Dungeons & Dragons Reviews

Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead

Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead is a source book covering undead creatures for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.  It is written by Bruce R. Cordell, Eytan Bernstein, and Brian R. James.

This book is in many ways similar to Draconomicon:  Chromatic Dragons.  Both books give details on a group of monsters and provide a bunch of new monsters that are either part of that group or related to it.  The books also feature the same basic structure and are aimed at DMs with very little player material.  Undead, however, do not seem like as good of match for this structure as dragons.  In some ways, the topic is too broad with each type of undead being quite different from the others in abilities, appearance, etc.  In other ways, the topic is too narrow with a focus, albeit fitting, on necromancers and undead lurking in tombs.

The first chapter focused on story elements.  Sections in this chapter cover physiology, psychology, how undead interact with society, and information on the Shadowfell.  These sections seemed to struggle with the breadth of the topic problems mentioned previously and were only able to give very broad overviews without very many details on how certain undead types look or behave.  The best portion of the chapter was the section on society which was able to focus more on specific examples and covered a vampiric cult, a cursed nation of undead, and a city that counts numerous undead amongst its citizens.

The second chapter provides ideas and mechanics for using undead in a session or campaign.  The chapter starts with ways to use undead in skill challenges.  The next section in the chapter covers different ways to run a haunting and presents ideas for presenting them as simple environmental ambience, hazards, terrain, and skill challenges.  After that, the chapter provides ideas for adventures and campaigns focusing on undead.  The final two sections of the chapter cover artifacts and rituals related to undead.

The third chapter is a collection of nine undead lairs.  This chapter suffers a bit from the narrowness of the topic with about half of the lairs being tombs or graveyards of some sorts, and two more being the towers of necromancers.  The remaining three lairs are a battlefield, a temple of Doresain, and the astral corpse of a primordial.  The temple and astral corpse are the highest level lairs, but they are also the most interesting concepts.  This chapter could have used far more variety such as a ghost ship (or haunted shipwreck), a vampire’s home in the city, or a twisted forest grove.  The chapter could also have been expanded away from the lair concept to include a town or city under attack by a zombie plague.

The fourth chapter takes up almost half of the book and introduces new monsters.  The monsters are a mix of filling out categories from the Monster Manual, such as zombies, skeletons, and ghouls, with more specific monsters and entirely new monsters.  Some of the new monsters are blasphemes created from sewn together corpses, reapers, and wraths of nature.  Like with previous 4E books, one noticeable problem is the lack of art or good physical descriptions for some monsters.  In addition to the general monster entries, the chapter includes a handful of powerful undead characters and a collection of templates and alternate powers.  The undead hall of infamy contains Acererak, Ctenmiir, Kas, Kyuss, Osterneth, Strahd, and Vecna.

In some ways the book feels like it has been forced to conform with the “monster book” chapter structure when its subject matter seems more suited to a different approach, such as chapters focusing on categories of undead.  This problem was most felt in the fluff sections and the lairs, while the fourth chapter was unaffected.

Overall, the book is a great source for undead monsters and mechanics, but is a disappointing story resource due to the broad topic and adherence to a fixed chapter structure.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

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