Back in the day, undead used to be scary. I mean, real scary, not the halloween-theme-park-scary you 5e youngsters know. They would steal experience levels from PCs, not just temporarily reduce their max hit points.

Now, I know 5th edition has nothing like level loss, and I’m sure adding it would introduce a lot of unforeseen problems. But there is another under-used mechanic in 5e that may feel much worse than simple hit point loss: exhaustion. So, without further ado, here is how my modified undead work:

  • Specter: Life Drain deals 3d6 necrotic damage. In addition, make a DC 11 Con save or take a level of exhaustion.
  • Wight: Life Drain deals 1d6+2 necrotic damage. In addition, take a level of exhaustion, no saving throw.
  • Wraith: Life Drain deals 4d8+3 necrotic damage. In addition, make a DC 15 Con save; take one level of exhaustion if the save is successful, two if it is failed.
  • Vampire: Bite deals 1d6+4 and 3d6 necrotic damage and heals the vampire for half the necrotic damage. In addition, take two levels of exhaustion, no save.

In case anyone wonders, the choice between one or two levels of exhaustion more or less mirrors the number of experience levels lost in B/X, and the save DC is 10+CR.

I’m not sure these changes would change the effective CR of these creatures, and I don’t really care; if you do use CR in your game and find a satisfying formula, please tell me.

Oh, another thing: incorporeal undead can move through things as they wish, none of this “take damage if they end their turn inside an object” bullshit. Yes, this means PCs will often be reduced to the Ready action; no more multiple attacks or concentration spells. Yes, this is intentional.