This morning I was thinking about the Undead. Not Vampires, Liches, and Wraiths, or even Ghosts, but rather zombies and ghouls and skeletons, oh my!
With the exception of Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead "Zombies man, they creep me out." no one seems to be much fazed by these lowly undead. They are common minions of necromancers, haunters of graveyards, and guardians of dungeons, but the seem so blah and boring.
I know that if I saw a corpse get up and start walking I would be running in the other direction. Dry bones with no flesh would make me run all the faster. Even these minor undead should be scary if not terrifying. I think most people would face a dozen orcs more calmly that even one walking corpse.
Part of the problem may lie in the mechanics of role playing games. These lesser undead are usually push overs in a fight. Low hit points, low damage,often slow, unintelligent, why fear them when a quick oil&torch or splash of Holy Water takes care of them?
I have tried to ease this problem by such means as having skeletons that take only a fraction of normal damage from cutting and piercing weapons, zombies that must be hacked to pieces before they stop and the like. These work for about the first encounter. Undead that slowly pull themselves back together if not burned can be effective. Hours later when the party stops to rest the relentless undead pursuers they thought they had put paid to show up again. RoleMaster made the undead scarier by giving all of them a draining effect on Constitution and hit points. Spending time around the undead literally sucked the life out of you. Of course any GM can also just make the undead tougher. More hit points, better armour, more damging attacks...
The terror can aslo be ramped up by non-mechanical means. Compare these two descriptions: "As you enter the room three skeletons in chain mail leap to attack with broadswords." "As you swing the door open and enter the chamber the scattered bones and rusted armour of fallen warriors lie before you on the floor. You hear a rustle and scrape, as of dry twigs on stone. With clicks and creaks the bones re-assemble themselves into the shapes they took in life. Three ancient warriors rise from the dust to confront you. Their tattered chainmail jingles, the rusty broadswords in their hands again raise to guard. Slowly at first they stagger towards you..." The second is much more evocative isn't it? Instead of simply saying "You hit the zombie with your spear for 5 hit points" try "Your spear sinks deep into the spongey side of your foe. No flicker or grimace of pain crosses it's face. It simply staggers forward, black ichor dripping from the wound."
The old Fiend Folio for AD&D offered yet another option for making the undead scary again. A vast horde of monstrous foes all shared the general description of "a skeletal figure in a cloak". This could be a mere skeleton, a crypt thing, a wight, a liche, or any of a number of other horrors. Each monster had different strengths and weaknesses, different motivations and would provide a very different encounter. the only way to know which you were facing was to get closer, and by then it might be too late...
Much of this is true for other monsters as well. One of the first lessons of effective gamemastering being to describe not name what the players see. It is in the case of the weaker undead however that the difference between what the players know and what the characters are experiencing becomes a vast gulf.