Penumberal Atavus

Penumberal Atavus

Kirchner, Der Verkauf des SchattensAs the fire burned higher, a shadow flickered where none should have been. Looming toward the camp, it silently observed the sleeping forms arranged on the far side of the fire pit. Turning toward the one who had summoned it, it slowly drew a single word in the soft sand…

The shadowy remnants of once-great orcs who have made such an impact on the material plane that a shadowy remnant of them remains behind after they die. Able to glimpse the future, a penumberal atavus can be summoned to answer simple questions of what will be.

Penumberal Atavus (CR 4)

XP 1,200
Medium undead (incorporeal)
Init +5; Senses darkvision 120 ft.; Perception +12 …

AC 20, touch 20, flat-footed 15 (+5 deflection, +4 Dex, +1 dodge)
hp 23 (6d6+10)
Fort +4, Ref +6, Will +7
Defensive Abilities channel resistance +4, incorporeal, undead traits

Speed 30 ft.
Melee touch +4 (1d6+1)
Special Attack shiver (DC 18)

Before Combat A penumberal atavus doesn’t actively seek to combat the living and avoids interacting with them unless summoned or otherwise forced.
During Combat A penumberal atavus always attacks whoever initiated the encounter. They attack others if first attacked by them but will not initiate combat with anyone else.
Morale Given that they are ethereal in nature and a shadow of their former selves, the penumberal atavus, if it attacks, does so until its victim is unconscious, dead, or the atavus has been destroyed. They do not fear death or destruction.

Str —, Dex 18, Con —, Int 10, Wis 18, Cha 10
Base Attack +5; CMB +5; CMD 22
Feats Dodge, Improved Initiative, Iron Will
Skills Knowledge (history) +10, Perception +12, Sense Motive +15, Stealth +20; Racial Modifiers +4 Perception, +20 Stealth
Languages: Common, Orc
SQ answer summons

Environment any
Organization solitary
Treasure none

Answer Summons (Su) The ritual for summoning a penumberal atavus is very simple and one need not be an orc to attempt it. Staring into an open fire while outside in the creature’s territory, one must utter the words (in Orc or Common) “I summon you, the ancestors of this land.”

There is a 10% chance of success for orcs and a 5% chance of success for other races. A summons may be attempted once per night.

If a penumberal atavus is successfully summoned, it appears as a shadow near the fire after 1d4 rounds.

If it appears, there is a 15% chance (20% chance for non-orcs who have summoned them) that it will immediately attack the person who invoked the ritual.

If it does not attack, the invoker can ask one question regarding an act they are considering or about the reasons behind another’s actions. This question must be a yes or no question. A few example questions:

•             Should I attack the village at dawn?

•             Did Shavius run because he was guilty?

•             Will the Troll named Seegert allow me to pass unharmed if I pay the toll?

The penumberal atavus indicates yes or no and (at the GM’s discretion) may attempt to impart more information either by writing a few words or by drawing symbols.

Once it has answered the question asked of it, the penumberal atavus expects to be given a token of its past life in the form of food or drink. A few crumbs left on the ground or a few drops of wine spilled are sufficient and the penumberal atavus will depart immediately. It will flit back into the shadows and leave the area as rapidly as possible. Failure to leave such a gift may cause (50% chance) the penumberal atavus to attack.

Shiver (Ex) On touching a target (touch attack), the penumberal avatus causes that target to begin shaking violently as if extremely cold. These violent shivers last for 1d4+1 rounds and give a −2 penalty to all attack and damage rolls.


A penumberal atavus is the shadowy remnant of an ancestral orc, whose presence in life was powerful enough to leave a lasting impression on the world. Solitary and wandering by nature, these creatures do not generally interact with the living of their own free will.

They appear literally as the shadows of their former selves, sometimes displaying the grisly reminders of how they perished. While they can understand Orc and Common, they cannot speak.

They can communicate by drawing in soft substances, such as snow or sand, with their spectral fingers.

Habit and Society

Being an ethereal creature, a penumberal atavus prefers the night although they can occasionally be seen in daylight. They easily flit from shadow to shadow and are very hard to spot or track.

Tradition holds that the penumberal atavus can be summoned by a simple ritual for the purposes of divining the outcome of a single act or learning the purposes of others’ actions. Summoning the penumberal atavus comes with risks, however. They have been known to viciously attack whoever summons them.

(This post is Product Identity.)

6 thoughts on “Penumberal Atavus”

  1. This is pretty damn cool. I always like a monster that isn’t necessarily for fighting.

    I’m curious as to why it is an Orc spirit though. It doesn’t seem to immediatly fit the

  2. This is pretty damn cool. I always like a monster that isn’t necessarily for fighting.

    I’m curious as to why it is an Orc spirit though. It doesn’t seem to immediately fit the spirits behavior.

  3. I like the idea of having a monster which one can use at his own risk as an oracle of sorts. Nicely done, Benjamin!

  4. Benjamin,

    This isn’t meant to be personal. I like this creature and I think it has a lot of potential. What I’m pointing out is meant to improve the creature.

    1.) There’s a mixed message being communicated in the creature description, special ability, and the tactics section. The tactics section tells me this creature won’t initiate combat, but the special abilities section under Answer Summons says that it might. Then the description makes a redundant statement about it possibly attacking. I find myself asking, “So which is it?”

    2.) 15% chance of attacking is pretty slim, so this is a non-hostile creature that exists to helpfully answer questions. That makes it a plot device in the form of a creature (just like a magic item can be a plot device). With a creature, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, but you have to see it as such and treat it accordingly. Which gets to my next point…

    3.) With an only 5 to 10% chance of showing up, this is a really unreliable plot device. Odds are players aren’t necessarily going to depend on (or even bother to trying) to summoning one. After all, you have another 15% chance of getting attacked for your trouble. This is important, because the way this creature is designed as is, it only comes into play if a PC decides to summon one (and if an NPC summons one ‘off camera’ does it really matter? Much wondering if an existential tree really falls without an observer). A plot device that has a slim chance of working is a self-defeating plot device.

    4.) What the creature can do for a PC is close to the augury or divination spells. You might be able to shorten your statblock by referring to those spells and stating the creature’s caster level. The spirits don’t have to be gods to draw upon those spell effects. This is good design that editors want to see, because it promotes consistency in the mechanics and saves word count. Also, bear in mind that if you were to ask an NPC cleric to perform those spells as a service, it would cost 85 gp or 305 gp respectively, and that’s at the lowest possible caster level with a chance of failure. I’m not saying that the sacrifice needs to be worth exactly that, but it’s something to think about- what your creature does has real value. At this risk of second-guessing you, you might be trying to balance that value versus the 5 to 10% chance of actually answering the summons. Except that doesn’t work, because you can’t rely on it when you need it. And players are only going to summon these creatures when they need them, not when they can afford it to fail. If they can’t rely on it, they’ll look for another method altogether, and as a GM you’ll need to provide one. As is, you can’t painted in a plot corner by these creatures.

    5.) Can multiple players make the summons attempt? Can one PC try all night until it works? I think those are ridiculous questions, except that I’ve been trained to expect ridiculous questions. Someone will want to know; so welcome to game design! :)

    6.) What happens if one of these things get killed? Do they come back like ghosts? If so, they should say so. If not, does this mean an elven tribe can commit atrocities against orc tribes by literally destroying their cultural past? (That makes me think of Heroquesting in Runquest, or the Excrucians from Nobils- not bad at all!) There’s room for more exploration of this creature than what you’ve done. If you were limited on word count, you could have used the idea above to trim that count and reserve more words for the background. Or the web editor could have given you more words for a cool idea.

    7.) This is more of a personal opinion, but I think you’ve taken a rather heterogeneous creature and homogenized them. By that I mean, they’re cool proud ancient orc spirits that theoretically dispense advice to elves, gnomes, and dwarves. Yes, it is more difficult for those creatures to summon them, but it feels like that you’re concerned about them never getting used, so you’re making them work for everybody. Not sure about that.

    A.) Embrace the plot device angle. They can still have statblocks, because who knows how the PCs will interact with them. Don’t try to treat them like random monsters, because they shouldn’t ever be. If you don’t want them summoned constantly, set up special conditions when one might be summoned (like time, place, possibly even a date (which would be coincidentally about the time the players need a plot device clue)). These guys should practically be unique anyway.

    B.) If they’re orcs, let them be orcs. Maybe they’ve mellowed with death, but they should be cryptic or uncooperative with elves and dwarves.. Or may demand an interesting price.

    C.) Address what happens if they’re destroyed, and the other statblock issues I mentioned.

    By now, you’re probably thinking this guy is a jerk for going to town on my creature. Just bear in mind, I think it’s a great idea. I wouldn’t have spent the time or energy otherwise. :)

  5. Random thought about the chance of success, mostly in relation to the above post about its lack of usefulness as a plot device.

    Knowing the spirits original name and using it in the summons could increase the likely hood of success, maybe by 25% (giving 30% or 35%). Similarly being in possession of one of it prized belongings from its former life could also increase the chance of success by 5% to 15% depending on its importance to the spirit.

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