Monday, April 8, 2019

The Ghast

The process by which a person becomes a ghoul is poorly understood.

One popular theory is that ghouls are created when the higher souls are weakened by cannibalism.  According to this theory, the unnatural act of consuming one's own species is inherently repellent to the universal morals of creation, and so the higher souls divest themselves of the flesh that they find abhorrent.  In this power vacuum, the lower souls insert themselves, and then expand to fill the higher functions of the mind.  The hunger of animals, the uncaring mind of minerals--these become the new philosophy of the ghoul.

Another theory: it is well understood that certain sins are so repugnant that their punishment cannot be postponed to the afterlife.  Masturbation is punished by blindness.  Blasphemy is punished with polyps.  When viewed through this lens, ghoulishness is explained simply as the appropriate punishment for cannibalism.  A longer lifespan is no gift if there is no humanity, no satisfaction it.  Who cares how long a beast lives?

These theories explain the spectrum of ghouls, as it is usually described.

On one end, you have the youngest ghouls, the itinerant graverobbers who are fully alive, but have a ghoul's touch.  They are corpulent souls, who struggle to hide their hungers.  This is the most cosmopolitan time of their ghoul-life, when they seek out others of their kind, and cluster in their abominable enclaves.

A young ghoul might be a portly man in a top hat, with a wide smile and a warm handshake, charitably offering to pay for the funeral expenses of unknown paupers.

At the other end, you have the the cadaverous undead who have been so consumed by hunger that they have gnawed their own limbs to the bone.  They long ago abandoned the trappings of humanity in favor in favor of their bestial passions.  They usually lose all discretion at some point in the process, and are discovered and destroyed by witch hunters.

But those that retain some cunning still succumb to exposure and malnutrition, and usually die behind some parish kitchen, shivering from a fever that they no longer feel.  When death finally claims them, they do not notice it (and would not care if they did).  They only truly develop into the ravening, skeletal things of legend after suffering the madness and autocannibalism of long entombment (which is surpringly common among ghouls).

The autocannibalism is believed to be driven by self-loathing rather than hunger, since ghoul flesh is not usually appetizing to ghouls.

However, there is one creature that cannot be explained by either of these theories.

wrong genera but right ghast
by Richard Wright
The Ghast

Also known as elder ghouls, ghasts transcend the biology that spawned them.

Growth is normally impossible in the undead, but ghasts seem to be able to switch between life and undead at will, according to their needs.  This may even extend into true death, which ghasts may use as a form of hibernation.  There are stories of leathery corpses the size of horses, dredged from the peat, that have groaned and stirred once the sunlight warmed their black sockets.  If this is true, and ghasts can hibernate by dying, then perhaps they can never be truly killed.

And so ghasts grow through the dim epochs, assuming bestial forms more suited for their inclinations.

But this growth is not the growth of natural life.  No botanic soul dwells in their flesh, that guides and shapes the new vessel.  This is like the metabolism of a lich: no longer autonomous and entirely directed by the mind.  A lich's heart does not beat until the lich commands it; a ghoul's flesh does not grow until the ghoul wills it.  (And in fact, this may be what causes a ghoul to transition into a ghast.)

And with the transformation of long years, they regain some measure of cunning.  It is not a resumption of their human mind--that was lost long ago.  It is something new, a dark composite of those that they have devoured.

This is because the second defining feature of the ghast is the liver, an organ which has no true analog in any other animal.  A singular tissue, it alone is capable of turning flesh into memories.  It is perhaps related to speak with dead, as it involves that soul that lives in corpses (rather than the soul that continues to the afterlife), except that the soul is not conversed with, but devoured and internalized.

Ghasts trap the dead, but not in a conscious collection of discrete souls, but instead in a gruesome patchwork of overlapping memory.

And since it is the memory of the flesh, not the memory of the conscious mind, the content of the life is remembered without any of the emotion (except as the body remembers emotion: a flush of the face and a quickening of the heart, nothing more).

They can speak, sometimes very well.  (And depending on the evolutions of their verbal apparatus, they may have dozens of voices coming from one mouth.)  But the mind behind the voices is an abominable one.  Memories of a hundred people may blend together, sometimes in an irrational synthesis.  Parents are switched, blended, or remembered as a multi-headed amalgam.  When an ancient ghast was a child, it lost thousands of teeth, cried over the death of dozens of parents, and lost half-a-dozen limbs to accidents.

There is a famous ghast named Blackchapel, who is named for the town he devoured.  He is a mad thing, who haunts the necropolis he made, forever struggling to resume the lives that he ended.

And there is the Ghoul Worm, whose directed growth has taken a route that is very different from most ghasts.  He devoured the same death cult that he once led.  They still live in his belly, a groaning monstrosity that worships itself from its manifold viscera.  He is as cruel as any killer, and as wise as any sage.

The flush of knowledge is strongest after the meal.  There are stories of a ghast eating a child, only to come sniffing around the dead child's house, calling for its mother in perfect imitation.  It is not a ruse, though, and the ghast genuinely believes itself to be that child.  The dead live again in the ghast, and if that same ghast saw its mother, it would embrace her and kiss her and devour her alive.

And that is why you should never open your door if you hear your dead child weeping outside.

The liver is where flesh is converted to memory.  If the liver is extracted, it can be turned into a tincture called ghrism.  If drank, it confers the same ability to the drinker.  If it is drank, and part a corpse is consumed, the dead will live for a while in your body.  You will be supplanted, and then you will co-exist, and then the dead will fade until only a shade exists, a figment.  There may be times when you remember someone else's mother as your own, or feel surges of someone else's racism.

from Far Cry Primal
Using Ghasts in Your Game

Ghrism is obviously very gameable.  It's effectively a potion of speak with dead with more flavor, more drawbacks, and possibly more power.  It also turns a ghast nest into a valuable resource.  (And I love it when my players hunt monsters for their parts.)

It's also an opportunity for character development and roleplaying opportunities.  Your character is a little more interesting when pieces of the 2000-year-old princess mummy keep surfacing, perhaps.

I'd actually like to write a GLOG class based on a person who has eaten too many memories, to the point of forgetting their original identity, amid a swarm of transplanted memories.  (It might be as simple as rolling a randomly generated class every session.)

Do you need stats for a ghast?  Fine.

HD 4+  AC leather  Claw 1d10 + excruciation
Move human  Climb spider  Int 10

Excruciation -- If the target fails a Save, they are afflicted by excruciation.  If they choose to spend their turn writhing in pain, they take no damage.  If they choose to act normally, they take 1d6 damage.  At the beginning of each turn after the first, excruciation has a 2-in-6 chance of dissipating.

Conversion -- As a free action, a ghast can choose whether to be alive, dead, or undead (with all the usual implications).

A ghasts liver can be harvested for a single dose of ghrism.  With access to a full alchemical laboratory and some successful skill checks, you can harvest as much as 2d4 doses of ghrism.

If you need a bigger ghast, just give it more HD and attacks.  Excruciation is just a bigger version of Agony (1d4 damage, 3-in-6 chance of ending), which regular ghouls have, and is better than paralyzation.

Bigger ghasts can also be exotic ghasts with unique abilities.  Some ideas: burrowing, barbed yoshi tongues, fear auras, regeneration, poisonous exhalations, blasphemy (blocks divine magic).  If they can cast spells (especially etherealness) let's just go ahead and call them a geist.


  1. Very evocative! Well done. All monsters should offer story possibilities beyond their stats.

  2. Good post! Speak with dead is always a fun spell, doubly so if cannibalism is involved. I particularly like the idea that the liver filters out memories - like memories are some sort of toxin, filtered out along with the alcohol and drugs.

    Makes me want to play around with the idea - take an immunological approach to memories instead. Have it stored in the lymph, brought about by certain infections. Maybe ghasts would have enormous lymph nodes to hold all those memories.

  3. Ghoulishly evocative, as ever. Mayhaps someone has been reading Gene Wolfe of late?

  4. Good stuff. Strong vibes of Brian Mcnaughton's The Throne of Bones stories.

  5. I like the implications of ghrism especially! It reminds me of M.R. James's "Lost Hearts". This whole post, though, is suffused with THE FLAVOR!

  6. Check it

    1. or rather:

  7. Absolutely terrifying, those ghasts...