What It Means to Be Undead

Still working hard on the MMO, but not much new to show yet. Soon! In the meantime, let’s talk a bit about the back story of the game.

“Oh No, It’s the Undead!”

Early in Diablo 3, you meet a Necromancer. And your character basically says something like, “Hmm, you don’t see many of those around town!” This is the saddest reaction to necromancy ever.

Necromancy should be evil. For one thing, they muck around with your dead relatives, which tends to piss people off. But that doesn’t seem to be enough these days. Hell, in the Diablo universe, necromancy is practically a noble profession.

So what went wrong? Why do modern games not have scary evil undead? Partially we’re just used to it. (“Yeah, he uses skeleton pets. They’re basically like any other pet class, but bonier.”) But I think a bigger part of it is our TV and movie culture. Most zombie flicks don’t suggest that it’s Grandpa inside that rotting corpse: it’s just a meat puppet. So if you can get over the shock of seeing Grandpa’s rotting body, reusing his corpse isn’t so evil. It’s almost a noble act: you’re up-cycling useless flesh into something productive!

Well, I want necromancy to be hated and feared in Project Gorgon. There’s very practical reasons for this: the undead are too damned convenient. This is a very magic-rich world, and if everybody could have living-skeleton butlers and gardeners, they would. What’s to stop them?

But the bigger reason is that it’s just more fun if necromancy is evil. The game already has plenty of noble occupations. Swordsmen study calligraphy and the art of war. Druids follow the dictates of nature spirits, which can be harsh, but not evil. Werewolves are feared, and everybody agrees they’re incredibly dangerous, but they’re not inherently evil. They’re mostly misunderstood. Necromancers, though: they should be evil.

What Makes Undead Evil?

To make undeath feel more evil, let’s start by assuming the soul of the dead person is trapped inside the body. So that zombie of Uncle Mort actually contains Mort’s mind, and he’s in terrible pain. Okay, that’s a great start. Torturing the souls of the dead is always a good start.

But what about the fancier undead, like vampires? Your classic vampire doesn’t seem to be in terrible pain all the time. And indeed most fiction vampires aren’t evil at all. Here’s the test: if your son was dying, and the only way to save him was to turn him into a vampire, would you let him die? If you say “yes, it’s better for him to die,” then vampires are sufficiently evil. Few modern vampires pass this test. I want my vampires to be scary, evil, horrible things that no sane person would want their children to become.

(And it’s not enough to make vampires feed on humans. Hell, what doesn’t feed on humans in MMO worlds? They need to be real bad things.)

Driven By Hate

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to pin down “evil”. Whenever you analyze something, it stops being “evil” and starts being “misunderstood”. I need to curb that. My plan is to focus on emotions, because those create a visceral reaction, and are less susceptible to scrutiny and analysis. (For instance, if I say somebody has a racial hatred of elves, you don’t necessarily need me to explain why. He can just be a racist. Emotions don’t have to make sense.)

So let’s say all undead are powered by strong negative emotions. And while I’m at it, let’s do away with “dumb” non-sentient undead, such as mindless zombies. All undead in this game are sentient, and powered by emotion.

Most undead run on hate. When a necromancer tries to raise skeleton warriors, only the people who were most susceptible to feeling great hatred will come back to life.

These skeletons are still self-aware, and they retain the memories of their former lives, but their need to hate is all-consuming. So they twist and corrupt all their memories until they hate everything they used to love. They hate their former loved ones most of all.

Initially, the necromancer has complete control over them, but eventually many undead will break free and flee their masters. Then they make a beeline for their former family and friends. Driven by their hate, they will go to any lengths to find and kill them.

Okay, yeah, that’s pretty evil. Nobody wants to wake up in the night to find their dead wife looming over them with an axe, shouting about how terrible they are while trying to kill them. If that’s a side-effect of necromancy, you can see why it’d be very illegal.

Necromancy mostly uses hate-filled undead, but there are other kinds, mostly occurring naturally. Ghosts, wraiths, banshees, and so on are fueled by unpleasant emotions like depression, greed, agony, and jealousy. They’re all sentient, and all of them are feared, though not as much as the hate-filled ones.

Gameplay Scenarios

The purpose of a backstory in an MMO is to help create compelling game scenarios. Otherwise, I would just pencil in “they’re evil because I said so” and be done with it. What can this backstory do to make the game more interesting? Well, let’s brainstorm:

  • Skeletons like to band together in little clusters to give each other emotional support: they need to keep their hatred high. When they’re not hating, they get weak-kneed and sluggish. So they give each other little pep talks about why they should hate their family, or that deer over there, or that player coming over to kill them.
  • The Combat Psychology skill now has direct tie-ins to undeath. If you make a skeleton feel less hatred, you’ll literally make him weaker. Psychoanalysis can kill the undead!
  • It lets us have some startling scenarios. Imagine you’re in town when a skeleton runs by and starts banging on the door of a house. “Martha, it’s me, I’m back! Let me in!” He’s preying upon his wife, hoping she’ll open the door so he can kill her. And even if you save her, she’s likely to have mixed feelings about you killing her husband…
  • Maybe depression in this world is now a serious public safety issue. Most suicides are committed by extremely depressed people, and if they come back as ghosts, haunting their loved ones, they can spread more depression like an infectious disease. What would society do? Would they give depressed people more aggressive treatment, or would they banish them to the countryside? (For variety, it’d probably vary from city to city.)
  • If depression causes ghosts, that has lots of practical side-effects. When the constabulary investigates a suicide, they can just wait and see if a ghost appears. If no spirits have tormented the family within three days, they start to suspect foul play.

And much more. It gives me some interesting back-stories for tombs (“the elves created an undead-proof chamber, and…”) and it helps me create undead NPCs with more compelling personalities, from tragically evil skeleton minions to cruel and vicious vampire kings.

While the backstory isn’t super weird, I think it’s fresh enough that it won’t seem like the same old thing, either. And with any luck, it will be easy to see why raising the dead is Evil.

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24 Responses to What It Means to Be Undead

  1. Ahtchu says:

    yes.. Yes.. YES!!! Conflict generates fun. The deeper the conflict, the more potential for fun. Agree with this direction on so many levels!

  2. Azrapse says:

    Yes, please. No more trivialization of necromancy.
    After this seemingly unending trend of putting zombies into everything, I was kind of expecting the imminent “come out of the closet” of necrophilics everywhere, and it almost becoming “cool”.
    Back on topic, it would be nice if every player could actually have a family of NPCs. They could take part on the tutorial, or not. It could be a good leit motiv for some quests (illness, kidnapping, gone missing, heritage, …) and it would doubtlessly make the players mad if a necromancer comes and raises his dead relative knowing that the loved one is trapped inside suffering.
    It’s often easier to care about some NPC if those are “your” NPCs. :)

  3. Hirvox says:

    But even within your setting, the Diablo Necromancer would still be a “fight fire with fire”-type antihero. They use the bodies and souls of dead enemies against living enemies. Who cares if a skeleton made from an evil person makes a beeline to his still-living (and evil) comrades? Who cares if an evil person’s soul suffers some more?

    I recently finished reading Shamus Young’s Witch Watch, and he had a neat idea of making necromancy unambiguously evil: The lifeforce required to raise the dead must come from living people. For anti-heroes, this would mean sacrificing their own health and lifespan. Villains of course extract said lifeforce from innocents, so raising an undead army would require an equivalent amount of ritual murders.

  4. Eric says:

    @Hirvox – I don’t really get what you mean. The undead weren’t evil until they were brought back to life. And why would the undead’s families be evil?

  5. Hirvox says:

    The Diablo Necromancer raises undead in combat, the people/monsters that served in demonic armies and who were trying to kill him moments before. He doesn’t go to a random graveyard and raise Uncle Harry. He specifically targets people that were evil in the first place.

  6. Cameron says:

    I’m loving everything i read about this game so far.
    Especially since its coming from people that worked with turbine/asheron’s call.

    I’m really looking forward to this game.
    Ever need anyone to beta test, i’m usually at home all day every day on my PC.

    I’ll check daily for updates :)

  7. Re evil vampires:

    Barbara Hambly’s vampire fiction series achieved the task of making vampirism a true curse, with one simple tweak: when vampires feed, they kill. Always.

    She’s got the traditional ethereal, fascinating male vampire figure in there, and the heroine does indeed (somewhat) fall in love with him, but the entire thing’s given complexity and a pretty horrific twist by the knowledge that in the background, said vampire has been killing at least one person a week, for hundreds of years.

    I’m surprised I haven’t seen more fiction, including games, with this particular tweak to vampirism.

  8. Jason says:

    Eric, great thinking… Reminds me of the descriptions of some of the greater undead in 2nd edition D&D. Liches, Wraith, and all of those powerful undead were always motivated by strong emotions, particularly hate.

    You are spot on about the Diablo Necromancer. Hirvox is right in that you were raising the undead from the corpses of your fallen enemies, but ultimately it is still a pet class and could be wrapped in any type of clothing. What if I was charming them instead, same difference really. Just pets.

    But giving the enemy like this motivation is really cool and definitely helps breed a desire on the player’s part (since they are usually a Hero) to fight and destroy the enemy.

    With these motivations you definitely won’t want to make them too common in your game-world or else you will dilute and weaken the mythos and the motivation on the player’s side. Make them rare, make them very powerful, and it would be very exciting to take one down.

  9. Kainotomiu says:

    I loved it all, except for this bit;

    When a necromancer tries to raise skeleton warriors, only the people who were most susceptible to feeling great hatred will come back to life.

    I get that it’s in keeping with the idea of the undead running on hatred, but to me, it seems to limit necromancy a bit to only resurrecting nasty people, which wouldn’t have quite the same impact as resurrecting the sweet little child who never hated anybody. I think that it must be possible to find a way to raise nice people as well; otherwise much of the effort you put into creating the negative responses in players against be romances is nullified.

  10. Tiber says:

    Kainotomiu has a point. What if necromancers actively tried to corrupt souls toward evil or even torture them as well?

    For vampires, I think you could easily justify them as evil by saying that by drinking blood, they’re stealing the life force of their victims, thus shortening the lifespan of others to maintain a semblance of life.

  11. Elbrasch says:

    Where can i sign for becoming a Necromancer? :)
    Really, who wants to be a bloody hero? Ok, maybe once in a month, but not always.
    The “Vampire must kill when they feed” is actually a simple methode, i would prefere the Vampire world of darkness (pen&paper) version:
    They are bored. That simple. After the first 50-100 years you will simply crush the happy life of that random person because you want to see how he reacts, and what provokes more emotions from people like utterly destroying their live? And they must be smart, because when you spread every disease one of your victim had to every other biten person? Thats a little bad for your live stock and attracts attention.

  12. Brad says:

    I think necromancy actually works better if it’s ambiguous. I mean, everyone has trivial arguments and such with their loved ones that they just brush off, but maybe Aunt Martha was silently resenting her family members all those years. Did the necromancer turn her against her family, or is that really how she felt and now she finally has her chance for revenge?

    But it would make the necromancer dangerous in the same way that cult leaders are dangerous, if the necromancer can stir up negative feelings in otherwise peaceful dead. If nothing else, there’s always jealousy of the still living.

  13. Mike says:

    I think traditionally the evil of “undeath” is being “trapped” in a rotting form, unable to go to one’s eternal reward. Of course, if there is no eternal reward, then you just don’t die. Add in the cool powers they typically get in fiction and what’s not to like? Then again, if there is an eternal punishment, undeath would be a good way for evil people to try to “cheat” death.

    I like the idea that dabbling in evil corrupt the person that does it. Just about any really evil person in fiction looks disfigured and repulsive. It’s their evil desire for power at any cost that drives them to do things that force them outside of mainstream society. This could easily be implemented as an increasingly negative reaction from most NPCs, until they get to the point where they break out the pitchforks. Maybe necromancy gradually saps their own life until they become undead themselves, becoming increasingly pale or scarred.

  14. Sungazer says:

    great thinking on undead background, evil it should always be…

  15. Eric says:

    @Hirvox – ah, yeah that’s true, I hadn’t been thinking about that case. Well, Diablo does make it a lot easier to justify because everything that looks weird or inhuman is Inherently Evil By Decree. In this game that will be a lot smaller problem, because every race has nice members. Even goblins have a nice side, though they’ve declared war on the other races.

    So it’s still possible for a sociopath necromancer to decide that what he’s doing is right … but that’s always the case! My goal is just for the general MMO society to not see his actions as defensible.

    @Kainotomiu – I hadn’t really been thinking of people with “great capacity to feel hate” as evil — just as having that potential. I was trying to get at what @Brad mentioned — “was this person always harboring a grudge against his family, or is that just the undeath talking?” But I can see where you’re getting that from, and it’s definitely a mixed message. I’ll probably just remove that detail entirely.

  16. Eric says:

    @Tiber and Hugh – I still feel like “they eat people” or “they destroy people” doesn’t feel evil enough. It works in fiction because real-life humans don’t have any predators: anything that kills humans is evil.

    But in Project Gorgon, half the sentient races feast on human flesh. Rakshasah (if they make it into launch) are a noble race that just happens to see humans as a lower life form, more worthy of being dinner than being a friend. Werewolves often can’t control their bloodlust and will eat people, too.

    The whole “we infiltrate human society and secretly prey on them” is getting closer to evil, but it’s still too easy to make it feel “noble” by invoking the predator/prey relationship. Circle of life and all that.

    So killing people is probably a mandatory prerequisite for evil vampires, but I feel like I need to juice it up a lot more.

  17. Tiber says:

    @Eric: Hmm, then what about playing up the hypnotic aspects of vampires? Maybe they have a supernatural ability to draw people to them at night. Maybe they like to score easy prey by hypnotizing some poor fool into getting his friends and family to come meet the vampire (for bonus points, he could be conscious during all this, but unable to control his body). Maybe being bitten is incredibly addictive, and being bitten often drives the victim into dependency on the vampire, or renders him violently insane.

    There are plenty of ways to increase the monstrosity of it, but I think evil works best when it creates temptation and exploits conflict. If the answer to whether to turn someone is always no, then they’re just one-dimensional villains who are evil for evil’s sake. If there’s no reason to start on the path of necromancy unless you’re completely depraved, then necromancy itself isn’t scary; it’s just a tool that only the already completely irredeemable would ever use. If it didn’t exist, those same people would just be inflicting suffering in some other way.

    While you’re right that feeding on humans shouldn’t be enough to call something evil, part of the horror of vampirism and necromancy is that not even a righteous person is completely immune to the appeal of wanting to live forever.

  18. Tesh says:

    It seems to me that if you can trivialize killing in whatever way, you could then play up the “inflicting pain” side of things. As in, necromancers function best when they are in pain, or when someone else is in pain… or maybe just their minions can only function if they are feeling pain. I know, that’s sort of where you’re going with the emotion pain side of things, but what if there’s a physical component to it too? That’s one way to explain why skeletons are so weak, but fresh zombies are a bit more durable. The latter have more pain receptors still functional in their mostly-dead systems, while the former are pretty much just animated minerals.

  19. Ah, right, yes. If you already have semi-sympathetic creatures that feed on human flesh, that alone won’t do it.

    (The way Hambly makes it work – which won’t work for Gorgon – is by playing on the “sympathetic vampire” trope. She’s writing for an audience that expects moody, tortured, but basically good vampires, and she presents sympathetic, tortured vampires – then, every so often, once she has us believing Vampire X is basically a good guy/gal, she tweaks the curtain up to show the hundreds of years of corpses behind them. )

  20. Comment_Whatever says:

    You’ve walked down the path a little by leaving behind “Grock makes it go!” aspect of “modern” undead. The “evil” priest “casts a spell” and “poof” a skeleton rises up. “Grock raised the skeleton!” What keeps the skeleton still moving? “Grock!” Even for vampires. A little vampire blood, POOF! New vampire. “Grock made a vampire!” What about feeding? A little blood. “Grock makes it go!”.

    By replacing “grock” with dark emotions, you’ve accomplished a lot for sentient undead.

    But you can also pull a “Buffy”. One of the really positive aspects of Buffy is it killed the “tortured undead” aspect. Yeah. It looks like Fred. It talks like Fred. It’s a Demon from Hell. And it wants to kill you and use your corpse to house a another of it’s buddies.

    Maybe the necromancer has a number of old, crazy ghosts he puts in his skeletons.

  21. Tom says:

    I had a similar issue in my D&D campaign with blood magic. Having to use blood in a spell didn’t feel evil enough, especially when wounds are quickly and easily healed right after. I came up with a more powerful version called soul magic, which consumes/destroys the souls of one or more victims for more powerful rituals. This denies the victim an afterlife with their god, completely wiping them out of existence.

    I could see something similar happening to the souls of those raised from the dead.

  22. Brett says:

    Reading this blog is such a pleasure for the creative and really clever ideas that seem to be going into your games. This undeath concept is just as innovative, but I must admit that my first reaction is one of unease at the direction.

    First, I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that ‘evil’ is defined as having negative emotions, such as sadness or discontentedness. What if you have a mental illness, such as depression, and you play this game to find out that the message contained within is that not only are such people sick in this world, they are innately wrong in an eternal, soul-corrupted way? It’s not even just about the message conveyed, it’s also about consistency. If the appropriate response to expressing negative emotions is abhorrence and genocide, what does this mean for a player’s story where they may want to feel hatred for, let’s say, the villain who raped, tortured and murdered her husband and family? Does that make them a ghoul-baby, stuck inevitably on the path to becoming a murderous undead fiend unless they swallow their grief and put on a happy face?

    Personally, I’ve always thought of ‘evil’ as doing the wrong thing when you know it is wrong, as in the willful suspension of ethics or compassion. Doing wrong because of necessity, nature or simply different perspectives and values isn’t usually considered evil from an objective standpoint, and would seem to be where great opportunities for the ‘misunderstood’ storylines can come from.

    Because I see evil in this way, I’m always a little disappointed when a game stereotypes the essence of an entire race, species or magic type as ‘inherently evil’. I think it falls back into the easy mistake of viewing something ‘different’ as ‘wrong’ rather than focusing on the ethical choices and behaviours themselves. What if the only way to save a culture from being wiped out by a virulent plague is to ask a necromancer to restore the life of a researcher who died days away from finding the cure and took all his knowledge to the grave? Is that ‘inherently evil’ just because the doctor-zombie now needs constant psychiatric care from the necromancer (of all people) to keep his anger under control? Is this a subversive attack on psychology itself?

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding your concept. I get that it is useful to have an ‘evil race’ that players can mow down without feeling any remorse or dissonance of conscience, but is it actually necessary? If undeath is disturbing and alien enough in its practicalities, does it need to be stereotypically and unambiguously ‘evil’ to be abhorred by the common folk?

    Apologies if I have misunderstood.

  23. Facesofmu says:

    This is a fantastic discourse to be had. I love these speculations about what it means to be “evil” and what it means to do Necromancy (or Demonology, too!). I often wish RPG designers put a bit more thought into why this area I’m cleaving through is littered with masterless skeletons and wraiths. At least I can justify zombies by making up plagues and such, but I as the player shouldn’t need to fill the gaps.

    Have you had any thoughts to implementing liches?

    The hatred explanation here is a powerful one, but I wonder how useful this method is other than creating an eventual assassin? And does this make the undead evil, the necromancer evil, or just the act evil?

    I agree with Brett that creating ties between morality and mental illness also needs to be dealt with sensitively.
    I wonder how would people in this world have evolved to deal with conflict if the repercussions can tend towards undeath? As if escalated violence resulting in death weren’t enough to worry about! Not to mention infections and gangrene!
    If millenia of people and societies survived over the generations despite the chance of becoming undead from unresolved conflict or heated arguments, then how did they learn to cope as a species and throughout history?

    On a scale from subjective to objective definitions of evil, I tend to sit near the middle on the subjective side. That being so, one of the best understandings of evil I can think of right now is when one person takes away the Right to Choose of another. In the case of undead, it is saying “I’ve made you immortal. Now deal with it”.
    This follows the more morose vampire narratives where at some point a protagonist faces the question “Given all you’ve known and experienced so far, do you REALLY want forever?”. Mike talked about this cost or loss before, that people can be motivated by their thanatos to want this life to end, no matter their beliefs about the after-death. Necromancers ultimately take this choice away from people, curse them to live in a painful or unworthy form, and force them to see the world go on living without them, and all they know and love change and disappear.

    Stephen Donaldson says it’s not the worst you can do to take something away from someone, but to give it back to them broken.

    If I had to go to great lengths to make a robot, I’d want to make damn sure it would do what I needed it to. Would an undead need some sort of mind control or coercion to keep it tame?
    Often undead armies in the genre don’t seem to need magical mind control as they seem to act on loyalty or obedience.

    By the way: zombie/skeleton undead should smell smell smell!

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