Welcome to the first in a hopefully long series of monthly articles where I create a monster. There are a lot of articles online that talk about creating monsters, and there are a lot of custom monsters posted online, but I feel like there’s a lack of articles that talk through the process of actually creating monsters. I’m not just talking about mechanics either.
When I’m learning how to create something new, I find it very helpful to see how other people do it. It’s not just enough to tell me what they did. Following their logic can reveal why something was designed or done the way it is. That’s something that systems don’t usually concern themselves with teaching. They assume you know how to have ideas, which I guess is true, but I still think there is value in seeing how people come up with these ideas. Additionally, this will be a great exercise for me to practice creating new monsters. While some of these are ones I’ve created and used before, I’m going to reach a point where I have to create new material.
One thing that’s not in scope for these articles is going over the system’s actual creation procedures. I’ll touch on guidelines when they’re topical, but I’m not going to walk through each step. And even though it could be argued that the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have very well written guidelines, I’m not going to try to clarify them. I’d suggest reading the series of articles on monster building that The Angry GM wrote. He touches on what’s wrong in the second article. The short of it is that the procedure gets the steps basically backwards. I agree and find it much easier to start from a concept and then figure out the mechanics than to do it the other way. It would be like trying to pick a class without knowing what you wanted to do.
Genesis of a Wilt Ghoul
A wilt ghoul is a type of abberation. It’s intelligence, sneaky, and it likes to make things bleed. The name is misnomer, but let’s start from the beginning.
The wilt ghoul has its origins in a Pathfinder campaign I ran a couple of years ago. It was an exploration-focused game that ended up being less about exploration and more about chasing down one plot threat my players had latched onto. During the second session, while they were traveling back to town, I rolled a random encounter with a griffon. Instead of having it attack the party, I decided to mess with them instead. It landed at night and started rooting through their packs. They saw it and chased it away. This happened a couple of more times. You might be wondering: what does this have with wilt ghouls? This is how it all got started. I had been listening to a lot of Ghost at the time, and I had “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” on my mind. There’s a part of the refrain that goes “You are cast out of the heavens to the ground / Blackened feathers falling down”. From that line, I got the idea the griffon was trying to find something to cure its sick mate. Eventually, a couple of sessions later, the players’ characters tracked the griffon back to its mate’s nest and saw the black feathers. When asked what disease had caused this, the party’s wizard replied that it was a disease called ‘black wilting’.
This is the part of the process that I feel like people don’t get to see. Ideas can come from all sorts of places. In this case, it was a random ear worm that lead to the introduction of a disease and related threats to my campaign. Dealing with this disease ended up being the primary plot thread for the rest of the campaign. But I digress. I still haven’t explained how wilt ghouls got introduced.
In XP Systems #2, I discussed a system for handling experience rewards. That Pathfinder campaign was when I first introduced individual goals to my game. In one of the sessions shortly after leveling up his character, one of my players decided one of his individual goals was going to be to cast lesser restoration on someone to heal them. I had a list of threats and their related bad stuff, so I told them of a rumor involving problems with farms outside of town. Admittedly, it’s not the most original of hooks. However, I hadn’t actually decided on what was causing it beyond the fact it was related to the black wilting.
When the party got out to the farm, they found it had been attacked. When they entered the farmhouse, they found everyone had been killed. There was one corpse that had graying skin and thinning black hair. The person was alive but ill. That was the perfect opportunity for my player to complete his goal, so he cast lesser restoration. Unfortunately, the spell had the opposite effect of what he was expecting. The ailing farmer didn’t get better. Instead, he grew claws and attacked the party. That creature is the wilt ghoul.
I should note at this point that I had absolutely no idea what a wilt ghoul could do. Fortunately, it was the end of the session. I ended it on a dramatic cliff-hanger, which allowed me to step back and work on what a wilt ghoul should do mechanically. For whatever reason, I wanted something with claws that enjoyed blood-letting. I had Bloodborne on my mind, though I think that was well after I had got the platinum trophy. I was also starting to lay some of the groundwork for allies and enemies. One of the players was playing an occultist who rambled about the Platinum Crystal like something straight out of Time Cube. I was watching Sailor Moon: Crystal at the time, so along with the Magical Child archetype in Pathfinder, I had my allies: magical girl crystal guardians who wore trenchcoats and fought with two-handed weapons.
Now, I’m sure that all sounds very silly. Time Cube? Sailor Moon? What the hell? That’s why I’m writing this article. It’s the random things that inspire. Plus, I was far more subtle about it during the campaign than I am here discussing it. The players didn’t start to make the connection until the very end, probably sometime between when they had recovered the second to last crystal and met its guarding and the climatic fight at the end when someone attacked a party they were attending that was supposed to showcase the final crystal as an art object that one of the party’s allies had found.
I never did introduce who created the black wilting. It was an arcane foe, most likely. The nasty thing about the black wilting is that it was actually a curse held in check by the disease. If you cured the disease, the subject would turn into a wilt ghoul. There was a plot thread concerning someone’s attempt to infiltrate town with people sick with black wilting that the party completely missed. That’s not to say they weren’t doing things, but their interests were elsewhere. While they were gone or doing other things, the world continued on without them.
About Wilt Ghouls
As I discussed above, wilt ghouls aren’t actually undead. They were named by party. I like that, because that reflects how things are often named in the real world. It’s like pill bugs. They’re not actually bugs. They’re a type of land crustacean. Score one for verisimilitude. Making wilt ghouls aberations was easy. It practically follows from the definition. Beyond that, I wanted the wilt ghoul to be slightly tougher than average humans. That’s why I decided to make it a CR 2 creature even though the party was around 4th or 5th level at the time. I like to build things that make sense in the world instead of just trying to balance them to provide an appropriate level of difficulty. It’s only a matter of time before I write “Encounters Considered Harmful”, but that’s for another day. Other than being slightly tougher, weirder humans; I wanted wilt ghouls to make things bleed and to be able to sneak about.
With all that, I set about actually creating the monster. Since this was a Pathfinder campaign, I created the monster using the simplified rules in Pathfinder Unchained and then fleshed out the details using the guideliens published in the Pathfinder Bestiary. However, this article isn’t about Pathfinder. When I created the wilt ghoul for D&D 5e, I followed the guidelines in the Monster Manual. Or rather, I tried to follow them. They weren’t very helpful, and the order was backwards.
I decided to keep the CR at 2 in D&D 5e. That told me about how much damage they should do as well as what their proficiency bonus should be as well as their other important combat stats. With that in mind, I tweaked their ability scores to make sure their attacks and damage were within the guidelines. I had to improvise the bleed effect. I understand that there’s a monster in the Monster Manual that also does a bleed effect, though I’m not sure I was aware of it at the time. I used the bleed condition from Pathfinder as a basis and tweaked it to work in D&D 5e, mostly by spelling out the effect in the ability’s description.
One of the things I like about D&D 5e compared to Pathfinder is the action economy is much more fluid. I can give creatures as many attacks as it makes sense narratively, and I don’t have to worry about whether it’s too powerful for them to be mobile and make some number of attacks. Everything is mobile by default in 5e, which is great. On top of that, the guidelines are designed such that I need only concern myself with the damage done by all of the monster’s effects. With its two attacks and bleed damage, the wilt ghoul falls at the lower end of the damage range for CR 2. Its hit points are lower, but it has the ambusher trait.
Description and Stat Block
I’m not going to duplicate the stat block information here, but I’ll include the description below along with a link to its homebrew entry on D&D Beyond. My approach to writing descriptions follows a simple format. I establish what the creatures look like, but I also touch on their place in the world and relationship to treasure. The latter is important because adventurers tend to be very interested in treasure.
Wilt ghouls come in as many shapes and sizes as humans, but they’re usually between five and just over six feet tall and weigh between one hundred and two hundred pounds. Wilt ghouls differ primarily from humans in having desaturated gray skin and hands ending in wickedly sharp claws that they use for letting blood.
Named by the adventurers who discovered them, wilt ghouls don’t actually have anything to do with ghouls. They are abominations created by arcane and possibly alien magic, humans twisted into vicious creatures that live to let blood. Wilt ghouls are commonly found in urban environments—places where there are plenty of humans as a source of stock as well as subjects to bleed.
Wilt ghouls are canny hunters, using their dexterity to sneak up on their prey and their wits to trap and ensnare it. They’re not particularly sadistic in their hunting, preferring to bleed their prey out quickly rather than make it suffer. Lest this be thought a kindness, their reasons are more utilitarian. After all, the quicker a victim bleeds out, the quicker one can move on to the next. Wilt ghouls typically hunt alone, but they are not adverse to working together if there is a reason to believe it will result in more bloodshed. Perhaps surprisingly, wilt ghouls tend not to fight amongst each other.
Wilt ghouls have little user for treasure. They sometimes wear the armor of their victims, but they prefer to use their claws rather than weapons to do their dirty work. Survivors of wilt ghoul attacks describe the wilt ghouls as taking an almost sacramental join in the work they do. Survivors, however, are very rare.
Check out the wilt ghoul on D&D Beyond.
For my next Monster of the Month, I’ll be talking a creature I created for my current campaign. It’s something I call an octosquid. I’m currently running Open Legend, so that one will go a bit more into the decisions I make when I convert it to D&D 5e, since I haven’t actually done the conversion yet. There are a few ways I can approach it. One of the things I want to do is recreate the feel of the fight the players’ characters had with it in this campaign while doing it in the 5e ruleset. I’m not quite sure how I’ll do it yet, but it should be interesting.