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Wights in D&D 3.5

October 3, 2021 1 comment

In Dragon #348 (October 2006), I wrote “Ecology of the Wight”. A lot of my original material as cut from the published version, so here it is. I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting.
I was hoping to include a link so you could buy the magazine online, but it doesn’t seem to be available on DriveThru or the DMs’ Guild. If anyone knows of a place where non-pirated copies can be obtained, please drop a link in the comments below. Thanks!


Advanced Wights: Non-Core Sources

This article assumes that the DM is only using the three core rulebooks, but DMs who have access to additional rulebooks and supplements will find more options for producing advanced wight characters.

Libris Mortis

In addition to general notes on undead characters and NPCs, this sourcebook contains much that will be useful to a DM planning a wight-centered adventure or campaign. The evolved undead template allows the creation of ancient and powerful individuals with spell-like abilities. Feats like Improved Energy Drain, Spell Drain, and Life Drain increase the power of the energy drain ability that wights share with many other undead creatures. Monstrous prestige classes include the lurking terror with its enhanced stealth abilities, and the tomb warden (only available to a wight who has already advanced by other means) which confers many useful abilities within the confines of a particular tomb complex. New undead creatures include the slaughter wight, which could make a good leader or champion, and several other monsters that might be found alongside wights in a barrow-field or necropolis.

Monster Manual II

Of most interest is the spellstitched template (page 215), which confers spellcasting ability on an undead creature. With their high Wisdom, wights gain access to first through third level spells by spellstitching – and gain some useful save bonuses – while only increasing their CR by one.

Savage Species

The emancipated spawn prestige class (page 75) is available to creatures and characters who became the spawn of an undead creature such as a wight, and who regain their independence after their creator has been destroyed. As they advance in this prestige class, emancipated spawn gradually remember the skills and class features that they had while living. The wight template (page 136) can be used to create variant wights based upon any humanoid creature.


Wight Lairs

Unless they are under the command of a necromancer or some other master, wights normally lair in tombs. As their full name of barrow-wights suggests, they are often found in earthen burial mounds, but they can make their lairs in any kind of tomb complex or necropolis. A wight lair will usually be the original burial-place of the oldest wight in the pack (sometimes called the master wight); younger wights are usually the spawn of that first individual.

Wight lairs are usually cramped, dark places. Narrow passages and low ceilings hamper weapon-using intruders and favor unarmed wights. They use their knowledge of their lair’s layout, along with secret doors and passages, to spring close-quarters attacks without having to advance under fire from spellcasters and ranged weapons. Labyrinths of short passages allow a pack of wights to surround intruders and attack from all sides; their Hide and Move Silently skills give them a good chance of gaining surprise. Shifting walls and other devices are sometimes used to confuse and disorient outsiders.

Wights’ acute senses and stealth skills make them skilled and dangerous ambushers. When faced with a strong party, their usual tactic is to try to pick off enemies one by one, draining their life energy at leisure and turning them against their former comrades as wight spawn.

A Sample Wight Lair

The map shows a typical barrow where wights might be found. Built millennia ago to house the honored dead of a long-forgotten people, it is built of stone, filled in with dirt and rubble between the walls. Its front is dominated by a curved façade of monumental stones.

Inside, a narrow passage leads past a number of empty tombs (which might hold minor encounters such as rat or spider swarms) to an apparent dead end. The rubble is a decoy, though, intended to distract intruders while 4-5 wights use the secret passages to get behind them. They will not attack right away, but will follow stealthily until the adventurers are busy fighting the rest of the wights in the narrow confines of the two pillar rooms. Then they will mount a surprise attack, surrounding the trespassers and using their energy drain and create spawn abilities.

The four rooms at the far end of the barrow belong to the king and queen, who may be more powerful than the others (see Advanced Wights above). The treasury contains a little treasure (note that wights normally have none). The king’s tomb is hidden by a secret door in the back of his stone throne, and may contain some magical treasures or other special items.


Finding Wights

Wights are not only found in dark barrows on lonely, mist-wrapped moors. Here are a few ideas for placing them in other locations.

The Dead Below

From their headquarters in an abandoned catacomb beneath a city’s oldest cemetery, a powerful band of wights can use sewers, thieves’ tunnels, and other underground passages to reach almost anywhere. Moving mainly by night, they remain unseen and unheard as much as possible, ambushing unwary victims returning home from the city’s hostelries and other unfortunates who are outside after dark. Their ultimate goal may simply be to survive undetected, or they may have come to the city in search of an ancient treasure that was stolen from their leader by grave-robbers, and which now rests in the vaults of the thieves’ guild, or the academy of magic.

Fortress of Nightmares

The wights’ stronghold is heavily defended, both above and below ground, with multiple entry and exit points through small tombs and mausolea nearby. In addition, the wights may have control of swarms of vermin, rats, and the like, as well as alliances with other undead creatures – especially lawful evil undead – that make their home in the cemetery. These undead allies may not fight alongside the wights, but they might inform them of adventurers headed their way, or mount surprise hit-and-run attacks on living trespassers who are already engaged in fighting the wights.

The Forbidden Island

A remote island also makes a suitable home for a pack of wights, especially if it is dotted with the remnants of a lost civilization. If no living souls have set foot on the island for a long time, the wights’ hunger for life energy will make them particularly aggressive. Their first act will probably be to disable any watercraft or other means of escape from the island, and then pick off stragglers or scouts to reduce the visitors’ numbers before mounting an all-out attack by night. They may set traps in the thick jungle of the islands, or among the rubble-choked ruins.

Not Just Mummies

Desert tomb complexes – with or without pyramids – also make good homes for wights. Adventurers will probably expect to find mummies in such locations, and wights will take them by surprise, at least initially. If the wights are dressed in scraps of bandage, the confusion over their true nature may last beyond the first encounter – and nothing worries adventurers more than not knowing what they are up against. True mummies can act as leaders or elite fighters, and spellcasting mummy lords can make up for their comrades’ lack of magic.


My Complete and Utter D&D Bibliography

Everything I have published for various editions, starting in 1982. Includes links to some free downloads.
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Rookery Publications

My Top Five RPG Monster Books

January 18, 2020 13 comments

Ever since I saw Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts on my parents’ black-and-white TV, I have been obsessed with monsters – especially those from myth and folklore. In my first D&D game, I played two thief characters, both of them killed by a minotaur. In the Games Workshop printing of the basic rulebook, I saw other names I recognized, and I was hooked right away.

I still love monsters, mythology and folklore, and monster books are still among my favorite types of tabletop roleplaying supplement. In this post I will discuss some of my favorites, looking especially at what each one offers the reader beyond the basic description and stat block.

Some of these are old – very old, but then so am I! – and there may very well be newer, even better books out there that I have not yet seen. If that’s the case, let me know! The comments section is right there at the bottom of the page. I’ll look forward to reading your views, and discussing what makes a monster book good, or great, or amazing.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Monster Manual 3.5

D&D Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual tabletop roleplaying rpg monsters Wizards of the Coast TSR

The original Monster Manual from 1977 was a landmark product in many ways, and just about every monster supplement published since has been influenced by it. Still, the 3.5 edition is better in my opinion. This is for three main reasons:

First, each monster description includes a ‘Combat’ section which covers the creature’s combat-related abilities and its preferred tactics. This makes it far easier to design encounters and run combats.

Second, the chapters at the back of the book – Improving Monsters, Making Monsters, and Monster Feats – make the book far more than just another collection of creatures. Following their instructions, the DM can customize monsters and create new monsters, providing the sort of endless variety that will keep players on their toes.

Finally, the list of monsters by challenge rating saves a lot of trouble when creating adventures. Page for page, it might even be the most valuable part of the book.

Today, no self-respecting monster book would be without these three features, and that makes the 3.5 Monster Manual something of a milestone.

Buy it at DriveThruRPG.

Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors

Petersen Chaosium, Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying tabletop rpg horrors monsters Lovecraft

There are Cthulhu Mythos monster books aplenty, but Petersen’s Field Guide stands out. It starts with a jokey-looking flowchart titled “Identifying Monsters of the Mythos” which is actually very useful indeed.

Fifty-three full colour spreads describe monsters in detail, including brief notes on their habitat, distribution, life and habits, and distinguishing features. A full-page main image is supplemented by sketches and notes illustrating different life stages and other peculiarities, as well as a human image for scale reference.

The lack of game stats is both a positive and a negative feature. On the one hand, they are something that readers expect in a monster book published by a game company; on the other, their absence makes the book system-independent. There are a lot of Mythos-based games on the market, from Call of Cthulhu to Delta Green to Arkham Horror, and their various rulebooks provide game stats for  pretty much all of the creatures covered here.

The book ends with an extensive bibliography, covering game supplements, fiction, and other sources. The section headed “Bibliography for Other Monsters” winks at the reader, for its contents are entirely fictional. However, it makes a great list of documents for player characters to find in-game.

One very nice touch is the provision of initial letters on the page edge. This makes it very quick and easy to riffle through to the creature you are looking for.

Buy it from Chaosium.com.

Old World Bestiary

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Old World Bestiary 2nd edition tabletop roleplaying rpg WFRP momnsters

I’m allowed to like this one, because I didn’t work on it. Packed full of grimdark Warhammer atmosphere, it is broken into two parts. The first presents common knowledge about various creatures, consisting of equal parts useful information, rumor, and prejudice, while the second, aimed at the GM, contains the more familiar descriptions, stat blocks, and rules for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s second edition rules.

The presentation works well enough, and although it can sometimes be annoying having to flip back and forth to find everything on a particular creature, the atmospheric material is gold for a GM who needs something to tell a player who just made a successful Lore or Research roll. Another nice feature is the appendix of hit location tables for different body plans.

Buy it at DriveThruRPG.

GURPS Fantasy Folk

GURPS Fantasy Folk Steve Jackson Games Tabletop Roleplaying rpg Monsters

Fantasy Folk differs from a standard monster book (such as GURPS Fantasy Bestiary) in that it looks in depth at 24 races, providing enough detail on each one’s ecology, culture, and politics to create an almost endless variety of NPCs from each– and player characters too, if desired.

Centaurs, great eagles, and other non-humanoid races are covered in addition to the usual elves, dwarves, goblins, and so on. Best of all, each race is provided with a worked example of a character – essentially a detailed NPC, ready to go – and a selection of adventure seeds.

While most GMs will not use every single race in this book, it offers a solid starting-point for developing races for use in a campaign. Better still – and perhaps without meaning to – it provides a template for describing fantasy races of one’s own, which is far better than starting from a blank screen.

Buy it from Steve Jackson Games.

Trollpak

Trollpak Chaosium RungeQuest Glorantha tabletop roleplaying rpg troll

Chaosium’s Trollpak for RuneQuest was one of the first tabletop roleplaying supplements to describe a single race in detail, and it is still worth reading if you can find a copy. The boxed set consists of three booklets: Uz Lore (“Uz” being the trolls’ name for themselves) covers their nature and history, The Book of Uz presents rules and information on playing troll characters, and Into Uzdom is a selection of adventures. Also included are two more adventures and a 22” x 17” map of the troll heartlands.

Both atmospheric and useful, Trollpak sets a standard that is hard to beat even now, and anyone planning a single-race roleplaying supplement would be well advised to study it. There is much here worth plundering.

Buy it from Chaosium.com.

Honorable Mentions

In addition to these five, I have to mention two series of magazine articles that, to my mind, significantly advanced the art and craft of rpg monster descriptions.

The “Ecology of…” series in Dragon magazine established a very good format for looking at monsters in greater detail than the Monster Manual allowed. Sections on history (including, where appropriate, a short box on the creature’s origins in myth and folklore), physiology, psychology and society, and lair design offer invaluable information to the DM, and notes on the creature’s presence in various D&D campaign settings are useful to those who set their campaigns there. The sweetest meat, though, is saved for last: options for developing advanced versions of the creature, with at least one worked example. Like GURPS Fantasy Folk, these articles also establish a template which can be used for developing monsters of your own, which can only enhance both the monsters and the campaign setting.

Before the first “Ecology” article appeared in Dragon, though, TSR’s British arm published a short-lived magazine called Imagine. It ran to only thirty issues but contained a lot of innovative material – including the “Brief Encounters” articles. These presented a single new monster using a showcase encounter which was specially written to demonstrate everything that was new and interesting about it. Brief Encounters continued in Imagine’s even shorter-lived successor, the indie magazine GM Publications, and when most of the staff from both magazines joined Games Workshop, there was talk of re-using the format for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. However, the only published fruit of this effort was “Terror in the Darkness” in White Dwarf 108, which introduced a creature from the Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader rulebook to the Old World. More about that here.


These are my particular favorites, and I’m sure you will have your favorites too. I’m sure I have missed a great many very fine monster books, particularly given the way tabletop rpgs have proliferated in recent years. So don’t be shy – let me know about your favorites in the comments section. I’m always up for discovering a new monster book.

At some time in the future, too, I will set modesty aside and look at some of the monster books that I’ve worked on over the years, explaining what I was trying to achieve with each one and discussing how well I succeeded – or didn’t. (I did. It’s here.)

I’m looking forward to reading your comments and suggestions!