Dungeons & Dragons Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead

by Lev Lafayette

Introduction and Product

Following on from third edition's "Libris Mortis", "Open Grave : Secrets of the Undead" is the equivalent for 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, with Bruce Cordell notably sharing author credits in both supplements. The product is 224 pages, hardbacked and well-bound and full-colour glass pages throughout. The cover art is not exactly exciting, an undead visage, but is quite muted in tone and lacking in colour. The internal art shows a great deal of both creativity and acumen, and is somewhat contextual (yes for monster and NPC statistics which is necessary, no for most of the rest of the book). Mention must also be made of the rather attractive maps and floor plans, although they are perhaps a little too neat.

There is excellent use of white space throughout the book, with clearly marked page numbers and chapter identifiers. The book come with a single page table of contents and a two-page index, albeit limited to new monsters. The writing style is mostly formal with the occasional foray into the conversational, with a fairly good level of density, and particularly well structured (something which this particular edition of the game does well at). In terms of content there are but four listed chapters - Undead Lore (19 pages), DMs Guide to the Undead (27 pages), Undead Lairs (74 pages), and a massive New Monsters section (94 pages). The latter is a bit of a design flaw a even the table of contents indicates, it can be easily split into new undead and NPCs and Templates, with the latter taking a respectable 22 pages. As will be evident, some of the text ordering is a little awry.

Undead Lore and DMs Guide

The opening chapter deals with the origins, physiology, psychology, and society of undead and the integration of the undead into the default 4th edition campaign setting of the Shadowfell. Although starting with a trite cosmology, the origins section attempts to distinguish between animated corpses (e.g., zombies), disembodied spirits (e.g., ghosts), and the unnaturally maintained (e.g., vampires, liches) and ties undead genesis explicitly with metaphysical evil (sin, evil taints, life drain, contagion, reanimation etc). The physiology section describes what normally happens to a dead body and how the undead, through various means, minimise these effects, along with the respective abilities of different undead sense organs, circulatory systems, and metabolism.

The psychology section begins with a rejection the concept of various healing spells (e.g., Raise Dead) are part of necromancy which personally I thought added a bit of colour (not to mention historical accuracy) to the game's tradition. There is the useful overall suggestion that for those undead with personality the key element is that they are now divorced from and do not value life. A social section differentiates between the outcasts (typical for the mindless undead), secret citizens (typical), and the unusual situation of acknowledged citizens. Several pages are dedicated to two sample undead-related societies, followed by a description of the undead in Shadowfell.

The DM's Guide consists of social encounters, hauntings, undead adventures, campaign arcs, artifacts, rituals, and grafts. The first two sections are only a couple of pages each, but includes sample skill challenges which becomes a feature of the chapter as a whole. The undead adventures section includes three short descriptions, each with quest hooks to bring the PCs into the scenario. There are extended examples as campaign arcs, for varying tiers which present a potential narrative for each example. A dozen described artifacts with game statistics are provided, each with a bit of a back story and mainly within the scope of being related to the undead. The chapter concludes with two pages each for rituals and grafts, the former representing longer spell castings for particular effects and the latter, rather disturbingly, adding part of an existing undead to a host.

Undead Lairs

Taking up over seventy pages the Undead Lairs chapter is deserving of a subheading in its own right. Up to this point, the product is quite good, albeit a little hit and miss in parts. A generic lair features section is a hit, albeit mainly little bit of a brain dump with dot points on the key features that one would expect in undead lairs in a variety of settings (wilderness, urban, planar). But after this are nine fully-developed settings of a few pages, for character levels 1, 3, 6, 12, 17, 19, 23, 24, and 26. In addition to the individual lairs themselves, each are provided with multiple scenario hooks, general environment descriptions, location descriptions with challenges, full statistics for opponents, and keyed maps. Each of the scenarios is sufficiently complex and challenging to be easily make up an evening's play with a little bit of background work on the part of the DM.

The scenarios describe a variety of initial situations; the first is a group of walking dead at the local village graveyard. Another a commission from a city to deal with the periodic trouble of undead from local catacombs. Another is set in the headquarters of a former necromantic cult, and another a training and research centre operated by a lich. Perhaps most exotic of all is the high-level scenario based inside the corpse of a demigod floating in the astral plane. As a whole the scenarios are interesting, challenging, and provide plenty of opportunity for a DM to develop further. They provide an excellent structure for immediate play or campaign integration. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest they make the book by itself worth purchasing.

New Monsters and NPCs

As mentioned in other reviews there is arguably little need for an excess of new monsters, let alone undead, in Dungeons and Dragons - there is already plenty in existence and variations on these should be sufficient. If one's game is centred around "what marginal oddity will be encountered this week?" other narrative elements ought to be considered. Thus, from the outset there is some concern that over seventy-two pages are dedicated this section when there very well could have been alternatives, especially when the 'new monsters' are not exactly geographical or culturally specific.

The concerns are not misplaced. The 'New Monsters' section starts with an undead vine, then an an undead couatl, then an undead beholder and so forth. The 'Creeping Claw' is a hat-tip to 'Evil Dead' fans, and the 'Brain in A Jar', alas, is not an elaboration on the philosopher Hilary Putnam. There are variations on the standard undead (ghost, ghouls, liches, vampires, zombies etc) but most of these a relatively uninteresting. All said however, the structure for each creature is quite good, especially with the inclusion of group encounters and challenge ratings, albeit all with a significant over-emphasis on tactical considerations almost to the exclusion of all others.

Taking up a lot less space are several major NPCs, "The Undead Hall of Infamy", including time-honoured favourites such as Acererak, Strahd von Zarovich, and Vecna. Each are provided a statistic block, tactical considerations, and most interestingly related lore and difficulty levels. The section is supplemented with a two-page description of the Cult of Vecna, followed by templates for converting living creatures into undead or adapting existing undead, finally concluding with a brief description of alternative powers.


Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead is physically a very strong and attractive publication with excellent layout that is marred with some substandard textual organisation. In terms of content, the entire book can be justified by the superb chapter on undead lairs, and yet also reaches a trough with the new monsters, the former providing immediate actual play utility, the latter requiring some effort to find a justification to further add them into existing campaigns. Other sections are perhaps a little too short to provide the utility that they could have generated. Overall however it is a recommended product and especially for fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons DMs.

Style: 1 + .8 (layout) + .8 (art) + .8 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .9 (product) = 5.0

Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .7 (text) + .8 (fun) + .8 (workmanship) + .8 (system) = 4.8