Death’s Head and Boneless Tactics


Hello, hello! I’m back from PAX Unplugged, the new book is moving, and I’m back to the blog with monsters from Van Richten’s Ezmerelda’s Guide to Ravenloft (she did the research, racist uncle took the credit—that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it). Before I jump into individual monsters, however, I strongly encourage you, if you own this book, to read the introductory sections of chapter 5, “Monsters of Ravenloft.” The advice these sections give on creating new monsters and customizing existing ones is outstanding. I won’t recapitulate them here, because honestly, this instance is one of few about which I can say the content speaks for itself, and I can’t improve on it by paraphrasing. Just read it.

With that out of the way, I’ll note that, as you might expect, the emphasis in Ravenloft is heavily on undead. Out of the 32 enemies included in the book, undead account for 12 of them. Monstrosities number six, and humanoids (including non-player characters) five. That’s nearly three-fourths of the creatures in Ravenloft right there. The leftovers comprise two aberrations, two fiends, two plants, a beast and its corresponding swarm, and a construct. My original plan was to follow the order of the sections of The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters, starting with humanoids, but now that I think about it, it makes more sense to dive right in with the undead.

The most minor undead in Ravenloft is the death’s head, a flying, disembodied head, not to be confused with the vargouille, which is also a flying, disembodied head, but with bat wings for ears. One significant difference is that while vargouilles are always humanoid heads, created from the bites of other vargouilles, a death’s head might originate from a humanoid or beast but also from a monstrosity. The stat block in Ravenloft includes special actions for a death’s head that originates from a nothic or a medusa.

Death’s heads are flying skirmishers with high Wisdom scores. Because they can fly, they have an edge over their victims in difficult terrain, such as forests full of tangled undergrowth and mucky swamps. These types of ground allow them to fly in and out of their opponents’ reach faster than those opponents can pursue. However, their Intelligence is very low. If they’re lucky enough to be encountered in such terrain, they can take advantage of it, but if they’re not, they lack the sense to go someplace else.

Even monstrous death’s heads lack ranged attacks; they can attack only by engaging in melee. Thanks to their Wisdom, however, they have the horse sense to zero in on frailer, less armored targets. (The poor nothic’s head would love to be able to home in on a victim with low Intelligence, but alas, it has no way of knowing who that might be.)

Their first move is always to fly in and bite, but what happens after that varies. A humanoid or beastly death’s head keeps gnashing on the same target unless and until it takes damage, after which it Dodges (it’s not smart enough to know how to Disengage, but its Armor Class is pretty good) and flies away to a safe distance. When it engages again, it does so with a different target from its original one. If it was struck by a melee blow, it avoids the opponent who dealt it as well; if struck by a ranged attack, it might retaliate against that opponent, or it might go after someone else at random. Like I said, not bright.

A nothic’s head that succeeds in disorienting its target takes advantage of their inability to react by flitting directly to a new target. A medusa’s head does the same when its target becomes restrained. In cases other than these, a monstrous death’s head follows the same pattern as a humanoid or beastly one.

Death’s heads are undead and therefore creatures of compulsion. Regardless of how much or what kind of damage they take, they don’t flee.

The boneless possesses no tactical sophistication. With high Strength and Constitution, abysmally low Intelligence and merely average Wisdom, it’s a wind-it-up-and-let-it-go melee brute that goes straight for the nearest target. The main things you need to be aware of are (a) that both the Slam attacks in its Multiattack must hit the same creature for it to use Crushing Embrace, so it never divides these attacks between two targets; and (b) that Crushing Embrace renders the victim unable to breathe, so be ready to open your Player’s Handbook to chapter 8, “Suffocating.” I wouldn’t give the target character the opportunity to catch a breath and hold it before suffering this effect; as with other creatures that suffocate, such as the cloaker, letting the target hold their breath renders this feature wholly ineffective and irrelevant. Start the suffocation immediately, and remember that being unable to breathe also means being unable to speak or to cast spells with verbal components.

Boneless are also driven by compulsion and therefore fight until they’re destroyed.

Next: variant zombies.

Related Posts

7 responses to “Death’s Head and Boneless Tactics”

  1. Gavros963 Avatar

    the book talks about boneless wrapping themselves around skeletons as a surprise tactic, any thoughts on that?

    1. WaserWifle Avatar

      Being as they’re dumb as bricks undead, then (in my opinion) any strategy involving skeletons or similarly clever trickery would be entirely at the command of their master and doesn’t affect how they behave by themselves. Synergy isn’t in their nature. A necromancer would be smart enough to devise something like that (possibly too smart, there might be better ways of ambushing someone than attaching yourself to something that’s already a target in plain sight) and a Strigoi being about as smart as a commoner could reasonably be expected to try it.

      One reason a necromancer might attempt this though is plain efficiency. You can make a lot of undead out of a single corpse: make a Flameskull from the skull, Boneless from the skin, crawling claws from the hands, skeleton from the remaining bones (nobody said a skeleton has to be a complete skelton), and if you’re really lucky a Nechrichor from the blood.

      1. Fireslayer Avatar

        Don’t forget the brain! Mind flayers can turn the brain into an intellect devourer.
        Nobody said that just the necromancer has to benefit from someone’s death.

        1. Gavros963 Avatar

          I think the person has to be alive for a Mind Flayer to make an Intelect Devourer, but the body with the cut open skull can still be animated by necromancer after.

  2. WaserWifle Avatar

    My personal ruling on suffocation abilities is first that a surprised creature can’t hold it’s breath. So a cloaker, darkmantle, or variant ettercap going for surprise attacks will do just fine, as will the myriad of aquatic creature with grapple attacks. Afterwards, a player has to specifically declare on their turn that they wish to hold their breath if they get nabbed. Talking or casting a verbal spell negates this, but otherwise they just need to declare their intent to hold their breath if they see someone coming at them with the strangle cord since I don’t feel like it’s fair or sensical to make inhaling require a free action or bonus action or something.

  3. Abelhawk Avatar

    I really like that idea of immediately suffocating characters. I’ve always thought of those rules as useless for how rare it is to go that long without breathing, but it makes total sense that a creature would squeeze all the breath out of a target when attacking it. I’m instituting that rule immediately. Thanks!

  4. […] you’ve made me mad” phase of the battle. In this phase, the dullahan is reinforced by three death’s heads, which take care of frailer, less armored targets while it hacks through the tougher ones. It keeps […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Support the Author

Spy & Owl Bookshop | Tertulia | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indigo | Kobo | Google Play | Apple Books | | Audible

Praise for The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters

“I’ve always said, the Dungeon Master is the whole world except for his players, and as a result, I spend countless hours prepping for my home group. What Keith gets is that the monsters are the DM’s characters, and his work has been super helpful in adding logic, flavor, and fun in my quest to slaughter my players’ characters and laugh out the window as they cry in their cars afterward.” —Joe Manganiello

“The best movie villains are the ones you fall in love with. Keith’s book grounds villains in specificity, motivation, and tactics—so much so that players will love to hate ’em. This book will enrich your game immeasurably!” —Matthew Lillard

“This book almost instantly made me a better Dungeon Master. If you’re running games, it is a must-have enhancement. I gave copies to the two others in our group who share in the Dungeon Mastering, and both of them came back the next time grinning rather slyly. Keith is a diabolical genius, and I say that with the utmost respect!” —R.A. Salvatore

Find my short works on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild, or just toss a coin to your witcher: