Last Updated on January 22, 2023
The crawling claw is D&D 5e’s version of one of the horror genre’s most iconic monsters — the disembodied and often murderous hand.
In the horror genre, this monster loves to leap out unexpectedly and strangle or otherwise attempt to kill our protagonists. In D&D 5e, these monsters are instead undead, animated via some unknown necromantic ritual, and either bound to serve their master or simply set loose on the world to kill.
D&D 5e also makes use of the associated trope that the hand belongs to a previous murderer, though there’s some suggestion that this isn’t entirely necessary.
What Is a Crawling Claw in DnD 5e?
The crawling claw is an undead hand possessed of all the malice a dark wizard could fill the thing with, capable of hanging onto the ceiling just above the party’s heads. It is a small, weak enemy designed for surprise encounters or a surprise encounter for a low-level party.
The crawling claw is not a powerful monster, nor is it especially dangerous on its own, but it is a creature with a lot of history behind it both in D&D and the horror genre in general. That gives it a high potential plot-relevance score, which is enough to make any monster worth reading up on.
Besides, you can always go the Addams Family route and keep a crawling claw as a party pet!
Crawling Claw Stats
- STR 13 (+1), DEX 14 (+2), CON 11 (+0), INT 5 (-3), WIS 10 (+0), CHA 4 (-3)
- AC: 12
- Hit points: 1d4 (2 avg.)
- Damage Immunities: Poison
- Condition Immunities: Charmed, exhaustion, poisoned
- Speed: 20 ft., climb 20 ft.
- Skills: History (+12), Perception (+10)
- Proficiency Bonus: +4
- Senses: Blindsight 30 ft. (blind beyond this radius), Passive Perception 10
- Languages: Understands common but can’t speak
- Challenge Rating: 0
The crawling claw only has a single ability, Turn Immunity. This means the crawling claw is immune to all effects that turn undead.
Crawling claws have only one attack, the Claw attack. This melee weapon attack has a +3 to hit, a 5-foot reach, and does just 1d4+1 (3avg) bludgeoning or slashing damage. The crawling claw gets to choose which kind of damage it does, which can be useful in certain niche scenarios, but those usually won’t be that relevant.
The official lore behind the crawling claw is a little confused. The description in the Monster Manual discusses a large variety of traits, some of which are contradictory and many of which reference an unknown necromantic ritual essential to creating the creature.
From what I can piece together, the ritual requires the severed hand of a corpse and binding the life force of the creature to which the hand belonged to the hand itself, thus creating the necromantic horror that is the crawling claw. The ritual works best if the original creature was a murderer (some lines even imply the original creature must be a murderer), though that raises more questions than answers.
What does it mean for the ritual to work better? Does it create a stronger hand, or can it just fail? And what, for the purposes of the spell, counts as a murderer? After all, you might say that a terrifying black dragon or a man-eating lion are both murders since they’ve killed people. Can you therefore create a crawling claw from one of their hands (or paws, as it were)?
There is some room here for creativity, I believe, as the crawling claw might not have to be from a humanoid. Of course, a stronger creature deserves stronger stats for its hands, but the possibility of an enormous undead dragon’s talons stalking the land is a story that practically writes itself!
The official description also lists so-called living claws, which were the severed hand of a murderer still alive. These crawling things were animated by the spirit of the murderer and could reattach themselves to the original living flesh. When separated, the original creature would fall into a coma, and destroying the hand would kill the original (but not vice versa), implying that the hand was animated by the creature themselves somehow possessing the undead hand.
Finally, enterprising DMs might also consider a propagating swarm of crawling claws. While the tactics of a crawling claw swarm will be discussed below, a variation on these undead creatures might include crawling claws intent on tearing off your hands, creating more of their ilk.
Such a method of creating crawling claws is definitely nonstandard but could be an interesting way of making crawling claws a genuine threat to higher-level parties rather than a surprise encounter or a bit of necromantic flavor. Maybe that’s leaning more into a zombie vibe, which you don’t want to copy, but it’s definitely an option worth considering.
A crawling claw doesn’t have a lot going for it, so surprise is essential to it. These creatures will love to crawl stealthily through rooms or around their particular area (some crawling claws being created to simply guard an area or room).
With their ability to climb, crawling claws love to hang out in unexpected places, often as high up as possible to literally get the drop on their enemies. For example, a chandelier in a haunted house almost certainly has a crawling claw hanging out in it, just waiting for someone to walk below them. Time it right, and you might even open your pack one evening to find a crawling claw has carefully dropped down and climbed inside!
These creatures are fairly weak, and even including a few of them in an encounter will probably see them wiped out. That’s why they work best as pseudo-traps (or utility undead) using the surprise mechanic rather than actual enemies.
Let’s look at the crawling claw hiding in the chandelier. It’s tiny and well disguised among the crystal, so no one in the party has good odds of spotting it. That means when it drops down onto the party druid, it gets a surprise round. If the crawling claw can make its attack and then flee into a bolt hole (perhaps a repurposed mouse hole), it can escape the party’s subsequent wrath long enough to successfully hide itself away.
The damage of a crawling claw is not intense, but for a level-one party, it could be a significant impediment, forcing healing potions or spell slots. Plus, one way to boost the effect or damage of the crawling claw is to have it wield some kind of poison. The creatures aren’t smart enough to do this by themselves, but if directly controlled and given orders to try to inject sleeping or surprised adventurers with a horrible poison, they could be pretty scary.
Still, higher-level parties might not be at all bothered by the attack, but the idea of an enemy, especially such a weak enemy, escaping will irritate and haunt your players through the rest of the dungeon.
It is a well-known fact that D&D players love to find every enemy and piece of treasure they can. Dangle an enemy in front of them that, despite everything, actually escapes, and they’ll become obsessed. And that makes for an excellent roleplaying experience.
Of course, a party might still be able to capture or kill the crawling claw (for example, by the simple expedience of Fireballing the entire house), but the crawling claw has a decent chance of escape, which is more than you can say for the BBEG.
However, you may not want to use the crawling claw as a simple one-off enemy that can be easily crushed and is more flavor than actual challenge. You might therefore be using a crawling claw created from a larger creature, like a dragon. You might have the crawling claw only be a part of a more powerful individual. Or you might make a swarm.
In D&D 5e, a swarm is a specific type of enemy with a specific Swarm straight. There are no official rules for a swarm of crawling claws. However, you could easily homebrew some by creating your own higher-health, higher-damage swarm creature.
All swarm creatures have the following traits: The swarm can occupy another creature’s space and vice versa, and the swarm can move through any opening large enough for a Tiny insect. The swarm can’t regain hit points or gain temporary hit points.
The tactics of a swarm of crawling claws will probably be to overwhelm an enemy. You might even try to add a mechanic by which each crawling claw in the swarm tries to grapple an enemy. By themselves, this would do nothing, but enough of the creatures would probably overwhelm a character’s carrying capacity, reducing their movement to 5 feet and maybe even forcing them to fall. In the right space, this could be deadly, even if it is homebrew.
Fighting a crawling claw is pretty straightforward. Basically, any successful attack is enough to drop them, except for perhaps a single punch from a classless person with a +0 or less modifier to Strength.
Plus, crawling claws have a pretty low AC, which means they aren’t hard to land a hit on at all.
Generally, the danger comes from the over-eager pursuit of a surprise crawling claw that’s managed to escape or from being poisoned by a directly controlled undead hand. If you’re worried, I recommend investing some proficiencies in Perception and Investigation and not walking under anything that could hold a Tiny crawling undead hand.
These precautions, plus your ability to easily win a fight against one of these creatures, will make you well defended at anything a crawling claw can throw at you.
While crawling claws are pretty weak enemies, they still have some interesting uses in a campaign.
The creatures are great for creating flavor and tipping the players off to undead without the potential for a party wipe or a more serious encounter that the players aren’t prepared for.
The variants of the hand can constitute interesting enemies in and of themselves. A swarm, for instance, could be an actual encounter rather than a brief thematic event, and a villain with a crawling claw for a hand has a lot of potential to be a memorable enemy with interesting capabilities.
However, I still think the best way to use a crawling claw is to get under your player’s skin by providing an enemy they should be able to beat with both hands tied behind their back and yet still find a way to escape.
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Growing up I spent most of my time reading, so when I first started playing RPGs in middle school and got a copy of DnD 3.5’s rules I loved their collaborative take on storytelling. These days I like to use RPGs to develop my creative problem-solving skills as well.