As we’ve seen with each of the other creepy creatures I’ve surveyed from the D&D 5e Monster Manual, the revenant also has an origin story drawn from real world history itself.
Revenants have roots in both Celtic and Norse mythology, and proved a favored explanation of sightings of the recently deceased over the course of history. In the 12th century, English historian William of Newburgh commented regarding the report of revenant activity:
“It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their grave, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living…did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony….
Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome.”The Church Historians of England, Vol IV, Part II, page 658
So it’s not as if revenants were particularly anomalous or rare! But how many times have you run across them in your Dungeons and Dragons campaign? Or, more importantly…how many times has your party done something to warrant the rise and ire of a revenant?
The Making of a D&D Revenant
“Revenant” comes from the French word revenir which means “to come back or return.” The basic idea is that someone was killed cruelly or undeservedly (pg. 259 of the Monster Manual [MM]) and has come back for some sweet, sweet revenge.
So what you’re looking for is an inciting incident! Let your game play out, and if you believe the party wrongfully kills someone, does so cruelly, or, I’d add, they kill someone whose hatred for one or more of the party burns particularly fiercely: bring them back.
The revenant should play like a mix of Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride fame and “the entity” of It Follows: It has sworn vengeance (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”), its Divine Justice attribute means it always knows in which direction and how far away its target is, and it is always on the hunt.
Its hunt begins first by reanimating its original body, but if that body is destroyed it will seek out another and keep coming…and coming…and coming until it is either successful in its revenge ploy or a year passes – at which point they crumble to dust.
I really wish the revenant in D&D was a template of some sort instead of a creature unto itself, but the MM does say that you can equip the revenant with any magics, armor, and weapons they might have had in life, and there’s no reason you can’t play with its race, as well. Just be aware that any of these changes may raise the CR. Not necessarily a bad thing!
When Are Revenants At Their Scariest?
Revenants are scariest when their relentlessness is played up well. This doesn’t mean throw the revenant at the party every 24 hours for a year’s time in the game. That would grow really stale, really quickly. So pick your moments. Have it ambush its sworn target at the most inopportune time possible (after a near death encounter of another kind, say). Revenants are not without Intelligence or Wisdom, after all! I think they’d be willing to bide their time to a point.
Every encounter with a revenant that is after a party member should feel different. To that end: be sure to scale the encounters. As the MM is quick to point out, the revenant will seek out and recruit allies if it proves too weak to exact its revenge on its own. Not only is he back…but he’s brought friends.
Remember: They are goal oriented, not just some random encounter. They’re looking to ensure their success. What tactics, strategies, and allies will they employ to do so? What did it learn about its target or the party during their last encounter that it can use to his advantage in the next? Get creative!
Relentless is the key word with all things revenant. The Monsters Know What They’re Doing blog also has a fantastic post on other tactics for the revenant to make them worthy and frightening foes.
D&D Revenant Encounter Ideas
- The party meets an NPC who begs them for protection from a revenant that has harassed and attempted to kill him for almost a full year to the day. He thinks if he can just survive the night, the curse will have ended…but he fears the revenant will also pull out all the stops in a Hail Mary attempt to satisfy its vengeance. He’s not wrong.
- The party bumps into what turns out to be a revenant on his or her way to exact their vengeance. It means the party no harm, but it aims to kill its target. Will the revenant’s story sway the party to join it on its quest, or will they slay the revenant and seek to warn the unsuspecting target of its ire?
- What if the party ran into a whole group of revenants a la The Order of the Silver Dragon in Curse of Strahd? Something like a whole village was razed by a particularly cruel orc tribe, but they feel (or even haven proven) powerless to satisfy their vengeance on their own. Can the party help them? Will justice be enough of a reward, or can the villagers provide them with something more?
Other Creepy Creature Features: