Use This Book Tonight09/16/2005

Magic of Incarnum

As always, this month's column is dedicated to helping out DMs who want to use their brand-new acquisition right away. This time we'll be checking out Magic of Incarnum, an innovative new sourcebook that presents an entirely new system of magic for D&D.

The closest comparison to Magic of Incarnum would be the Expanded Psionics Handbook: Both tomes present a category of special effects outside the range of options offered by the Player's Handbook. But whereas psionics has a long tradition in D&D, the mysterious substance known as incarnum has been, until now, totally unknown to D&D players. The introduction to Magic of Incarnum describes it as "an amorphous magical substance made up of the soul energies of all sentient creatures -- living, dead, and, it is theorized, those even not yet born." Those talented in shaping incarnum "borrow" it from the multiverse to create potent magical effects. The particularly wondrous thing about incarnum, and what makes it different from other magical energies, is that it tends to retain some of the "identity" of its original source when shaped, which might include alignments, talents, experiences, and the like.

Much like the Expanded Psionics Handbook and similar "capsystem" sourcebooks, Magic of Incarnum is a little like a Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual all rolled into one. It has new character races, new classes and prestige classes (plus substitution levels for some familiar races and classes), new feats and spells, new magic items, new monsters, and plenty of advice to the DM looking to incorporate the new system into his campaign.

But since it's unlikely that your players are ready for their characters to explore all the options available to them between these covers, this column provides you, the DM, with a means of introducing them to the strange magical powers of the substance known as incarnum.

What You Need to Read

Here's what you absolutely, positively have to read before running this encounter:

  • Read the necrocarnum zombie entry (pages 186-189). You'll only need one of the stat blocks, depending on the level of your party.
  • Read the Essentia entry on page 50, which explains how the necrocarnum zombie can rearrange the incarnum flowing through its body to give it special powers.
  • Read the swift and immediate actions sidebar on page 5 (assuming you're not already familiar with this concept).
  • The descriptions of the necrocarnum circlet soulmeld (pages 78-79) and of the necrocarnate prestige class (pages 132-136) aren't required to run the encounter, but they provide some information regarding the foul power responsible for creating the necrocarnum zombie.

The Encounter

An evil-minded shaper of incarnum has created a foul creature known as a necrocarnum zombie. This undead monstrosity now roams unchecked in the village or town currently occupied by the PCs. They must end its foul existence, but 'ware to those who believe it to be nothing more than a shambling corpse!

Like a normal zombie, a necrocarnum zombie is animated from the corpse of a living creature. However, its animating energy comes from incarnum, not necromantic magic, which results in some very significant differences. For instance, instead of being slow shuffling monsters, necrocarnum zombies are surprisingly quick (thanks to their incarnum speed special quality). They're also just as intelligent as the original creature, and quite cunning. Once combat is underway, the necrocarnum zombie can shift its focus from speed to defense, channeling its incarnum to bolster its AC and saving throws.

Choose a necrocarnum zombie from among the samples presented in Chapter 7: Monsters. Very low-level parties can probably handle a worg necrocarnum zombie (CR 3) or maybe a troll necrocarnum zombie (CR 4). Parties of mid-level PCs can face a cloud giant necrocarnum zombie (CR 8). If these choices don't work, you can try a pair of necrocarnum zombies (but note that this either requires two villains or a supremely powerful necrocarnate to create, which may impact the aftermath of the encounter). Alternatively, you could have one or two evil agents accompanying the necrocarnum zombie; see the sample NPCs listed in Chapter 4 in the Dungeon Master's Guide for some options. If you have a few extra minutes, you could even apply the template to a different creature, such as a hill giant (which would make a CR 6 necrocarnum zombie).

The encounter can take place just about anywhere. Ideally, the PCs are a bit off the beaten path, such as an alleyway or the outskirts of town, when the necrocarnum zombie lunges out of the shadows at them. Depending on the circumstances, the PCs might have a chance to make a Spot or Listen check to avoid surprise. Even then, the necrocarnum zombie's high initiative modifier gives it a good chance of catching one or more characters flat-footed for its initial assault.

Describe the creature as a "shambling corpse," but allow DC 12 Spot checks to notice "black motes of light slowly swimming under its rotting skin" -- most likely, the PCs won't know exactly what to make of their enemy. Unobservant characters may well just assume it to be a mere zombie, but as soon as it acts, note also how quickly it moves and reacts. This should continue to confuse the characters' expectations.

After the necrocarnum zombie has closed with the PCs, it uses a swift action to shift its essentia from its incarnum speed quality to its incarnum defense quality. This decreases its speed to the base value listed in the stat block and simultaneously grants the zombie an insight bonus to AC and on saves equal to its essentia pool (noted in the creature's special qualities line). Accompany this with a visual description of the black motes of light shifting subtly, spreading out across the zombie's entire body.

While the villain responsible for this zombie need not be anywhere in the immediate vicinity, he must retain line of effect between himself and his vile creation for it to remain animate. If the PCs block line of effect in some way, the necrocarnum zombie immediately and irrevocably reverts to a lifeless corpse.


When the battle ends, the PCs will probably wonder what exactly they just faced. A DC 15 Knowledge (religion) check can confirm that this was no typical undead creation. Both Knowledge (arcana) and Knowledge (the planes) can answer questions regarding incarnum, but until you've decided what place incarnum has in your world, you might want to avoid giving out too much information. At the very least, a DC 15 check with either skill should reveal the following clue: "Rumors have persisted lately of individuals dabbling with a strange new form of magical energy supposedly linked to the souls of all creatures living and dead. Some whisper that this energy might be able to grant unlife."

If the encounter included one or more living foes, the PCs can question them for further information. Though these flunkies don't know much, a successful Intimidate check or similar interaction can get them to confess that they're working for some kind of "death mage" who created the zombie. By asking the right questions, the characters can get their stoolpigeon to remember that the "death mage" didn't speak any magic words or strange components to create the creature -- she just used this weird black crown she wore to make the thing come to life.

Player characters who follow up on the strange power responsible for their assailant might well learn more about necrocarnum, the twisted form of incarnum used to create such creatures. Check out the "Necrocarnate Lore" section on page 135, but note that the DCs listed assume that incarnum is a commonly known substance in the world. If you're not yet sure that's true in your campaign, consider increasing the DCs by 5 or even 10 points (which may require the PCs to get some assistance to find further clues). Some Gather Information checks (or consultation with contacts) may be in order!

It's unlikely that the necrocarnum zombie's creator comes looking for her creation, though she may investigate to see how much damage it dealt out before being destroyed. Another of her agents checking out "the scene of the crime" may turn out to be a useful clue for the PCs to follow to discover the responsible party. Assuming your group heads in that direction, Igalla Pallasi, the sample necrocarnate, makes a fine long-term foe for low- to mid-level PCs; higher-level characters may need a more potent enemy.

Before you (or your players) delve too much further into the mysteries of incarnum, you should make some decisions about how this substance fits into your world. Take some time between sessions to read through Chapter 8: Incarnum Campaigns. Here you'll find some campaign arcs designed to help you add incarnum to your campaign setting, whether it's a brand-new discovery or a long-forgotten secret. The chapter also includes some incarnum-touched locations to insert into your game, as well as a special organization dedicated to fighting some of the harmful effects that incarnum can have upon the world. As you read the chapter, think about how the ideas presented there might fit with your world's backstory. Can the presence of incarnum explain parts of the world or its history? Do you have any key NPCs whose powers might be explained by this substance? While incarnum doesn't have to be the answer to everything in order to have a place in the world, it'll feel more natural to you and your players if you can describe its effects in much the same way that you might talk about wizardly arts, divine influence, or psionic traditions.

Of course, as your characters uncover more details regarding incarnum, some of them may wish to learn the secrets of harnessing and shaping this wondrous substance. If so, and if they can find someone knowledgeable on the topic, you can slowly introduce them to some of the options available. Many of the feats in Chapter 3: Character Options, as well as several spells and magic items in Chapter 5: Magic, are appropriate for characters looking to explore the secrets of incarnum without multiclassing or qualifying for a prestige class. Think of it as "dipping a toe" into the dark blue sea of incarnum. More dedicated characters, of course, may find a more demanding option intriguing. Don't discourage a player who wants to take on the challenge of learning a new system of power -- after all, mastery of new concepts is one of the great joys of D&D!

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About the Author

By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?

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