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.

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