Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 132: Open Grave Secrets of the Undead




One of the more obnoxious things about Fourth Edition is that while it makes a few claims towards being setting agnostic, in reality it’s the most setting-focused edition of the game so far. However so much of that information is parsed out piecemeal rather than in one centralized location, such that getting a real grasp on what’s happening in the Points of Light world (or Nentir Valley, or whatever the fuck we want to call this stupidly unnamed setting) requires reading practically every splatbook Wizards of the Coast printed in this edition, plus each issue of Dragon and Dungeon magazines. In this it was an edition focused on the hardcore, much to its detriment as you couldn’t be a casual fan and make much sense of anything except the core books, and it also meant that due to the setting’s focus on its new cosmology rarely am I able to skip books. Something like Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead doesn’t sound like a planar work, but as with the Draconomicon I: Chromatic Dragons before it there’s still plenty of planar material here that I don’t want to skip past. Some of it I even rather like.

Admittedly, it’s only natural that a book about the undead would include planar material because of their newfound link with the Shadowfell. Unfortunately, this also relates to another issue I have with this edition, which is that the lore is always so focused on this setting that it can be difficult to differentiate your own home campaign. A lot of this planar lore is focused on Orcus, the Raven Queen, and the newly retconned manner in which souls head to the afterlife. But if, like me, you don’t like the Raven Queen, then many pages of material here are going to be inapplicable to you. There is always one explanation for how things came to be, with primordials, souls, etc., and as such the book tacitly forces you into using its cosmology. That this cosmology is so radically different from before and at the same time so vague and undefined contributed to its lack of popularity. 


Anyhow, the planar material of Open Grave is scattered somewhat randomly throughout, and I’m going to cover what I consider relevant as we come to it. Aside from a passing mention of Atropus and Elder Evils on page 16, this begins on page 21, when the book delivers three pages focused just on Shadowfell and its interactions with the undead. If you like the new cosmological changes this is probably pretty cool. I don’t, but even I enjoyed expanding upon the metaplot of Orcus trying to usurp the Raven Queen. In general, this edition is far too into Orcus, in a way that makes him bland and flat compared with his previous depictions, but this is still an enjoyable storyline to include, and isn’t even that difficult to adapt to other settings by just switching out the Raven Queen with any other pantheon’s death deity. This plot makes thematic sense, it’s just a matter of how far Wizards of the Coast is willing to go with it in the future.

The lairs often have good maps, but never any other artwork.

But the main reason why I wanted to cover this book isn’t the handful of pages on one of the most boring planes in the history of the game, it’s the interplanar lairs. Like with the Draconomicon that shared its format, the book contains nine “lairs,” which are essentially 1-2 session adventure locations with just enough plot to easily insert into most worlds when you didn’t have enough time to prepare your own material. The lair format had only rarely been seen since the mid-90s, and I hadn’t gotten the sense that anyone was really clamoring for its return, but I suppose given the edition’s focus on combat their return makes some sense. Three of the ones for this book are planar, and two of them are actually rather neat. As per the format, they’re not exactly brimming with lore, but as samples for what these locations can contain I’m happy with what’s here, even as I’m wondering (i.e. worrying about) just how many more of these the edition’s going to put out—Fourth Edition was short, but it sure had an absolute ton of books. 

The Mausoleum of Ssra-Tauroch is a new location in the Shadowfell, and by far the least interesting of these planar lairs. Essentially, it’s a stereotypical snake-and-mummy filled tomb for players to live out their vaguely ancient Egyptian fantasies in, and lives up to all of the stereotypes you might think it would. Weirdly, it’s located in a new part of this plane, the Auburn Wastes, which is only surprising because one of the tiny handful of Shadowfell locations previously detailed was another vaguely ancient Egyptian-themed desert, The Plain of Sighing Stones. I truly have nothing else to say about this lair—it achieves what it sets out to do, no more, no less.


Fortunately, the next location, the Tower of Zoramadria, is much cooler:

The Tower of Zoramadria is hidden away in the Feywild. The tower is an arcane academy under the tutelage of the lich Parthal. Parthal and his students lead serene lives of study and contemplation, except when they engage in a bout of bloody necromantic research that requires innocent souls as vital components. Parthal has a score to settle, and the Feywild itself might shudder and scream before the lich has had his revenge on those who killed his love.

Almost all of the lore for this lair is included in the short “background” sidebar at its beginning, but that’s totally fine. I appreciate a weird necromantic academy being run by a psychotic elf, and it’s one of the few things I’ve heard about in the Feywild that seem even slightly exciting. It’s also worth noting that by no means does any of these need to located be in the Feywild (which I realize is a perennial phrase from this column given how little the Feywild had done to distinguish itself), which makes it easy to relocate elsewhere in the planes if you’d prefer. My one demerit for the entry is that it claims to include six stories in the tower, but only three are occupied while the other three are… never mentioned again? But kinda on the map? I didn’t understand what it was trying for in this case, but the rest of the lair and its storyline is fun and could make for a nice sidequest in Arborea, the Outlands, or even the Prime.

Haeminathunn seems both smaller and squishier than the god-corpses in previous editions.

The best of all the book’s lairs, and I don’t just mean the planar ones, is the Astral Corpse. This isn’t the corpse of a previously known deity, though, but rather that of a primordial, the first “Blood Lord” Haemnathuun (Orcus is the new Blood Lord, because I guess he wasn’t edgey enough before). It’s not clear to me why god/primordial corpses wind up in the Astral Sea in this cosmology, but since that’s still weirdly the case at least Bruce Cordell and company ran with the idea. This is also a lair that isn’t just a series of fights, there’s a real plot at work here. Players are contacted by a strange being known as Harrowzau (who turns out to be an atropal) for assistance in keeping Haemnathuun from returning to life. His corpse is nothing like what we saw of god-corpses back in Planescape, and is a rather squishy, messy affair, but the real fun comes when players realize (one way or another) that Harrowzau is just using them to siphon this god-energy for itself. Aside from the usual primordial dopiness, all of this is fun and seems easily transplanted to the Great Wheel cosmology. Hell, it makes more sense there than it does in the Fourth Edition one, as at least there the drifting divine corpses are explained. 


The second half of Open Grave largely consists of new monster entries, and only a couple of these are planar. First up are two new abominations, who like the Third Edition examples are nearly divine and grotesque. The rotvine defiler is a “profane vestige of a powerful immortal devoted to fertility” and likes to kill organic life because it’s evil like that. The discord incarnate is a combination of elementals and fiends made by couatls because, umm, yeah I’m unclear about the reasoning. They’re now largely trapped inside prison demiplanes. Oh, and “Scholars speculate that a discord incarnate spontaneously arises from the clash of two powerful, opposing forces—a powerful demon and a couatl.” This origin completely contradicts the other one, so I guess use the one you like best, though neither makes the discord incarnates into a particularly interesting creature.

The primary difference between the Feywild and the Prime Material Plane seems to be that it produces cuter vampires.

The only other planar creature I noticed while skimming through these entries, ignoring the whole Shadowfell connection with all undead in Fourth Edition, is the vampire muse:


Vampire muses hail from the Feywild and are renowned for stimulating creativity in artists. These gifts come at a price, however. While the muse inspires an artist to the heights of creativity, it steals away the artist’s blood. An artist working with a vampire muse might achieve renown for epic poems, songs, or paintings, but he or she tends to die soon afterward, a gaunt and hollow-eyed husk.

It probably says something bad about me that, given the above information and the accompanying vampire muse picture, this sounds like a deal I would take with little hesitation. 

So as with the Draconomicon, there’s planar material here, but not enough to really warrant a read through unless you’re a weirdo like me. The book itself is strong, if anything over-delivering on what it promises, and given that it was largely created by Bruce Cordell it’s actually filled with some fun callbacks to the game’s past, particularly with Acerak, whose Fortress of Conclusion gets moved to the Shadowfell. The entire mythos of this edition continues to build and clarify, but it still feels messy and weirdly incomplete. Fortunately, almost everything worthwhile in this book can still be used in any campaign today assuming you’re fine swapping out a few stat blocks, and the stuff that can’t because it’s too reliant on this dumb setting… well, who even cares?

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