Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Ghoul Friend

In the comments to the last post, Wyatt Allworthy wrote:

Something only tangentially related to undead causing plagues that I wondered if you had any experience making work as a ref. I don’t know how it’s done in DCC, but in A/D&D you had the situation of undead like Ghouls with a paralytic touch, or Wights, etc that drained levels. These creatures could be encountered even by low level characters, in confined crypt like places, where they might have no exits to evade them. A ghoul had a speed of 9” and characters loaded down plate armor, let alone equipment and loot would be limited to a speed of 6”, as the speed of the slower members. How can a party survive something that paralyzes its lead members just by a touch, which they will almost assuredly fail their saving rolls to fight it? Only a tiny number of these ghouls would overwhelm a low level party, almost assuredly, every time they were encountered.
I know that back in the day, parties had larger numbers of players and possibly lots of hirelings and henchmen, is that the way to manage it, or is there some way to make a 6-man special forces style team of adventurers competent to handle paralytic touch undead (let alone level draining undead).
Thanks for any insights on this one, it’s a puzzle for me.

First off, low-level characters are unlikely to be loaded down with plate armour in any game that I am running.  That’s simply a matter of expenditure – plate armour is expensive, and there is not enough “spare” cash for this particular expenditure.  Loaded down with loot is a lot easier – in a question of “keep your loot or keep your life”, smart players choose to drop the loot.

I like ghouls, and I do use them at low levels.  I have been throwing ghouls at 1st level PCs ever since reading the evocative play description in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.  As a player, I have encountered ghouls at 1st level as well.  In one memorable 2nd Edition campaign, the DM (the esteemed Jesse Donahue) lured the party into an un-dead haunted swamp, where the easiest way to survive was to run and hide, then run and hide some more.   At the same time, I was running my megadungeon, The Dungeon of Thale, in Venice Beach, California, and there were roving ghouls on the first level.  I think they got perhaps one or two characters over a long period of play.

But, then, these characters weren’t clunking around in plate.  That heavy armour affords you one sort of protection (better AC) while denying you another (making it hard to run away) is a trade-off that makes for interesting choices.  Dungeon Crawl Classics does that one better, by making heavier armour subject to more devastating fumbles as well.

An illustration I drew based on Jesse's game
Things that I have found adjust the odds against ghouls are teamwork, good use of magic, having a cleric on hand, and having an elf or two in the party.  In DCC, you should also consider burning that Luck in order to make your saving throw, especially if you are the last PC standing.   In many games that I have run, ghouls shun sunlight, and will not willingly enter it or an area of continual light.  Having some areas that the PCs can retreat to, while leaving them with a serious problem that still needs to be solved before their own food runs out, can be fun for all concerned.

I’ve run James Raggi’s Death Frost Doom to great effect, using the DCC ruleset.  How you deal with a horde of ghouls and zombies is a major part of that adventure.  At first, the players thought the answer was “you fight them”…but that is not a very viable answer in Death Frost Doom.  Sometimes, in a good adventure, fighting should not be the best option.  Sometimes, it should be a suicidal option.

If you go poking around crypts and barrows at night, you should expect to run into the un-dead.  If it is possible, save your explorations for daylight hours.  At least that way, you may be able to retreat into the sun.  As you explore, consider how you can use the areas you have already examined to your best advantage.  Mindless creatures, especially, may be lured into traps that you discovered and bypassed.  There might be choke points where a few can hold off many.   There might be places where a barricade can hold foes so that the archers can do their work.  Never underestimate the value of a spear or a pitchfork when you can hold your opponents so that they can’t reach you.

Even so, sometimes, you have to let the dead devour your fallen so that you have a chance to get away.  And sometimes the ghouls get you.  It is completely okay to have the entire party wiped out after mere minutes exploring the Barrowmaze.  Those are the risks adventurers face.  


  1. Barrowmaze is something I’ve heard bloggers rave about, and seen some artwork and maps for online, but, haven’t purchased it. You recommend it, I take it?

    Death Frost Doom, I read through from a freebie download.
    You’re right, for the uninitiated, there’s no way to fight every monster in that adventure. Running should be an option, and becoming trapped is very relevant to what I was mentioning: that PCs may find themselves in confined locations.

    I just bought a hard bound copy of DCC, and have only glanced through it so far. Hadn’t realized that Roslof had died, either. It says in my copy that Plate Armor is 1,200 GP, as compared with a longsword at 10 GP. Which does sound pretty expensive compared to A/D&D, even if real life it would have been the price of a small house.

    How many adventures is a ballpark figure for a 1st level PC to be able to afford to buy a suit of Plate Armor? I’m guessing he/she will still be 1st level and able to do so? In that case, if the Ref plans on using Ghouls, Wights, should they make sure there’s a way to avoid being surrounded from behind in a dead-end crypt, before the players have a chance to figure a crypt contains these nasties? Or, should they just assume it’s a risk and if they want to ensure they avoid the high risks, just explore someplace else?

    The idea of sunlight being toxic to ghouls is one I’ve never heard of. But, I like that one a lot! Making sure you go crypts and barrows during daytime sounds like a sound precaution, if you can escape fast enough to take advantage of the sunlight.

    In a nutshell, keep watching your environment for areas of best combat advantage. Lure dumb creatures into traps you’ve already passed through (choke points, etc for spearmen and archers). Bring clerics, elves, and plan good spells.

    “And sometimes the ghouls get you. It is completely okay to have the entire party wiped out after mere minutes exploring the Barrowmaze. Those are the risks adventurers face.”

    I’d agree that freshly rolled PCs without any player-emotional attachment can be wiped out, and they can just roll up new ones. If you are dealing with longer-term PCs, maybe some kind of indication that the crypt or barrow has something worse than skeletons is in order. Is there a way to indicate this for player choice, context and consequences? Since undead are silent, and zombies leave behind scraps of flesh, just as much as ghouls, how to differentiate the context for minor undead from those with toxic touch attacks?

    By the way, that’s a good illustration of the swamp ghouls. It’s a pity you don’t have any of your artwork in the DCC rulebook.

    1. I have never run a game, nor played in a game, in which PCs could afford plate at 1st level.