I honestly don’t believe I have ever played in a fantasy tabletop RPG without facing down some good old undead skeletons. Even though they’re utilized often, skeletons always get me excited as a player. This is partly because the emergence of the undead begets great questions, such as, who raised them? It may not be the skeletons themselves, but the whole mood that’s developed when they appear on the table is amplified. Ramifications of a far greater evil can set the party on an adventure all its own. From graveyards to deep dungeons, the environment should also be considered when you employee these monster against your players.
As DMs, we often set the scene without thinking, but I find the difference between a forgettable battle and an epic encounter, comes down to the environment. The wonderful thing about skeletons is how they lend themselves to spooky locations. A graveyard at night, just as the mist rolls in, and the rattling of bones in the distance. The imagery is so impactful, and is part of our cultural zeitgeist. DMs can tap into this quality in order to send a chill running down the player’s spine. While this sets the mood, you can also utilize the environment mechanically to add some bite for your foes. Perhaps the graveyard is littered with open plots where players can find themselves cornered. With limited options for separation, the wizard tries to move away, but soon encounters a skeleton crawling through the mist, and baring his/her path. Often times skeletons are weak in comparison to an adventuring party, but using the environment to allow 2-3 skeletons to surround the party, and you have a fun encounter that feels dangerous. All the while hinting at the greater evil to come.
The first question that pops into my mind when hacking down bony-boys is; who raised them from the dead? The emergence of undead in an area can be the first clue to an evil necromancer that has made his/her lair in the surrounding area. It is also worth noting that animated skeletons don’t have to be the mindless undead that zombies are. Feel free to give your skeletons a twisted variant of their former personality. It could be that they serve this evil force willingly, or they maybe compelled to serve via power magic, but have a few… less than flattering things to say about their master. All while still battling the party! Additionally, the skeletons could be the result of a spell long since past. Perhaps this spell was intended to guard an artifact or special location to the caster. The spell could last centuries, long after the person responsible has passed from this realm, but what did he/she leave behind? Even if the players don’t directly interact or even discover what caused the skeletons to animate, I like to have the reason and clues laid out for my game. Even if just adding extra flavor.
Recently, we reviewed the Pathfinder 2nd Edition Bestiary on this site, which included some hilarious and flavorful abilities that your skeletons should take advantage of. Regardless of the system, describing attacks and your environment can set the creepy-crawly mood for a battle with the undead. One ability described, is for the skeleton to remove its own head and throw it at the player, making a bite attack in the process. Being powered by necromantic energy, the skeleton doesn’t require eyes to see, so the body continues to attack normally, but now… there is a head nipping at your heels! Even if the head misses its attack, I would role-play it so the head is biting down on the characters arm, and though it hasn’t broken through the armor, the head is ripping and tearing in the attempt. You could also impose some negative condition to the player while making any other attack until he/she shakes off the feisty skull. Another interesting idea is having your skeletons crumble into a pile of bone after taking significant damage, though not defeated, the skeleton reforms and attacks an adventurer when the time is right! Only when the skeletons are truly defeated do they release the necromantic energy that binds them. This causes an explosion dealing damage to anyone within melee range. The party may have the battle prowess to defeat a number of skeletons, but watch as they realize that killing the fiends could do them in as well. These are just a few fun ideas that were inspired by the last Pathfinder edition, and will add some interesting twists to your next undead encounter.
So, how do you use skeletons in your game? Do you feel they are overused as a fantasy trope? Share your thoughts and comments with us, so we can all kill our players with creepy head-throwing skeletons!