Monster Monday #13: Dullahan
Updated: Mar 4
This week for Monster Monday, I was really in the mood for something a little spookier and so decided to go for a classic ghost! The Dullahan, sometimes spelt Dullaghan, Durahan or Dúlachán, is a creature from Irish folklore! It is a headless spirit, that rides atop a black horse and is most often depicted holding its own head, that grins manically within its grasp. Also known as Gan Ceann, which means 'without a head', it is often said to have a whip made of the spine of a human corpse, and also has a wagon (known as 'Cóiste Bodhar' or 'death coach') adorned with funerary objects and made from bone and flesh. Irish folklore says that when the Dullahan stops riding, a person is due to die. It need only speak its victims name and their soul will be drawn into the wagon. The Dullahan is said to be an embodiment of the Celtic god Crom Dubh (meaning 'black crooked one') and can supposedly be frightened away by golden objects.
This creature is famously known as the Headless Horseman or Headless Rider in many parts of the world, having appeared in stories since the Middle Ages. It has become something of a phenomenon in America since the 1800s especially, and a few different stories exist surrounding it. For example, some may have heard of the Headless Hessian of the Hollow, a Hessian trooper decapitated by a cannonball during the Battle of White Plains in 1776. He is said to ride around Halloween, when the battle took place, furiously seeking his head and using a Jack O' Lantern as a temporary replacement. Scottish folklore also has a story or two surrounding a man decapitated in a clan battle, who was denied the chance to be chieftain as a result, and whose horse is headless also. In German fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, you might encounter a similar figure - a Headless Horseman known also as the Wild Huntsman, who blows a hunting horn warning riders not to ride the next day or they will meet with an accident.
This figure has made quite the impact in literature and pop culture. The most famous example is probably from Washington Irving's The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow in which Ichabod Crane, wishing to marry the heiress to a wealthy farm, soon finds himself meeting a terrifying specter as he travels through the woods. This short story has been subject to a number of film adaptations such as Tim Burton's famous masterpiece, or Disney's The Adventures Of Ichabod and Mr Toad. Often, the creature's goal is for people to share its fate and so it seeks vengeance by beheading people, as is the case in the Assassin's Creed III side quest or the TV show Sleepy Hollow. I'm a big fan of some shows that have modernised it a little by turning the horse into a motorcycle - anime such as Ghost Stories or Durarara!!, or the live action episode 'Chopper' in the show Kolchak: The Night Stalker provide excellent examples of this!
So as always, it is time for some stat blocks! I'm excited to get started as this unusual creature gives us a LOT to work with!
So let's start with Wizards Of The Coast! There is actually a stat block for this creature, the Dullahan (Van Richten's Guide To Ravenloft, page 233).
At a CR 10, which definitely feels about right for this legendary undead being, the Dullahan has absolutely everything going for it and I would actually be really excited to create an encounter with this creature! To start, there is a whole host of options on what to do with its abilities and actions alone, let alone the legendary and mythic action options! I'm a big fan of it being a 'phased' boss fight, as its Headless Summoning means that if it is reduced to 0HP it regains health back, and activates some extra abilities such as Headless Wail and Coordinated Assault, with minions to help it carry them out! Its legendary action Head Hunt is also very challenging for a party, and they will have to keep their wits about them against this creature. The lore is fantastic too, I really like Van Richten's Guide To Ravenloft for the detail it provides around the creature stat blocks it has introduced. It fits in very well with real-world lore on the Dullahan. If you wanted to up the CR even further for very high-level play? Consider giving it's mount a stat block too - a CR 1/2 Warhorse Skeleton (Basic Rules, page 346) or a CR 3 Nightmare (Basic Rules, page 336) should do the trick. If that isn't enough, maybe give the heads their own initiative count too in the form of a CR 4 Flameskull (Basic Rules, page 127) stat block!
So next up I'm having a look at Kobold Press's offering - also called the Dullahan (Tome Of Beasts, page 161).
To look at, this matches the Irish Folklore version of the creature almost exactly - it has the grinning, decapitated head being held, the black horse, and the Spine Whip. It its a CR 11 and interestingly a Fey creature, as opposed to an Undead one. This makes a little sense actually, as though it heralds death and has a rather grisly look, Irish folklore depicts this as more of a demonic fey entity than a ghost as such. Abilities such as Deathly Doom and actions such as Seal The Doom definitely fit in with some of the original stories of the Dullahan. I like that it has some Innate Spellcasting, the spells chosen fit the theme very well. I also think that Baleful Glare and Interposing Glare make some great and unusual abilities that will make this a fun encounter.
Combing through some of my other favoured sources, I stumbled upon Dragonix's CR 11 Headless Horseman (Monster Manual Expanded II, page 167) stat block. Once again an Undead creature, I loved the inclusion of some of the Jack O' Lantern lore and the use of abilities such as Vengeful Tracker and Relentless Avenger to give you an idea of the kind of being you are dealing with. The internet also had a PLETHORA of options! DMDave's CR 6 Dullahan stat block, like all of his work, did not disappoint at all and provided an option for a lower-level party. I loved the idea that taking its Severed Head could actually disadvantage it in some way! Pirate Gonzalez also came up with a cool CR11 Headless Horseman stat block with a very final insta-death ability in Decapitate and both Pumpkin Fireball and Yank actions that point towards some of the fun lore of the Dullahan.
And now, to get this terrifying spectre into your game! Here are some plot hook ideas.
While travelling, the party are approached by a hooded stranger. They cannot make out any facial features within the hood, but are shocked as he pulls it down and reveals he has no head. He asks for their help in retrieving it so that he may finally be at rest.
The party arrive at a village and when one of the PCs introduces themselves, the villagers react with fear. They reveal that a headless man came by with a wagon made of one and flesh and spoke the PCs name yesterday. When no one came forward, they said they would return tonight!
People have begun to turn up dead - all of them decapitated! This could be a fun little murder mystery in which the PCs attempt to solve the case of who is impersonating a Headless Horseman and, when going to confront them, finding them decapitated also at the hands of the real spirit, who does not appreciate being impersonated.
Upon entering the tavern that night, the PCs find that the locals are telling ghost stories. One claims to have a tale to tell, of a malevolent rider that seeks vengeance for the loss of their head.
Travelling through the mists, the party can see a distant figure approaching. It looks to be a rider, travelling alone in a very dangerous part of the forest. Do they go to warn or acid the stranger? Or will they act more cautiously?
I hope you enjoyed this slightly spookier Monster Monday! Have you ever heard of the Headless Horseman? Do you think they would make a fun encounter in your DnD game? Let me know!