I'm not terrifically surprised about that, because ghouls are a really hideously dangerous opponent in D&D; they punch way above their normal weight class (as indicated by hit dice). Even though the higher-HD types with energy drain get more of the gnashing-of-teeth response from a lot of players, I think that ghouls are really more likely to wipe you out with a TPK than those other types. Here are a few historical notes on them:
Chainmail Fantasy -- Ghouls are in Chainmail, as a sub-category lumped in with Wights:
WIGHTS (and Ghouls): Although they are foot figures, Wights (and Ghouls) melee as Light Horse and defend as Heavy Horse. They cannot be harmed by normal missile fire. Wights (and Ghouls) can see in darkness, and must subtract 1 from any die roll they roll when in full light. If they touch a normal figure during melee, it becomes paralyzed and remains so for one complete turn. A paralyzed figure is considered to be able to strike a blow at the Wight just prior to paralysis taking effect, so melee can occur but only one round. [CM p. 37]Hey, where did that paralysis come from, anyway? Well, Tolkien describes Barrow-Wights in Lord of the Rings as having an "icy touch" -- and here you see them with a freezing-effect described as "paralysis" against those who they touch. Ghouls just happen to be along for the ride in the same section, and so they (in something of a happy accident -- for them) also get paralysis. In later editions Wights switch to energy-drain, but Ghouls stick with the paralysis.
Original D&D -- And here's what OD&D says, mostly referring back to the preceding:
As stated in CHAINMAIL for Wights, Ghouls paralize any normal figure they touch, excluding Elves. They otherwise melee in the regular fashion and are subject to missile fire. Any man-type killed by a Ghoul becomes one. [Vol-2, p. 9]Notice the changes: Ghouls can be hit by any weapon type (esp. missiles), and they can spawn new ghouls from their victims. (Some people say that Ghouls are your best choice to replicate movie zombie incursions based on that latter fact, and I think that's a strong argument.)
Of course, ghouls only get one attack for 1d6 damage (as is the default for anything in OD&D). Their paralysis doesn't explicitly permit a saving throw; but one of the save categories is "paralization", and what else could that be used for? And there's no duration except for the "one complete turn" language back in Chainmail, although trying to use that gets you in the standard quagmire of OD&D confusion over exploring turn/ melee turn/ rounds, or what should be indicated by that (esp. since it was actually given in an earlier context where 10-minute turns definitely didn't exist yet).
Supplement-I, Greyhawk -- Now, the OD&D Greyhawk supplement has a section of additions to the combat system, providing weapons-vs-AC modifiers, damage-by-weapon, and different attacks and damage for the core monsters (this was quasi-optional at the time: "If this system is used it is suggested that the separate damage by weapon type and monster type also he employed..." [Sup-I, p. 13]). So you get a little one-line change in respect to Ghouls:
Ghoul (Number of Attacks) 2 claws/1bite (Points of Damage per Attack) 1-3/claw, 1-4/bite [Sup-I, p. 16]Now, this makes a pretty big difference. Ghouls are the only undead type given more than a single attack at this point -- and not just 2, but all of 3. The other types all get a full die of damage (1d6, 1d8, 1d10, or 1d12), but ghouls have theirs reduced to the order of 1d3 per attack. Normally this would average out to about the same -- except that each of those 3 attacks subject you to the paralysis effect. In theory, a single Ghoul could incapacitate 3 members of your party in a single round of combat; no other type can say the same.
This triple-attacks-with-paralysis was copied into all of the following versions of D&D. Holmes, Moldvay, Advanced, Third Edition, etc., all keep it the same way.
Advanced D&D -- Some extra refinements in AD&D that sometimes escape notice:
Any human killed by a ghoulish attack will become a ghoul unless blessed (or blessed and then resurrected). Ghoul packs always attack without fear. These creatures are subject to all attack forms except sleep and charm spells. They can be turned by clerics. The magic circle of protection from evil actually keeps these monsters completely at bay. [MM, p. 44]But among the other unique things about Ghouls at this point is that every other undead type got a +1 boost in Hit Dice in AD&D -- with the single exception of Ghouls. (e.g., in OD&D you had Skeletons 1/2 HD, Zombies 1, Wights 3, etc.; while in AD&D it's Skeletons 1, Zombies 2, Wights 4, etc.) On the parallel track, Holmes has it the same as OD&D except for 2 HD zombies; while Moldvay Basic D&D and its descendants have everything up to ghouls boosted, and everything afterward unchanged (Skeletons 1, Zombies 2, Wights 3, etc.).
There are days when if I'm playing AD&D, my instinct is to also boost Ghouls up to 3 HD, thereby keeping the same regular progression for undead HD that you see in original D&D. (Link.)
On Light -- One possibly important issue: Should fighting in light affect ghouls' combat abilities? (Like: during a general land incursion.) There's a general precedent that light affects the undead in D&D, with increasing incapacitation for higher-level types. For example, in AD&D: Skeletons take no effect, Wights "shun bright lights and hate sunlight", for Spectres "Daylight makes them powerless", and Vampires are destroyed [various MM pages].
Now, if you look back to Chainmail Fantasy, it did specify a -1 from any die in combat for Ghouls (or Wights) in full light. This isn't repeated in any later edition; all you get are the flavor-type quotes about the types just not liking light (as for Wights above). As usual, you can ask the question if the Chainmail language was meant to be incorporated by reference (and whether anyone does so).
The only problem is that a -1 on the Chainmail six-sided attack die makes opponents in heavy armor totally unhittable. See the Combat Tables p. 40: the only regular type that ghouls could hit in sunlight would be Light Foot. Against Fantasy types, again, quite a few would be immune to hits.
Book of War -- When I made my suggested Book of War stats for ghouls, I used all the standard assumptions from the OD&D game that I run, namely: 2 hit dice, only 1 attack, -2 to hit in full sunlight, and immune to morale. A few issues with that are that it differs from the 3 attacks given in later editions (although 3 paralysis attacks make them immensely dangerous game-changers), and heavy-armor types are totally unhittable in clear, sunny weather outdoors.
So I'm wondering: What do you prefer in your own Original D&D-esque game? I've got a trio of separate polls in the sidebar on the issues of (1) attacks, (2) light penalty, and (3) morale. I'd be interested in seeing the consensus on those issues.
[Photo by Eyes of New York under CC2. Not me, but a venue I've played at.]