Sunday, March 18, 2012

Talk to the Skull

ITEM: the skull Ohmphal, of the Master Thief Ohmphal, with great ruby eyes, and one pair of jeweled hands.
- "Thieves' House," by Fritz Leiber, in Swords Against Death

Who doesn't love magic skulls? From Ohmphal to the demi-lich, Yorrick to Morte, skulls have always been fun things to throw into a fantasy game.

Here are my top 5 uses for skulls.

1: Monsters - Any variety comes here. From Ohmphal, who can float around and kill things with his bony hands, to a soul-sucking demi-lich, to Morte taunting and biting things, to the death-radiating Horrid Skull in DFM1. Skulls make great monsters. Generally they do better if they can fly around and bite things, fire off death rays, mock you from safely out of range, or otherwise attack you in some mobile way. They are less threatening if you just have to wander across their field of vision because they aren't moving at all; but area affect attacks can cure that a bit. Monster skulls also make a great "controller" for undead. I've used a giant skeleton made of dozens of human skeletons, topped with a myriad of skulls . . . one of which was an enslaved enemy's soul trapped in a skull that was forced to direct it.
Monsters can just use skulls as weapons, too - throw them for damage, for example. This just gets worse if they are evil enchanted monsters themselves, besides just being weapons. Hurl biting skulls at foes!

2: Treasure - Jewel the hell out of a skull, and you've got great mundane treasure. Jewel it and enchant it, and it's magical. Like I mentioned in shrunken heads, you can make skulls into really unpleasant versions of magic items. A skull that shoots rays of lights out of its eye sockets is just a magical but creepy lantern . . . but it's interesting to say the least. Maybe a Skull of Proof Against Poison fits your necromancer better than a periapt, or a Skull of Annihilation sounds better than a Sphere, or a Luckskull gives you the Luck advantage . . . if you feel like toting it around.

3: Objects of Horror - this is fun in and of itself. A pyramid of skulls says something creepy about the person who stacked them, nevermind the person who turned those people into skulls. Babies' skulls make a great way of saying "the guy carrying this around is a dirtbag" in a way not much else does. Stick them in alcoves or niches to say "this place is full of death" or leave them loose on the floor. Heck, build a church out of them. That's especially handy for evil religions - you sacrificed those guys, now build out of them.
You can make this horror just color text, or give it a supernatural in-game effect like Frightens Animals or Terror in GURPS, or Fear spells in D&D-based systems. Up to you.

4: Traps - Either monster style (reach into the skull for the jewels you see inside, and it bites you) or actual trap style (touch the skull and the ceiling collapses, dooming you all). Touching a skull in a dungeon shouldn't be considered safe. They can be covered in contact poison, enchanted with evil runes or touch-and-fire magic (GURPS's Link or Delay spell are good ones to use here), contain ghosts that will try to posses you (see Monster or Object of Horror, above), contain memories that either haunt your or help you, or just warn you that death is nearby.

5: Friends - Talk to the Skull, baby! A sentient skull can be an interesting ally. Against, choose a Monster form (Morte is a Monster and Friend, for example) or Treasure form or Object of Horror form. The long lost skull of an ancient general, whose skull was used as a soul jar, can be an interesting ally. Pull him out of your bad and talk to him when you hit a tactical or strategic quandary, and maybe his Tactics-20 and Strategy-18 will help you out. The skull of the last dragon might be a sage. Too big to truck around on adventures, but you can visit him and put questions to him, at some strange cost.

You can combine these - the fear-ray-shooting skulls I threw into the Caves of Chaos last session were both Objects of Horror and Traps, really. These are pretty broad categories, and you can subdivide or add to them at will. I find these are the categories I use the most, and which help me figure out how to use a skull.

Random Skull Table
1: Monster
2: Treasure
3: Object of Horror
4: Trap
5: Friend
6: Roll twice and keep both; if this result comes up again, roll an additional time.


  1. Great idea.
    "Bob" from the Dresden Files has been a favorite of mine from the rirst time I picked up the first book.
    I KNEW there was a reason I picked up a handful of WotC's "Flaming Skull" minis way back when.

    1. I've never read the Dresden Files (I'm not a contemporary fantasy fan, really) but I like the fact that it's got a skull as a character.

      Now I need to track down some flaming skull minis!


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