Sunday, 29 January 2017

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual: The Ghoul and The Ghast

The Ghoul and The Ghast

combined this entry because the Ghast is basically a pumped up Ghoul. I am a big fan of Ghouls, and they have an exalted pedigree both within and without the game: their origin is among the ancient Persians, who named the flesh-eating Ghoul with a word referencing a demon feared in those first cities of humankind – the points of light in the Near East amidst a vast sea of (subjective) barbarian darkness. Within the game, they date to the very first editions. My first experience of truly fearing an enemy in D&D was when I was around ten or eleven years old and a band of AD&D ghouls swarmed my party in some tight tunnels where we had been commando crawling. The fear of paralysis, of claustrophobia – the dehumanising experience of being dragged away by a predator – this was all primal terror and a gripping episode that informs my DMing decades later.

Let’s dig deeper:

I can’t decide what I think of this. The lithe muscular body and mutated details add some body horror and help differentiate the piece in the oversaturated zombie market. Despite that, I can’t help feel that the long tongue, hooked claws and blue pallor detract from the horror and add a touch of silliness. When describing ghouls, I amp up the body horror: vast, distended, bursting stomach; smashed fragments of jaw-bone retained as rudimentary mouth and a gore-stained torso. This just doesn’t feel adequately scary to me.

Purpose and Tactics:

Both creatures in battle work very similarly, and as your players level up ghouls and ghasts will transition from solo enemies or boss monsters alongside weaker undead to disposable mooks. In both role, their paralysis ability should be disruptive, but the paltry 10 Con saving throw makes it unlikely you will ever inflict serious paralysis or shut down a character. Most likely, the occasional low roll will result in the character losing a turn. To make a Ghoul combat more frightening, I generally cause anyone paralysed to fall prone and I would definitely increase the DC, or make the DC increase as more ghouls attack you to reflect a slow ‘succumbing’. After that, both monsters have a slightly more damaging bite attack to rely on. Personally, I’d have ghasts working alongside other undead strive to paralyse characters for disruption, especially concentrating casters.

The ghast’s advantages are somewhat significant. Turning Resistance is something I really don’t agree with using – how often does your Cleric get to Turn Undead anyway? – but if your campaign is undead-heavy and the Cleric gets a lot of mileage from it, it can stop or arrest the disastrous situation of a ghoul rout which allows the party to pick off combatants one-by-one. Stench is a generic ability, but fitting here, and potentially quite disruptive. In addition to this, a probably irrelevant resistance to Necrotic and a smidgen more damage round out the ghast.

Almost everything in the ghoulish arsenal requires close proximity to their enemies-  such creatures always work best in favourable terrain or an ambush: the obvious pretending-to-be-dead-in-a-graveyard-or-battlefield is a staple ghoul encounter for a reason. The tunnel combat which frightened my prepubescent self is also a great encounter, provided you are suitably cruel and point out that characters struggle to move past each other and cannot swing their greatswords in such a situation. Ghouls are not intelligent though, so allowing players to abuse their insatiable hungers to lure them into ambush themselves can also make for a great encounter.


A lot of this is very specific mythology centred on Doresain which I personally wasn’t interested in. It seemed primarily an attempt to paper over an Elf’s ghoul-touch resistance and not terribly interesting. It’s also somewhat incongruous to me that Orcus still supports Ghouls now that Doresain is best buds with Corellon (how does that work exactly?) but whatever – I make my own fluff.

The traditional mythological ghouls-are-humans-who-committed-the-sin-of-cannibalism is far more interesting, and what I personally run with.

Plot Hooks

On his doomed marched back across the desert, Prince Cymbaises’ men were forced to commit a foul and odious sin: the men drew lots, and the shortest were consumed. At home, defeated, he finds himself craving once more the flesh of his fellow man, and his flesh grows cold. Now, if he were to succumb to the ghoul-curse, that would be one thing – but in every village of his kingdom a decommissioned soldier has gone home to his farmstead with the blackest hunger growing in his stomach…

The fortress of Memmeloren was besieged by many years by the dread armies of Akullekembek. When the gates finally opened, they found the whole fortress was a nest of terrible ghouls. Horrified, Akullekembek fell, leaving behind a rocky maze of ghoul-cursed horror….

Verdict: A hearty feast, but not one that entirely suits my palette.

Alignments and Society.

What does a Chaotic Evil society look like?

It’s a question that gets a lot of mileage in Sisyphean Internet alignment debates -if you chuck a punch of CE Orcs and Goblinoids together, what the hell sort of society do they develop? In a society of individualistic violence, how does anything emerge? There’s an inbuilt assumption to that line of thought, and to human history generally, that we represent the model for Lawful Good and some Other is the stand in for the other alignments. Do a collective of Lawful Good individuals necessarily produce a Lawful Good society? (Hegel, had he lived beside Gygax, or had Gygax got the dice rolling in nineteenth century bourgeois Prussia, would certainly argue for that – Marx or Arendt might disagree…)

 Disclaimer: I am using the D&D by-the-book definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ here. Plus don’t construe this as a moral judgement of individuals, or that I am talking societies out of context, or imposing teleogical modern morality. In D&D morality certain things are moral that we may disagree with in the twenty-first century West, such as murdering evil-doers.

For my own game world, I apply a vague alignment to most states, and here’s how I do it:

Lawful states are typified by constitutions, traditions, and formal roles:  Lawful governments govern by, with and under the dictates of law. At their best, they are just, consistent and stable. At their worst they are bureaucratic and conservative. Chaotic societies are individualistic; they prefer the natural assumption of power by charismatic or capable individuals. At their best, they are malleable and flexible. At their worst, they are despotic, unstable and well, chaotic.

Evil societies put no value on (demi)human life and are aggressive and expansionist – a Hobbesean war of all against all is the world they live in, and they will claw any advantage they can. Evil perform no action except through self-interest.

Good societies are altruistic, engaged and their leadership sees rule as a service. They actively suppress injustice and evil and work to better the lives of their subjects for the sake of it. They are generally much more equal.

Some examples:

Lawful EvilLawful Evil societies are not the simply tyrannical states most people envisage – they could be democracies. The important mix is that there is a heavily controlled, defined and stratified society: maybe a caste-system or extensive slavery. Rulers work within the bounds of the law but the law itself is designed to protect their interests. The Confederate South might be an example here of a society that was legalistic and lawful yet those laws protected evil practices, for example slavery and institutionalised racialism. Other Lawful Evil societies might be the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which expanded violently across the Near East, crushing dissent with utter cruelty yet a strict legal code.
Don't fuck with the Assyrians. 

Lawful Good

Lawful Good societies are societies with the same legalistic preponderance, but they work actively to push towards a more equal society for the populace within the bounds of the laws. Lawful Good societies would only take part in Just Wars and place the welfare of their people highly in consideration. The idealised self image of the United State of America would be an example of a Lawful Good society. The actual United States, probably not. Norway or other Western European social democracies would also probably qualify.

Chaotic Evil
Chaotic societies are those with little legal framework to take control of, such as steppe tribes or  societies in a constant state or revolution and flux (such as modern Syria or Afghanistan). A Chaotic Evil society would be one in which rulers tend to rule solely by force and might-makes-right – the subjects have little right to recompense and the personage of the ruler and their ability to exercise force are the source of all power. The Mongols (before Genghis Khan) probably qualify as a Chaotic Evil society due to their incredibly violent punishments and foreign policy, and ready acceptance of slavery, rape and plunder. A more modern and controversial example would be Nazi Germany, whose crimes probably do not need to be listed.

Chaotic Good
Chaotic Good societies also rely on the personal charisma and status of individual(s), but they work towards the betterment of the collective. They would have a limited or non-existent coercive power and would rely extensively on altruism and voluntarism from their citizenry. Examples are hard to find in the ‘Real World’ setting because blood is so often the lubricant of the wheels of history – I’d say no state in the traditional sense really qualifies (perhaps some Native American tribal groups, but that’s probably my romantic Noble Savage bullshit coming into play.) I’d argue for potentially the Zapatistas, Spanish Anarchists or the Indian Independence movement around Gandhi.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual - The Empyrean


Behold, the Mary Suest monster you could ever throw into your campaign. A walking (swimming, flying) manifestation of holier-than-thou immortality. The Empyrean is a literal demigod; beautiful, powerful and better than you. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the Empyrean before – my eye was always drawn to the overweight-bank-manager-meets-Lolth depiction of the Ettercap rather than this blue Abercrombie and Fitch model.

The concept of the god’s mortal descendants is in many cultures, from Hercules to Maui to Vali to Cu Chulain. Let’s see how D&D handles it…

Art It’s a big, buff blue dude with a bizarre stance that doesn’t seem to work right. He’s wearing some sort of demure skirt, a pro-wrestler’s belt and knee-high boots, so the whole image is a bizarre combination of kinky and boring. The Empyrean shares a lot of conceptual and artistic space with the Deva, Planetar and other creatures featured in Monster Manual’s hunky-fireman calendar subsection. It doesn’t really inspire much in the way of excitement or interest in me, I must admit. I’d build his appearance on his progenitor’s, personally.

Purpose and Tactics
Obviously, this is your ultimate big bad, rocking out at CR 23 and with the caveat that should be mess up daddy will simply resurrect him anyway. Ignore the ‘75% chaotic good’ - this incarnation of celestial privilege is obviously far more exciting if he’s rebelling in some way against the parental figure (one of my villains has this exact story). As with all BBEG CR23 badasses in your campaign, your players will never know him as ‘An Empyrean’. They’ll know him as Kelthren, Thrice-Cursed Son of the God of Knowledge who betrayed him to Vecna.

It’s essential that any Empyrean be first and foremost an NPC, with a name, backstory and relationship to their parent. Integral to that will be his relationship to his parent’s domain(s). My villain was a child of a god of seas and storms, and thus can never leave dry land. Perhaps your Empyrean is rebelling against the God of Truth, or Industry, or Wine – and is therefore lying, lazy or teetotal.

As a result of this, I’d chuck out most of the spell list and powers for thematic alternatives, but let’s see how good the RAW Empyrean is in a scrap. As it would ruin a precious, railroading DM’s day if their pet NPC was made to look embarrassed, the Empyrean has Magic Resistance and Legendary Resistance, so you’re never going to take them out of commission that way. Ditto Illusions, as they’re packing Truesight. They can only be harmed by magic weapons, but any player crossing swords with a CR 23 has so many magical weapons they butter their toast with a Holy Avenger.

In terms of Magic, there are some big-hitter evocation spells and some At-Will utility, which can be used to damage the party- Earthquake can be very disruptive and damaging in an urban environment, and Firestorm gives some much-needed AoE. The Empyrean’s attacks are pretty damaging but dropping one of those a turn doesn’t seem like all that much impact in a high-stakes epic-level combat. He has some excellent support options if you’re giving the Empyrean minions (you are at this point throwing the CR budget rules out of the window, no doubt) as Bolster and Trembling Strike can massively boost his side in a battle against the players, and it makes sense that the Empyrean would rule over some minions.

Some aspects are interesting, for example the built-in Pathetic Fallacy, where the weather reflects his mood: excellent fluff and an excuse for you to battle in thunderstorm or hurricane. The idea of their being ‘beautiful, statuesque and self-assured’ doesn’t gel though. For me, the story an Empyrean should tell is almost Oedipal – it’s about the relationship to a father-figure (who could be overbearing and cruel and capricious – they are a god after all) and the pressure to meet familial expectations (when your brother was your age he was worshipped across the world – you’re still living in the basement of Valhalla). If anything, insecurity should define the Empyrean, and lead into their actions.

Plot Hooks
Kuldgirr the Wrathful rules the vast empire of the Kulgur Wastes, and plunders any town that takes his fancy. His father, men say, was the War-God Aegishjamlur himself, and he sees all the world as his dominion…

Gruthfrith’s mother, Hedelleleid, was the Mistress of Songs, the patron god of bards, singers and beautiful things. Gruthfrith’s fingers are a blur; his voice makes a Nightingale weep, and as women lay at his feet and men bury him in gold, a thought grows in his mkind like a cancer. Why is HE not Master of Songs, Patron of Bards, Singer and Beautiful Things…?

Vallnir’s father, Kelum, the Righteous Fire, demands endless self-sacrifice and ceaseless vigilance. As Vallnirr crosses yet another battlefield, and spends another way warring with evil and terror, despair has grown in his heart like rot. Kelum never sees him as worthy. Kelum never values his life. Should he spend his entire life earning the approval of Kelum? Or should he, for once, use his mighty gifts to benefit himself.

Aumvorax once was the most feared pirate of the Dameshti coast. Loved by his father, The King of Storm and Spray, and his Mother, the Queen of Deluge and Deeps, he was master of all seamanship, and his ship, Favoured, grew fat with plunder. However, in one fatal storm Aurumvorax was wrecked, and washed ashore, and found himself screaming at a mother and father whose fickle favour had slipped through his fingers like so much sea-water. Cursing them, he made his Dark Pact and swore an oath to be revenged…

Verdict: Poorly executed, but a great seed for compelling NPCs. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual - The Dryad


Another creature inspired by Greek myth, the Dryad is a spirit of nymph of a tree. Such a creature can stand in for tree-spirits of many cultures (Kodama, Ghillie Dhu etc) and thus can find a place in almost any campaign. 

The Dryad is one of those funny monsters that I can never really see my party fighting – they’re more often a quest-giver or scenery that a monster. However – there is no Manual of Quest-Givers and Scenery so we must treat her as a monster!


This is an interesting piece and quite singular in the Monster Manual because of its broadly impressionistic style. Almost all monster depictions in the book are quite realistic and detailed whilst this opts for the suggestion of femininity and the suggestion of arborealism. The facial expression is awesomely powerful (a serious condition of Resting Birch Face) and intones in the Dryad artwork a sort of nature-goddess vibe with a powerful sensuality. It is brave and I dig it a lot. 

Purpose and Tactics

You could feasibly use the Dryad as a low-level boss monster, but I wouldn’t advise it. The Dryad is primarily a controller, and with its low CR, works best paired up with a grab-bag of beasts, Fey or elementals. The reason it doesn’t function as a solo threat is the awful damage and hitpoints – even players disrupted by Charm and Entangle will slaughter the Dryad with ease. Despite the inclusion of Shillelagh, I would avoid using the Dryad for damage at all.

In a fight, assume your dryad is supporting a group of beasts (lets say Wolves). She can use Entangle to deny the characters an action throughout the fight. She could dispense healing in the form of Goodberry, but this seems a fairly weak option.  Combining Entangle with her Charm ability to remove foes from the fight would be a strong strategy, especially as Charm does not compete with the concentration needed or Entangle. With clever positioning (aided by Tree Stride, which only counts as movement and no her Standard) you can be a constant disruptive element and expose the party to dangerous isolation, flanking attacks or charmed inactivity. Barkskin will remove your ability to concentrate Entangle, so I would avoid imagining your Dryad can ever successfully tank.

Whilst you have impressive Magical Resistance to protect you from spells (especially Area of Effect) your Dryad will go down quickly to any sustained fire. Most level one characters with any nova ability could feasibly slay the Dryad in a single hit – and this will only be more pronounced as time continues. Use Tree Stride, the range of your magic and the difficult terrain of your forest home to keep you away from direct damage.

Another string to her bow is her use of Stealth and the mighty Pass Without Trace. Whilst I find adjudicating stealth versus the party difficult aside from in an ambush situation, Pass Without Trace makes it extremely likely the Dryad and her allies will get the jump on your players. Pair this with a Bugbear for a pretty terrifying low CR budget encounter!

As a quest-giver, she’s a standard hippy flower-child and will want you to protect her forest. For something a little more edgy, you could borrow themes from the more morally complex world of Princess Mononoke or draw on the idea of a Dryad being cursed to her form – perhaps she is vengeful.


None of this is particularly original (Dryads are sexy woodland ladies who cavort with satyrs and unicorns) but I’m not sure how else one could riff on the forest-guardian concept without changing it too much.  There’s a nascent doomed love-story plot in the fluff if your players wished they were playing Vampire: The Masquerade instead.

Plot Hooks

A trio of Dryads have taken their protection of the forest to absurd degrees: the kill interlopers just for fertiliser and cause the wooden huts of villagers to spout saplings and grow. They intend that their forest absorb the whole region as it did in primordial times…

The Dryad Waiola loved a mortal man once, and was bound to her tree as punishment. This was millennia ago. Could you find his grave, or ancestors, or ashes and bring back some relic of her love that they might be joined?

A logging syndicate has been set up by the local Baron, who desires you broker a peace with the Dryads and build a sustainable policy that allows the villagers to make a living and the forest to prosper in equal amounts…

Fairuza the Scourge is a Dryad scorned by her sisters. She sees the beauty of nature not in the steady growth of millennia but in the sudden upsurge after a forest fire; she sees majesty not in the venerable old grizzly but in the jaws of a young wolf. Can you prevent her violent attempts to make the circle of life turn a little quicker?

Verdict: Solid as an oak, but not particularly exciting. For more edgy forest guardians, check out my blog post.