rating: +1+x

Basic Information

A form of government found only in fantasy literature and RPGs for one very simple reason - thanotocracy consists of government by the dead. Or, more coherently, government by the Undead.

There are various ways to play this, but since the undead are traditionally always chaotic evil they all usually end up as either The Empire or The Horde. This is eminently subvertable.

The primary types of thanotocracy are as follows:

  1. The all undead kingdom: Much like the nations of the Tomb Kings from Warhammer Fantasy. Both the rulers and the subjects are undead. Generally has little or nothing in the way of politics unless there are various sapient undead (e.g. Liches) jockeying for power at the top. most of the nation will consist of (literally) mindless minions. Nations of this sort suit the 'Horde' model best.
  2. Rule of the Living by the Dead: This is usually what occurs when an undead BBEG takes control over a nation of living people. The classic vampire count model fits this well as, in theory, does Mordor under Sauron. The living people are generally either Always Chaotic Evil or oppressed peons - or a mix of the two. These nations can do quite well as the 'Empire'.
  3. Mixed living/dead population ruled by the dead: subversive and rarely encountered. High Cromlech in China Miellville's Bas-Lag is an example. The living and dead may coexist quite happily in a state like this, but very few Fantasy Writers or RPG designers create them.

The remaining tropes would be an undead kingdom ruled by necromancers/thanaturges (Such as in Clark Ashton Smith's The Empire of the Necromancers) … which is magocracy rather than thanotocracy (since the rulers are still breathing), and a state in which sapient undead can be equal citizens with the living, which doesn't really qualify as thanotocracy even though the cras could very well be in the hands of someone who has undergone thanatos at any given point.

The undead rulers could take a variety of forms - sorcerous liches are an obvious example, as are vampires, but mummified 'living ancestors' would be extremely appropriate to some Pacific Rim style or Mesoamerican cultures. A subtrope places the undead in a specific caste such as priests or wizards. The Honeyed Head Of Archonides is practically a real-world example of Thanatocracy. For some more obscure undead options, see our Undead page. Or you could dial it up to 11 and have the leadership of the thanatocracy be major mythological characters from the underworld.

Something else to consider - is the ruling caste closed or are they recruiting new members? Is there a single "undying king" or an "elder council"? Are all undead equal (assuming they are sapient) or are some more equal than others?

What is the resource distribution like in a thanotocracy? Has all the wealth ended up in the possession of those who never die and bequeath, or do the dead live abstemiously as befits their almost non-existent needs? The impact on the economy could be significant.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Any of these states would be good venues for adventure - particularly non standard plots like a diplomatic mission to a type 1 state.
  • Type 2 or type 3 nations (hell, even a type 1 if you allow for undead PCs) could make interesting origins for a PCs.
  • Could just about make it into Sci-fi if the "undead" in question were uploaded personality images of the deceased.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License