by Jon Kaufman
Necropolis. Some sort of low-level, weird urban setting in which the living mingle with the dead, in which in fact the undead occupy all niches in the economy from warehouse labor to ruling class, and in which the players can be a mix of living and undead characters. Basically 1890s northern England (through the filter of someone who's lived in neither). Combat wouldn't be vital here and actually I'd prefer saving that for the most dramatic occasions. I have no idea what the plot would be, but it would be mostly defined by the PCs' ambitions and backstory, with some GM mediation.
So. The necropolis idea is worth playing with as a mental exercise even if I never run it. Currently the city's named Ossuary, and it's a rather gloomy place where it rains a great deal of the time, positioned in the middle of a salt marsh and right on top of a big planar rift. How much negative energy is seeping out of the rift varies like the weather. Ossuarites see themselves as a modern republic, so technically humans are equal to undead, although it doesn't always work out that way.
Unintelligent undead - zombies and skeletons - do the bulk of the brute labor and the fighting. Intelligent undead tend not to have trades, rather making up the city's elite - wizards, scholars, nobility.
This means that it's the living who make up the city's middle-class; foremen, craftsmen, artisans, lesser necromancers, tailors. Because these mortals are not tied to remnants of a past life, unlimited by fires and water, unchallenged by daylight, they remain perhaps second class citizens - but valuable ones nonetheless. In a way the metaphor of undeath truly applies to life in Ossuary. The people who really make the place move are the ones who are still alive. Most humans are Experts or Bards, a reflection of an upper middle class granted enough leisure to dabble in a wealth of art forms. Ossuary boasts a smattering of gnomes and dwarves, but they are so culturally isolated from their cousins elsewhere as to practically count as human. Perhaps the strangest residents of Ossuary are hybrid creatures born of living and undead parents; these "Graveborn" are reclusive and barely understood, although their numbers are gradually on the increase.
While technically all citizens within Ossuary are considered equal, the nature of the government, judges, law enforcement, the society itself, and the constant influx of negative planar energy ensures that the living are never truly equal.
That offer of equal citizenship - and even rulership - attracts many corporeal undead to Ossuary. The city's noncorporeal undead are far fewer in number. Because of the nature of noncorporeal undead, most are native to Ossuary - people who died in Ossuary, and transformed as they were infused by negative energy. A few living criminals on the lam make it to Ossuary as well, as who would hunt for them there? This means that the population boasts a fair number of undead such as mohrgs, formed by the nastier remnants of the formerly alive.
The city itself sits in the middle of a salt marsh, and is nigh-constantly blasted by wind and rain. It's a safe bet that, if it's not actually raining, it's probably at least overcast - and the sheer northern location of the place means that the long nights of winter make it exceptionally friendly to its unliving citizens.
The soil around the city and the marshes is immensely fertile if somewhat acidic, and farming is conducted - the grunt labor done by unintelligent undead, again - on a system of islands irrigated by and connected by a web of canals. This maze makes attacking Ossuary difficult; the combination of unintelligent hordes and highly magically apt defenders makes the city practically impregnable.
Centuries ago, the city's ruling Council voted to open a rift to the Negative Energy plane, in response to an invasion. The rift blasted their opponants into nothingness and created Ossuary's link to the undead. Deep within the city the rift still pulses variably, and on some days negative energy is particularly thick in the air, enough to completely drain the life force from the unwary caught in the wrong places with no protection. There are rumors that the Council killed a traitor - a powerful mage who, faced with the potential to see the city perish, wanted to treat with the practically mythical illithids, and use their biotechnology instead to create a strangely alien form of immortality and prosperity. But these are only rumors; even the best researchers the city has to offer (and the city boasts a great number of skilled archivists) might even find information about that, should they set their minds to looking.
Only a few Council members have passed on to final death over the long years. For the most part, the city's ultimate rulers are the same mages who embraced undeath over a millenium in the past.
A human living in Ossuary eats and drinks, sleeps, studies, breeds, ages, and dies, among negative planar energy. It's not surprising that some rise as intelligent undead after death. No human body is ever buried; instead, the state takes possession of it and reanimates it. The government auctions off the dead to create revenue; some are retained for the military. It's not impossible for a shopkeeper or artisan to have bought a few skeletons to help about their business, and the big textile and metal mills will keep vast warehouses of undead to be directed in shifts. Ossuary's numerous necromancers, over the centuries, have created magic circlets which help assist in controlling and directing the dead - from simple skeletons to the semi-sentient bodyguards known as skeleton warriors.
Although it's possible to tap into this negative energy to power magical devices, the incredible strength and availability of formerly-live labor means that Ossuary enjoys a great deal of industry - industry which uses zombies and skeletons instead of steam or water engines. Even the city's monorail system is technically simply applying enough undead "muscle." All this means that Ossuary enjoys something equivalent to a 19th century level of technology. Ossuary's way of life compared to many other parts of the world convinces the inhabitants that they are truly living in an enlightened country with enlightened rulers, despite the many flaws of the place.
The resulting city can safely be compared to a slightly unusual version of London, Manchester, or Birmingham in the 1890s. Vast mills, shoddy tenements, and stylish estates all dominate the skyline equally; skeletons and zombies are as common in the streets to pull heavy loads as horses; as dusk turns to night, the streets come alive, with stylishly dressed vampires mingling with mortals who barely seem different, ghouls and ghasts scuttling about their business of haunting the alleyways. Here an ancient mummy travels in a zombie-cab, the bright faience and tarnished gold of his protective amulets and jewelry an archaic contrast to the modern setting; there, a solitary lich, so uncaring of worldly prosperity that only a scholar would recognize him as anything but a gaunt thing in a faded cloak, wanders off to his laboratory to begin one more night in research that spans decades. Unlike the constant steam and noise of Victoria's England, only the vague bang of machinery and transport or the murmur of commerce breaks an almost unnatural silence about the place.
The lack of wartime challenge and the magically-suffused flesh of many potential opponants in peacetime disputes means that armor is practically never seen within Ossuary. Instead disputes tend to be settled by a variety of light, fast weapons. Dueling is legal, as is betting on non-magical combats, although magical duels are tightly controlled for fear of damage.
It is illegal to perform a resurrection within Ossuary. In fact clerical magic in general is banned, ostensibly because the release of positive planar energy might wreak havoc on Ossuary's inhabitants. The more skeptical will tell you that the traditional form of healing magics are banned because it would hurt the city's labor pool of corpses. While Ossuary's mages have developed alternative healing based on regeneration, those spells are nowhere as potent or as immediate as the cure spells found elsewhere.
Religion is distinctly limited. While some of the more potent undead were clerics in a former life, nearly nobody wants to see the power a cleric might exert upon the unliving. Thus while there are numerous chapels to gods of death, and some Ossuarites can be quite devout, there are nearly no clerics - openly. Underground cults do exist.
In fact, one particularly dark force moves beyond the scenes in Ossuary. Yeenoghu, Demon Lord of Gnolls, seeks to increase his grasp on the undead, in challenge to Orcus' primacy over undeath. The Lord of Carrion takes a personal interest in Ossuary, hoping that someday, the humans of the city shall themselves become a new, technically alive yet undead race, or perhaps breed with ghouls to form a new race - something he can use to issue that challenge. But it will certainly be decades, centuries before he can move on this.
Yeenoghu's favored are either exiled from the city or barely tolerated. Gnolls, with their ability to eat any matter including long-dead-flesh, are killed on sight; ghouls are viewed as suspect, as they will eat undead flesh as often as living. Ghouls make up a strong portion of Ossuary's criminal element as a result. This has greatly slowed the demon lord's ambitions.
The living mostly live off material from the farms and occasionally, off fish or meat. Because fishing is conducted primarily by the humans, fish are a luxury item and costlier. Most domestic meat is actually horseflesh; a few horses are kept for food as well as for transport. Other forms of meat are ludicrously pricey as they must be shipped in. Similarly, stone and wood are highly prized if they are not conjured on the spot. Ghouls, ghasts and vampires, the undead which require food, technically live off horseflesh or imported meats; it is technically illegal to kill an Ossuarite to eat him or her. However, if anyone were somehow to look at the numbers, they would not add up, and urban legend is correct here - Ossuary's vampire and ghoul inhabitants frequently prey upon the living population in the city's lower-class quarters. Slaves are also imported illegally to feed the city's less natural hungers, and there are even select humans who exchange blood and health for money. Likewise there is technically no legal restriction upon undead who reproduce by draining the living of their essence - the only real limit is the potential might wielded by the unchallengeable, undead, Council and "citizen action" by other vampires.