Monday, April 1, 2024

G Monsters at the Opera (Part 2)

A B C D Demon Dragon E F G1 G2 G3 H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Credit: Le Pape Formose et Étienne VI ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VI") by Jean-Paul Laurens

Why do you let me do all the talking? Comment below your favorite D&D monster and tell me why. We're here for the long haul, so you may as well have your say. Good gravy just look how many words I've spilled just in this post alone.


This might sound weird but ghouls are another one of my favorite monsters. How could that be? It's such a generic, nonspecific word, right? A vampire is a thing. You can ask a normie what a vampire is and they'll give you a pretty detailed answer. But if you ask "what is a ghoul?" then what would they think? It's about as specific a word as "fiend." You may as well say "boogeyman."


Ghouls are totally a thing. Maybe not as culturally cemented as a vampire or unicorn or dragon or whatever, but slowly and steadily they've accumulated a general set of traits that I find really compelling to work with. It usually revolves around eating, maybe specifically eating flesh or eating the dead, but can go in all sorts of directions. Today, I present to you a list of some of my favorite ghouls in fiction (and nonfiction!)

Credit: Zdzisław Beksiński

1. The OG (original ghul). The word comes from the Arabic ghul, a monster from Arabian folklore. Maybe a type of demon, maybe a djinn. They live in deserts and caves and cemeteries and other desolate places and shape-shift, luring people into isolation to eat them. Its most commonly associated form is the hyena. They can assume the form of the last person they ate, meaning they could conceivably dig up a grave and eat the body just to assume the identity of someone already dead.

Is that not already fucking cool? Like, that's some delicious mythology right there. I told y'all Middle Eastern fantasy knows how to bring the goods. Somewhere in the multiverse, there's an alternate timeline where Universal Studios and Hammer Horror included the ghoul in their classic lineup of movie monsters instead of the mummy and it got way more traction, like on par with the wolfman or maybe even Dracula. And in the 90's and 00's there'd have been a horny revival of media deconstructing the ghoul genre and it would become a YA phenomenon and goth fashion would involve a lot more keffiyehs.

2. Lovecraft. I think this is the second-most notable iteration of the monster, but it's also one of the strangest. "Ghouls" are a sentient humanoid species that inhabit the Dreamlands, a parallel Earth that is basically the same but with monsters, and which can be accessed by dreams or tunnels (?). Lovecraft describes these bizarre aliens as having canine faces and communicating through a weird "meeping" language. They do eat corpses, but they aren't really hostile. They have some mysterious relationship to humans, whether they’re spirits inhabiting dead humans, humans with a genetic mutation, a creature with a shared ancestor to humans, an evolution of humans, an interbreeding of humans and an eldritch horror, etc.

I think what makes this one special is actually a bit subtle. Somewhere along the line, the word "ghoul" has come to just refer to either 1) gravediggers and graverobbers (and anyone who is metaphorically committing a similar act, like those who profit from the dead), or 2) anyone with a fascination with the macabre (typically used as a derogatory term by those who consider such interests to be unhealthy). In either case, it's a word people use to refer to a vague social status, and doesn't indicate a true monstrous affliction like vampirism or lycanthropy, right? But Lovecraft said, "no, fuck that, they're a straight up alien creature" and ran with it. No metaphors or vagueness here. We're talking about a gross and mysterious supernatural species from another planet.

3. Hellboy. This one is the direct, polar opposite of the previous. Probably my all-time favorite Hellboy story is called “The Ghoul, or, Reflections On Death and The Poetry of Worms.” It's only eleven pages but it's extremely dense. 

On the one hand, his ghoul is definitely a "monster." Hellboy punches him and his face becomes contorted and grows fangs. Allegedly he's been alive for a century or two. He's a type of creature that belongs to a known, identified category which Hellboy is familiar with.

And yet... he just kind of seems like a guy. By day, "Mister Stokes" lives a normal, respectable life. Wears a suit, owns a home, works a job, has a wife who has no idea he's a ghoul. A bit of a werewolf-like secret identity dynamic, a "monster living among us in plain sight" thing. But even when he engages in his monstrosity, he's still extremely human about it. He goes to graveyards, digs up corpses with a shovel, and then dines on them just like you would any other meal. He brings a suitcase full of tools with him. Crowbar for prying open coffins, saws for cutting cadavers into manageable pieces, scissors for something I can't quite intuit, and a full set of cutlery for the meal. In a way, he could just be a regular human who's extremely careful and calculated about his horrible dietary habits.

The other thing that's unique about this ghoul is that he can only speak in poetry. And God does that just complete the whole thing. The story is inspired by that line in Hamlet about how there's no difference between kings and beggars once they're dead, as maggots make meals of us all. And just like the maggots, by eating the dead he becomes the great equalizer. He's self righteous about it.

Except he also recites heartfelt love poems in reference to his actions, invoking acts of romance as a description of him eating the dead. "Now let soft Juliet in the gaping tomb print the last kiss on her true Romeo's lips." There's this vague angle of necrophilia that's so fucking gross and creepy. 

4. The Graveyard Book. Ben would of course insist that I include this one, as it may be his favorite. If you're unfamiliar, Neil Gaiman once wrote a YA novel that takes Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and reimagines it in the land of the dead. Bagheera the panther is replaced with a vampire, Baloo the bear is replaced with a werewolf, Shere Khan the tiger is replaced with a necromancer, etc.

Well the best characters in The Jungle Book, the Bandar-Log (the monkeys), are replaced with ghouls ghouls ghouls. Every graveyard has a "ghoul-gate" from which they come, and they all live in the city of Ghûlheim in Hell. Like monkeys, they are small and mischievous and self-indulgent. They're all named after famous people who's bodies they've eaten, like the Duke of Westminster and Victor Hugo.

5. Raw. This is a 2016 horror film by French filmmaker Julia Ducournau. It's about cannibalism. But not, like, consensual ritual cannibalism. As in, "uncontrollable urge to consume flesh at all costs" cannibalism. It's really fucking gross and disturbing. It's also kind of a coming of age film? But I can't imagine watching it and somehow feeling sentimental. It's too observational, too voyeuristic. You're quietly invited to spectate a normal person slowly transforming into a monster for as long as you can stomach it. "Morbid curiosity" is the primary fuel for a lot of transgressive horror and crime media, but I don't know if I've ever seen a work explore that impulse more thoroughly. Both the protagonist and the audience spends the whole movie saying to themselves "no no it's utterly unthinkable! ...And yet..." You can't help but be drawn in. To, y'know, people eating fingers and stuff.

Don't watch this movie if you're queasy. I am not kidding about how gross it is.

6. Tarrare. If you have a stomach for any of what I've talked about so far, please please read this Wikipedia article. Start from the beginning, read through to the end, don't skip around. It's fucking nuts.

Curious if you noticed this: I'm pretty sure that every single example I've given of a ghoul is also not properly "undead." At least, not in the sense of being a once-living person who has died and since come back. It speaks to a general issue I've often had with how fantasy fiction defines these things, and the limits they impose on interesting possibilities.

A different, unrelated ghoul in Hellboy


The only monster in the manual that I think makes a fitting rival for dragons. They're that good. The mighty giant is counted among the few nearly-universal monsters found across human cultures. It’s such a simple idea, almost like the opposite of the convoluted dragon. And yet it’s so powerful. Something about it is just... fundamental.

I've always been disappointed with D&D's version. They're just another monster. They don't even get legendary stat blocks. Can you believe that? In 5E they introduced a whole new set of mechanics to specifically designate a monster as a big deal, a boss fight, something that can solo a whole party of heroes. There are legendary beholders, legendary liches, legendary dragons. But not a fucking giant?

In most mythologies where giants are mentioned, they're on equal footing with the gods themselves. You can shape rivers and canyons? Well I can undo them. If you're not willing to make them full-on titans, then they at least deserve the same treatment that dragons get, right? Just as old, just as powerful, just as serious.

In D&D, they get elemental-themed subtypes, instead. Join the club. It works better here than with most other things. "Frost giant" immediately clicks. But it feels totally unnecessary. It's a fucking giant. Does that not speak for itself?

Ben says that it's better to have elemental themes for each nation of giants. It's a small distinction, but a good one. The giants of the fire lands, the giants of the frozen north, the giants of the cloud kingdoms, etc. A little more to work with, there.

Credit: NC Wyeth

Something I've spent a lot of time contemplating is the psychology of the giant. There are a lot of ideas we connect them to. Another trope that shows up in nearly all mythologies is an agreement that giants are ancient. They've been around since the first days. Maybe the oldest ruins of fallen civilizations were constructed by giants, like Stonehenge or those megaliths in Malta or all that famous Cyclopean architecture. Or maybe the giants are predecessors to the gods, their fathers and grandfathers. Or maybe the world itself is just the corpse of a giant. But for whatever reason, we all just implicitly know that giants represent time and history and all that's come to pass. And yet... clearly they no longer hold much power. After all, we don't seem to see them anymore, do we?

Another important thing to remind ourselves is that giants are really just the first monster that all of us encounter in life: grown-ups. How does that relate? Well, I think of these things as being quite similar. When I think of the monstrosity of grown-ups, of my elders, and of societies grown old and fallen into ruin, I think of one common sin: conservativism.

The stubborn, delusional, myopic worldview that inflates one's ego to the point of self-destruction. I envision all giants as bitter and angry and cynical. The lonely giant is sad and confused and resentful. Kingdoms of giants are paranoid and conspiratorial and aggressive. They begrudge the rise of the mortal races and wish to reclaim their past glory. They feel their power slipping, and in their desperation to hold on, they might do something extreme. Many years ago I read an article in The Atlantic called "Flat-Earthers Have a Wild New Theory About Forests." It wasn't just about their insane theory, though. It probed the psychological archetype at the heart of this delusion, the role of these primeval giants and what that reveals about the people who believe this.

If you don't want to read it then I can summarize: the idea put forth by these flat-earthers is that real trees are all dead and gone, long ago having gone extinct. The trees we have now are tiny imitations of the “true” once-mighty trees that dotted the landscape in ancient times, before the world went to shit. How do we know? Mountains. Seriously. Mountains, specifically flat-topped plateaus, are just petrified tree stumps. And whenever it was that someone or something cut down all these colossal trees, it was a rape of the Earth. I’m not making this up.

To me, the most important line in this article is this:

“This world was once alive, everything was once beautifully connected, but not any more. This earth has been dead for millennia; what we think of as progress is just the rot spreading through the cadaver of the world.”

That's how I imagine giants see the world. It's not a correct perception, but that doesn't matter. Just think about how you would feel if that's what you believed about the world around you. Now think about how much destruction you can cause at that size.

Credit: Goya

Gibbering Mouther

Pure, undiluted, platonic body horror. The one that Cronenberg could never achieve with the limitations of practical effects. This is what we play RPGs for.

Question: has anyone out there mixed some recordings of a couple dozen overlapping voices? Not like an audience murmuring. It's gotta be, like, individual voices blathering their fears and anxieties and angers. I don't use audio props very often but this seems like a fitting occasion.


Well, thanks to a certain critically-acclaimed video game that came out within the last year, gith are forever going to be as common knowledge as elves and dwarves are. That... sure is a weird feeling. I don't think I'll ever quite get used to that. Is this how it felt for nerds when all the normies learned about orcs from Peter Jackson?

I've never been a huge fan of gith, neither of the yanki nor the zerai varieties. They're just... kind of generic science fantasy, if such a thing can exist. They're more like something out of a decent episode of Star Trek or a bad episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than something out of Lord of the Rings.

Trying to place them alongside the elf, dwarf, and halfling just doesn't work to me. Those races are so popular, so plastic, because there's something pure and simple about them on a conceptual level. Whereas a lot of humanoid species created by fantasy writers tend to just feel like a combination of anthropological traits, the D&D mainstays have always managed to feel more like true ideas. Primal and persistent and recognizable in any form. Gith, on the other hand, have always seemed to me like they were plucked straight from a specific individual nerd's personal worldbuilding project. Like you can tell that they belonged to a much greater tapestry of accompanying lore, but the context is now missing and so a lot of the power behind the idea is lost in translation.

Turns out (surprise!) that's almost exactly right? Gith came from a 1979 issue of White Dwarf, specifically the "Fiend Factory" column where readers would submit their own D&D homebrew hoping to get it featured in the magazine. I'm sure teenage Charles Stross had a really epic home campaign brimming with his own high fantasy histories and societies and conflicts, and the gith were like the coolest race ever in that setting. But that doesn't mean you can just jam them into my nice French vanilla-flavored D&D and expect them to fit seamlessly.

Lastly, I don't know if anyone reading this series so far has placed any stock into my commentary on visuals, but I am compelled to say: I am deeply disturbed and upset by the yassification of this once-respectable design. The never-ending effort to make monsters more fuckable has left a scar on our society that I worry may never heal. Please give me back the freakish skull-faced planar mummy of sword and sorcery.

I don't know this character's name, but if you're one of the many who've probably jerked off to her then I hope you feel ashamed.


Credit: Steve Prescott

Order, order, order! KatO court is in full effect. Judge Dwiz presiding in the case of gnolls versus the worldbuilding police. First, let's hear from the defense.
The gnoll is an original founding member of an esteemed brotherhood of monstrous humanoid races in D&D. Alongside the venerable goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, and orc, the gnoll has long-inhabited the dungeons of D&D campaigns the world over. They've established themselves as a bona fide classic part of fantasy fiction. To modify or replace their lore would be sacrilege of the highest order.
Hmmm yes yes. What says the prosecution in response?
Would it be? Like, is the gnoll's lore really any good? Let's be honest, it's always been pretty empty. Let's review all those juicy worldbuilding details that TSR and WotC have given us over the years:
  1. They're hyena dudes. Classic furry design, but with hyenas instead of cats or wolves or whatever.
  2. They're aggressive carnivorous hunters, living in nomadic tribes led by chieftains.
  3. They have a strength-based social order, where the larger bully the smaller.
  4. They don't work, they don't make technology, they aren't industrious, they aren't creative. They just hunt and eat. They cannot be bribed or reasoned with. The only thing they're into is combat.
  5. They enslave some of their victims instead of eating them. I think the slaves do work of some kind? But also, they get eaten eventually.
  6. They worship demons.

Tell me, is any of that particularly original or interesting? They just might be the single most stereotypical "bad guy race" of all time. Every tired and offensive trope about a "savage" culture thrown together, but without any sauce to at least give it some flavor. None of their Monster Manual descriptions even mention laughter a single time! Hyenas are supposed to laugh and yet D&D doesn't use that somehow??

Does the defense have a rebuttal to this?

That's unfair! Gnolls also sometimes keep hyenas as pets!

Instant summary judgment, guilty on all charges of hack worldbuilding. Straight to jail.

Credit: Richard Whitters

Okay okay so in all fairness, gnolls have occasionally gotten a little sauce. I went through their descriptions in each Monster Manual from editions 0 through 5. I was able to extract the following details that stood out to me as potentially interesting.

Second edition: "If encountered as a group, there must be a relative equality of strength. Otherwise the gnolls will kill and eat their partners (hunger comes before friendship or fear) or be killed and eaten by them." See? That's a little better than just "the strong bully the weak."

Third edition: "A gnoll is a nocturnal carnivore, preferring intelligent creatures for food because they scream more." That's so fucked up. I love it. Their entry also says that they revere the phases of the moon... but they don't really have clerics or religion. Not enough there, plus it feels a little more wolf-like than hyena-like anyway. Workshop it.

Fourth edition: They decorate their armor and encampments with the bones of their victims. They wear patchwork armor and weapons stolen from victims. I guess the latter part is actually probably implied by their total lack of work or creativity, but it makes for a neat image. The former is just one small, small piece of color that can help you flesh out the scenery... but really isn't enough to save the gnoll.

Fifth edition: Fuckit, they just are demons. This was the extremely controversial change that inspired the whole comedy bit above, but I personally believe it's a huge improvement. Look, guys, the furry races suck. No shade to my furry homies. But D&D just isn't making it work. There are so, so many animal-humanoid races in D&D at this point and they're always the lamest ones. Totally devoid of any interesting details, just a generic "humanoid... but with a rabbit head." Even when they're given some cultural flavor, it's always one of those stock template fantasy cultures. They don't make 'em like the Giff anymore.

The gnoll was never an exception to this. Trying to make them believable as a culture or society was always a stretch, and becomes increasingly problematic the more the text leans into their "totally evil savagery" thing. So why not just say fuckit and make them into straight-up demons? Literally the foot soldiers of Hell, let loose on the material plane to cause havoc and drink blood and desecrate holy places.

Funnily enough, that just sounds like the classic "beast men" race from Warhammer and its derivatives. It's actually kind of shocking that D&D has never stolen those before. Lumping together goat-men, bull-men, boar-men, bat-men, etc. together into one horde of hungry demon butchers is both clearly way better than a generic "hyena-folk" race and is a better use for all those other generic furry races, too.

Ben thinks that's going too far. He considers the hyena to be an exceptional enough animal that it shouldn't be merely lumped in with others. It truly deserves its own attention, being far more evocative than the common goat or wolf or, I dunno, horse or whatever. Need we bring up the laugh again? They fucking laugh, you guys. But to bring it full circle, I'll remind you that the original Arabian ghul is specifically associated with the hyena. Maybe that's where we should start when it comes to fixing the gnoll.



  1. Traditional Arabic ghuls are a lot of fun. I once ran a Halloween one-shot where the idea was that one of the party members was eaten by a ghul and replaced before the session began, and I told each player privately whether or not they were the ghul. The ghul had to sabotage things for everyone else while the rest of the party tried to figure out who it was - yes, this was around when Among Us was taking off. Sadly, it didn't really work out in practice, but it was a fun idea. Dave Morris also has a very cool and creepy ghul-centric adventure over on the Fabled Lands blog:

    As far as giants go, it always bothered me that DND doesn't really have anything resembling the traditional giants of fairy tales. Like, what are the giants from Jack and the Beanstalk supposed to be? They're too smart to be hill giants. They don't live underground like stone giants. They don't use enough magic to be cloud giants. Personally, I just run hill giants as being more giant country bumpkins than giant cavemen, but it seems like a rather glaring omission.

    1. See I would say that maybe ogres fill that role except D&D also makes ogres into dumb hungry cavemen, indistinguishable from hill giants.


  2. I want to like gnolls, to make them useful and interesting monsters, but I fail every time. I tweak them, buttress their background, give sense and reason beyond boring hungry hyena horrors. By the time I get there, the monster at my table can't be traced back to the source in my notes. The current version are those cursed with lycanthropy, humans on the fringes of society who have taken this corrupt power and embraced it, permanently changed into a stronger, coarser form which permits them revenge on the bullies and others who've knocked them down their entire lives. A brutish and unthoughtful urge for revenge leaves them, well, brutish and unthoughtful, forever trapped by the power which granted their shallow desire without follow-through. They exist in a human-beast form, the beast being their "spirit animal" in whichever way makes sense to them, so most lean to coyote or crocodile because of the nature of the campaign's ecosystem. (Though there's a half-squid individual out there. I mentioned it on a whim; thus, they exist.)

    All of that, of course, is silly window-dressing, because I just need a monster which sometimes admits to remorse. Most of these neo-gnolls are vicious and stupid and aggressive, but they needn't be. The curse which seemed a gift for vengeance truly becomes a curse, the yoke of youthful indiscretion forever a barrier to an ordinary life. Except, of course, this is fantasy and anything is possible. I'm also not particularly good at using goblins, kobolds, or orcs as the Monster Manual would suggest. (Enthusiastic trash upcyclers; seafaring folk nimble in rigging; plainsriders and keen distillers of rare herbs.) They're all just more -fun- this way. My table still has a four year old reference to an orcish word that's both a delicious beverage and the term for hangover, depending on the intonation used: rising for the drink; descending for the effect.

    As for giants: my preference leans heavily to either Fezzik as portrayed by Andre the Giant or goddamn moving mountains. Any ground in between is just boring, and boring is the -worst- kind of monster.

  3. I performed a total makeover of gnolls in my home game. I've always been a big fan of "monsters as taboo". Think the story of the Lambton Worm; some kid doesn't go to church, and that creates the worm monster he fishes up on the sabbath, that one day will need to be slain. I add a similar backstory to a lot of classic monsters in my games: Centaurs are warmongers that have fused with the steed that carried them to battle, Bullywugs are children that valued pranks and bullying more than growing up, Gelatinous Cubes are the condensed bad vibes of a room where crimes were hidden away, etc.
    Gnolls are mutated tools that have only ever been used by slaves and slavers. They're seen as a pollutant but aren't common enough for every kingdom to outlaw the practice. Once your whips, scythes, and what-have-you start growing little fuzzy legs and a snout that won't stop smiling, just dump the things into the wilderness and make it someone else's problem.
    These gnolls are still hyena-esque (they laugh, they're nocturnal, they're carnivorous, they have spots and stripes where hands once held them) but they are decidedly artificial looking. I always describe them as looking like a halfway point between a piñata and an eastern European pagan costume. All of their organs require conscious effort to work, hence the laziness, hence the kidnapping and enslaving. If they get enough slaves, those tools might end up being gnolls too.
    They also have the ability to swap and graft a person's organs with their own. Often they will demand to "trade" will travelers. You are forced to manually breathe at all times, and the gnoll gets to escape that same fate.

    1. Holy shit your worldbuilding is good. These are all excellent.

    2. Thank you very much! I've got a huge list of "Common Monsters and Their Origins" that I'm working on actually illustrating for my players.
      Though I must confess: the appearance for my gnolls is basically wholly lifted from your own post on bugbears.

  4. Last night I had a weird dream were for P monsters you covered the Phyrexians from Magic: The Gathering. Which is weird because despite WOTC printing a few MTG themed splatbooks, none of them mention the Phyrexians AFAIK.

  5. I'm running Caverns of Thracia for a mostly novice group, and I just rethemed the gnolls as beastmen-style orcs. When I held up a gnoll figurine, the 9yo daughter insisted that it looked like a lion, so we've got lion-headed orcs as well as pig-headed orcs and bear-headed orcs. (And they'll be of a similar ilk to the minotaurs too.)