Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Whence Cometh the Ghouls?

The madness and monstrosity lay in the figures in the foreground- for Pickman's morbid art was pre-eminently one of demoniac portraiture. These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness. Ugh! I can see them now! Their occupations - well, don't ask me to be too precise. They were usually feeding- I won't say on what. They were sometimes shown in groups in cemeteries or underground passages, and often appeared to be in battle over their prey- or rather, their treasure-trove. And what damnable expressiveness Pickman sometimes gave the sightless faces of this charnel booty! Occasionally the things were shown leaping through open windows at night, or squatting on the chests of sleepers, worrying at their throats. One canvas showed a ring of them baying about a hanged witch on Gallows Hill, whose dead face held a close kinship to theirs. - “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft

The subjects of Pickman’s art are, of course ghouls, and I’m taking much of my inspiration of what they are like from this story, but it’s their appearance in “The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath” that I’m writing about now. In that story, it’s revealed that ghouls are able to move between the waking world and the dreamscape. Exactly how they are able to do this isn’t revealed, but the existence of a massive boneyard there implies that the ghouls are moving physically between the two world and bringing things with them.

I love that idea, but I don’t have a dreamworld in my Labyrinth Lord game. However, I do have realm where the spirits of the dead go called, unimaginatively, Tartarus. I imagine packs of ghouls able to shift between the living world and Tartarus. In Tartarus, they might torment those who have died without the protections of a proper burial until the deceased soul gives up the location of its corpse. The ghouls would then travel to that place to feast.

This means ghouls are most likely to congregate at places of hidden murder or great slaughter, such as battlefields. But a proper burial might offer the dead some sort of protection against the bullying of ghouls. Maybe it’s a magical warding for the soul, or perhaps the soul is transferred closer to the seats of power in Tartarus, where civilization, such as it exists for the deceased, can protect the recently deceased.

I’m also thinking of altering slightly the source of ghoulish paralyzation. Instead of being due to fungus in their claws, I’m thinking it has to do with their link to Tartarus. Infused with the innervating energies (negative energies?) of Tartarus, the touch of a ghoul directly attacks the soul. This is how they are able to torment the already dead, and this “damage” can cause disruption between body and soul, leading to a sort of spiritual paralyzation. I’ll have to think about that idea some.

A link between ghouls and gnolls seems natural as both have a taste for carrion. But should they be allies, or competitors for the same resources? I could see good arguments for either option.

Photo credits: Juan LupiĆ³n, Stefan Karpiniec.


Matthew Slepin said...

In Tartarus, they might torment those who have died without the protections of a proper burial until the deceased soul gives up the location of its corpse. The ghouls would then travel to that place to feast.That is awesome. I've always felt that ghouls are far cooler than they role they play in usual D&D.

entertheoctopus said...

Thanks for tackling this. I've loved ghouls ever since I first read "Pickman's Model". I, too, have often wondered how to incorporate a more Lovecraftian aspect to this common D&D beastie while not sacrificing the paralytic ability that players often fear. Your solution is a good one.
Have you, by chance, read Brian McNaughton's "The Throne of Bones"? It's an entire story cycle focusing on a collection of ghouls in a fantasy city. It's great. You might also enjoy some of Caitlin R. Kiernan's stuff. She, too, often features ghouls in her stories and novels.

trollsmyth said...

Dr. Samsara: Thanks! Yeah, same here. Truth is, most monsters can be "cooled up", but some just scream for it: trolls, ghouls, gnolls...

Matt: My pleasure. I haven't read Brian McNaughton's stuff, but I'll keep my eyes open for it. What's Caitlin R. Kiernan's stuff like?

And that's a rather nifty webpage you've got there.

bulette said...

yeah, fungus under the nails is just some silly BS, much better to come out and say what we all know the paralysis is due to: deep, intuitive FEAR


OdRook said...

A big ditto here - this is exactly what I needed to get ghouls where I want them to be. Your concept of ghoulish paralysis is ingenious, and I thank you for it.

As for the ghoul/gnoll connection, I've long felt the same way. My solution has been to treat gnolls as the "ghols" from the Myth computer games - I generally use gnoll stats, although Dragon #261 had stats tailored to the critters...

At any rate, my approach is essentially to make ghouls proper the undead version of gnolls. For these creatures, transition into undeath is a "natural" part of their life-cycle. Or para-life-cycle, i guess. (I've pretty much ignored the line about humans killed by ghouls becoming ghouls too, but I'm toying with making this part of the reproductive process, where some kind of larval gnoll spontaneously generates in the corpses.)

trollsmyth said...

OdRook: Your mentioning of death-by-ghoul causing transformation into a ghoul made me go back to my rulebooks. It's not in Moldvay's Basic, but it is in the 1e MM.

In my game, it's not death that turns you into a ghoul, but rather the method hinted at by Lovecraft.

Yeah, ok, Oddysey's right. I am foul and unhinged. ;) Time to pop "Ravenous" in the ol' DVD player...