(I will not be having a minions/allies tab for CR 0 monsters. These monsters are clearly not combat monsters and giving them supporters would be pointless.) (They will have combat encounters, though.)
How to Use
The crawling claw’s most obvious use is to showcase the fact that a specific NPC is a necromancer. With that said, unlike in a television show, where the hand can be doing different things in the background and adding to the ambiance without needing to be in the spotlight, tabletop RPG requires that you find a way to have it affect the story for it to be noticed.
A D&D game isn’t [or shouldn’t be] primarily the DM speaking. In all my experiences, the DM can only speak for so long without involving the players before they start agitating for him to get to the point. If we want the crawling claw to be part of the background, we have to find a way for it to play a part in the story.
In the examples below, I’m going to be assuming the players are visiting a necromancer. The necromancer isn’t a direct villain [at least at this point in the game], and the players have to get something from him [possibly information, an item, or other.] I discussed bargaining with NPCs in my article on aarakocra.
(You will want to figure out a personality for the necromancer. Different possibilities include hostile and spooky, amused and ironic, shrewd and grasping, and many others. You can adapt many of the personality quirks in the background section of The Player’s Handbook to almost any NPC. But this is not our topic.)
- As they enter, the see a hand on the carpet. After a moment, it picks itself up and scurries off the let its master know that someone is coming. (In addition to being a good use for a crawling claw, this one sets the scene for some of the later uses.) If you want to give the players more agency, they knock on the door and a claw comes out of a miniature cat flap. They have to decide which of two letters of introduction [that they were given by different NPCs], or items serving a similar use, to have the claw pass on to the necromancer. Obviously, both choices have pros and cons.
- As they make introductions, the necromancer asks them if he can provide music. (He can offer drinks too. It will make the players have to decide if they want to risk drinking, or risk insulting their host.) If they agree, he snaps his fingers and a pair of claws scurry over and begin playing the piano. Possibly he makes a remark about being fortunate to get his hands of so-and-so the murdering musician, or a similar epitaph. Have a soft, non-distracting music ready to activate on your computer or other device for maximum effect. (This entire idea would also work very nicely in a haunted house. Have the players come to a piano that is being played by two hands that aren’t attached to any body.)
- This requires that the players need to talk to the necromancer about at least two items. (What they need from the necromancer and what the necromancer wants in exchange can be made to count.) In the middle of discussing the first one, have the necromancer need to look something up. He snaps his fingers, or otherwise gives an order, and the claw scurries off to bring a scroll or book. The necromancer mentions that it might take a moment, and switches to the other subject. Have the claw come back while they’re still discussing the second subject.
- After they come to an agreement, have the claw write up the agreement and then the players are asked to sign.
- (This can be combined with any of the above.) The players recognize the NPC the hand came from. To make a hand recognizable without the players realize what you’re doing in advance, have them meet an NPC whose entire body is covered with blue [or some other color] tattoos, or a woman with green hair, lipstick, and fingernails. Depending on their relationship with the NPC, this will do interesting things to their meeting with the necromancer. [If they’ve met the NPC multiple times, whatever effect is caused by seeing the hand will be stronger.]
Combat encounter 1: Hide and go Sneak. (Difficulty 3)
You can also use the claws as minions scurrying around to give warning or set off traps. While one claw is very easy to stop [if you set it up so that by the time they notice the claw it’s too late you’ve make the claw redundant. Just say they stepped on a switch,] it becomes very different when there are a whole bunch of them.
I’m setting this scenario in a crowded office. There is information that they’ve been sent to get, to stop them from simply torching the office with burning hands or fireball.
At the start, have one or two hands scurry off to give warning. These ones are in the open, and easy to stop, but they let the players know of the danger. You’ll want to mention that they see one or two others dart for cover (You can have them dodge into the corners of the room, then narrate that the players looked away for a minute, perhaps distracted by the ones in the middle, and lost sight of them in the dim light.)
This is a description of the room. You can read the following paragraph to them; it has nothing they shouldn’t know. You might not want to give it to them to read, but only because having it in front of them to analyze might make the challenge too easy.
The room is a nice, medium sized room. About ten feet long by fifteen feet wide. A desk, overflowing with papers, sits at the side of the room near the entrance, with a chair tucked in on the far side. A candle at the desk is burning faintly, providing a little extra light, and a small black bag is on the floor near the desk. The desk also has a few drawers, all shut. A small shelf with a few dusty glass carvings is on the wall high above the desk. After the desk, a long curtain covers one wall, with a couch in front of it. Above the couch, you can see the light of a window coming in through the curtain. On the other side of the room is a large bookshelf. Most of the shelves are covered with books, but there is an ornament shelf with an assortment of miniature crossbows on a shelf in the middle, and you see a dusty vase on a top shelf on the left side. There is a square carpet that goes around the sides of room, framing an open space in the middle where the floor is bare (and covered with a few barely distinct chalk marks.) At each of the far corners is a large gong, and a large, decorative glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling.
Below are two lists of different ideas as to how to use the claws. You can use one list exclusively, or combine ideas from both lists. [Note: You don’t want to use all of the following ideas. I’m providing a lot so you can pick and choose. In fact, I don’t think I would use more than two per player.]
This first list is ways the claws might sneak around. They are trying to go for the gongs in the far corners of the room, so that they can alert their master. (The claws don’t have intelligence, so we’ll assume that their master gave them instructions to make their way to him in this manner in the advent of intruders.)
It will take the claws three turns to reach their master and/or set off traps or the alarm.
- The claw dives under the carpet and continues crawling under it.
- The claw moves behind the furniture, under the bookshelves or behind the couch.
- The claw scurries along on top of the bookcases. Since the bookcases are high off the ground, and the claw is small, the players won’t see it unless they climb up and look.
- Two claws scurry into a bag or backpack, and try to crawl along while still inside it, through holes in the bottom. (we’ll say that there are more holes in the top and/or sides through which they sense when a PC is right next to them, at which point they pause.) To pull this off, you’ll have to be able to fit the bag into your description of the room multiple times. Describe them having to step over the bag, nearly tripping on the bag, etc.’. This idea favors a DM who is good at description. Don’t feel bad if you mess it up and they figure it out too fast. If caught, they crawl for the gongs as fast as they can.
- The claw goes behind the curtain. If any player picks up the curtain to look behind it, the claw has an action readied to grab onto the curtain and rise with it. Mention that the tassels at the bottom of the curtain are heavier than they expected. Throw in extra details for other areas they examine so that the weight isn’t as suspicious.
- One claw dives into the couch cushions and hides there for a minute (10 rounds). When the players think they have caught all of them and stopped looking, it will sneak out and make its way behind the furniture to get to the gongs. If the players sit down on the couch in the meantime, you can make mention of the couch cushions as being uncomfortable.
- This one will only work if you are good at being descriptive. One of the claws grabs hold of one of the PCs shoes, or even better, hides under the PCs cloak. You’ll have to describe the cloak as being stuck on something, only to come free when he gives it a yank. You’ll have to throw in 1-2 descriptions of his cloak trailing on the floor and getting dusty, or of his shoes being heavy, he must have gotten mud on them outside. Like with the bag, there is a good chance this idea won’t work.
This list contains ideas for traps and other pitfalls that the claws can throw at the players. When using this list without the first list, you’ll probably need to give the players some type of time limit to prevent them from searching the office super carefully. [perhaps until the necromancer returns, or until a spell activates.]
Note that some of the claws will take a few turns to get into position. Others are available to attack as soon as a player moves near. I have specified at the end of each idea how long I would give the players to prevent it, but feel free to adjust it as needed.
- One of the claws climbs up and releases the candelabra. Even if the candelabra isn’t lit, it will send glass flying all over the room. It will also do a lot of extra damage to any player that might be standing underneath it, both bludgeoning and slashing. It will also knock those players to the ground, and they’ll probably need help to extricate themselves. (Strength isn’t enough, as the cords will twist around them.) [2-3 rounds]
- One of the claws will sneak around inside the papers on the desk. If not caught, it will tilt the candle on the desk over, causing the papers on the desk to catch fire (one of them might be an important document, with value to the players if they don’t lose it.) If uncaught for another round, it will push the burning papers down onto the carpet, spreading the fire there as well. [1-2 rounds]
- One claw will climb onto the bookcases and start firing the miniature crossbows. It’s somewhat random as to whether it will hit, but when it does hit a PC, the quarrels are poisoned. The player takes 4d6 poison damage, and has to make a CON save [DC 11] or be poisoned for one minute. The player can make the save again at the end of each of his turns, ending the effect on a success. (This scenario has been planned for level 3 players. Feel free to adjust the numbers based on your player’s level.) [1-3 rounds]
- One claw, also on the bookcases, will throw down heavy encyclopedias at anyone who passes nearby. [+3 to hit, 1 d4 bludgeoning damage. Surprise on the first attack.] Should someone climb up to deal with it, it will spill out the vial into their face. The vial is full of acid. [Taken straight to the face, I would say 6d6 acid damage.] [Immediate]
- One claw is hiding inside a drawer of the desk. If someone opens it, the claw springs out and tries to stab the person with a poisoned needle. (+3 to hit, plus surprise. 1 point of piercing damage, plus 2d8 poison damage.] Once it’s revealed, it keeps attacking people until it’s put down. [Immediate]
- Another claw, on the ornaments shelf, takes a screwdriver to the shelf and starts working to detach it from the wall. Once it’s loose, it will push it down as soon as there’s at least one PC underneath it. [2-3 rounds]
- The final claw is hiding under the desk. If someone pauses there for a round, or better yet sits down, it will tie their shoelaces together. When they next try to move, they fall prone on their face. This has no other effect. I suppose this one is mostly just here for amusement [mine and the DM’s.] [Immediate]
Combat encounter 1.5: Battleship (difficulty 4)
In a variation of the last encounter, the players have to find and stop all the claws from activating the defenses. Unlike in the previous encounter, this encounter takes place in an unfurnished area, so much so that it’s almost wilderness. If it’s underground, the entire floor is covered with boulders or rubble. If it’s outdoors, I suggest a completely neglected garden, where the ground is covered with bushes and thick weeds. Either way, the battlefield is difficult terrain in which they can’t see the claws unless they’re immediately adjacent.
Use a plain grid for your battlemap, I would suggest about 8×8 squares. Since the claws are hidden, you’ll need two battlemaps, one behind a DM screen showing the claws [it should also show the PCs and anything else. To do otherwise is to end up taking a lot of time double checking everything and making mistakes,] the other is for the players to see.
The rules are simple. The players can only see a claw if it’s adjacent [orthogonally or diagonally] to their character. Each claw has an alcove at the side of the room that it is hurrying to at its top speed of five feet a round [it’s dashing, and the area is difficult terrain. They cancel each other out.] The claws are focused on reaching their respective alcove, and won’t attack the players, even with opportunity attacks. [Each claw has a specific alcove meant for it. I suggest putting letters or numbers on the back of the claws, and on the alcoves on the DM’s copy of the battlemap, so you can easily tell where each claw is headed.]
The claws contain the power to fit into the construct or undead in the alcoves and animate it. [You might want to present each of them as missing one hand. The same hand for each.] You’ll want to start with two monsters already animated, to make searching challenging. Make certain to put all the claws at least three spaces away from their alcoves. Most of them should be at least five spaces away. (The players should be able to stop most of the claws in time.)
The monsters that the hands animate should be a CR level lower than the party’s, or equal if you want a really hard challenge. I would suggest them all being the same type, to reduce confusion. The starting monsters can be anything, although it might be a good idea to use the same type. That way, you can play it as two monsters that happened to be near their alcove, and give the players an idea what’s happening. (On the other hand, using different monsters can give some more variety to the fight, and you can introduce the danger to your players by setting up an earlier combat with two claws that immediately animate their monsters.) Whatever you choose, however, avoid monsters with area attacks, or you might end up accidently killing your own claws.
Possible monsters for the claws to animate: Skeleton or zombie (CR 1/4). Animated armor (CR 1). Minotaur skeleton or ogre zombie (CR 2). Mummy or wight (CR 3). Helmed horror (CR 4). Flesh golem or revenant (CR 5). [Note that the flesh golem is immune to non-magical weapons, so only use it if your melee fighters have magical weapons, unless you’re willing to waive that rule.]
If you or your players are wondering why they aren’t active in their more powerful form all the time, perhaps it’s very expensive, mana wise, and so he keeps them active in their claw forms until needed. If he can use any claw to animate any body, it would also help make sense, as he doesn’t need to worry about the bodies wearing out this way. (Of course, in the case of the zombies, these explanations are superfluous. Nobody uses zombies as servants. They smell horrible, and they are super clumsy.)
Combat encounter 2: Follow the Creeper (difficulty 2-3)
The players have to follow the claw to find a place or item. Perhaps the necromancer died, or he’s absent, and he left an item that will lead them to the place/item they need. That item turns out to be the claw. Or perhaps they’re in a dungeon, and the claw is on a pedestal with a sign saying place their hands on the plaque and take to oath to do or not do X it will lead them to Y (or heck, if they pay the requisite amount of gold into the container.)
Once animated, the claw will begin moving toward the destination, one that only it knows. If won’t obey instructions to stop moving, or do anything else. If picked up, the enchantment will break, (I would put a warning about that on the plaque or in the instructions the necromancer left for them.)
The claw will be using the dash action to move at ten feet a turn. (Without that, the challenge will be pretty easy.)
Below are complications for you to put in the player’s way: (You probably want to choose 2-3.)
- The most basic is enemies. The claw leads them right into an enemy, or small group of enemies. They have to fight their way through these enemies without letting the claw get too far ahead. They also can’t use area-of-attack spells carelessly, or they’ll kill the claw. (The enemies won’t attack the claw, including with opportunity attacks. I would avoid using enemies that have area-of-affect spells or abilities, however.) This encounter will be made harder if you use multiple low-CR enemies, and easier if you use one high-CR enemy. Placing a long open area on the other side of the enemies will also make it easier, as they don’t have to worry about the claw outdistancing them. Suggested enemies include goblins, ghouls, hook horrors, or any of the undead from the previous combat encounter.
- The claw heads toward an area where there’s been a cave-in. It clambers up the rubble and disappears through a small hole. The players have to clear the rubble away in a hurry so as to be able to pursue it. To complicate matters, more enemies arrive behind them and attack. [In this encounter, multiple low-CR enemies are the easier option, and one high-CR enemy is harder. They need the tank classes to be digging. Suggested enemies are the same as above.]
- The claw goes through a section full of traps. I would suggest crossbow traps, as the claw can detect and avoid the triggers, and isn’t high up enough to be hit by any crossbow bolts the players might trigger. This is one of the few places where telling the players that they can do a perception check if they want to carefully scan the area (roll to detect trap; roll to disarm trap) can actually be interesting, as they don’t have time to check the entire hallway.
- They come to a place where the floor collapsed, leaving a 10-foot-deep pit. There is still a little bit of floor left on the sides, which the claw uses, but it’s not big enough for them to follow. The ceiling above the pit is sagging, which makes jumping a bit dangerous. If they should accidently hit that spot while jumping, and whole bunch of rubble might start pouring down, carrying the PC jumping down into the pit. (Since any D&D puzzle ought to have three solutions, to ensure the players will be able to think of one, here they are: 1) They passed scaffolding a bit before the pit. They can take down some of it and use a few of the long pieces as a temporary bridge, the type that’s good if someone is holding one end. 2) A lightweight halfling PC might be able to cross the pit on the side, hand over hand. There is a pillar on the other side to which a rope could be tied so that everyone else can cross. If they don’t have a halfling then a different character could try, although you’ll have to roll to see if the ledge breaks. Or it they have Mend they might be able to fix the ledge a little. 3) They can collapse the ceiling deliberately, with an arrow or other ranged weapon. Then a barbarian can stand in the pit and throw the halfling up (or the equivalent with other characters) after they both climb in. Afterwards they can tie a rope to the pillar to get the rest of the party across. (You probably want to make sure your players have a rope before using this idea, even if you have to give them one. It would also be a good idea to throw in a place or two where the ceiling was collapsing before this one.)
- The claw turns the corner and disappears from view. The hard version of this one is that it went through an illusionary wall. (To make solving this possible, use illusions previously that session. For example, if you use the crossbow traps idea, the crossbows could be on the other side of illusionary walls.) The easier version is that it goes into and through an office. Use the description from first scenario (you might want to simplify it a bit) and any of the hiding places except the first. Instead of gongs, this room has multiple exits on the far side. Finally, they hear enemies arriving behind. This will stop them from just posting a PC at each exit, as most of them will be needed to defend from behind. (They have a round to search before the enemies arrive, however.)