Common Knowledge – The Facts of Unlife!

Oh no, it’s a skeleton! What do you do?

Well, if its just a skeleton then Turn Undead should be fine. But it could also be a particularly decayed lich, so that’d be bad news and you should run. Is it solid? It could be some sort of skeletal specter or something. And hey, does anyone actually know what mummies look like under all those bandages?

It could be anything! But no worries, it just killed you. Looks like it was a lich after all. Now are you going to come back as a zombie, or would it be more of a ghoul or ghast situation…?

Click through below to learn all about the common knowledge of undead!


Tiers of Familiarity

Just as a refresher, here are the Tiers of Familiarity. For more on the specifics of that set-up, just click here!

  • Unknown. Check DC 27, Low quality info. The character has likely never heard of it, and could only know the basics. Near failures are still clueless.
  • Myth. Check DC 18, Mediocre quality info. Legends of the topic are common, but the info could be a bit embellished. Near failures can at least find someone more familiar with the tall tales.
  • Hearsay. Check DC 14, Decent quality info. The character could have overheard something, but that means the info might be fragmentary. Near failures should remember who they were listening to though!
  • Familiar. Check DC 10, Good quality info. Child’s play, really; the character would easily remember the basics and could know a lot more. Near failures still get the basics, as well as a lead on where to learn more!
  • Exotic. An optional tier of familiarity for something wholly unfamiliar to the character; information they couldn’t possibly know.
  • Learned. An optional tier of familiarity for someone who is a studied expert on the topic; there’s nothing they wouldn’t know.

And with that, on with the show!


Common Undead (Zombies, Skeletons, Ghosts, etc.)

Necromancy is a foul art of magic that warps the spirits of fallen creatures and helps reanimate their rotting corpses to serve the necromancer’s dread will. The most common undead are zombies and skeletons (puppets to the necromancer’s will), and ghosts (the unfulfilled spirits of the dead).

Due to the nature of ghosts and their visual similarity to specters and wraiths, a character confronted with one can either be made to roll under this category, or under the following Specters and Wraiths category if they have any familiarity above Unknown in that section.


No one knows so little about the concept of undeath unless there are some extreme circumstances at play. And identifying a literal walking corpse is pretty easy.


Almost all groups fall under this category, so they won’t be listed individually. Every culture has its own tales of undead, whether they be historical legends, humorous tall tales, or bedtime stories to scare small children.


These groups would likely have a little more familiarity on the practical nature of undead. Rather than just myths, they would more likely remember actual facts.

  • Backgrounds. Acolytes, Hermits, Sages
  • Classes. Bards, Clerics (except Death), Druids, Paladins (except Oathbreakers), Warlocks, Wizards (except Necromancers)

Very few groups are truly familiar with undeath… unless they are the source of the undead in the first place. That’s what makes it so scary, after all.

  • Classes. Death Domain Clerics, Oathbreaker Paladins, School of Necromancy Wizards


Specters and Wraiths

Not all undead have bodies. Some only exist in spirit form, such as the ghost, the specter (and its related entity, the poltergeist), and the wraith. These undead present a special problem – telling them apart.

The categories below track each group’s ability to correctly identify a specter or wraith as something besides a common ghost. Each category then lists what the character would know after successfully distinguishing between the two categories, ghost or specter/wraith.


Again, no one knows so little of undead that they can’t recognize the concept of a ghost. However, many groups would struggle to differentiate between a ghost and a specter or wraith.

Unless listed below, all cultures and groups fall in this category. On a success they gain all the knowledge they’d normally have on ghosts (see above), as well as the realization that the creature they face is “no normal ghost”, though they don’t know if it is a specter or wraith specifically.


Some groups have a little more luck in differentiating between different forms of incorporeal undead due to traditions that help distinguish each kind from the others.

On a success, the character gains all the knowledge they’d normally have on a ghost (see above), as well as some traits of the actual creature they face (specter, poltergeist, or wraith). They may not be able to specifically name the type of undead, but they could easily tell the difference between a weak specter and the much more dangerous wraith.

  • Backgrounds. Acolytes
  • Classes. Clerics (save Death), Paladins (except Oathbreakers)

The following groups would easily be able to identify a given spirit as a ghost, specter, poltergeist, or wraith. On a success they can identify which one a given creature is and remember several facts on that type of creature.

  • Classes. Oathbreaker Paladins, Warlocks, Wizards (except Necromancers)

Lastly are the students of undeath, who would be easily capable of distinguishing between the different forms of spirit. A character in this category shouldn’t even have to roll to distinguish between a ghost, specter, poltergeist, or wraith.

Instead, characters in this category are rolling simply to see what they remember on the specific type of undead they are currently facing.

  • Classes. Death Domain Clerics, School of Necromancy Wizards


Rare Undead (Ghouls, Revenants, Shadows, etc.)

Some forms of necromancy are more uncommon than others. Undead like ghouls and ghasts, shadows, revenants, and other abominations are not unique, but they are more infrequently found. And, as such, knowledge on them is much more scarce.


The majority of people will have no knowledge separating these rare undead from the more common zombies, skeletons, and ghosts they may partially resemble. At best, on a success, a character will be able to tell that the given creature is not the common undead closest in appearance to it (such as distinguishing between a zombie and a ghoul or revenant).


Rarely a group will pass down stories of special undead, which can then be associated with new creatures that the character encounters. In this case, however, the knowledge the character has is frequently tied to a specific historical/legendary undead. Thus if the dread shadows created by a certain vampire necromancer inherited their master’s aversion to garlic, the character might think all shadows share that same weakness.

  • Backgrounds. Acolytes, Hermits, Sages
  • Classes. Bards, Clerics (except Death), Druids, Paladins

More educated individuals can usually point out the differences between each type of rare undead and its more common equivalent, and have more generalized knowledge untainted by legend and rumor. Even so, the rarity of the occurrence of such undead can make remembering details all the more difficult.

  • Classes. Warlocks, Wizards (except Necromancers)

As with more common undead, the following groups are generally the source of these rare undead and so have a great deal of knowledge on them. Even so, the creation of these more powerful servants is more difficult, so less powerful individuals may have never actually created one themselves, even if they know a great deal about them.

  • Classes. Death Domain Clerics, School of Necromancy Wizards

Death Knights

In some way the most tragic of undead, death knights are the remnants of paladins who failed in their duty, and blatantly broke their oath. Each death knight is a tragedy all their own, with no end in sight.


All groups not listed below fall into this category. Though many cultures would know that disgraced paladins go to a grim fate, the knowledge of what that fate is, specifically, would not be widespread.


The following groups would have ample opportunity to learn about death knights from ancient tales of fallen paladins. Of note is the fact that if a given locality or region has a specific legend about a death knight (the lands once ruled by Lord Soth, for example), they would function in this category as well.

  • Backgrounds. Hermits, Sages
  • Classes. Bards, Clerics (except War and Death), Warlocks

With easy access to myths and tales of death knights, and enough exposure to academic sources to be able to sort the embellishments from the facts, the following groups could easily know a fair amount on the topic.

  • Backgrounds. Acolytes
  • Classes. War Clerics, Death Clerics, Paladins (except Oathbreakers), Wizards (except Necromancers)

And lastly are the groups that would be intimately familiar with the concept of the death knight… perhaps even personally, as a potential future should certain choices be made and paths be followed.

  • Classes. Oathbreaker Paladins, School of Necromancy Wizards


Mummies and Mummy Lords

Typically found in ancient tombs, mummies are a special case. Though knowledge of them and the specifics of how the function varies, as detailed below, one fact is generally universal – their weakness to fire.

Whether this is due to common cultural diffusion of knowledge, or simply the mummies’ blatantly dry and flammable appearance is a mystery.


Any group geographically distant from the practice of mummification has very little chance of recognizing mummies as anything but bandage-wrapped zombies.


In areas closer to the practice of mummification, no matter how ancient, stories of the results are bound to survive. Additionally, some other individuals may be familiar as well.

  • Backgrounds. Sages
  • Classes. Clerics (except Death), Monks

Once again, geography has a small part to play here. If a character in the following groups lives near or has traveled to an area with mummification practices, then they could have overheard details.

  • Backgrounds. Acolytes
  • Classes. Death Domain Clerics, Wizards (except Necromancers)

Very few outsiders would be familiar with mummies, given their nature. That being said, experts in necromancy would have ample opportunity to learn more. Furthermore, any individual listed above, under Hearsay, could also use this tier if they have lived in a region with mummies for a significant period of time, or made a special effort to investigate the practice.

  • Classes. School of Necromancy Wizards



Bloodsuckers with dramatic flair, vampires are one of the few undead creatures which can pass as being alive, under certain circumstances. Regardless, vampires are characterized by many weaknesses and character flaws that can allow even the uninitiated to identify them in some cases.

A vampire actively attempting to pass as a living creature is allowed a Charimsa (Deception) check against a viewer’s Wisdom (Insight) check. On a success, the vampire can pass itself off as merely being a very pale and gaunt living person, not an undead hellbent on consuming blood directly from an innocent’s jugular.


Most groups without specific tales of vampires would fall in this category.

Of special note here is a real-world issue; namely Dracula’s status as one of the most recognizable monsters of all time. This leads to not a small bit of dramatic irony in vampire books (just read the original Dracula and you’ll see what I mean within the first few pages), and can also cause problems here.

Remember; just because the players recognize it doesn’t mean the characters do. Some players are capable of playing around this and maintaining character, while others are not. It’s all up to individual skill, experience, and style!


Any region with a vampire myth can fall in this group. The people of Barovia (home to the vampire Strahd) would have legends of their mysterious lord which could be applied to any vampire. Additionally, a few other groups would likely have had some exposure to vampire legends.

  • Backgrounds. Entertainers, Sages
  • Classes. Bards, Clerics (except Death), Druids, Paladins (except Oathbreakers), Rangers, Warlocks, Wizards (except Necromancers)

Close proximity is a factor here as well; if a culture has a still-unliving vampire nearby, it’s very likely they’ll be able to identify another one. A good example of this is the Vistani in Barovia. Since they have periodic direct contact with Strahd, their knowledge would be greater than that of a common villager.

  • Backgrounds. Acolytes
  • Classes. Oathbreaker Paladins

The only individuals who would be truly familiar with vampires would be those who have made a great study of undead. As one of the only types of undead to retain traits similar to living beings (namely non-rotted flesh), they would merit research by any student of the dark arts.

  • Classes. Death Clerics, School of Necromancy Wizards


Liches and Demiliches

Among the most powerful undead are liches, the ideal form that most necromancers strive for. With their minds fully intact and full with deadly magic, they also pose the biggest threat to most adventurers. They are not common, however, as the secret to lichdom is difficult to learn and even more difficult to enact.

A note on demiliches – in 5th Edition, a demilich is a lich whose mind has wandered the far corners of reality and forgotten to come back. It exists as a lesser creature, still dangerous but bereft of the killer intellect it once had. There are some demiliches, however, which choose this form consciously and thus retain their intelligence. Demiliches of this kind are exceedingly rare, so any information gained by characters on demiliches will refer to the average variant.


Most groups would fall within this group. Sure, necromancy is a known magic and necromancers a known group, but it is unlikely that many would know the specific features of one of the rarest forms of undead.


Few cultures have myths of liches that are untainted by misinformation. Many people might know of Vecna, but Vecna himself is an irregular lich. Similar would be Acererak, master of the Tomb of Horrors; he’s a cambion (sometimes) so that confuses things even more.

The following groups, however, would know at least enough to identify the concept of a lich, if not a completely true version of its abilities and traits.

  • Backgrounds. Acolytes, Sages
  • Classes. Clerics (except Death), Paladins, Warlocks, Wizards (except Necromancers)

Very few people learn a lot of liches and live to tell the tale. Literally – the only ones who truly study liches (see below) generally go on to die and become one themselves. They also aren’t likely to be the type to talk about themselves much.


Those who know the most about liches are themselves liches-in-training, so to speak. Necromancers of all kinds are intimately familiar with the concept of lichdom because, to them, it represents a vision of the future.

  • Classes. Death Clerics, School of Necromancy Wizards



And there we have it! Remember that the “common undead” and “rare undead” sections can apply to more than just the creatures they mention by name. A wight or deathlock could easily be included with ghouls and ghasts as rare undead. It’s all about frequency! If an undead is a dime-a-dozen necrotic puppet, it can be a common undead. If not, it’s rare.

Coming up soon will be posts on the denizens of the Underdark and the terrors of the deep, so keep an eye out for those! We’ll also have to address the ranger’s Favored Enemy feature at some point, so that’ll be on the way at some point.

Let me know what you think!

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