How to Play an Allip like a Hungry Ghost
“My secrets are yours…” the creature rasped, its incorporeal body a mass of writhing black tendrils, like a shredded cloak whirling in an unseen gale.
“I like secrets,” Jester said, a note of uncertainty in her characteristically cheery voice.
“Yeah, secrets make friends!” Beau added, trying to smile as blood dripped down her forehead.
The specter snarled and glided slowly in their direction, the air growing cold as it approached. Sourceless whispers filled the room, hissing wordlessly into the heroes’ ears.
“Give him something!” Nott said. “Information. News. Something!”
Jester turned to the spirit, a smile on her face. “I have a secret for you! Did you know…” She paused for effect. Nott winced. Beau stifled a laugh. Molly rolled his eyes and looked askance—everyone knew what was coming. “That in Nicodranas, the pastries are made with cinnamon.”
“Oh boy,” Nott sighed.
“And here, they’re not!” Jester finished, beaming.
Matt Mercer laughed and shook his head. “There’s a brief moment…where the entity’s head, much like a young puppy confused by a rattling sound in the distance, [turns] in Jester’s direction. […] Uh, nope. You know what? I’m gonna get the battle map.”
The specter that appeared before the Mighty Nein in that moment was an allip, a spirit tormented by forbidden knowledge. This new creature appears in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and can make any dungeon a little bit eerier. Its lore is specific and disturbing, and its focus on the consequences of learning What Must Not Be Learned can add a dash of cosmic horror to your D&D game. Even if you aren’t into Cthulhu Mythos-y stuff, it’s another excellent undead to use as a lich's servant, especially if that lich’s name starts with V and ends with Ecna.
What is a Hungry Ghost?
Allips are the spirits of creatures that were torn apart by their hunt for powerful secrets. In most cases, this forbidden knowledge was protected by a terrible curse created by a creature of near-godlike power, such as a demon lord or an archfey. Just as the truth of this secret drove the poor creature mad, the curse struck it dead—and its spirit was locked in eternal torment, longing to gain new secrets while reviling the wretched state it was reduced to.
This may not have been the designers’ intention, but the allip of D&D lore bears striking similarities to the hungry ghosts of Buddhist and Chinese folk tradition. As a crass oversimplification of real-world mythology, hungry ghosts are the spirits of people who have committed a grave transgression in life. As a punishment for their mortal crime, they live on as a deformed spirit that longs to consume a certain substance—sometimes benign, such as simple food, but often repulsive, like feces or human flesh. Sometimes, like Tantalus in the Greek underworld, these spirits are tormented by being unable to consume that which they desire, either because it turns to fire in their mouths, or because their necks are pinched so tight that they cannot swallow.
The allip is a spirit that has been torn apart by its quest for knowledge beyond mortal ken, and its ironic punishment is to exist in eternal pain, seeking new secrets to dull the agony of unlife. Beyond this simple similarity, a cunning Dungeon Master could study some of the folkloric traditions surrounding the hungry ghost as a way to create unique and flavorful game sessions that build up an allip as a terrifying foe. As all good storytellers know, true horror comes from suspense, not shock or surprise. As Alfred Hitchcock, the true master of suspense, said, “You [must] provide the audience with a certain amount of information, and leave the rest of it to their own imagination.”
In this instance, an allip is a creature of temptation, luring others down its path of forbidden knowledge. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes tells us “An allip might attempt to share its lore to escape its curse and enter the afterlife…by guiding another creature to write down what it knows. […] If the allip succeeds, it passes from the world—and its terrible secret hides somewhere in the scholar’s text, waiting to be discovered by its next victim.” How can you subtly allude to this temptation, creating suspense without giving away the game?
Creating Suspense through Tradition and Ritual
Fantasy and folklore share one important thing in common: they are concerned with the beliefs and behaviors of the past. Fantasy simply gives real power to those rituals and stories. This power is magnified in the realm of ghost stories, perhaps because we know that the dead can still affect the world of the living, either as spirits or as the memories they leave behind.
To the modern mind, festivals and rituals are the perfect vehicle for creating suspense. They are familiar in structure, but foreign in content. They are purposeful in action, but unscientific in reason. Most importantly, they are made up entirely of incomplete information, founded upon belief and dogma instead of observable facts. We hesitate to believe that, for instance, “burning fake money…known as hell money,” ritualistically preparing a sumptuous meal, or performing Chinese opera could appease the famished spirits of the dead… but what if it could?
What could befall us if we failed to present a freshly scribed scroll of arcane knowledge upon the family altar on the Day of Lost Souls, when spirits wash through the village? What of the stories that tell of scholars going mad, raving about spirits whispering horrible secrets in their ears at all hours of the day, tormenting them until they are driven to personally end their suffering?
Rituals of the Allip
Content Warning: Brief Suicide Mention
What rituals can you use to create enough suspense to get your players to buy into your ghost story? As Hitchcock said, the trick is to give your audience just enough information to make their imaginations go wild, and not an iota more. Here are a few tantalizing bits of information to give to your players about a spirit as haunting as an allip:
- How locals fend off the spirit. (“On the fourth day of every month, all of the scholars of the Enlightened Enclave scribe a spell scroll and burn it with incense to appease the starving spirit.”)
- One person who was killed by the spirit, but introduce doubt. Was it really supernatural? (“Liang Zi went mad this quarter. He spent every night studying frantically to pass his exams. He skipped every night out, every festival. Even the fourth day. He started babbling about whispers in his ear, and just last night… he took his own life.”)
- One person who survived the spirit, preferably an untrustworthy character. (“Jun Yamazaki, a foreigner scholar, says he saw the spirit. A wispy black cloud, like a tattered cloak. It spoke in a voice from hell. He raised a scroll and burned it before him, and the creature sucked in the smoke—and then it vanished!”)
- The signs of the spirit. Knowing that something is coming but being powerless to stop its arrival is terror incarnate. (“It comes first with the chilling of the air… then the whispering on the wind, growing louder every second. I saw shadows dancing in the corners of my vision. Then I heard its voice—a single rasping voice amid a chorus of whispers.”)
In Combat: Whispers of Madness
Allips are neutral evil creatures. They are mad, but they still abide by some of the laws that they knew in life. They act methodically, if not mechanically, and try to lure other creatures into the same fate that destroyed them so that they may finally be free. There are hints of The Ring’s cursed video tape in this story. However, the allip’s combat traits have little to do with its ability to lure the curious into a terrible fate. Instead, its combat abilities focus on sewing chaos and madness among crowds, using its foul whispers to incite panic and paranoia in its hunters.
An Allip’s Traits
Comparable to a wraith, an allip is a CR 5 creature focused primarily on mass offense. With fewer hit points than a wraith but more immunities, better saving throws, and better area-of-effect damage, an allip is best served by attacking in a place where it can easily retreat—so that it can never be targeted directly.
Defenses. An allip’s hit points and Armor Class are both abysmal for its challenge rating. A fighter with a +1 greatsword could kill this creature in a single turn of melee combat, with a little bit of luck. Fortunately, its generous damage resistances and immunities make magical combat against it challenging, and its 40-foot flying speed help it avoid getting into deadly melee situations in the first place.
Incorporeal Movement. An allip’s most underrated defensive ability is its incorporeal movement. In the right setting, such as a library with countless bookshelves, an ancient labyrinth with 5-foot thick stone walls, or any setting with limited sight-lines and dozens of solid obstacles, an allip is virtually untouchable. It can phase through walls, use Whispers of Madness to cause utter chaos, and then phase back to safety.
Attacks. An allip’s Maddening Touch attack is a fairly standard melee spell attack. Nothing special, but decent if the characters have positioned themselves well against Whispers of Madness.
Whispers of Madness. This trait is what makes an allip terrifying. Three creatures of the allip’s choice must make a saving throw or take damage and make a melee attack another creature of the allip’s choice as a reaction. This has the potential for monstrous damage, and has the side benefit of squandering the characters’ reactions, letting the allip move about without fear of provoking opportunity attacks.
Howling Babble. Dealing damage and potentially stunning all creatures within a 30 foot area is a devastating ability, and it having a 1-in-6 chance of recharging every turn only makes it better. This ability shines when the allip has backup (such as in the form of will-o’-wisps in the case of Critical Role), since stunned creatures are easy prey.
An Allip’s Tactics
An allip never wants to be the center of attention. It wants to spread confusion and paranoia, causing friends to turn against one another and a party to tear itself apart from the inside out. An allip could even appear as a vengeful neutral party in a clash between two opposing forces. Imagine a group of characters fighting orcs near an ancient mountain library, only to suddenly find that the orcs have begun infighting… and then discovering that their own allies have start attacking each other, too!
A simple tactical loop for an allip could be:
- Start combat from behind a wall, and try to gain a surprise round by phasing through the wall behind the party. Use your +6 bonus to Dexterity (Stealth) checks!
- Use Howling Babble. If at least half the party is stunned or you got a surprise round, float into the air out of melee range. If not, retreat behind cover.
- Use Maddening Touch to attack a stunned character, if possible. Always try to end your turn behind total cover by using your Incorporeal Movement.
- Use Whispers of Madness to deal damage whenever the characters aren’t stunned.
Having Fun Playing an Allip
The first rule of horror is to always be sure that your audience wants to be horrified. If not, you’re just being mean.
After that’s settled, think about what you like most about playing a mad spirit. Is it the crazed whispering? Is it the desire to use roleplaying to lure the characters into writing down your forbidden knowledge? Or maybe you just like those cool combat abilities. Once you’ve identified what you like most in this monster, play it up! Lean into your favorite parts, and your players will feel the same exhilaration that you are. The excitement will become contagious, and people will have fun, even if they’re a little spooked.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his yowling spirits, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.