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Claw Your Way Out! An Open Grave Review

Written by Nicholas - Published on February 11, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

Open Grave
Open Grave by Bruce R. Cordell,
Eytan Bernstein, and Brian R. James

Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead is an aptly named book. It is indeed full of surprises, I went in expecting equal parts skimable lore bits and mini-monster manual. While those things were certainly in there, they exceed my expectations and are accompanied by so much more to love in there. Without further ado, lets dive in the Open Grave together.

A Curious Ensemble

The presence of the monster manual section is hardly a surprise but the diversity of the collection is. The group runs the full range from fairly mundane horror creatures like undead hounds and poltergeist to the truly bizarre like golems composed of tombstones. Every undead creature you can think of is present, crawling hands, undead beholders and waterlogged zombies. There’s also a few creatures no one should ever have thought of, such as the Skin Kite which is described as “a gliding mass of skin, akin to a manta ray made of humanoid flesh”. In addition to being an interesting collection the monsters are also well-written and have abilities that invoke the feel of each creature.

After the generic monster section comes the “Hall of Infamy” containing some of D&D history’s biggest undead baddies. If you ever wanted to throw your party against the arcane powerhouse of Vecna or have a Ravenloft campaign ending in a confrontation with Strahd Von Zarovich himself then you are in for a treat. Both of those figures and several others are included. The Hall of Infamy creatures are highly detailed, each one gets two full pages for stats, lore, tactics and potential equipment and allies.

The Royal Sampler

This is where the book really shocked me. Open Graves bombards you with ideas in a manner akin to a restaurant’s appetizer sampler crossed with a drive by shooting of knowledge. The book presents a different take on skill challenges than what you find in the DMG, these skill challenges can serve as a backdrop you could build an entire adventure on. It also offers various ways to spice up ghostly hauntings, such as having them as traps which can be disarmed by divine characters using their religion skill or hauntings affecting the very terrain. There’s also a bit about grafting the parts of undead abominations onto living hosts. These are just a few of the new horror themed ideas presented in the book. The book gives examples of all of these ideas which can be directly implemented, however there are only a few samples for each one. It seems like the authors have tried to present simply a sampling to intrigue the DM and inspire them to create his own works modeled off the examples. If you are the kind of person who likes doing that, there is a ton of inspirational material for you to work with. If you just want to the book to provide you with stuff you can directly use, this book might frustrate you at points.

In the more complete content column, Open Grave offers a small selection of artifacts, nearly all of which are very powerful and evil. It also contains seven new rituals which involve working with corpses and even raising one to be an undead servant. Sorry would-be leaders of undead legions, there’s no ritual in there to raise corpses for combat purposes. It seems they are reserving that for the domain of an eventual necromancer class.

Charming Undead - Open Grave
Undead can be charming and pleasant.
Too many adventurers make the mistake of
bashing an undead’s brains out instead of
talking to them. Too bad…
Picture by Eschipul

Stories and Lore

The undead lore area of the book was smaller than I expected. It primarily focuses on the psychology and physiology of undead creatures. It makes for some good reading but it is doubtful that the section will contain any major revelations that affect the way your game is run. Far more likely you’re going to say “huh, that’s neat” and then move on to the more meaty sections of the book.

Speaking of more meaty, there is an impressive collection of adventure materials. There are several campaign arc ideas, they give a rough outline of several campaigns that will carry your characters from level one to level thirty. The arcs provide a solid base for a campaign but still have enough room for the DM to control the individual adventures. More concrete there is a collection of undead lairs. The lairs are single adventure dungeons that span all types and levels, from level 1 dungeons in the village graveyard to level 26 adventurers on a giant body floating in the Astral Sea.

The Bottom Line

If you’re running an undead heavy game you need this book. If you aren’t then this book will make you want to. It is stuffed full of ideas that an enthusiastic DM can run with. The only black mark on the book in my opinion are some minor editing errors.

Have you explored the mysteries of the dead? Tell us about it in the comments section.

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

GD Star Rating
Claw Your Way Out! An Open Grave Review, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



12 Responses to “Claw Your Way Out! An Open Grave Review”
  1. Armorclass10 says:

    I love this book, WoTC outdid themselves on this one that’s for sure. I do however wish they included the JuJu Zombie and the Yellow Musk Creeper, all the tools are vailable to build such creatures but that would have made my day….if you don’t have it or are on the fence about it, get it your PCs will hate you for it, but in a good way!

  2. AlgaeHydra says:

    “If you’re running an undead-heavy campaign, you need this book. If you aren’t then this book will make you want to.”

    Quoted for truth. I picked this book up and immediately changed everything I wanted to do in the campaign I’m currently running. I really like this book a lot. It’s worth a look, at least.

  3. Dorian Borso says:

    Getting my copy today. This should be nice :D

  4. Wimwick says:

    I’m not the current DM in my group so I was going to pass on this book. However, the information about Skill Challenges that you mentioned has grabbed my attention. I feel skill challenges are the one area WotC neglected with the release of 4e. Anything to build upon that would be useful. Thanks for the review.

  5. Dan says:

    Skin kites… In one of my first campaigns with my old DM (D&D 3.5), we were attacked by skin kites, I was unlucky enough to have them eat my face, lowering my charisma. I was the group sorcerer… I have hated those creatures since then. On a side note, this DM is also the same person that nurtured my dislike of gnomes (which is now a inferno, only rivaled by the sun).

  6. I loved this book. I really like undeads and my current campaign will have a lot of undead, so now with this book, it’ll be great!

    you review was really good too. ^^

  7. There’s a real review! Not like the one on my site. Hehehhe…

  8. Nicholas says:

    @Geek’s Dream Girl: Yeah, but yours is really funny! By the way, congratulations on your new gig.

  9. Matthew Lane says:

    I’m if this book is so great. Why do we still not have stats for say… i don’t know… A NECROMANCER! I don’t mean a PC necromancer, but a villain NPC Necromancer would have been nice.


  10. Nicholas says:

    @Matthew Lane: Because necromancy is a plot device. There are baddies who have powers that heal up the undead but unless they are going to raise them in the middle of combat it is irrelevant. Just make an evil wizard surrounded by undead. If the book stated out how many undead and what type the enemy could raise then it would severely hamper the DM’s ability to plan an adventure.

  11. Eric says:

    I had picked up Libris Mortis for 3.5 and loved it. I picked up Open Grave to see how that stacks up and I loved this book as well! I did miss having some of the baddies from the original Libris Mortis in it, but it is a great book and I love to use undead in my game. I was very happy that they kept the ‘Brain in a Jar’. I have plans for that one ;)

  12. Rakko Wakke says:

    My undead campaign is more like a post apocolyptic invasion. the players go off to a small elven town to get suplies but end up staying there for a few days upon returning to their home town is been over run by undead that have killed everyone in it. they escape to a nearby keep and find out most of the area is like this. turns out, small riffs opened up to the shadowfell and released the undead horde. all in all an interestin campaign so far. so im planning on buying it soon.
    PS. feel free to use this idea if you want

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