Death and the Dead


J. Edward Tremlett

The following information and rules are provided to help a Storyteller better understand the processes of rot and decay on the human body, and represent it for the purposes of roleplay in White Wolf's Storyteller System. It's primarily meant as a companion piece to The Resurrection Men, but it can also be utilized for zombies, walking dead, possessed corpses and other cadaverous matters.


Rotting 101:

Upon death, a number of things happen to mar the "corpse-like beauty" so many bad gothic writers go on about. The blood in the body drains out, and the blood that cannot escape pools in the lower parts. Within an hour it clots, causing what is known as post-mortem lividity. Dead bodies can still bruise, but bruising is caused by smashed blood vessels.

The body also loses its temperature. After about 24 hours, depending on the coolness of the weather, or how fat or well-insulated the body is, the body will have cooled to match its surroundings. This is jokingly referred to as "assuming room temperature."

After death, the body becomes very limp. Rigor mortis will set in anywhere from 15 minutes to 14 hours later. The whole process takes place in about five to six hours, effecting the upper parts of the body and creeping to the lower parts. After about 30 hours, it disappears, going from head to feet as before.

Rigor mortis is a very slow process. The sudden stiffness portrayed in popular media is actually called cadaveric spasming. This is usually caused by a blow to the nervous system, such as being shot in the head or being skull-smashed with a lead pipe.

If the temperature is right for there to be insects about, then they will be on the corpse within 24 hours. Flies might be laying eggs within ten minutes, and they will usually go for the moist spots of the body - under the lips and eyelids. The maggots will begin feeding within 24 hours after that.

The body becomes putrescent after about three to five days in mild climates. It might take up to a week in colder ones, and could take only a day in the tropics. In very dry and hot temperatures the body may mummify, instead.

After a week, the body may bloat from seeping gasses. They will slowly squeak out over the next few days, and cause the bloated areas to collapse and become fetid. Sometimes blisters full of gas or fluid will form on the skin, and the flesh over the abdominal organs turns greenish. The skin may become transparent in some places, or become phosphorescent. Elevated limbs blacken and wither.

Without any attempt at preservation, the body will have rotted away in five to nine weeks: only the bones and some desiccated tissues will be left behind. Bones may last for decades or centuries, depending on the climate and storage, but eventually they too will turn to dust.


Them Bones Gonna Rise Again:

There are no few reasons - barring Eastern and Western Vampirism, or Rising - why a corpse might get up and move once more.

  • Necromancers - be they Vampiric, mortal magician or otherwise - are able to animate the undead to serve as bodyguards, servants or sentries.
  • Wraiths have been blown through the Shroud and into rotting corpses since the start of the 6th Great Maelstrom. There are also some Arcanoi that allow Wraiths to raise the dead, or inhabit their bodies.
  • Various Umbral spirits can possess dead bodies, for whatever reason.
  • There's also a precedent for "scientific necromancy," such as that practiced by Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Herbert West.
  • Other, less-straightforward reasons the Storyteller sees fit to create.


An animated body tends to be an unthinking creature, brought up from the dead to fulfill one set command. It then falls down to rest once more - at least, until the Necromancer sees fit to call it back up again.

These corpses tend to have one or no dots in Mental Attributes. They have a willpower of 10 - or that of the Necromancer - for the purposes of resolving any magical or mental attacks. This willpower cannot be spent by the creature: it reflects the strength of the command that animated them, nothing more

There may also be cases where the corpse retains some vestige of its previous personality or will, creating a more intelligent, undead creature. These could have their old Mental Attributes and Willpower back, though the scores could be diminished slightly. Such permutations are up to the Storyteller to decide.

Possessed bodies, on the other hand, have been animated by some sort of entity. This can be anything from a ghost to some strange spirit-creature, perhaps even a mortal who's thrown her spirit into a corpse. The entity is encased in this alien flesh until it is either dispelled, or has cause to leave it.

In this case, the corpse's willpower is that of the possessing entity, as are its Mental Attributes, and the Social Attributes of Charisma and Manipulation. Charisma and Manipulation might be adversely affected by being a corpse, of course: how much of a penalty this accrues is also up to the Storyteller, on a case by case basis.

Physical Attributes and health levels are covered below, in "What's Lost to the Grave."


Playing with The Dead:

In order to present some level of realistic playability to the possession and use of dead bodies, I have placed bodies on a four part scale based on how decayed they are. The four steps are: Fresh, Rotting, Rotten, and Remains.

This scale should not be confused with the health levels below Incapacitated from Mummy: the Resurrection; Those deal with getting a dead body back up to a state where a Mummy can live in it again. This scale concerns itself with corpses that won't be coming back to life - at least, not as we'd recognize...

A Fresh body has just died, but not begun to putrefy. There is no significant maggot population. A body taken to a cold room in the morgue prior to being infested with maggots would be an example of a Fresh body.

Rotting bodies have begun to putrefy. This goes from the time that the maggots have begun to spread from the eyes and mouth to other spots - happily chewing holes all the way - to the point that bloating occurs.

After bloating, the body is considered Rotten. It will be Rotten until the fleshy tissues have gone away. Whatever is left - be it a skeleton or a pile of dust - is Remains.

Mummified bodies are considered to be Rotting, but will probably stay Rotting for centuries so long as they remain in a dry, warm place. Likewise with bodies pickled in formalin, preserved in bogs or ice or anything else that arrests decay, but isn't that good for the corpse's overall state.

Sometimes a body may go from life to something other than Fresh. If the body is obliterated into dust, exploded to tiny pieces, rammed head-first through a wood-chipper or anything else, it is considered Remains.


What's Lost to the Grave:

Death tends to come due to shock, system failure and blood loss. Once the body is dead, the previous injuries can be discounted and the Health levels set back to full. Then modify the corpse's health using the following adjustments, keeping in mind that no losses can ever take the body below the base score of one - save for Appearance.

  • Fresh bodies should have the Bruised level taken away, and have lost one dot from their original Dexterity and Appearance.
  • Rotting bodies lose at least Bruised, and may lose up to Injured. They have also lost two dots from Dexterity, and one dot from Strength and Stamina. They have a variable loss in Appearance, depending on how far gone they are.
  • Rotten bodies can be either Wounded or Mauled, have lost four dots from Dexterity, two from Strength and Stamina, and no longer have an Appearance score.
  • Remains have some rules of their own: see the "Remains" section, below.

Corpses do not always come in the best condition. Bodies that have been shot, beaten to death, poisoned, strangled or done in via a less intrusive way do not accrue further health level penalties. However, bodies that have been hurt in more gruesome ways may have lost additional health levels.

Assume one health level is lost for each limb that is completely missing. A half-body (head, arms and trunk but nothing below the waist) would be missing 3 health levels. Missing eyes act as the "One Eye" or "Blind" flaws, but do not confer any health penalties.

In combat, remember that while the bodies may lose health levels because, they do not suffer any die pool losses because of it. Having limbs hacked off will complicate things, though. The loss of sensory organs will also be a hindrance, unless the possessing entity can do without them.



  • A skeleton has one dot in Strength, Dexterity and Stamina, no Appearance, and only one health level (Crippled). However, it must be shattered to be stopped. Brawl and Melee rolls with heavy or blunt weapons - like axes and clubs - do normal damage. Knives, thin swords and most firearms have the wound difficulty raised from 6 to 9 due to the fact that bullets are meant to cause blood-loss, not shatter skeletons.

    A single wound will cause the skeleton to fall to pieces, and expel the possessing entity - if any.
  • Pieces are large parts of a body that still retain some motility; The crawling hand from the "Evil Dead" movies would be a good example of this. However, it may be possible for an entity to possess more than one piece of a dismembered body.

    Each piece has one health level, but as the entity may be in several pieces at once this makes it very hard to stop. The entity can have as many pieces attack or dodge per turn as it would like, but doing more than one action requires that it split its dice pool.
  • Dust is what's left when the body has either decayed into bone powder, or has been blown into smithereens. In either case, only minute fragments are left. Dust tends to assumes a form identical to the form the possessing entity normal takes, provided it has a shape at all. It cannot speak.

    Dust has one health level, but cannot be hurt by firearms, melee or brawl, as the attacks will go right through the dust. It can only be contained, obliterated or forced apart by an explosion. It cannot hurt anyone physically either, as dust has no real mass behind it.


Sources and Suggested Reading:

The majority of the information on decaying came from William W. Workman's article on pathology in Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, Ed. 5.1.1. Call of Cthulhu is also highly recommended as both a game in its own right, and as idea-fodder for Storytellers wondering just what could be possessing those dead bodies...

As for other games, or sites, where zombies play a large part:

White Wolf's Hunter: the Reckoning

Eden Studio's All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Pinnacle's Deadlands

Zombie: the Coil, a well-done, unofficial WOD game, allows players to portray zombies.

Living Dead Girl is also well-worth a look. Maybe you can be the one to help Margo tool the game for Wraith...?