Spooky Skeletons of Saltmarsh
Today, we pull a bone-chilling foe from Dungeons & Dragon’s seafaring campaign for a Halloween-themed adventure!
I’m going to level with you readers. I was going to cheat with the monster selection for this scenario. It’s only the fourth article in the series and I was already going to violate the schtick. I had every intention to flip through my D&D books until I found a holiday-appropriate monster.
But! An unexpected an All-Hallow’s-Eve miracle had other plans! I grabbed my copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh and flipped straight to the back few pages; purely in curiosity to see how many monster stat blocks were in the campaign book. And wouldn’t you know it – I landed on the perfect on-brand creature.
(Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Pg 253)
Skeletal juggernauts are the low-level D&D undead monster answer to the Power Rangers’ Megazord. Sure, animated skeletons are cool…but wouldn’t they be cooler if a whole bunch of animated skeletons were bound together and acted like a single monstrous creature?
I don’t know if you can get much more classic heroic fantasy than rusted-sword armed skeletons bursting from the ground to ambush the heroes. The skeleton juggernaut is such a fun and logical expansion of the sword-and-sandal trope; I’m already excited to use this monster at my table.
Luckily, the skeletal juggernaut is easily transferred to other settings thanks to its thematic and horrifying characteristics.
Thematic. Obviously, the juggernaut’s existence is a bit limited by its composition. But this limitation is great! The juggernaut’s vulnerability to bludgeoning damage makes it particularly unique in an edition where Wizards of the Coast has decided to hand out “resistance to non-magical weapons” like trick-or-treat candy. Furthermore, planning out an encounter with a skeletal juggernaut will, by sheer practical necessity, determine and color the setting of your session. Your party must encounter it somewhere with a lot of skeletons.
Sure, your party might get a little suspicious if they enter a dungeon room full of bones….but hopefully you’ll catch them off guard when the skeletons raise continue rising to the ceiling.
Horrifying. It will be the DM’s job to play-up & convey how terrible the PCs find this creature. A skeletal juggernaut towers over the adventurers at 10ft tall and its form is continually shifting and flowing – almost like a restless river. Toothless skulls disappear behind rib cages as femurs and finger bones clatter together noisily. The amorphous hulk is propelled without muscle nor sinew; and is piloted by a simple, animalistic and predatory intellect.
The “necromantic energy” not only gives them a mockery of life but “compels them to kill” any being with a pulse who falls into their grasp. (Monster Manual, pg 272)
The Scenario (Appropriate for Level 3-5 characters)
Duelia Gergora is twenty-two-year-old, human female. And until recently, she had been a student at a small, but well-respected wizard academy. However, her secretive studies have drifted in a rather unorthodox direction over the past six months. Eschewing the more acceptable schools of magic – Duelia was seduced by the power over life and death offered by necromancy.
While the study of necromancy is not an inherently evil pursuit – the manner and brazenness Duelia selected caused her to gain the attention of the authorities.
Using a considerable portion of the gold set aside for her tuition, she managed to hire a band of unsavory adventurers to secure a shadowfell ruby. The extra-planar gem allowed her to exponentially enhance her influence over the undead. First, she only experimented on rats and small dogs. But the natural evolution of her craft led her to crave humanoid subjects.
Duelia was discovered and arrested by the town watch while robbing a freshly dug grave. It certainly didn’t help her case that she was being assisted by a zombie servant. When it was confirmed that Duelia had been using magicks to force unlife upon the town’s recently departed – she was immediately expelled from the school and preparations were made to send her to a nearby city for an official trial and sentencing.
Chained to a cart, Duelia has spent the past week in the company of two of the town guards dreading the magistrate’s gallows. However, the doomed necromancer lucked into an unlikely stay of execution.
The night before our scenario begins, the guards were ambushed by a raiding party of goblins. The pair of watchmen and their horses were quickly dispatched but the diminutive murderers left Duelia when they found her – manacled to the back of the wagon. The sickening cruelty of the goblins’ minds found the idea of the young woman starving to death in the middle of a field to be the pinnacle of comedy.
Of course, the goblins made sure to abscond with anything that looked even semi-valuable; including Duelia’s spellbook and the shadowfell ruby.
As normal, the specifics of this scenario are left vague to fit into the world of your current home game. This encounter can be used to add a little spooky spice to an otherwise dull travel session. Your party should be headed to the same city that the town watch was bringing Duelia. This particular portion of the road traverses a stretch of land known as the Bonefields.
Hundreds of years ago, a decisive battle was fought between two opposing armies which determined the fate of the hereto-unnamed-city. Again – this is an opportunity to fit this scenario into the history of your world. Did the battle’s outcome save the city? Or was the city conquered and sacked at the conclusion? Who were these two armies? A successful DC 13 History (Intellect) skill check will allow your players to hear the history lesson you’ve prepared.
Today, the Bonefields’ name is a bit more ominous on paper than in person. Yes, it’s true that farmers’ plows regularly churn through the remains of fallen ancient soldiers. And any PC who spends some time searching amongst the tall grass or dirt will likely discover a broken spear tip or rusted arrow…but really, most of the rolling hills contain nothing but wheat and various gourd farms.
Which is why the site of an upturned wagon and arrow riddled horse body 200ft off of the main road should draw the player’s attention.
As the party approaches the ambush site – Duelia hears their approach and calls out for help. She has managed to twist into a sitting position on the ground, but her wrists are still contorted above her head – and still securely attached to the wagon’s bench with iron manacles. The manacles can be broken by a successful DC 15 Athletics (Strength) skill check, picked with by a DC 12 Thief’s Tools (Dexterity) skill check, or unlocked by using a set of keys looped into one of the guard’s belts.
In addition to the dead horse visible from the road, a second dead horse which had escaped its harness is twenty feet away. As implied above, both town watch members lie in dried pools of blood; their bodies clearly picked over and belongings rummaged through. Both of the horses are legless as the goblins carved up the beasts for meat. A single abandoned goblin corpse lies near one of the guards.
Duelia is in rough shape. Her clothes and hair are matted with dirt. She has gone without food or water for nearly 16 hours. After asking for a waterskin, she will inform the party of the goblin attack and truthfully state that the creatures left her alive with the perverse hope that she would die a slower death of exposure. However, Duelia will not willingly admit to being arrested.
She implies that one of the dead guards was her fiance and they were traveling to the city to be married in the central cathedral. Duelia names the goblins as the orchestrators of her handcuffing. A successful DC 14 Insight (Wisdom) skill check allows intuitive players to parse the truth from the lies. Or if the party finds the keys on the dead guard, the story of the manacles being the goblins’ idea quickly falls apart.
If one of the above occurs, Duelia confesses to having been arrested, but certainly doesn’t divulge the actual details. Instead, she spins another lie which blames corrupt town officials who sought to steal her rightful inheritance from a recently passed uncle. She tells the party she was arrested when she broke into townhall to steal her uncle’s legal will. The layered falsehoods make telling truth from fiction more difficult and require a successful DC 17 Insight (Wisdom) skill check to see through.
If the party believes the marriage story, Duelia requests that the party assist her in recovering her lost engagement ring and the locket of her “fiances’” mother. If that lie is exposed, then she begs the party track down the documents that the goblins stole and offers them 60% of the inheritance as a reward/bribe.
Either way, Duelia is able to point out the direction of the goblins’ retreat through the adjoining wheat fields. Laden with stolen goods, armor, and hunks of horse flesh – tracking the goblins isn’t a particularly challenging task. A successful DC 12 Survival (Wisdom) skill check allows the party to easily track the goblin ambushers. A failure forces the party to follow a false trail for a quarter of a day, and necessitates a bit of backtracking to find the correct path.
The goblins’ trail leads the party through towering stalks of wheat and corn before ending abruptly in a clearing after several hours. Standing guardedly in the field are a pair of farmer brothers, Loomis & Donald Brackett, wielding spears and wearing old helmets the duo stand watch over their pumpkin farm. Once the pair recognize that the party is too-tall for goblins, their aggression immediately cools.
I’d encourage DMs here to add a bit of levity to the proceedings by giving one (or both) of the farmers a playful drawl or colorful vocabulary. Either way, the pair are exceedingly frustrated at the band of goblins who have seemingly moved into the area. For the past several weeks, pumpkins (including their planned entry to the local fair’s Biggest Pumpkin Contest) have been stolen right off their vines. If it seems like the party is interested in ridding the goblin infestation, the brothers happily invite them for supper to share what information they can.
Over the course of the simple luncheon, the brothers explain they’ve heard rumors that the goblins have taken over the Warriors’ Mausoleum. The Warriors’ Mausoleum was built fifty years ago by the priests of a death god to honor the slain soldiers of both sides of the ancient conflict. After spending nearly a decade collecting bones and skulls from farmers and shallow graves across the Bonefields; the mausoleum’s defining trait is that the interior is decorated lavishly with human remains. A common test of bravery for the youth of the region is to spend a night inside the mausoleum.
At that same time as the casual meal, several miles away from the party (at said mausoleum) Ohnheg the Sharpbrain – leader of the goblin raiders – has grown bored of lugging the large shadowfell ruby around his osteal-domain. In his clever mind, it makes perfect sense to chip off a shard of the shiny rock and use the sliver to adorn his tattered coverings. At the brutal strike of Ohnheg’s hammer, the ruby cracks and erupts a wave of necrotic energy.
Back at the farmstead, a wave of purple energy flies through the walls of the Brackett brothers’ humble home. Glancing outside windows, party members with a Passive Perception of 13 or higher notice that the energy seems to seep into the ground. Confusion as to the source of magical wave likely rips across the dinner table. Only keen observers (Passive Perception of 17 or higher) may notice Duelia showing a knowing glance rather than shock or wonder. Either way, Duelia will do her best to deny any knowledge of what could have caused the magical wave.
Suddenly, two sets of skeletal hands burst through the ground outside the farmhouse. It’s time to roll initiative.
During this first encounter with skeletons (MM, pg 272) the recently animated remains all wear tatters of out-dated armor that would have been worn centuries ago. At an instinctual level, the skeletons always move towards living creatures and attempt to attack and kill them whenever possible. For the next three rounds, at each initiative 20 count an additional 1d3 skeletons raise from the nearby fields to join the fight.
The skeletons engage with a mixture of bows and rusted swords. This fight should be rather brief (as each skeleton only has 13 HP), but the goal with this encounter is to reveal that additional threats exist beyond the goblinoid menace mentioned by Duelia and the farmer siblings.
Once the skeletons have been defeated, the farmers and Duelia agree the party ought to investigate the mausoleum.
The brothers easily describe a route to reach the mausoleum and they expect the journey to take an hour or two at least. If you’d like to expand the danger a bit, force the party to encounter three to five additional skeletons lurking in the cornstalks. This will hopefully up-the-stakes by relaying to the party that the magical forces that animated the previously encountered skeletons stretched further than the farmstead.
At the mausoleum, the goblins have grown bold and lazy with their unopposed victories and have only stationed a single runt outside of the shrine. The voluntold goblin barely pays attention and characters who make a successful DC 10 Stealth (Dexterity) skill check avoids its ‘keen’ sentry abilities.
The remainder of the goblins lounge inside the mausoleum. If combat begins and the scout goblin is allowed to take a turn, it immediately runs inside to warn the others. Unless noted, all of the goblins use the goblin stat-block provided on page 166 of the Monster Manual.
Whether the scout goblin sounds the alarm, or the party enters the mausoleum, Ohnheg the Sharpbrain’s surprised response is fumble and drop the shadowfell ruby he has been holding. Another surge of necrotic energy explodes from the otherworldly gem as it rudely clatters against the cobblestones.
*Pun definitely intended
Ohnheg orders his goblin mooks to engage the party…and doesn’t notice that the skulls and bones covering every inch of the morbid chapel have absorbed the purple necrotic blast and are slowly dislodging themselves from their molding and rolling towards one another. Take a moment to be descriptive. “The plaster holding skulls firming against the walls float towards the earth as bones are wretched free” or “Reliquaries which have safeguarded the remains of knights and saints for decades burst open to allow skeleton hands to skitter across the floor.” You know, something suitable ominous and disturbing.
Ohnheg’s prestige allows him to use the goblin boss stat-block which also can be found on page 166 of the Monster Manual. Ohnheg and his goblins should equal (or slightly be outnumbered by) the number of party members. But really, the goblins aren’t the main threat here.
On the second round of combat, today’s featured monster makes its appearance. Enough bones have coalesced into a ten-foot-tall, vaguely humanoid shape and the skeleton juggernaut (Ghosts of Saltmarsh, pg 253) may now roll for its place in initiative.
Depending on the make-up of your party, you may want to include 2-3 skeletal swarms (GoS, pg 254) to add an additional layer of difficulty. Another option would be to include a particular general or noble’s remains in the description of the un-animated mausoleum. Once infused with necrotic energy, the general’s remains take on the stat-block of a skeleton with an AC 14 (breastplate), a long sword (which it wields with two hands) and the Multiattack ability for its melee attacks.
Personally, I’d at least include one of the above extra options or the action economy of 5e going to sway drastically in favor of the PCs during this fight.
Either way, once animated, the skeletal juggernaut makes its way to where its Avalanche of Bones ability can affect the most combatants (including both party members and goblins). There’s a definitive stopping point to the juggernaut’s ability to threaten the party since it will be losing 7% of its total HP per turn due to its Dissemble feature.
But don’t view this as a fault! The juggernaut is a literal tidal wave of animate bones to hurl at your party. Have fun with it! Shin bones and tibias raining around your bard is just dripping with D&D flavor. And don’t forget – when the juggernaut is finally brought to 0 HP, the party suddenly has a dozen skeletons to deal with in its wake.
Now that the literal walls have come to life and are attempting to kill everyone; each goblin has a 50% chance of using its turn to flee the fight. If Ohnheg flees, any remaining goblins automatically fail this morale check.
Duelia, for her part, immediately moves towards the fallen shadowfell ruby and attempts to recover it. Using an action, she forces any activated undead in the area to fall under her influence. This attempt requires a DC 14 Arcana (Intellect) skill check to be successful. The shadowfell ruby is currently attuned to Duelia and this action cannot be attempted by any other creatures unless they become attuned. If Duelia gains control of the activated skeletons, she orders them to kill the party.
Duelia uses the stats of an apprentice wizard (Volo’s Guide to Monsters, pg 209) but swaps the mending cantrip with chill touch and has ray of sickness prepared instead of disguise self.
If any of the party members are knocked unconscious (or the fourth round of combat, whichever comes first), Duelia attempts to escape by ordering the juggernaut to punch a hole in the brickwork of the mausoleum. Beyond this calculated retreat – the goblins are likely to flee in a more panicked escape attempt as outlined above.
However many goblins the party manages to kill, the greenskin threat to the surrounding countryside is no longer an issue. Not wanting anything to do with skulls or bones after this experience – any surviving members of the goblin raiding band disperse into the surrounding area.
But was the party successful in preventing Duelia’s escape? If no, then does the party pursue her? This may be a good chance to have her made a clean escape to set up a recurring antagonist for your party. An ambitious young necromancer with questionable morality could certainly spell trouble for your party in the future.
However, if your party either a) captures Duelia alive or b) kills her during the fight. There’s a few questions that need answering:
Duelia Gergora is alive. Is the party going to free her? She certainly will do everything in her limited power to attempt to talk her way into a release. Duelia knows that if she is delivered to the city’s justice system, she is likely to receive a sentence of death.
Duelia Gergora is dead. Does the party bring evidence of Duelia’s demise to the authorities? Is there sufficient evidence to justify the party’s extra-legal killing of the young woman? If yes – are they rewarded? If no – is some sort of punishment meted out?
The party destroys the shadowfell ruby. If the shadowfell ruby is destroyed by some creatively devised scheme of your party – then any undead raised by its powers immediately return to their natural (and still) state. If the shadowfell ruby is destroyed, it may be worth offering your party a shadowfell ruby shard as a material reward for their efforts.
The party keeps the shadowfell ruby. If the shadowfell ruby is kept by the party members, are there others who have been notified of its existence in the region? Was the local city’s wizard college notified a dangerous magical artifact was expected to be delivered? If yes, will they send operatives out to retrieve the missing magical item?
Or, is this an opportunity to start transitioning your party into the next tier of gameplay by introducing extra-planar forces drawn by the power of the shadowfell ruby?
I leave those answers in your capable Dungeon Mastering hands. As always, I hope some portion of this article has inspired you and please steal it whole cloth or borrow portions to include at your table.
As a secondary question – are you having a special Halloween session? If yes – tell us about it in the comment section below!
Thank you! And Happy Halloween!
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