Ghouls Through the Ages

As I've unburied myself in the last week (from a combination of sick, cyber-crash, and work avalanche), I thought it might a good time to look at some undead issues that I've wanted to investigate for a while. It's also on my mind because my good friend Paul ran several iterations of AD&D module A1, Slave Pits of the Undercity, at a tournament last week; and in his writeup, it sounds as if the most critical element to party success is how they fare in a certain fight against ghouls (or more specifically: does the party cleric succeed in their turn check or not?).

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.]


  1. I don't think it was so much the ability to turn or not turn (as the Slow spell I thought was just as good a tactic against them), but rather ability to win surprise and initiative. Ghouls I've found are something of a glass cannon. With three attacks per round each with a chance to paralyze that's a deadly attack (though in practice I've sort of house-ruled that no matter how many hits they get in, at the end of the round the victim need only make one save). On the other hand with just 2 HD (averaging 8 hp each), against a party of level 5-7s they pretty much go down in one hit. So that particular battle in the A-series is really all about who gets the first hits in.

    Similar to troglodytes, I rather like the 3-attacks and 2 HD combination. I think glass cannon style monsters make for a pretty exciting fight, which I enjoy far too much to remove. One of the most memorable battles in my campaign was a fight gone wrong against a couple ghouls. One player died due to being force-fed a poison potion (they thought it might be healing) while paralyzed. Another had to be abandoned to escape, which in turn lead to an awesome rescue mission where the party had to kill the friend-turned-kill and drag his corpse back in town all while under the time crunch dictated by Raise Dead.

    That said, I think that fight in the second half of A-1 is way too swingy for a "fair tournament", if such a thing is what you're after.

  2. That should read "friend-turned-ghoul".

  3. ^ Hey, good follow-up, thanks for that. For some reason I misread what you wrote, and thought that both parties lost surprise (among other misreads, it's like I was hallucinating this weekend or something).

    I also agree that getting caught by surprise by ghouls is epically horrible. You probably weren't playing by the AD&D rule where (based on surprise die difference) you might get 1, 2, or even 3 or 4 surprise rounds to attack before the opponent can respond? [DMG p. 61] That can happen with ghouls in T1-4 and ick, it's hideous.

  4. To me Ghouls have always been the worst of the worst to encounter when you're a low level party. I use abstract combat (d6 for everything) in my current LL game and ghouls keep their three attacks at a d6 of damage each, but only paralyze on a bite. Needless to say my player's adopt a scorched earth penalty when they see or suspect a ghoul infestation.

    One thing I have been considering, especially given last week's walking dead, is that the Ghoul can rend a target if both claws hit the same target.

    That works well for me since Ghouls are intentionally terrifying both visually and mechanically. If you'd like to adapt it to something less powerful you can give the ghouls two attacks a round (claws) and if both are against the same target they may follow it up with a bite that has the chance to paralyze.

  5. Frikkin' Ghouls!

    They're an alpha predator, as far as 1st level adventurers are concerned. Delta's point about punching above their weight class is so true.

    Anything with claw/claw/bite is a nasty piece of work. The paralysis makes ghouls a TPK machine.

    They also provide a strong argument for bringing a cleric along, with turning and cure light wounds as cure for paralysis.

    If I recall, Paul, I don't think my group who ran A1 ran into the ghouls. Either we avoided it or that wasn't the part of the module you ran for us.

  6. My inclination would be like RedHobbits', to only allow the ghouls to paralyze with a bite if they're being given more than one attack.

  7. Hmm. Maybe my attacks poll should've been "ghouls should get how many paralysis opportunities per round?". Seems like there's a bunch of ways to get to the "just one" reply.

  8. I nerfed ghouls recently by giving them a claw attack; then if that succeeds a bite attack; both of which can paralyze. I'm thinking though, with the ability to be turned, they should be more badass than that.

  9. I use CCB attacks as two claws that, if they both hit, allow a grab-and-bite, bear-hug-and-bite, rend-and-bite, or bite-and-swallow-whole depending on the critter.

    In the Ghoul's case it's paralyse-and-bite. Saves vs the loaded bite attack, rather than another attack roll.

  10. I've blogged on more than one occasion regarding the viciousness of ghouls (#5 on my Top Ten list of player killing creatures found in Moldvay). I voted to keep 'em as described in B/X: three attacks, no sunlight penalties, susceptible to morale checks.

    I look at ghouls a little different from "standard;" to me, they are not so much "undead" as rather individuals inhabited by a cannibalistic spirit (think wendigo). They are not mindless corpses, nor negative material plane creatures, but a cleric's turning works because of that evil possessor spirit (like turning a demon, I suppose).

    In my mind, I picture ghouls as something similar to the "reavers" found in the scifi TV show Firefly.

  11. I am really enjoying your reviews of different spells and monsters across editions.

    The ghoul post reminds me that you might want to take a closer look at the AD&D monster cards. It's not very well known, but the monster cards incorporated errata and new details from the PHB and DMG. (For example, shaman and witch-doctor info for humanoid tribes.) Ever wonder how long ghoul paralysis lasts? I think only the monster card had the "official" answer, for whatever that's worth.

    Anyway, knowing that you are a close reader of classic D&D texts, I figured you might be interested in this additional reference.

  12. In my latest campaign I have everything basically at #1 attack per round (maybe super stuff like dragons or monkeys on crack excepted).

    A few Ghouls can still paralyse a mid level party within 2-3 rounds easy.

    That is tough enough IMO, especially given their extra turning defense.

  13. @BigFella -- Yeah, the ghouls show up in the first half of A1 (the temple part), you guys played the second half (the sewer part).

    @Delta -- No, definitely just a single round of attacks. Though I also use group initiative, so by both getting surprise and winning initiative the ghouls could get a full 2 rounds of attacks prior to any player actions.

    @Unknown -- Wow, thanks for that, I'm totally getting out my monster cards when I get home.

  14. Unknown -- That sounds like a great suggestion, actually. I always kind of wanted those monster cards back in the day but never got them. I was even attracted to the idea enough that 25 years ago I took a box of dinosaur flash cards and taped D&D stats to the back of them to use the same way. Even more reason.

    Paul -- And you have them!? Dammit. Jealous.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Yeah, the monster cards had an unfortunate history, despite having some not inconsiderable potential. No one quite knew what to do with them, and because cards were only made for a small subset of monsters, they lacked considerable utility. (If you wanted to use them in conjunction with a module, for example, odds were good you might only have cards for a fraction of the monsters needed.)

    But the cards were developed between the FF and the MMII, right at the tail end of TSR's golden age, as Grognardia would put it (though I dislike that categorization). I think Frank Mentzer worked on them -- there's a good article from the Dragon which outlines the development process that went into them. Clearly some thought and time went into cleaning up the monster entries for the cards.

    When 2e AD&D was developed the designers were pretty good about collecting and consolidating the scattered 1e errata, but they missed the monster cards completely. A shame, but not unexpected given the product's unpopularity.

  17. They were my first GenCon auction win ever -- $9.50 for the complete set, what a buy. I had some of them back when I was a kid, but I was notoriously bad at taking care of my stuff.

  18. ^ Just got a set off EBay for about twice that, not too bad. (They're not mint, and may be missing 2 cards, but I'm calling it "close enough" for my purposes.)