Death and Undeath Condition in A Strange New World | World Anvil

Death and Undeath

Since the Great Cataclysm, dead bodies tend not to stay dead. This article will attempt to explain why and how this occurs.

Transmission & Vectors

The separation of a body from its spirit.


When any organism loses its spirit, its vacant body can be easily inhabited by any wandering spirit, supernatural entity or other entity capable of possession.   There are some entities strong enough to forcefully remove an existing spirit from its body while still alive.


When a dead body animates, that is a good indication it has been possessed.   In all cases, a possessing entity is not capable of forming a soul-level integration with a body. This means that the spirit is incable of fully guiding the life processes of the body, which will ultimately result in its decomposition. This is often referred to as "rejection." The stronger, more skilled, and intelligent a possessing entity is, the more capable it is of manipulating the body's life sustaining processes to slow or even prevent rejection. Regardless, rejection can not be held at bay forever.   Undead hunters look for signs of a body's rejection of a possessing spirit. Such sympoms might include
  • The smell of decay
  • Lack of response to pain stimuli
  • Lack of body heat (or too much)
  • poor or no digestion (either never eating or never defacating or defacating undigested food, etc.)
  • No pulse or blood pressure. Trickles of blood from wounds
  • Pale skin
  • Jaundiced skin
  • Eyes that act independently
  • The ability to move fingers and toes independantly from their neighbors
  • Lack of hair or nail growth
  • Sunken body cavity where organs that are no longer used begin to atrophy
  • Distended body cavity from trapped gases


There are only two treatments to possession:
  1. Destroy the body.
  2. Convince or otherwise force the spirit to depart the body


Eventually, all corpses will disintegrate naturally. Only living bodies such as those vacated by astral travel can expect to have anything akin to a normal lifespan once possessed.   The powers and abilities of the possessing entity can also impact the viability of the possessed body. For instance, a possessing entity skilled in necromancy can keep their own dead body animated indefinitely. Likewise, a possessing entity skilled in healing and regeneration can potentially revert a dead body into a vessel capable of sustaining life.



One of the unique properties of Rifts Earth is the ease with which extra-dimensional entities can cross into the world. Spirit entities, Intelligences who can break off portions of themselves, and even the disconnected spirits of tortured souls are all able to possess things in this world.   It is very rare for anything to possess a living body with a soul. Even the most powerful supernatural intelligence would have difficulty possessing a sentient living being so long as its soul is fully integrated with its body. Tearing an existing spirit from its body, severing the soul, is the only practical way for an entity to possess a living being. Only the most puissant of entities can override or hitch a ride alongside an existing soul.   Other physical objects can be possessed if they have been imprinted upon by sentient beings with souls. There is an entire branch of study specifically related to the possession of non-living objects. Put in its most simple terms, the more meaning that beings place upon a particular object, the easier it is for that object to become possessed. This explains why it is more common for family heirlooms and publicly displayed historical objects to be possessed than for lost or newly created items.   Likewise, objects that are effigies of sentient species such as articulated dolls or puppets are far more likely to be possessed than objects that are not.   On the other hand, machines (objects with control apparatus) are also difficult to possess since they are inherently not optimized for integrating with spirits. (usually) A machine's governing control systems can easily override all but the most powerful possessing entity. So if a machine were to be possessed it would constantly have to battle with and against whatever control systems are in place, whether those control systems are active or not. If a possessing entity attempted to possess the control systems as well as the machine parts, that would increase the complexity and thus the difficulty of the possession.
For example. A typical electric motor could be possessed by a gremlin quite easily. That gremlin possesses telekinetic abilities, allowing it to rotate the motor's rotor inside the stator. However, by rotating the rotor, the gremlin creates an electric current in the motor's windings (actually turning the motor into a generator). If the motor's wires are unattached to anything, the gremlin could establish enough of an electric charge across the exposed leads to potentially electrocute something that came in contact with them. But if the leads are hooked up to any kind of circuit, the gremlin would have to overcome the resistance and other properties associated with the circuit such as safeties and regulators, and if it is hooked up to a power source it would have to back-power the entire electrical grid it is wired into. Doing so would be a constant strain on the gremlin and it would soon lose its ability to maintain the possession at all.
This could explain why gremlins often come in groups.   Corpses have been vacated by their occupying souls, so they have no soul-based resistance to possession. And since bodies are physical objects specifically optimized for integrating with spirits, vacant bodies are perfect receptacles for possession. As a result, dead bodies are all but guaranteed to be possessed unless they are destroyed or protected. The only question is how long until they are.   Bodies vacated when someone projects their soul into the aetherial realm are no easier to possess than bodies in full possession of their spirits since souls consist of fully integrated spirits and bodies. Aetherial travellers do have to beware their exposed tethers since the tethers are themselves mush easier to sever when the soul is away than when it is colocated with the body.

Hosts & Carriers

In the aetherial, movement is accomplished at the speed of thought. This means that spirits may move instantaneously, but only to places they can see or to known places. Without bodies of their own, such disconnected spirits can not retain any but the most visceral memories, however. Rather, they contain mostly emotions, feelings and desires. As a result, they are mostly incapable of moving beyond what they perceive at the moment and are often tied to locations upon which their emotions are focused.   It is possible for spirits to make new memories after they have possessed bodies, but this is entirely dependant upon the viability of the physical body as well as the integrity and power and intelligence of the possessing spirit itself.   Bodies that have been vacated by spirits retain no memories of their own.


Destruction of the body upon death ensures it will not be possessed. Warding bodies against possession is also possible, but the more powerful spirit entities can overpower such wards. There are some God-like beings who have the power to consecrate burial sites or empower wards against possession from other entities of equal or lesser power. For this reason, the wards put in place by Mystics are almost always more powerful than wards placed by non-mystics.
Armillaria despises the possession of corpses since it thinks of such a possession as poaching its own property/earned spoils. As a result, any undead will come under a constant assault from spores of fungus sent to dissemble the corpse. If a body is handed over to The Circle of Life for funeral rites, it becomes so infused with mycelia as to make the body unsuitable to possession until it is fully absorbed into the organism.

Cultural Reception

The prevalence of possessed corpses since the great cataclysm has caused a deep-seated cultural phobia in all surviving humans and deebees. This fear is so ingrained that during battles between sapient species on Rifts Earth, there is nearly always time set aside for a ceasefire to dispose of the corpses. In fact, there are special Corpse Burners who have taken oaths to be impartial in military conflicts in order to gain access to battlefields for this express purpose. They are trusted by both sides in an engagement to walk the extent of the battlefield without giving away the positions or dispositions of any combatant.
  • Entity - A complete being with a spirit that possesses both intelligence and will but not necessarily self awareness. It may or may not also have a body.
  • Soul - A complete being consisting of an integrated body and spirit. While a soul can extend its spiritual portion into the aetherial, beyond the physical limits of the body, it is always tethered to its body. Because of this, a soul will always retain its memories. At death, when a body is no longer capable of sustaining life, the soul's spirit withdraws its tethers from the physical. The tethers of a departed soul remain complete and are thus incapable of tethering to a different physical body. Theoretically, a soul may be reunited with its own body should that body ever prove viable to support life. (see Soul Witch for more on this).
    • Body - Something that exists in the physical world, susceptible to the five senses. There is no difference between a body vacated by a complete soul and a body vacated by a disconnected spirit.
    • Spirit - Something that exists in the aetherial world, susceptible to the arcane senses. In a complete soul, the spirit is connected and fully integrated with the body. However in a disconnected spirit, the tethers to the physical are torn, cut or otherwise left unconnected. One could even say that a disconnected spirit is an incomplete being with an open wound where its body should be. Disconnected Spirits exist from a number of causes, but one of the most common is when the soul experiences tremendous, prolonged trauma. The spirit of such a tortured soul may forcefully tear itself from the physical body before death, ending that torture but becoming a disconnected spirit.
  • Undead - A spirit that has joined with a body without forming a complete soul. This can even occur when a soul joins with its own body if that body can not sustain life, but the most common genesis of undead is when a disconnected spirit joins with another body.
Notes regarding the afterlife: There have been some questions about the afterlife. The difference between a disconnected spirit and a soul after bodily death is that a soul retains the connections to its physical body. One way to imagine this it to think of the tethers between spirit and body as a USB cable. A soul retains the usb connector at the end of the cable after death while a disconnected spirit has only a splay of bare wires. When faced with another peripheral, the bare wires of the disconnected spirit can be matched up with the connections of the peripheral, but a true connection needs the actual USB connector that only a soul has. A soul, like a USB connector, it needs a corresponding connector in the physical peripheral that is a perfect match for it to connect to. The bare wires of a connectorless cable, however, can connect to any peripheral.   When a soul goes to the afterlife, a physical body is grown/created/rejoined with the soul, making the whole being once again. If there was a way to repair the tethers of a disconnected spirit, it would also be able to pass into the afterlife. Some Mystics, given the power by their 'dieties,' have the ability to repair a spirit's thethers, reforming its soul and allowing it to pass to the afterlife.

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