Zombies, Zombies, Zombies: they are everywhere. They are on the TV and in the movies. They are the undead horde that just refuses to die, again. These shambling monstrosities come in all dead shapes and sizes these days. For a long time, the best way to get away from the shambling waves of the undead was to outpace them. Until the fast Zombie, or Zombie runners, came sprinting their way into movies and game tables everywhere.
As Game Masters, some of the most enjoyable monsters we can throw at our players are the uncaring, unfeeling, ever hungry undead. Second only to maybe Vampires, Zombies are iconic. Everyone knows what a slack-jawed, shambling, brain craving Zombie wants when they encounter one. The problem far too often is that they are overused and cliché. Granted, zombies are cool. I love them myself! Yet, this does not stop me from making sure they are not my first choice in making an encounter, but my best choice!
So, what other undead can we use that will strike fear into the hearts of adventures and fill a similar role that the legendary Zombie does? I say flip your Monster Manuals from the back of the book to the front and set your players against…
On the surface, there are many similarities that make it a good choice for an alternative to the Zombie. Both of these monsters can be found in large numbers; Zombies travel in hordes and Ghouls in packs. Both are Undead and have a similar appearance at a first glance. They both crave flesh; zombies are just a bit more specific on their favorite tasty parts to eat.
Stat wise, they have a couple things in common as well. Both have roughly the same Strength and Hit points. Ghouls have a slightly higher AC, which is matched by the Undead Fortitude ability of the Zombie. From this point, the differences of the Ghoul begin to become much more creepy and deadly.
Ghouls move considerably faster with a speed of 30 feet compared to the Zombies 20. Allowing them to catch a party by surprise that believes they are facing a Zombie when in fact it is a Ghoul. The touch of a Ghoul can induce paralysis in a target. They strike for considerably more damage with their claws. And their bite can be nothing short of deadly to a lower level player.
In addition to Zombies being largely overused, one Ghoul is worth two Zombies by challenge rating. Action economy is not changed, because Ghouls have two attacks vs the Zombie’s one. Another encounter factor to consider is the total encounter HP. Ghouls may be more deadly, but a Ghoul encounter will likely get you and your players in and out of combat much quicker.
STR 13 (+1) DEX 6 (-2) CON 16 (+3) INT 3 (-4) WIS 6 (-2) CHA 5 (-3)
Challenge 1/4 (50 XP) Armor Class 8 Hit Points 22 (3d8 + 9) Speed 20 ft.
Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 8
Understands the languages of its creator but can’t speak
Undead Fortitude. If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5 + the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.
Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 4 (1d6 + 1) bludgeoning damage.
STR 13 (+1) DEX 15 (+2) CON 10 (+0) INT 7 (-2) WIS 10 (+0) CHA 6 (-2)
Challenge 1 (200 XP) Armor Class 12 Hit Points 22 (5d8) Speed 30 ft.
Charmed, Exhaustion, Poisoned
Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 10
Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +2 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 9 (2d6 + 2) piercing damage.
Claws. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (2d4 + 2) slashing damage. If the target is a creature other than an elf or undead, it must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or be paralyzed for 1 minute. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.
Unlike Zombies, who shamble and stagger their way into combat fearless of damage, Ghouls throw themselves into combat with reckless abandon. They are an agile foe and with just one strike from a claw attack, the battle can go from bad to worse as paralysis sets in. All this while Ghouls are speaking to you about how delicious you will be to feast on.
So why should you use them?
They have a cool origin history….
Abyssal Origins. Ghouls trace their origins to the Abyss. Doresain, the first of their kind, was an elf worshiper of Orcus. Turning against his own people, he feasted on humanoid flesh to honor the Demon Prince of Undeath. As a reward for his service, Orcus transformed Doresain into the first ghoul. Doresain served Orcus faithfully in the Abyss, creating ghouls from the demon lord’s other servants until an incursion by Yeenoghu, the demonic Gnoll Lord, robbed Doresain of his abyssal domain. When Orcus would not intervene on his behalf, Doresain turned to the elf gods for salvation, and they took pity on him and helped him escape certain destruction. Since then, elves have been immune to the ghouls’ paralytic touch.
Ghasts. Orcus sometimes infuses a ghoul with a stronger dose of abyssal energy, making a ghast. Whereas ghouls are little more than savage beasts, a ghast is cunning and can inspire a pack of ghouls to follow its commands.
Ghouls are a great monster to use instead of Zombies because they create the opportunity for a more memorable encounter. With the ability to speak alone, this automatically makes for a more disturbing, deadly encounter. Fold in paralysis, and suddenly what might be a relatively easy encounter can turn deadly with one bad roll.
Ghouls also are intelligent, and should be played with intelligence. Where Zombies will shamble forward into waiting blades to be cut down or overwhelm their foes, Ghouls might opt to dart around plate clad tanks and engage much softer targets. A Ghoul’s biggest advantage lies in their paralysis strike. As intelligent beings, Ghouls will gang up on foes, improving the chances that their prey will fall victim to the effects of their claws.
Lastly, if you want to up the Ghoul game, add a Ghast to the group as a leader. Including a Ghast introduces a whole new host of concerns. Any Ghouls within 30 feet of a Ghast gain Turn Defiance, granting an advantage on Turning Saves. Ghasts also have a horrid stench that if a player within 5 feet of the Ghast fails a save, they become poisoned until the start of their next turn.
Ghasts attacks are slightly stronger than Ghouls and are even more intelligent than Ghouls, making for a very deadly foes. Now lets take a moment or two and set asside Stats and Abilitys. Let get to the reason why as a Game Master Ghouls and Ghasts stand out as a much better choice between the two.
As Game Masters we strive to make memorable moments for our players. Nothing compares to hearing your players reminisce about past encounters and adventures. Creatures like Ghouls and Ghasts give you a better creative device to drive a more memorable encounter than a zombie.
As a player, I have cut down countless Zombie hordes and I honestly can’t recall one major story moment that involved a zombie encounter where the Zombie was the key part of the encounter that made it memorable.
On the other hand, when it comes to Ghouls and Ghasts I have several. What made these encounters both different and memorable was the terrifying way they were run and the environment of the encounter. Also, each time that inevitable bad roll vs paralysis. Suddenly the party is tensely fearing fro their lives. Knowing that if things turn hopeless they will soon be Ghoul food.
Frozen healthy and helpless to aid your comrades as they one by one subcum to the paralyzing touch of the Ghouls one by one. Or making the clutch save and breaking free of the paralyzation to get back into the fight and maybe save the day. These are the moment’s players remember.
NOTE: I am encouraging the creative use of the Ghoul when you have an encounter area where it is a suitable consider using it as a replacement to a Zombie. Zombies are a great monster just avoid overusing them.
Please Feel free to comment and add any suggestions on other monsters that are overused or do not get enough attention at the table.