On the undead (Them Deeper Bones, design diary 5)
Them Deeper Bones is my OSR-adjacent retro adventure game. The current full text (as of writing, version a.8.0) of Them Deeper Bones can be found in Google Drive. This time I’m quickly going to talk about the generic undead number 1 and number 2 — the skeleton and the zombie and how I ignored my purpose and almost made them into a problem.
One thing that I realised soon after I started writing Them Deeper Bones was that I was going to have an undead problem. The core tension in the game is between the past and the present and one of the best classic fantasy canon enemies to represent this is the undead — those that have died in the past, but come back to haunt us now. There are a few others, but the walking dead are that classic one.
So I wrote the skeleton to be a part of the monster list pretty early on. I took a look at how it was done in BECMI and adjusted the numbers to fit Them Deeper Bones. The only thing I wondered for a moment was how to deal with the lack of “turn undead” ability in the game, and doodled some mechanics to replace it. I didn’t really think much more about it. The description I had was as follows:
Animated by otherworldly energies, skeletons are undead creatures often found near cemeteries, in catacombs and other abandoned places. If created by a magic-user, they follow their creator’s command to the very end. If not, they move on their own volition with a single-minded hate of the living.
Can you see the issue?
Is the “past vs. present” angle present anywhere in the monster I created? Not really. There’s the mention of where they can be found and those have something to do with the past, so if you squint, you sort of can combine it with the idea… but other than that, the skeleton is something that … exists. Or is created by a magic-user? What? How is that the past vs. the present.
So it was boring. A generic enemy with no point to it in the grand scheme of things. And the game of course needs those, but the undead should be central to the themes.
This wasn’t working. I kept pushing the decision to do something further. And further. And the skeleton was there, taunting me.
So, a few versions ago I tossed the skeleton out of the manuscript. If it doesn’t fit, it might as well go away.
I know it’ll be back at some point, but as it was written, it was diluting the text. A removal is kind of a cop-out answer for a design diary like this, but sometimes, it’s better to cut and rethink instead of forcing something to stay in just because you want it there.
With skeletons always come the zombies. And I started them same way, not having learned anything. I copied the stats from what was the generic undead number two. A warrior that had bit different resistances than the generic undead one. I was looking at it and … It’s boring, right?
Instead of going the skeleton route, I actually caught this early on, and asked the question of “what are zombies to me?” And something that’s bleak in these times of a global pandemic was my answer— zombies represent the plague. They are our loved ones who died from the disease, and also the disease itself that spreads. They’re not some magically animated guardians that serve as the rank and file of a necromancer’s army. They’re a representative of the very recent past and our regrets. That’s a deep and bleak description for a fantasy monster, but it was something I wanted the zombies to feel like.
So I turned to learn from the master, and remodelled my zombies after Romero’s work. They became plague zombies. The prose isn’t perfect, but at least it serves a purpose.
Whatever is the cause, the dead walk. They are driven by the need to consume the flesh of intelligent creatures. Zombies spread their condition to those they kill and don’t fully consume, and if not kept in check, a few zombies can quite easily turn into an apocalyptic plague.
These are the recent past coming back to haunt us, and forcing us to deal with it now. Something that fits the design tenet. The zombies are staying in the game. And I will do something to the skeletons to make them as thematically fitting as their generic undead number two mates.
I want the undead to be there as a concrete monster to link the game to the past. And I want to give them the attention they deserve. I think not having standard necromantic rank-and-file fodder is something fantasy gamers might not expect, but I know the decisions will make the game better.