Friday, November 1, 2019

Simply Ghouls (plus d50 human bones)

Reading Arnold K's post about undead scraps, I realised that this blog contains far too little of the undead, which I hold so dear because I find the blurring of the line between life and death a quintessential aspect of dark fantasy. It has a kind of Wunderkammer charm. I like skeletons, wights, mummies...you know, the undead. Ghouls.

In classical D&D bestiaries, ghouls are characterised by their paralytic claws. But like Arnold says, paralysis is in itself a bad design, at least in tabletop games, because it makes players have to not play the game, while the whole point of them being there is that they want to play the game. So ghouls should have a different kind of ability. If you want some mechanical alternatives that are more of a better kind of paralysis, then go back to Arnold. If you want some more divergent, narrative stuff, stay. And try the filet. And the soup, and the toast. They're delicious.

Art by Felix Vallotton

Ghouls are usually not feral monsters digging up freshly interred cadavers to eat. They're quite human, if somewhat gaunt-looking. To become ghouls they have traversed an ascent, or descent, a wandering through the culinary garden to find the most rare, the most deep and aged taste. Nothing but aged blue cheese, pungent and bitter sprouts and fermented, yeasted fruits. 

From a diet of only these inaccessible, to many nauseating, delicacies, their internal physiology has changed, a metamorphosis catalysed by the eating of human flesh. Ghouls are gourmets, with taste excessively refined and excessively dulled for all but the most outrageous and strong flavours. 

There are many molds and bacteria that descend upon a cadaver, and among them are those that when digested during cannibalism, transform the squalid hamlet of the human gut microbiome into a dark temple of the forbidden tastes, which in turn slowly alters its host. New chambers bud in the stomach, sancta and senates for the yeasts and microbes which crave the profane tastes, the impossible delights. As long as a ghoul stays alive and keeps eating things like the pineal gland filet of the ancient Pharaoh Ut-heppi in a vinegar dressing, their gastrointestinal system keeps mutating into more and more labyrinthine and surreal forms.

A lot of their tissue is technically dead, but replaced and invaded by the hyphae of the molds growing inside them. Gradually, more and more of a ghoul dies and decays, only their gastric organs always remain alive. They become an Escher-esque physics-transcending intestinal tract contained in a papery, mummified shell.
Art by Mike Mignola

This ghoul is...

1
Heavily perfumed to mask the stench of their innards.
2
Unnaturally broad-chested to accommodate new glands and stomach chambers.
3
Lipless and many teeth are replaced with ivory or metal substitutes. They wear a facemask to cover this, insisting on an ugly scar.
4
Slathered in oils and fatty substance to mask their decaying skin. Will melt off when close to heat.
5
No longer blinking and functionally blind, but able perceive their surroundings by smell, wearing an odd nose piece to accommodate this.
6
Always accompanied by at least one pudgy servant and constantly taking snacks from the supply the servant carries.
7
In a wheelchair, carrying seat, or using crutches to compensate for their decayed legs.
8
Only able to sparingly speak in hoarse whispers, or not at all, due to a rotted throat.
9
Unnaturally wide-mouthed, or displays a rather peculiar kind of dental structure.
10
In a late state of decay and in a chair or bed with curtains somewhere, Helena Markos style.

Art by Arash Radkia
Because of their supernatural guts, Ghouls are gifted with special powers that pertain to eating the dead. Foremost is one that all ghouls have to some extent: to obtain some memories of the dead by consuming their remains. However, more evolved ghouls may gain the ability to...

1
Commune with the spirit of the dead.
2
Know the fate of the dead's descendants.
3
Restore their own body by eating the dead.
4
Speak the languages the dead spoke, briefly or permanently.
5
Tranform their face into that of the dead.
6
Know the wherabouts of the rest of the dead's remains.

Ghoul innards are, for this reason, much sought after by alchemists. Besides being an exceptional catalyst for the process of nigredo or putrification, from the colonies of eldritch yeasts and bacteria in their intestines it is possible to create something called the Elixir Zeboim, which allows for the distillation of memories from the bodies of the dead.

Art by Francisco Goya
Ghouls want exotic and forbidden foods, this will always be their end goal. Desires like social power or wealth or knowledge will only ever serve to allow them to obtain more delicacies. They have no interest in politics, only ever entertaining them when necessary, but tend to be fervent scholars, especially of history. Every delicacy has an aged, rich backdrop and the more rare and difficult to obtain, of course, the more novel the ingredient.

They don't eat things raw either, or at least, they don't eat things without preparation. A bone makes a broth, an organ makes a paté, muscle makes a filet or a brochette, can be cured or smoked, roasted, marinated, can be boiled in dumplings, can be diced in a (rotting, yeasting and moldy) salad, and so on. Ghouls don't always have butlers or errand boys/girls, but they always have a kitchen staff, and a personal chef (if they aren't the chef themselves).

Ghouls indulge not only in cannibalism, but also in petty feuds with other ghouls.

If you enough connections to the shadowy world of the occult and the perverse to take a job from a ghoul, it might be that...

1
The ghoul is constantly under threat of assassination by agents of their jealous peer ghouls (said peers no doubt feel the same way). You are sent to hunt down these assassins, and of course, bring back the game.
2
An old friend of the ghoul has died, the papers say. They wish to pay them the final honour, as the ghoul is sure they would have wished.
3
The ghoul’s acquaintance has promised an extravagant delicacy at their upcoming ghoul party. The ghoul wants you to steal it, so that their rival will lose face and your employer will have it all for themselves.
4
The ghoul requires fungal samples from different locations, to enrich their corpse-rotting ‘vineyard’: a cellar with many fungal cultures and coffins with soil to, ahem, age the wine.
5
The ghoul will be hosting a party for its peers, which has to be perfect since all ghouls are very picky, but it requires intel on the latest culinary fashions of the other ghouls.
6
A very old and much disliked ghoul has died, and the ghoul you work for is adamant to obtain their corpse before the other ghouls do. The race is on!

Then how do ghouls become those filthy, feral beasts we know to stalk the cemeteries? Well, ghouls live on the edge of serious moral decay, and most of their body decays in the physical sense. Which means if they do not make sure to stay refined, they'll fall prey to the ORKUS.

As a final part of this already long post, here are some stock ghouls you might use:

Rose Lady Serrasalm is a painter draped in her characteristic salmon pink, and married to some enigmatic mister Plongé, a banker of whom there is so little evidence that some doubt he exists at all. They would be right, since her fabricated husband's income is how Serrasalm masks the true source of her luxury: trade in exotic black market goods. Behind her atelier rooms are hidden chambers full of occult paraphernalia, secret auction rooms, and a dining hall decorated with great seashells, whale vertebrae, and set with cutlery made from the bones of the Santa Cristina's crew, who killed and ate one another when stranded in the middle of the ocean. She is its sole survivor.

Dr. Cornelio Fumoso alledgedly has an awful skin disease that ages him prematurely, and it makes him look quite mummified. His legs can no longer carry him so he walks with crutches, and benefits from much help and compassion from his colleagues. The old and nearly cripple anthropology professor, however, is legendary among ghouls for having consumed a black temple in the desert sands brick by brick. Only a ghoul of great age and power could defy physics so much as to contain an entire temple complex in the warped space of their intestines. Curating a private collection of mummies himself, the professor has no short supply of 'cured meats' to enjoy.

Gao Yue (高月), styled Mengyin 孟阴, is a mysterious real estate owner, who never comes to collect his rents himself, but always sends a chatty servant to do the job who is an expert at avoiding the topic of mister Gao himself, making him a complete unknown to the people that live in his buildings save for his name. Gao is a hermit and doesn't leave his well hidden quarters, suffering great agoraphobia but possessing an excellent organisatory mind. One of the buildings he owns has been empty for years, and is claimed to be haunted, but in truth its cellars are used to store and ferment the 'ingredients' for mister Gao's meals. His given name (Yue) is only known by his cook, since mister Gao is paranoid about its incriminating ambiguity*.

Photographer uncertain, possibly Anders Beer Wilsen

Boneus Table: d50 human bones

Skull
Arms and Hands
Pelvis
Ear
1
Parietal
15
Humerus
29
Hip bone
42
Malleus
2
Occipital
16
Scapula
30
Sacrum
43
Incus
3
Temporal
17
Clavicle
31
Coccyx
44
Stapes
4
Frontal
18
Ulna
Legs and Feet
Vertebrae
5
Sphenoid
19
Radius
32
Femur
45
Cervical
6
Ethmoid
20
Scaphoid
33
Patella
46
Thoraccic
7
Nasal
21
Lunate
34
Tibia
47
Lumbar
8
Lachrymal
22
Triquetral
35
Fibula
Chest
9
Maxilla
23
Pisiform
36
Calcaneus
48
Sternum
10
Zygomatic
24
Trapezium
37
Talus
49
Ribs
11
Palatine
25
Capitate
38
Navicular
50
Hyoid
12
Nasal concha
26
Hamate
39
Cuneiforms
13
Vomer
27
Metacarpals
40
Cuboid
14
Mandible
28
Phalanges
41
Metatarsals

*月 is the radical for moon, but the one for "flesh" or "meat" is very similar, so for a ghoul, this name is a 'visual pun' of sorts.

2 comments:

  1. I really like the ever-evolving ghoul gut, positioned between life and death.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post! I love the the three stock ghouls - definitely going to slot them into my low-magic piratecrawl.

    ReplyDelete