Building a Better Skeleton

Well, I was going to do a post about my latest set of sessions… but, frankly, they aren’t that interesting. The intrepid heroes are sucked into the mind of a crazed aspect of death, who in turn is stuck inside a prison composed of a Tiefling’s body, who is in turn stuck inside a prison composed of – well, you get the point. Pretty usual stuff.

Anyway, I thought I would make this post about monster design, one of my favorite topics by far. Why is it my favorite? Because, designing monsters brings me back to that time in my youth when the defense scores really meant something individual and unique, and I try to hold on to what’s left of that feeling while I design new monsters, villains, creatures, and other such things with stats for my players to interact with. It’s a lot more work than simply slapping some numbers down from a chart and away you go, but it definitely makes you really feel like the creation has a rationale behind it if you have to justify every point in each of its abilities.

So, without further adieu, I present to you three of my new and improved 4th edition skeletons, including all of the reasoning that went into each of the decisions.

Okay, well, a little adieu may stand between you and the stat blocks. I have to give a qualifying statement: these were designed with a bit of a hardcore streak in mind. They are on the tougher side of balanced, at least so far as I can tell without having used them yet, since they are designed for a campaign that is is made with a sandbox feel and “hard but fair” attitude as its core concepts.

So, the first place I decided to start was with a skeleton archer of some sort. When I think skeleton, for some reason that’s the first thing that springs to mind. But, before I could just start hammering out what a skeleton archer’s abilities are, I first had to decide what it meant to be a skeleton at all. For this I went through some works of fiction, not least of all the 3.5 edition monster manuals, pathfinder monster entries, and 4th edition monster manuals. I figure the best place to start figuring out what it means to be one of these creatures is in their ability scores and defenses, so that’s where I began.

First of all, 3.5 skeletons were rather frail (though resistant to several common types of damage, such as piercing, not to mention their enormous undead immunity, which is a rather large battery of effects against which they are flat-out immune), but they were very fast little buggers indeed. Their speed was quite high and their reflex and AC were, too. Like most undead their will defense was rather spotty and their fortitude defense was certainly nothing special. I then proceeded to pathfinder, where to my surprise they had decided something different: their skeletons would have a fairly GOOD will defense, in addition to their reflex defense, while leaving the fortitude defense high and dry as usual. This was very interesting and I can see where they were coming from – it’s pretty hard to convince a creature whose sole purpose is to maul you out of existence to, in fact, not maul you out of existence. On the other hand, 4th edition seems convinced that, like late 3rd edition, it was a good idea to have the will defense be low on all of the undead critters. They all seemed to agree that their hitpoints weren’t too sturdy, once you hit them they went down, and that their reflex defense and AC were quite good, as well as their other battery of defenses. It seems that skeletons, therefore, should specialize in avoiding damage, not taking it. As for the question of will defense, I decided after some deliberation that if they were easy enough to control that a necromancer could keep a stable of the things it seems likely that they would be easy enough to harm mentally that their will defense should be pretty low, thereby going along the 3.5 and 4th edition routes, rather than that outlined by Pathfinder. So, I had figured out that their HP, Will, and Fort defenses should be low, and their AC and Reflex should be high, which coupled with their battery of immunities and resistances would probably keep them rather safe from a lot of damage, but not so safe from other types. I didn’t want to reinstate their crazy immunity to piercing damage, though, mostly because of things like rangers tying rocks to the heads of their arrows in a vain attempt at dealing damage without resorting to fisticuffs. I figure a ranger should always be good at shooting things with arrows, since that’s kind of their thing, and to take that away from them would be a bit too on the mean side. Sorry damage reduction/resistance/immunity traits, but you’re going to have stay with previous editions on this one. As a final point, skeletons, unlike other undead, were usually keen on using weapons and armor (albeit rotten), so of course making an unarmed skeleton seemed kind of pointless since what makes them unique is being users of tools, unlike most zombies or ghouls or wraiths and the like.

Once I had their defenses figuring the ability scores out was pretty easy, really. A high dexterity score gives you a good cause for high movement speed, and a fairly low charisma and wisdom score makes sense for such a low will defense. I figured they were pretty much average-ly strong and tough (much more brittle than zombies, that much is for certain, though for a time I debated even that since skeletons are technically magical constructs more than they are animated corpses, but I figured if you broke the bones you broke the magic so they were more brittle), so they got pretty middle of the road strength and, since this is 4th edition, constitution scores (undead with Con? Blasphemy I know :p)

Once that was done the next part of the process was coming up with more flavor for the creations (although the Dungeon Master’s Guide emphasizes assigning the stats before going in depth on the fluff, I figured if I knew what I wanted to make right down to the letter that figuring what stats to give them would come much more easily). On a bit of a joke I suggested to one of my colleagues that “man, the skeleton archers just aren’t as good ever since they lost both of their eyes, no depth perception anymore…” which is when I had my first idea: skeleton archers would reasonably use a much easier to use weapon than a normal bow. That is, they would use a crossbow. Point and click is a lot simpler to aim, and since there’s no bow oscillation there’s not as much drift introduced into the arrows. This would let the shoddier skeletons who aren’t imbued with the best of sight-giving magic to hit things with more ease, and as a side effect to deal significantly more damage (taking my inspiration from the historical crossbow), albeit at a slower rate of fire. Still, skeletons are plentiful, which led to the inevitable comparison of peasants with crossbows in the middle ages killing knights to skeletons in D&D with crossbows killing… well… knights! With this perfectly sensible plan for our surprisingly intelligent and genre-savvy necromancer (apparently), I had the basis of my skeleton archers – a “more advanced” model, that is, a standard enemy with a crossbow, and a “less advanced” model, that is, a minion enemy with a shortbow (if you had to give a longbow to every skeleton that’s like a 40% budget increase on wood! Simply too much for our thrifty necromancer to handle, unfortunately).

Selecting a template at that point was rather easy: an artillery role would suit this monster obviously (as that is, in essence, the “ranged dps” monster role in 4th edition), and for the minion I would simply minionize it by giving it an average quantity of damage and 1 hitpoint. Off to make some abilities, then (after assigning stats, of course, which you can see at the end of the article in the stat blocks).

The first ability I made was, reasonably enough, the crossbow-wielding skeleton’s crossbow bolt attack. Since a real crossbow, where I got my inspiration, fires at around a 60% rate of fire compared to a longbow of the same period (which fires 12 arrows per minute), I figure that I would reduce the amount of times it could attack. But how should I do that? Should I give it a reload action, much like a PC’s ranged weapon would have? Probably not, since that means it could fire every round, which means I couldn’t justify a damage increase statistically speaking. On the other hand, utilizing a new kind of ability not available in previous editions of the game (though it’s old-hat by now, especially to 4th edition DMs) known as a “recharge” power set to recharge on a roll of 2+ I came pretty close to simulating the rate of fire I wanted. It couldn’t shoot EVERY round, but it would shoot MOST rounds on a per-minute basis. Since it was a recharge power, this also gave me the statistical lee-way to increase its damage more than what an artillery monster, with its fairly high accuracy, would normally enjoy. I figured that was important because, as I said before, the crossbow was modelled after a historical crossbow, and those things packed some punch! Additionally, a crossbow is a much more stocky piece of equipment than a normal bow, which meant when it came time to make a melee attack such that the monster could defend itself at close range there really was no alternative: it smashes the PC with the butt of its weapon! Now that this monster could throw down it was time to give it a couple fluffy features or traits that would identify it as a skeleton beyond the mere (pardon the pun) skeleton of its defenses and ability scores. For this I opted to re-use an existing zombie trait from the Monster Vault, namely that the skeleton would be destroyed instantly from a critical hit. I figure if their fluff is that they’re fragile, why not make them quite fragile indeed? At LEAST as fragile as the zombies. So, of course, I did. But, that wasn’t quite flimsy enough for me, so I figured I’d add a bit of a surprise while I was creating the minion. After all, if the minion sucks a critical it’s not like the extra damage matters, right? So, in its place, I gave it another trait: one that made it go off like a grenade when it was destroyed by radiant damage, as though the thing is so violently smashed that it fragments and flies everywhere, potentially doing a lot of damage! This takes the classic “death burst” type effect but flavors it very specifically for the skeleton, I think, and I liked it so much in fact that I applied to the other skeletons (the non-minions) as well. That’ll encourage some tactical thinking, too, since overkilling the skeletons with radiant damage may not necessarily be the best course of action when a slightly more controlled destruction could be possible. Finally, for the archer skeletons I finished them up by giving their minion buddies a pretty simple minion-like set of attacks for both range and close in. Artillery minions are, after all, some of the best monsters for reasons I’ll explain in another post (this one is pretty long as it is already).

The third, and final, kind of skeleton I decided to create for the time being is a classic skeleton soldier type using an old rusty/rotten sword and shield combo along with a little bit of armor. I again assigned its stats as being very defense-favoring, but while I was originally tempted to make it a soldier type (due to emphasis of defense scores over hitpoints) I decided that because one of their biggest defining features is mobility that I would instead opt to make it a skirmisher with abnormally high AC defense (and reflex, too, with lower fort and will to compensate). With the template of skeleton grenade and critical weakness already in place, and going very light on the hitpoints, I gave it a high speed just like the archers, as well as an additional movement power (the ability to shift two squares as a minor action) to emphasize how darn fast it is – it can just slip right through where ordinarily you’d be able to get a hit in edge-wise. I then decided to give it a bit of an ability to fluff out its shield a bit (a one-time free counter-attack from a good block made with the shield), and then I set on making its primary attack, which I envisioned as a sort of wild, ravenous flailing with its somewhat dull but still dangerous blade (while real arming swords had sophisticated martial arts built around them this is a skeleton we’re talking about, and its sword is dull and rusty to boot). As a result I made its attack a very wide swing (2d8+2 rather than the more consistant and recommended 2d6+6), but to compensate I decided that its combat advantage feature (which is something it would constantly and relentlessly seek to have, as it is highly mobile) would grant it unconditional damage, assuming it had combat advantage. This is to represent there being simply too many attacks from a bad angle, and you can’t fend them all off, rather than something more roguelike, which would be one really good attack.

Anyway, after around 2200 words we’ve finally reached our conclusion, which means it’s time for the helpful summary.

What we learned –

1) When creating (or reinventing) a monster, villain, or anything with stats make sure to look for the inspiration and fluff (and any mechanics it had) before you begin. You’ll be surprised what help a little inspiration is. In my design process I used older editions and the current edition of the D&D roleplaying game to see how the skeleton as a creature had evolved over the years, and how those things fit my vision of what a skeleton should be as its own distinct entity, different from the other undead like zombies. Specifically I learned that it (usually) had a low will defense, a low fort defense, relatively low hitpoints, high AC and reflex defenses, and a high movement speed in addition to its usual battery of undead immunities, and I decided to take this general template and exaggerate it slightly to make how skeletons behaved more pronouncedly different from things like zombies in a 4th edition context, as well as using historical context (the crossbow) to give them their own, fairly realistic I hope, place in the game’s world.

2) Make sure to weigh each point you give to the creatures you make. The chart may tell you that their AC should be level + 15 and their other defenses should be level + 12, but make sure that their defenses really reflect their strengths and weaknesses. Be certain to assign dice values and static modifiers to appropriately represent the kind of result you’d like to have (including using a utility like Troll Dice Roller and Probability Calculator to analyze the statistical spread of each potential result of rolling the dice you have chosen if you’d like!), and don’t be afraid of doing unorthodox things like including automatic damage or not giving your monster a true at-will attack to use (in moderation, of course) in order to emphasize the fluff you discovered in the initial research. If you don’t have a lot of time then don’t spend forever, but do try to take at least a minute to address most aspects of the numbers you’re going to be using and why they are what they are.

3) Finally, make certain that your creation has its own distinct feel to it when you’re done. If your skeleton behaves just like a zombie then you may as well use a zombie. While it is an old DM’s trick to take one stat block and call it something else (an orc can be pretty much any humanoid thing with a weapon, after all, if you just rename it), when you’re doing real design work without a very short time budget forcing you to make concessions it’s very important that you create iconic results. Everybody remembers Stormtroopers because they are THE definitive evil faceless minion of science fiction, and that’s because they had a very distinctive look and behavior to them. Be sure that your creations, unless you specifically want them to blend into the backdrop, are just as recognizable. A delayed monster is only bad until it’s done, then it’s good; a bad monster, once released, is bad forever – to paraphrase a certain well-known game developer. If you have time constraints remember that finished is always better than perfect, but when you’ve got that Big Bad boss fight coming up in three or four weeks and have plenty of time then make sure to SPEND that time. A combat is going to be an entire hour (give or take) of time your players spend with this creation, assuming you don’t re-use them (which you should, usually!), so make sure that hour is unique and enjoyable because of the monsters involved, not just the environment.

Now that I’ve bored you to tears, and actually without further adieu this time, here are the stat blocks –

Now in Cherry!

The general idea behind the skeletons was that they were supernaturally quick (and very fragile). As a result I gave this particularly hardy warrior specimen things like a high base speed, minor action to shift, made its damage reliant on positioning (combat advantage), and even gave it the possibility for a free attack (which can be a charge, if necessary, I might add).

The story is pretty much the same for this creature. It moves around, gets in a good spot, and then unleashes its powerful and precise crossbow on unsuspecting adventurers. It won’t try to run up and smack them if it fails to load its crossbow (although if you insist on playing a very optimized combat from the DM’s side you may wish to), and that’s purposefully done so that its damage is in leaps and spikes, with rare but occasional dips. Spikier damage makes for more exciting combat for the players, too, since it’s unpredictable round to round exactly what’s going to happen to them.


Finally, here’s a minion skeleton archer. These are designed to show how, while skeleton archers with normal bows may be plentiful, they are inferior to those with crossbows since they lack the expertise required to aim the bow as precisely, and additionally their subpar equipment deals much less damage than a crossbow of equivalent cost (once again, to our corporate necromancer who is clearly on a budget). Originally the shortbow could crit and deal 8 damage on a natural 20 but adventure tool was being a bit irksome when it came to putting that into the stat block, so feel free to make that modification on your own if you like.

As a final note, while these skeletons were originally designed for use as level 5 creatures I’ve used them as level 3 creatures to great effect (make sure to adjust defenses, hitpoints, attack bonuses, and damage appropriately!), so feel free to adapt them to your campaign at a level you feel is appropriate.

That just about wraps up my discussion on the latest three monsters I created. Hopefully you enjoyed the commentary, or at the very least the free monster stat blocks.

– The Hydra DM


Posted on September 3, 2011, in Monster Design and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’ve been doing a fair bit of monster design myself, so I’m interested in seeing these skeletons. A few bits of constructive criticism.

    1. Don’t name anything “buttstroke,” even if you’re the only one who ever looks at the stat block.
    2. I like Restless as an ability and as a name.
    3. It’s your own business, so you can shorthand as desired, but you’re missing the word “damage” in most Hit lines and you don’t always say how much necrotic resistance the skeletons have.
    4. For the Skeleton Warrior, note that they only really have one attack (Cloven Shield merely allowing an extra attack with Unbridled Assault). It’s not really necessary to take up all that room on the Traits line with Relentless. It would be much more concise to just have an Effect line on the attack that says “If the skeleton warrior has combat advantage against the target, it deals 4 damage” BEFORE the attack roll even happens. Not to mention that it’s not strictly proper to call it extra damage if some of it is automatic damage on a miss.
    5. It’s obvious enough what you want the explosion to be shaped like from Creature of Undeath, but the game doesn’t really define what such an area of effect looks like. For your own home games it’s sufficient to leave it be and just decide as DM where the fragments fly. But a blast has some aiming decisions that have to be made. The origin square would be where the skeleton died, but who picks where the blast shoots off into? The skeleton whose power it is or the PC who triggered it? Does the explosion target PCs, other undead enemies, or both? If I were designing this, I would go the official WotC route: A close burst 2 (all creatures in burst).

    • Hello Patrick, thanks for taking the time to comment on my article! I admit the stat blocks were the work of but a moment after I had actually designed the creatures, so some wording issues may exist. I’ll be sure to doublecheck those in the future. As for your specific points, I’ll do my best to answer them.

      1. While your personal preference here is noted, the literal name for an attack with the stock of a ranged weapon is “buttstroke”. I figured that had a lot more flavor than “crossbow smash” or the like, and was also a lot more literally to the point of the ability.

      2. I’m glad you do! I try to take the time to name the abilities of my creations more creatively than using “Slam” for the umpteenth time. This is partly because I run most of my sessions online in Map Tool, and when a macro goes off, it displays the name of the power or trait. As a result it pays to have a more descriptive name, at least for me.

      3. I’m actually missing the word damage in all of the “hit” lines, and this is a flaw in the stat block builder I used to make these creations. I’ll do my best to fix that for next time.

      4. Well, that depends on how, precisely, you intend to use them. While they do only have one listed power, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the monster may, at some point, make an improvised attack or action of some kind – with combat advantage. I figure it’s best to be clear that this creature always gets a benefit from combat advantage, rather than only when using its power, even if it does take up a little bit more room. As for the specific phrasing, I’m not entirely sure that there are any monsters with reliable damage powers that function in this particular way (+4 damage on hit and +4 damage on miss). I personally think I phrased it in a reasonable fashion, although I will of course always try to use as concise and technical language as possible – it is, after all, one of the things I think D&D has benefitted from most over the years.

      5. This is a fairly complex trait, I admit, and I was hoping I got it across well enough. The idea is that the blast is pointed in the direction of the square opposite where the killing damage came from. As for targeting, I probably should’ve put a note there as I, personally at least, assume that if there is no targeting information it just targets everything. I think you’re definitely right in calling out that this one needs the most work, but I specifically wanted to avoid a “death burst” power for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s extremely common, and I’ve found that players respond better to uncommon occurances (things like critical hits, for instance). The second is that I was trying my best (although I did fail in at least one notable instance, namely “where does it go if the creature is standing in the origin square of a burst attack?”) to model what I was envisioning as the skeleton being blown apart by the force of the Radiance. They wouldn’t actually explode like a grenade (in all directions), but rather in the direction of the incoming force, much like you would expect to happen if you splintered a door – anything standing behind it would be caught in the blast, but those in front would be unharmed.

      You’ve given me some really good feedback and I hope that answers some of your questions 🙂

  2. I like the concept very much as it does something that I think is important in monster design, it makes sense despite the rules! But seriously, those look very balanced and I would have no problem plugging them into any of my games. The somewhat “higher” damage makes sense here as a design feature because, as you have said, these are supernaturally quick and tenacious creatures that have a tremendous weakness, their own fragility, which too is well represented.

    One thing that I think would perhaps be more flavorful for the Skeleton Crossbowman would be instead of his Crossbow Buttstroke as straight up regular melee attack (which is a clever use of a ranged weapon in it’s own right) would be the same attack but as a primary and secondary melee/ranged attack. The primary would be melee and its sole purpose would be to push the target back a square to give it ranged room, because after all, it’s a ranged (Artillery in this case) combatant. The secondary attack would be the full crossbow attack, but perhaps at a -1 or -2 penalty as fits. Don’t get me wrong, your build is great and I would have no problem using it, but I think it goes back to the aforementioned part of the monster design that you yourself were talking about, just making sense!

    Great article, I’m sad that I only recently discovered your blog. Keep it up!


    • First, thanks for the praise! DMs live for it and basically work for free aside from the praise, as you know, so that sort of thing means a lot.

      As to your suggestion, I definitely agree that seems like a great idea. What I would do, personally, is add a minor action like “shove” where it’s an attack versus Fortitude to push 1 square, so that if its crossbow is loaded (it’s recharge 5 after all) it can then get a shot off. At first it seems like perhaps skeletons are too weak to really get that sort of effect (hence why reloading a crossbow isn’t a guarantee in my interpretation), but the crossbow’s mass could probably explain it fairly well.

      Of course, the way that I handle the situation of being in melee as a skeleton crossbowman is pretty much like this: a skeleton is fast, and if his bow is loaded he will probably try to use it and its strongest asset (speed). Therefore, in a situation where the skeleton is not backed into a corner, I would have it shift, then shoot. If its bow wasn’t loaded, then I would have it smack the guy with it, then shift (that’s the point of the melee attack, mostly – so the skeleton doesn’t stand around looking dumb if you didn’t roll a 1-5 on your d6 recharge die and its crossbow isn’t loaded that turn while somebody is trying to sword its face off). I could see some sort of shove getting used if it was in the corner, but that would require its crossbow to be loaded first, hence why I wouldn’t replace the melee attack for damage with the melee attack with push 1 followed by shooting the bow.

      All in all it’s a pretty interesting idea. I don’t think I would use it personally, but if your interpretation of a skeleton is a bit more brawny than mine (and somehow deals with the issue of a potentially unloaded crossbow!) I could definitely see that working. I mean, who knows, maybe this necromancer gave his skeletons a little extra oomph in the magic muscle department, eh?

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