It’s been a busy month and I haven’t had a lot of time to write, in part because I’ve been making games like Cool Cool Cool, currently in its final day on Kickstarter! However, every month I answer questions from my patrons on Patreon, and I wanted to address two of those at once!
Are there any unique undead to specific cultures, or undead that show up in certain species more than others? How do dullahans fit into Eberron?
Rather than creating entirely unique undead, I tend to add regional flavor to existing creatures. Consider the ruins of Shadukar, a Thrane city set ablaze by Karrnath during the Last War, abandoned ever since due to the infestation of restless dead. Shadukar remains under an eternal haze of smoke and ash that refuses to disperse. Those who’ve entered the ruins and survive talk of smoke ghosts, moaning figures formed from soot and the scent of burnt flesh who seek to draw the heat from living creatures… and the charred, blackened bones still cloaked in a faint, smoky outline of the flesh they once wore. The practical fact is that these are just shadows and skeletons, though I add the details that smoke ghosts aren’t resistant to fire; their fiery demise is still seared into their memory, and a torch is a good way to drive off these lingering dead.
In dealing with undead, the first question I want to answer is why does this creature exist? There’s two basic paths here—Spontaneous undead and Intentional undead.
Intentional Undead are created by a sentient entity, whether that’s mortal necromancers or immortal beings. Lady Illmarrow, Katashka the Gatekeeper, the Bone King of Mabar, the long-dead Qabalrin elves of Xen’drik. Sentient undead are created for a purpose, and you should get a sense of that—the signature of the creator. Notably, Katahska the Gatekeeper delights in mortal FEAR of death and the undead, so its creations are intentionally grotesque and designed to provoke terror; while the Qabalrin sought solely to overcome death through undead. Thus, Qabalrin vampires are elegant and subtle, draining blood with delicate fangs that leave barely-visible wounds… while a vampire of Katahska uses a writhing wormlike proboscis that leaves hideous wounds, and the feeding is horrifying for both victim and observers. The Katashka vampire is supposed to provoke terror; that’s part of its purpose.
Spontaneous Undead are generally created due to an intersection of planar energies and emotion. Mabaran undead are driven to consume life force in some form (whether as blood, raw energy, or something else); they are typically hungry. Dolurrhi undead are the more traditional restless dead driven by unfinished business or an emotional anchor, something I discussed in more depth earlier this month with haunts. Mabaran undead are often monstrous, as they are hungry manifestations of entropy and despair, while Dolurrhi undead will usually display some hint of their anchors in their appearance.
So with this in mind, let’s consider the dullahan—the headless horseman. In standard 5E lore, dullahans are “the remains of villains who let vengeance consume them… Wicked knights or commanders in life, dullahans adhere to twisted codes of chivalry or soldiership.” By default, the dullahan is an easy candidate for spontaneous Dolurrhi undead. As I called out in the haunts article, battlefields where terrible tragedies occurred are often haunted; I’d say that the dullahan normally lingers in the Ethereal Veil of the battlefield where it dies, unable to cross by choice, but drawn into the world at certain times to search for its lost head. Such a dullahan could come from any culture; a Brelish commander whose head was destroyed by an arcane blast, a Dhakaani hobgoblin whose head was vaporized by a beholder, a Talenta raptor-rider whose head was stolen by a rival. Part of the idea of the spontaneous dullahan is that it can be laid to rest—you can fight it, sure, but you could also possibly resolve the situation by finding their head or by somehow offering them peace.
That’s one option. I could imagine a servant of Katashka the Gatekeeper stealing the head of a deceased hero and using it in a ritual that raises the former champion as a tormented dullahan, forced to so terror in the community it once loved until it is restored to its head; so again, the adventurers might be forced to fight the dullahan, but unless they can find its head and lay it to rest, it will always return. As noted above, with a Katashka dullahan I’d emphasize the horror—graveworms writhing in its exposed flesh, chunks of is body sloughing away as it takes damage, the sense that the dullahan is in agony even as it is forced to fight.
Another way to use an intentional dullahan would be to reverse the formula and make it a voluntary transformation: rather than seeking its lost head, the dullahan’s head could be like the phylactery of a lich. Returning to the Talenta Plains, consider the story of Headless Haralara…
When Haralara was astride her clawfoot Scythe, none could match them for speed or skill. Together they were faster than any fastieth and as silent as nightfall. Long ago, there was a night of six moons and a swordtooth titan was seen on the planes. The maskweavers called a great hunt, and said that the first hunter to draw the blood of the beast would be blessed. All knew this would surely be Haralara—and so the other hunters forged a pact, to hunt together not for the titan, but to take Haralara’s head. These were the finest hunters in the Plains save for Haralara herself. United, none could stand against them; when Haralara heard of this, she knew she was doomed. But Haralara was clever. They couldn’t take her head if they couldn’t find it; so she hide it where it would never be found, and then, riding Scythe, Headless Haralara hunted down each and every one of her enemies and took their heads. She rode with them into the night lands, where she haunts and hunts to this day; woe to the hunter who draws the absent eye of Headless Haralara.
In this case, Haralara knows where her head is… and as long as it’s hidden, she can’t be permanently destroyed. If she takes an interest in a group of adventurers—Because a halfling adventurer is the descendant of one of her old enemies? Because the adventurers killed a beast she was hunting?—they can defeat her temporarily in combat, but the only way to permanently escape her wrath is to figure out where she hid her head so long ago!
I’ll note that these thoughts on the dullahan are based on the fifth edition interpretation of the creature, which is largely inspired by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Really, this creature should just be call a headless horseman; the dullahan is drawn from Irish folklore and has a far deeper and more significant role there than “ghost searching for its head.” I actually created statistics for this fey psychopomp in a book I wrote for 3.5 called Classic Fey. But for purposes of this article, I’m focusing on the creature as presented in fifth edition.
That’s all for now! I won’t be answering questions, but as a bonus for patrons, I’m posting four ghoul variants on Patreon! Happy Halloween!