But first, the ten points found at the end of the previous article will be repeated for quick review:
- A revenant is something that has “returned again.”
- They have a vampiric nature, usually in the form of an energy drain.
- They can be, but aren’t necessarily, possessed by a demonic spirit.
- If not a demon, they retain a malevolent psychic remnant of their former, wicked soul.
- Religious ceremonies and other precautions didn’t always stop a revenant from being made.
- They are usually made from the corpses of wicked people.
- They don’t just try to murder people; they bring pestilence to a whole area.
- Someone murdered by a revenant can become one.
- Fortifying the tomb of a one doesn’t work.
- Killing one often isn’t easy and usually takes a whole lot of work.
Alright, our groundwork is set. Let us away!
While there are many uses for the glorified zombie revenants have become in gaming, the traditional interpretation is a much more intriguing and difficult challenge. For the most part, contemporary creatures are fairly low-level challenges. To be fair, many stories in medieval chronicles have them being destroyed by simple peasants, not grand adventurers. However, others are only overthrown by heroes, like in the Icelandic Sagas. Drawing the balance between the abilities of the corpse and the capabilities of the antagonists becomes a bit of a problem, then. But this isn’t history we’re discussing. If a GM decides to use the traditional revenant in all its terrifying glory, low-level PCs would be supremely outmatched. This creature isn’t some formless malevolent spirit hopping from body to body (and I can’t think of a single instance from the sources where that has ever happened), it’s a malignant soul of decay and death bent on the completion of its goal.
Even though a brief list of abilities is given above, let’s go into further detail on several of these in relation to game play. A caveat must be given before any further expounding, though: take these abilities with a grain of salt. There are so many stories that both confirm and deny the subsequent powers. It’s hard to make a firm account; however, the following items are pretty contiguous within the narratives. Although many of the legends end with the creatures being dug up from their graves, few mention the means by which they escape them. Gratefully, some do indicate the oddity of an undisturbed grave-site and that gives a bit of guidance. Also, the Icelandic equivalent, the draugr, actually comes right out and says that the fiend is capable of passing through rock. The conclusion: revenants can phase. This, alone, can be a frightening thing, if not for some of the previous items already mentioned. They seem to be capable of only limited phasing. Luckily for the players, the vast majority of references only reveal they are capable of phasing through the earth and whatever other barriers placed around the location meant to trap them in their grave. In a game, this makes barriers an interesting problem. Within the monster’s burial site, barriers mean nothing. Running to a new part of the dungeon and barricading the door is absolutely ineffective. Even if it was, more than one tale speaks of the villagers being physically overwhelmed by its strength. A super-strong undead is hardly a surprise anymore. In fact, most parties expect it. What they won’t expect is a super zombie that can walk through the bloody wall.
The next four items, which I hope to discuss in brief, reveal just how deadly these monsters are.
First, and this comes as no real surprise to anyone, revenants are dead (well, undead). As much of a “well, duh” statement as that is, it’s important. Things that are dead and rotting bring disease, lots of disease. Whole towns and cities have been left desolate due to the dead being improperly disposed of in times of siege or other calamities. Keeping the dead under the ground is important to staying alive. Revenants, being dead but up and walking, bring with them the diseases of the dead. They will absolutely infect the areas they frequent. In fact, a lot of pestilences recorded throughout many manuscripts can be attributed to their presence. And it doesn’t just affect people. The pestilence that follows The Returned will devastate livestock and crops: they blight the very land, feeding off of the energy of life in a very vampiric way. Sometimes, this feast is purely metaphorical. Unfortunately for our ancestors, this generally wasn’t the case. Those dug up to be destroyed are described as being bloated with blood, spewing forth hot liquid when punctured and the shroud around their mouths soaked. In addition to all of these attributes, we can add a host of spectral, baying hounds that follow the coming of the dead. So it isn’t just a disease ridden, blood sucking, super-strong corpse who can walk through (albeit select) walls, you also have to deal with his retinue. This also included other revenants. More than one account relates the spreading of its curse to those killed by the vampirism or disease. Not all victims turn, but many did. What made the victim turn has little supporting evidence, but the violence of their demise is usually cited. In any case, a revenant can be anything from a solitary encounter to a small troop – and in one case a whole valley.
Now, that seems like an impossibly strong monster to throw out against any adventuring party, no matter how advanced in level they are; they have a lot going on. Their behavior gives many opportunities for the observant player to exploit in overcoming such a powerful foe. Revenants, above all else, are creatures of habit. They don’t think tactically (most of the time), but rely on their frightening presence and other abilities as a means of gaining advantage. Historically, they can be interpreted as bogeymen or the reason of a debilitating disease. A typical haunting usually follows this pattern: they appear around dusk and is (usually) followed by a pack of hounds. The hounds keep their distance, but follow the corpse in a posture of fear, barking and howling after it. If the revenant isn’t specifically haunting someone (which will be addressed in a bit) it usually knocks on the doors of the nearest village. Sometimes this is sequentially; otherwise, it’s completely random as it wanders through the area. There’s no way around the people in the dwelling falling ill. The only unclear thing about the disease is when the victims will die, but many pass within the first 24 hours (some becoming revenants). If the fiend doesn’t leave on its own, which it will do once it’s done knocking, they are often run out of town – and they will run. Before the night is over, they return to their place of burial, by whatever means. Though strong, the beast can be physically overpowered. Sunlight doesn’t necessarily weaken one (depending on which story you’re referencing).
An alternative to the “knocking type” is the “home invasion type.” Instead of wandering around town, they enter into a house, usually of an acquaintance they had in life. Sometimes the means of entry is unknown, other times they sneak through an open window – but they often just waltz in like they own the place (more often than not, they used to). The motivations for these later types are often shrouded in mystery, or entirely blatant. As an example of the latter, there are not a few stories relating a desire to get it on with their living spouses. Even the dead need to do the deed. Other things that inspire coming back from the dead include a general sense of mischief: some undead just want to watch the world burn. Most of the time, revenants are after revenge. Vengeance on their murderer and people they hated in life, or just life in general, are not infrequently named.
As strong as revenants are, they are not totally impervious to defeat. Everything dies (or dies again). For these corpses, physical attacks are pretty pointless. They can be considered impervious to most physical attacks while out of their graves. If a group of adventurers can track one back to its lair, though, the corpse is fair game. While a revenant rests in its grave-site, even a dull shovel will work against it (a player will have to put some elbow grease into it, but it’s possible). There are three main methods to destroy one. 1) Find the corpse, decapitate it, remove and burn its heart. 2) Find the corpse, remove its heart and burn all of it. 3) Find the burial site; bless it with holy water and perform specific rites and rituals. This last method actually wasn’t as successful as the previous two, but still a completely viable means of sealing the dead.
In game terms, running a revenant and defeating it provides a whole lot of opportunity for adventure. First, they’re impervious to physical attacks while outside of their grave-site. That would be quite the surprise to a party of adventuring murder hobos. Not to mention that the strength and physical attacks of the revenant will be quite damaging, they do fight back and have been known to throttle men to death. Additionally, their attacks drain life force, either actual hit points, levels, or whatever else you want. Then there’s the disease to contend with. While fighting this nigh-impervious creature with super strength and draining touch, their stank breath might also cause a character to fall ill (and depending on how harsh a GM is, die within 24 hours unless a cure can be found in that time – its own little side quest). Then there’s the pack of hounds to cope with, or the retinue of trailing revenants. However, a revenant, if not surprising the characters so it has the advantage in combat, will usually try to avoid direct physical confrontation. Fighting the beast aside, a town haunted by a revenant has that pesky disease the characters will likely be tasked with curing. They better hurry, too, because more revenants appear every night as people die. What my most favorite part to include is the research and trials taken to defeat one of these things. Most players will try for direct violence. Beautiful player-panic envelopes the group as they find that approach to be less than successful. That wondrous, palpable fear a group of adventurers experience as they discover hitting things really hard doesn’t work. This is the place where religious or arcane types can really shine; studying is the key to defeating this thing. Whichever method is chosen to defeat a revenant, make the party work for the answer. They need to visit a library or religious order to find the proper method.
Revenants aren’t just revenge zombies on a timer. They were a very real and very frightening part of our not so distant past. They brought fear, disease, and death wherever they went. They overpowered the living and killed without remorse. They sucked their victims dry, stalked their prey, and were very hard to kill; even a holy blessing from an ordained church official didn’t always work.
In essence, revenants are the worst ex you can possibly imagine.
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