Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Ruined City of Braxa / Undead Armies

This is the second of my ruined cities.  (Here is the first.)

The Countryside

For the wise traveler, all they'll ever see of  Braxa are the roads, and even then, from a safe distance.  Patrols are not as common as they once were, but they are still deadly.  The average patrol is composed of a quartet of mounted "knights". 

The average work-crew is composed of three dozen undead laborers, who level the flagstones and clear the footpaths of their growth.  It is a futile exercise--the citizens of Braxa all died long ago, victims of a plague of their own devising.

There are no small farms in Braxa, only plantations.  If you are determined to ride into the city itself, you'll pass several of these huge platations.  They are autonomous, all singularly crewed by bleached skeletons.  (Fleshy undead are messy, smelly, and spread the wrong types of disease.)

And you'll see the wagons pulling the giant jars of grain along the manicured road, on their way to the great grinding houses. 

The grinding houses, you can feel them in your feet from half a mile-away.  A thousand chained undead, straining in a spiral, rotating an entire building.  A torrent of clean grain thunders into the basement, where it is then carted off, again in a single gigantic jar.

The Walls

The city is surrounded by high walls of earth and stone, the highest wall in Centerra (except for the Forbiddance, which most consider to be a mountain range rather than a wall.)  As you walk through the long passageway between farm and plaza, you can hear the shuffling of dead, pivoting inside their secret chambers, watching you as you pass, ensuring that the leader of your party is wearing a merchant's medallion.

The walls are where the city stores its dead.  Each is about 50 meters thick, and 50 meters tall.  It is honeycombed with secret tunnels, armories, and sepulchers.  If you believe the tales, there's more bone than stone in the walls.  The whole wall is supposed to be able to exhume itself and march off at a moment's notice.

by Kris Kuksi
The City

It is clean and well-patrolled.  If there were any left of the old bloodline left, it would be a utopia for them to claim.  Supposedly, the undead will respond to the rightful rulers of Braxa, and signify this by kneeling.  Then the whole warmachine will be there for the scion to claim.

There are many granaries and stockhouses in Braxa.  Food is delivered to every house daily, and older food swept away and throw into the canal, which is choked with rot. 

The smell from the canal permeates the whole city.

A Small Building

A gate house.  Two skeletons operate the gate, while a dozen coffins in the bunk room can be summoned as reinforcements, if the proper bell is rung.

Another Small Building

A school.  Every morning, the undead clean the chalk tablets, open the windows, and serve lunch.  And every night, they put the chalk away, close the windows, and clean the tables of their refuse.

The Harbor

Looking down in the water, you will see the encrusted skeletons of Braxa's marines.  There are thousands of them down there, clad in lead boots for marching underwater.

Visitors sometimes arrive in Braxa.  The undead pay a bounty for corpses--three silver for every corpse laid down on the dock.  You may not leave the dock.

The Castle

Behind the blank-faced silos sits the castle.  Your merchant's medallion will not gain you entry.  Skeletons squat above every window, peer up from between the flagstones.  The moat is contains no water, merely more skeletons.

The last known king was Obrichan the Poet, although it is believed that he died in the plague, along with all his subjects.

Many people believe that the plague was caused by the king's acceptance of necromancers into his kingdom, and his acceptance of the undead.  Rather than condemn all forms of undeath as an abomination, he allowed them to serve as laborers.

This is where you will find living humans.  Some of the slaves seem to have escaped the plague, and now still tend to castle, performing the chores that the undead are too indelicate to perform, such as tending to the garden or playing songs during "dinner".  Slave who do not perform their chores are mutilated by the skeletons.  They may not leave the castle.

The slaves have gone through countless generations without any interaction with the outside world.  The speak a degenerate patois, and perform their chores religiously, without understanding the significance of what they do.  They have an invented religion, in which the Prophetessa is an invisible spirit within the castle.  After a lifetime of service, they will be promoted to skeletons themselves (mostly true) and after their skeletal life is complete, they will join the invisible Prophetessa at her invisible court.

One of the three towers is known to be the home of Abin Uldrin, the king's necromancer.  If there are any answers to be found in Braxa, they will be there.

Undead Army Strategy

I swear to god, no one does it right.

The greatest strengths of an undead army is in logistics, and in sieges. 

Not needing food is a tremendous advantage in long campaigns, far from home.  The need for a supply line is minimal.  And so undead armies tend to embrace long campaigns, sometimes wandering far from home for decades.

This resilience is even more useful during sieges.  Undead armies can encircle a town for years.  A common tactic is to build a second wall around a city's walls, and use that to prevent relief armies from approaching.  The undead have all the time in the world.

Skeletons are also resistant to arrows and burning oil, two common methods of repelling a siege.

In fact, skeletal armies are so good at sieges that an opposing commander will often make great sacrifices to force a pitched battle elsewhere.

The greatest weakness of an undead army is the intellect of the soldiers, and their magical prohibitions.

An undead battalion must be led by a living soldier, capable of formulating plans and enacting them.  If this soldier is killed, the battalion becomes headless.  Multiple commanding officers offer redundancy, but also erode the unique advantages of the undead.  And so a common opposing tactic is simply the assassination of officers, either through a suicide squad or subterfuge (such as an opponent's risen skeletons.)

Another flaw of the undead is their limited ability to differentiate between humans (and other skeletons, for that matter).  An enemy will be obeyed if they are wearing the proper armor and giving the proper code words.

Lastly, clerical magic can scatter skeletons with shocking efficiency.  An army backed by the Church's clerics can be devastating.  And so assassinations are also required (something that skeletons are incapable of).

Undead Army Tactics

Skeletons are typically iron-shod, like horses.  Their feet tend to erode during long marches, and then they become incapable of walking. 

Skeletal armies are also capable of startling ambushes, with their combatants buried in sand, shallow swamp, or surf.

Crawling skeletons are usually relegated to battalions of their own, and trail behind the main body of the army, unless there are so few of them that they can be carried on wagons, or by their peers (although this just causes their feet to wear out faster).

Lead-shod skeletons can also invade a city through the harbor, by walking on the bottom.  This is devastating to an unprepared city, and this type of sneak attack is usually how campaigns are kicked off.

The most visible icon of a skeletal army are the gas wagons.  Huge things loaded up with burning arsenic, or possibly a mixture of bitumen and sulfur crystals (capable of producing plumes of sulfur dioxide). 

If you ever fight a skeletal army, you will do so in smoke.  In many battles, the smoke claims more lives than the skeletons do.

Common counters involve maneuvering for optimal wind, obstructing the wagons with rough terrain, and/or fighting a running battle.

Tunneling crews are also common.  Sometimes traditional tunnels are used, while othertimes a "bubble" is used, in which freshly excavated soil is piled behind them.  The skeletons are not concerned by their entombment.

For gaining access over a wall, a certain type of skeleton is sometimes used, called a flatback.  These skeletons wear special armor that makes them stackable.  A battalion of flatbacks is capable of building a ramp up to a wall within just a few minutes.

A common counter for flatback battalions is a type of wrecking ball, which is attached to the battlements and used to clear the wall.  


  1. I love this. I spend far too much time thinking about the advantages a skeleton army would have and I haven't thought about the smoke. Obviously they would always be fighting in the most toxic possible smoke. Also the water supply of the entire region would be poisoned. Skeletons would be assigned to arsenic mines, mercury mines, lead mines, orchard of henbane, belladonna and the strychnine tree, plantations of mandrake and aconitum. Every well, every spring, every stream and lake would be poisoned in various ways. Blights and smuts and rusts that afflict crops would be spread about (if the crops could not simply be burned).

    Aside from their immunity to poison I don't imagine skeletons care about noise, they could go into battle shaking rattles and chimes and sistrums, clashing cymbals, beating drums and ringing bells in their thousands, creating a storm of sound that makes it extraordinarily difficult to resist in any organised way. Think of the noise a football crowd makes.

    Add to this heat. Radiant heat is unbearable to fleshy people but bone people don't care. Huge torches and braziers carried on iron wagons could overcome humans at a significant distance. Flares, magnesium and phosphorous, could be used, intolerably bright for human eyes but no problem for the eyeless.

    And the skeleton sappers would obviously have all of this going for them at all times, once the tunnel opens into the city it's all choking, burning, deafening, blinding horror down there and the skeletons don't care.

    There's more: trebuchet parachute skeletons, giant kite skeletons, skeleton inflitrators smuggled in ballast, skeleton armies down in the bedrock ,miles below the surface, digging slowly along in obedience to their instructions, skeleton armies buried centuries ahead of time to wait until a civilisation is flourishing to attack, skeleton armies that cross entire oceans, skeleton armies hidden in icecaps for an interglacial period...

    That's all I can think of now but their must be more. Those things are perpetual motion machines.

  2. It took me a minute to realize the only living creatures are in the castle and perhaps a tower or two. So the whole city is autonomous and everyone is dead, except for the people in the castle and perhaps in the towers.

    Where does the money for the corpses come from? Spoils of war?
    Is so much grain needed for the scale of the city?
    Are there intelligent undead here conducting business?

    1. The city hasn't actually gone to war. It's on autopilot. All the prep occurs without any human input.

      The money comes from the treasury.

      There are no intelligent undead. The whole city is just skeletons carrying out their last order. They must have a way to raise more skeletons, but that's left ambiguous.

    2. Basically a rogue AI style scenario... Like it.

  3. Fuck yes. Death Frost Doom just got a LOT more interesting!!

    1. It seems to me this makes free-willed undead even MORE dangerous. Even a wight or two can campaign forever with its army while directing it intelligently.

  4. If you've gotten to the point where a skeleton can see without eyes, think without a brain, move without muscles, stay together without ligaments, and so on, is there any reason it would be limited to a lifelike skeletal structure at all? Why have soldiers that can be fought, contained, broken, when you could have mobile clouds of bone-dust, storms that scour any animal larger than a housecat and leave the goods and fields for the taking?

    Maybe it's possible to transcend the need for any physical anchor for these necromantic energies. Maybe when you get really advanced, you can just send out a wave of invisible, intangible, Platonic murder to wipe out every potential threat. Which is to say every other intelligent living thing, as well as every living thing that might one day evolve intelligence (as necromancers might live for long enough that that becomes a possibility), because there's nothing theoretically stopping them from doing the same to you and nothing you could do otherwise to stop, evade, or detect it. Maybe that's why necromancy's so taboo. It's a smaller leap than you'd think from skeletal servant to extinction event.


      Combined with this, I now know how Power Word: Kill works!

  5. Skeletons are light. It's weird to think about, but a full-sized human skeleton weighs 22lbs, but it's as strong as a human. It has to be, to parry a sword stroke or draw a bow.
    So are skeletons faster? Coordination issues aside, can they corner with amazing speed?
    Launch them by catapult into a city. Just keep doing it. A bundle of 10 skeletons, with straw and hay padding. Half might survive impact, but that's still 5 skeletons roaming around killing things and you can keep launching bundles every hour of every day.

    1. That was always one of my quibbles. Skeletons strong enough to wield a halberd should be able to leap like grasshoppers if need be.

    2. It's probably a coordination thing. Balance is hard. Then again, if they can swing a 3lb sword and not fall over...
      Screw it. All skeletons are now Fast Skeletons. You can fling them across the room on a good hit but they'll be right back on you in a round or two.

  6. Just a quick input from the history guy. They didn't use burning oil, oil was expensive. Boiling water and sand heated in forges was hot enough to kill though.

  7. I like the idea of undead skeletons still composed of living bone cells 'fed' by magical energy, marrow that can replace lost bone, divide and mineralize and adapt to strains - maybe Bone Elementals are born out of necromantic overstimulation of these cells, inhibiting apoptosis and growing cancerous appendices?

  8. When I picture skeletons, I imagine them armored in bronze.
    My understanding is the reason bronze was eventually phased out for iron/steel wasn't due to strength (bronze being as strong or stronger than most early steels) but weight. Obviously not an issue for skeleton guards. In a sufficiently cool, dry tomb, heavy bronze panoply tied with silk could sit on a guardian for thousands of years.

    1. It wasn't even the weight, it was the fact that sources of tin and sources of copper weren't always near each other and a war or famine disrupting the trade network between could literally end bronze production. Whereas iron can be found almost anywhere, with no need to alloy it. And even as they progressed to steel, you can source carbon from literally anything organic.

    2. If you dip a skeleton in molten iron, would the carbon from the bones turn it into low-grade steel, or just melt?

    3. Well, the difficulty to make it was a part of it, but it is also a softer metal than steel, so it was harder to keep a sharp edge on it, and the blade could actually twist a bit on the edge for weapons. So steel actually was superior.

  9. The city is beautiful and dreary - I like it very much. I was thinking about undead armies for a while, and came to some similar conclusions (though mine were in the hands of necromancers that lived on the edge of a great catastrophe). The tirelessness of the undead also seems terrible - that and the lack of fear. The dead don't route.

    My own take was that low quality mass skeleton infantry is terrible in a fight and slow - low quality living levies can stop them well enough as long as they don't flee, and until they get tired. However, the mass of badly armed dead simply hold the line while low quality skeleton missile troops (or their living auxiliaries)pelt the entire melee. Arrows and stones slide harmlessly through rib cages and even when they do bring down the dead, the rest don't care - they aren't afraid - they are content to be sacrificed.

    Heavy skeleton infantry (though likely requiring more magic to make strong and fast enough to carry much armor) can be entirely encased in plate and again never suffers from heat exhaustion - plus armor that doesn't need to come off again can be stronger and more crudely made.

    Of course once you add a few intelligent dead (especially weapon immune horrors like mummies or wights)to act as a hammer to your unfeeling legion's anvil it gets even worse.

    Finally the dead can march as long as a few of their necromancers can stay awake - undead armies move quick on campaign even if they are slow on the battlefield.

    1. The strategic speed advantage gets even worse when you add cavalry. A skeletal rider on a skeletal horse can gallop from sunup to sunup without stopping to eat or rest. That means an undead cavalry unit can cover in a day what would be nearly a week's travel for living knights. Living strategists United to such things will find their reinforcements and supplies arriving long after the dead have broken down their door and "conscripted" the whole town.

    2. Actually, the skeletons would be incredibly lightweight while still being as strong as a human, meaning you could afford to layer them in disgustingly large amounts of armor while still keeping them incredibly agile and deadly.

  10. Hey Arnold, whatever happened to skeletons being intelligent, but just unable to communicate, wouldn't that make them even more dangerous?

    1. Nothing is canon until it's in a book.

      Maybe not even then.