Ghouls Through Literature

Of course, there's more than just the holiday for National Cat Day this week; there's also a little thing called Halloween. In view of that, let's talk about Ghouls (one of the main archetypal Halloween monsters, often along with Ghosts and Goblins).

I previously outlined the appearance of Ghouls in different editions of D&D (link). To be clear, Ghouls are definitely a "proud nail" monster for me, and I'm continually troubled by them. I'm bothered by how askew they are from any preceding fictional examples. I'm troubled that they got their paralyzing attacks basically due to the accident of being in the same paragraph as Wights (with their LOTR-style freezing touch) in Chainmail. I'm irritated that their 3 paralyzing attacks make them far too dangerous at the levels they usually show up (similar to the "too many attacks" note from cats last week). I'm even tweaked by the fact that all the other undead got a 1-HD bump up from OD&D to AD&D, but not ghouls. They have an immensely clunky mechanic when translated to mass warfare, as in Book of War. Certainly I run them with just the standard 1 attack as in OD&D; I'm constantly on the cusp of rewriting a bunch of other details for them, and then decide not too. So without further ado, a document I've been compiling for a few years now; a look at the literary traditions of ghouls.


Ghouls are inspired by the Arabic ghul (1001 Nights), a demonic creature that inhabits graveyards, consumes children, and shape-changes into either Hyena or the last corpse they consumed. They are linguistically related to the Gallu (Mesopotamian demon) and Algol (“the demon” star). 


Ghouls are a near-human race living underground with rubbery and hairless bodies, canine faces (and howls), hooved feet, forward-slumping posture, and often greenish, diseased-seeming pallor (esp. among older ones). They are light-sensitive and have their own gibbering language. There are strong suggestions that humans transform into ghouls and vice-versa (possibly by interbreeding with ghouls, swaps at birth, training, disease, and/or cannibalism – see Kuru disease *). They eat the corpses of people and also their own wounded in battle. (Ghasts are a race that live near ghouls, perhaps more bestial, larger, and with kangaroo-like hind legs.) They are intelligent enough to organize in packs, open doors, sneak around guards, and use simple tools (a gravestone as a lever, etc.)

The Lovecraftian tradition does not have the quick shape-changing of the Arabic ghul, but they maintain a kind of relation in transforming to a creature with dog/hyena-like features. Perhaps we can conclude abilities such as (a) fast overland sprint/loping movement from hooved feet, (b) a long-term transformative disease from those they injure but do not consume/kill, and (c) behavior of slaying and consuming injured foes and allies alike (no recovery possible). Possibly there are special sorcerer ghouls with all the powers of Arabic transformation (via polymorph or doppelganger-like ability; possibly even doppelganger leaders themselves). Consider also a dead sorcerer who regains flesh and mobility if a jeweled medallion is removed, as in the story “The Hound”. Ghasts can have more hit dice and leaping ability. 

* Kuru: “The symptoms of Kuru are broken down into three specific stages. The first, ambulant stage, exhibits unsteady stance and gait, decreased muscle control, tremors, deterioration of speech and dysarthria (slurred speech). In the second stage, sedentary stage, the patient is incapable of walking without support, suffers ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) and severe tremors. Furthermore, the victim is emotionally unstable, depressed, yet having uncontrolled sporadic laughter. Interestingly, the tendon reflexes are still normal at this point. In the final, terminal stage, the patient is incapable of sitting without support, suffers severe ataxia (no muscle coordination), is unable to speak, is incontinent (unable to restrain natural discharges/evacuations of urine or feces), has dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), is unresponsive to their surroundings, and acquires ulcerations (sores with pus and necrosis). An infected person usually dies within 3 months to 2 years after the first symptoms, often because of pneumonia or pressure sores infection.” (Note uncontrollable laughter = Hyena-like?) 


Conan encounters ghouls once in the novel “Hour of the Dragon” (p. 126), and they are basically identical to the Lovecraftian type. (Note that Howard worked in the Lovecraft circle, and wrote several Cthulhu stories himself.) They are strong – a single one contends reasonably with Conan himself (arguing for 3HD in AD&D)? OD&D Sup-IV says for the Conan stories, “GHOULS OF YANAIDAR: As Ghouls of D&D, but double the number usually appearing.” See end of the story “The Flame Knife”, adapted by de Camp from earlier Howard, wherein a hidden fortress is in the final scene overrun by a seemingly endless horde of ghouls from below the earth.


Note that in Night of the Living Dead, the newscaster near the end repeatedly refers to the monsters as “ghouls” (as opposed to what they were popularly called afterward, “zombies”). Of course, D&D ghouls look very much like these monsters (feasting on the dead, spreading the disease to victims, etc.) Possibly interpret bite-paralysis as the fever-sickness (2nd save?) which transforms people to ghouls.

Further Thoughts

One of my mental blocks with both the Romerian and Gygaxian ghoul is how the supposed pandemic spread doesn't seem to make sense; if ghouls entire raison d'être is the consumption of dead bodies, then that seems to directly contradict the possibility of anything physically remaining of their victims to possibly arise as new ghouls.

Consider making the ghoul more in line with Lovecraft/Romero, et. al., in that they transform not those who are killed (and likely eaten), but those who are bitten (paralyzed) and actually escape the initial encounter. One problem with this is that in the HPL/Romero vein, no escape is possible – the bitten/infected person is always unquestionably doomed; which clashes with the D&D principle of everyone getting a save, and always having a fighting chance. Perhaps we rectify this by converting or adding to the save vs. paralysis to a secret save vs. infection, else transformation into a ghoul occurs over 1-6 days (perhaps paralysis is just the first sign of the "fever sickness" in Romero). But this still doesn't solve the contradiction to any possible pandemic; it seems almost as unlikely to survive a ghoul attack, and therefore a negligible number of infections would occur.

So for D&D purposes it does seem like the transform on death (if not consumed?) is the most playable; it can be an unavoidable doom without seeming to be unfair to the player (the PC having lost the chance to fight on, by virtue of already being dead). It is also more synchronized with other undead types (who transform victims after death from energy level drain). Instead, perhaps some other means of spreading the infection can be found: supernatural global curse, alien radiation, gas emitted by dead bodies, etc. This could be added acceptably without changing the D&D-type ghoul.



  1. Perhaps Ghast stench can be used as a method of transmission?

  2. I do David's thing, plus ghoul bites can cause a "zombie apocalypse" style infection. But it's rare to see it spread into a pandemic because for it to happen you need the ghoul to bite you but not eat you, which generally doesn't happen.

    I like that Ghouls paralyze, because they're the main Undead that eat you. The terror of being slowly consumed by a monster and you can feel everything but can't move is great. The Carrion Crawler does it, but it's uncommon.

  3. The ghoul paralysis comes from ghouls and wights comes from Chainmail, where the two creatures are identical. In this case the "wight" is modeled off the Tolkien "barrow wight," itself being simply an undead revenant (like a Norse draugr). People who remember the barrow wight of Fellowship of the Ring will recall how the hobbits were "paralyzed with fear" by the creature's touch.

    Later on (in OD&D) they were separated into two distinct creatures with wights being more powerful (AC 5, HD 3, energy drain touch compared to AC 6, HD 2, paralyzing touch), though otherwise remarkably similar (same numbers appearing & treasure, for example). In OD&D, a character killed by a ghoul became a ghoul, just as a creature killed by a wight became a wight.

    As you pointed out in your prior post, it's Supplement I where we see the ghoul morph into the slobbering, corpse-eating creature with its claw/claw/bite that more resembles the Lovecraftian/Howardian monster than an under-powered draugr.

    Here's how ghouls ended up looking in my Arabic-flavored Five Ancient Kingdoms (2013, stat line pretty much the same as OD&D):

    "Ghoul: a human or animal cursed with a demonic disease that gives unnatural life, but renders the creature a (mostly) mindless cannibal. Ghouls have some low cunning but are not tool users, instead attacking with filthy claws and teeth. Being damaged by a ghoul requires a save to prevent contracting their disease; a character that suffers a major wound saves at -2. Diseased characters become ghouls in 2D6 weeks unless magically cured with a remove curse spell or miracle. Ghouls hunt in packs of 2D6."

    [I should not the creature only receives one attack roll per round...it is assumed it's using all its natural weapons trying to damage the target with that attack roll]

    So, yeah...my version would be more like that classic werewolf idea of "ghoul-ism" being a transmittable disease/curse that you're only in danger of contracting if you're wounded (not if you're killed and consumed). The saving throw is made to see if your wounds are actually infected one (claws and teeth that punctured the skin), rather than damage from being buffeted about by the monster's inhuman strength. I left the paralysis out of the mix entirely.

    I have to say, I rather like the idea of animals infected with the "ghoul" disease. I forgot I put that in there...
    : )

  4. Given ul is a phonetic that comes from Neanderthal meaning 'to howl', that showed up in Australia thanks to Neanderthals migrating here, its probably why everyone else invented fire.

  5. I seem to recall that in either Lovecraft's or Dunsany's stories, that men who lived among ghouls in the graveyards and started eating corpses became ghouls themselves.

    1. @ DS:

      Pretty sure that was Dunsany.

    2. The mechanism was never described, but men could indeed transform into ghouls in Lovecraft. Specifically, the painter Richard Upton Pickman from the story Pickman's Model later appears in the Dream Cycle as a full ghoul. Sort of a spokesman among them, in fact, and he actually helps out the protagonist in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

  6. Frikkin' ghouls...

    Other notable literary/media representations:

    The Nehwonian Ghoul, which is essentially a cannibalistic human offshoot with transparent soft tissues and visible skeletons who consume other races for aesthetic reasons. (Could essentially be a re-skinned berserker for the DM to use as a spoiler for clerics (if they exist in one's game).

    The Fallout Ghoul: from the video game series. Mutated humans who are effectively immortal but whose bodies decay grotesquely over time if they don't take care of themselves. Apparently they can be perfectly rational and reasonable, even kindly, but depending on radiation exposure they can regress into a feral state. As for the D&D angle, it's merely a shift from a mindless claw/claw/bite to a more ambiguous, potential negotiation. Easily done by any DM worth their dice. Relatively civilized dead guys could make an interesting addition to a dungeon ecosystem, especially as possible allies with the tension of them potentially going all bitey if the PC's aren't polite enough. Could make a nice lower level sentient undead encounter since they don't have quite the power curve that your usual smart corpses have.

    Through everything, turn, turn, turn. Or set them on fire, turn, turn, turn... Or get out your holy water, if you've got it...

  7. To paraphrase something I read about the wendigo legend:

    werewolf - What you get when a werewolf bites a person.
    vampire - What you get when a vampire bites a person.
    wendigo - What you get when a person bites a person.

  8. In the FFC, Richard Snider talks about how he ran ghouls. In his game, there is no paralysis but any killed by a ghoul becomes a ghoul. So they are close to modern fast zombies.

    I believe that Richard was also the originator of level draining.

  9. One thing to add about Lovecraftian ghouls is that they're not necessarily feral or stupid. In The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, the ghouls are quite helpful to the protagonist thanks to the influence of his friend-cum-ghoul Richard Pickman.

    It is true that Pickman had trouble speaking English in his ghoulish appearance, but an important tidbit is that for every hour that passes in the waking world, a week or more passes in the Dreamlands. It may have been a hundred years or more since he last spoke to anyone in English - plenty of time for language attrition to occur! So it's not that ghouls are mentally lacking, simply that few can communicate with humans, and in any case most people find them and their diet (which, as an aside, is mainly scavenged corpses from graveyards - not fresh kills) repulsive.

  10. On a practical note, the way I run ghouls is a fusion of the Lovecraftian and the Gygaxian. They can paralyze, but only with their claws - and I only give one claw attack per round. I give the bite some bonus damage if it's used on a paralyzed opponent to incentivize using it instead of a claw attack on subsequent rounds, and I also give a free bite attack after hitting with claws - regardless of saving throw results - to give them a little more oomph, but not nearly as much as the triple-attack routine of yesteryear. While I must note that it's not quite the same monster hit die system as the older editions, I will say that for a 5th Edition game that I recently started I've bumped their hit points up a notch as well, both making them as tough as I envision and bumping them up to a CR 2 monster. If I were still playing AD&D, I probably would use 3 HD, though.

    With that and my previous post in mind, I run them as intelligent humanoids - not undead, but rather aberrants, as I classify all Lovecraftian creatures. The only exception I make is that starving ghouls - such as those stuck in a dungeon environment where other humanoids are either too scarce or too powerful for the ghouls to secure a reliable food source - will go feral. As for creating more ghouls, I'm in agreement that it doesn't make much sense for corpse-eaters to reproduce from uneaten kills. Influenced by this, along with them not being undead, I simply rule that they can breed - though I'm currently wavering over whether I want interbreeding with humans to be optional, mandatory, or impossible.

    As I said before, I also focus on them as primarily scavengers, and associated with the Great Old One Mordiggian. This carves out a separate niche from hunting/stalking type cannibals, which fall under the auspices of wendigo/Ithaqua.

  11. the supposed pandemic spread doesn't seem to make sense; if ghouls entire raison d'être is the consumption of dead bodies, then that seems to directly contradict the possibility of anything physically remaining of their victims to possibly arise as new ghouls
    If the ghouls are totally victorious, yes.
    But now imagine that the PC party prevails against the ghouls. Halas! Poor Wulfgrid didn't make it. Now sure, we can't have his corpse laying here in a dark dungeon with all those monsters laying around, no sir! Lets the henchmen carry the body, abnd we should bring him back for a Raise dead, or at least a decent burial! Shouldn' xe ?

    1. Sure, but that's seems like a rare situation (world-building wise), which doesn't seem to support a possible "pandemic".

  12. "the supposed pandemic spread doesn't seem to make sense; if ghouls entire raison d'être is the consumption of dead bodies, then that seems to directly contradict the possibility of anything physically remaining of their victims to possibly arise as new ghouls"

    My solution is that ghouls strongly prefer to feast on entrails. This is both a reason that their partly-eaten remains are still combat-capable, and a reason that they are forever hungry.

    1. In that case would ghasts be ghouls with intact digestive systems? Could explain the stench and the greater strength. Don't want to elaborate any further than that 'cos it's nawsty...

    2. That's an interesting thought.

  13. As with many things, I like the BFRPG approach:

    1) those hit by either bite or claw are subject to paralysis (with save)

    2) ghouls typically don't eat their kills fresh, preferring to "age" them at least a few days (implying intelligence)

    3) any character hit by a bite (only) has a 5% chance of contracting ghoul fever. Those afflicted who fail a save will die. Those afflicted who die rise as ghouls after a day.

    So the ghouls store their dead before eating them, ~5% of which will rise as ghouls before being eaten.

  14. The GURPS fantasy setting had ghouls who were sort of like vampires -- needed brains to survive, but not necessarily evil and that's why the prey on corpses in graveyards -- to avoid killing people, which would attract attention and persecution. But they were never human, and are not undead, they are a race of their own.

  15. I used ghoul personalities based on Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book", where they dressed in and took the names of their first victims and could be rather social, when not trying to eat you. It gave them a different flair from the other undead in the game.