Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Scraps of Undeath

Ghouls and Paralysis

Ghoul paralysis sucks.  Don't use it.  Remember, the first precept is to give players interesting choices.  Paralysis fails this simple test.

I've been trying to find a good replacement for ghoul paralysis, all built around the idea of giving a player a more interesting choice.  My first attempt was Agony, but people didn't like it much.


Each turn a player can choose to writhe in agony, or act normally.

If they choose to writhe in agony, they take no damage, and take no actions.

If they choose to act normally, they take 1d6 non-lethal damage.  This damage is reduced by 1 point for every round that has passed, so Agony would only deal 1d6-2 (min 0) damage on the third round.

from the 3rd Edition Monster Manual

Each turn, a horrified character can choose to accept the horror, or to deny the horror.

If they deny the horror, they lose their turn, and the horror die decreases 1 size.  They spend their time mumbling "no no no" and trembling.

If they accept the horror, they take 1d6 non-lethal damage.  If they take 6+ non-lethal damage from this, they gain 1 Trauma. 

So, a character who spends 1 round denying the horror and then accepts the horror on the next round would only take 1d4 damage.  1d6 becomes 1d4 becomes 1d2 becomes 0.  Big things can use a larger horror die, of course, but the default is a d6.


A character who is terrified gets -4 to their Defense and their Save.  This penalty ends once they are safe from whatever terrified them.  If their HP drops below 0 while they are terrified, they gain 1 Trauma.

In combat, this usually means running out of the room and hyperventilating briefly in the hallway. 

A player can also choose to risk staying in combat.  After all, they might be terrified of the corpse shark, but still manage to destroy it with their next attack.  And of course, the best path to safety might be a interesting question in itself.



The lungs of all living creatures within 50' are filled with water.  They will need to make Con checks after 3 rounds (18 seconds of high-exertion combat) in order to stay conscious.  If you can breathe water, feel free to ignore this effect.

This introduces a new defeat condition into combat.  Players can choose for themselves how long they want to risk staying in combat. 

To utilize the mechanic to the fullest, the arena cannot be something that can be exited at a moments notice.  Give them a grapple-happy enemy, or require a Movement check to exit the room.


Can only be seen by characters who are blind, or who possess at least 1 Madness.

All non-magical damage is reduced to 1, unless dealt by a character who is at death's door (0 HP).  Can only be permanently killed by a character at death's door.


Half of all the damage that they deal is cursed damage, and does not heal normally.  You can remove the curse by visiting a church, or by appeasing the mummy.

Appeasing the mummy involves sacrificing one of the mummy's enemies at the local altar and begging for forgiveness.  The enemy can be a tomb robber, a particular ethnicity, or the mummy across the hallway.  (And if you are going to put mummies in your dungeon, they need at least this level of context.  Mummies have history.)

Horde Dead

Undead combo packs.  Must be created from a specific relationship.

So, in my last post, I talked about how undead are created by inviting demons into a corpse.  Those are lesser undead.

Greater undead are created by imprisoning people inside their corpses, and dominating their ego through trauma.

Candle Family

Made from killing a woman's children, rending them into tallow before her eyes, and using them to make a candle.  1d6+1 wicks emerge from her neck and shoulders, one for each bound soul.

Candle Mom
Lvl Claw 1d6+ignite

As bright as a torch BUT creates darkness around itself for 20'.  The only thing its light illuminates is itself.)  Usually travels with 1d6 skeletal children (HD 1) who are hidden inside her enveloping darkness.

The Lover and The Beloved

Made by removing all of the teeth from a pair of lovers, and forcing them to swallow the other's teeth.  Only then are they killed, both pierced by the same black iron spear.  The necromancer must then keep their hearts on their belt.

HD Claws 1d12

Any damage that the Beloved would take is instead redirected to the Lover.

If the Beloved is ever separated from the Lover, it rots into heavy dust.

HD HP 50  Caress 1d6 cold

Damage that is redirected to the Lover appears as grievous wounds.

If the Lover is ever separated from the Beloved, it flies into a rage, gains a bite attack that does 1d20 damage, and drops to 1 HP.


  1. I might adapt something similar to the "writhing in agony" mechanism to stun weapons in my cyberpunkish campaign. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I remember when you first described the agony mechanic in a prior post and I thought it was a good idea. Why didn't your players like it?

    1. Too complex, and they were used to ghouls = paralysis.

  3. Very interesting - http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/ has a related issue (Post title "Incentives Matter"). My players are about to enter a Maze with a lot of Ghouls in it and I am trying to decide if paralysis is the default effect or should I have a lot of different effects of their attacks. Also one of the PC has a magic weapon that causes paralysis on a failed save so that has created some interesting options for the players and me as a DM so I think situationally paralysis effects can create interesting options for role play.

    1. Depending on how you run combat, you can reduce the effect to maintain the feeling and bring new choices.

      Using 5e as an example, you could make paralysis remove the character's movement and bonus action on their turn. They only get a single standard action. Then on top of that, allow them to use that single action to try a save to remove paralysis for future turns.

      The character will have a lot of options, but the limits reduce their effectiveness.

    2. @Malcalus. That's a good post. I think the usual OSR mindset is dying = a good, painful consequence for bad play.

      Paralysis is a mini-death, sure, but it's not always a consequence of bad play. Sometimes you just lose initiative and get nibbled by a ghoul.

      To be fair, I *do* include save-or-die monsters in my games, but they always come with lots of warnings and chances to retreat. If you want to treat ghouls similarly, where players know what they're getting into, I'll retract a lot of my objections.

      @Tyler, re paralysis reducing characters to a single action: Loss of effectiveness doesn't necessarily mean that they're getting interesting choices, though. The fighter will still stay in melee, the wizard will still cast their best spell (unless they need to retreat). So reducing them to a single action might the combat more difficult without making it more interesting.

      I mean, it's a little interesting. There *might* be some interesting moments that come out of that type of mechanic. But consider the opportunity cost: is there a better paralysis mechanic you can use instead?

    3. @Arnold, Yeah, my example of paralysis isn't a great one. Just spitballing to get going. Here's a deeper look. Focusing on incentives is a good place to start.

      With abilities like paralysis, they're 100% negative. That creates an obvious incentive:
      Players avoid suffering the effect in any way they can.

      What this means for using ghouls with paralysis is that what goes on around the ghouls matters more than the ghouls themselves. Why would the players risk engaging them? Would the players find that the risk is worth the reward? If so, then feeling paralyzed and then acquiring the reward will work out fine, generally. Create an interesting environment for ghouls to exist in.

      Now, if we want a different feeling then we have to create a different incentive. What if the incentive is that getting hit is okay, but they do not to get hit by ghouls too many times in one fight? We would want a different ability, and perhaps to setup interesting fight situations.

      Let's change paralysis to "blood frenzy" or something like that. The ghoul bites you on a hit, and you save vs going into a frenzy. When frenzied, you drop your weapons and go into a primal attack mode. You have to attack each round and you get a damage bonus. You also track how many times you've been bitten. Each bite makes it harder to save against bites, but also gives you more of a damage boost. At the end of each of your turns, you may choose whether to try to save to remove the frenzy effect.

      This changes the incentive quite a bit. It's good for games where players want to get into fights. It changes how a fight goes. And it opens up the door for other mechanics to manipulate further.

      Perhaps there are necromancers, or a necromancer, who controls the ghouls. They have a spell they can cast in combat to try to take control of any character under the blood frenzy, but the save is easy to make at first. It's only after suffering multiple hits from blood frenzy that they are likely to get taken over by the necromancer.

      Now you've got a lot of weird risk-reward concepts to take into account when fighting ghouls + necromancers.

      TLDR: Decide whether you want your players to avoid fights with the ghouls. If so, focus on the situation around the ghouls and leave their ability alone. If not, change their ability to create new interactions during combat.

  4. Wow I LOVE the horror mechanic. I really hate effects like hold person, paralysis, etc, bc they basically just take someone out of combat right away and ruin their fun. This is a great way to create incentives to be smart about combat but not have players taken out of combat because of one roll, plus it's way cooler to tell Mr players they're overwhelmed with horror and have to choose to fight it off and suffer or give in to it to save themselves.