In Your Closet? These Skeletons Can Do So Much For Your Game!
Skeletons in D&D are traditionally a stock-block monster. Ageless, simple A.I. ('they attack anything until destroyed'), have few surprises and many players have abilities for specifically dealing with these comparatively fragile undead. But how to make your skeletons interest, surprise, excite or even challenge players? Let's look at what they are and how you can use them.
An Animated Skeleton: Just The Bare Bones
- Armour class: 13 - note that they wear armour scraps. This means they could wear anything and employ a shield.
- Hit points: 13 (2d8+4).
- Weapons: seem proficient in anything but work better with their dexterity bonus / +2.
- Immunities: to poison (condition & damage) and exhaustion.
- Vulnerability: bludgeoning
- Notes: darkvision & normal vision - not clear if removal-destruction of the eyeless skull reduces vision capacity. A skeleton weighs 20 lbs wet-weight - dry or 'fresh' bones may fluctuate. They understand languages yet to not speak them. On page 282 of the D.M.'s Guide they get stat-modifiers of +2 Dex, -4 Int, -4 Cha. It doesn't say if they gain or can learn to use new skills such as tools, languages &/or proficiencies.
Unlocking This Article: A Skeleton Key
- Tricks & Techniques: Boosting Your Basic Skeleton: Make this monster-type tougher and with more variety.
- Skeletons In Your Closet: Clever Places To Put Them: Placement of this monster.
- Bigger Better Bones: Breaking Bad / Beyond Belief: How would a skeleton level up?
- Your Very One Bone Adventure: Seven adventures brewed up for you.
Tricks & Techniques: Boosting Your Basic Skeleton
- Talk Talk / sign language, chalkboard, cue cards, prosthetic magic & more! Though lacking all biological brains, skeletons only have -4 on intelligence - smarter than brainier zombies. This means a (former) wizard skeleton could have up to 16 int! Sign language, a deck of cards with agreed meanings, cue cards, musical instruments (ones that do not require blowing, like drums or stringed), chalkboards and even objects with Magic Mouth on them all work. The Ersatz Eye and in Tasha's book the Prosthetic Limb suggest, for a price &/or enchantment one could replace anything on a skeleton with mechanical parts - including a voice box.
- Armour up: This can mean any armour, permanent or not. Dressing skeletons in weird clay outfits, glass chest plate the shatters on one hit, ceremonial bronze sets, ceramic plates, pots, pans, layers of sheets - they do not care. They will gladly fight out of a barrel gaining excellent cover.
- Not All That Remains Is Needed!: In theory, a surviving arm or leg could keep on fighting. The skull can keep on clacking after the rest is destroyed. As long as the animating magic still has more than 1 hit point, you can decide what works and how well it can act, see, hear - or react.
- Animated Armour & Weapons: A skeleton inside a suit of Animated Armour means no one knows who is attacking nor when to stop smashing whichever target aimed for.
- Possessed by a ghost: You can decide if a ghost can command a skeleton or even inhabit / possess one. Typically one would be most attached to a skeleton that was their former body.
- Weapons: They suggest the shortbow and shortsword. Why sell skeletons short? Finesse weapons work best (make use of their +2 attack and damage from dexterity). Crossbows (more damage), slings (infinite ammo on a gravel field), daggers, darts, rapiers... but not blow-guns, of course.
- Enchanted! Spells, Objects & More: Many spells do NOT work on the living, but may work on objects such as undead. A skeleton can trigger any Explosive Runes, sacrificing itself without issue. Also, they can use vast number of magic items. Using a Wand of Magic Missiles never gets old. Firing +1 or +2 arrows or bolts at characters adds stake - players are aware that their loot is being wasted each round the skeletons keep shooting.
- Non-humanoid Shapes: The Animate Dead spell only allows humanoids. The Create Undead allows for ghouls, ghasts, wights & mummies - but still no beasts, giants or other shapes. You can allow for this by using an oft-feared home-brew, via use of the non-stress Wish ('has no requirements &/or components'), or even use an enchanted Dead Zone often suggested in various books, like Tasha's Cauldron.
- Size Doesn't Matter! Gnomes, goblins & any size 'humanoid' counts just fine. According to 5e rules they get the same statistics and are equally effective. Their weight is probably under that of a Mage Hand (10 lb limit) or Unseen Servant (20 lb max - bring a few of your small friends!).
- Poison Is Oddly Your Best Friend: Poison everywhere: on arrows, toxic blades, vile gas, dripping nastiness from the ceiling. Diseases also work. Remember: skeletons can be frightened.
- Pimp Them Out: You can bolt metal right on, string or chain them up, use stilts in water, carve or write anything on their bones (spellbook spells, scroll spells, instructions, maps)
Skeletons In Your Closet: Clever Places To Put Them
- In your closet - or any odd place: Sure, players may be expecting to find skeletons in the DM's closet. That said, they can fit anywhere: most chests, under any trap door, drop down from scuttle-hatches, blend into a hay-stacks, ooze into mud, fold into a cardboard box, bake them into a cake, sift them into sand, leave them inside larger skeletons of dragons and giants, hide them inside armour in stockpiles and more. There is no excuse to have them obviously standing in any room unless they are archers on a ledge with a readied action.
- Modern Art Skeleton - Beautiful Bones: Carved bone can be very aesthetic, valuable and contain non-magical information (spell books spells, maps, drawings, recipe-formulae, instructions and more). The destruction of the skeleton means loss of gold and information unless players have Mending and a LOT of patience.
- Stuck To The Ceiling: A Bolt-Turret. You need two arms, possibly a skull (do these undead use their empty eye-sockets to see??), a section of adjoining spine and a crossbow. They can shoot every round until they run out. Possibly one skeleton could have a Wand of The Hand (magic hand at will) to reload everyone when their bolts run out. Great rear-gunners in a caravan-wagon as they are so light and require almost no space.
- Underwater: Undead do not breathe. Players dropped into a water trap rarely expect attacks from below. Skeletons easily flow downstream as required or 'climb' upstream (Rules As Written give them humanoid swim speed - logically they lack both buoyancy and most propulsion).
- Toxic Wasteland: Any place inhospitable to humans. Being immune to poison means all other gasses (sulphuric, smoke - even inert-harmless gasses such as CO2) are safe.
- Deserts & Other Wastelands: Inhospitable conditions will slaughter even dragons, but not skeletons.
- Falling on soft mossy / straw flooring: Generally skeletons are fragile - but you can make the floor as soft as you like to prepare for an ancient drop trap of The Wrath Of The 88 Ancients.
- Inside a Gelatinous Cube. Technically anything inside the Gelatinous Cube is being digested, including skeletons.
- Refab Zombie: Even though a zombie is undead, it isn't preserved. In time or with certain damage it should become a skeleton. From the DM's Guide page 282 the zombie gains stat-block modifiers: +1 Str, +2 Con, -6 Int, -4 Wis, -4 Cha. You can mix and match as your undead loses flesh.
- Topography Tricks: With paper maché, craft skeletons as puppets. Or you can add string and have it assemble itself as a weird (and ill-tempered) golem. Virtually any costume + mask (and some padding) should fit.
- Pop-Out-Polymorphed: As creatures you may require home brew for this. Some objects are shape-changed to function as something else. Thus your skeleton could be say a door, staff, large bowl or anything you like. Thematic ornamentation gives players a chance and helps with the theme: a staff made of bones, a flag with the skull & crossbones motif and so on.
Bigger Better Bones: Breaking Bad / Beyond Belief.
- The Skeleton Captain / Death Knight: Do skeleton NPCs gain power? If so, why is there so little information on this? You can do this as you like and add 'story' to it. Does the skeleton wish to have their former (fleshy) life back? Do they wish to simply gain power? Would they be possessed by ghost, demon or enchantment? What magic can they gain to further this cause?
- Aspiring Wizard / Flaming Skull: As above but with more magic. A skeleton with 13-16 intelligence will remember a lot about spell casting. How far can this go? A Flameskull has kept their mind AND their evil ambitions... and more than enough magical ability to enchant items. Would they bind a skeleton to further their lifestyle?
- Helping Out / Giving A (Bony) Hand: Nearly any creature can do the 'help action'. A small skeleton (gnome) could be stuck to a shield and harry-annoy any opposition. Cheap yet stylistic magic item.
- A Bone Chip On His Shoulder: If an ogre can carry up to four small creatures, how many partial skeletons could be on a crossbow-gun turret-ladder / pyramid? At some point your players would simply be pincushions, so they may not like this. It only takes one monster to activate a Saddle of The Cavelier, no matter how light or small - perfect as an ogre's shoulder pad.
Your Very Own Bone Adventure
An In-Body Experience: A skeleton and a ghost seek a body. When the host-ghost gets Reincarnated it becomes clear that the skeleton is an enchanted intelligence and will never be alive. Thus this bone-sentience would like to be made into any magic weapon &/or item of some kind.
Seeking One's Skin: A former Tribal Goblin was a zombie for a while but lost their skin with all the tattoos on them / stolen by a wizard that wanted them. The skeleton seeks to get this back. You can give this skeleton a simple Message cantrip so they can communicate with PCs.
Bone Tower Of Needles: An ogre skeleton has three crossbow goblins on top (helmet & each shoulder) and a rapier-using goblin on each leg & knee area. Another rides in the ogre-sized backpack and yet another hides in the rib-cage handing out weapons and helping with yet another crossbow. Give the ogre extra metal plating, hinges and parts and have it made by Mad Maggie the Ha-goblin ('part hag, part goblin and all mad').
For Whom The Bell Tolls: A bunch of gnome sized skeletons have Xanathar's cantrip Toll The Dead as an at-will cantrip carved into their bones - at 5th level ability at that (2d12 damage). They also have some Mage Hand ability that lets them hover / slowly fly about. What do they want? Possibly revenge, perhaps sent by a necromancer, or even to destroy a rival and evil necromantic wizard cabal. In the meantime, they are surprisingly nasty and cause havoc from above.
Bone Brothers Unite! The skeletons were kicked around and treated badly by a necromancer for decades if not centuries. Now their tyrant is dead (and her body walks among them, weirdly enough). They want emancipation, rights, respect and brotherhood. The smarter ones have been having meetings that go on for years and the less smart ones carry picket signs.
Beautiful Bone Bounty: A necromancer carved copies of all of her spells and magic-item fabrication patterns on the bones of many of her skeleton servants. She has since been reincarnated and has given up on her previous ways over a century ago (she is a 'high elf' now). In fact, she is now trying out 'being a nice person' for a while, perhaps half a thousand years. She asks that the player-group take care of them, the undead are probably causing mayhem. The truth is: a dragon has seen their obvious value and has taken the abandoned undead under her wing, as it were.
It's Raining Bones, Hallelujah! A town is under siege - and the enemy has a sky ship. It drops special mildly enchanted glass canisters from very high up. Not only do these cause all sorts of damage, inside each of them is a skeleton that survives the fall and the shattering of their fragile glass caskets. Players must find a way to destroy this sky ship and bring down this menace.