Dungeons & Delvers: Golems

In 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, golems are broadly described as "magically created automatons of great power", which are animated by a spirit from the Elemental Plane of Earth.

I've never been able to figure out which spirit is required, and the game kind of cops out by saying that, "The nature of this spirit is unknown, and has so far eluded the grasp of all researchers."

I've seen other RPGs use a similar line, and I gotta say it just sounds like an excuse, like the author couldn't think up a good enough reason so just declared that, whelp, no one knows.

It also tries to, in my opinion also fairly weakly, rationalize the golem's immunity to most spells due to the elemental spirit not being a natural part of the body.

I can't think of any other monster that operates this way, where if a spirit possesses or inhabits a body or object that the host or vessel becomes suddenly immune to most forms of magic, but if you can think of any I'd love to hear about them.

Oddly, while 2nd and 3rd Edition outline the necessary spells to create a golem, there's no mention of summoning or binding this elemental spirit, whatever it may be.

In 2nd Edition golems only required a large expenditure of gold (and in most cases 1-6 months of time carving/constructing it), while 3rd Edition also required thousands of XP. Each golem had a level requirement, but a golem manual would circumvent that (and also foot the XP bill in 3rd Edition).

5th Edition makes the golem manual mandatory, a single use item that is destroyed on use which seems...odd. Like, how do you make one? Why would you make one instead of just making the golem? This is inline with magic scrolls, which are also destroyed on use, but it still feels very, I dunno, game-y? As if it's only there to uphold some sort of game balance.

In any edition golems are mostly pretty stupid, but also strong, tough, loyal, and fearless. Often used as guardians because they didn't need anything and never aged. They used to require magic weapons with a minimum plus bonus, though 3rd Edition made it so that you could hurt one with a non-magical weapon, just so long as you could deal more than 20-30 damage with a single attack (or use an adamantine weapon).

Otherwise they'd pretty much just try to pulverize you, sometimes using the odd magical ability like hasting themselves, casting slow on you, or breathing poisonous gas. In a few golem myths they could turn invisible or speak with the dead, so maybe that's what was going on with those but I can't be sure. Some had a random chance to go berserk, causing them to attack whatever was nearby, and this I'm sure is based on golem myths.

Okay, so with all that in mind: in Dungeons & Delvers golems are still generally slow and stupid, but strong and tough.

As I said before, at least one golem legend had it being able to turn invisible (though I think it needed some sort of amulet), and another being able to summon the spirits of the dead (or at least speak with them), and since there's really no underlying theme with that I think it's fine for golems to be given access to magical abilities, as the creator desires. These abilities would be limited to Domains the creators knows, however.

Creating a golem requires a body made from inanimate matter. The exact type doesn't matter, it just needs to be solid enough to maintain its shape and for you to inscribe specific words, symbols or runes. These vary from deity to deity, and it's possible that a deity could have multiple combinations: you might need to come up with a unique one, kind of like a fingerprint, but it's possible that a god might only be able to animate a certain number of golems at a time.

Alternatively, an object can be inscribed with these words or symbols before it is inserted into the golem, such as a strip of paper or the heart of a beast, though the material still needs to be solid enough to contain this object. In any case, this means a water golem won't do (though ice could work).

The material determines the golem's base AC and DR, as well as potential damage resistances, vulnerabilities, and immunities. For an obvious example stone is harder than wood, so its base AC and DR would be higher, and wood would also have fire vulnerability. But using Domain abilities could reinforce the golem and grant resistances (so a cleric with the Fire Domain could offset a vulnerability, and a Protection Domain cleric could make them tougher than usual).

It's up to the creator how elaborate they want the golem's appearance to be, but newly awakened golems will initially believe themselves to be of the same race as their creator, and their appearance can cause an identity crisis if it deviates too wildly (which can in turn cause it to go berserk). Of course with time and emotional support some golems learn to cope, but if you want to err on the side of caution (or at least make your life easier) it's best to make them look as normal as possible.

Awakening the golem requires the use of a divine ritual, though clerics can rapidly speed up the process by expending Favor. The larger the golem and the more durable it is, the more time and/or Favor is required.

The only other cost is for materials, some ritual components, and paying someone to craft the golem if you want an elaborate design (and are unable to do so yourself). Once awakened the golem remains so until destroyed or it is deactivated in some way, typically by erasing an inscribed character or removing an inscribed item from it.

Unlike, say, animated objects, golems have conscious minds, albeit simple ones that put them on par mentally and emotionally with children. They can mature and develop skills over time, but golems tend to live short lives so it's not known the extent of their capabilities in these regards.

At first golems are very curious, questioning pretty much everything, and are eager to please their creator (and be encouraged and praised). But if mistreated they can eventually become uncooperative, even hostile. What's worse is that even seemingly innocuous or trivial incidents can upset or enrage them.

This typically results in the golem being deactivated or destroyed. Deactivated golems recall their memories if reactivated again, though deactivation is similar to a dreamless sleep and can calm them if left dormant for a sufficient period of time (but not if it is constantly used as just a tool or abused: it will remember that upon reactivation and act accordingly). But in many cases the materials are just recycled into a new golem, effectively killing the original golem.

(Though, as a possible adventure hook, perhaps a golem made from the remains of another golem begins to recall the other's memories?)

Now, at any point a golem can attempt to resist its creator's commands. They won't at first: it's only after they are repeatedly given tasks that they find unfulfilling, begin to feel unappreciated (or even resented), or not being able to pursue activities it finds enjoyable. If left active at night they can begin to feel lonely if there is no one to talk to, alien because they don't sleep or eat, terrified once it realizes it lacks a soul: these can lead to emotional distress and cause the golem to rebel.

Resisting a command requires a successful Wisdom save: the DC is equal to the creator's opposed Charisma check. Depending on how a command is issued, this check can benefit from the creator's Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate skill. Initially this can make it difficult for a golem to disobey its creator, but over time the golem gains an increasing bonus to do so.

Prolonged deactivation can reduce this bonus, as can talking with the golem, trying to figure out what's wrong, helping it find it's place in life, attempting to comfort it once it realizes that eventually it will be destroyed and that, for it, there is nothing but oblivion awaiting.

It is these risks that make it difficult to continuously maintain a golem, which if roleplayed properly will likely prevent players from taking the Awaken Golem talent and just cranking them out willy-nilly. I think this is a better approach to maintaining "game balance" then burning XP or making it a difficult to find, one-use item.

In a Norse legend the giants made something like a golem using the heart of a mare, and in another Jewish priests made a golem that was flesh and blood just so they could eat it. That made me think that, there could be a talent that builds on Awaken Golem that can make a flesh and blood golem that is essentially indistinguishable from a living creature, but also gave me an idea where priests, templar, paladins and the like could be made into a golem.

You would use their heart, brain, and blood, transferring their consciousness to the golem's body. This would effectively make them immortal, and that's where you could have golems defending a religious site for decades or even centuries. Possibly even after an apocalyptic event killed everything else, they could still be there protecting it. Of course I could also see this being done to pretty much anyone, forcing people into a golem's body, maybe as punishment or as a necessity.

The Kickstarter for Dungeons & Delvers: Red Book is up and running!

You can now get a physical copy of Dungeons & Delvers: Black Book in whatever format you want! We've also released the first big supplement for it, Appendix D, so pick that up if you want more of everything.

The first issue of The Delver, a magazine featuring fungal-themed content for both players and GMs (including an adventure in which myconids find religion), is available!

Our latest Dungeon World class, The Ranger, is now available.

Dwarven Vault is our sixth 10+ Treasures volume. If you're interested in thirty dwarven magic items (including an eye that lets you shoot lasers) and nearly a dozen new bits of dungeon gear, check it out!

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).


  1. For flesh and blood golems, you've always got the precedent of Frankenstein's monster.

    I don't think I've ever seen it done, but I think it'd be interesting to see a system where necromancy was just building/creating golems from flesh and blood. I've always felt like there's a lot of cross over, but haven't seen it treated the same that I remember. Why can't a skeleton just be a bone golem or a zombie a flesh golem?

    The only difference tends to be the nature and origin of the spirit inhabiting it, but I've seen stone and iron golems (and you even mention the possibility) inhabited by the spirits of the deceased (or even living), as well as skeletons that are little more than magical automata with no real spirit or will of their own. So perhaps the difference between necromancy and golemancy should be the origin/nature of its spirit/operation, rather than its material.

    1. @Svafa,

      “For flesh and blood golems, you've always got the precedent of Frankenstein's monster.”

      Yeah, it’s partly why I backpedaled on my initial reaction (also why D&D flesh golems have fear of fire). I don’t think Frankenstein’s monster is technically a golem though, as there’s no divine prayer or ritual in action, it’s just like he somehow revived it using electricity, but if you’re using dead flesh I think a golem would still work.

      “I don't think I've ever seen it done, but I think it'd be interesting to see a system where necromancy was just building/creating golems from flesh and blood. I've always felt like there's a lot of cross over, but haven't seen it treated the same that I remember. Why can't a skeleton just be a bone golem or a zombie a flesh golem?”

      A skeleton can be made into a golem, as can a corpse, but you wouldn’t call your typical skeleton or zombie a golem because they almost always lack free will and self-awareness. They’re also usually created through different means (the Death Domain would grant access to a divine version of Animate Dead).

      I mean you COULD call a skeleton or zombie a golem, and people might not know the difference at first, but a skeleton or zombie doesn’t care what it’s doing, doesn’t have the capacity to know what caring even is, and will always do precisely what you say without hesitation at all.

      I’m thinking that one other possible restriction is that you must hand-craft a golem. Like you can’t just grab a random skeleton or corpse and use Awaken Golem on it. Taking the time and care to do it yourself leaves an emotional impression, instills it with purpose, like a god carefully, deliberately forming mankind out of dust or clay.

      Not to say I’m trying to find a way to circumvent what you’re saying, just something I thought of because while reading and responding I was reminded of The Cat Returns.

      “The only difference tends to be the nature and origin of the spirit inhabiting it…”

      I mostly agree, just that the key difference is that method and magic used: golems are awakened via divine miracles, undead stuff is sheer willpower (and has a Sustain cost). The former would require no further investment, at the expense of time and money to make it, time to care and tend to it, and the risk (and inevitability) that you’ll need to destroy it.

      I do think that with clever thinking, rituals, special materials, etc a wizard could make something that is very similar, possibly indistinguishable from a golem in may respects though, it just would ultimately not be technically a golem. I should point out that you can make a homunculus via Alchemy, but they’re always quite small, linked to you in some way, and there’s virtually no chance it will betray you.


Powered by Blogger.