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Starfinder Roleplaying Game Monster Design Notes—Spellcasting Creatures, Western Rakshasa

We’re going to take a pause from the Multiclass ThemeType rules, to pick up a thread from a few weeks ago when I was discussing how to make creatures and NPCs using the Starfinder Roleplaying Game monster creation rules. I already did two entries in this series using Really Wild West creatures as examples—the grizzly boar for the combatant array, and the rattle-cat for the expert array.

Now, it’s time to talk about the spellcaster array, and for that, we need something special.

Western Rakshasa

Rakshasa are native outsiders—that is they are inhuman creatures of supernatural power, that are born in and native to the mortal world. They are among the more powerful and feared threats of Southern Asia, and plagued that section of the world of the Really Wild West for centuries before anyone in Europe or the Americas knew anything at all about them. Rakshasa are generally born to a rakshasa part and a humanoid parent and few rakshasas immigrated out of South Asian, keeping their population elsewhere low. But there is a second circumstance where a rakshasa can be born—when human parents are exposed to great evil and cruelty and kept away from holy places, practices, and people, sometimes an evil reincarnated spirit to drawn to their misery, and born as a rakshasa in a concealed guide as the same race as its parents.

Sadly, the fact that the United States Naturalization Law of March 26, 1790 denied citizenship to all immigrants not of white lineage, and most South Asians who were brought to North America served as low-paid farm workers, often lead to situations where the immigrants were forbidden to practice their own religions, suffered cruelty and evils committed upon them, and were even sometimes imprisoned and used for experimentation by Caucasians seeking to gain more power through the expanding arts of theosophy and mad science.

As a result, in the mid 1800s, the first natural born western rakshasa began to appear.

Such creatures are natural deceivers, planners, leaders, and generally power hungry. They learn how to manipulate social systems to their advantage while just children, and are not above arranging horrible fates for their communities in order to be found as “lone survivors,” and adopted by wealthier, more affluent families, While some settle in to urban areas to gain political and economic power in increasingly large cities, others prefer to head to the frontier, to carve their own empires out of the wilderness as cattle barons, marshals, regional governors, and even the unquestioned leaders of outlaw gangs.

While an infant rakshasa might be less powerful than the CR 5 given here as a minimum, such a creature would never risk exposing itself. Any rakshasa willing to operate in any open manner is at least a young adult, and no less than CR 5. Western rakshasa are no more powerful or organized than their South Asian brethren, but they have grown to be one of the greatest threats any Really Wild West adventurer might encounter.

In their natural form, rakshasa have the appearance of anthropomorphic animals, usually predators, and have some joint or joints backwards from a human. The use of  tiger-headed rakshasa with backwards-curling hands in the spectacularly popular 1897 Mark Twain novel “The Chronical of Young Rakshasa,” where Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer encounter and must drive away a powerful Satan-like figure (who claims to be the “youngest of 44 master rakshasa”), has caused the common view of rakshasa to be exclusively this version, to the point that some rakshasas take the form when wishing to impress, even if they actually have different animals-features and reversed joints.

Rakshasa Gunslinger - JEB

Building and Defining a Spellcaster

Spellcaster arrays are for creatures that should first and foremost be seen as users of supernatural powers. They gain either spell-like abilities or spellcasting automatically, allowing them to use such powers for offense and defense, while still having other special abilities to make them unique and interesting. Anytime you are making an NPC mystic or technomancer, you want to use the spellcaster array and the appropriate class graft, in addition to any creature graft.

But in this case, we’re going to write up creatures that have innate spellcasting abilities, as natural to them as their unholy blood.

As with the creatures we designed in the previous entries, we want to create a template graft, that a GM can use to create rakshasas of any appropriate CR. So, the final template graft looks like this:

WESTERN RAKSHASA TEMPLATE GRAFT (CR 5+)

Required Array: Spellcaster
Required Type: Outsider
Alignment: Lawful Evil
Size: Medium
Speed: 40 feet
Ability Score Modifiers: Dexterity, Charisma, Strength
Special Abilities: 0-Spellcasting (mystic and technomancer). 1- Change Shape (see below). Damage Reduction (equal to CR x 1.5, bypassed by good). 3- Detect thoughts (see below). 4-Spell Resistance (equal to CR +15).
Key Spells: 1st charm person, magic missile; 2nd caustic conversion, invisibility, 3rd arcing surge, holographic image
Skills: Master– Bluff; Good-Diplomacy, Sense Motive
Attacks: Multiattack melee (bite, two claws), melee weapon, ranged weapon.
Detect Thoughts (Su): A rakshasa can detect thoughts as per the spell of the same name. It can suppress or resume this ability automatically at the beginning of its turn. When a rakshasa uses this ability, it always functions as if it had spent three rounds concentrating and thus gains the maximum amount of information possible. A creature can resist this effect with a successful Will save.

To make this monster, a GM just takes the spellcaster array for the desired CR of the end monster, adjusts the numbers as noted for the outsider type, and enters those values in a stat block as directed by the template graft.

There are a few things to look out for with rakshasa. First, since they sue the spellcaster array, they get spellcasting automatically, and you need to pick their spells known. The template graft offers some “key spells,” but that’s largely just to save you time and give you a feel for what a typical rakshasa of this type is likely to focus on. Feel free to deviate from this list if you wish. Also, the stat block doesn’t bother with 1st level spells, because the rakshasa is unlikely to run out of higher-level options during a typical fight. This is the same logic for giving it unlimited 2nd-level spells per day. If for some reason you need to know exactly how many lower-level spells an npc has, check out the rules in Starfinder Pact Worlds.

Secondly, as a tool user, the Raksha needs weapons. The easy options is to pick melee and ranged weapons that are about 10th item level. The same applies if you plan to give them armor, though rakshasa don’t really need it, and it doesn’t impact their AC anyway (you give a creature armor if it makes sense for the creature to have armor, or if you want to use it as PC loot, of if you want them to have an armor upgrade—which may also serve as loot). Since this is a Really Wild West rakshasa I gave it a damascus repeated shotgun and limited it’s pistols to 6 rounds each, but you could swap that out

Finally, I gave them multiattack. That allows them to forgo using a melee weapon to make a series of natural melee attacks. Read the multiattack rules on how to figure out their damage and attack rolls, but this only matters if they take a full attack routine. They can just use their melee weapon to make a normal attack.

Here’s what a CR 10 western Rakshasa (one of the most dangerous things in all of the Really Wild West) looks like, for example.

Rakshasa, Western                                 CR 10          [SPELLCASTER]
XP 9,600 each
LE Medium Outsider (evil, native, rakshasa, shapechanger)
Init +8 Senses darkvision (60 ft.); Perception +19
DEFENSE     HP 140
EAC 22; KAC 23
Fort +9; Ref +11; Will +13
Defensive Abilities DR 15/good
OFFENSE
Speed 40 ft.
Melee +17 microserrated longsword (2d10+13, critical bleed 2d6)
Multiattack bite +11 (1d10+13 P), 2 claws +10 (1d10+13 S)
Ranged +19 damascus repeater shotgun (3d8+10 P) or
+19 elite revolving pistol (3d6+10 P)
Technomancer Spells Known (CL 10th) DC 18
  4th (3/day)greater invisibility, mind thrust (DC 22)
3rd (6/day)
arcing surge (DC 21), charm monster (DC 21), holographic image (DC 21),
    lesser resistance armor
2nd (at will)
caustic conversion (ranged attack +18), invisibility
STATISTICS
Str +3; Dex +8; Con +3; Int +1; Wis +1; Cha +8
Skills Bluff +24, Diplomacy +19, Sense Motive +19
Languages Aklo, Common, Infernal
Other Abilities change shape
Gear Damascus repeater shotgun with 12 slugs and 12 shot, two elite revolving pistols with 36 rounds, microserrated longsword, 2 mk II serums of healing
SPECIAL ABILITIES
Change Shape (Su): As a standard action, a rakshasa can physically alter its form to look like any Medium humanoid or outsider, as long as it has seen a similar creature before. It can attempt to either mimic a specific creature or look like a general creature of any humanoid subtype it is familiar with. The rakshasa gains a +10 bonus to Disguise checks to appear as a creature of the type and subtype of the new form. The DC of the rakshasa’s Disguise check is not modified as a result of altering major features or for disguising themselves as a creature of a different type. The rakshasa can remain in an alternate form indefinitely (or until it takes another form).

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The Shape of Gelatinous Evolution

Idea: Gelatinous Oozes change shape from cubes as they age, and gain special powers, based on their shape.

Gelatinous Torus: Gets increased speed and Spring Attack
Gelatinous Pyramid: Gets Spell Resistance equal to 15 + CR
Gelatinous Reuleaux Triangle: Gains the power of two other oozes, selected as random.
Gelatinous Apollonian Gasket: Can cast enlarge and reduce person, even on oozes, at will
Gelatinous Hyperboloid: Can cast haste and slow at will, and time stop once per day
Gelatinous Lemniscate: Gains the ghost’s rejuvenation ability.

Patreon: I have one. Please join, and support me being able to p[ost things like this! (And more serious ideas, too.)

Starfinder Monster Design and Really Wild West Bestiary—Rattle-Cat

We already looked at some general guidelines for building monsters for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game with the Grizzly Boar, an entry for the eventual bestiary for the Really Wild West setting hack which uses the combatant array for monster creation. Now, we’re going to look at building a monster using the expert array.

The Rattle-Cat

RWW-Rattlecat-color-01

A Rattle-Cat is a predator and scavenger unique to North America, though it’s range on the continent is much broader than the snake it shares some characteristics with (likely due to it’s fur coat and warm-blooded nature). Rattle-Cats are ambush predators, depending on speed, stealth, and a mastery of terrain to get near their prey, before dashing out to bite and poison potential prey or threats. They also use their menacing rattle to intimidate any creature that poses a potential threat, a warning much of North American wildlife knows well enough to heed, and to drive away competition from potential scavenged kills, such as dead herd animals and carrion.

Rattle-Cats often travel alone as wandering creatures, but also sometimes form territorial packs (known as a “dirge of rattle-cats”) of up to 12-16 members, ruled over by the eldest female in the pack. They lay eggs which hatch big-pawed cubs with stubby tails, who can already move about and inject venom within an hour of hatching. A rattle-cat can be trained with some success if raised from hatching, making the eggs valuable in certain markets.

Building and Defining an Expert

The actual rules for building and defining a monster using the expert array are the same as those for any other creature, but the nature of the expert array means the emphasis needs to be different. An expert has a lower attack roll and does less damage per attack than a combatant, and has a slightly lower KAC and about 10% fewer hit points. In exchange, it gets a higher ability DC, base spell DC, and more master skills.

That means when deciding if a creature should use the combatant or expert array, the GM needs to ask “is the core conceit of this creature one that leans heavily on skills or abilities with save DCs?” (You use the spellcaster array if you creature is primarily a spellcaster—that’s pretty straightforward. Anything that is a straightforward fighting monster should be a combatant. But if some creature’s concept is built on special effects or opposed skill checks, it works better as an expert. It’s not able to deal or soak quite as much damage in a stand-up fight, but it is more likely to have the skills needed to be a noncombat threat to PCs, and it’s abilities are harder to resist.

So when building our template graft, we should have a fairly heavy focus on things that work well with complementary skills, and/or that have a save DC of some kind. Once we know the core abilities for the creature, it’s still possible to easily create a graft we can apply to the right array and type and/or subtype grafts to produce a version of the monster at any CR. Using the same format as we did for the Grizzly Boar template graft, here’s the graft for the Rattle-Cat.

Rattle-Cat TEMPLATE GRAFT
Required Array: Expert
Required Type: Animal
Alignment: Neutral
Size: Small (CR 1/3-CR 1/2), Medium (CR 2-CR 11), or Large (CR 12+)
Speed: 30 feet (Small), 50 feet (Large) or 60 feet (Huge)
Ability Score Modifiers: Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom
Special Abilities: 1-Poison bite (see Rattler Poison). 2-Rattle (see Rattle special ability). 3-Evasion. 4-Cloaking field (as the operative exploit). Bonus- Spring Attack (as the feat).
Skills: Master– Acrobatics, Intimidate, Stealth; Good-Athletics, Survival
Attacks: Melee (bite, with poison; critical: injection +2), no ranged.

Rattle (Ex): The tip of a rattle-cat’s tail makes a disturbing, rhythmic noise that most creatures other than rattle-cats and rattle-snakes find disconcerting. As part of a move action, a rattle-cat can rattle its tail to make an Intimidate check to demoralize all foes within 60 feet. Once a creature has been demoralized by this function of a Rattle-Cat’s rattle ability, it cannot be affected again for 24 hours. A Rattle-Cat can also make an Intimidate check to demoralize any creature that can hear it as a standard action.

Rattler Poison

Type poison (injury); Save Fortitude (DC set by array and CR)
Track Constitution; Frequency: 1/hour for 12 hours
Special: Multiple bites cannot move target down the Constitution track more than once per hour.
Cure: 2 consecutive saves

So, you can see that one major element of the rattle-cat is its poison, which it applies with every bite. Given how the poison rules in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game this could be extremely deadly very quickly, but the special restriction means that after the first bite you are just taking damage until the 2nd or subsequent hour. If untreated, the 12 hour duration makes you likely to die without treatment… which is exactly what we’re looking for in a poisoned Really Wild West creature, to help drive storylines. The poison is both a combat enhancer, and an after-combat driver of story and plot.

The Rattle ability is built off Intimidate skill rules, which works well with our Expert build. However, the Rattle-Cat is also well positioned to be a mobile ambush threat, with high Acrobatics and Stealth values as well. A combatant would have trouble being a major threat with Acrobatics and Intimidate and Stealth, all of which can call for checks with DCs based on the competence or skill of the foe. With evasion and the cloaking field, higher CR Rattle-Cats are even tougher to flush out, and the bonus Spring Attack feat (given for the same reason we gave the Grizzle-Boar a bonus ability) and high speed allows them to make hit-and-run attacks from cover in the wild.

A Rattle-Cat written up as a combatant would be more dangerous in a stand-up fight, but less able to use the tactics and abilities that make it interesting.

Here we bring the whole thing together for a CR 3 Rattle-Cat.

RATTLEE-CAT          CR 3          [EXPERT]
XP 800
N Medium Animal
Init +2 Senses low-light vision; Perception +8
DEFENSE     HP 35
EAC 14; KAC 15
Fort +4; Ref +4; Will +6
OFFENSE
Speed 50 ft.
Melee bite +9 (1d4+7 P plus rattler poison)
Offensive Abilities rattle
STATISTICS
Str +4; Dex +2; Con +0; Int -4; Wis +1; Cha +0
Skills Acrobatics +13, Athletics +8, Intimidate +13, Stealth +13, Survival +8
Languages none

Rattle (Ex): The tip of a rattle-cat’s tail makes a disturbing, rhythmic noise that most creatures other than rattle-cats and rattle-snakes find disconcerting. As part of a move action, a rattle-cat can rattle its tail to make an Intimidate check to demoralize all foes within 60 feet. Once a creature has been demoralized by this function of a Rattle-Cat’s rattle ability, it cannot be affected again for 24 hours. A Rattle-Cat can also make an Intimidate check to demoralize any creature that can hear it as a standard action.

Rattler Poison
Type poison (injury); Save Fortitude (DC 14)
Track Constitution; Frequency: 1/hour for 12 hours
Special: Multiple bites cannot move target down the Constitution track more than once per hour.
Cure: 2 consecutive saves

So that brings us through two of the three arrays, while helping to build a set of unique threats for the Really Wild West (though these monsters can be used in any Starfinder Roleplaying Game campaign). We still need to discuss the Spellcaster array, and maybe take a look at class grafts, in upcoming articles!

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Starfinder Roleplaying Game Monster Design Notes–Really Wild West Bestiary: Grizzly Boar

One of the great things about the Starfinder Roleplaying Game is that designing new monsters and NPCs is fast an easy. Most of the math is taken care of for you, allowing GMs to focus on cool ideas to make threats interesting, instead of having to bend over backwards making sure their core game stats are appropriate for threats of a given level.

That also gives people creating new settings for the game, like my Really Wild West setting hack, opportunities to present creatures in a new way. Rather than just offer a monster, it’s possible to write template grafts in such a way that a GM can adapt a few simple monster rules to create a version of a monster for any CR. A GM need not try to shoehorn the perfect creature concept into an encounter of an inappropriate level. Instead the monster concept can be presented in such a way that the GM can quickly and easily use it at any CR.

I’m going to provide some examples on how to do that, while at the same time talking a bit abut what makes good monsters, walking GMs through the monster creation process, and presenting some brand-new monsters perfect for the Really Wild West (but usable to fill the wildernesses of any Starfinder Roleplaying Game world’s wilderness).

We’ll start with the Grizzly Boar

Grizzly Boar

GRIZZLY BOAR

A Grizzly Boar is a monstrous alpha predator roaming the deep woods and mountains of North America, with a range that is densest along the southeastern coast of the US, the eastern US/Mexico border, and on the whole west coast of North America. With a tusked, porcine head, massive furred body and huge claws, grizzly boars are territorial omnivores that do not fear humans and that will challenge wyverns, wolf packs, and even dragons of their size. When wounded, a grizzly boar will stalk whatever it perceives as a threat for hundreds of miles, until it becomes enraged enough to move in for a kill. Their coloration runs from dark brown in temperate zones to white in the far north, and similar, smaller species of tusk-bears can be found in northern and eastern Europe.

Building and Defining a Monster

Every Starfinder monster is built on one of three arrays presented in Starfinder Alien Archive—combatant, expert, or spellcaster. These arrays give the base values for a creature based on CR, ensuring they are an appropriate typical challenge for an average 4-person group of PCs of that level. In most cases the first decision a GM needs to make is what array to use for a given creature. Since the grizzly boar is described as a dangerous predator, but not listed as having any noteworthy magic abilities, it’s best represented with the combatant array. The template graft for the monster thus lists the combatant array as “required,” so a GM knows that grizzly boars are always build as combat-focused creatures.

After determining the array, a GM needs to know a creature’s type, since this impacts adjustments to the stats of the array and determined what keyword abilities affect the creature. A grizzly boar could be a magical beast, but again given that it seems to basically be a hybrid of boars and big bears, just making it an animal seems more appropriate. Again this is noted in the template graft. That means that when building a grizzly boar, the GM knows it gets all the things listed with the animal creature type graft presented in in Starfinder Alien Archive—low-light vision, Int modifier of -4 or -5, and a +2 increase to Fort and Ref saving throws.

While the combatant array will tell the GM what the grizzly boars top 3 ability score modifiers are for any given CR, those could be put anywhere. Since grizzly boars are strong, tough, and cunning, those modifiers should be put into Strength, Constitution, and Wisdom (in order from highest to lowest). That information also goes into the template graft. A GM can generally leave all the other ability score modifiers at +0, though if at higher CRs a +1 or +2 is desired for one of the remaining ability scores, that’s fine too.

All combatants gain between one and four special abilities, depending on their CR. These are the things that set a monster apart from other creatures of the same CR and type, and are the abilities that PCs are most likely to remember after facing a given monster. To make the grizzly boar template graft work for a grizzly boar of any CR, four special abilities are listed in order of priority, 1-4. If making a CR 1/3, ½, or 1 grizzly boar, it gains only the first listed ability (brute), while a CR 2-CR 11 grizzle boar also gains the second listed ability (gore). Additionally, since all of those options are passive and the grizzly boar is supposed to be among the tougher threats a group might face at its CR, and it has no ranged attacks, a single bonus special ability is listed (ferocity, a universal creature rules from Starfinder Alien Archive), which all grizzle boars receive regardless of CR.

Finally, all monsters built on the combatant array gain one master skill and two good skills, which are listed in the array. Creatures are assumed to gain Perception as a good skill, so it isn’t listed. For consistency sake, a few other notes are given, including the size of a grizzly boar based on it’s CR. These don’t have much impact on its stat block (though it does impact space and reach), but it helps a GM know that lower-CR grizzly boars are young cubs, runts, or from smaller species.

So, the final template graft looks like this:

GRIZZLY BOAR TEMPLATE GRAFT
Required Array: Combatant
Required Type: Animal
Alignment: Neutral
Size: Small (CR 1/3-CR 1), Medium (CR 2-CR 4), Large (CR 5-CR 11), or Huge (CR 12+)
Speed: 30 feet (Small and Medium), 40 feet (Large and Huge)
Ability Score Modifiers: Strength, Constitution, Wisdom
Special Abilities: 1-Brute (adjustment special ability, see Starfinder Alien Archive). 2-Gore (as the nuar racial trait). 3-Grab (claw). 4-Extra hit points (adjustment special ability, see Starfinder Alien Archive). Bonus-Ferocity.
Skills: Master– Athletics; Good-Intimidate, Survival
Attacks: Melee (tusk or claw), no ranged.

To make this monster, a GM just takes the combatant array for the desired CR of the end monster, adjusts the numbers as noted for the animal type, and enters those values in a stat block as directed by the template graft. If an ability just changes numbers (such as brute and extra hit points), the GM makes those changes, but doesn’t need to list those abilities in the state block (since, once the changes are made, the GM doesn’t need to be reminded of those abilities during combat, unlike something like gore, which impacts choices the GM makes). Here’s what a CR 6 Grizzly Boar looks like, for example.

GRIZZLY BOAR          CR 6          [COMBATANT]
XP 2,400 each
N Large Animal
Init +0 Senses low-light vision; Perception +13
DEFENSE     HP 90
EAC 18; KAC 20
Fort +10; Ref +10; Will +5
Defensive Abilities ferocity
OFFENSE
Speed 40 ft.
Melee tusk or claw +13 (3d4+13 P or S)
Space 10 feet; Reach 10 feet
Offensive Abilities gore
STATISTICS
Str +5; Dex +0; Con +3; Int -4; Wis +2; Cha +0
Skills Athletics +18, Intimidate +13, Survival +13
Languages none
SPECIAL ABILITIES
Ferocity (Ex) When a grizzly boar is brought to 0 Hit Points, it can fight on for 1 more round. It can act normally until the end of its next turn; if it has 0 HP at that point, it dies. If it would lose further Hit Points before this, it ceases to be able to act and dies.
Gore (Ex) A grizzly boar can charge without taking the normal charge penalties to the attack roll or its AC.

If the GM needs a group of 4 smaller, lower-level grizzly boars, it’s the work of 2-3 minutes to write up a new stat block to represent a pack of cubs or a herd of wild tusk-bears. If the GM wants to truly challenge a group of 6th level PCs with a massive grizzly boar threat, writing up a CR 9 version is just as fast and easy. Rather than just a single monster at a single CR, the grizzly boar template graft makes this creature a threat usable at any level.

In the coming weeks, we’ll present at least a couple more examples for creatures using the Expert and Spellcaster arrays, while filling out the Really Wild West Bestiary entries.

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Really Wild West Bestiary: Gulchers

Of course you can use any creatures from the Starfinder Alien Archive as threats in a Really Wild West campaign, but in most cases you’ll want to reflavor them to something more appropriate for it’s 1891 aesthetic and technology level.

It’s useful to dream up brand-new threats as well of course, to get foes hat are unique to the dangerous world of pulp theosophy and super-science that is Really Wild West. Here is a very RWW-themed undead, which may be encountered alone or in mass numbers as dictated by the plot. If you want to make different of higher-CR gulchers, just take any undead and replace one of its offensive powers with bad off, add false life, lower its EAC by 2 and raise its KAC by 1.

GULCHER (CR 1)
XP
400
NE Medium undead
Init +2; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +5
DEFENSE
HP
24
EAC 9; KAC 14
Fort +3; Ref +3; Will +3; DR 3/magic; Immunities undead immunities
OFFENSE
Speed
30 ft.
Melee pitchfork (or other tool) +8 (1d6+5 P; critical: bad off) or
Ranged revolver +6 (1d6+1 P)
Special Attacks bad off (DC 11)
STATISTICS
Str
+4; Dex +2; Con —; Int +0; Wis +1; Cha +0
Skills Athletics +10
Other Abilities unliving
SPECIAL ABILITIES
Bad Off (Su)
A gulcher is imbued with the bad times that lead to its sorry state, and can sometimes inflict its bad luck and sad-sack existence on those it hurts. Any attack from a glucher that scores a critical hit causes the target to feel down and out, gaining the sickened condition for 24 hours, or until the target receives a morale bonus (to anything) or is the recipient of a Diplomacy check to improve their attitude.
A gulcher can also attempt to inflict its bad off ability on a creature as a standard action, creaming in contagious misery. Used this way the ability is sense-dependent and the target can negate it with a successful DC 11 Will save.
A DC 11 Mysticism check can identity the nature of a creature being bad off, and reveal the circumstances that negate this effect. Bad off is a curse effect.

False Life (Ex)
A gulcher that doesn’t realize its own true nature is not affected by spells or abilities that only target undead.
ECOLOGY
Environment
any
Organization solitary, pair, posse (3–12), or settlement (13+)

Gulchers are undead that appear to be gaunt, dirty, badly-tended humans, often dressed in patched and worn prairie clothing, though they can also have the appearance of drovers, gunfolk, miners, merchants, gunfolk, and native people can also become gulchers. Most have sallow skin, yellowed, crooked teeth, stringy hair, and sullen or bloodshot eyes. A few appear jaundiced.

Gulchers are most often normal people who went through a time of despair, tribulation, hunger, and pestilence, and died. But they didn’t notice. Things had been so bad, for so long, that dying would be a relief, and gulchers just don’t expect anything to get better.

As long as a gulcher is unaware it has become an undead, it goes about the dreary and colorless motions of living a life. It eats, if food is available, lies in bed and doesn’t realize it never sleeps, sucks down duststorms and doesn’t realize it should choke. In this state, the gulcher isn’t affected by powers that only effect undead, but it also isn’t immune to fear and emotion effects, and takes the penalties for being shaken at all times (though this is more a dreary lack of verve than true fear).

All this changes if the gulcher is made aware of its state. The easiest way to do this is to deal piercing or slashing damage to it – gulchers have thick, black blood and realize the horrible truth of their state if they see their own tarlike vitae. Evidence of their lifeless existence, lack of food, lack of sleep, and so on, can also be used to convince a gulcher it is no longer living with a DC 15 Diplomacy check. Once it knows that even the peace of the grave is denied it, a gulcher is slowly consumed with a desire to make everyone and everything as pained and hopeless as its own existence.

It’s not unknown for entire towns to become gulchers, often during thunderdusts, droughts, and locust plagues. Sometimes one or two take the gray journey, and their desire to cause misery slowly kill off everyone else in town. Othertimes a real bad situation takes out near everyone most all at once. And sometimes, a drakul, ghul, black spirit, or other bigtime black hat decided to take over a town as a base of operation, and intentionally nurses the despair that causes god-fearin’ folk to become the things other folk fear.

In very rare cases, gulchers perform a useful service, such as toiling at a mostly-played out mine that would be pointless for living creatures to port the food and water needed to operate, operating rickety barges on distant rivers with little traffic, or slowly clearing stones from areas that might, in a few decades, be worthwhile farmlands. Of course, these gulchers are also likely to be angered by the sight of anyone doing better than they, and may drown passengers, or dump scorpions into their sleeping blankets.

Optional Rule: Dolorous Wounds

This is an idea I have played with a lot, but never felt I had a good home for it or a final version of the rule.

New Optional Rule: Dolorous Wounds

Dolorous wounds are an option rule that both explains why the dead and undead are sometimes depicted with injuries sustained in life (if magic can make a skeleton get up and walk, why can’t it fix chipped ribs and cracked skulls?), and to give GMs another option to deal with questions of PC mortality and resurrection other than raise dead and similar spells.

The dolorous wounds rule assumes that some wounds are so deep, so horrific and life-threatening, that they damage the life force (or “soul) of their targets. Dolorous wounds never fully heal of their own accord, and because the wounded creature’s life force is also wounded, healing magic cannot restore them to full health. As long as the wounded creature’s soul has a piercing near its heart, for example, the creature’s heart will never be at full strength.

When using dolorous wounds, when a character would normally be killed, the player may instead choose for the character to suffer a “dolorous wound.” The dolorous wound produces some physical ailment, agreed upon by player and the GM (normally a -1 penalty to one category of skill checks, most often Str, Dex, Con, or Cha-based skills, though a penalty to range modifier for losing an eye or a reduction of movement rate for a limp are also appropriate). In general, the penalty should be to skills of an ability score that is one the character’s 3 highest, and that have related skills the character has put at least a few skill points in – a 7 Charisma fighter who never uses any Cha-based skills shouldn’t think he’s immortal because he’s willing to take penalties to social efforts and UMD.

A dolorous wound is so severe the damage is duplicated on the character’s soul, making it impossible to heal with normal magic. A special ritual may be able to fix a dolorous wound, but it has at least the cost and difficulty of a true resurrection spell. You cannot use the dolorous wound rule to escape death as a result of a coup de grace.

The dolorous wound rule should only be used for player characters and major NPCs. (In some campaigns it’s appropriate to restrict dolorous wounds to creatures with heroic class levels). These rules allow a game to make magic that raises the dead very rare, without having players constantly have to replace a favored PC (or GMs come up with a new master villain) when someone actually dies. The penalties for a dolorous wound are severe enough to encourage players to avoid dying, but not so great at to make characters unplayable. A campaign that allows dolorous wounds makes death a much rarer occurrence among players, and thus prevents it from losing all meaning and impact. A campaign using this rule can even eliminate such spells as raise dead, presenting a world where death is permanent (or much more so than in a typical campaign), without making it impossible for players to keep their PCs after a major defeat.

Alternatively, dolorous wounds can be a background rule, something the GM makes players aware of but largely as something that explains why the king has an old war wound while surrounded by 13th level spellcasters, and why some undead come back missing heads, arms, or other body parts. Dolorous wounds as a concept—injuries that inflict damage on the target’s soul and thus defy standard healing, can be useful purely for story purposes.

Patreon Exclusive Content

Over at my Patreon, I added an undead template, the gan ceann, which turns any corporeal undead into a headless monstrosity due to a dolorous wound preventing them from being whole, even in death. It’s a minor patron exclusive idea, check it out!