Monday, October 29, 2012

Monstrous Monday: The Headless Horseman


Sleepy Hollow is a real place, not that far from where I grew up - it's just a short way up the Hudson River, across from Nyack.  I spent plenty of time camping and hiking up in Harriman, a state forest just a bit further up the river on the west side, or visiting Bear Mountain, a popular destination.  Like so much of the north east, it's steeped in history, and many of these places have significance dating back to the revolution.

I imagine the name "Sleepy Hollow" is today synonymous with the movie of the same name, but here's an excerpt from the original story by Washington Irving that relates the tale of the headless horseman:

The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war; and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper, having been buried in the church-yard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head; and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the church-yard before daybreak.
--The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Hessian trooper is a type of spectre, an undead monster that rides each night upon a ghostly horse to harrow the countryside, always seeking his missing head.  The movie embellishes the story further, providing a 'tree of the dead' which includes a doorway to Hell, and includes a witch that uses the Hessian's skull to control the spectre and direct its attacks  In game terms, we can treat the Hessian as a modified spectre:

The Hession, from Sleepy Hollow
The Hessian
AC as plate and shield, HD 6, ATK two weapons or thrown pumpkin, D by weapon type or special, MV 24, AL C, ML 11

The headless horseman attempts to slay anyone it encounters along its nightly course, collecting their heads.  It will only cease its nightly rides when its own head is returned to its grave.  It can only be damaged by magic weapons, and it has standard undead immunities.  It frequently carries a pumpkin or similar gourd carved with a leering face, which it can throw at a victim (once per night) to a range of 30'; anyone struck by the pumpkin must save vs death or die (at least, that’s how Ichabod supposedly dies in the story!)

The headless horseman cannot cross running water, even using a bridge.

A magic user that possesses the horseman's skull can use it to control the horseman, similar to a potion of Control Undead, and the horseman is barred from attacking the possessor.

In your campaign, any particularly wicked and powerful evil warrior, decapitated in a gruesome manner and buried without his head, could form the basis of your own headless horseman legend.

However, the headless horseman motif has its roots in an earlier headless monster, the dullahan from Irish folklore.  Like many of the dark fairies (unseelie or sluagh), the dullahan blurs the lines between fey and undead.  The dullahan acts like an angel of death, a figure that rides the countryside seeking out a specific victim; when it confronts them and speaks their name, they die.  Furthermore, it will dump a bucket of blood on anyone that crosses its path, marking them for a future visit from the dullahan; it can open gates and doors at will; it wields a whip made of human spines, and its decapitated head can breath fire.  You can easily adjust the Hessian to represent a dullahan, giving it a hellhound-style breath weapon and replacing the death-pumpkin with something more like finger of death.

The monster from "Chopper"
There was a cool version of the headless horseman on TV - well, I thought it was cool back in the 70's - in one of those old Kolchak: The Night Stalker episodes, a headless motorcycle rider taking revenge on its killers when its grave is disturbed.  It tracks down its killers and chops their heads off with a sword.  Kolchak finds the missing skull and hurls it at the rider as it's bearing down on him.  I'm sure somebody has made stats for Kolchak as a Call of Cthulhu or Chill character - he's the man.

Below are the other blogs taking part in this 'Monday before Halloween' blog hop - let's see what else is out there!