This week’s encounter is Flameskull Faceoff, an encounter with an evil undead monstrosity that… wants the adventurers’ help? Many decades ago, a paladin dedicated to an order of peace and honor was beheaded by a necromancer devoted to Bhaal, god of murder. That paladin’s severed head was subjected to horrific rituals that reduced it to a vile, cackling abomination. This flameskull has wandered the corridors of a secret dungeon of death ever since, driven nearly to madness by the cognitive dissonance of Bhaal’s evil whispers and the slowly fading memories of its honorable past life.
Part of Something Bigger
This encounter can be used as a standalone feature, but it works best as part of a larger dungeon. While the flameskull is ostensibly tied to Bhaal, god of murder, it could have been created by a cleric, warlock, or wizard dedicated to any evil god. This flameskull could fit in area 12 of Wave Echo Cave at the end of Lost Mine of Phandelver—in which case, its creator might be the Black Spider, a wizard dedicated to the worship of Lolth, the Spider Queen. Any other adventure with a dungeon dedicated to supernatural evil can include this flameskull, such level 2 of Undermountain in Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, or the Temple of Eternal Flame in Princes of the Apocalypse.
The Forgotten Realms city of Baldur’s Gate has a strong connection to the evil god Bhaal, and adventurers exploring the darker reaches of this beautiful, haunted city are the perfect candidates for a run-in with this burning monstrosity.
Social Encounter: Flameskull Faceoff
This social encounter leads to at least one combat encounter, which is suitable for a party of 5th-level characters.
While exploring an ancient dungeon, the party encounters a flameskull bobbing through the dungeon corridors, mumbling gibberish to itself. It then turns a corner and disappears from sight. When the characters investigate—or at some later point, if they go elsewhere in the dungeon—the flameskull bobs out from behind and makes a declaration: “HELP ME.”
Once the characters have met the flameskull, it begs—nay, commands—them to help it. This poor undead creature’s claims that its mind is filled with maddening images of a half-remembered past life. Whoever it was before, that person was a warrior of justice, and the flameskull desperately wants to be brought back to life.
The flameskull explains that it is unable to directly harm the necromancer who created it, but it has spied upon the vile necromancer’s tomes and might know how to undo this curse. The flameskull outlines the three items needed to conduct the ritual—and the most challenging item to acquire is the head of the being who killed the flameskull in its past life. If the characters think the flameskull can be trusted, they must hunt down the necromancer and bring his head back to the flameskull and its ritual circle.
Once the characters return to the flameskull, their task is not done. They still need to perform the ritual—and the dark magic that first created the flameskull is not eager to give up its creation. If the characters can survive the flameskull’s attacks while they conduct the ritual, they can save the wretched undead monster. If they don’t survive—or if they destroy the flameskull—the ritual fails, and all their struggle will have been for naught.
Somewhere deep in a dark and dismal dungeon, the characters see a flicker of light. Read or paraphrase the following:
A wisp of flame darts across your field of vision. It is farther down the dungeon corridor, nearly fifty feet away. It almost seemed like a trick of the light, but you can’t deny that you saw it: green flame. The moment you laid eyes upon it, the pinprick of flame flitted around a corner and vanished from sight.
If the characters pursue the flicker of green flame, they travel down the hallway and emerge in a circular chamber. It is 50 feet tall with a vaulted ceiling, and is about 30 feet in diameter. In the center of the chamber floats a mote of emerald fire, and the light from the blaze illuminates a circle of ash on the ground beneath it. It is nearly 5 feet in diameter, and decorated with detailed arcane sigils.
If the characters attack the flameskull, see “Combat Encounter: Fighting the Flameskull,” below. If they speak to it—or at least, do not attack it—read or paraphrase the following:
The mote of flame turns toward you, and you can see the structure of a face within its flickering depths. Flames have long since consumed the head’s flesh and sinew, leaving only an ash-white skull in its place. Its eye sockets glint with arcane power, and then it speaks. It lowers its jaw and a weak voice rasps, “Help… me…”
If the characters speak with the wraith, it says the following:
“Please… help me. The lucidity, it comes so rarely now.” The burning skull suddenly giggles madly. It’s lost in mirth for a few seconds before it manages to compose itself. “Every instant I’m bombarded with horrible visions. Whispers from an evil power. Whispers I long to give into. But something holds them at bay. I see a warrior that gleams with sunlight—and I believe that being was once myself. You will aid me! I demand your help!”
If the adventurers speak with the flameskull, it is able to divulge the following information; every few minutes it devolves into a fit of manic cackling as the dark god Bhaal’s whispers briefly overcome its will:
- How it died. The flameskull was once a warrior, perhaps a paladin, who fought in the name of justice. It vaguely remembers the last sight it saw before awakening as a flameskull: a towering warrior with a horned helmet swinging a massive blade at it.
- Who created it. The skull’s next memory is being called to life by a necromancer in bloodstained white robes, wearing a skull-shaped amulet of Bhaal. The necromancer always carried a tome of vile magicks with him, and while the flameskull is magically compelled not to directly injure the necromancer, it was still able to spy upon him.
- The ritual needed to restore its original body. One of the necromancer’s books revealed a way to reconstitute a body for a wayward soul that fell victim to necromancy. It has been preparing a ritual circle in secret for the past few weeks, but it needs three final components to perform it: First, the “the blood of the willing.” Second, “a blade that has killed.” Third, “the head of the reanimator.”
- The location of the necromancer’s lair. At the DM’s discretion, the flameskull is able to direct the characters towards the necromancer’s secret lair, elsewhere in the dungeon. The flameskull can lead them there, but can’t help them fight the necromancer; the magic that animated it forbids directly harming its creator.
The three ritual components the flameskull needs are slightly cryptic. The players need to figure out what they refer to. So you don’t have to do any guesswork, the components are:
- A blood sacrifice from a willing creature. Any amount of blood will suffice, as long as it is given willingly.
- A blade that has taken a life. Any blade that its wielder has used to kill another creature will do. If you want to be particularly semantic and fey about it, “a blade that has killed” could refer only to an animated sword, since technically the sword’s wielder is the one who did the killing.
- “The head of the reanimator” refers to the head of the necromancer who animated the flameskull.
Finding the Necromancer
If you have set this encounter in a dungeon of your own creation, find a room to place the necromancer. If you set this encounter outside of a large dungeon, then the necromancer has a lair elsewhere in the countryside. The characters must travel to get there, but the journey is easy if the flameskull can guide them. If the flameskull isn’t guiding them, then the party must make a DC 15 group Wisdom (Survival) check. On a success, they find the lair after 1 day of travel. On a failure, they get lost and eventually find their way back to where they met the flameskull.
Combat Encounter: Necromancer’s Lair
The necromancer that transformed the paladin into a flameskull is an old and decrepit human—practically a walking corpse himself. He girds himself in a once-white robe that has been stained with so much blood over the years that it has been dyed a permanent rusty color. He is known as Blainn the Bloody, and he is guarded always by his armored servant, a skeletal knight named Caigg.
If the flameskull is reduced to half its hit point maximum in this combat, it flees immediately back to the location where the characters originally found it.
Blainn keeps a spellbook on his person, containing all the spells he has prepared (see his stat block), plus any necromancy spells of the DM’s choice, up to 3rd level. Blainn uses necromancer statistics, with the following changes; these changes reduce his challenge rating to 5 (1,800 XP):
- He has no 4th, 5th, or 6th-level spell slots
- He only has two 3rd-level spell slots
- His spell save DC is 14, and he has a +6 bonus to hit with spell attacks
Caigg follows Blainn's orders without question. It uses minotaur skeleton statistics, with the following changes:
- Its size is Medium; it was once an exceptionally large human warrior
- Its AC is 15 (corroded plate)
- It has the Multiattack action, which allows it to make two greatsword attacks
- It wields a greatsword instead of a greataxe (+6 to hit,  2d6 + 4 slashing damage)
- It wears a horned helmet; if this helmet is removed, it can’t use its Charge trait or its Gore action
Skill Challenge: Ritual of Revival
Once the characters have retrieved all three remaining ritual components and returned to the location where they first met the flameskull, they can begin the ritual to restore its original body. The flameskull instructs them how to arrange the items (in an equilateral triangle around the circumference of the circle), and then drifts into the middle of the circle.
The characters must enact the ritual themselves by making three successful DC 18 ability checks. A character may make this check as an action on their turn, and this check can use any ability score and any skill or tool proficiency, as long as they can reasonably justify it to the Dungeon Master as a useful part of enacting a magical ritual. Checks involving the Arcana, Religion, or Persuasion skills should always be allowed.
A character holding the spellbook of Blainn the Bloody has advantage on any Intelligence check made to help complete this skill challenge.
However, after the first check is made, the flameskull starts twitching violently, and its flames seethe and crackle. It cackles wildly and shoots two Fire Rays at the character who made the check. These attacks surprise the characters, unless they cannot be surprised; all creatures in the area roll initiative after these attacks are resolved. On its next turn, the flameskull manages to wrench a modicum of control back and gasps, “Continue the ritual! The god of murder… his whispers have grown too loud for me to resist. Continue! I beg you!” It then devolves back into manic laughter.
The only way this skill challenge can fail is if the characters stop conducting the ritual, or if the flameskull is killed. However, whenever a character fails an ability check, all characters conducting the ritual take 3 (1d6) psychic damage.
If the characters successfully completed the ritual, the flameskull falls to the ground, inert, and the green flames surrounding it flash into the ritual circle. The flames begin to grow taller and taller until they form the silhouette of a nearly six-foot-tall human man. Then, the pillar of flames coalesces into bone, and sinew, and flesh, until a nude, muscular man with emerald green eyes stands in the center of the circle.
This man remembers the adventurers and everything they did for him, but has no memories of his time as a human—not even his name. He thanks them, and then asks if they have any spare clothes. This knight is willing to accompany them for at least 1 week, or until he recovers his memories, at the DM’s discretion.
Failure. If the flameskull is killed before the ritual is completed successfully, the skull clatters to the ground and emits a plume of jet-black smoke. A faint, flickering figure appears within the ritual circle, but this form also vanishes into smoke. The soul of the paladin that was transformed into a flameskull is lost forever.
Optional Combat Encounter: Fighting the Flameskull
If the characters attack the flameskull unprovoked at any point during this scenario, things get messy. On initiative count 20 of the first round of combat, two emerald green will-o’-wisps burst from the flameskull’s eye sockets and attack.
If both will-o’-wisps are killed, the flameskull is blinded until the end of its next turn. When the flameskull is killed, it roars out in anguish and fury. Immediately thereafter, a headless sword wraith warrior appears in the ritual circle in the center of the flameskull’s chamber. The tortured spirit of the paladin that was killed and turned into the flameskull has been unleashed by the flameskull’s destruction, and now mindlessly hungers for vengeance against all who have wronged it—including the adventurers. Only killing it or finding a way to calm its vengeful emotions will halt the wraith’s rampage.
For more free encounters, take a look at the other encounters in the Encounter of the Week series!
Did you like this adventure? If you want to read more, you can pick up the adventures I've written on the DMs Guild, such as The Temple of Shattered Minds, a suspenseful eldritch mystery with a mind flayer villain (for 3rd level characters). My most recent adventures are included in the Gold Best Seller Tactical Maps: Adventure Atlas, a collection of 88 unique encounters created by the Guild Adepts, which can be paired with the beautiful tactical poster maps in Tactical Maps Reincarnated, recently published by Wizards of the Coast.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.