The elemental nature of the undead of Pellatarum
by Demonic Bunny
Given the strongly elemental nature of Pellatarrum, and the manner in which the elements affect the world, it only makes sense that Pellatarran undead are influenced by the elements as well.
There are two main qualities of undead, mindless and true, and the latter group can further be divided into the four elemental categories of apathetic, obsessive, raging and fearsome. An undead may be sorted into one of these categories based upon the nature of its death, whether or not it was properly buried, and if it rose to unlife through necromancy or through natural exposure to elemental and necrotic energies.
Mindless undead have no soul and are not necessarily created from the body of an intelligent being. They are animated by negative energy in a manner similar to golems and other constructs, and may be created from any once-living material. This is because decaying flesh and plant life absorbs negative (necrotic) energy fairly easily, and a corpse has already-existing joints and musculature -- which, depending on the skill of the necromancer involved, often makes the the difference between ”fearsome shambling undead” and ”something repulsive that ineffectually writhes on the ground”.
For example, the zombie template can cover everything from a reanimated corpse to a vaguely humanoid negative energy construct created from mud and blood. It would be wrong, however, to think of the mindless undead as mere automatons. The necrotic energy infusing them makes them, in effect, an extension of the Negative Material Plane, and as such it is often hard to tell where the creature ends and the will of the plane begins. On Pellatarum, mindless undead are sometimes created through necromantic magic, but most often rise due to exposure to naturally-occurring necrotic energies. Once risen, they usually do not pose a great threat unless they are present in sufficiently large numbers (mob-sized or larger), or there is a greater undead presence controlling them. To necromancers and higher forms of true undead, finding already-risen mindless undead is akin to discovering that you have a new pair of limbs that ache to be flexed.
Mindless undead, by their very nature, do not possess any elemental qualities, and are animated solely through negative energy.
True undead are always the undead remains of an intelligent being, and their manifestations (even if incorporeal) are tied to their mortal remains. True undead can be divided into four categories, each associated with one of the four elements and sharing the nature of their element. True undead are, without exception, more powerful than the mindless undead, but their free will and independence makes them a troublesome and two-edged blade to necromancers.
The Apathetic Undead
There is a reason why burial is the most common funeral rite in Pellatarum. As noted earlier, the effects of elemental earth are stasis, apathy and inaction, and this effect is far more potent against the undead than the living. Some scholars speculate that this is a deliberate design feature of Pellatarum, and that the dwarves chose to alienate themselves (to a degree) from their own element in order to safeguard their creation against undeath.
When used for consecrated burial (wherein the cleric or adept uses a variation of the 1st level spell Bless Water to convert a small amount of salt into elemental earth and imbue it with a minor amount of positive energy*), the pacifying effects of elemental earth remain the number one obstacle for any would-be necromancer. In areas where good burial practices are observed, it is usually impossible for necromancers to raise any large quantities of undead, as the properly-buried prefer to stay within their graves.
Even though they are not marauding, the presence of apathetic undead can still be noticed as a general sense of uneasiness about a place: animals become skittish and distraught; there is a feeling of being watched or otherwise not alone; plants are warped or stunted; and other eerie effects, such as dramatic weather, occur.
Examples of apathetic undead: The early stages of a Bonefield (before everything goes wrong).
The Obsessive Undead
The undead associated with the element of air are those which are trapped by their obsessions. They tend to be place-bound and focused on a single task. Typical tasks include protecting their descendants, bringing their murderers to justice, or some other grievance that haunted them at their moment of death. Likewise, if a gravesite is exposed to strong winds (windswept hills, deserts and plains, etc) there is a chance that undead will rise that would have otherwise stayed put.
Notable areas of obsessive undead infestation are ancient barrows. Low hills that were once covered with groves of trees, sacred to the people that raised them, but have long since been deforested and exposed to the winds. Now all that remains are the grass-covered hills and the undead who jealously guard the goods that followed them into the grave.
Examples of Obsessive undead: Ghosts, Revenants and Barrow-Wights.
The Raging Undead
The unthinking rage of fire and the eternal hatred of the living means that raging undead are rarely subtle or something you can ignore. They can quickly devastate a very large area unless they are swiftly and decisively dealt with. Raging undead tend to rise if the deceased experienced feelings of intense hatred or fury at the moment of death (typically violent forms of death such as murder or being slain in combat), or if the remains are exposed to fire or other forms of strong heat (deserts or volcanic landscapes). Even worse, those who have been cremated have a high likelihood of rising as incorporeal undead (in particular as ash wraiths, which manifest as a vaguely humanoid cloud of ash). As such, with the exception of the orcs and other savage goblinoids, cremation is shunned as a method of corpse disposal by all races.
Examples of Raging undead: Spectres, Wights, and the later stages of the Bonefield (as the fire element becomes dominant).
The Fearsome Undead
The fourth form of undead is the most diverse and insidious. These are the fearsome undead, and while they share the general hatred of the living with other forms of undead, they are generally far more intelligent and calculating. When an age-old undead conspiracy against all living beings isn't led by an ancient lich, then there is most likely another type of powerful fearsome undead at the helm.
Fearsome undead are also the most powerful. Those who are killed by fearsome undead usually rise as fearsome undead themselves, and they often form a nearly-symbiotic relationship with water. Stagnant water tends to absorb negative energy (leading to increased numbers of both true and mindless undead), and the presence of fearsome undead often causes the land to become waterlogged, eventually turning it into a bog, swamp, or marshland, or at the very least, subject to continuous fog and rainstorms.
Examples: Banshees, Bodaks, Vampires, and most Graveknights.
Some types of true undead exist in every category, and some have the elemental nature of multiple categories. However, they are still elementally influenced and will have the personality and abilities associated with their elements. For example, it is rare to see a lich that is associated solely with a single element, and while a vampire is typically associated with water, it is possible to find one that is obsessive and therefore air-aligned. This sort of variation is highly unusual, though, and generally only applies to undead which are both intelligent and powerful (in game terms, these are typically undead which are acquired templates.)
*Unlike Bless Water, this modified burial spell does not require powdered silver. The positive energy which imbues the ceremonial earth does not last very long, as it is meant to counteract any residual necrotic energies which may linger for a few weeks after death and result in the body rising as undead. This also means it is less potent than Holy Water; if used against already-risen undead it would merely be considered uncomfortable to them (less than 1 hit point of damage). The weaponized version of this spell does require powdered silver, and in that case acts just like Holy Water in that regard.