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Out Ride the Headless!
A relentless column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs
The headless horseman rides in search of revenge. His head has been struck from his shoulders, and now someone must pay. An omen of death, he represents the past and its relentless pursuit of us into the present. And in Ireland, he goes by dullahan.
The most famous headless horseman might be from Sleepy Hollow, but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one. So, strap on your boots. Let’s go for a ride.
The dullahan is a headless phantom, an omen of death that rides a black horse through the Irish night. Also called Gan Ceann (Irish for "without a head"), he brings his decapitated head along for his rides, holding it high in one hand. In his other, the dullahan wields a whip made from a human spine, which he can use to flick out the eyes of those who watch him. His horse is often headless too, or at least flaming eyes.
When he’s out, pray the dullahan doesn’t stop outside your house—if he does, someone inside is soon to die. Don’t open your door as he rides by either unless you want him a bucket full of blood to your face. Still, that’s not as bad as if the dullahan’s severed head speaks your name. If he does, it’s already too late. Still, if you’re desperate, it’s said that he has an irrational fear of gold, which might be used to ward him away.
Depending on the story, the dullahan is a phantom, a fairy, or both. He’s also a common associate or lackey of the banshee, another Irish spirit whose presence presages death. In these cases, the dullahan is likely using his other ride.
Not Just a Ghost Rider (Also a Ghost Driver)
The dullahan might be a headless horseman, but that doesn’t limit him to just a singular mode of transportation. Just as often as you find him atop a horse, you’ll find him driving the Cóiste Bodhar (“deaf/silent coach”)—known in English as the Death Coach.
Yeats writes in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry:
An omen that sometimes accompanies the banshee is the coach-a-bower [cóiste-bodhar]—an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin, and drawn by headless horses driven by a Dullahan. It will go rumbling to your door, and if you open it, according to Croker, a basin of blood will be thrown in your face.
If you don’t mind passing the buck, hurry to open any gates in its path so it can ride by you quickly. The sight or sound of the coach is a harbinger of death—it never leaves the Earth empty.
One of Many (Headless)
Many websites give the dullahan credit for inspiring Sleepy Hollow, argue he's the ‘original’ headless horseman, or make him out to be an ancient Celtic god. The reality is that he's unlikely to be any of those things, especially the first two—but hey, that’s okay. There’s room enough for more than one headless rider in the world, regardless of who came first.
In fact, the world is plenty full of headless figures generally. In Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain lops off the Green Knight’s head, only for him to pick it back up again. In Christianity, cephalophores are decapitated saints who carry their own heads. And in Brazil, the mula sem cabeça is the ghost of a woman condemned to roam the earth as a headless, fire-spewing mule. A reminder from real-life to always think outside the box.
Using the Headless in Your Game
So, you have a man without a head. How do you use him?
The ghostly arrival of the dullahan would put anyone on edge. After all, someone is going to die—it’s just a matter of when. Still, can the PCs piece together the identity of the would-be-victim in time to save them? This works especially well if everyone is trapped in a single location on a dark and stormy night. As those inside look on, the dullahan waits at the entrance on his coach to receive a dead body by dawn. And if the horseman must receive a body, is the solution as simple as the PCs being forced to kill the murderer to save their victim? Or will the tense crowd around them begin to speculate who deserves to be sacrificed?
By re-contextualising the dullahan as a headless driver rather than headless horseman, he seamlessly fits into urban fantasy. When the magical crime boss or unseelie faerie queen sends for the PCs, what better way to set the tone than with a headless chauffeur? For the classical, he can still be driving his black coach (“Mind the coffin”), or you can lean into the contrast between urban and fantasy with a sleek new limousine.
The headless horseman can easily be a threat of course, but what about a sinister ally? There’s the old standby of him seeking a soul that escaped the reaper (before his boss the banshee finds out he messed up). Or, more tragically for the dullahan, perhaps his head has been kidnapped? The rest of him has approached the PCs for help finding it, potentially before the head is used for nefarious purposes. If the head can speak names and have them die, can it be forced into acting as a murder weapon? In the meantime, perhaps the dullahan is carrying around a pumpkin or substitute head, though he’ll sadly confesses there’s no replacing the real thing.
Certain sources, such as the Irish Times, posit that the dullahan as the pagan god Crom Dubh/Crom Cruach. According to later Christian writers, Crom demanded blood sacrifice until his worship was ended by St Patrick. What kind of blood sacrifice? Decapitation, of course.
If your campaign deals with old or forgotten gods, you can reframe the dullahan as a cast-out figure, a shadow of his former self. And if you lean into his supposed darker nature—perhaps he has a plan to return to his former power? From D&D to Call of Cthulhu, stopping evil gods from returning is a roleplaying staple for a reason. Even without appearing in person, a cult dedicated to performing sacrifices in his name could be threat enough!
Dullahan Statistics (Old-School)
Armor Class: 5 
Hit Dice: 5* (22 hp)
Attacks: 1 x bone whip (2d6 + special) or 1 x blow (1d8)
THAC0: 15 [+4]
Move: 90’ (30’)
Save As: Fighter 5
▶ Undead Fae: Immune to effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells (e.g. charm, hold, sleep).
▶ Whip: On a successful whip attack, the target must save versus wands or suffer one of the following effects:
(A) be knocked violently in a direction of the dullahan’s choice, or
(B) be caught by the whip, which inflicts 2d6 automatic damage each subsequent round. The dullahan cannot make whip attacks while holding someone this way.
▶ Mundane damage immunity: Can only be harmed by magical attacks.
▶ Fear of Gold: Artefacts made from gold repulse the dullahan. If a cleric brandishes a gold holy symbol while attempting to turn them, they add +3 to their turn undead check.
The traditional mount of a dullahan is a warhorse, often an undead one. A more powerful dullahan, with greater HD, might instead ride a nightmare.
And that’s it for headless horsemen.
Thanks for reading and have a happy Halloween!
Penny for your thoughts: Have you ever had a PC lose their head before?
~ A.C. Luke
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Yeats, W. B. 1888. Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd: London.
I. E. “Was ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Really Inspired by the Dullahan, the Headless Horseman of Irish Mythology?”. Irish Myths. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
The box has a head in it.
Traynor, Jessica. “How tales of the headless horseman came from Celtic mythology”. Irish Times. Retrieved 10 October 2022.