our ghouls and ghasts are not as good as the originals

On a Wikipedia binge, I learned the origin of the D&D ghast: Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. (I’ve read it before, but this detail never made an impression on me.)

The ghasts are a race of fearsome humanoids. They are much larger than a man and have a vaguely human face, albeit missing a nose. Their skin is rough and knotty. Their senses are unusually acute; they can see in the dark and have a strong sense of smell. They hop about on a pair of hooved, kangaroo-like legs, and are swift, strong, and agile. They have also been described as lacking a forehead. Ghasts prefer to dwell in complete darkness and have no tolerance for natural light — sunlight will kill them instantly.

That grotesque kangaroo-hopping detail is what gets me. Make these guys pack hunters who travel, say, twice as fast as the PCs, and, whether they’re chasing you across midnight plains or down pitch-black dungeon corridors, you’ve got a really creepy monster.

D&D ghasts, on the other hand, are like ghouls but they smell bad. As far as I’m concerned, D&D ghasts now hop like kangaroos.

Score: D&D 0, Lovecraft 1

Ghouls, of course, are from Arabian folklore (the earliest mention is in the Arabian Nights). Arabian Nights ghuls act a lot like D&D ghouls: they hang out in graveyards, eat human flesh, etc. “The creature also preys on young children, drinks blood, steals coins, and eats the dead, then taking the form of the person most recently eaten.

Ghouls were already one of my favorite D&D encounters, but this is the detail they’ve been missing. A shuffling pack of ghouls, each with the familiar face of their victims, partakes somewhat of the horror of doppelgangers and somewhat of zombie-movie zombies, but it has its own special something. This isn’t a “this zombie was once my buddy” pathos moment, or a “my buddy was a doppelganger all along” chills moment; this is a “this ghoul ate my buddy’s face, and now he’s wearing it” rage moment.

In the past, I’ve had my ghoul-eaten PCs return as ghouls, but I think that from now on I’ll have the original ghouls take on the PCs’ appearances.

Score: D&D 0, Arabian Nights 1

4 Responses to “our ghouls and ghasts are not as good as the originals”

  1. Rory Rory says:

    I remember those ghouls I fought in that OD&D game you ran that repeated the last words spoke around them. They were pretty creepy!

    That would be a good combination: a ghoul that looks like your buddy and is repeating his dying words.

  2. 1d30 says:

    “It’s still three dee six in order right?” would be what most of them say.

  3. Spiralbound says:

    I like the idea of them repeating their victim’s dying words. It can be both creepy and at times useful. If the character’s in the world know that Ghouls will do this, they can deliberately pass on a crucial message to their fellows – via their killer!

  4. Baf says:

    Kadath-style ghasts are of course present in Call of Cthulhu. I once used them in a homemade CoC adventure. I had possessed miners use them as mounts.

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