03 TOMB WITH EIGHT SKELETONS: Layering For Dynamic Encounters

A dynamic encounter for sure

It is entirely possible by playing D&D for any amount of time you have encountered or have written some variation of the following:

03. TOMB (80 x 80): Eight skeletons guard their former captain's tomb; will attack PCs who enter. Captain wears gold circlet (300 GP).

8 Skeletons AC 12 HD 1 (4hp) 1x weapon (1d6 or by weapon) MV 20, ML 12

This is pretty much the monster + treasure result from BX D&D and a serviceable one at that. You pretty much are picturing a room with a single tomb in the center and eight skeletons lined up along the walls. 

LAYER ZERO: You don't always need the latest monster book, you can easily layer additional simple elements to create novelty

Or monster tome, or 3-ring binder enchiridion, or monster cards. There is power in the familiar. It can be leaned on for shorthand in non-critical situations. And it provides players with the enjoyment of recognition in either a nostalgic or anticipatory sense: "Ha! I bet those skeletons will attack us just like in the GT1: Stone Grey Halls of Grog's Tomb" or "Ha! I've always wanted to fight skeletons in stone gray halls!". But too much of the familiar and D&D loses some of its spark, especially if you are pursuing an exploration-centered classical style of game.

Instead, for my own games, I have been trying to focus on layering simple ~1-2 sentence additions using other common, easily understood elements of the game to create novelty. The shortlist of layering:

  1. Unique Description
  2. Weapon Mix
  3. Stretching, but not changing, the stat block
  4. Terrain
  5. Objectives

LAYER ONE: Unique Description

Presenting the tried and true in a new light can make the mundane novel.  For instance, if you wanted to startle your players, you could have 7 of the skeletons kneeling in prayer to a central seated figure. This brings our 8 skeletons to something like this:

03. TOMB (80 x 80): Seven skeletons kneel in prayer around their former captain (skeleton on a throne, circlet, center); the seven skeletons will attack PCs who enter the room.
Monster: Skeletons AC 12 HD 1 (4hp) 1x weapon (1d6 or by weapon) MV 20, ML 12 
Treasure: circlet (300 GP, opal in center 200 GP)

This setup tells a small story and begs some questions. Who were these folks? What is the relationship? Is the kneeling an expression of subjection or reverence? Player table-talk might generate some new adventure seed for you.

However, this is not going to be a dynamic combat situation. The room described above is pretty much a "white room" with little in the way of terrain or enemy variety. A singular room is okay, but if too many rooms occur like this it encourages players to just adopt a singular strategy of heaviest armor, high damage weapons, and damage-only spells. And it gets boring and that is not okay. 

LAYER TWO: "Weapons" mix

One of the simplest ways to create variety is to just change up the methods of attack. This is pretty well covered here, but you don't even have to be that complex about it. Let us give a mix of bows and axes to our skeletons: range and melee, both still 1d6. And maybe one of those ax-welding skeletons has a two-handed sword and some rusted plate:

03. TOMB (80 x 80): 7 skeletons kneel in prayer around their former captain (skeleton on a throne, circlet, center); the seven skeletons will attack PCs who enter the room.
Monster: Skeletons AC 12 HD 1 (4hp) 1x weapon (3 x axe, 1 x 2H-sword, 3 x short bow) MV 20, ML 12; skeleton with 2H-sword has AC 13
Treasure: circlet (300 GP, opal in center 200 GP)

LAYER THREE: Stretching, but not changing, a stat block

Five out of our seven skeletons have swords. Still kind of same-same. So, what if we make the 2H-sword skeletons into something that will do the same amount of damage but be more interesting. We could change to a different monster, but, again, let's not alter the stat block too much.

How about "skeletal horses"? This is basically a superficial description change and we can use the BX charging rules as a method of attack (move 60' and a successful attack deals double the damage). We might also give these skeletons max HP, 8, as a way to denote their size instead of altering HD. And 8 hp is often an average 2 HD PC anyway.

To explain the horses, we are altering a simple tomb into something grander. Instead of a throne, how about the leader is in a chariot in front of a procession?

03. SKELETAL PROCESSION (80 x 80): 6 skeletons, heads bowed, stand eternally behind a  former captain (skeleton on a throne, circlet) seated in a rotting chariot pulled by a similar horsethe 6 skeletons & horse will attack PCs who enter the room.
Monster: Skeletons AC 12 HD 1 (4hp) 1x weapon (3 x axe, 3 x short bow) MV 20, ML 12; Skeletal Horse as skeleton, but 8 hp and will always charge on its attack (successful hit 2d6 dmg)
Treasure: circlet (300 GP, opal in center 200 GP)

However still two issues with this encounter. The first is that we still have a white room. So what can we add to give the room some terrain? And the second is that just because I have outfitted the encounter as more combat-oriented doesn't mean it has to go that way. So what can add to give these skeletons a reason to chat?


To solve the white room problem, let's place the captain and chariot on a dias that is 40 ft long, 20 ft. wide, and 5' tall in the center of the room. The 6 skeletons occupy about 20 ft. x 10 ft of space to the left of that. We can add four columns to the north and south around which amphorae can be placed if you want more coverage.

In my head this gives a king-of-the-hill object blocking the center line of sight blocked with columns to hide behind north and south. This should allow for tactical maneuvering around the room. Which can aid in escape, hiding, magical hijinks, or other such things. You can add this to the description, but most likely this information will be contained on a map of the room. 

The goal is to provide something else that can be acted on or used to solve whatever's in the room. You don't have to think of many pieces or anything original. Just something to keep the space from being wide open. If you look at a lot of skirmish games, you can see that rarely are things just a flat plane. The same should be applied to D&D.

Other alternatives could be things not even rated to what is in the room. But objects and "flora" added later: roots of a giant tree have found their way below; strange mushrooms cover the floor; waist-deep pool of rainwater has collected in one quarter or half of the room; a few 2-3 deep pits have opened up- one of which leads to the next dungeon level down.

LAYER FIVE: Objectives

This is coming last, but it is not the least. Is there a single sentence that could be added to this description that would allow some sort of discussion or bargaining to take place? Preferably, it would be something that provides a choice.

There are combat objectives, but I am thinking of something a little more tied to the world. And I also like tieing these sorts of things to character class, god, background, or place of origin if you have it. The Nightwick Abbey game I play does this very effectively.

Since this is an example and not tied to a specific dungeon, I'll just keep it general. Maybe some of the answers to the below questions can be found in earlier parts of the dungeon or in alternate side rooms. Some basic things the captain could ask are:

  • Are you a descendant of X?
  • Do you pledge loyalty to Y?
  • Have you come to give an offering?
  • Do you serve the god Z?
  • Who do you count among your foes?
If the party sufficiently answers then the skeletons leave them be and attack if they do not.


I guess depending on your view of dungeon crawling or what your purpose is will tell you how you view the following as an improvement. But we have gone from this:

03. TOMB (80 x 80): Eight skeletons guard their former captain's tomb; will attack PCs who enter. Captain wears gold circlet (300 GP).

8 Skeletons AC 12 HD 1 (4hp) 1x weapon (1d6 or by weapon) MV 20, ML 12

To something meatier, yet still is a rather terse text block:

03. SKELETAL PROCESSION (80 x 80): 6 skeletons, heads bowed, stand eternally behind a  former captain (skeleton on a throne, circlet) seated in a rotting chariot pulled by a similar horse (on a large dias); the captain will ask "Who do you count among your foes?" If the PCs answer "The Serpents of Norr", they they will not attack. 
Monster: Skeletons AC 12 HD 1 (4hp) 1x weapon (3 x axe, 3 x short bow) MV 20, ML 12; Skeletal Horse as skeleton, but HP 8 & MV 30 and will always charge as its attack (successful hit 2d6 dmg)
Treasure: circlet (300 GP, opal in center 200 GP)

My final point is that for this example I used each layer, but you don't have to do that for each room. Each layer by itself could be a room of its own that thematically culminates into a room with all 5 layers. One advantage to this is you can introduce patterns to players bit-by-bit and then put them all together for a rather showy set piece or dungeon anchor.


  1. This is a great method for squeezing more conceptual density into dungeon rooms. The latter is so much better and still terse.

    1. Thanks for reading and glad you liked it. Yes, I did want to retain the ability to write terse room keys. I do want an system for getting dungeons to the table quickly over "perfectly".

  2. I like this approach, Warren. Thinking about the encounter as layers atop the basic contents (monster, trap, trick, treasure) provides a process to lean on that can also inspire. As opposed to just trying to think up something interesting to go with some skeletons. I'll bet we could add a couple layers to embellish an empty room as well.

  3. This is a great post, thanks for sharing. I always like it when people talk about their thought/design process AND provide a detailed example.