Introduction and Physical Product
GURPS Undead comes a part of a stock-standard product for the third edition line; softback, a solid glue binding, 128p, and with a good cover piece by Rogerio Vilela. The interior art includes many pieces but the irrepressible Dan Smith, with a scattering of others that supplement rather than detract from the style. The artwork throughout shows talent and creativity (the undead are always fun to draw) and are occasionally contextual - however one does get the sense that these started as "undead filler" and were placed after-the-fact. The format switches between two-column justified to single-colum with side-bars; it is a little disconcerting and probably detracts from the overall presentation.
There are six main chapters to the book, roughly of similar size. It starts with a history of the undead, followed by "dealing with the undead", then various game system mechanics, sample undead beings, sample characters, and finally undead campaigns. There is also a two page table of contents, a solid index, and recommended reading. The writing style is typical for GURPS products - a mixture of formal and informal, the occasional joke and semi-random use italics. It's not really to my personal taste, but it is not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination.
Facts, Theories, and Mechanics
The first two chapters can basically be described as 'facts and theories', with one chapter on each. The factual part is a historical and cultural overview of the undead, It starts of on a few tangential matters (funeral rites, eschatology) before delving into various cultural beliefs, covering in a rather sweeping manner the classical world, "eastern" beliefs, medieval approaches, the pre-Columbian Americas, and finally modern and cinematic approaches. Surprisingly included in its own section is various "trappings" of the undead; mummification, tombs, grave robbing, and so forth - even though these are very much culturally specific.
This approach continues in the second chapter. It starts with undead origins, giving an scatter-gun overview of cultural and fictional approaches, with a split between "the restless" (e.g., ghosts), "the willful" (e.g., vampires, liches), and "the enslaved (e.g., zombies). The same approach is taken to describe what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how does one put the damn things down.
The third chapter, "The Mechanics of Reanimation" is various theories of how the undead operate. That is, how do they come into being, what form do they take. The first section is essentially how to build your own undead by starting with a broad form-based template and adding in strengths and weaknesses after that. It is not, one must emphasise, as crunchy as a "GURPS Vehicles" for the undead, but it's sort of in the same principle – unlike that book there is more attention to providing examples of actual undead rather than just how to build them!
Mechanics, Characters, Campaigns
The fourth chapter is an application of the template system to some sample undead and sample characters. The major types receive quite a lot of detail; there's two pages of game statistics and description for the ghost, lich, shade, shadow, spectre, wight, wraith, zombie and a page-and-a-half for a mummy, revenant, skeleton, and vampire. Sometimes these are culturally clumped, so that the variety of culturally different vampires are given some extra advantages and disadvantages to the standard form - although I cannot help but be disappointed that my personal favourite, the Penanggalan, missed the cut. Various other, more unusual, forms of undead (undead animals, undead plants, undead microbes), receive significantly briefer descriptions.
Character notes (both PC and NPC) are provided in the following chapter. There are standard templates for living characters which are undead related (e.g., priests, grave-robbers, necromancers, hunters, etc), followed by various templates for undead characters (e.g., evil overlords, guardians, righter of wrongs), with suggested undead types. Obviously the "brainless" undead aren't a major feature. Also very much worthy of note are various sidebar notes which add to the various advantages, disadvantages, and skills from GURPS Compendium I, specifically for undead settings. To say the least, these are a very useful addition for clarification and elaborations.
The final chapter, campaigns, starts with the thoroughly sensible observation that the undead when present, often take a prominent role and are tied to the notion of horror. After all, they are not subtle! Campaign issues include the origins of the undead, types, power level, and interactions. GMs have to concern themselves with their quantity, location, various stories generated about them, the undead as foes (and occasional allies), and finally a few notes the use of the undead with other GURPS supplements. Again, the sidebars are very useful, discussing campaigns in a somewhat literary model including genre, mode (i.e., style), background (i.e., setting), sample campaigns, and historical motifs. Rather pleasingly, concluding with "zombies and chainsaws".
Physically attractive, a solid presentation, and well organised on a chapter level, the weaknesses in terms of style is the inability of the game to generate a sufficient sense of undead horror, and a somewhat confusing approach between contextual approaches in some chapters and the universalistic approaches in others. In terms of content, the text is a little on the verbose side, although it does cover a lot of ground, especially in terms of rules elaborations. The book is both useful in the sense of being immediately useful on the gaming table, and useful for the developing background material. Whilst it lacks panache, it is a solid product and will be helpful for GURPS undead campaigns - it does what it says on the tin.
Style: 1 + .4 (layout) + .7 (art) + .4 (coolness) + .5 (readability) + .7 (product) = 3.7
Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .5 (text) + .6 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.1