D&D Creature Types: Undead in 5e, Photo Sketch of a Zombie in a Cemetery

What Undead Means in D&D 5e

Undead are some of the most classic monsters in any form of media. And, they make for great enemies to put up against your players in your Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition game.

This article is going to go over the undead creature type in D&D 5e. What they are, their common traits, and how to use them in you game.

Without further ado, let’s dive into what undead are in D&D 5e.

The Undead 5e Creature Type

Undead in 5e, Photo Sketch of 3 Skeletal Zombies
Undead is one of the 14 creature types in D&D 5e, it includes reanimated corpses and the spirits of those once living

Undead is one of the monster types found in D&D 5e. It classifies almost any creature that was once living, died, and now exists in a risen form outside of death. Zombies and ghosts, among a myriad of others, fall into this creature category.

Basically, if a mortal creature was alive at some point (i.e., not an elemental, fiend, celestial, or some other bizarre entity), died, and came back to life, it’s an undead in 5e.

Now, it’s important to note, "alive" in this sense, refers almost exclusively to people or animals. Plants in 5e fall into their own category and can’t really become undead in the strictest sense despite them being technically alive. That said, other creatures like some monstrosities or even aberrations may turn into some form of undead in the right circumstances.

Page seven of the Monster Manual describes undead in the following way:

Undead are once-living creatures brought to a horrifying state of undeath through the practice of necromantic magic or some unholy curse. Undead include walking corpses, such as vampires and zombies, as well as bodiless spirits, such as ghosts and specters.

Source: D&D Basic Rules – Chapter 12: Monsters

So, that’s pretty much it.

Undead in D&D 5e include almost any creature that was once living but now isn’t and yet refuses to stay dead.

D&D 5e Undead Traits

Photo Sketch of a Zombie Woman
Undead in 5e share some general traits, but since they’re so varied, some creatures have exceptions to these traits

Undead vary fairly wildly from each other, so not all creature of this type have the same traits. That said, there are a few traits many undead share like not requiring food, drink, or air or having immunity to poison damage.

Many undead creatures have a flavor "traitquot; that isn’t technically a part of their stat block called Undead Nature. This trait usually means the creature doesn’t require food, water, air, or sleep. But, this isn’t 100% as some creatures have a version of Undead Nature that excludes some aspects of the base trait. For example, the vampire and vampire spawn have Undead Nature but it only means they don’t require air. So, they still need to eat, drink, and sleep.

Some undead creatures don’t even have this trait. Ghasts and ghouls count as undead but they don’t have Undead Nature.

Another common trait undead share is an immunity to poison damage and the poisoned condition. Many undead creatures in 5e take no poison damage. That said, some undead don’t have this immunity. Again, vampires and vampire spawn lack immunity to poison and, in fact, have no immunities at all.

Many undead have additional resistances and immunities. But, this depends on which creature you’re looking at. Like, zombies only have immunity to poison and the poisoned condition while will-o’-wisps have those as well as immunity to lightning damage, resistances to acid, cold, fire, necrotic, thunder, and mundane weapon damage, and immunity to the Exhaustion, Grappled, Paralyzed, Prone, Restrained, and Unconscious conditions.

Most undead are also susceptible to the Turn Undead and Turn the Unholy class features. But, again, not all undead get affected by these features. For example, the revenant has the trait Turn Immunity which, you guessed it, makes them immune to effects that turn undead.

Types of Undead in 5e

Photo Sketch of a Ghostly Woman Standing in front of Stairs
The undead monster type doesn’t really break out into sub-types, but creatures usually fall into one of two camps; physical & spiritual

The undead creature type doesn’t have any sub-categorizations in 5e. That said, you can generally divide the undead into one of two camps; physical and spirits.

Now, about the only reasons you’d want to keep this in mind is to commit to a specific theme for your game or adventure.

Each type of undead has its own strengths and weaknesses. Walking corpses tend to be a bit hardier while spirits are usually a bit more agile.

All this said, if you’re looking at keeping a theme between supernatural and horror, you can use these two unofficial sub-categories to differentiate the types of undead in 5e.

D&D Undead Types: Physical

Physical undead covers any creature that retains a body or what’s left of their body, at the very least.

Zombies, skeletons, mummies, vampires, and the like all fall into this unofficial sub-category. While they all vary in abilities and composition, these undead still have some level of physicality to them.

Now, physical undead tend to be a bit hardier than spirits. Often, you’ll see walking corpses have a larger pool of hit points to make up for their lack of resistances and inferior maneuverability.

This type of undead also usually engage with their prey more directly. Zombies horde around their victims, vampires direct their spawn to capture their prey, and ghasts control a host of ghouls to attack unwitting travelers. This isn’t to say the more intelligent of the undead, like vampires or liches, don’t plot and scheme to bring down their foes. Just that these undead do tend towards being more active.

D&D Undead Types: Spirits

Spirits are those undead creatures that lack a body and exist as ethereal entities detached from the physical world.

These undead include creatures like the banshee, ghost, will-o’-wisp, shadow, and others. Basically, if the creature is dies and it’s life force manifests outside of its corpse, it falls into this category.

Undead spirits tend to be a bit more maneuverable than their physical counterparts. Often, spirits in D&D have abilities that let them fly, move through solid objects, and they tend to have more movement speed. This isn’t always the case but maneuverability does tend to be a strength spirits have over walking corpses.

Spirits also tend to have more damage resistances and immunities. For example, ghosts resist mundane weapon damage as well as acid, fire, and lighting. They also have immunity to cold, necrotic, and poison damage as well as the Charmed, Exhaustion, Frightened, Grappled, Paralyzed, Petrified, Poisoned, Prone, and Restrained conditions.

Watch a vampire spawn, with its paltry resistances to necrotic and mundane weapon damage, compete with that.

Spirits tend to stay in the shadows. They try not to directly attack their victims instead opting for abilities that sap a living creature’s strength, possessing a creature and attacking their allies, or striking a lone creature from the shadows without the victim ever knowing the spirit is there.

Using Undead in Your D&D Game

Photo Sketch of a Skeleton Knight
Undead make great enemies your players won’t feel bad about defeating

Generally speaking, you’ll use undead in your D&D game as villains or minions to your villains. In most settings, necromancy is an "evil" school of magic. So, only evil doers will raise the dead or sites of horrific tragedies become suffused with malevolent energies.

Let’s be honest here, the undead are some of the few monsters people won’t feel bad about striking down. Brainless zombies, murderous vampires, and malevolent spirits are all classic examples of " there’s a monster that needs killing" type adventures.

Because of this, using undead in your D&D game means most likely placing them as enemies for your player characters to defeat.

Lower Challenger Rating (CR) creatures like zombies and skeletons make for great minions and fodder for the party to hack their way through. Meanwhile, stronger undead creatures like the vampire or lich fit the bill for your campaign’s end-villain.

The point being; undead work perfectly as monsters for the party to fight.

That said, including neutral or even friendly undead subverts expectations and presents your players with new opportunities.

For example, one of my favorite ideas is to have a revenant rise due to a great injustice done to their family by the main villain of the campaign. They won’t necessarily stick with the party for whatever reason, but it gives your players a unique ally they may turn to should they need help.

There’s also the idea that a ghost simply can’t let go of some attachment to their home town. They’re not evil, just sad and maybe lonely. Or, give a zombie some level of intelligence and they just want to make sense of their current situation.

As I always say; get weird with it. Subvert expectations when using the undead in your game if you want to surprise your players.

How to Make Fighting Undead Interesting in 5e

Now, fighting the undead can get a little repetitive or boring. Most of these creatures lack any sort of tactical awareness or strategy due to them existing as beings of pure instinct.

That said, fighting the undead in 5e doesn’t need to be boring.

If your players grow bored with the same zombie and skeleton fights, start throwing more unique undead at them. Give your zombies unique features like filling one with a swarm of insects that exit and leave the walking corpse over the course of the fight. Or, infuse your undead with elemental energy like a charred skeleton that deals additional fire damage.

Aside from altering your monsters, just use different undead. Instead of zombies, use ghouls. Add minotaur skeletons to your regular skeletons. Have a wight lead a troupe of their own risen corpses. Changing up the types of undead you throw at your players keeps your combats fresh and exciting.

If that still doesn’t do anything for you, start using more dynamic battlemaps for your undead combat encounters. Introduce sink holes, rising tides, or falling debris to your combat. Not only will your players need to contend with the unrelating dead, but they’ll also need to avoid hazards and maneuver across shifting terrain.

Becoming a Lich in 5e

There is no "official" way of becoming a lich in 5e. The only guidance players and Game Masters get is that a lich’s soul gets stored away in a phylactery and kept somewhere safe. But, the method of transforming into a lich is vague at best and unhelpful at worst.

About the only guidance you’ll get comes from the lich’s entry in the Monster Manual. Basically, a wizard who wants to become a lich must follow an arcane ritual that seals their soul away in a phylactery which can be pretty much anything the wizard wants. This usually involves concocting some poisonous potion made with the blood of a sentient creature whose soul serves as a sacrifice. The wizard then drops dead after performing the ritual and drinking the potion and eventually rises again as a lich.

Some wizards turn to Orcus or other dark deities and entities of undeath for assistance. But, that usually comes at a price of unwavering fealty to whichever entity they beseech.

Apart from these vague guidelines, how a creature becomes a lich in your game is up to you. Maybe they need to forge a massive magic circle with sacrifices made at specific points or the ritual can only succeed during a solar eclipse. It’s all up to you.

That’s not even mentioning what goes into the ritual.

Does the ritual require magic sigils? Is there a specific incantation required? Can the ritual only succeed at a specific location?

Becoming a lich is no small feat. So, the steps needed to achieve it should indicate the struggle and difficulties in achieving lichdom.

List of Undead in 5e by CR

Photo Sketch of a Ghost Girl Kneeling in Front of a Grave
There are quite a few undead creatures in D&D 5e spanning a range of difficulty all the way through high-level play

There are a lot of undead creatures in D&D 5e.

Now, unfortunately, a good bulk of those monsters are spread across several sourcebooks and adventure modules. So, you’ll need a good number of books to have access to all of the undead 5e has to offer.

That said, D&D’s Basic Rules does give you access to some of the more classic undead creatures. So, here is a list of undead in 5e by Challenge Rating (CR).

  1. CR 1/4
    • Skeleton
    • Zombie
  2. CR 1/2
    • Shadow
    • Warhorse Skeleton
  3. CR 1
    • Ghoul
    • Specter
  4. CR 2
    • Ghast
    • Minotaur Skeleton
    • Ogre Zombie
    • Will-o’-Wisp
  5. CR 3
    • Mummy
    • Wight
  6. CR 4
    • Banshee
    • Flameskull
    • Ghost
  7. CR 5
    • Vampire Spawn
    • Wraith
  8. CR 13
    • Vampire
  9. CR 15
    • Mummy Lord
  10. CR 21
    • Lich

D&D 5e Undead FAQ

Photo Sketch of a Zombie in a Swamp Reaching Out for a Sword

What Language Do Undead Speak in 5e?

Many undead don’t speak a language. At best, these undead will understand the languages they knew in life but cannot speak. Some undead creatures can speak the languages they knew in life, like ghosts and vampires, but there is not "undead" language.

What Are Undead Immune to in 5e?

Undead are generally immune to poison damage in 5e. This isn’t 100% though as Vampires and Vampire spawn lack this immunity. Various undead also have additional damage immunities like the ghost which don’t take cold and necrotic damage on top of poison.

Is There an Undead Race in D&D?

There is no official undead race in D&D 5e. The closest you can get in an official book is the Dhampir and Reborn player races from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. The former traces their lineage to a vampire while the latter includes creatures who died but still live…which, I guess doesn’t qualify them as undead since the book still lists them as Humanoid for their creature type.

Can Undead Heal in 5e?

Yes, undead can heal in 5e. That said, it’s a bit harder to heal them. Many spells with healing effects, like healing word, explicitly mention they do not work on undead (or constructs). But, spells that don’t specifically call out this exception, like aura of vitality or regenerate, still work for healing undead creatures. Also, Potions of Healing and the Healer feat don’t exclude undead, so those work for healing creatures of that type as well. Finally, undead can take rests just like any other creature, expending hit dice on a short rest and recovering all lost hit points after a long rest.

Are Undead Immune to the Frightened Condition?

There is no general rule that undead are immune to the Frightened condition. So, no. Generally speaking, undead in 5e are not immune to becoming Frightened.

 

Summary of Undead in 5e

That about covers undead in D&D 5e.

Undead creatures include almost any living thing that died and rose again in some form be that physical or spiritual. These creatures share some common traits, but they vary so greatly from each other in form and capabilities that there are always exceptions to the general rules. And, using undead in your D&D 5e game doesn’t need to be boring. Adding variations, using different kinds, and using engaging battlefields all help make fighting the undead interesting.

How do you use undead in your game? Have you ever included a non-evil undead creature? Leave a comment below and we’ll swap stories.

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