The undead – from shambling skeletons to the arch-lich Vecna himself – are one of the largest, most diverse, and terrifying categories of monsters in Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
Whether you’re robbing your first tomb, facing down hordes of ravening zombies, or killing Strahd himself, the undead are sure to be a constant threat in an adventurer’s life, whether you’re 1st or 20th level.
In this guide, we’ll be giving you some broad guidelines for using undead at every tier of play as well as highlighting some of our favorites to use and reuse time after time at the table.
Lastly, we’ve got a pretty comprehensive list of all the undead in D&D 5e just to show you how downright huge this category of monster really is.
From Acererak to Zombies: Welcome to the Kingdom of Undeath
The first thing that always strikes me about the undead is just how many different kinds of ghoul, ghost, skeleton, specter, zombie, and other lifeless horror there are lurking out there in the darkness.
There are a full 185 undead monsters scattered throughout official D&D 5e sources. As a DM, that’s a huge heap of possibilities to choose from.
The thing I really love about the undead is just how perennial they can be as a type of opponent.
Most other subsets of monster tend to be targeted at a particular level of play.
You wouldn’t throw a 1st-level party up against a gang of Slaad, for example, in much the same way that it’s very hard to make a compelling combat encounter that pits a group of hardened 15th-level demigods against, say, some kobolds (not that some people haven’t tried that to great effect).
Undead, on the other (heavily decomposed) hand, are an appropriate choice for just about any encounter.
From the CR 0 Crawling Claw all the way up to the blood-chilling, CR 23 demilich Acererak, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll be able to find an undead to suit any encounter.
Common Undead Traits
Despite their dizzying variety, many undead – from the lowly zombie to the archest arch-lich – share some common traits.
If you’re a player whose DM loves throwing all things mostly nearly dead at your party, consider this a survival guide.
Poison Immunity: Virtually all undead – probably because they don’t have any blood left to contaminate – pay absolutely zero attention to poison damage and poisons.
Condition Immunities: Much like poison, being dead relieves many creatures of the drawbacks of, well, living.
Many undead monsters (I think vampires are a notable exception) are immune to conditions like Charmed, Exhaustion, and Poisoned. Rarely do the undead require sleep, food, water, or even air to breathe.
Mundane Damage Resistance and Immunity: The undead also tend (whether it’s the result of just being big and beefy or having no corporeal form to hit) to resist or flat out ignore bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.
The notable exception here is damage coming from either magical or silvered weapons.
Other undead are vulnerable to fire (like mummies), bludgeoning (skeletons), or radiant damage, and virtually all (with the exception of the CR 0 Crawling Claw, oddly enough) can be turned or even destroyed by a cleric’s Turn Undead ability.
Secondly, the undead are everywhere. I’ve made the mistake before of grabbing a monster I thought looked cool (one of the new Gem dragons from Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons, actually) and sticking it into a tomb as the final boss.
I spent about as much time fielding questions like “who put a dragon in here?” and “how did someone fit a dragon in here?” and eventually running a whole mini arc about a conspiracy of evil mages teleporting dragons against their will just to make it look like I wasn’t a total incompetent as my players did actually fighting the damned dragon.
No one ever questions the presence of undead monsters in conversations about dungeon ecology.
They lurk in the sewers, in dusty old crypts and in temples to evil gods; they’re everywhere and always in need of a good punching.
Which brings me to my third reason why I love the undead: they’re mindless (well, mostly).
Now, I love a good social encounter, but sometimes I’m tired, or I didn’t prep enough content, or honestly thought through the content I did prep very well (see the above dragon fiasco), so all I want to do on a given week is throw a few scary enemies in between my players and something they want and sit back to watch.
If I had a nickel for the number of times I’ve tried to do this and ended up frantically improvising about six goblins worth of personalities, motivations, and voices, I’d have two nickels.
It’s not much, but it’s annoying that it happened twice.
Undead are blissfully simple. They rarely talk, don’t hatch complicated plans, and don’t need a motivation that runs any deeper than “Grrhuuurr… braains… ghhrhhhgglllee.”
That doesn’t mean that undead can’t have complex motivations, interesting backstories, cunning plans, and all the other stuff that DMs more competent than myself use to create compelling stories, but (once again) there are so many different types of undead that you always have options at your disposal.
So, the undead are a fabulously diverse, versatile group of monsters that you can use to run simple run-and-gun tomb crawls or epic campaigns of subterfuge and high drama with tragic monologuing aplenty.
Mindless zombies to cunning vampire lords, mournful ghosts just looking to finish their earthly business to unstoppable, Terminator-style Death Knights on a cruel and unholy crusade – and that doesn’t even take necromancers into account.
Let’s take a look at some of our favorite types of classic undead monsters and how to use them in your game.
Skeletons and Zombies: The Horde
Whether they’re restless guardians of a forgotten tomb or the shambling servants of an evil necromancer, zombies and skeletons are an evergreen, highly versatile option for any undead-based encounter.
A few skeletons or zombies (I’m a skeleton man, myself) are enough to challenge a low-level party and, once the adventurers start gaining levels and more powerful abilities, they’re a great way to put some meat (or bone, I guess) between the adventurers and more powerful undead.
Use more powerful undead, like Wights (or even the terrifying Death Knight) as well as necromancers, in play, as they will often have a cadre of shambling, low-CR undead on hand to swarm all over pesky heroes.
They’re an amazing way to even out the action economy and stop a mid-tier party from speedrunning the BBEG in three rounds.
Then, where high-level parties are concerned, skeletons and zombies are best used to pose a credible threat to entire towns, cities, or even kingdoms as they pour across the land in a tide of mindless, unstoppable death.
The real horror here is that every skeleton or zombie that you cut down can be resurrected again, redrafted into the army of death.
Also, every staunch ally who falls in battle and every helpless civilian the heroes fail to save is going to get up and start fighting for the other team.
Ghosts, Poltergeists, Specters, Shadows and Wraiths: Incorporeal Undead
This is one of the most interesting categories of undead as they not only boast immunity or resistance to nonmagical or non-silvered attacks, but they usually have a few really nasty abilities tacked on.
All these undead are incorporeal or otherwise capable of moving through walls and under doors and generally making a mockery of the concept of perimeter security.
Ghosts can possess people if they fail a Wisdom saving throw, which can make for a really fun combat as the party suddenly finds itself fighting one of their own with no way to hurt the ghost without also chopping off something the fighter is probably going to miss.
Shadows, Wraiths, and Specters all have some form of life or strength drain ability that can reduce your max hit points and stats – sometimes permanently.
This is still preferable to how these monsters worked in older editions though (sorry in advance to my weekly BX D&D group who are about to go poking around in a tomb next session), when more powerful undead literally drained your character’s levels.
Finally, got to level three? That’s nice. Got punched one time by a specter? Ooh, that sucks, buddy.
Vampires: Sucks To Be You, Buddy
Speaking of things that suck…
Vampires are definitely one of the coolest, most unique – not to mention iconic – types of undead in D&D.
Powerful vampires are also an especially dangerous foe as, unlike ghosts or zombies, they have intelligence, free will, and probably a cunning plan.
Vampires in 5e more or less work from the same playbook as classic Hammer Horror monsters, from Nosferatu to Dracula. They drink blood, wear SPF Factor 2,000,000, and have an unhealthy obsession with velvet.
Bringing a Vampire encounter into your world (or maybe transporting your players into Ravenloft itself) is a great way to add a touch of gothic horror to your game.
Vampires also command a great mixture of other nasty monsters, from simple stuff like wolves and bats all the way up to Vampire Thralls and Shadow Mastiffs.
Liches, Demiliches, and Death Tyrants: Undeath’s “Final Form”
The path to eternal life has many twists and turns. For the most powerful of spellcasters, this road leads all the way to lichdom.
Liches are insanely powerful spellcasters that have achieved undeath by excising their souls from their bodies and placing them in a big, evil jar called a phylactery.
So long as a lich keeps their big horcrux – I mean jar of soul goo – stocked with a fresh supply of souls, they live forever and get to keep on… doing whatever it is liches do. Being evil, I guess, or maybe attempting to become the first being in the multiverse to watch all of CSI.
Liches are devastating spellcasters, master schemers, and manipulators, and some have their sights set on taking the whole “eternal quest for power” thing a few steps further.
Sometimes that looks like Vecna’s plot to kill all the gods and rule the multiverse.
Other times it’s more akin to Acererak’s more introverted quest to become a demilich – a floating skull with diamonds for eyes whose spirit wanders the multiverse in search of some really, really cursed books.
It’s not just humanoids that can become liches, by the way.
To make matters worse, Beholders who dream about becoming liches can sometimes actually become liches, known as the Death Tyrant and generally agreed to be an all-around bad time.
Liches are some of my favorite monsters to seed throughout a D&D campaign.
While they make great antagonists, I happen to think they make even better, uh, environmental hazards for lack of a better term.
They’re much too powerful to fight and, even if you won, they’d be back before long. And now they’re pissed. So, yeah, don’t fight the lich.
Instead, sneak into the lich’s tomb and steal something precious or take shelter in an ancient cave from a howling storm and share a few nervous words with the lich who “lives” here.
Liches’ goals are fundamentally alien to mortals; they’re usually obsessed with something so beyond the scope of the usual adventuring party that they’d barely spare a passing band of heroes a second glance.
When you’re going to live forever, world domination starts to sound so… vulgar.
Maybe you can momentarily interest the lich. What would a millennia-old archmage with basically zero attachment to the mortal world find interesting? What unimaginable riches might they provide in return?
Running liches like this is a great way to make your world feel ancient, like your players are only scratching the surface of something incomprehensibly vast, unknowable, and (ironically) alive.
Other Dead… Things: How To Make Anything Undead (And Why You Should)
Onto a more cheerful note… Death comes for us all.
Even though the Monster Manual and other sourcebooks are bursting with undead, I’d actually say that any DM worth their weekly ration of pepperoni pizza and Baja Blast Mountain Dew can (and should) be homebrewing their own.
Once you realize that any creature in the monster manual that’s ever lived has probably died at some point and is therefore a candidate for undeath, things start to get really exciting.
A group of 1st level adventurers being attacked by a rampaging bear? Good. A low-level party being stalked day and night by the rotten, hulking carcass of an undead bear? Way better.
The presence of the undead speaks to an imbalance in the natural order.
Maybe there’s a nearby druid circle that’s messing with stuff they shouldn’t or an ultra-powerful artifact was unearthed nearby that’s preventing the dead from dying, or hell, maybe it’s aliens.
Whatever sinister occurrence you have going on in your campaign, incorporating the restless dead (whether that means undead assassins from an ancient death cult or just replacing all the cute little woodland critters with little zombie versions) and homebrewing even more undead into your game is a great way to keep things fresh (at least, narratively; I’m sure the smell is anything but).
Just remember to give any creature the basic traits that are common to all undead (poison immunity, resistance to non silver/magical damage, some condition immunities), and let the horror commence.
A Complete List of Undead Creatures in DnD 5e
Just to give you a taste of the sheer variety of undead, here’s our very nearly comprehensive list of undead creatures you can fight, run away from, and get messily eaten by in D&D 5e.
- Adult Blue Dracolich
- Adult Red Dracolich
- Ankylosaurus Zombie
- Ash Zombie
- Avatar of Death
- Beholder Zombie
- Blood Drinker Vampire
- Bone Naga
- Brain in a Jar
- Centaur Mummy
- Cloud Giant Ghost
- Coldlight Walker
- Crawling Claw
- Death Knight
- Death Tyrant
- Death’s Head
- Draconic Shard
- Dread Warrior
- Drowned Assassin
- Eye of Fear and Flame
- Frost Giant Skeleton
- Frost Giant Zombie
- Fungal Servant
- Gallow’s Speaker
- Ghost Dragon
- Giant Shark Skeleton
- Giant Skeleton
- Gnoll Vampire
- Gnoll Witherling
- Greater Zombie
- Hollow Dragon
- Indentured Spirit
- Kobold Vampire Spawn
- Lichen Lich
- Mind Drinker Vampire
- Mind Flayer Lich
- Minotaur Skeleton
- Mummy Lord
- Nightveil Specter
- Ogre Skeleton
- Ogre Zombie
- Ooze Master
- Parasite-infested Behir
- Skeletal Alchemist
- Skeletal Juggernaut
- Skeletal Owlbear
- Skeletal Polar Bear
- Skeletal Swarm
- Skull Lord
- Snow Maiden
- Storm Giant Skeleton
- Strahd Von Zarovich
- Strahd Zombie
- Swarm of Undead Snakes
- Swarm of Zombie Limbs
- Sword Wraith Warrior
- Thunderbeast Skeleton
- Tyrannosaurus Zombie
- Undead Bulette
- Undead Cockatrice
- Undead Shambling Mound
- Vampire Spawn
- Vampire Spellcaster
- Vampire Warrior
- Vampiric Mind Flayer
- Vampiric Mist
- Warhorse Skeleton
- Yellow Musk Zombie