If you’ve been following the blog, then you probably know that I turned one of my players’ characters into a will-o’-wisp. Whoops.
And that meant I had to create both a new player race and class to accommodate this change. But I forgot one big thing: backgrounds! Of course, the problem with undead is that they don’t operate like normal monsters. Like Keith Ammann of TheMonstersKnow.com often points out, undead aren’t so much as free-thinking things, but more like automatons that are driven by compulsions.
Therefore, I need to create something similar for playable will-o’-wisps.
Sometimes, when I’m working through a design (especially one I haven’t really done yet), I like to break it down and reverse engineer its parts. Fortunately, the Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook, and Dungeon Master’s Guide in Fifth Edition act like the perfect Rosetta Stone for figuring out these mechanics.
What role do backgrounds serve in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons?
Backgrounds have a few important elements.
One major, intangible element that backgrounds offer is simply giving the characters a third dimension beyond race and class. It used to be that a human fighter was a human fighter was a human fighter. “I stand in front of monsters and hit them until they don’t hit back anymore.” But now you can make your human fighter an acolyte that’s spent his/her time serving a temple, or even a sage learned in the ways of war. An elven wizard might be a hardened criminal or a paranoid hermit. The halfling rogue might come from a noble lineage or be a salty sailor.
Another element that backgrounds offer are suggested characteristics. While it’s possible for players to come up with their own characteristics, the background characteristics fit the tone and fluff of the background more and help offer some interesting cues. Furthermore, the ideals mold the character’s alignment choice.
Game mechanics-wise, backgrounds give your character a few more minor features:
- Skill proficiencies. Typically, you get two skill proficiencies that fit with the background’s fluff.
- Tool proficiencies. Probably a little underused (at least in my campaigns), this more or less is a profession-related “mini-skill” outside of the normal skill selections.
- Languages. A few backgrounds offer extra languages.
- Equipment. In addition to whatever it is that you start with as part of your class, the background equipment helps shape your character’s appearance and fluff.
- Features. The background features are typically “roleplaying powers” that often give you the ability to stay at certain places overnight for free, NPCs to interact with in-game, etc.
What are compulsions?
There’s a lot of benefits that go into being an undead. However, those benefits are balanced by a few negative factors.
First, it’s tough as hell to heal. Without regeneration or rejuvenation, take enough damage to destroy you and that’s it. Onto the after-afterlife.
There are the roleplaying ramifications, too. A lich can’t just walk into town and have a beer. I mean, he could, but he probably wouldn’t last long. As an undead, you have to keep a pretty low profile or the villagers will break out the pitchforks and torches.
Finally, all undead are driven by compulsions, all-consuming obsessive habits that they must fulfill. Vampires need blood. Liches need knowledge. And will-o’-wisps must destroy life.
So when I go to create a compulsion mechanic for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, I want to make sure that a) helps balance all the other goodness that comes with being undead and b) isn’t so obnoxious it makes the character unplayable.
Backgrounds and compulsions for will-o’-wisps.
The trouble with the backgrounds for will-o’-wisps is that none of them really make sense. Take, for example, the criminal background. You have skill proficiencies in Deception and Stealth (which kind of makes sense), but then you have proficiencies with a game set (lol wut?) and set of thieves’ tool. Being ephemeral/incorporeal, none of these really help.
They can’t use equipment, so those lists are totally shot. And finally, the features and suggested characteristics don’t really gel with an undead creature.
Instead of backgrounds, I think the solution here is simple: replace backgrounds with compulsions which function more or less the same way backgrounds do but with a few minor tweaks:
- No tool proficiencies. Because some of the undead classes such as the will-o’-wisp and others I plan to create may not always have corporeal bodies (wraiths, wisps, banshees, etc), it doesn’t make sense to give them tools. Instead, they use their inherent powers to perform complicated tasks.
- No equipment. You can’t carry things with you into the afterlife, therefore, it doesn’t make sense to have equipment. Plus, some undead classes will assume that you might already have gear (like if you become a revenant or a lich).
- Languages. Some undead races and classes are tied closely to other evil beings. Therefore, it makes sense to have some bonus languages.
- Lair. Instead of the “feature” which helps with your adventuring, you have a lair, a place that you can recover and recharge (sometimes literally). As you grow in stature, your lair might even become more powerful.
- Compulsion. The heart of the compulsion element is, of course, the compulsion itself. This is what drives you to exist in undeath and comes with certain agonies if you’re unable to satisfy these compulsions. These work like downtime activities that a character must do or suffer charisma damage.
- Suggested characteristics. These more or less stay the same as backgrounds but fit better with being undead.
Here are two new compulsions for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition: cursed soul and servant. These compulsions take the place of backgrounds for undead characters.
Prerequisite: undead race or class
Undeath is not a welcome state as far as you’re concerned. You see it as a curse despite its many benefits and hope to find a way to end it. Ever since becoming a creature of the dark, you have worked hard to find a way to undo it. In fact, it’s all you think about. Each day that passes feels like a year, this horrible condition tearing at your very soul.
Skill Proficiencies: Arcana, Religion
Lair: Hidden From the World. Embarrassed by your undead state, you’ve hidden from the living. Your lair could be an abandoned house, perhaps even the one you used to live in life. Or you could make your home the hollow of a tree in some primeval forest, or the ruins of an ancient temple. While in your lair, you gain the full benefits of a long rest in half the time it normally takes.
Compulsion: Remove the Curse. You are obsessed with ending your undead state and returning to natural life. Once a week, you must devote time to researching a method to undo your curse.
- Resources. You must spend at least four hours and 25 gp in expenses to discover a way to end your curse. Spending more time and money increases your chance of finding a clue.
- Resolution. You make (your choice of) an Intelligence (Arcana) or Intelligence (Religion) check to determine whether or not you discover a secret to ending your curse. You gain a +1 bonus on the check for every four hours beyond the first four spent performing research and a +1 bonus for every additional 25 gp spent, up to a maximum bonus of +10. Determine how many clues you learn using the Research Outcomes table below.
You fail to find a meaningful clue and become frustrated by your lack of progress. Your Charisma score is reduced by 1d4 points (see below).
You fail to find a meaningful clue but still maintain your composure and sense of self.
You discover one clue.
You discover two clues.
You discover three clues.
- Charisma Loss. If you are unable to perform research or roll poorly on the research outcomes table, your compulsion begins to consume your thoughts–your Charisma score is reduced by 1d4. You lose all sense of self and become possessed by your compulsion if this reduces your Charisma to 0. At that point, the DM takes over your character and your character is effectively dead. The reduction lasts until the next time you roll an 11 or higher on the research outcomes table.
Suggested Characteristics. Cursed souls are constantly tormented by their current state of being. While they try their best to maintain a positive outlook on the world, the overwhelming desire to end their curse sometimes makes interactions with others difficult.
|1||While I want to be close to others, I keep a distance, as I’m fearful of what I could become.|
|2||I try to keep a good sense of humor about my condition. Call it “grave humor”, if you will.|
|3||I’m prone to angry outbursts or walking away in the middle of a conversation.|
|4||Despite everything that has happened to me, I remain optimistic no matter the odds.|
|5||I fidget constantly. Can’t help it, though. Ending this curse is always on my mind.|
|6||Those around me are probably tired of hearing me remind mention that I’m undead and I hate it.|
|7||I speak in short, succinct sentences.|
|8||Being dead already, I have no problem taking risks I would not have normally taken in life.|
|1||Focus. Nothing can distract me from my goal. (Neutral)|
|2||Heroic. I won’t let what happen to me happen to others. (Good)|
|3||Recklessness. I hate what’s happened to me, and don’t care who gets in the way of me finding a cure; I’ll destroy them. (Chaotic)|
|4||Redemption. There’s a reason this happened to me and I must understand why. (Good)|
|5||Malevolence. Damn those who still live. They should know the torment I know! (Evil)|
|6||Opportunity. Now that I’m undead, I have advantages that I did not have before. (Any)|
|1||My family doesn’t know what has happened to me and I’m too afraid to tell them.|
|2||This curse happened because of a wrong that was done to me and I will have my revenge!|
|3||Not only do I hope to understand my own nature, but I hope to understand the nature of others like me as well.|
|4||An old, wise scholar is interested in studying me and has offered his/her help in discovering how to end this curse.|
|5||There is a hunter of the undead that is stalking me. I have to tread carefully.|
|6||I once met another undead that was the same as me. I have not been able to find them since.|
|1||The presence of the living disgusts me.|
|2||My mood can turn dark and stay that way for days.|
|3||I often forget my manners when around the living.|
|4||My mind swirls with thoughts of killing others, even my friends and family.|
|5||The reason for my undeath lead to the death of a close friend or family member. If the others discover this, they may not be as accepting of my nature.|
|6||All I truly care about is ending my curse. This is more important to me than anything or anyone else.|
Prerequisite: undead race or class
Not only are you undead, but you are the undying servant of a powerful being. Your attachment to this foe shapes your very existence, and failure to comply with his/her commands could erase your entire sense of self.
Choose a fiend, powerful wizard, or some other dominant force as your master. Work with your DM to detail the nature of this service. Did you trade your eternal soul to your master in exchange for something trivial, or did you sacrifice your freedom to help others? Are you comfortable in your relationship with the one you are bound to or do you wish to free yourself from this bondage? Perhaps you are more than just a servant, but a student, learning all you can from another wiser being. Your master may not even be the one responsible for your undead nature; they’re just the one that controls you.
Skill Proficiencies. Insight, Performance
Languages. One of your choice (one that your master knows)
Master. Your master is a forceful, commanding presence, typically a powerful evil creature or spellcaster. It’s likely that you’re not their only servant, but one of many who all share the same fate as you. You can select your master from the Master table or roll randomly.
|17-18||Necromancer (12th-level or higher)|
Lair: Master’s Home. You are only comfortable when you are in the presence of your master. Your master’s home depends on the nature of your master. A vampire master may live in a tall, gothic castle, whereas a hag cover may live in a treehouse in some misbegotten swamp. While in your master’s home and within 100 feet of your master, you gain the full benefits of a long rest in half the time it normally takes.
Compulsion: Obey. When your master speaks, you listen. And when your master directs you to do something, you must follow those orders without question. Otherwise, you begin to lose all sense of yourself.
- Resources. You must spend at least four hours per week communicating with your master either in person or through some other means. Any orders that your master gives, be they short term or long term, you must follow… or at least convince them that you followed the orders.
- Resolution. You must make a Charisma (Deception, Persuasion, or Performance) check to convince your master that you have not only accomplished or furthered along the tasks they asked of you, but you went above and beyond what was asked. If you accomplished a significant part of the task and you have not run out of time to do so, you add +1 to your check. And if you have completely finished your task, you add +5 to the check.
Your master is very dissatisfied with your performance. You lose 1d4 Charisma (see below).
Your master is not happy with your performance but chooses not to punish you. Next time, though, your master will expect better results. Until you are able to accomplish your current tasks, all Charisma ability checks you make when dealing with your master are made with disadvantage.
Your master is satisfied with your performance.
Your master is extremely satisfied with your performance. Until the next time you fail in performing a task, all Charisma ability checks you make when dealing with your master are made with advantage.
- Charisma loss. Displeasing your master of failing to report to your master results in a loss of self; your Charisma score is reduced by 1d4 points. You lose all sense of self and become possessed by your compulsion if this reduces your Charisma score to 0. At that point, the DM takes over your character and your character is effectively dead. The reduction lasts until you the next time you roll an 11 or higher on the reporting outcome table.
Suggested Characteristics. As a servant, you must balance two opposing forces: the part of you that is still aware of who you are and once were, and the part of you that must follow your master’s commands. This internal conflict often leads to troublesome personality quirks.
|1||Sarcasm and wit are the only things that help me keep my senses together.|
|2||Regardless of how I see my master, I am a perfectionist and must always do my best to impress.|
|3||It’s rare that I speak a sentence that doesn’t include a mention of my master.|
|4||I am constantly looking for loopholes in my master’s commands.|
|5||There is a reason I am in the position that I am, and I accept my lot (even if I hate it).|
|6||The only person I won’t lie to is my master.|
|7||I spend almost as much time trying to find a way to escape my master’s bondage than I do following his/her orders.|
|8||I have a disgusting habit or trait that unnerves everyone around me (including my master).|
|1||Greater Good. I follow the commands of my master to prevent something possibly even worse from happening to others. (Good)|
|2||Obedience. Not only do I follow my master’s every command, but I strive to achieve my tasks as quickly and perfectly as possible. (Lawful)|
|3||Passive Aggressive. I follow my master’s orders but often make it known my reluctance to do so and will work to undermine him/her any chance I get. (Chaotic)|
|4||Cruelty. I take my master’s orders as an opportunity to cause violence even if there is no call for any. (Evil)|
|5||Manipulate. Even in my greatest failures, I always find ways to blame others so I remain a shining star in the eyes of my master. (Lawful)|
|6||Freedom. I constantly strive to find a way to overpower, outwit or destroy my master in order to free myself from this bondage. (Any)|
|1||I entered bondage to protect my friends and family from the wrath and misdeeds of my master.|
|2||Despite my lack of freedom, I believe in my master’s plan and work tirelessly to please him/her.|
|3||Another undead creature in the same situation as me has encouraged me to rise up against my master. Plus, they’ve discovered one of my master’s weaknesses.|
|4||I was tricked by my master in exchange for a trivial reward. I now regret it.|
|5||My master killed everyone I ever knew and loved. Defeated, I now follow him/her because I have nothing else to lose.|
|6||I loved my master before undeath and now serve him/her to prove my undying love.|
|1||Whenever I feel that I am failing to live up to my master’s expectations I fly into a rage.|
|2||I always speak my mind even if it could mean upsetting my master.|
|3||Deadlines aren’t important to me, and I often procrastinate with even the simplest tasks.|
|4||I’m terrible at keeping secrets, even if those secrets could threaten my relationship with my master.|
|5||My aspirations often get in the way of everything else and I’m terrible at hiding my true intentions.|
|6||I am a sniveling coward that hides behind my master.|
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Hopefully, these undead compulsions can add some flavor to your own campaigns that involve undead. So far, I’ve created the will-o’-wisp race/class for you to play, but you can expect a few more over the coming weeks.
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See you next time!