Golems: Gobs of Magic and Material

Rules as written, golems generate uninspired foes. They are constructed creatures made from a natural resource such as clay, iron, or stone mixed with the key ingredient in many Dungeons & Dragons worlds: magic. Most golems are not sentient. They serve as glorified bodyguards or muscle at a scholarly establishment. Perhaps they are soldiers in the army of a mad mage. Maybe they’re abandoned creations of an ancient people. At their best, golems are mysterious constructs of material and magic that might be wielded by an interesting foe; mechanically, they are phenomenal! Sadly, at their worst, golems are simplistic metallic monsters for the party to fight; if that's what the party is searching for sometimes, then they're adequate enemies.

But we do not want adequate enemies because we're not adequate Dungeon Masters. 

Let’s remedy golems, first by exploring their history in D&D, then by defining how we can ensure they’re compelling foes to fight and interact with.

History of Golems in D&D

Golems have been present since D&D’s earliest incarnations.

Golems in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

I took awhile to pore over golems in my AD&D Monster Manual from 1977—and they’re interesting creatures. Initially, only four varieties existed in D&D (the core four have existed in almost every other edition, too): flesh, clay, stone, and iron. This old book details how one might create the golems, how they act, what actions they might take in combat, and which spells do and do not affect them.

To create any of the golems, it costs 1,000 gold pieces per hit point of the golem, an array of spells (like resurrection, polymorph any object, or wish), and a certain class prerequisite (like magic-user or cleric). Time is also of concern; construction takes one to three months.

The golems are first and foremost servants of their creator. They are able to perform simple tasks instructed by their master: guard this door, kill intruders, hold this pillar, or watch and listen, among others. Complex tasks are not understood by the golems. They cannot go on quests, deliver monologues, or spar with animals or trespassers in a more than one-dimensional interaction. Concisely, they are automatons. In AD&D, their uniqueness does not arise from how they act or what they do. Instead, it arises by how they’re made (see above) and how characters may interact with them.

In combat, clay golems and flesh golems both have a chance to break free from their master’s control. In the clay golem’s case, an evil spirit might wrestle control of it. The flesh golem, well, it might just go berserk. Both are 1%, cumulatively-stacking chances every round! The iron and stone golems do not possess any feature similar to this.

Each of the four golems has only a few ways it can be damaged in combat. Special, usually magical weapons, are a must. Most spells do not affect the golems—and some hinder or help them in unique ways! For example, let’s look at the flesh golem and then the mighty iron golem.

Normal weapons have no effect on a flesh golem; only magical weapons may slice through its stitched together body. Most spells also have no effect. The exceptions are fire or cold based spells (fireball, icestorm, etc) slow the golem by 50% for 2d6 rounds. Any lightning based attacks or spells (lightning bolt) restore life to the golem. That could lead to some deadly scenarios for lower level characters. Keep in mind, this is the weakest golem in AD&D.

Iron golem from the fifth edition Monster Manual.

Let’s look over the most powerful of the AD&D golems: the iron golem. This construct, usually bipedal, manlike, and wielding a sword, may only be harmed by magical weapons that are +3 or greater. Other weapons do zero damage. Fire spells and lightning spells are the only magical effects that affect the iron golem. All fire based spells repair damage dealt to the golem, while lightning spells slow the golem for three rounds. There’s also a note that iron golems are susceptible to rust monsters, which is lovely. They do have a glaring weakness!

I’ve only briefly played AD&D, so my opinion might be muddled here: golems seem like an ultra bore to fight against and run as the Dungeon Master in AD&D. Only certain weapons affect them, otherwise no damage is dealt. A select few spells harm them in interesting ways, yes, which might make the players and their characters feel clever, but everything else has no effect. Perhaps we can view golems as an evolution in game design from AD&D to the present: if the party went up against a golem back then without the proper equipment, they’d die or run away. There would be no way to outsmart it or outplay it if they weren’t prepared, they’d just lose the encounter (rules as written). Today, and in other editions besides AD&D, golems aren’t stone, clay, iron, or flesh walls that the party cannot bash down or outmaneuver; they’re beatable even if the group is unprepared. And, we as DMs might allow clever groups to take them down in exciting ways. I’m not sure where AD&D leaves space for that.

However, the golems’ method of creation is riveting, albeit senseless for our modern games. The book states the following components are required to build a stone golem:

"…[stone golems] are constructed by means of a magical tome or a magic-user of 16th or higher level employing the following spells: wish, polymorph any object, geas, and slow. The cost in materials is 1,000 gold pieces per hit point, and it requires 2 months construction time."

Quite the process. AD&D is an enthralling, complicated system.

Golems in 3.5e D&D

This edition doubles down on the mindlessness of golems, but does state that golems are powered by spirits from the Elemental Plane of Earth! Again, the 3.5e Monster Manual merely includes the core four varieties and explains their general mechanics and capabilities. All retain immunity to most magic and weaknesses or buffs from certain spells; they also keep their unique abilities. Clay golems can caste haste on themselves and iron golems can spew poisonous gas. So, while most is the same, there are a few gripping new passages. For example, the construction of a flesh golem requires a minimum of six different bodies and the terrifying greater stone golem is introduced. This mass of stone is said to weigh 32,000 pounds and stand 18 feet tall. Overall, there’s not much development of golems here—and with how they are described, why would there be? Perhaps 3.5e’s successor would change it up...

Golems in 4e D&D

The fourth edition Monster Manual dedicates a single page to golems—and there are only two of them: flesh and stone. However, in a third of the space given to these monsters in AD&D and 3.5e D&D, both the flesh golem and the stone golem are made far more captivating foes to fight. First, their lore evolves a tad. They are no longer animated by spirits from the Elemental Plane of Earth; instead, a spark of energy from the Elemental Chaos gives them the ability to obey their master’s commands. Second, they’re no longer immune to almost all magic. Third, they’re both given new abilities.

Let’s look at the flesh golem. The flesh golem gains Berserk Attack and Golem Rampage; both more than make up for the stacking chance for the golem to go insane from previous editions that is now absent. The former allows the golem to attack a random foe in range while it is bloodied (a 4e term meaning below half hit points) and is hit. Awesome! The latter is more like a 5e dragon’s breath weapon and grants the golem the ability to run through multiple creatures’ spaces and make slam attacks against all of them. Wicked. These changes evoke the image of the flesh golem going berserk more than a stacking 1% chance to go wild ever would. This is something we can take to our fifth edition games and use as legendary actions or even villain actions.

Manual of golem mastery from the fifth edition Dungeon Master's Guide.

Golems in 5e D&D

Of course, the golems in D&D’s current edition—5e—are the best form of golems we have. Their lore is expanded (back to being spirits from the Plane of Earth!), and their pages in the Monster Manual are littered with inspiration for how these mindless automatons might be used, even though it all revolves around serving a master obediently or spinning out of control. Mechanically, they are interesting, truly unique 5e monsters with niche abilities, wild weaknesses, and invigorating strengths. For example, the berserk abilities of both flesh and clay golems are present, reworked, and great (though not as good as 4e’s). All four core varieties are present as well, and they all have special immunities to weapons and spells again, although these protections aren’t as unforgiving as AD&D. Overall, the golems are mechanically compelling but narratively the same; and only four are present! Fifth edition did a good job with golems, but can more be done? Can we effectively wield these gobs of magic and material in our games?

How to Wield Golems Well

Armed with knowledge of golems and their history in D&D, we can now create exciting, unique, and in-depth golem-related campaigns and adventures. Let’s open the manual and discuss the specifics.

Golem Varieties

The fifth edition Monster Manual outlines four varieties of golems. We can expand that list using golems from editions of the past. If we are feeling creative, we can even mold a few of our own constructs. Remember, we can use the four golems in 5e as a starting point and add the abilities and unique features of these golems with ease. There is no need to construct them from nothing.

Let this comprehensive assortment of golems from across the editions and our minds inspire us.

Adamantine golem from third edition D&D.

The adamantine golem is made from iron imbued with adamantine, as well as the forever-drained magic of wizards or other spellcasters. It’s nigh unkillable in combat: unaffected by non-adamantine weapons. However, it moves at the speed of a slug. If it reaches a foe, though, it’s likely to crush them with a single slam.

The alchemical golem is a strange combination of material: wood, metal, glass tubes, and mysterious chemicals. It’s often armed with foul toxins that can disarm, paralyze, or even incapacitate enemies for extended periods of time. If it isn’t killed carefully, its body explodes and spills chemicals in a wide area, creating a chemical hazard.

The brain golem is an illithid creation and more intelligent than other golems. Its entire body is made up of brain tissue, with its head usually being a massive brain—perhaps a deceased elder brain. Immensely powerful psionic blasts emanate from this creation and controlling it using psionics is more than possible.

The brass golem is the simplest form of golemkind. It is made for a single purpose. Once that purpose is fulfilled, it rests forever, a statue. If that purpose is never fulfilled, it continues its work. Similar to stone golems, brass golems are rumored to control time and even enter the heads of those around them. The most powerful brass golems may be able to cast spells such as slow, haste, and even time stop.

The cadaver golem, sometimes mistaken as a flesh golem, is an intelligent form of golem able to pick and choose which bodies are stitched to its body. Many times, it will take the corpses of animals and attach them, becoming an abomination comprised of beast and man. This, of course, does take a toll on its intelligence and causes it to become more primal. Give the cadaver golem claw and bite attacks, maybe even the flight of a giant owl or the pack tactics of a wolf.

The coral golem is a sea-faring construct built by underwater peoples like tritons, sea elves, and even sahuagin. Mostly they are shaped like crabs, lobsters, or giant fish. Adventurers are susceptible to drowning; grappling foes under the sea should be part of the kit for the coral golem.

The demonflesh golem is a flesh golem of stitched together limbs and organs of demons. Over countless centuries of creating these, demons have turned the creation of these golems into a sport of sorts: the ugliest, deadliest golem wins. In 5e, we can combine the abilities of various demons and use them as the demonflesh golem's mechanics.

The dragonbone golem is sometimes seen as a dracolich or zombie dragon, though it is not. It follows its master’s commands like an obedient servant and it sometimes armed with the ability to breathe bony shards at its foes. We can re-flavor the breath weapons of 5e dragons to deal piercing damage instead of their respective element.

The gas golem resides in a glass shell and is armed with the ability to fly. It can also cloud gas around its form, obscuring it and potentially poisoning enemies. An ability that represents cloudkill could work with the gas golem.

The hellfire golem is a being formed of bubbling lava and deep black boulders. With ease, it can regurgitate lava at foes and even walk through the usually devastating substance. All battles with hellfire golems should revolve around lava and the danger it presents to adventurers.

The ice golem is a golem chiseled from ice of the purest glaciers. Almost skeletal in shape, the golem is able to fling icicles at foes, as well as easily dig into sheets or walls of ice and ignore its difficult-to-navigate features.

The mithral golem moves quicker than all other golems, constructed from one of the lightest materials known to mortals: mithral. It’s also able to fly using blasts of arcane energy located in its feet and hands. More reactive than most golems, it is able to adapt to situations and “change” its directions to better suit its master. Give not only legendary actions to the mithral golem that showcase this, but a repertoire of unique reactions that allow it to shift position and outmaneuver enemies.

Mithral golem from the Epic Level Handbook.

The minogon is a unique golem created in the shape of a minotaur and infused with the soul of a minotaur of Baphomet and a fire elemental. Some minotaur cabals create these to incite terror among local enemies. When a minogon charges, it leaves behind a trail of blazing fire, similar to the wall of fire spell.

The rope golem is the sadistic creation of a long-forgotten wizard. Eerily intelligent, it is formed of slithering ropes which it uses to communicate and kill any who harm it or its master. Armed with the arcane, it can grant life to inanimate ropes. It can also grapple two targets at once!

Manuals of Golem Mastery

One of the most interesting aspects of golems is that they’re accessible by the player characters. Utilizing a golem manual, a PC can potentially build a golem from scratch to work as a servant, guard, or companion. On pages 180 and 181 on the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, we are provided with how golems are made in this system: the manual itself, gold for materials, the ability to cast two fifth level spells, and time. Much simpler than AD&D’s process, assuredly. In long-running campaigns, don’t be afraid to reward player characters with a manual of golems or two. If the PCs run a fortress, need a guard for a hoard, or would love to leave a permanent and somewhat living mark on the world, a manual of golem mastery or three is the perfect way to give them that recourse.

Manual of golem mastery from the fifth edition Dungeon Master's Guide.

Golem Masters

We might be able to spice our campaigns with unique golems and give our PCs the chance to make a golem themselves, but most of the time, a golem is only as interesting as its master, especially if we stick to the core four golems. Ensure the golem’s master is riveting, their goal fascinating, their lair dangerous, and the golem will mold to fit them.

For example, we could use a bandit lord who wants to guard his booty and uses a clay golem to do so. Or the bandit lord might want to protect his booty, of course, but his delirious and slowly dying sister is much more important, so the golem guards her instead. In the highest room of a massive & beautiful mansion the golem sits, its surroundings lavishly decorated and not at all suited for combat, but for pleasure. Back to the booty: the booty goes to clerics who try to cure her, but fail and fail again. One of the clerics established a relationship with the bandit lord and was the creator of the clay golem. Now, the cleric doesn’t know that the bandit lord is just that: a bandit! What happens if he finds out? Might he use the golem against the bandit lord? Does he take it away? How does the bandit lord react? The sick sister?

Despite all the bells and whistles we can attach to our golems, we must remember that, at their core, despite their awesome mechanics or places in the plot, they’re not creatures who can speak or feel. They are automatons. Steady and sturdy means to specific ends. If we bolster their foundation with captivating stories, they fuse with the campaign and become vital pieces of it as well—not just random chunks of “living” material to fight.

Golem Examples

Let these golem-related quests, NPCs, encounters, and villains inspire our thoughts.

Golem Quests

  • A Book for a Body. A careful and inquisitive gnome requests the party find a manual of mithral golems. Inside waits the secrets to creating the long-lost, dexterous mithral golems. He won’t only pay in coin, but in the creation of a mithral golem for the party as well. The manual is rumoured to be buried deep in the heart of a duergar kingdom overtaken by illithids and their odd shadow dragon tyrant.
  • The Late Delivery. The local innkeeper bought a stone golem to protect her establishment, but the shipment never arrived. She wants the party to investigate.
  • Consumer of Beasts. A cadaver golem is rampaging through a nearby forest, slaying dire animals of all species and adding their claws, teeth, and hide to its body. As it grows increasingly furious and more beasts are slaughtered, a circle of druids reaches out for assistance.
  • All Tied Up. When the executioner hired a wizard to create “helping hands” in rope golems, he never thought they’d take control of his home, tools, and family. He cannot get in, the city watch refuses to help, so he turns to the party to route the rope golems and free his family.

Golem NPCs

  • Angel in the Flesh. A flesh golem with a hopeless celestial trapped inside it. The golem its vessel, the celestial desperately tries to escape its cage to no avail, assailed and berated by any it successfully contacts.
  • Brass Father. A brass golem whose only task is to ensure a loved one is buried in a certain spot.
  • The Fish Mind. A brain golem that has wrestled control of a kuo-toa tribe from its cast out shaman. The shaman seeks revenge, though the golem’s grip on its tribe is too strong.
  • Savee. An alchemical golem that serves as a medic on the battlefield of war.

Golem Encounters

  • A band of goblins use a clay golem to their advantage, using it as a shield, mount, and being of pure force to push their advantage. The most elite goblins carry vials of acid from the golem that can be used to melt foes.
  • An iron golem patrols the vault the party needs to break into, but it’s far too powerful. However, there are plenty of obstacles and traps they can lure the golem into—or they can steal the control amulet from the vault’s head of security first!
  • Stone golems imbued with speaking stones welcome the party into a grand ruin. Inside, the party are assaulted by other stone golems while the golems at the entrance block their escape.
  • An ice golem guards the home of its frost giant creator on a massive glacier, where it can easily slide across the ice and ignore the biting cold, whipping wind, and endless flurry of snow. The party, though, might have issues.

Golem Villains

  • The Iron Hydra. An iron golem molded in the shape of a hydra. It retains its ability to breathe acid, has five attacks, and is commanded by a mad mage & fanatic of Tiamat.
  • Blastik. A kobold tinkerer found the command amulet of a stone golem and is carving out far more territory than his eccentric mind should be able to.
  • Sir Veginald Largreeves. An exotic collector is trying to obtain all types of golems across the mortal world, but it’s discovered that his ambition is not out of desire or curiosity: it’s for malice and destruction.
  • The Iron Giant. An evil trickster god grants divine sentience to an iron golem defender in a city that goes on a killing spree. It must be destroyed.

Our Musing Summarized

As described in the core D&D ruleset, golems are shoddy.
  • Golems in D&D date back to the AD&D. However, their best iteration rests in 5e.
  • There are plenty of ways to integrate golems into campaigns in a compelling way, from including seldom-seen varieties to allowing the player characters to get in on the golem creation action.
  • Golems can serve as excellent centerpieces for quests, NPCs, encounters, and villains.
Until the next encounter, farewell!

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