Mummies Through the Ages

Halloween is this week -- time for a spooky undead-themed reflection. Let's mind-wipe ourselves of the movie that came out this year. Think that energy level drain is horrifying? You ain't read up on old-school mummies lately!

Popular Culture

The golden era for mummy mythology seems to be at the start of the 20th century, coincident with the golden age of Egyptology, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened in 1922. Within the next two years, a half-dozen members of the archaeology team (out of a group of about 60) had died from various weird causes, and this fueled the popular imagination that there was some "curse" from disturbing the tomb. In particular, Lord Carnavon, the financial backer of the effort, died about 4 months after from a confounding combination of mosquito bite/ shaving accident/ blood poisoning. Others died from fever, malaria, more blood poisoning, assassinations, and being shot by one's angry wife.

Now, apparently real-life curse-inscription texts in Egyptian tombs are pretty rare; but at least one was found that actually reads, "Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose." Read more at the Wikipdia article on Curse of the pharaohs.

A decade later in 1932, Universal Studios made The Mummy starring Boris Karloff (and then a bunch of sequels). Almost 30 years after that, Hammer Film Productions did a revival of The Mummy starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (and then a bunch of sequels). This latter film was often shown in a double-feature with the vampire/Western film Curse of the Undead. In each of these films, the titular character is brought back to life by a magic scroll, and then dark deeds ensue.

Original D&D

MUMMIES: Mummies do not drain life energy as Wights and Wraiths do, but instead their touch causes a rotting disease which makes wounds take ten times the usual time for healing. A Cleric can reduce this to only twice as long with a Cure Disease spell if administered within an hour. Only magic weaponry will hit Mummies, and all hits and bonuses are at one-half value against them. Note, however, that Mummies are vulnerable to fire, including the ordinary kind such as a torch.
In OD&D Vol-2, Monsters & Treasure, Mummies have AC 3, MV 6, and HD 5+1; the above is the entirety of their explanatory text. Even with magic weapons you can only score half-damage on them.

Now, let's look at the rotting disease. It appears that the only effect is to reduce healing rates. But this effect is inescapably permanent. Even if you treat it with a cure disease spell (and it must be within the hour!), your healing rate is still half-normal, apparently forever -- failing that, the healing rate is ten times slower. That makes every combat you ever engage in for the future noticeably more dangerous. Ironically, OD&D doesn't actual set any "normal" rate for healing, so perhaps this really only affects magical curing, which is not called out explicitly; on the other hand, almost all future texts prohibit any magical healing whatsoever to subjects of the disease.

But wait, there's more. In the last few pages of OD&D Supplement II, Blackmoor, Dave Arneson expanded upon the subject of diseases of various types in D&D. And on the subject of mummy disease, the preceding wasn't nearly fearsome enough, and this author felt it needed to be made it much, much worse. He writes:
Advanced Leprosy: The social disease afflicting all mummies, this is what causes wounds to take longer to heal. It is automatically contracted on contact with a mummy. If not cured within three days, there is a 95% chance of fatality, with a 2% decrease each successive day. Any character that succumbs to this dread disease may NOT be raised from the dead; they are permanently dead.

So, apparently on top of the forever-reduced-healing from Vol-2, Arneson gives mummy rot a 95% chance of death per day, and only marginally decreasing over time. The overall chance of surviving such a regime is less than 10−18 (that is: if there was an entire galaxy of Earth populations, and all of them were infected with Advanced Leprosy, then only around 1,000 people would survive to the end). Plus anyone who dies is un-raiseable (perhaps somewhat analogous to those slain by energy draining rising as similar undead).

There's an associated table that says for Advanced Leprosy, "% to Catch: 100%... Fatal %: 60% spec.". that 60% is a bit hard to parse... perhaps there's a 60% chance to die before one even gets to to 3-day mark? And it's also just slightly unclear how the magical curing works in conjunction with the core rule (Vol-1 says "within an hour", Sup-II says "within three days"). In any case, that seems like overkill upon overkill.

Finally: Note that "social disease" is an old-school way of implying "sexually transmitted disease", which I'm not entirely sure what that is meant to imply here in Sup-II. 


Mummies are undead humans with existence on both the normal and the positive material planes... The scabrous touch of a mummy inflicts a rotting disease on any hit. The disease will be fatal in 1-6  months, and each month it progresses the diseased creature loses 2 points of charisma, permanently. It can be cured only by a magic spell, cure disease. The disease negates all cure wound spells. Infected creatures heal wounds at 10% of the normal rate.

The mere sight of a mummy within  6"  will cause such fear and revulsion in any creature, that unless a saving versus magic is successful, the victim will be paralyzed with fright for 1-4 melee rounds. Note that numbers will give courage, and for each creature above 6 to 1 mummy, the creatures add  + 1  to their saving throw...  

Mummies can be harmed only by magical weapons, and even those do only one-half normal damage... Magical fires are at  +1 per die of damage...  Any creature killed by a mummy rots and cannot be raised from death unless a cure disease and raise dead spell are used within 6 turns.

In the 1977 AD&D Monster Manual, Gygax keeps the essence of mummy rot -- one-tenth normal healing; plus the negation of all curative magic (which will be in all editions from now on). And he at least borrows the overall intention of Arneson's supplement; the disease now also deadly, over a period of some months, with Charisma melting off in an apparently leprosy-like fashion. The resistance to even magical weapon blows is retained. He also adds a special fear ability, shown above. Hits have been increased by one die (to 6+3), just like all the undead except for the Ghoul.

But in this case the disease can apparently be entirely removed by application of the clerical cure disease spell -- at any time, in some sense trivial for standard PC parties of a certain level. Unlike Arneson, a raise dead is possible, but with cure disease, it must be applied within 6 turns of death of anyone slain by a mummy (only slightly less harsh). Fire attacks are specified as advantageous (+1 per die).


The 2E mummy is, for all practical concerns, a copy-paste of the 1E mummy. One thing stands out to me at the end of the combat block: the time frame to cure/raise victims of a mummy has been reduced from 6 turns to 6 rounds.

Also, there is a new separate entry for a certain "Mummy, Greater", which runs about 5 pages in my digital copy. These mummies are ranked by age (less than 100 to more than 500 years), with hit dice from 8 to 13, AC from 2 down to -3, increasing rates of disease progression, and all with spellcasting powers of an evil priest from 16th to 20th level.

This Greater Mummy is perhaps reflective of the overall inflation to monster abilities that occurred in 2E (esp.: dragons and giants), and perhaps borrowing something from Anne Rice's vampire novels which first appeared in 1976 and grew in popularity through the 80's.

3E D&D

Despair (Su): At the mere sight of a mummy, the viewer must succeed at a Will save (DC 15) or be paralyzed with fear for 1d4 rounds. Whether or not the save is successful, that creature cannot be affected again by that mummy’s despair ability for one day.

Mummy Rot (Su): Supernatural disease [slam, Fortitude save (DC 20), incubation period 1 day; damage 1d6 temporary Constitution.] Unlike normal diseases, mummy rot continues until the victim reaches Constitution 0 (and dies) or receives a remove disease spell or similar magic. An afflicted creature that dies shrivels away into sand and dust that blow away into nothing at the first wind unless both a remove disease and raise dead are cast on the remains within 6 rounds...

Resistant to Blows (Ex): Physical attacks deal only half damage to mummies. Apply this effect before damage reduction.

Fire Vulnerability (Ex): A mummy takes double damage from fire attacks unless a save is allowed for half damage. A successful save halves the damage and a failure doubles it.

In many ways 3E D&D "safety bumpered" PCs against the most harmful effects (for example: negative energy drains became temporary with a saving throw). Here, the mummy keeps its fear and resistance to attacks. But by wrapping the mummy rot in the standard 3E disease mechanic, it actually gets somewhat more dangerous; a victim can lose 1d6 Constitution every day, if a daily save is failed -- so likely dying in a few days instead of months as in 1E-2E.

However: The original reduced-healing effect, for both natural and magical means, appears to be removed here (and it might as well be, being effectively negligible compared to the likely death from ability damage in a few days). And fire is made even more advantageous, doing double damage instead of just +1 per die.

The "Greater Mummy" is not included, but a brief line in the stat block indicates "Advancement: 7-12 HD (Medium-size); 13-18 HD (Large)", broadly in line for the extra hit dice allowed in the 2E associated monster.

3.5 D&D

Despair (Su): At the mere sight of a mummy, the viewer must succeed on a DC 16 Will save or be paralyzed with fear for 1d4 rounds. Whether or not the save is successful, that creature cannot be affected again by the same mummy’s despair ability for 24 hours. The save DC is Charisma-based.

Mummy Rot (Su): Supernatural disease—slam, Fortitude DC 16, incubation period 1 minute; damage 1d6 Con and 1d6 Cha. The save DC is Charisma-based.

Unlike normal diseases, mummy rot continues until the victim reaches Constitution 0 (and dies) or is cured as described below.

Mummy rot is a powerful curse, not a natural disease. A character attempting to cast any conjuration (healing) spell on a creature afflicted with mummy rot must succeed on a DC 20 caster level check, or the spell has no effect on the afflicted character.

To eliminate mummy rot, the curse must first be broken with break enchantment or remove curse (requiring a DC 20 caster level check for either spell), after which a caster level check is no longer necessary to cast healing spells on the victim, and the mummy rot can be magically cured as any normal disease.

An afflicted creature who dies of mummy rot shrivels away into sand and dust that blow away into nothing at the first wind.

I'm unaccustomed to the 3.5 edition making things more dangerous than 3E, but it does so here (well, a little bit). First, the mummy hit dice are increased from 6 to 8 (with the possible advanced types running from 9-24). The fear effect is about the same. But the mummy rot doubles up the 1d6 daily Constitution loss with a 1d6 Charisma loss (hearkening back to 1E/2E). Normal healing appears unaffected, but unlike 3E, magical healing (perhaps the type PCs are most interested in) may possibly fail if a caster check does. And the window for raising (6 turns in 1E; 6 rounds in 2E) appears to be entirely eliminated, with a dead victim apparently blowing away as sand instantaneously.

Cure disease no longer has any effect on the victim of mummy rot, as it is now qualified as a curse instead; so something like remove curse is instead required. There is a certain charm to this, inasmuch as the pop-culture conceit is one of the "Pharaoh's curse" (see top), not the "Pharaoh's disease"; although this makes a cure somewhat easier to access, because remove curse is on both the cleric's and wizard's spell lists. Also: the half-damage from blows is gone, although it uses a "damage reduction" ability that shaves 5 points off any attack (so: even nonmagical attacks of sufficient strength can damage it, something not possible in any prior edition).

Holmes D&D

Mummies are also members of the undead. They do not drain life levels, but their touch (if they make a hit) causes the dreaded rotting mummy disease which makes wounds take ten times the usual rate of healing. A cleric can reduce this healing time to only twice normal with a cure disease spell if it is administered within an hour. 

Only magic weapons can hit mummies, and they take only half damage from a hit. Note, however, that mummies are vulnerable to fire, including the ordinary kinds such as a torch, although it only does half-damage to them.

When a mummy is first seen a saving throw vs. a spell must be made or the individual is paralyzed with fear and cannot move until the mummy strikes him or another member of the party. If the party numbers above 5 each member gains a +2 on his saving throw, as their numbers help dispel fear. 

Here's where we check in on the D&D Basic line, starting with Holmes in 1979. The primary project of Holmes was to closely duplicate the rules in OD&D with some of its supplements, with better organizational editing, and only rarely filling in a few gaps with extra rules; and this set the tone for most of the Basic D&D line(s) in the 80's and 90's.

This is almost entirely true for this case of the mummy. Hit dice are the same as in OD&D (5); that is, without the inflation seen in AD&D (and this will remain fixed throughout Basic D&D). The half-damage from hits is the same. The rotting disease is old-school awful as in OD&D; a permanent healing reduction, not fully removable even with cure disease. As in Vol-2, it does not mention magical healing in any way. More importantly, it entirely ignores Arneson's escalation of the disease in Sup-II -- so that while distressing, it is not automatically fatal within a few days of catching it. It does not address or prohibit raising the dead victim in any way (not that raise dead is part of the Holmes level 1-3 basic ruleset).

Now, Zenopus Archives tells us, looking at an early pre-publication manuscript, that "Holmes follows the description in OD&D closely, with no conceptual changes. The two paragraphs in the manuscript are retained in the published rulebook, which adds an entirely new third paragraph describing the fear induced by a mummy."

I think it's been well established at this point that it was Gygax who took Holmes' manuscript and did an editorial pass on it, adding various rules to make it more aligned with his AD&D work. So in this case: The first two paragraphs are really from Holmes, encapsulating the OD&D mummy; and the third paragraph is Gygax, adding in the new fear power from AD&D. Gygax has a bit softer touch here, making the paralysis end as soon as any member of the PC's party is struck by the mummy (instead of a fixed 1-4 rounds).

On the other hand, what Gygax missed in the second paragraph is that Holmes gave mummies only half-damage from fire, whereas in AD&D Gygax gives a bonus to fire damage, so in that respect the two game lines are now running in opposite directions.

Basic D&D

Mummies are undead who lurk near deserted ruins and tombs. On seeing a mummy, each character must save vs. paralysis or be paralyzed with fear until the mummy attacks someone or goes out of sight. In melee, a hit by a mummy does 1-12 points of damage and infects the creature hit with a hideous rotting disease. This disease prevents magical healing and makes all wounds take 10 times as long to heal. The disease lasts until it is magically cured. 

Mummies can only be damaged by spells, fire, or magic weapons, all of which will only do half damage. They are immune to sleep, charm, and hold spells.

The text above is from Cook's Expert D&D (p. X36, 1980). Note that the disease now includes the prohibition on magical healing (not in the prior OD&D or Holmes; first seen in 1E AD&D); however, it is more generous in apparently allowing the magical cure to completely remove the ailment. It retains Holmes' half-damage from fire, in opposition to the AD&D line. Also following Holmes, it is silent on the issue of raising the dead (even that that spell is in this volume). It keeps the paralysis-fear, and ends it if either a PC is attacked, or the mummy moves out of sight; and Cook edits out Gygax's fiddly save modifier depending on number of people in the party.

Mentzer's Red/Blue Box rules (1983) keeps almost the exact same rules text as in Cook. I can see only one change; the sentence about mummy fear does not end the paralysis on a PC being struck -- now, only if the mummy moves out of sight. Allston's Rules Cyclopedia (1991) mummy is word-for-word identical to Mentzer's, except for an added flavor-text paragraph. The half-damage from all blows is retained throughout all Basic editions.

Poll Results

I asked about mummy rot on the Facebook 1st Edition AD&D group. In one of the more lopsided results that I've seen, almost everyone there did seem to prefer the 1E long-acting version of the disease.


Looking at OD&D, we must admit that there are two separate, really incompatible takes on the mummy's curse of disease. Gygax in Vol-1 plans on the disease being a long-term degradation in recovery ability, over the course of months, perhaps. Arneson in Sup-II expects the disease to very quickly be fatal, within just a few days -- such that the slow-healing effect becomes a forgettable non-issue for practical purposes. Gygax's view held sway in 1E/2E AD&D and the Basic D&D line. But later editions from 3E on recast the disease as did Arneson, fatal in some days if not cured.

Gygax's long-term disease is more in line with the classic pop-culture understanding of the Pharaoh's curse, in which tomb-intruders die horribly months or years later. But Arneson's quick-acting leprosy may possibly be more urgently, dramatically gameable. Which is your preference?


  1. It never occurred to me to make the slow healing last past the healing of the wounds inflicted by the mummy. Clearly the text doesn't specify any such thing, but I think I still would prefer to run it that way. I also prefer the kills slowly version, so the healing thing won't be moot.

    1. Interesting take... symmetrically, I never thought to end the disease once the hit point were back.

  2. Regarding why leprosy is a social disease... "It [Leprosy] was long associated with sexually transmitted diseases and during the nineteenth century was thought to be a stage of syphilis." - Wikpedia on Leprosy Stigma.

  3. I agree with Joshua that I would have interpreted that the slow healing only applies to the damage from the mummy (though it is clearly not supported by the additional texts)
    To answer the question, I like the deadly in months approach (at least for an "old school" game). In general, I have disliked the move towards speeding up undead affects (ex: slain adventurers becoming shadows in rounds instead of hour/days, even zombies should take a few minutes or hours in my mind)
    Perhaps a compromise, the immediate slow healing wounds are the first clue that you have the "wasting disease" and con/charisma loss are soon coming.

    1. I like that idea. Perhaps the incubation period is diminished healing and lasts 1d6 months, but once the full disease strikes you wither and rot in a week?

    2. Personally, I'm attracted to the idea echoing the 1920's pop-culture understanding, that it just makes you more susceptible to accidents on a long-term basis. But likewise I find that difficult to balance/manage in-game.

  4. General thoughts on mummies, not necessarily applicable to 0e or OED games...

    1) Given the OED lack of clerics and holy water, burning Wand of Fireball charges seems to be a really clear strategic choice, hoping to avoid risky and somewhat fruitless melee combat against them by the front-line fighters. Also, unlike many undead, mummies have no vulnerability to sun light, nor the vampire's laundry list of weaknesses, so fire is one of the few things to exploit.

    2) Since mummies come with built-in dry wicks splashing them with a flask of lamp oil might actually be a valid tactic; unfortunately, the local museum seems disinclined to accept my research proposal, although a conceptual prototype involving olive oil, beef jerky, and an old linen tea towel is in the works ;)

    3) I really like that they have a attack complication other than level drain. In general, my tendency is more and more towards trying to diversify the special effects that make undead horrifying, and level drain, while effective, is not my favorite. I lean toward the long-term, permanent version, but most campaigns should either allow the standard spells (either Cure Disease or Remove Curse or some higher-level version of the same) to cure it or allow for some sort of quest or artifact that can be sought as a cure, which seems more satisfying and gamable, unless character retirement is the expected outcome.

    4) The flunky-level mummy - mummies that serve a boss mummy - should probably be wights with different dressing; leader mummies (the actual movie-monster antagonists) should have more weird powers like vampires do, and in several variations (much as some editions have the "Eastern" vampire), stuff like Insect Plague or Bestow Curse as spell-like abilities, or controlling insects (especially locusts and scarabs), birds, jackals or crocodiles as vampires do bats, rats, and wolves. Draugr (at least land-draugr) are very mummy-like, and might suggest abilities such as a vampiric mist- or smoke-form, horrifying stench, and shape-shifting or the ability to grow to giant size (draugr in general tend to queer the mummy-vampire binary, and are traditionally attributed with some very interesting abilities that are often neglected).

    5) A few more variations, even as short notes, would be nice - a variant "bog mummy", that is resistant to fire, but perhaps vulnerable to cold or acid or some such, seems like an obvious place to start, or perhaps an ash mummy, inspired by the remains at Pompey, immune to fire and cold but vulnerable to water or even wind.

    1. Good Point on the lack of Clerics in OED.
      Also second on the more crazy powers for Ancient Dead.
      In my old 2nd Edition game I always liked to play up the connection to the Positive Plane and "Cursed Protector" angles.

    2. Great stuff! Good research proposal on trying burning oil vs. mummies. I also highly support the recommendations for DM-specified variations on higher and lower-level mummies, of course.

      Possibly I should have mentioned that in my current OED notes I was happy to take inspiration from 3.5 and allow remove curse (on the wizard list) to affect the mummy rot.

  5. For my part, I've always questioned the logic of mummy rot (though I used it in games, since I never got around to brainstorming alternative powers). The main defining characteristic of a mummy, both in reality and in the game, is that it has not decomposed. Such a being doesn't seem a likely carrier for diseases of decomposition, though I suppose it's possible, with a little thought, to justify or handwave this seeming contradiction...

    1. 3.5's explanation seems to make clear what older editions perhaps only implied. It's the mummy's curse as opposed to a biological disease. "Mummy rot is a powerful curse, not a natural disease."

    2. Ah, I see that now; I guess I was reading too fast. Well, that's fair enough, then. I never moved beyond first edition, but it's nice to know someone gave the matter a little thought.

    3. My favorite form of death curse, which I think I got from Exalted, is that once a day you critically fail a roll at the Referee's fiat to represent random circumstances being twisted by fate to bring about your demise.

    4. Not a bad observation. I kind of like the Exalted rule.

  6. I (like others) had never even considered the interpretation that the slow healing would persist in perpetuity. The two readings that I came up with on my own were either that it applies only to wounds inflicted by the mummy, or that it applies to all wounds sustained during the adventure, but either way that once the party returns to safety and rests to regain their hit points (at the slowed rate) the effects would terminate.

    Of course, I have limited practical experience with mummies in general, as no other DM has used them in games that I've played in, and I only used them myself once - in a 2nd Edition game with a party around 5th level, so the cleric was able to cure the regular mummy rot handily and it was only those hit by the Greater Mummy leading them who had to worry as they rushed back to a major city where they could find higher-level priests and pay for a Regeneration spell - and all along the way, the cleric working hard using cure disease to delay the progression of the rot as much as possible and buy them a few extra days!

    1. Good story!

      It's always fascinating to learn about widespread rule interpretations that I'd never considered in 40 years of gaming.

  7. While I tend to default to B/X these days, a "hideous rotting disease" with no cure implies eventual death...which isn't detailed in the monster's description. In the past I probably referenced the 1E MM to adjudicate such a terminal illness.

    I wouldn't do that now, though. Instead, I'd simply make the disease the equivalent of the 3rd level B/X spell "cause disease" which is fatal in 2-24 days unless magically cured. That's the simpler solution (in my opinion) and feels fine mechanically, without any additional fiddly rules required.

    1. Not bad. An elegant solution (like much of B/X).

  8. OD&D actually has nonmagical healing rules, hidden away at the tail-end of Volume 3 (page 35, in my copy).

    As noted previously, energy levels can only be regained by fresh experience, but common wounds can be healed with the passage of time (or the use of magics already explained). On the first day of complete rest no hit points will be regained, but every other day thereafter one hit point will be regained until the character is completely healed. This can take a long time.

    "A long time" is somewhat an understatement: PCs can expect to heal just six hit points between each weekly session, going by the generous interpretation of "every other day" and the standard time rates. That's one solid hit.

    Someone with the mummy's curse, of course, wouldn't even heal a hit point during that week: they'd need eleven straight days of bedrest to recover a single hit point. If they took three damage from the mummy's attack, they'd have to rest for an entire month to heal those three hit points.

    Needless to say, it's a somewhat crippling affliction. It isn't helped by magical healing also being somewhat limited (no spells for first-level Clerics, and IIRC you cannot prepare first-level spells in second-level slots).
    A high-level character with the curse might expect to never again be at full hit points.

    AD&D has the same 1hp/day rate for the first month, but accelerates it to 5hp/day beyond that (and doesn't have the single-day healing restriction). In OD&D you'd heal three hit points per month while under the curse, and in AD&D you'd heal ~15 per month after the first.

    1. Great catch! You're right, I do tend to forget about that OD&D healing rule over and over. I just added an endnote in my OED Judge's rules so I don't forget again. Great analysis.

  9. Put me in the slower healing only for the wounds the mummy inflicts, or perhaps any wounds until fully healed from the mummy encounter.

    3.5 - "and the mummy rot can be magically cured as any normal disease."
    Remove curse only allows the disease to be cured, it still must be cured naturally or with a remove disease.

    3.0 - "Fire Vulnerability (Ex):...unless a save is allowed for half damage. A successful save halves the damage and a failure doubles it."

    On a save the mummy only takes 1/2 damage, granted, the mummy is not going to be good at reflex saves.

  10. The greater mummy comes from Ravenloft (MC10 Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium Appendix) and was later included in the Monstrous Manual.