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I'm running a D&D 5e campaign, and the current villains are necromancers. These necromancers have been taking the corpses of dead monsters and turning them into zombies and skeletons. How they achieve this is irrelevant for this question.

What I want to know is how to easily adapt a monster's existing stat block to create a skeletal version of that monster.

I am aware that it may be necessary to tweak and adjust stats for each monster, but a simple set of rules I can use as a starting point would be great.

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As a first approximation, page 282 of the Dungeon Master's Guide has the NPC Features table, which lists modifiers to apply when adjusting a human NPC to be a non-human NPC. Included in this table is a skeleton:

+2 Dex, -4 Int, -4 Cha

Vulnerable to bludgeoning damage; immune to poison damage and exhaustion; can't be poisoned; darkvision 60ft; can't speak but understands the languages it knew in life

However, this is not the full story. The Monster Manual, under Skeletons (p. 272), contains a stock-standard humanoid skeleton, a minotaur skeleton, and a warhorse skeleton. None of these creatures quite fit the skeleton 'template' provided in the NPC Features table. And this is not too surprising, as the NPC Features table is intended for adjusting the NPC stat blocks in Appendix B of the Monster Manual, not adjusting the stats of arbitrary monsters.

I have cross-referenced the Skeletons page in the Monster Manual with the stat blocks for minotaurs and warhorses, and found some reasonably consistent patterns that occur in creating skeletal monsters. Note that the following stats are advisory only; you may need to tweak them depending on what you are trying to achieve.

  • Strength is unchanged.

  • Dexterity may be left unchanged, or it may be buffed by +2 or +4 as necessary.

  • Constitution score becomes 15. This will change the Hit Points.

  • Intelligence score becomes 6 if it is not already lower (or you can apply a -4 reduction).

  • Wisdom score becomes 8.

  • Charisma score becomes 5.

  • The creature's type becomes undead.

  • The creature's alignment becomes lawful evil.

  • The number and type of hit dice are unchanged.

  • Speed is unchanged.

  • Armour is typically a degraded form of the original armour. 'Armour scraps' provide +1 AC, 'barding scraps' provide +2 AC, and the minotaur skeleton's natural armour provides +2 AC (compared to the living minotaur's +4). We find typical armour bonuses of +1 or +2.

  • The skeleton loses its skill proficiencies.

  • The skeleton probably loses its saving throw proficiencies.

  • Gain vulnerability to bludgeoning damage.

  • Gain immunity to poison damage, and the exhausted and poisoned conditions.

  • Retain or remove previous vulnerabilities, resistances and immunities at your discretion. I recommend removing such traits pertaining to psychic damage and the charmed or frightened conditions, as the skeleton's prior intellect is removed.

  • Gain darkvision 60ft.

  • The skeleton understands all languages it knew in life but can't speak.

  • The skeleton retains its weapon attacks. Consider its other actions on a case-by-case basis to see if they make sense to retain.

  • Remove special traits which would arise from mental attributes or training (such as Reckless or Labyrinthine Recall). Other special traits need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

  • Gain Undead Nature: doesn't require air, food, drink or sleep.

I used these guidelines to build a troll skeleton. Its AC was reduced by 2. The lower Constitution reduced its Hit Points by 24. I gave it a far weaker version of Regeneration, and removed its Keen Smell. Its attack actions were unchanged, so in that regard it played just like a troll with less HP and not stubbornly avoiding death via Regeneration. If I wanted it to be tougher, I could have given it more HP, or avoided nerfing Regeneration too much, but it was adequate for my purposes.

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