D&D Monster Monday: Flameskull

You gasp as you turn the corner and see a chuckling, flaming, disembodied skull staring at you. You go to turn the other way, but are seared by the afterburn of the flameskull’s Fireball. Running is futile. It’s do-or-die time.

Minor Curse of Strahd Spoilers Ahead

In my CoS campaign, the party has decided to plunder The Amber Temple to find powerful items to help them face Strahd once and for all. While they’d heard many accounts of people going to the temple and never returning, they definitely didn’t take these warnings seriously.

Needless to say, the flameskulls have been an absolute nightmare for them to deal with. Their long-ranged offensive spells allow them to nuke the melee-heavy party from afar without fear of retaliation. Oh, and they’ve gotten off plenty of high-value Fireballs to soften the party up for the other foes lurking in the ruins of the Amber Temple.

If I’ve learned anything the past couple of weeks it’s that flameskulls are nasty creatures despite being CR 4. They have a ton of cool tools and their ability to fully regenerate themselves in an hour makes them perfect cannon fodder to drain a party’s resources in a dungeon crawl.

I think I’ve hyped these disembodied undead heads up enough. Let’s delve into the Monster Manual and learn more about these undead magicians!

a flaming skull with green flames and orangy-red eyes
The 5e flameskull artwork is by far the best of the bunch. Yet it’s one of the few creatures that I think has great artwork in each edition. Credit: WotC.

Flameskull Lore

A powerful wizard is a valuable commodity. In life, they can cure the sick, remove curses, dispel harmful magics, and protect a village from a rampaging horde of monsters with a single spell.

However, in death, they are just as valuable. Evildoers can accomplish all sorts of disgusting acts by using parts of a wizard’s body. The flameskull is one of many examples of this treachery.

Dark spellcasters can use a deceased wizard’s skull as a base to channel dark magics into and create a flameskull, a powerful undead spellcaster. Flameskulls are often used as guards due to both their powerful offensive magics and their Undead Nature which allows them to function without air, food, drink, or sleep.

Plus the flames they emit from their skulls (hence the name) gives them ample lighting to aid in spotting hiding intruders in even the darkest dungeons.

One neat thing about flameskulls is that they’re similar to golems. They’re given a set of instructions that they must adhere to. However, due to their intelligent nature, the flameskull interprets these instructions to the letter. The creator must give them both actionable and sensible instructions, otherwise, there’s no telling what the flameskull will do!

Flameskull Stats and Abilities

You can find the flameskull’s statblock on page 134 of the Monster Manual.

Stats

Size: tiny undead
AC: 13
HP: 40 (9d4 + 18)
Speed: 0 ft., fly 40 ft. (hover)
STR: 1 (-5)
DEX: 17 (+3)
CON: 14 (+2)
INT: 16 (+3)
WIS: 10 (+0)
CHA: 11 (+0)

The flameskull is the textbook definition of a glass cannon. These creatures hit hard, but they’re susceptible to attacks. Their 13 AC is laughable and their 40 HP is mediocre at best. They do have a few tricks to help shore up these weaknesses, but they’re still super weak to martial combatants.

Their 40 ft. of flying speed does help with these survivability issues though. First of all, 40 ft. is enough to outpace most medium-size PCs. Second, flying speed is fantastic due to its ability to avoid ground-based obstacles. Lastly, hover is another great property since it prevents the prone condition.

Their ability score spread is respectable. Two of the three common saving throw abilities have positive modifiers and Wisdom is at 0 which is better than nothing. Couple this with their 5 condition immunities and Magic Resistance and these are tough creatures to control.

The -5 STR modifier is very thematic. I mean, it’s a floating skull. There’s not a muscle to be found on this creature!

Resistances, Immunities, Saves, and Skills

Skills: Arcana +5, Perception +2
Damage Resistances: lightning, necrotic, piercing
Damage Immunities: cold, fire, poison
Condition Immunities: charmed, frightened, paralyzed, poisoned, prone
Senses: darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 12
Languages: Common
CR: 4 (1,100 XP)

The +2 Perception coupled with 60 ft. of darkvision and their light-emitting head makes the flameskull a formidable guard unit. Their +5 Arcana is a nice thematic addition to their statblock as a nod to their previous life as a wizard, but I doubt it’ll be used by most tables.

Their damage resistances and immunities are quite beefy. With 5 of the 6 being common damage types for PCs to use the flameskull is well-protected against ranged attackers, especially magical ones.

On paper, I think the flameskull is well-balanced for a CR 4 creature. However, in practice, these creatures can be certain party compositions’ worst nightmare. For example, my melee-heavy party has had a rough time each time they’ve faced off against these ranged menaces.

Once they reach the flameskulls it’s game over, but until then they’re often forced to be grouped up to eat a couple of Fireballs and take a few long-ranged attacks as they advance toward the floating skulls of destruction.

Traits and Abilities

Illumination. The flameskull sheds either dim light in a 15-foot radius, or bright light in a 15-foot radius and dim light for an additional 15 feet. It can switch between the options as an action.

Magic Resistance. The flameskull has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Rejuvenation. If the flameskull is destroyed, it regains all its hit points in 1 hour unless holy water is sprinkled on its remains or a dispel magic or remove curse spell is cast on them.

Spellcasting. The flameskull is a 5th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Intelligence (spell save DC 13, +5 to hit with spell attacks). It requires no somatic or material components to cast its spells. The flameskull has the following wizard spells prepared:
Cantrips (at will): mage hand
1st level (3 slots): magic missile, shield
2nd level (2 slots): blur, flaming sphere
3rd level (1 slot): fireball

I’ve already touched on Illumination and Magic Resistance. Both are useful traits that enhance the flameskull’s strengths or shore up a weakness.

Rejuvenation is a really cool trait and super flavorful to boot. Having an automatically reviving, ever-vigilant, guard is such a valuable commodity. I can see why a dark wizard would defile a few corpses to create these high-value guards for their evil lair.

Their spell list heavily favors combat. Mage Hand is the only non-combat spell they have in their list, and that’s only there so that they can open and close doors.

Magic Missile is a solid and reliable option to use against high AC targets. Shield and Blur give their weak defenses a much-needed boost against melee attackers. Flaming Sphere is an interesting addition, but it could be useful in long fights.

Fireball is the flameskull’s signature move. This is the most important spell to use effectively. You want to get as much value out of this spell as physically possible because you only have one shot per flameskull. The best part is that even if every target passes the admittedly low DC Dexterity saving throw, you’ll still deal half damage.

Actions

Multiattack.The flameskull uses Fire Ray twice.

Fire Ray. Ranged Spell Attack: +5 to hit, range 30 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (3d6) fire damage.

Fire Ray is a respectable short-range attack option. 20 fire damage per round is a decent chunk of HP to siphon off of the enemy.

However, its 30 ft. range is risky to use. You’ll want to gun and run if you’re out of spell slots and need to rely on Fire Ray. Staying far away from melee combatants is imperative to the flameskull’s success.

Flameskull Strengths

Superpowered Glasscannon

A flameskull is a (un)living, (not)breathing nuke.

Fireball is an enormous, and powerful AoE that deals guaranteed damage. While a flameskull only gets one of these in an encounter, it makes a noticeable impact. Even at half-damage, a Fireball that clips at least most of the party will certainly force them to expend some resources to heal up after the fight.

Magic Missile is another notable offensive spell in the flameskull’s arsenal. While it’s not as powerful as Fireball or their Fire Ray Multiattack, it’s a long-ranged attack that’s guaranteed to hit.

Fire Ray deals some hefty damage, but it’s a short-range attack. There’s a bit of risk involved when using it, but the flameskull’s 40 ft. of flying speed does help them outpace most melee combatants.

Difficult to Crowd Control

Suffice to say, crowd controlling a flameskull is oftentimes a futile effort. First of all, they have a solid spread of common saving throw abilities, giving them a respectable foundation for nailing those pesky saving throws.

Their condition immunities, thanks in part to their undead nature and the hover property on their flying speed limit the types of conditions they can be affected by in the first place.

Couple these with Magic Resistance and you have a creature that’s nigh-impossible to control.

a flaming skull engulfed in yellow-green flames
I love the gemstones for eyes that the 4e version uses. It gives the party extra incentive to kill them! Credit: WotC.

Fantastic Anti-Mage Unit

What’s the best counter to a magic user? Another magic user, of course!

While their physical defenses are weak, the flameskull has a ton of great defensive options for countering enemy mages. For example, high-value damage resistances that account for a ton of common spell damage types.

Oh and up to three uses of the Shield spell to negate direct attacks. The effectiveness of blasting-type spells is severely hindered by these factors.

As I’ve mentioned before, they’re also difficult to crowd control. This makes them difficult adversaries for all types of magic users. Your offensive spells will deal less damage and they’ll slip out of whatever control you drop on them.

Oh, and their flying (hover) speed enables them to never touch the ground. Limiting the effectiveness of most battlefield control-type spells.

If the party is magic user-heavy, get ready for a long firefight down a narrow hallway because flameskulls don’t give up so easily.

Flameskull Weaknesses

It’s Still a Glasscannon

While Shield and Blur do help shore up their abysmal physical defenses, the flameskull is still a squishy target. Sure, maybe not against ranged attackers due to their resistance to Piercing damage and the fact that they’re tailor-made to ruin a magic user’s day.

But against good, old-fashioned, melee, martial combatants? They stand no chance.

If a meleer can rush to the flameskull and smack them down they’ll wipe the floor with them. Their low HP and 13 AC (18 with Shield) is no match for a whirling dervish of slashing and bludgeoning damage.

Although intelligent play will help limit a melee attacker’s effectiveness. Hovering over a pit or a drop will prevent them from reaching you. Constantly moving after attacking forces them to Dash to ever get a hit in.

How to Play a Flameskull

Play Keep Away

Melee combatants are the bane of a flameskull’s existence. It’s imperative to keep them away from the party’s frothing-at-the-mouth barbarian because they will absolutely wreck your flameskulls if given the chance.

The key tip here is to always be moving. Lob a Fireball at the party, move 40 ft. away. Duck in 10 ft. to hit a target with your Multiattack then fly 30 ft. away. Keep repositioning and keep enemy melee units guessing as to where you’ll move next. Force them to waste their action economy dashing around rather than hitting you.

When possible, hover over steep drops such as above a pitfall trap. Make the flameskull as inaccessible as possible to prolong their squishy lives for as long as possible. They’re great resource drainers so the longer you keep them alive, the more value you get.

If you’re using multiple flameskulls or pairing your flameskull with other creatures, position them opposite of each other. Make the party’s melee units pick and choose which target to chase after. If they choose wrong, your flameskull now has plenty of time to freely wreak havoc on the party.

another skull engulfed in green flames
It’s amazing how consistent the art direction is over the years. Sure, there’s not a ton to work with, but they’re not trying to reinvent the wheel either. Credit: WotC.

Wait For the Perfect Fireball

Fireball is our bread-and-butter. It’s everything we want and more as a flameskull pilot. It deals unavoidable damage and has an enormous radius, ensuring that we can get a ton of value out of our single nuke.

However, that means that we need to use it perfectly. We only have one shot so you must use it in such a way that it will clip most, if not all, of the party. We want everyone walking out of this encounter with singed clothes and their eyebrows burnt clean off.

Oh, also keep in mind that the flameskull is immune to fire damage. If the party gets cute and tries to rush at them, just drop it on its head and watch everyone else burn to a crisp!

5 Flameskull Plot Hooks

  1. Strange Graverobbers – Graverobbers are a commonality in these parts. Bodies are buried with all sorts of valuable jewelry and coin. However, a recent spree has noted that a graverobber is leaving the valuables and taking the heads of the dead. Strange.
  2. A Dangerous Specimen – The Necromancy Professor at the wizard college is looking for a flameskull specimen to use as a demonstration in their lessons. Find one, and bring it to them before it can fully rejuvenate.
  3. The Haunted Sepulcher – A family of magic users’ crypt has been tainted by dark magic. Rumors speak of chittering, flaming, skulls patrolling the grounds after the sun sets.
  4. Office Hours – An inexperienced, possibly evil, necromancer is looking for some help. They tried to use a few flameskulls to assault a bank but were woefully unsuccessful. The flameskulls flew off after they received their instructions, leading the necromancer to get arrested by the city guard! They’re looking for a tutor to level up their nefarious plans.
  5. A Charred Corpse – You open the door to the room and see a trio of flameskulls hovering around a charred corpse of what once was a powerful wizard. They seem enamored by the strange necklace they’re wearing. As if they recognize the symbol.

Conclusions

These CR 4 creatures have been the bane of my level 9 party’s existence these past few weeks. They just keep coming back and causing all sorts of mischief at the worst possible moment.

Be it teaming up with the other denizens of The Amber Temple, or lobbing fireballs from a hundred feet away into a cramped room, the party has had a ton of resources sapped from them as they delve the halls of this mysterious, and dangerous location.

Flameskulls are dangerous creatures that, with proper planning and execution can hit well above their intended CR. They have so many fun tricks and tools in their statblock that make piloting them super fun.

If your dungeon can use a couple of cackling, flaming, skeletal heads floating around its long hallways then I urge you to drop a couple of flameskulls in there and see how the party fares. They’re a real blast if you know what I’m saying.

Previous Monster Monday – Wyvern

Next Monster Monday –  TBD

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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