OSR: Ghouls of Illiam

Looks like I'm writing an underground hexcrawl now. Here are my ghouls. Some inspiration taken from here and here.
Weta Workshop

Major Features

-bent, twisted, eternally hungry humans
-wide lantern eyes
-sharpened, uneven teeth
-filthy clothing, ruined finery
-refinement and taste, backed by knife-edge hunger
Laurent Gapaillard

Lost Illiam

There was a siege. Illiam, the great kingdom, the City of the Sun, was surrounded. The siege took decades; in the Veins, energy is key. If you can afford to wait, you wait. The circle of steel crept tighter and tighter.

The defenders of Illiam turned to cannibalism to survive. Not shocking, in the Veins. But you can't eat your army, and you'll run out of civilians eventually. By the time Illiam's gates were shattered and its towers overrun, the city was already a ruin. The survivors were the nobility, their pets, and their soldiers. Everyone else had perished.

Illiam is a ruined city. Its artificial sun, a lighthouse-like beacon that once illuminated the miles-wide cavern metropolis, now flickers intermittently, like a lightning storm. Each flash reveals wrecked towers, water-filled streets, rubble-choked canals, torn banners, scraps of metal, and the ghouls.

They still rule Illiam. In their minds, it never fell. There were... setbacks, but the nobility of Illiam persevered. Their virtue, grace, martial prowess, shining weapons, and infinite wisdom carried the day. They still elect kings and hold royal dances and proudly dictate their whims to the rest of the world. They trade and bicker and marry and plot. Perhaps one palace in a hundred is inhabited, but Illiam was once a city of palaces; there's no shortage.
Tianhua Xu
The ghouls of Lost Illiam do not slouch. They stroll.They wear fine robes and eat on chipped crystal plates and imagine their halls are filled with music, servants, and the finest and rarest art. When the lighthouse flashes they turn aside, preferring not to look on the stained and befouled ruins around them.

Hunger makes a ghoul. Hunger can keep a body alive when biology fails. The soul runs the body, not the other way around. You don't need to eat people, but it helps; madness and hunger and a furious desire to live can keep an emaciated, shriveled, hollow-eyed, claw-fingered, crook-backed creature alive indefinitely.

There are significant downsides, leaving the madness and eternal hunger aside. Ghouls still need to eat. If they don't, they don't die, but they do fade slowly. Higher faculties are the first to go. Then language. Then rational thought. When even bestial raving is too tiring, the ghoul folds up and sits, waiting, listening, with just enough energy for one leap and slash. If it feels its strength ebbing further, it will slowly bury itself in rubble, water, or slime and leave one claw exposed.

The touch of a ghoul paralyzes flesh, drawing vitality out to replace the ghoul's eternal void.

3 Years 3 Months 3 Weeks 3 Days
Any Food Any Food 2 Ration 1 Rations

A paralytic ghoul can surge into feral rage with just a few bites of flesh. It takes 2 Rations to lurch from Feral to Rational, regaining speech and memories. A further ration will improve the ghoul's mind to close to its former level. They are still hungry, but for a time, their hunger can be ignored.

The decline is quick. 3 days without a ration and the highest and noblest arts fade. 3 Weeks without any food and the ghoul reverts to a feral state. 

An average-sized corpse contains 50 rations. A ghouls cannot eat another ghoul.
Project Wight

Encountering the Ghouls of Illiam

Step on a buried claw and drop like a rock. Hopefully your friends can help before the ghoul crawls out from the rubble and swallows a few scraps of flesh.

It's unfortunate, the Noble Ghouls will say. A tragic accident, like a bandit attack or wild dogs.

Illiam still has a society. It still has laws. The roads are kept clear. Trade is conducted. If you can look past the sunken, nose-less faces and the silent ghouls stacked by roadside shrines, the hunger, and the ruins, Illiam might even be a model of lawful virtue. Like a tiger behind glass.

If you're bold as brass and you know how to act like a noble, walk into the city. Perhaps obtain a seal or passage-banner first. The Ghouls of Illiam will lose everything but their sense of class and purpose. A noble with a fine retinue, bearing gifts, moving comfortably, will awaken a glimmer of deference in a starving ghoul. Even if they've lost everything else they might hesitate before attacking.


Thick, indistinct. They have their own language, but they learn from the devoured dead and all but the most fastidiously vain will speak your language. Their tongues are dry, their teeth are shattered, and their throats are greased with tallow and blood.

But they are still polite. The lower orders will bow. The soldiers will regale you with tales of hunting (though what they hunt is best not mentioned). Nobles will read poetry and tell jokes. You can be knighted. You can pay taxes and attend banquets. It's just like being on the surface if you close your eyes.

At war, they signal their troops using infrasonic drums. A heartbeat throb.

Stepan Alekseev

The Villages

Most are empty, save for a rare feral ghoul and a few buried wretches, waiting for a drop of blood or a cave centipede to touch their claws. A safe enough place to rest.

But some have been retaken. There are houses. Inside, chains, to keep the underfed members of the family from wandering away. There are farms. The Ghouls farm slime to farm fungi, and they feed it to anything that will eat it. Sonic pigs, vermin, debased slave-races. Reversed castles; the farms on the inside, the noble and court outside.

Ghoul barons keep crypts full of soldiers, waiting in the dark, starved into silence. In drops a corpse; out comes an army, ready and willing. Their pay is meat. A chaotic, feral raid, followed by a carefully planned assault.

There are mines and water wheels and towers. Some are still active, but the largest, the most impressive, are silent ruins. Monolithic reminders of Lost Illiam are everywhere.

So A Ghoul In Fur Robes Is Talking To You...

It has a name. Foreign, but pronounceable. The ghoul will smile and offer you water and a place to rest. If you are a witty conversationalist, it will appear to grow more cheerful and animated.

It will try and stay out of the light.

Anything to distract from the hunger. Trade. Rumours. Amusing stories. Anything.

Never, ever mention that you are speaking to a ghoul. Never ask it how it feels to feast on dead, rotten flesh, to crack bone and suck marrow, to crawl through tombs and catacombs. Never ask how it feels to breed slaves in the palaces and halls of its ancestor. Do not remind it what it is.

For the ghouls refuse to accept their fate. They abhor mirrors. To own one, or even to speak of one, is a terrible crime.

Maintain their delusion as best you can. As long as they believe society holds, it holds. The fiction is thin and brittle. Provoke them, and the Baron is likely to have "one of his fits" and slaughter his guests. Again.
Guido Kuip

The Houses of Illiam

Every ghoul belongs to a house, chained by feudal obligation or actual chains. Generate these normally. The ghouls belong to a feudal society, with all its warts and madness and casual violence. Their nobles are refined but not merciful. Their kings are elected and nearly powerless.

Trading with the Ghouls

1. Meat. They will buy it, 1gp per ration, or more if they're desperate or you're selling in bulk. Lost Illiam is the last stop for many slavers. The ghouls will buy what everyone else rejects.

They will never sell you meat, but they will offer it as a gift. Hospitality is important.

2. Gold. They trade in well-made gold coins. There are vast treasure-hoards buried in Lost Illiam. They are stamped with noble, imperious profiles.

3. Magic. Hunger prevents the ghouls from casting spells. There's no room left in their minds. They can't concentrate; they can focus long enough to read only if exceptionally well fed. If there's a problem that requires a magical solution, they need to contract outsiders.

4. Maps. There are secret tunnels from Lost Illiam that lead to the surface. Chains of villages and fortresses snake upward, emerging in crypts, catacombs, and vaults. The buried dead are smuggled down. Corpse-cart caravans moving down. Thin, eager ghouls moving up.

5. Power. The ghouls are not mercenaries, but they are willing to deploy significant military force if they can be sure of victory. Well fed, their commanders are as cunning as any on the surface; expect plots and counterplots.

6. Luxuries. The noble ghouls will trade for art, silk, gems. The warriors will trade for weapons and trophies. The wretches and peasants will trade for meat and memories; anything to distract them from their eternal hunger.

Cannot find the source. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing...

Plot Hooks

1. The PCs encounter a ghoul war-party. Feral scouts report back to a distant, intelligent commander. The PCs are not the raid's target, but if they are weak, they might be swept up in the advance. If they are strong, they might be recruited.

2. The PCs are hired to raid a ghoul castle and rescue the slaves inside. The ghouls are expert farmers by nessesity; some slaves may not want to leave. A life of protected, fungus-fed ease may be preferable to starvation and death in the Veins.

3. The PCs find a wrecked corpse-caravan. 3d10 corpses, wrapped tightly in waterproof skin. The ghouls will pay for their return.

4. Rumours of a buried hoard of magical artifacts draw the PCs to Lost Illiam. They must scout the palaces and compare their map to the ruins, all while avoiding suspicion.

Yohann Schepacz

Things the Ghouls Do Not Wish to Discuss

1. Some say that there was never a siege, never a battle. Illiam fell from within. But why? To forge a new society by burning the old?

2. The exact mechanics of maintaining their fungus-fed slave population. They find the entire idea distasteful. Gentlemen farmers are acceptable; the precise details of their practices are not. And yet, they are practiced.

3. Hunger. The ghouls never speak of eating. They eat, but they treat food with casual disdain unless driven to feral madness. Hunger is like a knife in their spine, twisting, distracting them. Do not remind them.

4. Is Lost Illiam collapsing or growing? Is their society rebuilding or degenerating? Is it somehow possible to do both at the same time? Was there ever an Illiam, a shining city with a lighthouse-sun?

5. Their art. The ghouls still have artists. Some are very talented. But their work is macabre, unsettling, and tainted by their eternal hunger. Admire, but do not analyze.

6. Defeat. The ghouls of Lost Illiam have never been defeated. There might be setbacks, incidental skirmishes, and mutual treaties. A few buildings might change hands. They can accept individual defeats, but never a cultural defeat.


  1. This is fantastic world-building! The picture you paint is so interesting!

    1. Thanks! Hopefully I'll compile it all into a hexcrawl at some point.

  2. Reminds me of what Age of sigmar did to the ghouls, A neat idea for ghouls as a society, not just a random monster.

  3. Seriously one of my all-time favourite factions.