Roleplayer #30, January 1993

Black Dogs, Church Grims and Hell Hounds

Supernatural Canines in British Folklore

by Graeme Davis

The Bestiary chapter of GURPS Middle Ages 1 covers a few supernatural beings from British folklore and faerie lore, but doing full justice to the subject would take a book in itself. The work of Katharine Briggs – particularly her Dictionary of Fairies mentioned in the Middle Ages 1 bibliography – is especially recommended to the reader who is interested in this subject. Faerie hounds are already mentioned in Middle Ages 1, but there are many other kinds of supernatural dogs in the folklore of Britain and other European nations. When Sherlock Holmes encountered the Hound of the Baskervilles in the late 19th century, there was every reason for the locals to believe in a family curse carried out by a demonic hound, for such things had been in their folk-belief for centuries. It was not until well into the present century that such legends and superstitions were discarded in rural areas. This article presents a selection of supernatural hounds from folklore. All are entirely appropriate for a medieval campaign with supernatural elements, and thus for a generic fantasy campaign as well. They might also be of interest to GMs of Horror campaigns and European-based campaigns which feature supernatural elements: these creatures would feel quite at home in the Cliffhangers, Vikings, Camelot and Swashbucklers settings.

Black Dogs

Black dogs are by far the most common of the supernatural dogs in northern Europe. They are found in Brittany and Scandinavia as well as Britain.

A black dog is normally the size of a calf, with a shaggy black coat and glowing, sometimes fiery eyes. They are always solitary. Some are dangerous, and some are not: black dogs fall into various categories according to their behavior.

Wandering Black Dogs

Wandering black dogs may be encountered in almost any rural area, normally at night. The dog is usually encountered by a lone traveler or, at the most, a group of two or three. It is heading in the opposite direction to the traveler(s), and is content to ignore and be ignored. However, if anyone should speak to it, try to strike it or take any other action, the dog will use a supernatural power to strike the offender blind, dumb, mad or worse. It can do this simply by stopping and fixing the victim with its fiery eyes, although it does not even need to do this; the effect seems to be spell-like rather than a gaze weapon.

Perhaps the easiest way to quantify this power in game terms is to equate it with a Mind Control or similar spell. Fear, Foolishness and Daze are all appropriate effects, as are Panic, Terror, Mental Stun, Madness and Mindlessness from GURPS Magic.

More extreme powers might give the dog the ability to act as a Death Omen (see GURPS Middle Ages 1, p. 102) at will, in the same way as a Banshee. Any given dog will have a single power, which it can cast at will with no need to roll dice – the spell is always cast successfully and there is never a critical effect of any kind.

Fearful Black Dogs

A fearful black dog normally haunts a limited area, and rather than ignoring those who ignore it, the creature will seek to terrify all who enter that area and drive them away. A variant version in the north and east of England is the "Gally-trot," a huge white dog which will only pursue those who run from it.

The fearful black dog does not always exhibit supernatural powers; sometimes it will simply sit or lie across the road, blocking the passage of anyone who comes along. If attacked, it may use Mind Control spells like those of the wandering black dog to defend itself, but if the situation develops into a standoff the dog will vanish after a while (perhaps out of boredom). Places haunted by fearful black dogs tend to have some evil association – roadside gibbets and places where witches were burnt, for instance. According to some sources, the dogs are the spirits of those wrongly executed, while others suggest that they are the familiars of burnt witches or the spirits of the executed bandits or witches themselves.

Resident Black Dogs

These creatures are very similar to wandering black dogs, except that they haunt a particular place – normally a castle, manor house or other large building. They have the habit of appearing at night, making their way to the fire in the great hall, kitchen or guardroom and lying down in front of it. They prefer not to be acknowledged or interfered with in any way, but can react in various ways to an annoyance.

Some merely walk off or disappear and are never seen again. The luck of the house's owners, or of the character who disturbed the dog, often takes a change for the worse at this point, and a character who interferes with a resident black dog may gain the Unluckiness disadvantage as a result.

Some resident black dogs may retaliate magically, in the same way as a wandering black dog. This can be on the spot, or the creature might lead its tormentor outside (or away from the eyes of others) before striking. It may also vanish at this point, perhaps to seek out more peaceful lodgings.

On a few occasions, a resident black dog which is disturbed may flee; if it is followed, it will go to a certain point in the house and disappear, and the place where it disappears will have some significance. There might be a cache of treasure in the floor or walls at that point, or it might be the spot where a prominent member of the family died. Of course, there is no way to tell whether following a fleeing black dog will lead to treasure or magical attack.

Guardian Black Dogs

Guardian black dogs are the most helpful kind, although those they help often do not realize it at the time. Several stories are told of a lone traveler who is making his way along a lonely road at night, and who suddenly finds a huge black dog walking beside him. Attempts to shoo the dog away are futile, and the creature seems to take no notice of its companion at all. Eventually, it vanishes – either disappearing into thin air or melting back into the forest. Later; the traveler hears of a small but notorious group of local bandits being caught and hanged; before they die, they tell of seeing a lone traveler whom they thought of attacking, but they changed their minds when they saw the size of his dog.

Another story features a fisherman who was prevented from boarding his boat by a huge black dog. It stood squarely in his way, and growled and snarled when he tried to get by it. The boat left without him, and the dog vanished once it was too late. The news came later that day that the boat was lost in a storm with all hands.

Stats and Rules

In the stories where they appear, black dogs very seldom do anything from which game stats might be derived; they seem to spend most of their time either ignoring people or glaring at them. The following stats might be used if needed; they represent a dog of unusual size, strength and intelligence.

DX:12PD/DR:1/2Weight:100 lbs+
IQ:7Damage:cut for ST

In addition to the magical attacks of some individuals, many black dogs may have magical defenses. While most black dog stories see one of the main protagonists trying to attack the creature, these attacks are hardly ever completed; the creature strikes the character blind or whatever before the blow can land, or simply glares and intimidates the character into desisting. It may be that the creature has an always-on magical aura based on a Mind Control spell like Emotion Control or Suggestion from GURPS Magic, which makes the character refrain from completing the attack. Many black dogs are unaffected by physical attacks in any case; in the stories this reflects their supernatural nature, and in game terms they might be unharmed by non-magical weapons and attack forms, or have an enhanced DR beyond that offered by their thick coats.

Church Grims

In British and Scandinavian folklore, "grim" is a generic name for a spirit which associates with humanity and human dwellings. The church grim or kirkegrim, as its name suggests, haunts churches and graveyards. In Britain, the church grim normally takes the form of a huge black dog, and is difficult to tell from the various black dogs described above, except for the fact that it will not leave its designated churchyard. In Scandinavia, the church grim can take other animal forms, with horse, sheep and pig being popular.

The origin of this may lie in the practice of making a foundation-sacrifice when a church it built or a churchyard consecrated. This is one of a number of pagan practices which lasted into the early Christian era throughout northem Europe.

It was justified by the superstition that the first person buried in a new church-yard had the duty of defending it from the Devil and from witches. By burying an animal first, the churchyard's first human occupant was freed from this duty and allowed to go on to the afterlife in peace.

The church grim could also work as a death omen (see p. MID102), tolling the church bell at midnight when a prominent member of the local community was near death. According to some stories, the church grim might also be seen at a funeral, looking out of the church tower in its dog form. The officiating priest might be able to judge by its expression and behavior which way the deceased was going in the next world.

Unfortunately, there is no record of what a church grim might be able to do to defend its domain from the Devil and his minions. It could be that its mere presence made the area frightful or otherwise hostile to demonic forces. This can be handled in a number of ways: the whole area might become surrounded by a kind of force wall which only keeps evil or satanic creatures out, or such beings might suffer the effects of a hostile Body Control spell each round that they spend in the area. Or the creature might manifest in its dog form and attack physically or magically.

This is a matter for the individual GM to decide; like many creatures in folklore, no two church grims were exactly like. Game stats can be designed to fit the occasion, although the stats and rules for black dogs above can be used as a starting-point.

Hell Hounds

GURPS Middle Ages 1 includes a description of the Wild Hunt (p. MID102), and the folklore of most of northern Europe features assorted stories of supernatural hunts which ride out after human souls. The supernatural hounds of these stories form the basis of the hell hounds which can be found in many fantasy games.

The hell hounds of folklore are not as individually powerful as those in generic fantasy; they are normally no larger or stronger than normal hounds, and like normal hounds they run in packs, often of a dozen or more. Their appearance may be terrifying, with tongues and eyes of flame, black skin and so on, but they rarely exhibit any supernatural abilities – apart from their baying, which is discussed below. The stats for a medium-sized dog can be used for folklore hell hounds under most circumstances.


In nearly all the stories, these creatures do far more damage with their voices than with their teeth. The sound of their baying carries for miles, and often the hounds themselves are never seen. Sometimes their baying works as a death omen, and sometimes it has a lesser effect, causing fear, rooting a person to the spot, and so on. This might be treated as a Mind Control spell (Fear or Panic), or Body Control (Rooted Feet), with an extended range (everywhere within earshot). As always, the GM should decide on the power which best fits the plot of the campaign.

Other Supernatural Powers

As mentioned above, these are rare. Some hell hounds can magically stay on a scent despite all obstacles, and some are invisible, or able to ignore movement penalties arising from terrain or obstacles. Some can fly, and some are impossible to outrun; their speed is always a fraction greater than that of their quarry. A pack of hell hounds will always have the same powers, with no individual variations.

Supernatural Weaknesses

Like all diabolical creatures, hell hounds are most vulnerable to prayer and to the trappings of Christianity. Many stories tell of a potential victim who drops to his knees in prayer, whereupon the hounds surround him, baying horribly, but cannot touch him. In these stories, the huntsman (usually a – or the – Devil) rides up, looks on for a short time, and then calls the hounds off and leads them away.

This is a tricky thing to game, since an encounter with a diabolical hunt will lose much of its challenge if people simply drop to their knees in prayer at the first sign of the creatures. Perhaps the GM might impose a Will Roll or Fright Check on each character, and only those who pass retain the presence of mind to pray. Alternatively, the effectiveness of praying might be directly proportional to a character's piety and standing with the divine powers. Anyone can pray, but perhaps not everyone might be saved.

The hounds of British folklore can make an intriguing addition to any campaign, even one that is devoid of supernatural elements. Perhaps the large black dog that prevents the PCs from entering the abandoned manor really is just a dog. But the local villagers will assure the party that it is the diabolical guardian of an evil place, and they would be well-advised to leave it alone. Then again, maybe it is a resident black dog, and the PCs' luck is about to take a turn for the worse . . .

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