Workshop Codename: Captain Keelhaul

Today’s workshop once again comes from a note whose source is inscrutable to me. Chances are it was something random on Twitter which gave me an idea which gave me an idea and then here we are. Perhaps it was the name that caught my attention and I got an idea from that. That sounds about right! Regardless, let’s work on this NPC!


Ruthless Pirate Captain

I do know that my mind was racing with the space portion of my setting, so we get some insight into that while we are here. You see, I would describe my setting as magic high space fantasy. What does that mean? We are talking classic D&D with a LOT of magic and some tech. More Pathfinder than traditional D&D if we are honest, but also influenced by Star Wars and Star Trek. I just love the idea of what space travel can bring to a setting and see things happening as a matter of scale. In my setting travel differs within spheres of influence: regions, kingdoms, planets, planes, solar systems. While a ship might travel between any number of these, that occurs within its own sphere and to similar degrees. A merchant ship traveling between two planets is little different than between two kingdoms other than the medium they sail in and the way in which ships sail.

The point is I was picturing a spacefaring galleon of some kind, captained by Keelhaul and known for ruthlessness. Given the name I imagined keelhauling, but through an Astral Sea. There might be less things to attack the keelhauled body, less physical stress, but there would also be sights and portals and strange creatures to drive the person to fear and madness. So what kind of monster would do this? Gith, perhaps, but I have another idea!


Undead Dragonborn

So undead dragonborn villain is a concept I love, regardless of what type of role they take on. I imagine the terrifying, gaunt form of a large and powerful warrior. Green pinpricks of light in the hollow eyes and a dark, necrotic energy for a breath weapon, twisted by the being’s state of undeath. There is a common trend of making dragonborn a noble people, paladins of law and order. All the more reason to flip that archetype on its head.

Shared on D&D Beyond and attributed to Jack Kaiser

We make the captain undead, maybe with some magical swashbuckling powers. I see Keelhaul as a name taken by the dragonborn after being killed and whose rage at being betrayed by their own captain as kept them from eternal rest and granted them undeath. Keelhaul could have been a paladin of Bahamut once, working as first mate on a ship seeking to do good. Now that they have been betrayed and killed, they seek vengeance against the captain who turned evil but have, in turn, given up the goodness in themselves as well.

Beyond that there is room for a lot of flexibility here. Captain Keelhaul can be whoever you want them to be within this context. A ship captain on the high seas, captain of a vessel in the Astral Sea, or even a spaceship captain. Other details can also be filled in based on the background, age, and goals that you want to give Keelhaul.


Keelhaul’s Crew

Let’s take a quick moment to think about the crew that Keelhaul would keep. In all likelihood, such a monster would have a ship full of cultists and necromancers, pirates all, who can conjure the dead to attack enemy vessels. More than that I foresee smarter, independent undead working as part of the crew. A sleepless lookout, a cannon toting monstrosity? The possibilities are endless so I will leave that up to you, but I have an idea for the first mate.

Sightless Ghoul art by Svetlin Velinov for MtG by WotC

At first I thought, maybe a lich of some kind, but liches are too powerful and too smart. They are also way too megalomaniacal. So what else could we use? A ghoul works really well. They are smart, simple and would make for a creepy first mate. Paralysis and a hunger for flesh are a great start but add on that some levels in fighter, rogue, or ranger. Well, now we are talking about a vicious first mate who might be more frightening that the captain in some ways.


At this point I just need an excuse to fit in some version of Captain Keelhaul to one of my games. Of course, that is easier said than done. What do you think of the concept? What ideas do you have to use the good old captain for your games? Let me know in the comments below!!

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