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Night of the “Tocking” Dead

An Undead Monster Theme for use with D&D 4E
mechanical mirage

I had been working on some Monster Themes to use for a possible foray into the Shadowfell, and I had been thinking movies for the genre, and for some reason Van Helsing came to mind. While I was not a particular fan of this Hugh Jackman movie, there were some great ideas and visuals in the movie, and a really nifty almost Steampunk/Clockwork edge to some of the equipment and sets.

So I worked up my ideas into an article to publish, based around some of the inspiration from the movie. And because we have finally reached the week leading up to Halloween, it seemed like the perfect time to post it. As always, if you have any ideas or feedback, I hope you will feel free to post a comment about this Monster Theme!

The Clockwork Undead Monster Theme

Sylva could hear the horror shuffling around outside her door, the muffled tick-tock of the clockwork gears inside its rotting body pounding in her ears.  She was safe for the moment, locked in the storeroom, but the decaying mechanical… thing… outside was not going away.

“Let me handle thissss,” a horrid voice hissed beyond the door, whispering to the monstrosity that had her trapped.

Outside there was a metallic grinding sound, and suddenly, the wood of the heavy door began to shred under a jagged saw-blade.  Through the widening hole in the door, the horrified serving girl could see the newcomer’s ghoulish grin as it ravaged the wood with the spinning, whirling blade that served as one of its “hands”.

Sylva’s terrified screams rang into the night, again and again, as the door was torn apart… and then she screamed no more.

Some legends say these clockwork horrors were first created by a necromancer as a way to enhance his undead minions.  Other tales claim they are failed experiments, born of ghastly research to achieve immortality by a necromantic grafting of magically mechanical parts into living flesh.

But whichever story is true, these clockwork undead are even more terrifying than their typical kin.  Bizarre clanking and ticking “enhancements” have been found fused into the bodies of all manner of corporeal undead: zombies, ghouls, wights, and in some rare cases, even vampires.  Whether it is the work of a single mad artisan, or the machinations of an entire cult of necro-engineers, these undead creations are a terrible menace to any who cross their path.

Clockwork undead are easy to identify, making a distinctive “tick-tock” sound when in close proximity.  Several metallic, clockwork grafts are always readily visible, protruding from the corrupted flesh of these malignant creatures.  While retaining all the natural powers of their undeath, clockwork undead gain an array of terrifying powers to use against their living prey.

Origin: Any corporeal undead creature.

Skill Modification: Add a +2 bonus to Intimidate checks (or gains the Intimidate skill if appropriate).

Application: Select one Attack power and one Utility power to add to the monster’s stat block.

Attack Powers
Clockwork undead enjoy a wide variety of powers, depending on the type of mechanisms grafted into their bodies.

Necrotic Spark
Necrotic energies can sometimes be violently discharged from the exposed surfaces of clockwork grafts.  This power is best used by melee-based undead, such as brutes and soldiers, to reduce the damage incoming against them from their opponents.

Necrotic Spark Melee (Minor Action, when creature hits with a melee attack, Recharge 5 6) • Necrotic
The target takes an additional 1d6 necrotic damage and is weakened (save ends).
Level 11: 2d6
Level 21: 3d6

Grappling Talon
A clockwork claw on a chain allows a melee-based controller or soldier to drag their victim within reach of more deadly attacks.

Grappling Talon Melee (Standard Action, Recharge 6)
Reach 5; Level + 4 vs Reflex; melee basic attack damage and the target is grabbed (until it escapes or is released) and pulled up to 4 squares.

Horrific Prosthetic
These undead often have one hand or talon replaced with a clockwork drill, rotating sawblade, or a spike on a piston.  Use this power with brutes, lurkers, soldiers, and skirmishers to increase their threatening aspect.

Horrific Prosthetic Melee (Standard Action, Recharge 6)
The creature makes a melee basic attack.  If the attack hits, the target takes ongoing 5 damage (save ends).

Vile Spray
Some of these undead have reservoirs of alchemical compounds inside them, used to preserve their bodies and lubricate the clockwork parts.  Damaging these undead may result in a nasty spray of acidic or poisonous alchemical reagents.  This attack is most likely found in artillery, controller, and brute creatures.

Vile Spray Close Blast (Immediate Reaction: when this creature becomes bloodied, Encounter) •Poison
Close Blast 3; Level + 3 vs Fortitude; the target takes ongoing 5 poison damage, and is dazed (save ends both).

Deadly Breakdown
There are some clockwork undead creations which do not die easily.  Damage to their inner mechanisms can cause them to become dangerously berserk, flailing around and striking out at all around them.  Brutes, controllers, and soldier undead are good candidates for this power.

Deadly Breakdown Aura 1 (only usable while bloodied)
Creature makes a basic attack as a free action against any enemy that starts or ends its turn within its aura.

Utility Powers

Wound Up Tight
Undead with this power are able to draw upon their clockwork parts for an extra burst of action when they are losing the fight.  This power is particularly useful for controller and soldier undead, and can be a simply terrifying power for a brute creature to possess.

Wound Up Tight (Free action; only usable while bloodied; Encounter)
This creature gains 1 action point.

Creepy Climber
By using their clockwork parts in tandem with their unnatural strength, these undead can scurry up walls and even across ceilings to reach their prey.

Creepy Climber
This creature has a vertical climb speed equal to its normal speed, and can climb across a horizontal surface (such as a ceiling) at one-half its climb speed.

Double-jointed Mechanisms
These undead can bend and move their bodies in ways that defy even their unnatural anatomy.  This power is particularly appropriate for skirmishers, but lurkers and artillery undead can also benefit from this utility power.

Double-jointed Mechanisms (Immediate reaction: when missed by a melee attack; At will)
The creature may shift 1 square.

Necromantic Discharge
Often found in undead with the necrotic spark attack power, these creatures unleash a wave of necrotic energy that bolsters other undead allies.  This utility can be added to clockwork undead to create a monster with leader role.

Necromantic Discharge (Minor action; Encounter)
Each undead ally within 10 squares of this creature gains temporary hit points equal to the this creature’s level.

Radiant Deflector
The reflective surfaces of the clockwork parts which protrude from the creature’s flesh give it a chance to avoid an incoming radiant attack.  This power is most appropriate for soldier and controller undead.

Radiant Deflector (Free Action; creature is targeted by an attack with a radiant keyword; Encounter)
Creature gains a +5 power bonus to the defense against the incoming radiant attack.  This bonus lasts until the end of the creature’s next turn.

Clockwork Monster Theme Example – Gutripper

gutripper v2


Gutgripper loves to use its grappling talon to reach through a wall of defenders and drag a hapless wizard, ranger, or other dangerous ranged opponents within reach of his immobilizing claws and ghoulish bite.  He is cunning and nasty, and will bolster his undead allies as he sends them into battle against his foes, while he devours his chosen victim held firmly in his clockwork talon.


A Character will know the following information about Gutgripper with a successful Religion check.

DC 12: Gutgripper is a ravenous ghoul, augmented with horrid clockwork mechanisms.  It is cunning and dangerous, and can bolster its allies (leader).

DC 17: The ghoul, Gutgripper, works for a demented necromancer, who has other clockwork undead creations to serve him.  Gutgripper often leads squads of undead out on hunting trips, seeking victims to take back to his master, to further the necromancer’s experiment.

DM Notes  & Adventure Hooks

Clockwork undead can exist in almost any D&D 4E campaign setting.  They can be used as part of a single adventure against a “mad scientist”-type mastermind, or as part of a long-term campaign arc where these clockwork horrors show up with increasing frequency until the Heroes put an end to their menace.

The origins of these terrible creations might be some shadowy and fell realm, where a lord of some dreadful domain is creating an army of augmented undead.  Or the threat could be closer to home, and a cult of some kind is creating these clockwork monstrosities from undead creatures in order to undermine a kingdom, or even discredit a state religion.

But regardless of where these ticking horrors show up, they will almost certainly provide Heroes with a threat which is both dangerous to life and limb, and harrowing to their souls!

Image of Mechanical Mirage by H.R. Giger

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


6 Responses to “Night of the “Tocking” Dead”

  1. Dave says:

    Very cool! A question about the Creepy Climber ability, though. You mention different kinds of climb speeds based on direction. I thought that in 4th edition a climb speed meant that if it’s climbable then you can climb it at that speed. Did I miss something?

  2. Draco says:

    I think I might just use this next weekend! Thanks!

    Also, a quick Google search gave me this site, which I think compliments the idea perfectly!
    .-= Draco´s last blog ..digitaldraco- RT @neilhimself- Lots of people telling me Arthur is on or on again in the afternoon Check your local listings itHasMeAsABlackCatInIt =-.

  3. Wow…. that site of sound fx is amazing! The first one “detail colockwork…” is creepy as heck, but I’d love to mix in “clockwork 03 loop” to it as well.

  4. @Dave – no but technically a hanging horizontal surface is not climbable without specialized equipment. A few creatures with claws and spiders can do the trick, but humanoids usually need pitons and ropes to perform such a stunt as a hanging horizontal climb. I thought that with this clockwork undead enhancement, the creatures can still climb any surface, but are slower when the slope is more horizontal than vertical. Of course, feel free to omit the slower climb speed if you want to, as it makes for a more terrifying moment when the characters hear the ticking sound, but can’t seem to find the source, only to look up and see the clockwork things skuttling across the ceiling!

  5. Draco says:

    I did use these for my Halloween game, along with the sounds bites I mentioned. My PCs, roaming the Astral Sea, came across a “ghost ship” spelljammer piloted by a crazy scientist / necromancer.

    Among the creatures I converted (and the powers I gave them) were:
    - Bleak Necromancer (upped his Aura to 2, added Necrotic Spark w/ recharge 4)
    - Dread Guardian* (made it large instead of medium, made the Aura 5 to give it more room to operate, made it a construct w/vulnerability to radiant, changed “Longbow” to “Spring-Loaded Fist”, added Vile Spray and Wound Up Tight)
    - Ghoul (renamed “Claws” to “Mechanical Claws” and “Ghoulish Bite” to “Clockwork Bite”, added Double Jointed Mechanisms”)
    - Zombie Grave Digger (replaced Dirt In The Eye with Spring-Loaded Shove, added Deadly Breakdown)

    *I only used one of these, to make up for the increased powers.

    I also created a minion spider, which I envisioned as being clockwork constructs with fleshy coverings. They had Creepy Climber and Deadly Breakdown (Minions doing extra damage when they go down? Fun! Annoyed the PCs a lot. :D )

    And I used Gutripper. I altered his Ghoulish Bite power to let him use it while the PC was grabbed. This did not please the party’s cleric!

    It was a great success, and kept the party at the table for about 10 hours as they explored the ship from top to bottom, where they found the Necromancer putting finishing touches on the Guardian from atop a wooden platform in the empty cargo area!
    .-= Draco´s last blog ..digitaldraco- Wondering if I could find someone to design a logo for my nigh-ubiquitous digitaldraco user name &amp how much it would cost =-.

  6. Sounds like great fun! It sounds like you used the theme to create a really creepy adventure. Thanks for the feedback!

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