Excerpts from GURPS Undead
Religion and the Undead
The undead are often regarded as magical beings in fantasy, and fantasy magic is often treated like a secular science, but undeath is profoundly tied to religion and spiritualism in the real world. In a historical or horror campaign, formulating a good plot will require an understanding of how this works.
Most historical belief systems hold that living things have an intangible component, a spirit. Quite often, concepts (like death or disease), places (like valleys, forests or nations) and unliving things (like stones or rivers) have spirits as well. A spirit is a supernatural element that embodies all the mysteries about a given being, concept or object; in a way, belief in spirits takes the place of scientific understanding. Spirits are often personified and given voices. Modern psychologists believe that this is the human unconscious at work, but the religious consider this to be a sign that spirits are actual entities.
The spirit of a human being is called his soul. It is responsible for his personality and consciousness, and makes him unique. While the nature of the soul differs from belief system to belief system (see The Soul, p. 7), it is almost always distinct from every other type of spirit. In some faiths, the soul is the only type of spirit, and other things are governed by gods: "super spirits" in charge of broad categories of things, like animals, plants or the weather. There are many shadings between "all spirits, no gods" (which is typical of animism) and "souls and gods only" (as in Christian belief).
The most important property of the human soul is that it is immortal. Survival of conscious personality after physical death is common to almost all belief systems, and is usually the ultimate source of myths surrounding the undead.
Eschatology is the branch of theology that addresses the issues of where the soul goes, whether it can return to the mortal world and in what form. (The study of spirits themselves is called pneumatology.) It attempts to answer some profound questions:
The answers to these questions differ from faith to faith, and will impact on whether the undead exist and what form they will take. In general, the spectral undead are souls wandering without bodies, while the corporeal undead are dead bodies animated by spirits – usually restless souls. If the existence of the soul is rejected, the undead – if they exist at all – will require an exotic explanation like robotics, strange radiation or bizarre parasites.
Conversely, if the soul does exist, it is likely that there will be some kind of undead. Faiths that embrace ascension lean toward the spectral undead, while those that prefer resurrection lean toward the corporeal undead, but neither tendency is very strong. Some beliefs profess that force of will, powerful magic or divine influence can send a spirit back to animate a dead body. Likewise, those who believe in resurrection often hold that spirits can enter the mortal world as specters when they don't have a body to inhabit.
The issue of when ascension, resurrection and judgement take place plays a stronger role. Faiths that keep souls waiting around for judgement (like early Christianity and Judaism, as well as Zoroastrianism) – whether that will lead to resurrection or ascension – will generally have more undead. The souls have not yet gone to their final destination, so they can be called back as specters, or to inhabit a corpse. Faiths that profess immediate judgement (like modern Catholicism) tend not to leave souls "hanging around," so they are less likely to have undead.
Funerary rites are the rituals surrounding the disposal of a corpse: the means prescribed by a belief system for praying for, mourning and burying the dead. Such rites are found in virtually every faith, and some anthropologists see them as being a prerequisite for religion. The precise origin of funerary rites is unclear.
Some people believe that man disposed of corpses to prevent disease. A rotting corpse can harbor diseases that can infect the living. Man did not know this throughout most of history, but he did notice the association between disease and corpses. Since spirits were blamed for disease, the conclusion was reached that the improper disposal of dead bodies angered the spirits of the dead, and funerary rites evolved to prevent this.
Psychologists, on the other hand, feel that funerary rites came about to give the living peace of mind. They provided an outlet for grief and a much-needed sense of closure. The comfort and predictability of ritual served to mitigate the distress and shock associated with death.
Still others feel that spiritualism came first: man conceived of the immortal soul and disposed of the body properly either out of respect or to facilitate resurrection.
Whatever the origin of funerary rites, their religious intention was ultimately to ensure that the soul would go to its proper reward. Thus, funerary rites can prevent the dead from becoming the undead. It is interesting to note that most folkloric methods for combatting the undead stem from funerary rites and the associated symbolism.
Two methods are almost universally prescribed for properly disposing of a corpse: burial and cremation. Some faiths permit both, but most specify one or the other. Both are heavily steeped in symbolism. Cremation, as practiced by the Hindus, Aztecs and many other cultures, is relatively easy to understand: the body is consumed, converted to smoke and symbolically sent to the heavens. Burial is slightly more complex, and represents a return to the earth, the mother from which all things are born and must return; see Death, Earth and the Mother Goddess (p. 10) for more details.
The way a culture disposes of its dead has a profound effect on the nature of its undead. Cultures that cremate their dead typically have few types of corporeal undead. Most of their undead will be spectral. The corporeal undead will be limited to those who have not received proper cremation, and burning will typically set these to rest.
Civilizations that bury their dead are more likely to have corporeal undead, or walking corpses. What forms these take will depend on the precise funerary rites observed. Cultures that make mummies, like the ancient Egyptians or the Guanches of the Canary Islands, may have walking mummies. Those that clean the flesh off the bones of their dead, like some North American Indian tribes, are more likely to encounter animated skeletons. Societies that bury their dead armed and clad in armor, like the Norsemen, may have to deal with undead warriors. These practical consequences are discussed in more detail under Mortal Remains (p. 20).
Other Names: Phantom.
Motivation: Willful or restless.
Any ghost can be called a "specter," but the term is used here to mean an evil soul that is summoned when a necromancer botches a spell intended to call and bind a spirit. Souls that are released from the afterlife like this are free to torment the living, starting with the unfortunate sorcerer! A few specters come back on their own instead (see Variations, below), but these are no less evil.
Unlike shadows (p. 77) and vampires (p. 82), specters do not hunger for human life essence and aren't motivated by a quest for it. Their mission is simpler than that: they've returned to earth to enjoy the thrill of cruel pleasures after having being cut off for so long in the afterlife. They have a strong psychic need to cause suffering, which is more like an addiction than an actual hunger. As a result, specters can coexist with other undead, as they aren't generally competing for the same "food supply."
Specters are extremely magical beings, since they are usually called into the world using magic. Even in settings where most ghosts have a non-magical explanation, specters will be magical. If magic doesn't exist, then neither will specters.
The magical nature of specters is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they have a wide array of magical powers. They are powerful mages with a variety of innate spells, and have a large battery of magical energy that they can use to power spells or standard ghost abilities, like possession and materialization. On the other hand, specters are affected by a larger number of spells then most undead, and require mana to survive.
Specters are unusual in a number of other respects, all of which are related to their magical nature. First, they are visible and look much as they did in life, as the energy of the local mana field keeps them partly materialized at all times. Next, mana alone can sustain a specter indefinitely, and as a result it will never fade. Finally, specters cannot alter probability like other ghosts, because magic is too fickle to allow such a fine degree of control.
At the GM's option, a specter appears instead of a demon when an Animation, Summon Spirit or Zombie spell critically fails and an 18 is rolled on the critical failure table (p. M6). There are rumors of a spell that can call specters intentionally, but since they are malign, free-willed entities, it's hard to imagine why a wizard would want to summon one.
Specters look like ordinary living people, but have neither weight nor substance, and rarely speak. They will only seem unnatural if witnessed passing through a solid object, or when an object (like a bullet or sword) passes through them. The spells Aura and Sense Spirit will immediately reveal a specter for what it is.
A specter can dwell in any place that has mana. Since it can travel instantly to its place of death, it will often use this as its home base. As a result, many specters can be found lurking in death-tinged areas like gallows and prisons.
Advantages: Extra Fatigue 10 ; Ghost Form (Unlimited Lifespan, +30%; Visible, looks human, +5%; Can't alter probability, -20%) ; Magery 3 ; Night Vision .
Disadvantages: Addiction (Human suffering; cheap, totally addictive) [-15]; Dependency (Mana; common, constantly) [-25]; Intolerance (Living) [-10]; Sadism [-15]; Vulnerability (3d from Banish spell) [-9]; Vulnerability (3d from Dispel Magic spell) [-9].
Quirks, Features and Taboo Traits: Dislikes holy items [-1]; Violently dislikes wizards [-1]. Affected by Astral Block, Pentagram, Repel Spirits and Turn Spirit ; Can be turned using True Faith .
Innate Spells: Death Vision-15 ; Madness-15 ; Pain-15 ; Pestilence-15 ; Terror-15 .
Template Cost: 145 points.
Specter characters can purchase Extra Fatigue and Strong Will freely with earned character points. With the GM's permission, they can also acquire the Spectral Touch enhancement (p. 54)  on their Ghost Form. This is mostly of use to specters who know many spells, as it lets them attack with Deathtouch, Paralyze Limb, Wither Limb, etc., while safely insubstantial. This is a powerful ability, and the GM may choose to control it or forbid it entirely. No specter may buy off its Dependency or Vulnerability disadvantages.
Good Specters: This form can be used for all willful, spectral undead wizards, in which case there will be "good" specters as well as evil ones. Good specters don't have Addiction, Intolerance or Sadism (a net +40 points). Quirks become "Dislikes unholy items" and "Violently dislikes evil wizards." All other abilities remain the same, but since many of them are unpleasant, a good specter may be loath to use them. It costs 185 points to play a good specter.
Restless Specters: A very few specters aren't called by magic. Some extremely evil individuals (especially wizards) may spontaneously return from the grave in this form. Use the template above, but add a Compulsive Behavior or Obsession similar to that of a ghost (p. 68) or a revenant (p. 73).
Specter Wizards: Sorcerers who become specters can use their spells at no penalty, but may not use "touch-only" spells (other than Steal HT and Steal ST) unless they fully materialize or have the Touch enhancement on Ghost Form. Wizards who lacked Magery 3 in life are promoted to this level upon becoming specters; spell levels and point costs should be adjusted accordingly.
Sample Specter: Doctor Haas (225 points)
Age 55; 5'10"; respectable-looking middle-aged man in a white coat.
ST: 11 IQ: 15 Fatigue: 21
Disadvantages: Curious [-10]; Delusion ("Torture is good for people, and can cure madness.") [-15]; Obsession (Finishing his perverse experiments) [-15].
Quirks: Always asks his victims "How do you feel now?"; Likes asylums, especially old ones; Takes pride in his work; Uses a lot of jargon; Visits his "patients" in their dreams. [-5]
Skills: Bard-16* ; Criminology/TL6-16 ; Detect Lies-14 ; Diagnosis/TL6-14 ; Hypnotism-15 ; Interrogation-16 ; Pharmacy/TL6-14 ; Physician/ TL6-14 ; Psychology-17 ; Research-14 ; Surgery/TL6-14 ; Writing-14 .
* Includes +2 for Charisma.
Languages: English (native)-15 .
Innate Spells: Death Vision-20; Madness-20; Pain-20; Pestilence-20; Terror-20.
Description: Dr. Haas was a prominent criminal psychologist before the Great War. A brilliant and well-liked researcher, he was the director of an asylum for the criminally insane in Chicago. When war broke out in 1914, he was called upon to treat shell-shocked soldiers being sent back from Europe, the theory being that his background with violent criminals would be useful when treating men who had experienced soul-shattering violence. Unfortunately, Haas' own sanity wasn't up to the task of dealing with so much horror; somewhere along the line, he snapped.
At first, no one realized that Haas had gone mad. While his patients didn't seem to get any better, post-traumatic stress disorders were a mystery at the time, so people assumed that this was to be expected. Then the son of a congressman died while in Haas' care. An investigation was ordered shortly thereafter.
What the investigators found at Haas' private clinic was sickening. Haas had turned it into a torture chamber, and his patients had been reduced to drooling madmen by crude surgery, massive electrical shocks and sensory deprivation. When Haas was confronted with the evidence, he laughed maniacally, pulled out a small pistol and shot himself in front of his horrified accusers.
This was not the end of Haas, however. In 1921, he was purportedly seen at the asylum by a former patient. This was dismissed as a hallucination by the doctors, but since then other patients have seen him as well and cure rates have gone way down. In fact, even a few of the staff have started to crack . . .
Dr. Haas is a restless specter, intended for use in a Roaring Twenties Horror campaign. Of course, if he isn't stopped, he'll still be around for a modern-day campaign!
Hunter – 100 points
The hunter is a professional undead slayer. He seeks out vampires, zombies and other corporeal undead, then does whatever it takes to lay them to rest permanently. He's well-versed in undead lore, and knows how to use things like holy water, religious symbols and silver weapons. The stereotypical hunter is a tough hombre who isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with creatures that could tear him apart and eat his soul for a light snack. Most hunters are motivated by a personal code of behavior, but a few work for hire.
Attributes: ST 11 , DX 13 , IQ 13 , HT 11 .
Advantages: Any one of Awareness , Combat Reflexes , Danger Sense , True Faith  or Unfazeable , plus 10 points chosen from +1 ST , +1 HT , Alertness [5/level], Fearlessness [2/level], Higher Purpose (Slay all undead) , Imperturbable , Magic Resistance [2/level], Night Vision , Psionic Resistance [2/level] and Strong Will [4/level].
Disadvantages: Either Greed [-15] or Obsession (Slay all undead, or die trying) [-15], plus another -15 points chosen from Bloodlust [-10], Guilt Complex [-5], Insomniac [-10 or -15], Intolerance (Undead) [-5], Nightmares [-5], Overconfidence [-10], Pyromania [-5], Stubbornness [-5] and Weirdness Magnet [-15].
Primary Skills: Armoury (Occult Weaponry) (M/A) IQ -13, Occultism (Undead) (M/A) IQ -13, and 10 points in Combat/Weapon skills.
Secondary Skills: Stealth (P/A) DX-1 -12, Tactics (M/H) IQ-1 -12, and 6 points in Demolition (M/A), Electronics Operation (Sensors) (M/A), Exorcism (M/H), Fireworks (M/H), Throwing (P/H), Tracking (M/A) and Traps (M/A).
Background Skills: Any two of Mental Strength (M/H) IQ-2 -11, Mind Block (M/A) IQ-1 -12, Psychology (Undead) (M/H) IQ-2 -11 and Thanatology (M/H) IQ-2 -11.
From Chapter 6: Campaigns (p. 122)
Setting the Scene:
A brief history of undead imagery
A big part of any campaign that involves the undead is the imagery. Scary stuff can be used in moderation to set the tone in suspenseful campaigns, and in excess to create a suitably overwrought atmosphere in campy or silly ones. Here are some "classic" trappings to add to your campaign, with comments on their origins for those who are running traditional campaigns. See Tomb Trappings (p. 29) for other ideas.
Castles: The undead first appeared in castles in the Gothic tales of the late 18th century, before which they mostly lurked in caves or tombs. These Gothic castles are the origin of the "evil strongholds" of fantasy.
Caves: In the Aeneid (Virgil, 19 B.C.), shades of the dead were found in clammy caves and fissures. This linked the undead to deep places forever after.
Chains: Gothic authors of the 18th and 19th centuries associated shackles with the ghosts of those who died in prison, adding the clanking of chains to modern undead imagery.
Cold: The chill of death is a notion that comes from medieval Christian vision literature. Most of these visions were seen by fevered individuals, who probably really did feel chills.
Cries: Virgil (70-19 B.C.) was the first author to depict dead souls as noisy. Eerie cries have been associated with the undead ever since.
Disease: The early Jews regarded the dead as "unclean," and the undead were necessarily associated with plague and illness. This view colored most later depictions of the undead.
Dogs & Wolves: The Aeneid (19 B.C.) is the origin of the now-common connection between howling dogs and the undead. Wolves were added by Gothic authors in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Dungeons: In Gothic tales, evil or wrongly-accused prisoners who died in prison often returned as ghosts. As a result, dungeons were associated with the undead – a connection that lives on in fantasy even today.
Fog: The Aeneid is probably the first place where fog and weird vapors were associated with the undead. Spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg also made this connection in the 18th century.
Gloom: In 16th- and 17th-century art, the undead were always found in dark and gloomy places. This became standard in the Gothic tales of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Lights: Strange lights have always been attributed to ghosts by the Australian aborigines. Emanuel Swedenborg popularized the link between ghosts and floating lights in the 18th century.
Owls: These were associated with the dead and the supernatural in Christian art of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Skeletons: Death was personified as an animate skeleton in 15th-century European art; Brueghel the Elder depicted ranks of marching skeletons in the 16th century.
Skulls: The baroque period (1550-1750) marked the use of skulls in crypt imagery, where they were often depicted as grinning or even speaking, suggesting the undead.
Snakes: Linked with evil since Biblical times, this association was extended to the undead by Christian art of the 16th century.
Storms: Thunderstorms were a hallmark of the Gothic tale, where they were used to create a menacing and oppressive atmosphere that came to be associated with the supernatural.
Toads: Like owls, toads were first used as symbols of the supernatural in Christian art of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Worms: Worms eat corpses, and were frequently found with the undead in Byzantine imagery and baroque Christian art.