The word “ghoul” often conjures grotesque images that shock and nauseate. Dwellers in graveyards and connoisseurs of flesh and bone, these hooved eaters of the dead move with hungered poise, slaver for the living, and exude the stench of a charnel house. and yet, those who suspect a ghoul of being nothing more than a savage monster are often surprised to learn otherwise. Ghouls are not savage or feral, but possess a keen intellect and a complex society steeped in lore and custom. A ghoul is just as likely to aid visitors as attack, if not more so.
Unlike the more well-known grave-gorging undead that share the same name, these ghouls are living creatures. While their demeanor and nature would seem to make them natural allies to undead ghouls, competition for food and the undead hatred of the living makes living ghouls and their undead counterparts bitter enemies. Nonetheless, living ghoul necromancers are fond of using undead as minions, and undead ghouls often appeal to the sardonic sense of irony so many ghouls possess.
Unless otherwise noted in the text below, when the word “ghoul” is used, it is used to refer to the living ghouls of Lovecraft’s traditions, rather than monstrous undead ghouls.
As long as humanity has lived, hungered, and died, there have been ghouls dwelling in the shadows, eager to feed on flesh and memories. The history of the ghoul race can be read in every boneyard, every necropolis, and every anonymous grave. They preserve that which was lost, both in their habit of aping old customs and in regaining memories forgotten by feeding upon the dead.
Many suspect these ghouls to have first come to this world by tunneling into graveyards from below, after digging deep into areas of the Dreamlands. Some believe ghouls are a fragment of an ancient past or the manifestation of a new future. Whatever the case, ghouls have been with us since we first began burying our dead, and are likely to remain among us until after the last of our graves have been filled.
Playing a Ghoul
Ghouls are sardonic and dark-humored.
They enjoy eating carrion for the flavor and the fragments of memory they can absorb, and take delight in knowing others are discomforted by this fact. They are not ashamed of their nature as ghouls, but are somewhat envious of humanoid cultures, which they often find very intriguing. They have a passion for history.
If you’re a ghoul, you likely:
- …have a dark sense of humor and are amused by death rather than frightened by it.
- …enjoy making others uncomfortable, often via odious eating habits.
- …are immensely eager to learn more about the world’s history.
- …find graveyards to be pleasant places, and aren’t particularly afraid of the idea of undeath.
- …have chosen a specific type of humanoid as the focus of your curiosity: you may consider yourself to have once been one of these humanoids, prefer the flavor of their flesh, or simply wish to adopt elements of their culture and belief as your own.
- …underestimate others’ repugnance at your feeding, even as you wallow in your depravity.
- …think you’re an undead creature.
- …worry and assume you want to eat them.
- …are frightened of your appearance and assume you’re barely intelligent.
- …assume you live in a graveyard or sleep in a coffin.
- …from a distance, mistake you for a were-creature
Though ghouls blur the line between life and death, they are indeed living organisms. While many of their habits, appetites, and preferences are identical to those possessed by undead ghouls, no one who gets to know a ghoul will make the mistake of assuming they’re ravenous undead again. From their distinctive appearances to their behavior, the contrast grows increasingly stark.
A ghoul is humanoid in shape, yet much more monstrous in appearance than a mere human. The ghoul’s visage is almost canine, with a pronounced snout filled with sharp teeth that look almost akin to the fangs of a hyena. This snout isn’t large enough to significantly distort or hamper the ghoul’s ability to speak or express itself, although ghouls do tend to have a guttural, raspy tone to their voices. A ghoul’s ears are large and pointed, and its hair is generally short and mangy with thick bristly patches on the back, shoulders, and forearms. A ghoul’s mouth slavers and its long tongue frequently lolls when not in active use.
A ghoul’s bestial features extend to the rest of its body. Its stance is somewhat hunched, with broad shoulders, hands that appear human but bear sharp talon-like nails on the fingertips, and legs that bend like those of a dog. The ghoul’s feet are hooved like those of a goat.
Ghouls are immune to non-magical disease, and thus are not often vectors for disease as many might expect. Despite this, they tend to have slovenly personal habits and bear a musty stink on the best of days. More often, the cloying stench of decay accompanies them, an odious perfume carried on their breath and under their nails. Almost never falling ill encourages such filthy habits, but this nonchalance toward personal hygiene stems in part from the amusement most ghouls derive out of making humanoids feel uncomfortable and nauseated.
One of the most notable aspects of ghoul physiology is that when ghouls feed, they experience and absorb the memories held within the flesh of their repast.
Scholars have yet to discern a scientific explanation for this ability, relegating such powers to the realm of the supernatural. While they delight in this ability to digest memories, ghouls themselves have neither an explanation nor a desire to learn more about how or why it functions, and many adhere to a strange superstition that knowing the reason for this would disrupt the mechanism itself. That it works at all is enough for ghouls, who ironically enjoy indulging in the procedure to divine all manner of secrets and forgotten tidbits of lore.
Ghouls are not born displaying ghoul characteristics but undergo a transition later in life to become ghouls. As such, family is a complex subject for ghouls: many of them have been forced to abandon their own when their transformation into a ghoul resulted in a shameful, often violent flight from home.
Many nascent ghouls live the first several years of their lives after becoming a ghoul in a self-inflicted solitude, and may in fact have no concept of the existence of others of their kind. When such ghouls do encounter others of their kind, the newcomers are often timid and nervous or even frightened. For this reason, ghoul societies are almost always quick to welcome new brothers or sisters.
While most ghouls eventually learn to appreciate these foster siblings as true kin, many never recover from the shock of losing their biological families. Such ghouls, who live much longer than most mortal races, often return to their homes decades later to watch or stalk previous relations. Such returns only occasionally result in violence. A more common outcome is a dark kind of patience: when a ghoul learns that a family member has passed away, grave robbery is often quick to follow. Feeding on the decayed flesh of a parent, sibling, or child can bring a ghoul a grisly form of closure, as they can experience shadows and fragments of their previous life by digesting the memories of their prior relations. Ghouls who seek this closure often keep a memento of the event as a keepsake—usually a skull, but less frequently some sort of heirloom, such as a weapon, piece of jewelry, or other item.
Ghouls can have children of their own, but when a new ghoul is birthed, the baby appears as a normal child of a humanoid race linked to the ghoul’s own bloodline. Ghoul parents often can’t resist the urge to seek out a family to raise their child in the hope of giving their baby a chance at something approaching a normal life. Ghouls leave children as orphans or foundlings on church stoops or in areas where they suspect and hope that an unexpected baby will be cared for. In other cases, desperate or callous ghouls will take more sinister measures. Stealing into a village or township under cover of deep night, the ghoul parents seek out a child in the village who looks similar to their own, then swap the children in the hope that the changeling will be raised in comfort and luxury.
The fate of the baby who was swapped depends on the mercy of the ghouls in question: the lucky ones are themselves adopted into the necrophagic society and raised among ghouls as ghouls.
In an ironic twist of fate, both children in these sorts of “switched-at-birth” situations develop into nascent ghouls: the changeling itself as a result of her ghoulish bloodline, and the abductee as a result of growing up knowing nothing more than using tombstones as platters and graveyards under moonlight as playgrounds. In this way, ghouls can be created as surely as they can be born.
For most living creatures, the long road to death begins with birth. This is not necessarily the case for the ghoul.
Ghouls who are born to ghoul parents and display their bestial features (hooves, fangs, and claws) from the first day mature quickly, growing to adulthood in about 10 years. Ghouls are protective of their children and shelter them in the deepest corners of their graveyard warrens. As a result, they are only rarely encountered by non-ghouls, giving rise to the false suppositions that there are no such things as ghoul children, and that ghouls only come to be when they magically transform victims into their own kind.
Certainly, curses and magical infections can cause ghouls to manifest as well. Ghouls cannot “infect” their victims with some form of disease the way undead ghouls spread ghoul fever among the living. Most who become cursed or otherwise transformed into ghouls meet their fate not through interaction with ghouls, but through powerful magic or curses in old tombs, from reading forbidden texts, or by taking part in blasphemous rituals. In fact, those who pursue it often find themselves turning into undead ghouls.
Furthermore, being born a ghoul or the influence of magic are not the only ways a new ghoul can come to be, for being a ghoul is as much a matter of behavior as it is one of magic or genetics. People who engage in ghoulish activity, be it feeding on decayed flesh or living in graveyards, put themselves at risk of becoming ghouls. This risk increases if such behaviors are undertaken in the company of other ghouls or if they’re pursued in regions where ghouls once cavorted and dined, even if no ghouls have been active in an area for decades or even centuries. Graveyards remember when they have played host to ghouls. It is in this way that a child, abducted by ghouls and raised among their kind, can transform into a ghoul, despite potentially having no predilection toward a ghoulish nature or heritage from a ghoul. Curiously, those who deliberately seek the transformation into a ghoul and engage in such activities to foster such a change often seek an elusive goal. The change seems to seek those who don’t expect it, but avoids those who pursue it.
Typically, a humanoid that undergoes the transformation into a ghoul does not make the change swiftly. Instead, the victim spends a significant amount of time, often many years, as something known as a “nascent ghoul.” Once a creature makes the transition to full ghoul, either after enduring the change via nascent ghouldom or simply by growing to adulthood as a ghoul child, the ghoul can live for centuries. A ghoul reaches middle age at 100 years, old age at 300 years, and venerable age at 500 years. Curiously, ghouls do not actually die of old age, but they do grow increasingly feeble 1d100 years after reaching venerable age. After this time passes, a ghoul loses the ability to move or even fend for itself. Such ghouls eventually die of starvation if not cared for. Many ghouls, rather than endure an endless existence as an invalid dependent on family, offer themselves to the banquet table. This funeral feast is not a matter of shame or despair in ghoul society, but one of triumph, for in feeding on the elder, that relative’s memories, knowledge, and personality can live on in those who partake.
When the conditions are right, a humanoid creature can become a nascent ghoul. The following rules should be applied to such a creature until it manages to reverse the situation, or makes the transition into a full-fledged ghoul. A nascent ghoul gains a few bonuses from its condition, but overall, is a less effective creature than a full ghoul or an untainted specimen of its original race. The change from humanoid to ghoul is a painful transition, full of uncertainty, confusion, and shame. A humanoid can remove the nascent ghoul condition by undergoing a special quest of the GM’s design, or can achieve this using the methods employed to remove curses. The DC to remove the nascent ghoul condition is equal to 10 + 1/2 the nascent ghoul’s Hit Dice + the nascent ghoul’s Wisdom modifier; nascent ghouls that are more powerful or more headstrong are more difficult to “save” in this manner.
The creature’s Charisma score is reduced by 4 and its Dexterity is reduced by 2. While the physical transformations that wrack a nascent ghoul wreak havoc on coordination, the toll it takes on the mind is greater.
The creature gains a bite attack as a secondary natural weapon that inflicts damage as if the nascent ghoul was a creature two size categories smaller than its actual size (1d3 for a Medium nascent ghoul, for example); a creature that already has a natural bite attack does not change that value.
If a nascent ghoul goes for more than 24 hours without feeding on the flesh of a creature of its type (not necessarily the same subtype) that has been dead for at least 24 hours itself, the nascent ghoul becomes sickened until it feeds on an appropriate corpse.
The final trigger that enables a nascent ghoul to make the full transformation into a ghoul varies.
Sometimes, it’s merely a matter of time—one year or several years might pass before the transformation completes suddenly. At other times, it requires the consumption of a specific number of bodies, either of a specific age or epoch, or perhaps of a specific race. The actual trigger is left to the GM to determine, but once it takes place, the nascent ghoul’s transformation into a full ghoul is swift, painful, and permanent. Once complete, only a miracle, wish, or similar effect can restore the newly minted ghoul’s humanity.
It’s certainly easy for someone to look upon a ghoul and make assumptions. The sight of a ghoul devouring dead flesh might lead an observer to view the entire race as nothing but feral, unsophisticated monsters.
In truth, ghouls are, on average, more intelligent than typical humans, and even when they are at their most debased, they are never far from a keen insight into the nature of their meal. Often, a clan of ghouls will spend entire nights gathered in boneyards, perched atop gravestones or lounging in opened and emptied coffins, engaged in spirited debates about diverse and esoteric topics.
Yet for all their intellect, ghouls have always lacked something significant in their lives: a society they can truly call their own. They rely upon humanoid society for many of their needs, including food from their graves and shelter in their tombs, yet they do not build societies of their own. Distracted by the memories they consume, it may well be that a ghoul’s mind is incapable of the inspirational spark found in most humanoid cultures that leads them to build civilizations. They are voracious readers of texts of all types, yet few ghouls can bring themselves to create texts of their own. They model themselves after those they feed upon, seeing themselves, perhaps, as the heritors of civilization.
And yet they are never truly a part of human society, regardless of how much human flesh they eat or how many human minds they experience.
Scavengers to the core, ghouls are the ultimate outsiders, truly comfortable only alone or in small groups. Due to a lack of self-awareness and introspection, ghouls never really grasp the enormity and tragic truth of existence. Despite this or perhaps because of it, they carry in their hearts at least a subconscious understanding of the sadness of their situation. Ghouls may titter and caper atop a grave in delight at finding a delicious new meal, yet in the aftermath of gorging on time-seasoned meat, their dreams are often haunted by lonely thoughts. Stories are told of ghouls who, in their old age, grew lonely, abandoned and forgotten in distant sepulchers.
Ghouls rarely integrate well into greater societies, either. Despite centuries of education via texts and tomes, inevitably when ghouls finally make contact with the society they have for so long admired from afar, their appearance and hungers end only in tragedy.
Matters of faith and worship are not unknown to ghouls, but ghouls have no true gods of their own.
Many ghouls worship gods from their life prior to becoming a nascent ghoul. These gods often do not answer the prayers of ghouls because of the ghouls’ required lifestyle. Some particularly devout ghouls may shift their worship to a god in their original life’s pantheon that would be willing to hear the prayers of the ghoul. Typically, these gods are neutral or evil in nature and do not have concerns regarding laws and taboos against feasting on the dead. Others may worship entities who might offer the opportunity to learn secrets of a powerful nature (such as Nyarlathotep or Tsathoggua).
In some lands, only ghouls worship the gods of old that are considered dead or forgotten by societies today.
In fact, this is merely the result of ghouls picking up pieces, fragments, and memories left behind. When a humanoid culture passes on, they leave behind their statues and temples. Abandoned and forgotten, their gods die or move on, yet when the ghouls move in, they pick up those pieces and make them their own.
In this way, many otherwise-dead faiths live on in ghoul warrens, yet these gods are no more the preferred patrons of ghouls than any other.
Not all ghoul clans worship gods. Some ghouls are intellectual atheists, while others instead look to their predecessors for advice. This form of ancestor worship can manifest in two ways. A band of ghouls may well look back upon their parents and their parents’ parents for advice, mining their accomplishments for inspiration. Yet they might also look back at their own lives, particularly in the case of a changeling ghoul who has finally undergone full transformation. To these ghouls, lost family members are as good as dead, even if in truth they yet live, and become as ancestors to venerate. Worship of these childhood memories is all some ghouls have to keep their minds from fully toppling into madness and they may even continue to wear familiar clothing (often robbed from graves) and carry gear and weapons in an attempt to cling to their previous lives. These ghouls are often objects of pity among their brethren, who typically leave them to wallow in their own memories as long as they do no harm. Such ghouls may try to reestablish contact with lost family, and in cases in which this doesn’t result in a tragic end, they can reveal the presence of a ghoul colony to humanity, which can cause problems.
Without a true culture to call their own, ghouls seem perfectly content to immerse themselves in the cultures of those they dine upon. As a result, most ghoul societies are somewhat behind the times, with their aesthetics often seeming old-fashioned when compared to modern-day groups under whose graveyards they hide. By scavenging what these societies throw away, 24 ghouls create a parasitic form of culture that suits them well and keeps them sated and happy. They treat ancient tools and discarded objects with reverence and respect, and can typically eke out several more uses of objects other cultures have discarded as ruined.
Regardless of the nature of the society whose culture they’ve appropriated, ghouls usually form into relatively small groups known as clans for a very practical purpose. A ghoul clan is limited in size by the dead, and if they deplete a graveyard or feed so quickly that their host society notices the depredations visited upon their deceased, they often find themselves forced out of their homes or pushed into violent confrontations.
A ghoul clan’s preferred lair consists of extensive warrens dug by tool and claw into the earth below a graveyard, but they also have been known to settle in abandoned necropolises or ruined cities. Anywhere where there’s a large or steady source of meat to feed upon can serve a ghoul as a home—specifically dead meat, as they do not hunt living creatures for food save for in times of famine. A ghoul prefers flesh properly aged, at least by a few days and, if possible, for much longer. Mummified flesh is considered a delicacy to a ghoul. When a ghoul encounters a particularly delicious corpse (often the remains of a philosopher, wizard, alchemist, poet, or other great thinker), they keep the remains handy in storage. Ghouls keep entire “cellars,” with walls lined with open coffins displaying their grisly contents, in a macabre parody of human wine cellars. Here, they keep their favorite bodies in storage, nibbling only now and then on these finely aged bones and preserved bits of flesh when the urge to celebrate strikes.
Undead often dwell in and around locales that ghouls favor, and for their part, ghouls do not abhor undead themselves. Indeed, most ghouls find the taste of undead flesh to be delicious, as the necromantic energies gives the meat a sort of “spice” or “texture” (ghouls have a hard time explaining how necromancy flavors flesh to those who lack their interests). At times, lingering necromantic magic seems to have an almost narcotic effect on those who overindulge, which some ghouls particularly enjoy. It’s not unusual to encounter ghoul societies that keep zombies as guardians and livestock simultaneously.
Sentient undead are a different matter. While ghouls enjoy the flavor of intelligent undead more than any others, these undead typically understand that ghouls make poor allies, despite many shared tastes.
Of particular note, though, is the curious fact that while undead ghouls seem eager to feed upon ghouls, ghouls tend to find undead ghoul flesh to be unpleasant, describing it as “overripe” or “rancid” in flavor.
Ghouls have a complex relationship with humanoids.
They depend on humanoids for food and base their societies and very culture on those they live near.
When ghouls and humanoids meet, however, the result is almost always violent. Most humanoids are quick to interpret the discovery of bestial-looking parodies of their own shape dwelling in their graveyards and eating their dead as unsettling at best and downright blasphemous at worst.
The typical ghoul is more than a match for an average humanoid, and even though such humanoids are usually the ones to start confrontations when ghouls are discovered, ghouls are usually the ones to escalate or finish the fight. Conflict with a group of humanoids never ends well for a ghoul clan in the long run, though the results vary. They might be wiped out simply by being overwhelmed by superior numbers or could be forced to move on to find a new feeding ground where the local populace is dead and available for eating.
While humanoid settlements generally have difficulty establishing peaceful relations with ghouls, the same is not the case for individuals. Often, an artist, necromancer, or eccentric who learns of the presence of ghouls in a local graveyard will seek to establish peaceful contact with the ghouls. For their part, ghouls value such contacts, for they give the clan insight into the workings of the society they feed upon, and such a contact can help cover up their presence or warn them when their feeding becomes noticeable.
In return, ghoul clans can offer value to their allies by revealing secrets lost to the ages, supplying aid in dealing with undead, or serving as guides into underground regions.
Rarely will a ghoul agree to help a humanoid transform.
Most ghouls rankle at the idea of “gifting” a humanoid with their abilities, and some feel ashamed at inflicting what they feel is a disadvantage. In addition, any humanoid ally is a potential meal, and once a ghoul, an ex-humanoid is less likely to grace a banquet table—at least for a long, long time.
Ghouls become adventurers for as wide a range of reasons as anyone, but one driving force in particular is the constant urge to seek out new meals. A ghoul adventurer might wish to sample the dead in a wide range of graveyards, or might seek to uncover a hidden text or lost relic it discovered after feeding on a dead scholar. Since adventurers often have a much higher tolerance for strangeness, a ghoul that finds itself accepted into an adventuring party easily recognizes a good thing and values the protection such a group can offer. If the ghoul’s adventuring allies can help keep it from being run out of town, then all the better!
Ghouls are an excellent choice for a player who wishes to play a monstrous race that can fill a more scholastic role, but care should be taken to ensure that the GM and the rest of the players are comfortable with having a party member who may well be wallowing in unpleasant or taboo subjects (eating dead humanoids can easily upset one’s allies).
Type: Ghouls are monstrous humanoids. As children, ghouls can be mistaken for other Medium humanoids. Some take advantage of this fact by kidnapping and replacing a child of another race or by putting a ghoul child in a position to be adopted unwittingly by members of other races. Typically, ghouls only place their children in highly organized races of Medium size. Ghouls raised in this manner sometimes replace some of their racial traits using the following alternate racial trait.
Senses: Ghouls have darkvision 60 feet and must breathe, eat, and sleep.
Ability Score Modifiers: +2 Constitution, +2 Intelligence, –2 Charisma. Ghouls have remarkable fortitude (as creatures who dwell among and feed on corpses) and augment their own significant capacity for intellect with the ability to absorb fragments of memory and thought from those they feed upon. Regardless of their erudition and wit, their grisly manners, foul appearance, odor, and unsettling habits make them unpleasant to be around.
Size: Ghouls are Medium
Speed: Ghouls have a speed of 30 feet.
Languages: Ghouls speak their own language and Common. A ghoul with a high Intelligence score can choose any non-secret language as a bonus language.
Death Scent (Ex)
Ghouls have an incredible sense of smell, particularly for carrion. A ghoul has the scent ability to 30 feet, but when scenting undead (or bodies suffering from decay or, at the GM’s discretion, the stink of death) possess scent to a range of 60 feet.
Expert Scrounger (Ex)
Ghouls have a talent for using old, broken equipment. In a ghoul’s hands, an object with the broken condition is treated as if it did not have the broken condition. In addition, ghouls gain a +4 racial bonus on Perception checks made to discover objects that are lost in rubble or undergrowth, buried, or otherwise hidden from view.
Feed on Flesh (Su)
When a ghoul feeds upon the corpse of a humanoid creature, it absorbs some of the lingering traces of memory and knowledge that creature possessed in life. Strangely, the older a corpse is, the more potent those memories become. Feeding on a corpse that is less than 24 hours old typically provides no benefit to a ghoul but nourishment. If a ghoul spends 1d4 minutes feeding on an older corpse that has at least some amount of flesh on its bones (even dried flesh, as in the case of a mummy, is acceptable), it absorbs a portion of knowledge once possessed by the creature. This grants the ghoul a +2 insight bonus to a skill of its choice, so long as the skill in question was a class skill of the creature the ghoul feasted upon.
A ghoul can obtain only one +2 insight bonus per corpse fed upon. At the GM’s discretion, there may be exceptions to this rule for ancient corpses. A ghoul can maintain a number of separate insight bonuses to skills in this way equal to its Intelligence modifier (minimum of 1). If a ghoul uses this ability when it has already reached the maximum number of +2 insight bonuses afforded by its Intelligence modifier, it must forget one of the current +2 insight bonuses in order to replace it with the new one. A ghoul can take the Erudite Feaster feat (as well as its associated feats) to enhance this ability.
Immune to Disease (Ex)
Natural Attacks (Ex)
Ghouls have a bite attack that inflicts 1d4 points of bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage on a hit. Ghouls gain two claw primary natural attacks. Each claw attack inflicts 1d4 points of slashing damage on a hit.
Thick Hide (Ex)
Ghouls have a +1 natural armor bonus.
Warren Digger (Ex)
Cultural Adaptation: Ghouls raised as changelings in another society maintain the cultural training they received when growing up in that race’s culture. They learn the language of their adoptive parents instead of Ghoul. Other races retain racial traits at the discretion of the GM, generally ones costing 2 or 3 RP using the race builder rules.
This racial trait replaces death scent and warren digger.
- Dwarves: Any three of defensive training, greed, hatred, and stonecunning.
- Elves: Elven magic or weapon familiarity.
- Half-orcs: Weapon familiarity.
- Humans and Half-elves: Skill Focus as a bonus feat.
Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos, © 2017, Petersen Games; Authors: Sandy Petersen, Arthur Petersen, Ian Starcher.