If you’re like me, something like the image above is what comes to mind when you think of mummies. If you’re more normal than me then you probably think of Egypt and pyramids and the desert. Perhaps you think of the movie “The Mummy,” starring either Boris Karloff or Encino Man (more on him later) depending on your age and cinematic tastes. Anyway, my point is this: you’re probably limiting yourself to a very narrow view of mummies.
Mummies are so famously associated with Egypt that the tendency is to not even consider them for use in a roleplaying game unless the setting is heavily influenced by Ancient Egyptian culture or at the very least features deserts and/or pyramids. If this is you, then you are doing a great disservice to your games by denying yourself access to a very cool and challenging monster.
The fact is, mummies have been discovered on all seven continents, and Wikipedia tells me that “deliberate mummification was a feature of several ancient cultures in areas of America and Asia which have very dry climates.” Not only that, but accidental or incidental mummification frequently occurs in arid and arctic climates (I told you there would be more on Encino Man). So mummies can be found pretty much anywhere. Also, up until fairly recently mummies were seen as curiosities and were often sold to eccentric collectors. And nothing triggers a good mummy curse like buying a fancy sarcophagus from some grave robbers and moving it hundreds of miles from its rightful burial ground. So stop thinking of mummies exclusively as dead pharaohs wrapped in linens. Do a bit of research on mummies from different cultures, and remember that mummies can happen all by themselves under the right climate conditions – just stir in some evil and these mummies can animate just as easily as the Egyptian variety. Or keep thinking about them as dead pharaohs wrapped in linens and remember that there are many ways that such a curiosity could find its way into any society or setting – no deserts or pyramids required.
Another way to think about mummies is to not think about them as mummies at all. Get rid of the linens and the embalming completely if you like. The Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition rules give us two types of mummies to work with: you have your garden variety challenge rating 3 “mummy,” and your bad-ass challenge rating 15 “mummy lord.” Let’s take a look at the regular mummy first. Get rid of all the flavor text and you have an undead creature that’s vulnerable to fire, resistant to just about everything else, and who has a paralyzing gaze and a rotting touch. So why not say these are the undead servants of some pestilence deity and call them plague zombies, or rot ghouls? Have you looked at mummies? They’re pretty freaking awesome. Don’t hang them out to dry because your campaign doesn’t have an “Egyptian” setting.
Now let’s take a look at our mega-mummy option: the Mummy Lord. When you unravel this fellow, what you really have is the evil cleric equivalent of the lich. All of the Egyptian trappings are just window dressing, and at the end of the day the Mummy Lord is just a super undead cleric devoted to some evil deity, with some serious mojo when it comes to commanding other undead (on a side note, I think helmed horrors would also make great mummy minions). The mummy lord doesn’t have to have anything to do with what you think of when you think of a “traditional” mummy to do what he does; making him the servant of any evil deity who holds sway over undead is really all you need to do. And, like your run of the mill mummy, feel free to change the name. Call him a greater huecuva, or a sinister lord, or the evil high mucky muck of evil. Just don’t let the name mummy stop you from using mummies.
Even better, I like the idea of making him an evil servant of a deity that isn’t overtly evil, like the servant of some neutral god of magic, or the servant of a god of trickery working to subvert the followers of some other religion. To this end, feel free to tinker with the mummy lord’s default spell roster to better reflect the domain of his patron deity. I don’t know about you, but I rather like the idea of a mummy lord demagogue, working to undermine mainstream religious and political institutions while subverting the masses. In a more corrupt society, a mummy lord could even openly be the head of state or the high priest of a powerful religion.
And so, to wrap this up: mummies and mummy lords are awesome monsters, and I don’t think they get used as much as they could be because the word mummy has such strong connotations and powerful clichés associated with it. But all it takes is some creative thinking and a bit of reskinning to add this lethal undead into your arsenal of baddies.