Setting: Tomb World

This isn't a setting I expect to primarily focus on, but wanted to throw together some notes about it before forgetting.  The idea as been partly kicking around in my mind for awhile now, but was brought to the forefront by the πŸ’ΏπŸŽ on Twitter recently regarding the ethics of looting bodies.  Possibly something like this already exists, but I can't recall this exact view of it being brought up before.

The idea of a vast necropolis isn't that bizarre, a few of my favorites are:

  • Charn from The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis.  Charn is a dead world after Queen Jadis spoke The Deplorable Word.
  • Abarrach from the Fire Sea book of the Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.  A world where the choking fumes and heat of an underground lava sea have killed off everyone who is not a powerful magician.  The remaining magicians use the animated bodies of the dead to accomplish necessary work.
  • Tomb worlds of Warhammer 40,000.  Maybe not exactly tombs, since the Necrons that inhabit them are aliens-turned-skeletal-robots.  But intended to give a similar feel.
  • A necropolis is the scene for bits of Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe.  In some ways the entire world seems like a necropolis with bits of evidence of all those who've come before.
  • Ghormenghast by Mervyn Peake, while not truly a necropolis or tomb at all, has a certain stagnancy and shambolic decrepitude I associate with with similar settings.
But the thing that got me thinking about this was:  What if the culture of respecting the dead was taken to some kind of logical extremes?  If respect for ancestors and the dead was given higher priority than the needs of the living?  Or worse:  If the dead lingered on in undeath for centuries and millennia as undead, accumulating materials and power.  Not even actively hostile to the living, but simply endlessly acquisitive.

There's a story by H.G. Wells called The Sleeper Awakes (also LibriVox), which I sometimes feel doesn't get the attention of his other works, that kind of deals with this issue.  Essentially:  A man makes a couple minor investments then falls into an odd still-living trance for 200 years.  He wakes to find himself owner of the world due to compounding of his investments over time.  Trustees rule in his stead over a population increasingly reduced essentially to sort of property-less day laborer serfs.  Horrified by this turn of events he, of course, attempts to upset the entrenched social order with mixed success.

The whole novel is essentially a parable of generational wealth accumulation and an increasing wealth gap.

This might easily apply to the undead as well.  If a man can passively accumulate wealth over a couple hundred years, what about a more active individual or regime?

Current events of such a setting might take place in a time and place where much of the world's arable land has been reduced to gently rolling necropoli.  Powerful magics are possible, but all the material resources required have been tucked away in tombs, cities and storehouses of the dead.  Even the base materials necessary to make new tools have been used up by the dead.

The last reservation for living humans, the "Paupers Preserve", contains only the minimal land and tools for living humans to eek out an existence.  The dream of every living person is to do well enough in life that they gain some high place among the undead.  But this hope is futile as nothing the living can do is of true use to the Undying Gentry.  At most, upon death, the living may be animated as minor minions, sold to some member of the Gentry for a pittance.

After a crop failure, or some other tightening of resources, a rebellion is in the works.  Farmers have begun covertly planting and harvesting among the tombstones.  Bolder adventurers begin raiding actual seplechers and burial complexes for resources.  The vast stores of gold and silver are of limited use, but iron and copper are scrapped to make useful tools.  And all the magical Wonderous Items, hoarded and never used, are being redistributed to those who can use them.


  1. This is nice and creepy! One of the characters in China Mieville's "The Scar" hails from a country where the dead rule and the living are subservient. We never get more than intimations about what it's like there, although we quickly gather hat it's pretty awful.

    1. Sounds interesting. I've been meaning to read some Mieville. But hadn't gotten around to it yet.


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