Updated: Oct 23
This article takes an in-depth look at the attributes and resistances of undead in the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game.
By R. Nelson Bailey
Undead rank among some of the most iconic monsters found in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. However, despite their prevalence in many AD&D books and modules, undead have been a source of confusion for many Dungeon Masters. The main reason for this confusion stems from how information concerning the undead is organized in the AD&D rulebooks and monster guides. Secondary to this is the lack of clarification of some of the basic undead attributes. Although “undead” is a monster type classification as noted in the Monster Manual (p. 109) and Dungeon Masters Guide (p. 230), there is no single listing of the common attributes, powers, and resistances that one finds with other monsters, such as demons, devils, daemons, modrons, and so forth. Instead, this information is spread piecemeal throughout the monster guides, Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and other official books. This article will attempt to organize those common undead characteristics from the disparate 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons sources into a single cohesive listing.
Undead in the Rulebooks
The glossary of the Dungeon Masters Guide (p. 230) defines undead as, “A class of malevolent, soulless monsters which are neither truly dead nor alive”. They are the unliving corpses and spirits of formerly living beings (footnote 1). These creatures no longer possess the biological functions and desires of the living (thus, making magical sleep ineffective). It is noted that many types of undead feed on the living (e.g. ghasts, ghouls, spectres, vampires, etc.), however, there is no mention of whether or not they must feed to survive. They do not age (DMG, p. 134), are immune to withering attacks (DMG, p. 134), and make no noise when moving (DMG, p. 60). Their minds and emotions that are indecipherable to the living (DMG, p. 150; PHB, p. 70). Because of this, command (PHB, p. 43), ESP (DMG, p. 150; PHB, p. 70), and suggestion (p. 75) will not work on undead. These monsters gain their unlife and power from the energy of the Negative Material Plane (PHB, p. 120; DMG, p. 60), although, “energy drainer” types seem to be more strongly connected to the plane (MM, p. 102) (footnotes 2 & 3). Undead are said to exist on the Prime Material and Negative Material planes simultaneously (MM, p. 99), though this is contradicted in the Manual of the Planes (p. 54), which states that this is impossible since there is no direct connection to these two planes. They are not affected by magics that draw upon the Negative Material Plane (i.e. “death magics”) (Greyhawk Adventures, pgs. 59 & 60), and cannot energy drain other undead (I6 Ravenloft, p. 5). Evil undead can be detected with a detect evil spell (DMG, p. 60).
A Confusion of Resistances
Most of the qualities, powers, and resistances of undead are listed in the entries for each individual monster type in the three 1st edition AD&D monster guides (i.e. Monster Manual, Monster Manual II, and Fiend Folio). Resistances or vulnerabilities to spells and effects are, arguably, what defines the undead from other categories of monsters. Listed below are ever type of undead monster appearing in the monster guides and their resistances listed therein.
Apparition: none listed Coffer Corpse: sleep, charm, mind-influencing spells Death Knight*: none listed Demi-lich: none** Ghast: sleep, charm Ghost: none listed Ghoul: sleep, charm Groaning spirit***: sleep, charm, hold, cold, electricity Haunt: none listed Huecuva: mind-influencing spells Lich: sleep, charm, cold, electricity, polymorph, feeblemind, insanity, death magic Mummy: sleep, charm, hold, paralysis, poison, cold, electricity Penanggalan†: mind-influencing spells Poltergeist: none listed Revenant: none listed Shadow: sleep, charm, hold, cold Sheet Ghoul: sleep, charm Sheet Phantom: sleep, charm Skeletal Warrior: none listed Skeleton‡: sleep, charm, hold, cold, (illusion)# Skeleton, animal‡: sleep, charm, hold, cold, death magic, (illusion)# Son of Kyuss: mind-influencing spells Spectre: sleep, charm, hold, paralysis, poison, cold Vampire: sleep, charm, hold, paralysis, poison, cold (half damage), electricity (half damage), (polymorph)@ Wight: sleep, charm, hold, paralysis, poison, cold Wraith: sleep, charm, hold, paralysis, poison, cold Zombie‡: sleep, charm, hold, cold, suffocation/drowning, (illusion)# Zombie, juju: poison, cold, electricity, death magic, mind-influencing spells Zombie, monster‡: sleep, charm, hold, cold, death magic, (illusion)#
* The death knight is listed as a type of “lich”. Possibly, they have the same resistances as a lich. ** Demi-liches are immune to most everything. *** Groaning spirits are never specifically referred to as a type of undead in the MM, nor, conversely, it is noted that they are not. They are not found on the list of undead that can be turned in the DMG. However, the groaning spirit is described as “the spirit of an evil female elf” that “returns to harm the living” with its “chilling touch” (MM, p. 50), which sounds a lot like an undead. They also have much of the same resistances as many other undead. However, DL14 Dragons of Triumph (p. 13) refers to groaning spirits as “undead”, as does 2nd edition AD&D. † Penanggalan are listed as a type of “vampire”. Possibly, they have the same resistances as a vampire. ‡ “Mindless” undead are those with an Intelligence rating of “non-” (0). These undead are created by magic-users or clerics with the animate dead spell. # WG 6 Isle of the Ape notes that “mindless” dinosaurs (i.e. those with an Intelligence rating of “non-”, as are most dinosaurs), are immune to illusions. “Illusions applied to reptiles [i.e. dinosaurs] are virtually useless, as the brains of these monsters are too dull to notice anything of such subtlety. Thus, when such spells are used against these monsters, they always save.” It would not be a stretch to apply this rationale of illusion immunity to all creatures with a “non-” Intelligence rating, in this case, “mindless” undead. @ Vampires will be affected by a polymorph other spell if they fail their saving throw. However, they can negate the polymorph by shapeshifting to another form at a later time. It is readily apparent from the list above that resistances to spells and effects are not consistently applied to each undead type. Some resistances, such as liches to polymorph, seem to be unique to that undead. Other resistances, though, seem to be more universal to undead, but are inexplicably wholly omitted from many monster descriptions, or differ from type to type. For instance, ghosts have no spell/effect resistances listed. Does this mean they are susceptible to all of these effects, or is it simply an omission? Animal skeletons are noted as being immune to death magics, but "normal" skeletons are not. Both of these undead types are created by the animate dead spell, so it would be reasonable that they would share common resistances. Some undead are immune to poison, while most are not. Some are listed as being immune to hold spells, but not to paralysis. There seems to be little rationale for the differences and commonalities of resistance types of undead as listed in the monster guides. Despite the inconsistent application of resistances in the individual monster entries, the Monster Manual indicates that undead possess some universal resistances. The entry for “manes” (p. 17) states that — like undead — these demons are immune to “sleep, charm, and similar spells”. The entry for “ghost” (p. 43) is more specific noting that, “Ghosts are of the “undead” class, and thus sleep and charm spells have no effect on them.” A number of monster entries in the Fiend Folio are even more unambiguous, noting that undead are immune to all spells that affect the mind (see, p. 71, “Penanggalan”; p. 76, “Revenant”; p. 83, “Son of Kyuss”; and p. 97, “Yellow Musk Zombie”). This includes resistance to “charm, hold, illusion, sleep and so forth” and “mind-influencing spells” (footnote 4). Since these passages are more explicit and broad-reaching, they supersede all other statements in the books concerning undead’s resistance to mind-influencing/ affecting spells and effects.
Common Undead Attributes & Resistances
Using the information found in the rulebooks (scant as some of it is), a list of universal attributes and resistances can be applied to all undead.
Undead Morphology: The AD&D monster guides notes that there are two categories of undead: corporeal and non-corporeal. The rulebooks offer little specific information concerning the abilities of these different forms.
Corporeal undead have a physical form that consists of the body they once possessed in life. Non-corporeal undead are the spirit of the being without the body in an intangible or gaseous form (REF5 Lords of Darkness, p. 85). This form usually resembles their former appearance to some degree (depending on undead type) with a similar height (REF5, p. 89).
Two types of non-corporeal undead — the ghost and apparition — exist primarily on the Ethereal Plane. While in ethereal form they can be seen by viewers, pass through solid objects, and are immune to attacks that do not originate from that plane. However, they must semi-materialize into the Prime Material Plane to initiate physical attacks on the living.
The other types of non-corporeal undead (i.e. spectres, wraith, shadows, groaning spirits, haunts, and poltergeists) do not have the ability to enter the Ethereal Plane. Presumably, they can interact with material objects, much as ghosts and apparitions can when they semi-materialize. Of the intangible undead, only spectres are specifically mentioned to be able to pass through solid objects, as noted in REF3 The Book of Lairs (p. 76) and REF5 Lords of Darkness (pgs. 61 & 66). Of the other types, it is not certain whether or not they can freely pass through non-living material. One clue, however, is found in the description of the wraithform spell (Unearthed Arcana, p. 69): “[while in wraithform] The illusionist will be able to pass through small holes or narrow openings, even mere cracks…”. Therefore, it seems plausible that these undead can do so likewise. They cannot pass through walls and material objects, but can fit into the smallest of openings to seemingly appear out of nothingness.
Optionally, the DM may rule that polymorph is ineffective on non-corporeal undead due to their insubstantial forms.
Senses: The AD&D rulebooks contain no mention of what senses undead possess. It is reasonable that undead would have those senses that they once had while living (i.e. sight, hearing, touch, smell). Being creatures that primarily dwell in darkness, all undead have 90’ infravision (DMG, p. 59). One reference to undead vision is found in the module I12 Egg of the Phoenix (p. 18) where it is noted that skeletons and zombies are not affected within a darkness spell. Whether or not this special vision applies to all undead is unknown.
Optionally, you may wish to give intelligent undead a special sense that detects living things. This life sense would have a maximum range of 3”, and would be stopped by 1 foot or more of wood, 6 inches of stone, or 1 inch of metal.
State of Unlife: As creatures without the normal biological processes that the living possess, undead do not sleep and thus are immune to all forms of magical and non-magical sleep, including but are not limited to: sleep spell, sleep inducing abilities of monsters (e.g. a chasme’s drone ability), eyebite (sleep version), and symbol of sleep. They are also immune to the effects of aging (e.g. elixir of youth), withering (e.g. staff of withering), starvation, suffocation (footnote 5), drowning (footnote 5), disease (e.g. cause disease and irritation spells), nausea (e.g. stinking cloud spell, troglodyte stench, etc.), paralysis, poison (footnotes 6 & 7) (including cloudkill and poisonous gases), blood-drain, non-magical stunning, and cannot be struck unconscious. Furthermore, non-corporeal undead are immune to dismemberment, and suffer no damage from falling or crushing attacks (footnote 8). Pummeling attacks are ineffective on all types of undead (UA, p. 107). Grappling and overbearing will not work on non-corporeal undead, but might work on corporeal types, at the discretion of the DM. Furthermore, those touching undead that energy drain with unarmed attacks are subject to the effects of that attack form (DMG, p. 71). Cold Resistance: Immunity to cold and cold-based magics, as shown on the list above, is not consistently applied to all types of undead. Again, some corporeal and some non-corporeal types have it, as do some weaker and some more powerful undead. Presumably, undead are immune to cold because they are no longer living, warm-blooded beings, and do not need warmth to survive. There are a number of associations undead have with coldness, however. Most dwell in dank, dark places akin to graves, many have an aversion to sunlight (and are destroyed or rendered powerless in direct sunlight), some have chilling touch (e.g. shadows), and all are susceptible to fire-based attacks, magical or otherwise. It is reasonable that all types of undead would be immune to the effects of non-magical cold. Whether or not undead are resistant to magical cold beyond those types already listed as such — either fully or partially — is left to DM discretion. Negative Material Plane Connection: As noted previously, due to their connection with the Negative Material Plane, undead are immune to the effects of death magics. This includes such spells and effects such as death spell, energy drain (both spell and effect, including from other undead), finger of death, power word: kill, slay living (reverse of raise dead), sword of life stealing, and symbol of death. Healing magic is also ineffective on undead. As noted in the PHB (p. 43): "[cure light wounds] will not affect creatures without corporeal bodies, nor will it cure wounds of creatures not living or those which can be harmed only by iron, silver, and for magical weapons". This is because beneficial healing magics, like cure light wounds, originate from the Positive Material Plane. Similarly, use of harmful magics on this plane are either greatly diminished or impossible (and vice versa) (MoP, pgs. 29 & 54). Since their power and undead status originates from the Negative Material Plane, harming magics (i.e. the damage causing reverses of the cure and heal spells) are also ineffective on undead. Alien Mind: Because the mind of the undead does not function like that of a living creature, they are immune to all mind-influencing/ affecting spells and magical effects. These include, but are not limited to, the following: Advanced illusion, antipathy/sympathy, blindness (spell), cause fear, charm ability from a monster such as a vampire, harpy, succubus, etc., charm person, chaos, charm monster, cloak of fear, color spray, command, confusion (by spell or monster ability), deafness (spell), deck of illusions, demand (suggestion aspect only), demi-shadow magic*, demi-shadow monsters*, domination, elixir of madness, empathy, emotion, enthrall, ESP (spell, device, or monster ability), eyebite, eyes of charming, fascinate, feeblemind, fear (by spell, device, or monster ability), fire charm, forget, friends, fumble, geas, hallucinatory forest, hallucinatory terrain, hold person, hold monster, hypnotic pattern, hypnotism, illusion (by device or monster ability), illusionary script, improved phantasmal force, insanity (all forms), Leomund’s lamentable belaborment, magic jar, mass charm, mass suggestion, medallion of ESP, mirage arcana, mislead (illusion aspect of the spell only), paralyzation (by spell, device, or monster ability), permanent illusion, phantasmagoria, phantasmal force, phantasmal killer, phantom armor, philter of love, programmed illusion, quest, rainbow pattern, ray of enfeeblement, rod of beguiling, rod of rulership, scare, shades*, shadow magic*, shadow monsters*, staff of command, spectral force, suggestion, spook, symbol (discord, fear, hopelessness, insanity, & persuasion), Tasha’s uncontrollable hideous laughter, tempus fugit, vacancy (illusion aspect of the spell only), wand of illusion, weird. * Undead suffer damage from the “real” part of these spells, however. Holy Water: All types of undead are affected by holy water (DMG, p. 65), regardless of alignment. However, non-corporeal undead that can exist ethereally will not be affected by holy water while on that plane, unless the attacker is also in the Ethereal Plane. Turning/Commanding: Most undead can be turned by a cleric or paladin, or commanded by an evil cleric. Undead that cannot be turned are death knights, demi-liches, groaning spirits (banshee), haunts, penanggalan (while in human form), revenants, and skeletal warriors. Raise Dead: As noted in the spell description of the Players Handbook (p. 50), newly created undead — with the exception of skeletons — will be returned to life as long as they make a successful “resurrection survival” roll. Dispel Magic: This spell will destroy any undead created with an animate dead spell (q.v.). Moving Silently: As noted previously, undead are silent, making no noise when moving. This gives them a bonus to surprise opponents in most instances, and nullifies attempts to detect them by listening/hear noise.
1: Undead were usually human in their former existence, but in some instances, can be demi-human, humanoid, animal, or even a monster, depending on the type of undead. 2: There seems to be some contradictions concerning whether or not all undead draw their power from the Negative Material Plane as noted in the Unearthed Arcana (p. 104, “…those that draw power from that plane (such as many of the undead)”) and S2 White Plume Mountain (p. 12, “…a negative-energy being like an undead (except for ghouls and ghasts)”). 3: The Monster Manual (p. 72) states that mummies have “…existence on both the normal and the positive material planes” (my underlining). This reference to a Positive Material Plane connection is an anomaly inconsistent with all other undead types. Moreover, the statements in the PHB and DMG concerning undead’s connection to the Negative Material Plane would take precedence over this statement, as they were published at a later date than the MM. Read the above statement as “Negative Material Plane”, not “planes”. 4: The exact quotes are: Penanggalan (p. 71), “It is also immune (in either form) to all spells which attempt to control the mind or body, like other undead.”; Revenant (p.76), “Like other undead it is immune to all spells attempting to control or influence its mind or body.”; Son of Kyuss (p.83), “Like other undead, they are immune to mind-influencing spells.”; Yellow Musk Zombie (p.97), “However, like undead, it is immune to the effects of all mind-influencing spells such as charm, hold, illusion, sleep and so forth.” 5: The creators of the game never specifically addressed the issue of whether or not undead breathe air, and thus can suffocate or drown. Most likely, they considered this a priori knowledge known to players, thus did not see the need to make any reference concerning it. However, there are a few references that make it clear that undead do not need to breathe. One such example is noted in the AD&D Monster Manual II under the "juju zombie" heading. The entry states that these creatures can move quickly underwater "for they do not breathe" (p. 131). The only aquatic-specific undead found in the books are lacedons, a form of ghoul. However, they do not seem to have any qualities different from their terrestrial kin other than the fact that they live primarily in the water. Furthermore, the module X7 War Rafts of Kron features a sunken city located below the sea that is populated with spectres, wights, and wraiths. 6: As noted in the list of resistances, some, but not all, undead are listed as being immune to poison. The only other reference undead being immune to poison is found in the DMG (p. 164) concerning the poisonous touch side effect for artifacts and relics: “User has a poison touch which requires that humans and man-sized humanoids (but not undead) save versus poison whenever touched.” While this statement is specific to this particular side effect, there is little rationale for any poison affecting an undead. 7: It is entirely possible that special magical poisons that would affect ghouls, ghasts, and/or vampires would exist. Such draughts would be very rare, very costly, and very difficult to obtain. 8: Crushing damage includes such hazards as being caught in a landslide, squeezed between to closing walls, smashed under a stone block, and so forth. However, they are not immune to crushing damage inflicted by a creature with enough Hit Dice to effect monsters that can only be struck with magic weapons (see DMG, p. 75).
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