Beyond the Veil: The Definitive Guide to Ghosts in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

ghost 5e
Table of Contents

The chilling sound of rattling chains echoes down the dark hallway. A spectral figure phases through the door ahead, their translucent form flickering in the dim torchlight. The party readies their weapons, only to watch in dismay as the blades pass harmlessly through this creature not of the mortal realm – a ghost.

Ghosts have always been a staple monster in Dungeons & Dragons. As iconic undead creatures, they instill a thrilling mix of mystery, horror, and tragedy into any encounter. Unlike mindless zombies or hellish fiends, ghosts retain their intelligence and personality from life, driven by powerful unresolved matters tying them to the mortal plane.

This unfinished business gives ghosts immense motivation and flexibility compared to other monsters. A ghost may be consumed with delivering a message to a loved one, guarding a treasured home, or seeking vengeance against their killer. Their goals can be benevolent or malevolent, making ghosts complex allies and foes. As Dungeon Masters, we have an unparalleled opportunity to showcase the storytelling power of ghosts.

In this guide, we will explore everything you need to master ghosts in your 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, including:

Chapter 1: The Nature of Ghosts

Before bringing ghosts into your game, it helps to understand what these restless spirits are in the lore of D&D’s multiverse. This chapter will explore what makes ghosts tick, from their origins and goals to how they interact with the world.

What Creates a Ghost?

Not all creatures that die in D&D become undead. According to the Monster Manual, for a ghost to form, a creature must die under specific circumstances related to unfinished business. A few examples include:

  • Dying with a crucial task incomplete or message undelivered
  • Being unable to exact justice or vengeance against their killer
  • Leaving a treasured home or item undefended from intruders
  • Failing to fulfill a sworn oath or pact before their death

In all cases, the sheer willpower and determination of the creature enables its spirit to persist even after death. Their unyielding desire manifests as a ghostly form tied to the mortal realm until they satisfy their final goal.

Of course, as DM you can customize the origins of ghosts in your world. For example, a cabal of necromancers may be binding spirits to guard their lair against intruders. Or a mourning widow uses rituals to call back the ghost of her recently deceased husband. The circumstances of a ghost's creation significantly impact their abilities, motivations, and role within your campaign, as we’ll explore in upcoming sections.

Appearance and Interactions

Ghosts generally manifest as spectral versions of their living form. However, unlike many undead like zombies or skeletons, ghosts are not decomposed or mutilated. Instead, they appear translucent and shimmering, often with a colored tint related to their cause of death.

A ghost slain by drowning may have a bluish hue and dripping, ethereal water around them. One burned alive might flicker with orange energy. A ghost killed by poison could have a sickly green shade or darkened veins across their spectral body.

Of course, you can customize a ghost’s look beyond how they died. Are they wearing armor or clothes from life? Do they bear wounds from their mortal demise? Does their appearance reflect decay over time or shift based on their emotional state? Ghosts are visual storytellers, so get creative with their aesthetic.

As incorporeal spirits, ghosts do not physically interact with the world in the traditional sense. They glide along the ground rather than walk, hovering inches above the surface. Inanimate objects pass through their spectral forms harmlessly…for the most part.

A curious trait of ghosts is their ability to sometimes manipulate physical objects, especially items important to them. The ghost of a blacksmith may cause their phantom hammer to strike a real anvil, or a scholar could ruffle pages in a library book. This interaction requires effort, so objects significantly large or heavy are beyond a ghost’s influence. But it makes for excellent storytelling moments!

Motivations and Goals

As discussed earlier, ghosts retain their mental faculties and memories from life. Combined with the intense willpower that allowed them to manifest, this grants ghosts clearly defined motivations propelling their undeath. Their entire existence revolves around fulfilling these driving goals related to their lingering attachment.

Goals depend wholly on the backstory of a ghost, but common examples include:

  • Seeking justice against their killer
  • Delivering a treasured item to a loved one
  • Protecting people or a location they cared for in life
  • Resolving unfinished business from their mortal life

A ghost’s goals need not be confined to people and places they knew when alive. Perhaps they seek to impart a vital secret or warning they uncovered before death. A slain guard might continue dutifully protecting the realm against threats. Or an adventurer could quest to destroy a cursed artifact that killed them, lest it claim more lives.

In game terms, until a ghost completes the task that anchors them to the mortal plane, they are not able to “pass on” to an afterlife. Destroying a ghost may banish them for a time, but their spirit will re-coalesce eventually if their driving goal remains unfulfilled. This grants you, the DM, immense flexibility in bringing memorable ghosts back throughout a campaign in service of their objective.

But not all ghosts need be single-minded apparitions focused solely on their task. Intelligent ghosts retain their personalities and memories, meaning they can communicate, form allegiances, and pursue side goals separate from their core unfinished business. After all, just because you died with urgent business doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily forgotten friendships and dispositions from when you were alive!

Chapter 2: Ghostly Abilities and Customization

Ghosts in D&D 5th edition have a common suite of undead abilities reflecting their spectral nature. However, each ghost is unique, shaped by the circumstances of its creation. As DM, you have ample room to customize ghosts using lore, altering stats, and tailoring powers to suit your campaign. This chapter examines ghostly abilities and how to modify them.

Baseline Ghost Abilities

The Monster Manual provides the foundation for ghostly traits in D&D 5e:

  • Undead Nature: Ghosts do not require air, food, drink, or sleep. They cannot be poisoned, diseased, paralyzed, stunned, or killed in traditional ways. Only magic that turns undead affects them.
  • Incorporeal Movement: Ghosts move through creatures and objects as difficult terrain, taking force damage if their turn ends inside a solid object. They hover rather than walking on solid ground.
  • Darkvision: Ghosts have 60 ft. darkvision, seeing in dim light as if it was bright and darkness as if it was dim.
  • Unfinished Business: Ghosts are bound to the mortal realm by unfinished business and cannot fully pass on until it is complete.
  • Ethereal Sight: Ghosts perceive both the Material and Ethereal Planes up to 60 ft when on either plane.
  • Horrifying Visage: Ghosts instill primal fear with their appearance, potentially aging, paralyzing, or frightening targets temporarily.
  • Withering Touch: The chilling strike of a ghost deals necrotic damage to creatures.
  • Possession: Ghosts can possess humanoids, controlling their bodies while the target's soul remains trapped and aware.

These traits form the basic toolkit of a ghost in D&D 5e. But ghosts need not be confined to the Monster Manual entry. As DM, you can customize ghosts based on their backstory, goals, and your campaign. Let’s explore some ways to personalize ghosts using lore, tweaked stats, and tailored abilities.

Lore-Based Customization

The circumstances around a ghost’s creation heavily influence their capabilities. You can modify ghosts based on how they died, why they linger, and what they seek:

  • Cause of Death: A ghost’s appearance and abilities may reflect their demise. One slain by fire might emit heat and light. A drowned ghost could dampen sound or manipulate water.
  • Anchoring Item: A ghost bound to an important item gains bonuses when defending or near the object, but weaknesses if it is destroyed.
  • Sworn Duty: A ghost compelled to fulfill an oath gains boosts to abilities furthering their duty. But oath-breaking may permanently destroy them.
  • Quest for Vengeance: Bonuses pursuing their killer, but disadvantages against other creatures until their quest succeeds.
  • Protect a Loved One: Powers that aid in guarding or locating descendants and allies of the ghost. But impairment of these abilities if said loved ones come to harm.
  • Cursed into Undeath: Bound unwillingly to the mortal plane, such ghosts gain abilities resisting control. But invoking their original curse may temporarily incapacitate them.
  • Place of Death: Linking a ghost to the location where they died can give environmental manipulation powers. But vulnerability if the location is destroyed.

As DM, get creative with ghost lore! Their backstory, motivations, and weaknesses are canvases upon which to craft memorable encounters. Just be sure to foreshadow a ghost’s customized traits so players can strategize accordingly.

Stat-Based Customization

While most ghosts share common undead resistances and immunities, you can also tweak these stats based on the strength of a spirit:

  • Hit Points: Highly determined ghosts have more hit points, resisting dispersal. Weak ghosts might have fewer hit points than normal.
  • Armor Class: Ghosts closely tied to a particular object or location may have a higher AC within the proximity of their anchor, as its power shields them.
  • Saving Throws: If a ghost had certain powerful convictions, skills, or resistance to effects in life, these could grant saving throw bonuses in undeath.
  • Ability Scores: Ghosts with dominating personalities often have high Charisma scores. Vengeful ghosts may favor high Strength to manifest physical attacks. Scholar ghosts retain keen Intellect.

When altering a ghost’s stats, consider the nature of the spirit and how changes reinforce their character. Is there justification within the lore for bonuses and penalties? Do changes support roleplaying the ghost as intended? Stats should meaningfully reflect the backstory.

Of course, increase a ghost’s challenge rating appropriately if changes make them significantly more powerful or harder to defeat. And as always, keep your players in mind — will modifications seem unfair or take away their agency? Changes should accentuate roleplay and story, not punish players arbitrarily.

Ability-Based Customization

The abilities of a ghost form their primary interaction with the world. DMs have vast creative liberty when incorporating ghostly powers or modifying existing ones:

  • Harness Elements: Ghosts subject to particular elemental forces in death may gain related abilities. A drowned ghost could pummel with whirlpools, pyromaniac ghosts hurl fiery globules, and so on.
  • Poltergeist Powers: Telekinetic force damage, object manipulation, and other poltergeist tricks add variety to ghosts unconfined to physical forms.

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