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In my world, skeletons are a thing. They're raised from existing corpses under the control of their "master".

Obviously, there's magic involved. But I don't want magic to be part of the whole process. Let's say the magician behind the skeletons control is simply acting as a puppet master, pulling strings from dead people's skeletons.

How can these skeletons be challenging and a little realistic?

Bones are kinda resistant, but not that much. I guess the mouth would be full of various infections considering this is a corpse we're talking about.

Let's assume the puppet master can provide them an above-average speed (considering he's the one pulling the strings) so they can hit with a pretty good momentum. The puppet master are also very good war tactician, so the skeletons aren't just empty minds running to the battlefield.

These skeletons can be animal or human skeletons. But obviously, it's easier to find human corpses than grizzly corpses.

Edit : I wasn't clear about the kind of challenge they should be. I'm trying to find ways for a small group of skeletons to put up an okay fight to the "hero", mighty sword-wielding badass. They should represent great dangers to villagers or people with little fighting experience.

I'm okay with answers involving more magic. I'd just like the main idea of "skeleton puppets" to be respected.

About the puppet masters : The puppet master are controlling the skeletons 24/7. They have trained for years and years to master this art. They do not suffer consequences of fatigue/hunger/thirst because reasons (It's a work in progress :p). Let's say each of them can control about 30-40 skeletons at the same time, which absolutely doesn't mean these skeletons are "travelling" as a group. They are usually scattered, because unless there's a specific event happening they don't need to be in such a huge number. There are multiple puppet master and they do work together and communicate using telepathy.

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    $\begingroup$ What kind of efficiency are you asking about? Also, you have a bit of a contridiction. Do they attack what they see (like zombies) or are they puppets which need to be controlled? $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Nov 23 '15 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ Since the puppet master has to control each one directly, does he have a maximum number he can control? Is it a conscious control where he has to pay attention to each one? $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Nov 23 '15 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ Also, once muscle and tendons and ligaments go away bones just kind of fall apart... Is it magic holding them together, or something else? I only ask because if it's magic, and the hero knocks an arm off, does the arm reconnect? $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Nov 23 '15 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 I edited my question to respond to the first two comments. But I didn't think about the third one. That's the kind of factor that would make them more challenging though! Magic holds the bones together (but atm it doesn't mean the arms reconnect) $\endgroup$ – IEatBagels Nov 23 '15 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ relevant: this and this $\endgroup$ – Seth Nov 23 '15 at 20:01

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Sheer numbers are going to be a big thing, as are weapons.
Your skeletal warriors are essentially going to be melee fighters with whatever weapons happen to be around, from discarded swords and axes to simple clubs or tree branches.

Their strength is that they are not alive, and so are hard to kill.
Fire won't be much of a concern either unless it's really really hot.
Arrows won't bother them much, since they have no organs to puncture or blood to leak out, and an arrow hitting a bone might dislodge it, but might just glance off. This means that any combat will have to be hand to hand.
This leaves the strategy of just knocking bits off until they can't stand up any more, which could be difficult if the magic bond is strong.

There is also the strength that if they kill someone they can add a new skeleton to their ranks.

A single skeleton could be a threat to an unarmed and untrained peasant, but not to a skilled warrior. However, once one skeleton sees the hero, the puppet master will know and can send more skeletons to that area, and also communicate the location to other puppet masters. It's basically a hive mind for all intents and purposes, which makes a single skeleton both nothing to worry about and a huge threat.

Just being seen would be a big problem for the warrior, so they would want to make sure that if they have to confront a skeleton and can't sneak past, that they clear out of the area quickly or find a hiding spot where the next wave won't see them.

This is how they are scary: you aren't fighting one skeleton, you're fighting the first wave of many, and they only have to get lucky once.

The tactical advantages of having multiple disposable bodies makes them a bigger threat, since they can coordinate their attack easily, and things like ambushes would be child's play and very effective.

If you decide to change it so that bones can reconnect, or even connect to other skeletons besides the one they were originally from, then they get even scarier.

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    $\begingroup$ I love how you used the "hive mind". $\endgroup$ – IEatBagels Nov 23 '15 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ @type_outcast Andy was the first one to propose the reconnection in the OP's comments. He's also the first one to have brought an answer with the "hive". I don't see how these two edits copy any content from anyone else but himself. $\endgroup$ – IEatBagels Nov 23 '15 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ Understandable, thanks for the explanation. I will reverse my downvote as soon as I'm permitted to. I'm sorry for doubting you. May I humbly suggest that describing edits like this that change the nature of the answer (either in the comments or the edit description) would be a good thing for everyone? $\endgroup$ – type_outcast Nov 23 '15 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ I also envision them using numbers... Imagine your hero with his Sword and shield. Now 4 Skeletons appear and run towards him from 4 directions, two running upward, 2 running on all fours like animals. And they are all coordinated to reach him at the same time. Grab his arms, legs, Shield or sword. Even if he hits one with the sword and smashes his rib-cage, the Arm will hold on to his sword and the head will bite his sword-arm. When the hero is grappled by 4 or them, he will not have much chance. And if one of them wields a knife it can easily slit the heroes throat... $\endgroup$ – Falco Nov 25 '15 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Falco Yeah, that sounds about right, and since they are all controlled by one mind, they would be perfectly coordinated. I see the puppet masters spreading them out really thin, like sentinels throughout the forest (or wherever) just waiting for one of them to see the hero, and then flocking to that location. This could be used by the hero too. Kill one skeleton to get them flocking, beat a hasty retreat and then go to the real objective once most of the skeletons have moved to the original site. A lot of the strategy comes down to how strong the magic bond holding the bones together is. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Nov 25 '15 at 14:30
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There are some problems which I can see in this setup, at least if you want these skeletons to fight in battle or skirmishes.

  • Reaction time: Close-quarters combat barely has time for one well trained fighter to react. While having a puppet-master controlling puppets sounds great, it may be hard (or impossible) to keep the kind of focus and control that one living fighter keeps up. Slow reaction times could mean more dead (or dead again) skeletons!
  • Feeling, or Gefühl: Taken from Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), specifically german longsword, is this concept of Gefühl or Feeling. Unless the puppet master can feel the pressure exerted by skeletons' opponents on their skeletons weapons, and realize what this means for the survivability of their skeletons, their human opponents can feint or otherwise employ some trickery to easily defeat skeletons. Actual Middle Age European fighting was quick and employed every sense a fighter had, even tactile senses.
  • Momentum The skeleton needs to swing their weapons faster to have as much momentum in their swings as their fleshy-armed counterparts. In fact, if the bones weigh even half of the weight of an arm you need around 41% more speed to make up for it. That's really fast! Not that you necessarily need more momentum to bring down an opponent, but it helps in cutting and cleaving and getting your weapon in position to do so.
  • Crushing and Chopping weapons are really common: Bone is brittle, and swords meant for chopping (such as hand-and-a-half swords, katanas, tulwars, Großmessern, etc.) can cut bone. In fact, some of these swords are so good at chopping that they chop through muscle and bone. Even more common are hammers. These represent really effective weapons against your skeletons. Beware of anyone who has anti-knight weapons (as these can crush), good chopping weapons, and hammers of any kind (these weapons can be quite common and cheap, especially if proven more effective than swords). This isn't including any techniques like Half-Swording:

Half-swording! Good for pummeling people who are hard!

which is used to punch through opponents' armor and could easily break bone.

  • Decay: Bones do decay, mostly due to exposure to acids. This is a long-term concern for these puppet masters. Sure, you may accomplish your goals during one season, but there is no guarantee your skeletons will be up to the task next year. This won't affect the skeletons immediately, but the continual exposure to the environment may make your army almost useless. This may be especially true if these skeletons are in wet, oxygen rich environments, like that of New Zealand or Northern Europe.

Some ways to employ skeletons to the maximum:

  • Use numbers to your advantage: Isolate and destroy people who get separated from their squad-mates. This is basic tactics, but it's important.
  • Use Crossbows, Bows, and Polearms: these were the deadly, go-to-war weapons of the middle ages. Swords are just side-arms! Hope and pray your opponents are no good with shields, spears, and halberds. Equip your skeletons with crossbows, bows, and any type of pole-arm.
  • Take Advantage of Undeath: Your skeletons can take a sword/spear between the ribs, so let your skeletons get impaled by weapons so other skeletons can kill the (now disarmed) opponent. You can potentially fling skeletons over walls instead of employing siege ladders. Light them on fire and send them at wooden gates. I'm sure there are more ways, but those specific ones come to mind.
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  • $\begingroup$ Great points for the most part, but do you have any data to back up your claim that hammers are common? I don't think warhammers were anywhere near as widespread as things like maces or axes, and all other hammers are pretty ill-suited to warfare. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Nov 23 '15 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh You gotta get those wooden pegs in somehow. Hammers were common to many trades. Most people even have hammers nowadays, and most of us are not carpenters, masons, or blacksmiths. I though this was obvious, but I'll add links. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Nov 23 '15 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ I just meant that everyday hammers wouldn't be very useful against enemies wielding almost any other weapon. I'd rather have a big stick, so I can at least defend myself, rather than trying to get myself stabbed in mid-bludgeon; that said, your edits are constructive, and I think the spirit of your point is sound. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Nov 23 '15 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ instead of a hammer, a mace or flail would work perfectly fine against a skeleton. they could shatter bones in skeletons fairly easily. $\endgroup$ – Dragonrage Nov 23 '15 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh Take the handle off your regular work hammer and put on a longer one. It only takes a few minutes to pull the wedges and swap out a wooden handle. Now you've got a long stick and a metal head. Sure, a head designed for fighting would work better, but don't be surprised to find that the local blacksmith converted a whole bunch of his stock of tools into passable weapons overnight once he became aware of the threat. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Nov 24 '15 at 19:58
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The main problem (for your "sword wielding badass" (SWB herein...)) with bones reanimated by magic is that those bones can stay reanimated following injuries far beyond what an ordinary living person could sustain before death or incapacitation.

If, in lieu of ligaments and tendons, the puppet master can link bones magically, he/she could presumably link fractured bones the same way. The only way to successfully defeat a skeleton would be to crush its limbs to dust. Even a legless skeleton can crawl or pull itself along with its head, enough to be a threat, especially in large numbers. As a martial arts practitioner, I can tell you that breaking bones is hard. For a determined SWB, certainly not impossible. But causing the number of fractures necessary to incapacitate just a single skeleton would be a lot of work, not to mention exponentially more risky, since the skeleton would presumably be fighting back the entire time.

If your skeletons are not constrained by normal bone structure, perhaps your puppet masters could combine bones from multiple skeletons to make larger, stronger super skeletons. Let your imagination decide what limits would be placed on this phenomenon.

An easy answer is "more skeletons" = "more danger", and the power in numbers of the undead has been explored many times in fiction. However, "more anything (bad)" = "more danger", so that's why I've tried to be a little more creative, above, but I'd be remiss not to mention the numbers advantage.

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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that part of why breaking bones is hard is because they have a lot of tissue around them protecting and padding them. Breaking things like ribs, fingers, and jaws would be relatively easy. Even hips wouldn't be too difficult for a trained fighter. Arms and legs would be harder, of course. $\endgroup$ – David Rice Nov 23 '15 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ Good point. Most of the broken bones in real fights come from hard hits to relatively unpadded bones. It's still a lot harder than Hollywood tends to make it look, but exposed bones would be easier to break, for sure. $\endgroup$ – type_outcast Nov 23 '15 at 23:20
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Just leave a little meat on the bones and use it as bacteria food to nurture all forms of diseases. From anthrax to plague, your skeletons can be a walking bio-warfare distribution system. And the wonderful thing about this is that they become even more lethal when they fight stronger and more skilled human fighters.

To defeat a skeleton, you have to hit it with a sword; but the concussion of such contact breaks contagious bits and pieces off of the festering carcass, leading to lethal infections for everyone around.

An unarmed civilian will just panic and run, possibly surviving in the process. While the skilled warrior while charge in and hack the skeleton to pieces, infecting himself and all bystanders in the process.

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Your small party walks into a dimly lit cave, nothing of interest is seen. Some scattered debris from what appears to be on old long-term camp site. Some cooking supplies, an old fire pit, torn down tent. Dance mutters to nobody in particular, "Wonder what happened here... this looks to be at least 50 years old." Rothgar walks closer to the abandoned campsite and notices bones of the what's presumed to be the old inhabitants. "Huh, older I guess. These bones be weathered much than 50 years.". Liahdrin sees some old rusted and well used weapons scattered around the site and then leads the group away from the campsite.

As the party walks away from the campsite, they hear a rattling noise coming from behind. As Rothgar turns around, an arrow zips by his face. Behind the small party there are now over a dozen skeletons. "Where did they come from?!" yells Dance. Your party charges forward, hacking them to pieces. Behind you, more rattling as more skeletons come up. Your mage, Rothgar, notices a blue glow surrounding each skeleton as it forms. Your party forms a circle around the mage as he casts fireballs to no avail. The skeletons you first killed are now reforming, once again surrounded by the odd blue glow. Krunk, the barbarian, yells at the mage, "Urg Rothgar, wat do?". Rothgar yells back, telling him to hold on a moment. Rothgar spies the culprit. In a nook near the exit of the cave, a cloaked figure with a staff appears to be working some magic. Rothgar tells the party they need to push forward to take down the cloaked figure.

At this point, there are over a hundred skeletons. They're crawling up deep chasms in the cave, pouring in through the entrance and exit of the cave, shambling out from behind the shadows. The small party continues to hack them down, but there are more than they can handle at this point. Krunk takes a pike through the abdomen, piercing through his chainmail chest like butter. The circle moves to protect the fallen barbarian. An arrow flies through the circle, unblocked by Dance the fighter. The arrow strikes Rothgar in the chest and he falls. Dance turns around to see how Rothgar is doing and notices his breath is labored and his eyes closed. While Dance is distracted, he gets tackled by three dagger wielding skeletons. He's torn to shreds before anyone can even react. The circle collapses and the party falls is overwhelmed. Their bodies will forever live in this cursed cave, adding to the growing army of the mysterious necromancer...

Key Points

  • Large Swarm: Individually, skeletons are easy for any experienced fighter. In a swarm, they become a real threat to anybody.
  • Surprise: If the party knows what's coming, it's a lot easier to prepare for the situation. Catching them off guard means they have to use whatever equipment they happened to be carrying, and don't have time to prepare extra defenses.
  • Controlling entity: This guy/gal just revives the skeletons and issues the order of "kill the fools who walked into my trap". The skeletons "remember" how to kill from their living days. All the controller has to do is keep bringing skeletons up that fall in battle. The controller should not be in plain site.
  • Skeletons do not die when controller dies: As the controller just revives the skeletons and issues them one order, the skeletons will keep on fighting when their necromancer dies. So killing the controller makes the fight winnable, it does not win the fight in itself though.
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    $\begingroup$ That was epic. Your story-telling is really on point $\endgroup$ – IEatBagels Nov 24 '15 at 16:09
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Well...skeletons are already a threat to anyone with little to no fighting experience, especially if that person is unarmed. The big advantage skeletons (and other undead) have over the rest of us is that they don't feel pain or know fear: they just keep coming. Even if they don't do that much damage when they hit someone, it really doesn't take much to kill a person if they are unable to get away. And a broken arm (forgive the pun) could be quite sharp and potentially more dangerous than the full limb, for instance. Or it could continually bash someone's head against a wall or floor, over and over again. Or any number of other things that don't take brute strength, strangulation, drowning, siege (simply preventing someone from getting food or water)...

That said, you could go the Dwarf Fortress route, which Toady had to code in a special exception to keep skeletons from continuing indefinitely (aka "its been reduced to powder, that means its dead"). Which means things like "a severed arm" are considered a threat and will chase after dwarves and eventually strangle them.

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No pain, fear of death, or honor.

Just about any opponent who truly does not fear pain or death is one not to be taken lightly. Consider honey bees, cornered animals, or battle androids (I'm sure we're all familiar). These skeletons will throw themselves onto a blade or in front of a spell to allow their comrades slightly more time to advance on their target. They'd throw bone dust in the hero's face with a dagger to the eyes close behind. They'd fight dirty and to the death. That's not something anyone will have an easy time dealing with.

The bigger problem is, how do you actually defeat them?

A human skeleton has over 240 degrees of freedom. That's a lot for a mage to control all at once. But can clearly be accomplished by a human mind (we're doing it now). The skeleton is controlled by magic, the only reason to use a human skeleton is so the natural reflexes of the mage apply to the same kinematics of the controlled specimen. The controlled skeletons don't care about broken bones, but having an arm that now bends in five places is a bit harder for the mage to control. The mage could give up control over a broken limb for a gain in control but a loss in fighting ability. But no mage is strong enough to make a functioning warrior out of bone dust. Smash them to dust and the hero wins. Blunt weapons are the way to go.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm going to argue with you on the "no honor" part. These are not technically lifeless skeleton zombies or robots. These are much closer to remote controlled drones, with a sentient, possibly human, operator, and so the skeletons will act with the same sense of honor as their puppet master would. That's not to say that the puppet masters do in fact have any honor, but it's definitely not out of the question. It's a minor point, but it could make a big difference in tactics, especially if the masters do have a code of some sort. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Nov 23 '15 at 20:43
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Strength, Speed, Senses, and Durability

With no muscles, obviously the magic is providing movement power to the skeletons. But how much? Let's suppose they get about the same strength as a human warrior. The human skeleton only weighs about 15% as much as a body, however. So with normal human strength, we should be able to see skeletons leaping 15 feet into the air easily. It should also be able to run faster than a human (less mass to push and less air resistance). Furthermore, they take less time to accelerate their weapon-arm when they strike, since there's not only less mass to move but less friction slowing them down, so they should be able to swing a weapon more quickly and more suddenly than a human. And of course, there's no reason you couldn't give them superhuman strength to make things even scarier.

Also, since they are controlled by the puppet master, they are not going to get fatigued and can react as fast as the puppet master makes them. They don't need training to learn techniques or skills, they just move as commanded, so each skeleton will essentially have the accumulated experience of every fight every skeleton has ever been in (from the same puppet master). They should be reacting (with beyond-human speed, remember) to dodge or parry attacks, and moving with strategy according to the puppet master's intelligence. And how do they see and hear? They're clearly not getting sensory information with eyes and ears, so it's totally legitimate to have the magic also provide them with 360-degree vision, the ability to see in the dark, or x-ray vision.

And it's also completely up to you to determine how much damage it takes to stop one of these things. What's to keep a skeleton from continuing to fight after it loses an arm? Or after its rib cage has been smashed in? Or its head knocked off? And when it's finally been reduced to individual bones, what's to prevent them from reassembling?

And if all this isn't enough to constitute a challenge, remember you can increase the numbers of these things. Any hero should think twice before facing an army of super-fast, high-leaping, non-tiring swordsmen who can see through walls, move at the speed of thought with perfect coordination, and are all but unkillable.

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If a fight between the hero and a skeleton is 1 vs 1, then I don't think the skeleton could pose much threat, particularly with a fair fight (sword vs sword) and even possibly with the upper hand (sword vs fists), as the puppet master will have to control what the skeleton does, and how it fights.

Unless the puppet master is a master swordsman as well as a tactician, the skeleton would not win. Even if he was, his thoughts in controlling the skeletons actions would not be as instinctual as if he was the one fighting, as he needs to think how to react to sword swings from afar. This would inherently mean the hero has the upper hand in a duel.

However, the fact that the skeleton is controlled via a proxy swordsman means that it doesn't have to fear death, or pain, or dismemberment. The hero could be hacking off limbs left and right, but the skeleton could just keep on going like The Black Knight.

The skeleton's strength is also found in numbers. When soldiers are fighting with melee weapons, unless they are well trained they tend to get in each others way when fighting, particularly if it is many vs 1. However, with a single person controlling all of the skeletons simultaneously they will be able to do a much more well coordinated attack. If there are 3 skeletons, one can aim for the head, one for the legs and one for the torso. It would bee incredibly difficult to dodge or block three attacks that all come at the same time.

However, be aware of the weaknesses of bones. If there is even a tiny hole in the bone, they will hold much less structural integrity and could easily be snapped when a damaged arm holding a sword clashes with the mighty swing of the hero. This would mean that the puppet master would need to harvest the corpses of people with healthy bodies (not soldiers who have died in combat), but also strong bodies (children's or elderly people's bones would snap much more easily than an adult's).

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Unfortunately, it is well established in literature that human skeletons, raised by necromancy are a significant threat to villagers, and maybe in large numbers, to a disorganised military force.

But to a main character? You would need so many conventional skeletons to provide a challenge, but it won't be interesting - the wheat thresher is hardly a great literary device.

The great thing about skeletons is that everything has them - horses have skeletons, elephants have skeletons, giants have skeletons, and so do dragons. Potentially, human skeletons can ride on the aforementioned quadraped skeletons.

If you want to stick with humanoid skeletons, probably the best thing to do would be to model them off Roman Legionaires. As a unit of them is controlled by 1 mind, they should be great at things like the tortoise formation, making a wall of spears/shields, and throwing spears/firing arrows in an effective volley.

Alternatively, go with light cavalry. Arm them with shortbows and spears. The main counters to human light cavalry would be infantry with bows (to return fire if the light cavalry stay out of reach) or spears (to set against a cavalry charge), neither of which would be effective against skeletons as they are piercing weapons.

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Another thing: Since reanimated skeletons are mostly from buried corps, in your story, the puppet master can summon skeletons from anywhere. Like, the hero would be walking around and thinking there's no threat in the area but then the puppet master says: "A-Ha! you are in the middle of ancient burial grounds", summon 100 skeleton grunts from all directions, surrounding your hero.

Also, Skeletons of special people (warriors, rich people, medics) are likely to be buried with their own tools and they spawn with those tools (archers will spawn with bows, rich people will spawn with gold, medics will spawn with chemical kits) - these will make the threat more varied and the reward more varied.

Also, when they get exhumed, gas from their decay could be released into air and cause explosions, shroud, incapacitating stench.

Also, Skeletons of heroes can cause a moral decrease. The hero will notice the skeleton of a fallen hero and feel sad that they died and sadder that they are now used for bad purpose. I mean, let's see your bad ass hero hit a skeleton baby! Surely he must be demoralized!

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Just to provide an alternative, you could have one skeleton be a major threat by itself if you wanted too. Even to the hero. The thought is, if the puppeteer can manage entire armies at once, imagine what he could do with his entire focus on a single skeleton.

The primary reason it is a threat, is that the hero is not fighting a single skeleton in actuality. He is fighting a collection of objects bound together and controlled by magic.

What this means, is that the puppeteer could potentially bind the skeleton together in unpredictable ways. For instance, the ribs may suddenly string together and stab outwards from the center torso.

It also means that random nearby objects could possibly be incorporated into the puppet. Skeleton gets a smashed hand - all the way to bone dust, so the puppeteer binds together a bunch of nearby rocks and pebbles into a hand shape and continues fighting. The skeleton may eventually not be a skeleton at all. You'd have to figure out exactly where the magic works and doesn't work. The skeleton reaches to the ground, binding to a stick, which binds to a tree above the hero, and suddenly the tree attacks.

If this is possible, it becomes apparent that skeletons are just a symbol of fear the puppeteer prefers to use. In actuality, he may be able to bind and control any inanimate object.

Game Over if he can control animated objects such as the hero as well.

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