used to be.
- Subrace. Two Risen subraces are known to exist—the corpse-like Withered and skeletal Wasted. Choose one:
As a withered Risen, you have a zombie-like appearance. Though you still possess most of your flesh, muscle and bone may be showing through the occasional wound. Undeath has nevertheless distorted your features, and the living may fear you and your ravenous hunger.
- Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2. (This gets us to +3.)
- Biting Fangs. You gain a bite attack that deals 1d4 piercing damage + your Strength modifier as an action. If you are grappling, you can use this attack as a bonus action. (This is another major racial feature, enabled because of our drawback above. Its synergy with Cannibalize below is actually pretty good, especially considering the restrictions on healing from Unliving Humanoid.)
- Cannibalize. After making a successful bite attack that deals damage, you can immediately spend 1 Hit Die to heal. You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Constitution modifier (minimum 1). When you finish a long rest, you regain all expended uses. (Useful synergy with Biting Fangs, bumping them together up to a major racial feature.)
- Horrific Visage. You gain proficiency in the Intimidation skill. (Here’s our skill proficiency. Basically everyone gets at least one.)
As a wasted Risen, you look almost like a skeleton, though many are still covered in viscous fluids that ooze from their bones. Unencumbered by flesh, you are nimbler than other creatures and dance across the battlefield on your bony legs.
- Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2. (Again, this gets us to +3.)
- Nimble Bones. You gain proficiency in the Acrobatics and Athletics skills. (Wasted get two skill proficiencies due to having only one other major feature.)
- Oozing Touch. You learn the poison spray cantrip and have advantage on checks made to escape grapples or the restrained condition. Constitution is your ability score for this cantrip. (Major racial feature with two benefits.)
Like this content? You can find this race and other homebrewed material here.