Article Header Image
The Restless Dead
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

I t's time to wrap up our discussion of the undead with just two more: ghosts and specters. In Dragon's-Eye View a couple weeks ago, Jon talked about how to differentiate them from each other (and from wraiths) and gave a couple of ideas we've kicked around for where each one comes from. Now let's take a bit of a deeper dive into the lore behind these two creatures.

Haunting Spirits: Ghosts

Here's what Jon wrote about ghosts: "What if I said that ghosts are just apparitions of people who died and who have ties to their past lives that keep them around? They are typically not hostile or aggressive. Usually they're just lost, sad, lonely, and so on. Would it make sense to have them look pretty much just like they did in life, but ghostly?"

Jon pretty well sums it up. A ghost is confined—tied to some element of its mortal life. It might have died with unfinished goals, whether noble (finding the Cup of Al'Akbar) or the opposite (crushing every member of a rival merchant family). Or perhaps it seeks to avenge its own death, or it was just so attached to something or someone in life (or at the moment of its death) that it's unable to let go. Thus, a ghost is defined as an undead creature that haunts, lingering around whatever place or person or object binds it to its former life.

Every ghost is unique, with particular abilities and weaknesses related to its life or death. That said, they have some common abilities as well. The presence of a ghost inspires fear—it spooks animals and causes tingling in the spine, even if the ghost isn't yet visible. They're insubstantial and have no way to directly manipulate the material world. They can't deal physical damage with their attacks, and, unless they have a telekinetic ability (many do, but not all), they can't lift or move objects around. A ghost that is tied to an object can never move that object around, even if it does have telekinesis.

Some ghosts also have the ability to possess other peoples' bodies. A ghost might take someone over in order to communicate, speaking through that person's mouth in an eerie voice. Or it might try to accomplish whatever goal it left unfinished in life by using the person's body. Sometimes the best way to deal with a ghost, in fact, is to let it carry through on this plan.

Resolving whatever ties a ghost to the world is one way of defeating it, which means a ghost can be an interesting sort of puzzle monster—the point of the whole adventure becomes figuring out what the ghost wants and bringing that about if possible. Fortunately for adventurers, that's not the only way to dispose of a ghost. They can be killed just like wraiths can—it's hard to hurt them, but not impossible. And each often has a particular weakness tied to its life or death. For example, the ghost of a person who was tortured to death might take full damage from one of the implements used in that torture, or the ghost of person who lovingly tended a flower garden might be made fully corporeal by the strong smell of flowers.

   

For reference, here's the definition of ethereal from the current playtest document:

Ethereal

  • The creature exists within the Ethereal Plane. It has a spectral appearance.
  • The creature takes only half damage from non-ethereal sources and deals only half damage to non-ethereal targets. Neither effect applies to force damage.
  • The creature can pass through non-ethereal creatures. It can also pass through solid objects, but it is blinded while doing so and cannot target anything but the object while inside it.

One good thing about ghosts: They can be very troubling to the person or place they haunt, but they rarely bother the world at large. A ghost is typically a very localized threat. People who die with an unfulfilled dream of conquering the world usually end up as wights or wraiths rather than ghosts. Also, ghosts aren't always evil or malicious, and putting one to rest is sometimes just a matter of mercy rather than something that must be done to end the threat it poses.

A ghost's ability scores reflect what it had in life, but becoming a ghost tends to improve a creature's Charisma score—a ghost is a very strong presence in the world.

Hateful Spirits: Specters

Now here's what Jon had to say about specters: "What if I said that specters are apparitions of people who died in a very violent manner? Their deaths are often the result of treachery, and their spirits are tied to their previous lives through the desire for vengeance. You could even say that they are just spirits wrapped in anger, rage, and the desire to destroy all life in order to try to strike back at the life that cast them in their various fates. Their appearance is generally degenerate and horrifying. They strike fear when they show themselves, and they instill terror with their actions."

Here we're diverging a bit from Jon's description. As I suggested above, a ghost might result from a person who died a violent death or as a result of treachery, and its presence (not just its appearance) causes fear. Specters are closely related, but fundamentally they're ghosts that have lost their ties to their former lives—they've become unfettered.

Help a ghost complete a task it left undone in life, and you send it on its way to its eternal rest. But for a specter, it's too late. Perhaps it had a goal that simply can't be completed. Maybe it was tied to a person who is now dead or an object that has been destroyed. Perhaps it just died in such horrible circumstances that its mind was wrenched asunder and it can't remember what it was tied to. In any case, all that's left is a spirit that is overwhelmed with anger and hatred. The great tragedy of its life is that it's irredeemable—there's nothing to be done for it but destroy it, and no rest awaits it.

Purely from the standpoint of the Dungeon Master of a D&D game, if you need a ghostly creature in numbers, or you need a ghost with no backstory or baggage, a specter is the monster for you.

Like ghosts, specters are ethereal, and like ghosts (but unlike wraiths) they don't really exploit that in combat. A specter might emerge from a wall to attack, but it doesn't then retreat back into the wall for cover. It's too full of hatred and rage to retreat. In fact, specters are as relentless as zombies, and they are even more unstoppable by virtue of their ethereal nature. But they don't team up or work together, and strategy is not a strong suit for them.

Specters are chaotic evil. They have a strong presence (high Charisma score) like ghosts, but low Wisdom score, reflecting the unhinged nature of their minds.

What Do You Think?

So how do you like your Halloween present?

  How well do the ghosts we've described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?  
1—That's just a kid in a sheet.
2—I can see right through it.
3—It's too ambiguous; it needs hard and fast rules.
4—That's a really good costume.
5—I think I've seen a ghost!

  How well do the specters we've described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?  
1—The game doesn't even need specters—they're just ghosts.
2—I want a specter, but this isn't it.
3—It's too much like a ghost.
4—Yeah, I recognize that as a specter.
5—I'm afraid. I'm very afraid.

Previous Poll Results

How should a wight's energy drain work?
They shouldn't drain energy at all. 79 3.6%
Every attack should drain some life energy from its target. 1009 46.4%
It should be a finishing blow the wight uses against a weakened target (for example, it can affect only a creature with X or fewer hit points). 1087 50.0%
Total 2175 100.0%

What happens to someone who's killed by a wight's energy drain?
The victim dies. 633 29.3%
The victim dies and becomes a zombie, either immediately or some time later. 818 37.8%
The victim dies and becomes a wight, either immediately or some time later. 562 26.0%
Other (comments!). 151 7.0%
Total 2164 100.0%

Now, how should a wraith's energy drain work?
They shouldn't drain energy at all. 68 3.2%
Every attack should drain some life energy from its target. 1750 82.6%
It should be a finishing blow the wight uses against a weakened target (for example, it can affect only a creature with X or fewer hit points). 301 14.2%
Total 2119 100.0%

What happens to someone who's killed by a wraith's energy drain?
The victim dies. 751 37.0%
The victim dies and becomes a wight, either immediately or some time later. 589 29.0%
The victim dies and becomes a wraith, either immediately or some time later. 479 23.6%
Other (comments!). 211 10.4%
Total 2030 100.0%

Overall, how well do the wights we've described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?
I hate it like wights hate the living. 22 1.1%
I don't recognize it at all. 55 2.8%
The basic outline is fine, but it needs more. 543 27.7%
Yeah, I recognize that as a wight. 1088 55.6%
It's a perfect match to the wight in my head. 249 12.7%
Total 1957 100.0%

How well do the wraiths we've described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?
I hate it with the darkness of a thousand extinguished suns. 24 1.2%
I don't recognize it at all. 50 2.5%
The basic outline is fine, but it needs more. 514 26.1%
Yeah, I recognize that as a wraith. 1050 53.2%
It's everything I always wanted a wraith to be. 335 17.0%
Total 1973 100.0%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
Comments
Sort Items By: Newest First Oldest First Top Rated
 >
There are no comments yet for this article (or rating). Be the first!
 >

Create Comment
Follow Us
RSS
Find a place to get together with friends or gear up for adventure at a store near you
Please enter a city or zip code