Undead Tactics: Ghouls and Ghasts

Ghouls and ghasts are a classic pair of flesh-devouring undead creatures dating all the way back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, ghasts being the more dangerous of the two. Unlike skeletons and zombies, which are created by necromancers casting animate dead, ghouls and ghasts are purported to have demonic origins (although there exists a spell usable by player characters, create undead, to produce them as well—here the lore and the rules contradict each other).

Both ghouls and ghasts are immune to poison and to being charmed or exhausted, and both have darkvision. They have high Dexterity and Strength, in that order, and can either claw or bite. The bite attack does more direct damage, but the claw attack has a greater chance to hit as well as a chance of paralyzing its target, rendering it incapable of action, movement or speech, granting advantage to all attacks against it, and turning all hits on it into crits. (Ghouls’ claw attack doesn’t have this effect on elves, but ghasts’ claw attack does.) Although its chances of success are low, its potential effect is so powerful that it has to be considered the attack of first resort, except against elf PCs. Finally, ghasts have the Turning Defiance feature, which grants advantage on saving throws against turning not just to themselves but to any ghoul within 30 feet of them. (They have resistance to necrotic damage, too, but that’s probably not going to be your players’ first choice against them.)

In my last article, I stated that undead creatures are driven less by survival than by compulsion—whatever compulsion the method of their creation imbues them with. In the case of ghouls and ghasts, this is hunger for the flesh of the living. This, combined with their average-level Wisdom, suggests that they possess a stronger self-preservation instinct than mindlessly obedient skeletons and zombies, since the whole point of eating is to fuel one’s continued existence. It also suggests that their goal is to obtain living flesh to eat, and that once they’ve achieved this goal, they have no particular reason to keep fighting.

Here’s the picture of ghoul combat that’s taking shape: First, since ghouls have no Stealth skill to speak of, they move in as soon as they sense the presence of potential prey. (“Potential prey” excludes elves, since they’re immune to ghouls’ paralysis.) Being driven by instinct and compulsion, they’re not daunted by being outnumbered. Therefore, they approach their chosen prey (i.e., whichever non-elf PC is closest) directly and attack with their claws. Each ghoul repeats this attack until it finally succeeds in paralyzing its prey. Once this happens, it starts snacking, switching from claws to bite and attacking with advantage, with every hit a critical. That’s 4d6 + 2 damage per bite! This is a good moment for the overly committed DM to indulge in graphic, cringe-inducing descriptions of ravenous ghouls tearing out chunks of the PCs’ muscle.

A ghoul’s victim gets to repeat its saving throw against paralysis every turn, so the ghoul wants to finish its meal as fast as it can. If a PC recovers mid-feast, the ghoul will go back to clawing the PC, hoping to paralyze him or her again.

What if another PC comes up and begins attacking the ghoul in the middle of its dinner? Rather than fight back, it will try to drag its meal away. Since the victim is completely incapacitated, not merely grappled, there’s nothing to stop the ghoul from using its full movement speed unless the victim exceeds its 195 lb. carrying capacity, in which case its speed drops to 5 ft. Here, however, the ghoul faces the “eat-or-run” dilemma. Its chances of escape are best if it uses its action to Dash—and it can still carry off the paralyzed PC while doing so. But every round spent running away is a round in which dinner might wake up, and a ghoul is always hungry. Once it has a paralyzed victim, it can’t resist the compulsion to keep eating. So the ghoul will retreat from its attacker, using its full movement (and potentially incurring an opportunity attack), but then stop for another bite of its victim. In all likelihood, the PC pursuer will catch up with the ghoul and attack it again. And it will react the same way: move, then take another bite.

This cycle will repeat until one of three things happens: (a) the ghoul is reduced to 8 hp or fewer, in which case it Dashes away; (b) the ghoul is destroyed; or (c) the victim is reduced to 0 hp, in which case the ever-ravenous ghoul will turn against its erstwhile pursuer and try to make a meal of him or her. As before, it starts with claw attacks, switching to bite if and when the PC is paralyzed.

If a ghoul is shot from range while in the middle of a meal, rather than attacked hand-to-hand, it simply ignores the attack and keep eating, unless and until it’s reduced to 8 hp or fewer. Then it runs away.

The more intelligent ghast is only slightly more sophisticated. It doesn’t exempt elves from its definition of “prey,” and if it’s accompanied by a pack of ghouls, it will identify stronger PCs and direct the ghouls to gang up on them, two or three on one, depending on the relative numbers of ghasts and ghouls vs. PCs. The ghast, meanwhile, will go after a delicious elf. If the ghasts and ghouls are outnumbered by the PCs, a ghast will instead go after the strongest PC itself (being best equipped to do so, not just because of its Strength and AC but because of its Stench feature) while the ghouls go after the weaker PCs—same nutritional value, less resistance. The ghouls will always remain within 30 feet of the ghast, in order to benefit from its Turning Defiance, except when one is trying to abscond with a paralyzed victim.

Despite their greater intelligence, ghasts do have the same carnivorous compulsion as ghouls and will consequently follow the same approach to escaping with a paralyzed victim when attacked hand-to-hand. Their noxious Stench offers them some slight protection from opportunity attacks, since a PC in melee range may be poisoned by it and therefore attack with disadvantage. Also, if a ghast is hit more than once by ranged attacks or spells while consuming a victim, yet not enough to seriously wound it (reduce it to 14 hp or fewer), it will get annoyed enough to get up and go after the ranged attacker, Dashing until it can get near enough to close the gap with its normal movement, then Attack with its claws.

Next: specters, wights and wraiths.

19 thoughts on “Undead Tactics: Ghouls and Ghasts

  1. “Since the victim is completely incapacitated, not merely grappled, there’s nothing to stop the ghoul from using its full movement speed”

    I can’t find anything RAW that states using your full movement speed for dragging incapacitated creatures. How did you decide on this?

    1. Omission. The rules explicitly state that movement is halved when dragging a grappled creature (PH 195), but they say nothing at all about dragging a non-grappled, incapacitated creature. Additionally, under “Lifting and Carrying” (PH 176), carrying capacity is Strength × 15, which in the case of a ghoul (Strength 13) is 195 pounds, and you can push, lift or drag twice that without a movement penalty.

  2. Just found this site, and I love it! More than any other resource, this makes me really want to explore the MM and play these different tactics.

    Also, wanted to chime in on the Lore/rules discrepancy – seeing how Create Undead is a much more powerful spell that Animate Dead, it’s entirely feasible that the spell draws on abyssal power to create the Ghouls. Additionally, even though Ghouls have demonic origins, they are still technically undead, not fiends, so it wouldn’t surprise me if all ghouls were created by some kind of abyssal infusion into a corpse. Simliar to how Gnoll Fangs and Merrow come around. Unending hunger is a very demonic quality, after all.

    Just my two cents on how a DM could justify that! Love the blog!

  3. I’ll actually suggest some criticism to your interpretation of the tactics of ghouls and gasts. Not as an attack, but rather in the spirit of improving this blog as I find it an excellent repository.

    My inspiration comes mainly from angry GM’s thoughts on ghouls, where he points out that they likely are ambush hit & run predators. I find that interpretation would lead to more interesting gameplay.

    Your suggestion is that ghouls, compelled by their fearsome hunger, will try to eat their prey even while in the middle of the “herd” (the party). I think that is unlikely, as it would quickly prove fatal for a ghoul who hunts prey almost as strong as itself. It is less like a lion hunting gazelles and more like a falcon hunting crows. Escape is paramount as soon as the prey is grappled. After successfully paralyzing a target the ghoul thus tries to escape, leaving its packmates behind. And packs of ghouls always spread out to target all prey animals, to maximise the number of fallen prey. Being undead, they care little for each other. When a ghoul has dragged away a paralyzed prey it will try to kill it and begin feasting. If the prey is particularily powerful, multiple ghouls may break away to get this done before the prey awakens. They are not satisfied with merely reducing a target to 0 HP but will attack until it is truly dead. Then they will drag the corpse to their burrow to consume. This makes ghouls particularily scary as they may not even leave enough remains for a ressurection spell, scattered as they would be among the bones from multiple people.

    If this tactic fails, and the ghouls do not paralyze any targets within the first three rounds they likely deem the party too dangerous and try to break away.

    A ghast changes this tactic, being slightly more intelligent. It would lead a pack of ghouls to all ambush in organized fashion. Thus with a ghast all ghouls may spring into attack at once, while without it the pack will be travelling spread out and new ghouls may be joining the fight for multiple rounds after it started as they hear the sound of food. The ghast, being the strongest, would at first go for the largest prey. If it deems it necessary it may be commanding a couple of regular ghouls to assist it in the takedown, rather than letting them find their own marks. Killing a ghast leading a pack of ghouls likely would affect their morale, provoking them to flee.

    Ghouls that have found their prey too dangerous will be trapped in a dilemma of hunger and survival, stalking the party looking for an opportunity to find and drag off weak individuals. Only if plenty of other prey is available will they retreat for good.

    This behaviour I think would lead to more interesting gameplay. It makes ghouls scarier, as they will try to split up the party. It provides a natural tactical necessity of preventing weaker party members from being dragged off. It also helps differentiate ghouls from the likes of goblins in that their goal is food rather than killing. Baiting them is possibly a better tactic than fighting them. The ghast serves to change the behaviour of the whole ghoul pack, making it behave more intelligently and maliciously.

    1. This is a legit alternative interpretation if you don’t consider their compulsion to be so all-consuming, all the time. It does, however, forfeit much of the advantage to be gained from attacking a paralyzed creature, which seems to me like a waste.

  4. “the whole point of eating is to fuel one’s continued existence.”

    Alternatively, the whole point of existence is to continue eating. Either way, they have that survival instinct.

    1. Ooh. Except, given this interpretation, there IS no satiety. They just keep eating. I’m not going to consider what happens to a ghoul’s feed. Maybe it is teleported to hell.

  5. Hello I had argument with my GM, he says that because Ghouls and Ghast can speak they have lungs and because of that they need air to survive…
    So they can not stay underwater for too long example.
    They do not have undead nature writen in monster manual and that is his argument because other undead creatures have that pasive.
    I think that all undead do not need to drink, eat, sleep or breathe to survive

    1. They probably need air to talk, but undead don’t need to breathe.

      However, if your DM/GM decides they need to breathe, then they can make them need to breathe.

  6. Actually, the lore and rules don’t contradict each other for the origins. Players with the “create undead” spell can use the same magic that demons used, just not as powerfully. Wizards interact directly with the wave, not unable to use magic created by demons at a lesser scale, warlocks gain their power from devils, and clerics… okay, that’s kind of strange.

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