Ah, the skeleton. One of the classic monsters, it occupies a sort of polar opposite to the mighty dragon or other monsters whose iconic status is (at least partially) concurrent with their great power. Indeed, skeletons are most notable for being the lowest-level undead most PCs will ever face, if not the weakest of any sort of threats. True, the skeleton template does allow for some upward scaling, but by and large these are lesser enemies, and little more.
That’s not nearly good enough for such an iconic monster, and so Minotaur Games brings us Monster Focus: Skeleton, to try and flesh out (not literally) not just skeletons themselves, but related materials to allow for greater command or destruction of these bony beings. Let’s take a look.
Monster Focus: Skeletons is a fairly short book, being a grand total of a half-dozen pages in length, including the cover. Several black and white illustrations liven up the presentation. These all seem to be hand-drawn; interestingly, these pictures are rough, but not quite so much that I’d call them of poor quality. Rather, their unpolished nature seems to capture the rough feeling of an undead skeleton, chipped and imperfect but still whole and functional. I’m not certain if Jason Bulmahn did that on purpose or not, but it works to surprisingly good effect.
As a supplement themed around a specific type of monster, the book basically presents a selection of new crunch related to that monster. The book opens with a set of escalating skill DCs for what knowledge checks reveal about skeletons; this is nice, if somewhat expected, since most PCs are likely to know pretty much everything your basic skeleton has. More helpful is the note that for stronger skeletons, the DCs should be increased on a 1:1 scale with the CR. This is good advice, though it should be noted that the information should be tailored slightly in that case, since it’s possible to make creatures of varying CRs using the basic skeleton template.
Three feats are next, two of which go towards damaging skeletons (though at their narrowest these feats still deal with undead made primarily of bones, e.g. liches, as well), and one towards commanding greater numbers of them. I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the Bone Breaker feat, as it allows for slashing weapons to beat DR X/bludgeoning, something that always seemed like a no-brainer to me.
A half-dozen alchemical items are next. Roughly half of these are essentially power components, in that they’re used with certain specific spells to enhance the spell’s effects. This is sensible, since Craft (alchemy) has long been the province of magic-users.
Five new spells follow. I wasn’t particularly impressed several of these, but some of the other spells here did, I must admit, wow me. Corpse Rebellion is a creative way to attack an undead creature – by allowing its departed spirit to reach back and try and confound, if not destroy, its defiled body. That does rub up against the whole “no unwilling resurrection” prohibition, but only slightly. It also calls up interesting questions for undead who are presumed to be still in possession of their warped souls, such as mummies, vampires, and liches, but that’s the sort of grey area that cunning GMs will love.
Seven magic items are present, each of which is a specific item rather than a magic weapon or armor quality. These weren’t bad, but as with the spells nothing seemed too innovative, something I suspect comes from most of them simply regurgitating specific spell effects. A few go beyond this, such as the Skull of Fangs, which can independently attack creatures on command.
The book ends with three new skeleton templates, getting back to the monsters that are at the heart of this book. The decrepit skeleton is one of the rare kinds of templates that makes a creature weaker, rather than more powerful. The monstrous skeleton template exists solely to allow creatures that had powerful abilities in life to retain them as skeletons. The skeletal lord is an enhanced version of the skeletal champion, being layered on top of that template. It was here that I wish a sample NPC had been included, not so much because it was necessary as because it would have been really cool to have had a pre-made skeletal lord NPC on hand. Three skeleton-based adventure ideas round out the book.
Overall, Monster Focus: Skeletons isn’t a bad book, but while it does have the occasional gem of an idea, there’s little here that reaches out and demands that you buy it. There’s no insightful ecology or game-changing idea found herein, nothing that makes you think that this is “Skeletons Revisited”-level inspiring. That’s a shame because such iconic monsters really need something on that level to do them justice. That said, what’s here is certainly viable for your game, and you likely won’t regret picking this book up. It is, ultimately, a bare bones product that needed some more meat on it to make it truly substantive.