Tuesday 1 December 2020

Ghoulstorm part 1: ghouls from A-F

Ghouls have always been one of my favourite D&D monsters. Partly its the imagery: crazed eyes, pale faces, fanged mouths, and long, long reaching arms are literally the stuff of nightmares. (Trevor Henderson has built an entire career out of them.) Mostly, though, it's the associations: hunger, madness, degeneration, desperation, loss. Those thin, emaciated bodies; those desperate, grabbing hands. Zombies are often cannibals too, of course, but they're mindless cannibals, whereas the point of ghouls is that they aren't mindless, which makes them much more horrible. There's a person in there, and all they can think about is just how much they want to eat you. 

I started brainstorming some ghoul ideas recently and it got out of hand and I ended up with loads of them - so many I had to split them into two posts. Using them all in the same campaign would be massive overkill, but hopefully most readers will find one or two in there worth using in their own games!

1: Ancient ghouls. Certain ancient desert ruins are less abandoned than they appear to be, and by night the degenerate descendants of their original inhabitants come crawling up out of hidden vaults to kill and devour any who trespass in their ruinous domain. They speak a corrupted form of the original language of their people, although the skill of reading its hieroglyphs has long since been lost to them. They are adept at tunnelling into long-lost tombs, which they loot without compunction, convinced that they are the only true heirs of their long-vanished builders. They wield the rusted khopeshes of long-dead warriors, cram the rings of vanished kings onto their bony fingers, and wind the jewels of ancient queens in ropes around their withered necks. 

2: Anti-personnel ghouls. Barbarous traps devised by ingenious necromancers: ghouls are packed into iron coffins like sardines, which are then sealed shut and buried beneath the earth, their lids spring-loaded to open when a pressure plate is triggered or a lever is pulled. In a field mined with anti-personnel ghouls, one incautious footfall can bring mobs of mad and ravenous undead bursting to the surface to feast upon whomever triggered their trap. Some ancient necromantic battlegrounds are littered with hundreds of the things, still rusting away in the earth centuries after the battles they were originally deployed for. If retrieved intact they can be reused as traps, or even as unconventional catapult ammunition - hitting the ground should trigger the pressure plate, releasing the ghouls to devour everyone around the impact zone. 

3: Beguiling ghouls. Thin, pale, sensuous, and glamorous, with kissable red lips and knife-sharp cheekbones and truly amazing hair. Often splendidly dressed, as they usually have no shortage of admirers willing to ply them with expensive gifts. Discreet cannibals, with tasteful little kitchens hidden behind secret doors where their least-fortunate lovers are butchered, cooked, and eaten. Their beautifully-manicured nails are razor-sharp and capable of injecting paralytic venom. Capable of putting on a good show of sophistication, but under all the fancy cookery and beautiful clothes they're every bit as much in thrall to their vile hungers as the lowest ghouls that slurp carrion from the gutters. Their children often become ghoul-blooded.

4: Bioweapon ghouls. Vat-bred mass-produced clone warslaves, aggressive and hardy and ravenous, designed to spill over enemy territory like locusts and strip it bare of life before dropping into catatonic suspended animation. Dead white skin apart from the tattooed serial numbers on their foreheads. Had a nasty habit of turning upon their creators. Expect ancient laboratories, shattered glass, and hulking ghoul-kings in tattered lab-coats wearing the skulls of long-dead scientists as crowns. If you're lucky they'll have enough intact psycho-surgical programming to recognise their own deactivation codes when they hear them. 

5: Bone ghouls. While they share the hunger of all ghouls for flesh, these have a special relish for bone marrow: they crack open bones with their sharp yellow claws, and slurp out the marrow with their long, warty black tongues. They dwell in dismal ossuaries hung with bones, tessellated together across the walls and dangling from the ceiling on cords of woven sinew: bones likewise furnish them with both weapons and armour, whether worn across the body for protection, sharpened into knives or spearpoints, or simply wielded as clubs. They lair together in savage clans, all sharing one bone-pile, and often led by skull-wearing chieftains of prodigious size and strength.

6: Butcher ghouls. Brawny, no-nonsense murderers who dispatch their victims with a minimum of fuss, usually via an unceremonious blow to the back of the head with something heavy and sharp. Then they drag the corpses back to their lairs where the real work begins, setting about with knives and grinders until the bodies have been processed into steaks, joints, sausages, and pies. Butcher ghouls usually work in family units, with older ghouls instructing the younger in the mysteries of the trade, and they sometimes act as provisioners for the superior sorts of ghoul, such as beguiling ghouls and royal ghouls. If cornered in their slaughterhouses they fight with meathooks and cleavers and a disturbingly perfect knowledge of human anatomy. 

7: Cave ghouls. Thin and pale and spindly, they hide themselves from the light, folding themselves into narrow cracks in the rock and listening in the dark for prey. They can climb along walls and ceilings like awful white scuttling spiders, moving horribly quickly, a flicker of white limbs glimpsed by torchlight deep beneath the earth. Long, long arms reach out unseen from the hidden crevices they hide in, to snatch victims and drag them down into concealed pits to be devoured. They will sabotage climbing and caving expeditions, cut ropes, pull out spikes, yank people off ledges whenever they have the furthest to fall. They will wait until all the screaming is over and then come climbing down the cave wall, cautious and pale and silent, to feast on the broken corpses and lick the cooling blood from the rocks below.

8: Chemical ghouls. The botched results of ghastly alchemical experiments, these creatures are pale and hairless and feral, constantly twitching and shivering, glistening with a sheen of acidic sweat. Their supercharged metabolisms mean that they are always hungry. Mostly they just lie in the dark, whimpering and quivering, but when they scent prey they transform at once into terrible predators, leaping and sprinting and howling as they run down their victims and pin them down with their burning, acidic hands while tearing at their flesh. Fortunately they are near-mindless and are easily tricked or lured into traps, their desperate hunger overriding all other concerns.

9: Chivalric ghouls.
Huge, pale, hulking cannibals in rusted, bloodstained plate mail, their mad faces and monstrous fang-filled mouths hidden behind visors of tarnished steel that are forged in the shape of fantastical monsters and are never lifted except to allow the ghoul knights eat. They wield enormous swords and axes, hacking their enemies to bloody ruin and feasting on their remains. They are capable of more restraint than most ghouls, and could pass for 'just' a company of psychopathic super-heavy infantry until you see them feed. Happy to fight for any tyrant who can guarantee them a steady stream of victims. 

10: Church ghouls. Among humans they pass as monks, shuffling along in the twilight, their hooded cassocks concealing their awful faces. Among their own kind they are revered, presiding over ghastly cannibal masses in hidden subterranean shrines of dark and dripping stone. Theirs is a dreadful faith of pain and hunger, built around the deified memory of the tyrant kings of grim antiquity, who filled the world with luscious carrion wherever they went. In their sermons the church ghouls give themselves over to apocalyptic visions, prophesying to their baying congregations of a coming age of universal slaughter when the faithful shall glut themselves upon the world's offal. When they must travel above ground they take retinues of chivalric ghouls as escorts, whose intimidating presence serves to discourage anyone from looking at these 'holy men' too closely, or from asking too many questions about why people seem to go missing every time they pass through. 

11: Claw ghouls. Hunchbacked and skeletally thin creatures, with rictus grins on their skull-like faces and yellowish skin stretched tight over their misshapen bones, their long, long arms ending in enormous curving talons like those of a bird of prey. They come crawling out of pits to hunt by night, disembowelling their victims with a single swipe of their awful claws before slurping up their entrails with horrible avidity. They aren't stupid, exactly, but their minds have been so eroded that all they understand is hunger and a certain instinctive cruelty. They sometimes serve as attack dogs for more lucid ghouls.

12: Cyber ghouls.
Recipients, willing or otherwise, of baroque and fantastical cybernetic grafts, whose machineries have been modified to run on flesh and blood. It is not their own hunger they seek to assuage but that of the machines bolted to their bodies, the ever-grumbling engines whose artificial stomachs break down animal tissue and convert it into the chemicals necessary to keep their malfunctioning machine-body interfaces running, at least for now. Fresh kills are cut up and fed, piece by piece, into the blood engines, where they are ground up by whirring metal teeth and prepared for chemical digestion. Common prosthetics include powerful spring-loaded legs, patchwork subdermal body armour, drug glands, pop-out metal claws, and stainless steel teeth. In an emergency the powerful digestive acids within the blood engine can be vented at attackers in a corrosive spray.

13: Desert ghouls. Pale burrowers that sleep beneath the sands of the desert by day, and dig their way out by night to scamper across the dunes in search of prey. It is not the flesh of their victims that they hunger for but their fluids: they will drink their blood, slurp up their humours, even lick the sweat from their cooling skin. Their hollow teeth can suck the moisture right out of their living victims, leaving their flesh dry and dessicated, like that of a mummy left out in the desert for years. They prefer to attack from ambush, and if faced with sturdy resistance they will dig their way back into the sand and await another opportunity to strike. They have an instinctive fear of fire.

14: Devolved ghouls. Originally ghouls of some other kind, these ghouls have devolved so far under the influence of their curse that they have become little more than worm-like burrowing maws, their limbs dwindling to vestigial paddles used to clear the earth away. They tunnel mindlessly through the soil, pale and wriggling, their tooth-filled circular mouths twitching convulsively whenever they scent new prey. They will burrow into basements and come wriggling up the stairs in search of food. Sometimes, if you follow their tunnels back far enough, you will find lairs containing hints of the beings they once were before being overtaken by this final devolution. 

15: Enchanter ghouls. These ghouls have learned how to use illusion magic to pass among men undetected, appearing human until it is too late. The same magic that they use to disguise themselves can be used to disguise other things, too, allowing them to make rags and pebbles appear like silk and gold, and they use this gift to lure people to their lairs - homes which, under the influence of their illusions, appear to be luxurious boudoirs, but which in fact are filth-streaked abattoirs where their victims are murdered and consumed. They like to pose as wise sages or seductive lovers, but the presence of true holiness dispels their illusions, revealing them as the hideous, ragged, blood-spattered horrors that they truly are.  

16: Fae ghouls. Slim, pale, and beautiful, and glimpsed only at twilight, usually doing something picturesque like dancing in snowstorms, drifting through forests, bathing in rivers, or kneeling mournfully among the tombs. They are very graceful and have beautiful singing voices, and their teeth are very white and very sharp. They speak movingly of love and passion and beauty, but are totally heartless and amoral, and will paralyse you and eat you alive the moment they get the chance. (They will, however, carve extremely tasteful memento mori curios from your bones.) They prefer to flee if confronted, but if cornered they fight with great agility using thin blue-steel blades. When they're not too hungry they enjoy talking to interesting humans, and could even become friends or lovers provided you don't mind the whole 'eating people' thing. 

17: Fallen ghouls. They may have started out as free-thinking heretics or daring explorers of forbidden secrets, but it turns out that if you expose yourself to too many demonic energies then the day comes when all you can think about is eating people. Utterly ashamed of their horrible addictions, not least because their progress toward unholy enlightenment has completely stalled now that all their intellectual energy is devoted to obtaining human corpses for dinner. If confronted they may claim that actually they engage in cannibalism because of its potent symbolic resonances, but it's a total lie:  they're just filthy addicts, and they know it. For now they look mostly human apart from their too-sharp teeth and too-long nails, but they're liable to devolve into even more feral forms, such as claw ghouls, if no-one catches them and kills them first. 

18: Famine ghouls. Cursed revenants of famine victims who committed awful acts of murder and cannibalism against those they most loved in order to survive. Utterly gaunt, with dull, sunken eyes and dusty rags that hang loosely from their skeletal frames. Just looking at them makes people feel hungry. They are filled with a terrible cannibal hunger, but under their accursed touch even the plumpest of victims withers away to mere skin and bones, leaving them forever unsatisfied. If they stay too long in one place the crops start to fail, so they are always on the move, tramping wearily along the roads with a stumbling, hopeless tread. They devoured those they loved in the name of their own bare survival, and so only an act of pure self-sacrifice will release them from their curse. 

19: Feasting ghouls. Affable grave-robbing hedonists, who love nothing better than a good cannibal banquet under a charnel house, feasting on carrion and drinking vile brews distilled from grave water and corpses. Enjoy singing songs and whirling around the room while dancing with dead bodies (which they then eat). Dab hands at making musical instruments from skins and bones: bone flutes, rib xylophones, skin drums, bone fiddles with corpse-hair strings, etc, etc. Anyone who discovers them mid-feast will be given a choice: join the meal as a feaster, or join it as food. They'll happily talk to anyone willing to join them in their ghastly meals, but doing so is a quick way to end up becoming a feasting ghoul oneself. 

20: Feral ghouls. All ghouls can be pretty feral at times, but these are the worst: insane pale-skinned berserkers who leap on their prey to claw and chew in a mad rage of hunger, indifferent to pain or injury, continuing to rip and bite until they are literally hacked apart. They are strong and savage, capable of terrible feats of leaping and sprinting, but their mindless hostility and indifference to self-preservation makes it easy to trick or misdirect them into their own destruction. 

Trevor Henderson, Tree Man

21: Forest ghouls. Lurking horrors that sleep inside hollow trees by day, and by night come creeping out to climb across the forest canopy like awful pale spiders. In the dark their long spindly limbs and reaching fingers are almost indistinguishable from branches, making them terribly hard to spot as they stretch down from above, slowly, slowly, before suddenly grabbing their victims by the throat and hoisting them, kicking and choking, up into the branches to throttle them with their dreadful strangling hands. They climb with astonishing speed, and are much stronger than they look. 

22: Furry ghouls. Bestial, stinking, shrieking monsters covered in thick coats of black, matted hair. They come swarming from caves and fissures, seeking to pulverise their victims with thrown rocks and powerful fists before devouring them with mouthfuls of chipped yellow fangs. The stench of them is indescribable. 

23: Future ghouls. Refugees from a devastated future timeline, in which the world has been stripped of all resources and the handful of degenerate cannibal survivors have taken to jumping through unstable time portals to the past, heedless of when they end up as long as there's someone to eat on the other side. They wear makeshift armour soldered together from random bits of future machinery, all ultra-lightweight alloys and shattered masses of circuitry, and wield priceless ultratech relics as clubs, their beautifully engineered nanolathed machineries now valued only for their sharp edges. Their bodies are festooned with semi-operational cybernetics, their blood spiked with malfunctioning nanites, their heads studded with digital implants gibbering horrorshow static into their drug-fried brains. They have no way to get home and wouldn't want one if they could, seeing the past as a paradisal all-you-can-eat buffet. Possibly if one could be interrogated about the history of its dying world then their awful future could be prevented from coming to pass...


  1. All hella evocative. I expected 10, reached 10 and was pleasantly surprised to find there was more. Then I expected 20, so imagine my delight when I found the extra three past that!

    You could make a whole setting of nothing but these ghouls, honestly.

    1. And this is only part 1!

      It did occur to me that I'd basically written ghoul versions of most of the classic D&D monsters. It's funny how often 'what if X, but also a ghoul?' gives rise to something viable. I guess cannibalism goes with everything!

  2. Have you read Brian McNaughton's "The Throne of Bone"? It's a series of interconnected stories set in a crumbling necropolis-city infested with a ghouls, complete with grave-robbing as a grey-market profession, morbid and/or degenerate nobles, investigative professors, mercenary necromancers, and several gameable factions. Any game adaption would probably be a sort of WFRP where the answer to the mystery is always "more ghouls".

    It's also, fair warning, very gross in places.

    1. I haven't! Reading of any sort is a bit of a fading memory for me at this point, but I'll add it to the list!

    2. I listened to the audiobook myself, for similar reasons.

      I think you'd like it very much! I realized my description sounds very Victorian, but the setting is more of a late sword & sorcery empire.

  3. Cannibalism does go with nearly all D&D monsters...more than some might even imagine (just thinking about the cannibal halflings from Dark Sun).

    You should have saved this series for the April A-Z Challenge.
    ; )

    1. I'd never heard of that! I think I'd rather do two substantial posts than 26 tiny ones, though. And I don't think I'll be able to come up with any ghouls that start with X. (X-TREME ghouls, maybe? Imagine the embarrassment of being killed and eaten by one of those!)

    2. Your ghouls could be xyloid or xanthous or xenogenic or xenotropic or, the most unusual for the typically xenophobic ghouls, xenodochial.

    3. Xenomorph ghouls, aka WH40K/Space Hulk symbiont-cults.

    4. I guess standard 'reproduce via ghoul fever infection' ghouls would be xenogenic by definition. Xanthous ghouls would be OK visually, though they'd need a shtick other than just colour-coding. I actually have some xyloid ghouls (though I call them 'wood ghouls') coming up in part 2. Xenodochial ghouls could be grimly hilarious, like the world's creepiest AirBnB hosts, who just genuinely want you to have a good stay despite all the corpses in the closet.

      Xenomoph ghouls would totally work, though!

    5. Xylophone ghouls, the most musical of them all!

  4. I too, think ghouls are pretty great.

  5. All these are very much ghouls as unambiguously evil adversaries.

    I also have a soft spot for more morally ambiguous ghouls - after all, other than the kuru business, is eating the already-dead really so bad? There's a whole continuum of takes there, from the ancient, morbid, disgusting, creepy, but not necessarily evil civilisation to the shadowy, sibilant things in the shadows that demonstrably /mostly/ eat corpses that are already dead, and perhaps they're nothing to do with the fact that there are more disappearances round here than usual, and there are really good reasons not to pick a fight with them if you can live with yourself afterwards...

    1. It's funny - normally I'm all about sympathetic takes on monsters, but with ghouls, evidently not so much. It's probably because I tend to see them as pitiable addicts, so one might sympathise with their plight, but that doesn't justify their actions while under the influence.

      If their all-corpse diet is just a food source like any other, rather than an unholy all-consuming hunger, then you could absolutely have ghouls who were creepy but not at all evil. Indeed, you could even have people who rationally and ethically sought out tranformation to ghouldom, reasoning that eating dead people is a pretty small price to pay for immortality. After all, the people you're eating are already dead, and think how much good your extended lifespan would let you do for the living...

      Of the ones I've written here, fae ghouls, ghoul gourmets, and mystic ghouls would probably be best-suited to non-antagonist roles. They're all still clearly monsters, but at least they're monsters you can get along with!

  6. This sounds so much Mork Borg. I think I like chivalric ghouls the best, but all are good.

  7. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Every single one of these is terrific. The knights and the revellers are my favourites.

  8. I love all of these, but the future ghouls are easily my favorite. The idea of a bunch of highly sophisticated folk from the future descending into the past to feed upon their ancestors, wielding weapons and carrying they have lost the ability to use or understand is such an evocative idea. It carries with it so much pathos and mystery. The best monsters are always those with a hint of tragedy and these provide that nicely.

    1. Thanks! I can't claim full credit for the future ghouls: I got the idea of cannibal raiders from an exhausted future returning to raid and eat the past from Morrison's 'Seven Soldiers of Victory'. The Future Ghouls are a more tragic and desperate bunch than Morrison's utterly evil Sheeda, though.