Friday, April 04, 2008

Look out! Ghouls!

Erol Otus presents the Best Ghoul Illo EverWednesday night me and the gang played some more 1st edition AD&D, continuing our long slog to clear out the Moathouse. We had four casualties, including Elmo, when the party fought the 4 ghouls in the crypt. The cleric failed to turn and the result was a real fiasco. Doug finally had his magic-user cast a spell, a protection from evil to keep the ghouls from him. I had been harping upon him for two and half sessions that his magic-user has had plenty of opportunities to cast spells, despite knowing only read magic, jump, prot from evil, and light. We rolled starting spells exactly as Gary indicated, so no sleep or charm or magic missile for this 1st level M-U.

In fact, we've been playing with a lot of rules that I never used as a kid. When Pat's assassin hit 2nd level I cracked open the training rules and made him pay through the nose. When the PCs and some gnolls tied for initiative, we actually used the weapon speed rules for tie breaks. Next session we may even use the weapon adjustment for armor class charts. Individually, none of these mechanics add much to the game. That's why we ignored them all back in the 80's. But I'm having fun messing around with them now. And it keeps the players guessing a bit as to what is going to happen next.

Is it just me, or all ghouls one of the all-time 1st level PC killers? Three attacks per round combined with save or be paralyzed is pretty hardass. Add in that sleep and charm are useless with the fact that turning them isn't easy at level 1, and you've got a relatively common monster that can easily score a total party kill. There's a single surprise ghoul in at least two old modules I've rune: N4 Treasure Hunt and N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God. I've ran both modules and both ghouls nearly destroyed the party in basically throwaway encounters. In fact, if I ran N4 again I'd probably cut the ghoul or demote him to a cannibalistic zombie. Meanwhile, T4 puts four ghouls in the crypt, and that's not even the hardest encounter in the module.

N4 Treasure Hunt is a fabulous little module for starting a new campaign, by the way. I've ran it twice to good effect. The players start as zero level nobodies who must fight there way to 1st level. There's these little charts where the DM tracks the behavior of each player and assigns them a class (or multiple classes for demi-humans) and an alignment when they reach first level. ("You used the bardiche for most of the combats, you snuck around a bit, and your alignment tended towards evil. By my tally you can be either a Lawful Evil monk or an assassin of any Evil alignment. Make sure bardiche is one of your weapon proficienies.") You can run the adventure with absolutely clueless newbies and skip most of chargen. The adventure takes place on an island that can be dropped into any convenient sea. If the adventure goes well the PCs end the adventure on a boat, so you can start the next adventure at a port of your choice. Good stuff.


  1. I love the N4 Treasure Hunt adventure.

    I've been tinkering on and off with a similar type of adventure, geared toward new players. My first attempt was too ambitious: I wanted to make it as system-agnostic as possible, but since Setting and Genre are so crucial for most game systems, I'll probably have to pick one and stick with it.

    If I can get it workable by June, expect to see it for WoAdWriMo.

  2. Anonymous12:00 PM

    Wow. So many memories, so little time.

    I loved Treasure Hunt as both a player and GM. I just know I'm going to have to raid the attic now......

    Heh. My word verification was "urool". How apt.

  3. N4 is one of those modules I always admired the design of, but never actually got around to using. We always _talked_ about playing it, but never actually did :)

  4. Well, I think ghouls were prevalent in a lot of early mods because Gary liked them.

    Some years back I was at a convention when Gary ran us through one of his levels of Castle Greyhawk. It was OD&D, and we ran into tons and tons of ghouls. Even though we were of moderate level, it was a TPK...

  5. Yeah. Ghouls are nasty.

    I think it's OK to have a monster the PCs are most likely going to have to flee in terror from. Even as a "throwaway encounter".

    Then they have to do some serious thinking. Because even avoiding it may take some planning. Even better if they come up with a plan that enables them to shift the odds significantly in their favor the next time they encounter it.

    Just like level drain. I firmly believe you aren't expected to take level draining (once you know about it). You are expected to run and find a more indirect means to defeat that monster.

    But if the players are assuming the DM or module won't throw anything at them that they can't handle, then you can have a problem. (Although DMs and modules have missed the mark enough--especially since what is easy for one party can be tough for another--that I don't know why that assumption ever gets made.)

    In B/X, I let clerics continue to attempt to turn each round despite failures, which makes ghouls (or any turnable undead) a bit less scary.

  6. Anonymous2:29 PM

    Ghouls are rough on low level parties unless the players far outnumber the ghouls. Three attacks means they are likely to paralyze a character almost every round (low level = awful save chance as well as lousy AC). Their damage output and hp aren't that tough but, if everyone is paralyzed, it's over. I've had ghouls take a few bites and wander off in such cases instead of finishing off the party - their dumb and chaotic.

    training costs, rolling for spells, and possibly weapon vs AC chart? Are you trying to wean players from nostalgia?


  7. training costs, rolling for spells, and possibly weapon vs AC chart? Are you trying to wean players from nostalgia?

    He may be trying to induce a mutiny.

    If so, it may be working.

  8. He may be trying to induce a mutiny.

    If so, it may be working.

    So I take it that converting the campaign over to Hackmaster is out of the question?

  9. You funny, funny man...

  10. Anonymous7:28 PM

    Are you making them roll to see if they can learn spells? I've been doing this to my players and it sure helps to have a high intelligence. The party magic user has not been able to learn a number of good spells I've thrown his way. Also even when I was a kid I made people roll for their starting spells.

  11. Are you making them roll to see if they can learn spells?

    They haven't found any scrolls yet for it to be an issue. I kinda expected Doug to try to hit up one of the NPC MUs in town for spells, but he hasn't. And when Stuart made up an MU/T to replace one of his dead PCs they talked about swapping spells but never got around to actually doing it.

    But yeah. I don't see any reason to ignore that rule.

  12. That Erol ghoul is amazing. It's such a world of difference between that mutant menace and the perennial "balding guy with his tongue hanging out" that was in the (1e) monster manual, and about hundred other D&D books.

    I've never actually used a ton of ghouls unless they were already in a module. I wonder if the dull images of them (I can't really even recall what the Monstrous Compendium ghoul looked like) contributed to that as much as their ridiculously deadly threat level for the characters likely to have to fight them.

    There was that period of time where everybody felt compelled to play an elf already, so maybe there's something to it.

  13. Flambeaux9:22 PM

    If a low level party, even a large one, attempts to melee with a pack of ghouls the odds are in favor of TPK (unless the party has lots of elves).

    The "secret", if such as may be, is flaming oil and holy water.

    Both are best used from outside melee range, and if your party's aim is really bad, flaming oil and holy water can be laid down to cover a hasty retreat.

    From a 1e DM Screen:
    Holy/Unholy Water -- 1' diameter AoE -- 2 hp splash damage -- 1d6+1 hp damage from direct hit

    Burning Oil -- 3' diameter AoE -- 1d3 hp splash damage -- 2d6 hp damage from direct hit + 1d6 hp burn damage the following round

    Range isn't bad (although not great, either).

    There are lots more details in this handy-dandy chart, and in the DMG.

    The Rules as Written prevent this from becoming abusive by requiring item saving throws on a successful To Hit roll to determine if the container breaks, etc.

    My, rather long-winded, point is simply that even powerful undead are good for low level parties because they require preparation, use of missile attacks to avoid melee exposure, and (generally) flight -- a healthy lesson for any adventurer.


  14. It's interesting to compare ghouls from different sources:

    2d6 hp
    1 attack that does 1d6 damage.
    Any hit can paralyze.

    OD&D + Greyhawk
    2d6 hp
    2 claw attacks (1d3) + 1 bite (1d4)
    Any hit can paralyze

    Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets
    2d6 hp
    "2 claws/1-3 or bite/1-4 & paralize"

    Holmes, B/X
    2d8 hp
    3 attacks that do 1d3 damage, each.
    Any hit can paralyze

    2d8 hp
    2 claw attacks (1d3) + 1 bite (1d6)
    Any hit can paralyze

    2d12 hp
    Attack: 1 bite (1d6+1)
    Full Attack: 2 claws (1d3) + 1 bite (1d6+1)
    Any hit can paralyze

    I find the Judges Guild listing interesting, because it could be interpreted as saying ghouls can attack twice with their claws or they attack once with their bite, and only their bite paralyzes. I'm running OD&D, so I use the OD&D version, but out of the ghoul versions with multiple attacks, I like that JG interpretation the best, because it's not as over-the-top with the chances of getting paralyzed.

  15. Philotomy - I'm curious about the visual depiction of the Ghoul from Holmes basic and OD&D...any input?

  16. Holmes says "hideous humanoid creatures of bestial aspect". OD&D is silent, but Supplement I includes an illo that depicts a ghoul as sort of a hunchback with point ears and mangy hair. Here he is, standing next to a pumkinheaded bugbear.

  17. Ghouls, like wights, are iconic low-level D&D "impossible to beat" monsters, which is to say, they're so obviously dangerous if you take them head-on that they quickly separate the men from the boys when it comes to dealing with them. I consider an early encounter with ghouls/wights to be an essential rite of passage in one's D&D career and like them to remain "stupid player killers."

  18. Never had Treasure Hunt, but Lizard King was one of my all-time faves.

    I think ghouls are classic monsters because they showed up in the "example of play" section of the 1st ed DMG.

    I threw a couple of ghouls into a Dungeon article, but only with a big TPK warning for the DM... something along the lines of, "Remember, one round of bad saving throws and everyone's dead."

  19. Ghouls as 1st-level killers? Hell yes. There's a very good reason that Paizo's 1st Pathfinder adventure path doesn't have ghouls in it until the PCs are level 4-5.