Next time you’re in a dungeon and a floating skull made of green flame spews fire from its mouth at your party, consider asking it where it’s been.
If you want a tragic monster that doesn’t seem like something that should (or could) exist, look no further than the Flameskull. They’re undead guardian creatures made from the heads of recently dead humans. They float along just out of reach and use their voice (with no lungs, because they’re just skulls) to lure intruders into traps or other dangers. They can also shoot fire teen feet from their mouths (again, with no lungs or other way to propel air) twice per turn.
Some can be enchanted to cast one spell per round, which seems low as the skulls retain the intelligence they had in life and a magic users skull should have a working memory of how to cast magic. That said, their intelligence and boredom usually cause them to go insane, leaving unhinged flaming skull floating around your dungeon to guard your treasure. What could go wrong?
The 3E Flameskulls come specifically from the corpse of a humanoid spellcaster, making their magic abilities make a bit more sense. They’re still highly intelligent for floating skulls, able to speak Common, Draconic, Infernal, and an ancient language or two, but they are also still almost exclusively used as guard monsters. The Flameskull is immune to mind-affecting effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, disease, and death, but they are not immune to melee and missile attacks, making the magic user in your group who uses Magic Missile for everything the Flameskull dungeon MVP. Unfortunately Flameskulls can also Rejuvenate and Fast Heal, making them annoying if not difficult to kill.
Fourth Edition introduces Flameskulls as sometimes ancient creatures. The ritual for creating a Flameskull has apparently been around for many generations, so some skulls could be full of old lore and knowledge, otherwise lost to time. Unfortunately, most adventurers wouldn’t know this and the go-to move when encountering a flying skull with the ability to spew fire out of its mouth will be to destroy it and not to attempt a conversation. 4E also introduces a Great Flameskull, which is basically the Flameskull you already know and love, but with more HP, higher stats, and a Firestorm attack in place of the normal, boring Fireball.
While the Flameskull is still an intelligent and vigilant guard-creature, they now don’t retain much memory of their previous life… Which is at least less tragic than the version that retained all of their previous human intelligence. Now they will dimly recall bits and pieces of their living days, recounting old memories in their old voice, but these are more like echoes than true memories. Instead, they are very good at carrying out directives given to them by their creators.
Have you encountered a Flameskull? Did your party think to have a chat with it, or did you instead go right for the Magic Missile route? If you’d known that some are full of ancient knowledge, what would you have asked that Flameskull? Let us know in the comments!