The nation of Karrnath became infamous for its use of undead during the Last War. Initially, the bulk of the undead forces were common, mindless skeletons and zombies. But as the war progressed, the science of necromancy continued to evolve. The greatest breakthrough came when the high priest Malevenor and master necromancer Gyrnar Shult developed the Odakyr Rites: Techniques that could imbue the skeleton or corpse of an elite Karrnathi warrior with malign intelligence and increased resilience. The Karrnathi undead possess deadly skill and considerable cunning; once given direction, a unit of Karrnathi undead can operate autonomously, adapting to deal with unexpected threats or strategic setbacks.
Most of the Karrnathi undead were retired after the Treaty of Thronehold, sealed away in vast vaults beneath Atur or stationed at Fort Bones and Fort Zombie. But a few remain in service. Recently people have reached out to me with a number of questions related to Karrnathi undead. What is the intelligence level of Karrnathi Undead? Do they have any memories of their past lives? Do they have thoughts and opinions? Would a Karrnathi Undead be a viable player character? Do the families of Karrnathi Undead get visiting hours to pay their respects to their dead relatives?
As always, the real answer here is what’s going to make the best story? But let’s start with the canon presentation and move on from there.
To begin with, consider the following facts about Karrnathi undead from the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Guide.
- Karrnathi undead are described as being “imbued with malign intelligence.” They possess 11 Intelligence, 10 Wisdom, and can speak Common.
- Karrnathi undead have an alignment of Always lawful evil. Sentient creatures rarely have an always alignment; certainly, the elite soldiers of Karrnath aren’t always lawful evil. So already this tells us that the consciousness isn’t the consciousness of the deceased donor of the corpse. A dictated alignment is typically tied to a creature that embodies an idea, such as a celestial or fiend; or a creature whose behavior is dictated by a supernatural force, like a lycanthrope. This ties to the fact that the undead is imbued with “malign” intelligence.
- Karrnathi undead possess remarkable skills. But in the ECS listing, they have no advancement. One of the defining features of the warforged is that they can learn new things: a warforged built to be a fighter can become a wizard. Karrnathi undead have tactical intelligence, but they can’t evolve.
With these things in mind, consider this description of Karrnathi undead from the article on Fort Bones in Dungeon 195.
The Karrnathi undead are tremendously efficient solders. A normal zombie requires some sort of necromancer to sustain and command it, but the sentient Karrnathi undead can integrate with any unit. Fear, hunger, and exhaustion are alien to them. They can see in perfect darkness—an advantage over the warforged, and one that Karrnath often exploited in conflicts with Cyre. One of the few limitations of the undead derives from their utter lack of mercy or compassion. Left on its own, a Karrnathi skeleton will slaughter all opposing forces—soldiers, civilians, even children. A commander must exercise close control if he wants his undead to leave anyone alive.
The Odakyr Rites—the ritual used to create the Karrnathi undead—isn’t a cheap form of Raise Dead. The original victim is gone. A Karrnathi skeleton doesn’t have the specific memories of the warrior who donated his bones. The military specialty of the undead reflects that of the fallen soldier, so only the bones of a bowman can produce a skeletal archer. However, the precise techniques of the skeleton aren’t those of the living soldiers. Rekkenmark doesn’t teach the bone dance or the twin scimitar style common to the skeletal swordsmen. So where, then, do these styles come from?
Gyrnar Shult believed that the Karrnathi undead were animated by the martial spirit of Karrnath itself. This is why they can be produced only from the corpses of elite Karrnathi soldiers: an enemy corpse lacks the connection to Karrnath, while a fallen farmer has no bond to war. However, the current commander of the Corpse Collectors fears that the undead aren’t animated by the soul of Karrnath, but rather by an aspect of Mabar itself—that the combat styles of the undead might be those of the dark angels of Mabar. Over the years, he has felt a certain malevolence in his skeletal creations that he can’t explain, not to mention their love of slaughter. He has also considered the possibility that they are touched by the spirits of the Qabalrin ancestors of Erandis Vol. The Kind hasn’t found any proof for these theories, but they haunt his dreams.
Karrnathi undead never show emotion and never speak without cause. A Karrnathi skeleton is content to stand motionless and silent for days if there is no reason to move. A soldier’s name is typically a combination of name and number and the records of the original identity of the body are hidden in the tomes of the Corpse Collectors. The distinctive armor of the Karrnathi skeletons is forged for them and fitted to their fleshless bones. Fort Bones operates a small forge for this purpose, though most of this armor is created at the Night Forge of Atur.
So with all this in mind, let’s look back at those questions. A Karrnathi skeleton is as intelligent as a typical human, but it doesn’t have a human personality or think like a human does.
Do Karrnathi undead have thoughts and opinions? Well, how would you know? A Karrnathi skeleton obeys the orders of its commander without question. It fights without fear and will hold a position even at the cost of its own existence. The Karrnathi undead never speak unless spoken to, or unless necessary in pursuit of their duties; if they have thoughts, they don’t share them. If questions, their opinions appear to be an absolute commitment to the Karrnathi cause, and the opinions of one are shared by all of them; so they do have opinions, but they all have the SAME opinions. A warforged might compose a poem. A Karrnathi skeleton might know a poem, but if it does, then all Karrnathi skeletons know that poem, even though no one ever taught it to them. And what about that underlying cruelty, that always lawful evil? In my opinion, even a Karrnathi commander has to worry that maybe the dead are just going along with them… that maybe there’s a darker force behind those eyeless sockets, waiting for the right moment to turn its blades on you.
Regarding memories of past lives: by canon, no, Karrnathi undead have no memories of their past lives. While they can only be created from the corpses of elite Karrnathi soldiers, theit skills and techniques don’t match those of the donor. They are always lawful evil, regardless of the alignment of the donor. In my opinion, the Karrnathi undead don’t even know the names of the people who donated their bones. BUT… with that said, see the next section for other ideas.
With all this in mind: Would a Karrnathi Undead be a viable player character? By canon, definitely not. They can’t learn new skills or advance. Their true opinions and thoughts are intentionally mysterious. With that said, see “Other Options” below.
Ultimately, there’s a critical point here: The Karrnathi undead are supposed to creep you out. They aren’t just warforged who happen to be made out of bone. There is a sense of a malign intelligence in them… a touch of Pet Semetery, with that lingering fear that you should have let them stay dead.
So, that’s the canon approach. But there’s two things to consider. First, the science of necromancy has continued to evolve. As a DM, you can introduce sentient skeletons or zombies that AREN’T produced using the Odakyr Rites. Such skeletons could possess more distinct personalities, could be capable of learning new skills, and could possess memories of their former lives. You could play around with a form of undeath that can preserve mortal soul and memory in a rotting shell. And this could work for a player character.
But with that said, personally I believe the Karrnathi undead should feel creepy… and I like to play up the idea that even the Seekers don’t know exactly what they are dealing with. Mabar is the plane of entropy and loss, the darkness that eventually consumes all light. THIS is the force that’s animating the Karrnathi undead. You can TELL yourself that it’s animated by a pure spirit of Karrnathi patriotism. You can say that there’s nothing of your wife left in those bones… but then one night you might hear her voice singing a song only the two of knew as the skeleton patrols the line. You might wonder if you would find her again, if you also died on the battlefield. Or you might wonder if some piece of her is trapped in those bones, held captive by the cruel spirit and never truly able to rest.
So as with anything in Eberron, do what feels right for the story. But for me, I’m always looking for a way to make the undead disturbing. Even if there’s a zombie with the perfect memories and personality of your friend, I’m going to point out that there’s maggots in their flesh and occasionally a tooth will fall out… and again, are you SURE it’s the soul of your friend in there?
Does this mean that undead aren’t used for menial labor in Karrnath?
There’s two issues here. The followers of the Blood of Vol—who prefer the term Seekers—are the ones who practice necromancy and embrace the undead. The Blood of Vol has had a presence in Karrnath for over a thousand years, but it has never been the faith of the majority. During the Last War, Kaius I embraced the Blood of Vol and it gained greater influence, and it was in this time that the undead were incorporated into the Karrnathi army. In more recent years, Kaius III and the Regent Moranna turned against the Blood of Vol. The chivalric orders of the Seekers were disbanded, and Kaius has used the Seekers as a scapegoat—blaming the famines and plagues that crippled Karrnath on the Seekers. The faith still has a significant presence in Karrnath, but it is neither the majority faith nor in a position of power. Karrnathi traditionalists despise the use of undead, which they see as a stain on Karrnath’s proud martial tradition; this is another reason Kaius sealed the bone legions in the vaults below Atur. He doesn’t want to throw this weapon away, but he gained political points among the established Karrnathi warlords by reducing the role of undead. More on this—including the history of the Bone Knight—can be found in this article.
Now: the Seekers have always used undead for menial tasks. They have no emotional attachment to corpses; a Seeker wants their body to be put to good use after they are gone. So within a Seeker community, you could definitely find zombies working the fields. The main point is that these are traditional mindless zombies, who have to be provided with clear direction. The sentient Karrnathi zombies are a different thing—a more recent development, and ill-suited to noncombat tasks. The Odakyr undead are weapons: sentient, yes, but imbued with malign purpose.
Do the families of Karrnathi Undead get visiting hours to pay their respects to their dead relatives?
By canon presentation, no. First of all, Seekers aren’t sentimental about corpses. The bones of a dead relative are no different than a set of clothes or piece of jewelry the deceased wore in life. The basic principle of the Blood of Vol is that what matters is the divine spark (what others might call the soul) and that this is obliterated in Dolurrh. A Seeker pays respects to the dead by recalling their deeds and following their example. The bones the deceased leave behind are a resource to be used, not a thing to be treasured. In addition, while the identity of the donor is noted when the Odakyr Rites are performed, this information isn’t publicly available and the undead warrior doesn’t know the name of the donor.
Were the Odakyr Rites created, found, or both? What was the malign spark that granted them the sudden necromantic advance?
This is covered in Dungeon 195. The Blood of Vol has always had a strong presence in the agricultural region of Odakyr, which also contains a powerful manifest zone tied to Mabar. When Kaius I embraced the Last War, Fort Bones was established in Odakyr as a center for necromantic research. Gyrnar Shult and Malevenor (then living) developed the Odakyr Rites after years of research and work. It’s noteworthy that they can only be performed in a place with a strong manifest zone to Mabar; in Karrnath, this means Fort Bones or Atur. As for exactly how the breakthrough was made, it’s not defined in canon, and for me the answer would depend on how I planned to use the Karrnathi undead in the story. Did Shult and Malevenor discover some sort of artifact tied to Mabar at the heart of the manifest zone? Did they tap into the power of Katashka the Gatekeeper, or acquire some sort of ancient Qabalrin tome from Erandis Vol? Or did they just legitimately develop a new necromantic technique that no one had mastered before, which is entirely possible? Despite their cruelty, are the Karrnathi undead truly what Shult believed—empowered by the patriotic spirits of the fallen—or is there a darker secret?
Were Karrnathi undead created for any other branches of the Karrnathi military? Presumably, if they are canonically inclined to slaughter, undead sailors wouldn’t be of much use, but were there undead Marines aboard Karrnathi ships in the Last War? Did Karrnath have any airships in its service with undead parachute troopers?
There’s a lot to unpack here.
First of all, even more so than warforged, Karrnathi undead aren’t robots. They aren’t precisely programmed; the Dungeon article notes that you can’t use the Odakyr Rites to create an undead farmer. The basic principle of the Odakyr Rites is one of sympathy: if you perform the Rites on the corpse of an expert archer you’ll be an archer, if you perform them on an elite melee fighter you’ll get a melee fighter. But even there, it’s not as if it’s a perfect proficiency match: the Karrnathi skeletons favor a two-weapon style that isn’t a standard technique for Karrnathi infantry. And again, they’re incapable of learning entirely new skills. So you could certainly have a Karrnathi galleon that has a skeleton crew manning the oars, but a) they wouldn’t be skilled sailors and given that, b) they’d likely be mundane skeletons, not sentient Karrnathi undead. However, that same galleon could certainly have a squad of undead Marines (who also have the advantage of not needing to breathe).
Looking to airship paratroopers, remember that airships are a recent development—they’re only been in active use for eight years—and require Lyrandar pilots. Most air battles mentioned in canon involve aerial cavalry: Thrane wyverns, Aundairian dragonhawks. With that said, you could certainly equip undead troops with feather tokens and drop them into enemy territory; as they don’t need food or sleep, can operate tirelessly, have darkvision, and are happy to engage in suicide missions, I’m sure this was done.
It seems unlikely to me, even if a GM broadens the possibilities of Karrnathi undead, that they would be created for anything other than warriors. Spellcasters would require higher INT, WIS or CHA, and more independence of thought.
I’m fine with the idea that there are additional forms of Karrnathi undead we haven’t seen in canon—even just skeletons and zombies with different skill sets. It could even be that a spellcaster produced using the Odakyr Rites is a more wraithlike entity. But remember that the core principle of the Odakyr Rites is sympathy: to raise a spellcaster, you’d need the corpse of a dedicated Karrnathi spellcaster. Assuming this is possible, every spellcaster raised by the Rites would have the same spell set, which wouldn’t have anything to do with the spells possessed by the donor corpse, and they couldn’t learn new ones. Given the tie to Mabar, I’d expect their spell selection to mainly be necromantic attack spells.
With that said, the undead champions of the Blood of Vol have long included both mummies and vampires—so there are other options for elite undead spellcasters.
Do we, or even their commanders, know how spoofable the officer recognition is on Odakyr undead is? If a Brelander wearing a Karrnathi uniform speaking with a Karrnathi accent showed at Fort Bones would the undead obey them?
I see two possible approaches here. The first is to follow the point that they are sentient. Could this ruse fool a normal human soldier? If so, maybe it could fool the undead; handle it the same way, with a Deception/Insight check if you think one is called for.
The second approach is to emphasize that they’re supernatural… that we don’t entirely KNOW why they follow orders. The THEORY is that they are animated by the martial spirit of Karrnath. Do you think you can fool that spirit with your crappy accent? Do you really want to take that chance?
How would they react if there was a civil war and they were being used on each other?
Excellent question. I think the answer is that NO ONE KNOWS. This is one reason the traditionalist warlords hate the use of undead; because they don’t know where their loyalty truly lies. They never betrayed Karrnath during the war; but what would happy if Karrns fought Karrns? Would they follow their local commanders? Would they be loyal to the crown? Would they be loyal to who THEY believe deserves the crown, and if so, does that prove the legitimacy of the candidate they support? Or could it be that once you tell them to spill Karrnathi blood… that they would turn on ALL Karrns?
If the Karrnathi undead are just going along with the commands of whatever Karrnathi Commander is leading them….is it a possibility that their true loyalty is to Vol?
It’s certainly a possibility. With that said, if that’s the case the question would be why she hasn’t already exercised that power—what is she waiting for?
Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for making this possible. My next article will delve into Cyre!