So there’s a new article over on WOTC about the art for undead. I had some comments to make, and I’m feeling egotistical enough that I think they might be interesting reading. (If you don’t click the link, the writing below won’t make a lot of sense.)
The ghost as shown looks hostile and not particularly human (living). It doesn’t fit the description. I’d prefer something with more detail and color — albeit faded and washed out — and just a hint of transparency. When we say someone looks “haunted” or has a “haunting expression”, it tends to imply sadness, distance, melancholy, a sense of a mood of loss and wasting. I see ghosts as fragments of source code left executing when the program has crashed, stuck in a loop, unable to get outside the boundaries of their mind (and a physical location as well). If pushed too hard (by overly inquisitive PCs), their sad loss becomes maddened rage, and they attack, with the damage they do physical or metaphysical based on various factors.
If specters are the victims of violent death, each should show clear signs of it — a perpetually bleeding wound, hideous burns, etc. They may “shift” over time, morphing from a seemingly healthy, but translucent, figure that resembles them before the incident, to a “freshly mutilated corpse” that shows them at the time of their death.
Wights should be, in my mind, those tied to the world by material things (as opposed to ghosts, who are tied by psychological things). You know how “you can’t take it with you”? Wights wouldn’t leave it behind. They are bound to the wealth in their tombs, and their appearance should be that of once-luxurious clothing, weapons, or armor, in rags.
I do not consider any of the art here exceptionally strong or evocative (sorry…), and the key weakness is the same — they’re all impersonal. Becoming a ghost, specter, or wight requires an emotion so strong that it is literally more powerful than death. This can be broadly categorized (personal loss, violent death, greed), but it will still manifest uniquely in each person. We should be able to tell a story about a ghost from seeing her picture. We should be able to imagine what she lost or why binds her here.
For the specter, the same thing — we ought to know how he died, and his clothing, gear, etc might give clues to what caused someone to kill him so violently (or it might not he could be the innocent victim of a madman — but that’s a story hook, too.). For the wight, again — we should see “That was a rich merchant; that was an arrogant noblewoman.” Make them people — dead people, but people who, in life had something so important to them that it allowed them to give the finger to Death.