Monday, November 11, 2019


Bad Golems

At their most boring, a golem is a big stone dude that punches you to death.  You will note that this is not very different from earth elementals, and the in many games, the two are sadly indistinguishable.

In D&D, golems have a couple of wrinkles.  First, they may go insane and try to kill you.  Since you will usually be meeting golems in combat, the party may never even notice.

Golems also have different interactions with spells, like clay golems getting tossed around by move earth in some editions, healed by acid, etc.  These vary depending on the type of golem, and are sort of like the different resistances of oozes--the party just has to learn them.  This type of stuff is fun.

Subtype Dilution

D&D has a tendency to take an evocative monster and then create spin-offs until all the magic is gone.  Even if you like the green acid dragons, you might not like the brass dragons, and you probably don't like the shitty little guard drakes.  It dilutes the brand.

Part of it is a need to create different CR versions of a monster in a game with a long power curve, part of it is just a failure of creativity.

The same thing has happened to golems, with the different material golems.  Even scarecrows and Frankenstein's monster have been squeezed onto the same shelf.

So, let's fix that.  The original conception of the golem was a uniquely Jewish myth, probably the most clearly Jewish mechanism in the machine of D&D (moreso than phylacteries, I would argue).  Have you familiarized yourself with the original golem of Prague?

Miloslav Dvorak, Le Golem et Rabbi Loew près de Prague
Fixing the Golem

Golems are not made by wizards.  Golems are clerical productions, created when one of the secret names of the Authority is written on clay.  (They are not inherently clerical, but most of the secret names are in the hands of the Church.)

This recreates (and honors) the creation of mankind from the primal clay.

Each golem has a glyph written on its body, a set of instructions in a grid surrounding the secret name, which cannot be read while the golem lives.

Golems are as intelligent as a human, but their minds are limited by the confines of their glyph.  They are unable to conceive of a broad interpretation of their instructions, and will instead interpret their duties according to the narrowest possible interpretation.

A golem that has been told to "prevent anyone from entering this room" (and nothing else) will stop caring about people that successfully run into the room.  After all, it has no instructions about what to do with unauthorized people that enter the room.  They will still fight in self-defense, though.

All golems will rest on Sundays.  Forcing a golem to work on a Sunday risks madness.

All golems are made from clay, and filled with an inner fire.  (Suggesting that other cultures might have golems of their own is only mildly heretical--who knows what the benthic demons of the merfolk are capable of?  But whatever it is, it isn't a golem, even if it seems similar.)

Clay Golem
Level 7  Def chain  Fist 2d6+grab
Move slow  Int 10  Str 20  Mor 10

Immunities - Bludgeoning weapons deal normal damage, while other types of weapons deal 1 point of damage.  Immune to magic except for magic which specifically affects stone (which always has a maximized effect against the golem, and never allows a save).

Grab - On a hit, target must make a Strength check (-4 penalty) or be grabbed.  If they are still grabbed on the clay golem's subsequent turn, roll a d4. 

1 - The golem squeezes, automatically dealing 2d6 damage to you, and possibly crushing your skull.  If you die or fall unconscious, it drops you.
2 - The golem throws you at someone else.  On a hit, you both take 2d6 damage.  On a miss, only you.
3 - The golem crushes your weapon and breaks your wrist (gain the injury).  If you are not holding a weapon, roll 1d2 instead.
4 - The golem crushes your armor.  You take 1d6 damage, and your armor value is reduced by 1d4 points.  If you do not have any armor worth crushing, roll 1d2 instead.

Inner Fire - Visible fire burns behind the golem's eyes and mouth.  Throwing a bucket of water on it deals 1d6 damage, and submersion deals 3d6 damage each round.

Glyph - The golem's glyph is usually hidden.  If the glyph is destroyed, the golem instantly dies.  If the text is altered, the golem's directives can be overwritten or corrupted.  Attacking the glyph (once its location is known) is as difficult as attacking plate.  Golems are smart enough to know when their glyph is being targeted, and will take steps to protect their weak spot.

The location of the glyph can be observed in combat--a character in melee range can take an action to look.  They'll observe two locations with a successful Wis check, but only one location with a failed one.

Alternatively, you could just watch the golem as it walks around.

It is simple to recover the secret name from a dead golem.  You can even make your own golem--all you need is a decent sculptor and a full command of the heavenly tongue.

Locations of the Glyph
  1. Left Palm - visible when the golem attempts a grab.
  2. Right Palm - visible when the golem attempts a grab.
  3. Sole of the Left Foot - visible when the golem ascends a ladder, or walks through mud.
  4. Sole of the Right Foot - visible when the golem ascends a ladder, or walks through mud.
  5. Inside of the Left Thigh - visible when the golem jogs past you on the left.
  6. Inside of the Right Thigh - visible when the golem jogs past you on the right.
  7. Left Armpit - visible when the golem raises its left arm (e.g. throwing).
  8. Right Armpit - visible when the golem raises its right arm (e.g. throwing).
  9. Behind the Left Ear - visible when you are behind the golem.
  10. Behind the Right Ear - visible when you are behind the golem.
  11. Inside of the Mouth - visible when the golem takes water damage.
  12. Navel - visible whenever anyone cuts off the golem's belt.

As a straight-up fight, a golem should be a bigger challenge than a giant.

However, a golem has a plethora of weaknesses that can be exploited.  The inner fire should prompt most parties to ask, "what happens if we extinguish the fire?"

This is nice, because then the expectation matches the reality.  You don't have to teach the players anything before they can start scheming.

The glyph also gives a smart party of level 0s a way to defeat a much tougher enemy.

The different follow-ups for a grabbed enemy keep the golem feeling diverse, without loading it down with a bunch of abilities.

And lastly, I envision the golem as the type of enemy that players will come across early in their careers.  It's the boss of level 1 or 2, and as such, it's important that the players have an easy time escaping, hence the slow Movement speed.

Golems are puzzle-monsters, and like all good puzzles, they can be brute forced (if you brought enough sledgehammers).


  1. This is great! Up there with Skerples Basilisk and Stone Guardian in the Great Monster Design category!

  2. It's nice to see a golem more faithful to Jewish mythology.

  3. "D&D has a tendency to take an evocative monster and then create spin-offs until all the magic is gone. " True, absolutely true.

    1. OMG yes. That one quote could spin into a short dissertation.

  4. Excellent entry. If you are interested in golems and magic, I strongly recommend reading Iron Council - . one of the main character is a "golemologist", and he carries the art very, very far indeed.

    1. Can you elaborate? Anything that moves golems away from "magical robots" or "earth elementals that wizards make from different metals" is sweet, sweet water for my parched lips.

    2. The golem maker in that book is mostly just making inanimate materials come alive. No secret names, tongues, glyphs, etc. The character does go for unusual materials including (spoilo) time, but it is much closer to magic puppets than Jewish myth.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Aw, you tease about being true to Jewish influences and then you make it a Sunday golem?

    To that list I'd add all the cleric spells that are just the miracles of the prophets and patriarchs: sticks to snakes, part water, invisibility to animals etc.

    1. Shit, you're right. I'm going to leave it, though, since Sabbath=Sunday for most readers.

  6. i love your design philosophy here - relatively simple monster with a couple tables to give it some depth and make it not boring on repeat fights, while still being able to learn from fighting it and not having a bunch of mostly-identical permutations. great stuff!

  7. Subtype dilution is totally a thing. Well spotted! Pretty hard to avoid, though, especially in large, long-lived systems like PF or 5e.

    Also, it's not /quite/ inevitable. There aren't a lot of spinoffs of the otyugh, for instance. It's such a specific niche (tentacled garbage monster) that it's kinda hard to do.

    Doug M.

    1. I think the trick to avoiding subtype dilution is to think outside the Monster Manual (i.e. situational stuff).

      If you're looking at a goblin's statblock and thinking "how do I spice this up", you're going to start inventing fire goblins and mind flayer goblins. If you look at a halfway written adventure and think "how do I spice up the goblin encounters", you're going to come up with goblin balloonists and goblins-hiding-in-the-walls.

      Well, less popular monsters are going to have fewer published variants, but one minute of googling has still yielded gulguthras, gulguthrydras, neo-otyughs, and five more variations from that include the soothsayer otyugh.