Thursday, November 8, 2012

Pellatarrum: Ghouls, Ghouls, Ghouls

A guest post by Jon "Kaptain Von" Garrad

And the people -ah, the people -
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone -
They are neither man nor woman -
They are neither brute nor human -
They are Ghouls...

-- Edgar Allen Poe, 'The Bells'

Unlike true undead, a ghoul is not a walking, mindless extension of the Negative Material Plane, nor does it have the luxury of being animated by an elemental force that lends it some sense of rationale or rhyme or reason. The ghoul is a petty tragedy, borne of desperation; it would warrant pity, were it not morbidity that walks on two legs. To face a ghoul in combat is to put its out of its misery -- but it will not go willingly, for it has so often been driven to its existence out of an absolute longing to defy death.

A ghoul is born when, out of desperate need, a member of a servitor or half race [1] descends to the depths of eating the dead flesh of a humanoid race (their own race or another) and fails to rise again. Once is not enough -- a brief foray into cannibalism is unwholesome but not a damning failure. Repeating that foray again and again, though, causes a change to begin. Negative energy begins to saturate their degenerate bodies; if wounded, they do not heal true. The flesh of their extremities begins to suppurate and leak 'ghoul sweat', the noxious pus that lends them their crippling touch. Teeth and nails become thicker and stronger, all the better for rending tough, preserved flesh and cracking old bones. Worse, the mind begins to crumble; the hunger that drove the developing ghoul to commit its vile acts grows stronger and stronger. No matter how much they eat, their wounds do not heal and the growling of their insides is never silenced. No other food even comes close to sustaining them, even if any is offered or available. Eventually, the ghoul's system becomes so clogged with stifling negativity and indigestible flesh that they have, to all intents and purposes, eaten themselves to death.

The resulting undead creatures are grotesque, deformed humanoids that slink and snarl in graveyards, on the fringes of battlefields, in pestilence-ridden ghettos and in the wake of travelling caravans. Hunched and withered, they're as likely to crawl on four legs as walk on two, and almost all have missing chunks of flesh, appendages absent without leave, or broken, never-healed limbs. Their poor condition and inability to take entirely proper care of themselves makes them short-lived; the lucky and the clever and the careful among them can endure for up to a decade, but most last less than half as long.

Often, adventurers stumble on the lone survivor of some failed expedition, squatting among their former colleagues with a ragged chunk of thigh pressed to their rotting lips, and in disgust they put the creature out of its misery, thinking it to be the monster that attacked, overcame and devoured the expedition.

Those ghouls who degenerate together are more fortunate, in a way. For one, only another ghoul quite understands a ghoul's experiences. For two, the company of others helps them maintain some sense of sentience. They are still driven quite, quite mad by the negative energy poisoning every part of them, but if a whole community has taken this last, desperate step together, there is no-one left to cast the ghouls out and let loneliness finish the job. Instead, they watch each other's backs, lead each other to sources of food, patch up each other's injuries as best they can with their clumsy, crumbling, soggy fingers, and most importantly of all, they act as constant reminders of one another's past lives.

Ghoul packs have a sort of collective memory -- the more ghouls there are in a particular place, the more reminders there are of their old life, and consequently the more skills and knowledge from that life they maintain. In places where long sieges, years of famine, or particularly vile diseases have driven entire cities to take their first step down the path that ends in ghouldom, those cities are still standing, repaired in a slipshod kind of way by their new inhabitants, who raid and trade nearby settlements for what they cannot build themselves -- and for corpses as well.

The prospect of a city’s population descending into ghoulery makes siege by starvation a rare thing in Pellatarrum. Condemned by the Church of Light, it tends to make the city somewhat less than desirable. It’s all very well conquering a territory, but if that territory is a decrepit hellhole infested by poison-fingered cannibals, who’d want it?

More common than the siege is the creeping descent of a city that starves by degrees. Perhaps there is a run of bad harvests, or a pestilence among the livestock, or both in succession. Perhaps there is a flood, and the city is cut off for a season or two. Sooner or later, someone gets desperate, and the idea spreads as surviving by any other means becomes less and less likely. To these instances the Church of Light responds with world-scouring fury, and the cities seldom stand for long once the required forces have been amassed.

While whole cities of ghouls are mercifully rare, there are ghoul colonies in many cities that remain otherwise vibrant. The dispossessed often gravitate to graveyards, turning to a diet of carcasses to supplement or stand in for theft or begging, and fail to turn away again. The ghouls in these colonies are used to watching over one another; they post watchers and arrange bolt-holes, first out of conscious choice and later, as they degenerate, out of unconscious habit. They are excellent at avoiding detection, know their territories inside-out, have hunters’ instincts for skirmish tactics, and are in short very difficult to dislodge once they've settled in. Many cities turn to professional hunter-killer types to winnow their ghoul colonies, and it tends to be these colonies that are encountered by urban adventurers.

Similar colonies sometimes exist in dungeons -- the remnants of adventuring parties who have become cut off from supplied and forced to subsist off their kills. These ghouls are fewer in number, but are alarmingly competent -- the harsh environments in which they dwell force them to retain a great deal of their old know-how and capability, and they were often dangerous individuals even before the change took them. [2]

What a ghoul does out of necessity, a ghast does out of choice. A cannibal of the lower or servitor races who embraces their hunger wilfully, rather than resorting to it out of desperation, accelerates their degeneration and becomes something far more than just another rot-fingered corpse-muncher. Owing to the sheer amount of negative energy that pools clammily in them, ghasts have a far more dangerous touch that paralyses victims for longer; they emit a dreadful stench as their flesh begins to slough off them; and they carry with them the corrosive power of the Negative Plane.

Where a ghast walks, decay follows; prolonged exposure to the ghast brings a creeping decomposition [3]. Vegetation rots, metal rusts, structures fall apart -- and those ghoul packs with a ghast or two among their number become feral, bold and dangerous, their shared memories and physical forms eroded by the presence of the ghast. They are short-lived, decomposing rapidly, but their brief lives are spent rampaging with ravenous hunger, overrunning small or vulnerable settlements and crashing upon the walls of larger ones. [4]

Fortunately, both mind and memory decay much faster than in the reluctant and resistant ghouls, and so ghasts are short-lived. Their carcasses could well last for up to a year, but they are almost always slain beforehand; after all, their very presence draws attention to them, and they tend to revel in spreading their influence.

Notwithstanding the occasional lunatic (who embraces their state gleefully) or the accidental cannibal who devours too much, too fast, most ghasts are made rather than born. Necromancers frequently encourage their most fanatical devotees into cannibalism in order to transform them into ghasts, acquiring not just a powerful shock trooper, but a walking embodiment of corrosive principles. A ghast’s effects on their surroundings make them poor defenders, but they can be let loose among a necromancer’s enemies singly, as a distraction or a force of terror -- and if said cultist should decide to unleash a protracted campaign against some enemy, a whole pack of ghasts could be created, and their noxious energies expended en masse.

Further Reading
  • For more information on undead, go here
  • For information on how the Church of the Light deals with undead, go here
  • For information on the Cult of the Dark, go here

[1] For some reason -- whether it be hard-coded into the reality of Pellatarrum, or their stronger elemental connections -- the elder races are not susceptible to becoming ghouls. This does not make them immune to the attacks of ghouls, however.

[2] In this case, give these ghouls class levels as appropriate. Alternately, this unofficial template may be applied.

[3] These effects are not fast enough to be effective in combat. Should it become necessary to adjudicate the entropic effects of ghast decay upon an object, a good rule of thumb is have the item’s Hardness be reduced by the ghast’s Hit Dice per day of exposure. Once Hardness is reduced to zero, damage is applied to any remaining Hit Points. 

[4] Treat this effect as the Bard Inspire Courage feat, with the ghast’s CR rating used in place of Bard levels and the ghast’s stench as the “performance.”


  1. Pellatarrum's ghouls sound interesting, but I really wish they all could be California ghouls.

  2. Lets not go illwishing upon the peoples of Pellatarum.
    California Ghouls can be terrifying, especially if they've become ghoulfiends.

  3. Aww, but that eliminates the classic 60s surfing tune, "When buoy meets ghoul."

  4. Don't worry about 60s surfing tunes; it's all right now.*

    *In fact, it's a ghast.

  5. Ghouls are undead or Demon. It depends on who you ask. Ghoul has been said in folklore and mythology to haunt isolate places like graveyards, deserts or dark alleys. Ghouls hunger for human flesh, especially a corpse. Ghouls are extremely fast and agile and they often run in packs.

  6. I want the original Arabian demonic ghoul to come in Hollywood not the undead one. But still both are horrifyingly creepy.


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