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Ask the Kobold: Undead and Constitution

Skip Williams is one of the designers of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. He’s also a regular columnist for Kobold Quarterly. We ran out of room in the upcoming issue for his Ask the Kobold column, so we’re running those questions here on the site, together with Skip’s insights on game design decisions. Enjoy!

QUESTION: I’m wondering if all undead creatures should receive a special quality that lets them add their Charisma bonus as bonus hit points (in the same fashion as a Constitution bonus), and perhaps as a bonus to Fortitude saves as well. There seems to be a general trend towards this with newer undead monsters (such as several from the Pathfinder series, which have the Unholy Fortitude power).

This seems like a pretty good idea to me, because even with 12-sided hit dice, most undead creatures don’t have enough hit points to be really durable melee opponents. At best, they serve as special attack users that typically survive just long enough to deliver their special attacks once or twice.

If I did decide to implement such a rule, then what would this be worth in terms of the Challenge Rating, and the level adjustment of undead creatures that normally do not have such a special quality? [Answer from the Kobold…]

ANSWER: I don’t think giving undead bonus hit points for Charisma is a bad idea at all, especially if all you want to do is make undead in your campaign a little bit tougher overall. If you’re trying to create a new undead creature that is a particularly tough combatant, there are better ways (see the “Undead and Ability Scores” section below.)

In most cases, this change ought not to affect challenge rating at all. If the change winds up increasing overall hit points by more than 20% or so, a challenge rating bump of +1 might be in order, but only a playtest will tell. An additional level adjustment probably isn’t necessary, though a level adjustment increase of +1 might be in order for undead creatures with fairly high racial hit dice or level adjustments already, say five or more hit dice or a level adjustment of +3 or higher. The bigger the creature’s level adjustment, the less likely that you’ll render it unsuitable for a player character when you increase the level adjustment.

Keep in mind also that not every undead creature has a decent Charisma score. If you give all undead a hit point adjustment for Charisma, you’ll probably want to make sure most undead in your campaign have Charisma scores of at least 10 (so they don’t wind up losing hit points). This is less inappropriate than it sounds. There is good reason to assume undead are creatures of indomitable will, after all, they manage to exist beyond death.

As for Fortitude saves, undead creatures usually ignore the need to attempt Fortitude saving throws (see the description for the undead creature type in the Monster Manual), so a Charisma-based bonus to Fortitude won’t have a great deal of impact on play.

Undead and Ability Scores
Undead creatures lack Constitution scores because they’re not alive. On the whole, that’s a boon for them—they don’t worry about sleeping, eating, breathing, poison, critical hits, and a whole raft of other bad things. Unfortunately for them, it also means they don’t get any bonus hit points for high Constitution scores, and they can’t linger at the edge of existence when they run out of hit points.

To offset the lack of bonus hit points, we gave undead creatures 12-sided hit dice. This does not turn them into particularly tough foes. With the benefit of hindsight, I’d probably give undead 10-sided hit dice and allow them to use their Charisma modifiers in lieu of Constitution for hit points and Fortitude saves (for those times when they need to make Fortitude saves). Applying that change retroactively to an existing would be problematical, and I don’t recommend it unless the undead’s lack of hit points really bothers you.

It’s true that most undead creatures last only long enough in combat to deliver a special attack once or twice, but there’s nothing wrong with that because undead special attacks tend to be unpleasant at best. A few undead monsters actually do have considerable staying power in combat.

The mummy’s DR of 5/— can make it a chore to beat down. The mummy has that vulnerability to fire thing going, but you can eliminate that in several ways. Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz introduced one years ago—complete fire resistance. (Asbestos wrappings anyone?) You also can place mummies in an are where fire won’t work at all (airless or magically countered) or impractical (such as a cavern filled with explosive gas that will incinerate the PCs along with the mummies). Of course, there’s no reason to limit a mummy, or other combat-oriented undead creature, to DR 5/—. You can inch up the reduction and make the creature even tougher.

The vampire’s fast healing and superior mobility can make it incredibly tough. Add in the extra hit points it can gain through its energy drain power and a vampire can absorb unbelievable physical punishment before it goes down to defeat.

Finally, incorporeal undead can prove tough to defeat because of the 50% incorporeal miss chance. A fight against a spectre or wraith can literally drag on, especially if the dice rolls for the miss chance go against the party. Of course, a force effect or a ghost touch weapon can help negate that, but even then an incorporeal creature can find cover just about anywhere and can frustrate many attempts to damage it.

So, undead creatures need not be vulnerable in combat.

Got a question? Ask the Kobold!

2 Replies to "Ask the Kobold: Undead and Constitution"

James A

July 16, 2009 at 3:18am

Do you know the design reasons behind the change to the Bag of Holding from 2nd Edition to 3.X?

James A

July 16, 2009 at 3:19am

ignore the above, submitted question incorrectly =(