We’re well into October and it’s time to delve into the obligatory spooky stuff. My initial idea was to crack open the 5e Monster Manual and rank the scariest monsters, but leafing through, I noticed there’s a ton of undead, so I decided to focus there. With so many undead creatures shambling around, they can’t all be winners. These are the ones I want to tackle first. I’ll get to the properly scary list next week, so we’re going to look at the bottom of the barrel now. I present to you the “Sucks at Being Scary Tier” of the 5e MM’s undead creatures.
Mechanically speaking, what separates a skeleton from an orc or town guard? Other than being weaker to bludgeoning damage, not much. If a party of adventurers were fighting skeletons in the dark, would they be able to tell the difference between them and a band of brigands? Probably not. The base skeleton in the Monster Manual attacks with either a shortsword or shortbow, has no special attacks, and low hit points. They’re not particularly strong or menacing, so an adventuring party is likely to be relieved to discover they’re up against skeletons rather than a living version of the same creature.
Any creature with bones can be turned into a skeleton, but you have the same problem no matter how intimidating the base monster is. They’re just a worse version of when they were alive. This includes the bone naga. I’ll admit a giant skeletal demon snake is scary, but it’s also the least powerful of all the nagas once again proving all your muscles bing missing is not a benefit.
I went back and forth which was less scary between 5e skeletons and zombies. I ultimately gave zombies a slight edge because of their undead fortitude, which allows them to resist being downed with a successful save. But beyond that, we’re just looking at slightly stronger skeletons.
If you look at common zombie properties outside D&D, you have a much more frightening enemy. The carry infections and a single bite can add you to their ranks. Their numbers swell as they envelope the living around them. Soon the streets are swarming with the mindless hordes and escape becomes impossible. But none of this translates to their 5e incarnation. Sure, you might encounter them in swarms, but there’s nothing about 100 zombies that’s any worse than 100 kobolds.
That’s why I have them so low. Everything that makes them scary elsewhere is removed.
Wights are just stronger zombies. The main difference is that they have some remaining mental faculties and the ability to create zombies under its control. But we’ve already established zombies are nothing special, so it’s not all that spectacular. This ability makes them like a low-level necromancer who has to do more work to create an undead creature. They’re also weakened by sunlight, so they have an added vulnerability to boot.
Wights just aren’t distinct enough to escape the bottom rung of scary creatures.
Flameskull / Demilich / Death Tyrant
Why are there three different floating skulls in 5e? Even though these enemies have very different abilities, they’re in the same category for me because of some very obvious similarities. For some reason in D&D, being a disembodied head allows you to cast spells.
Starting with flameskulls, they’re the reanimated skulls of dead wizards so they can use magic. They’re on fire for seemingly no reason and are usually used as guards for evil necromancers. I lambasted the fully assembled skeleton earlier for being so weak, but I feel like a flaming bone wizard with arms, legs, and everything would be much scarier. Instead it’s just a silly head floating around all by itself.
A demilich is the same damn thing, but it knows a few more spells and it’s not on fire. It’s the skull of a failed lich that just wants to gobble up souls now. Other than being a pretty tough enemy, there’s not much here to be scared of. Also those dorky gems for eyes make it too silly to take seriously.
Lastly in the floating skull trio we get to the Death Tyrant, which is a beholder without skin. Apparently, if a beholder dreams about weird stuff, it can go mad and become undead. Bucking the skeleton trend of being a worse version of the living creature, the tyrant is actually the strongest form of beholder. It apparently makes them more aggressive and fills them with a desire to raise undead armies. This seems like something a living beholder could have come up with, don’t know why they have to become undead to do this.
Ghouls and ghasts start to distance themselves from the lower tiers of undead. They’re driven to consume carrion and often take up residence in forgotten graveyards and dark crypts to forage. They get a claw attack capable of paralyzing enemies and the stronger ghasts exude a poisonous stench. They’re dangerous enough to lower level parties to bump up their scariness. Their natural attraction to death and decay also means they’ll be lurking in the sorts of places rookie adventurers are likely to end up.
I can’t rank them higher for a few reasons though. First, since ghouls prefer to feast on festering, decomposing flesh, ghouls aren’t likely to stray too far into settlements or towns, so they can be avoided if you really don’t want to deal with them. Second ghouls are pretty much just savage beasts and easily outsmarted. Even though ghasts are granted more intelligence, they’re about as smart as your average person. You’re not likely to find any ghasts with far reaching plots or desires for world domination.
They’re a step up from zombies and skeletons, but aren’t powerful or weird enough to rank much higher.
Spoiler alert for next week: ghosts make it on to the actually scary list. However, the specter isn’t so lucky. The main hook of the 5e ghost is that it’s bound to this plane by unfinished business. The specter on the other hand is only hanging around because it’s mad. Much weaker than ghosts, the big draw for specters is that they can appear as the poltergeist variant.
Poltergeists as a class of haunting have been coasting off the scariness of the 1982 film of the same name. Poltergeist is german word that translates to “noisy ghost.” In parapsychology, it’s pretty much the lowest rung of ghosts. They usually just knock stuff over and annoy everyone around them.
The icing on the cake for why they land on the list of sucky undead though is that they’re only resistant to physical damage in the Monster Manual. This is a ghost you could kill with a club if you tried hard enough.
I really wanted to be able to list these big, undead dragons as scary, but the more I think about, the more I can’t justify it. Ultimately, I think it boils down to the fact that they’re trying so hard.
You take dragons, which frighten most adventurers on their own, then add in a dark cult ritual that makes it live indefinitely, and finish it off with a rotting appearance. It’s just overkill.
Statistically, they’re the same as an adult or ancient dragon with some added resistances and immunities. This ends up being like a kid in junior high who decides they’re goth now. It’s the same kid, but with a spooky aesthetic.This is the dragon version of a trip to Hot Topic. It’s just unnecessary and puts the dracolich in 3edgy5me territory.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that these creatures don’t have their niches or can’t be good enemies. They just aren’t scary. It’s not just about how dangerous they are, because as you saw, there’s no shortage of high CR baddies in this tier. It’s just that being scary is it’s own thing, and we’ll see what that is next week.