Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Making skeletons scary

It's been a long time since I stepped in here. A lot of stuff has happened to keep me from coming back, and I make no bones about having no plans to regularize my posting again. I could bore you with a long story about how this all happened, but if you're anything like me, you're checking this blog to see awesome ideas to put in a game, not listen to some long-winded drivel about the life of a total stranger.

Skeletons. In real life, even the unmoving kind would likely make almost everyone likely to see this blog lose his lunch. If I ever saw one actually dancing around, or God forbid trying to claw my face off, I'd probably shit myself, pop a gasket, and go screaming and crying in a fit of temporary insanity. And I like to think I'm a decently brave guy.

Apparently Spielberg used real skeletons in Poltergeist. Yeah, I'd be making that face too, and you wouldn't even have to pay me.
Unfortunately, it's not the same in tabletop games. Even in horror games, while the players will sometimes pretend to fear, nobody at the table is really scared. Skeletons used to evoke horror even in the description, but that old gag has been pulled so many times it just doesn't work on us anymore.

There have been various antidotes tried. Flaming skeletons, icy skeletons, electric skeletons, big skeletons, bloodthirsty skeletons, etc. etc. ad nauseam. My basic problem with all of these is that they're simply different monsters. They're not just skeletons; they're dire skeletons of some variety. Some of them are really cool (like the Eye of Fear and Flame) but they're not just skeletons. They're 'skeletons and'.

The uncommon and elusive 'drunk driving skeleton', which despite its rarity is responsible for an unrepresentatively large number of adventurer deaths.
Now if you think I'm here to tell you how to bring the mystique, the thrill of grotesque horror back to your players at the table with their beer and pizza and Monty Python jokes, think again. It would take a genius far greater than mine to make them shiver at your pewter figurines the way that Mary Shelley's original audience did in that Chateux on that stormy night. But if you want some real, accessible fear, maybe I've got something for you.

The formula is simple. Skeletonization is contagious. Roughly every 1 in 30 skeletons (or 1 in 20, or 1 in 10, or whatever makes you happy) will, if it touches you with its bare claws or with anything it's holding, cause your skeleton to animate, rip out of your body in an extremely gruesome manner, and start attacking the rest of the party. Save vs. death every time it hits you. Oh, and did I mention that your newly animated skeleton is a carrier for the contagion?

Needless to say, the poor sod this happens to is very, very dead. Though I suppose if his friends like him far too much for their own good and they're extremely clever, they might find a way to subdue his skeleton, collect his meatsack remains, and convince a cleric to both remove the curse (with Remove Curse and Cure Disease, naturally) from the skeleton and resurrect him.

If you're playing GURPS, you can treat it like an Eviscerate spell cast at 21. If it were me, I'd make it Will to resist instead of HT.

That oughtta make your players take skeletons seriously next time they see a gaggle hanging around some wannabe lich.