Combat quests in DnD can easily get repetitive and boring. But what if the monster itself was the quest? What if the very nature of a creature added interesting combat mechanics or came prepackaged with story elements? That’s exactly what Ghosts bring to the table.
What even is a Ghost?
A ghost is the spirit of a creature that was once alive. They generally have unfinished business that prevents them from letting go of the material plane. Ghosts are unnatural creatures, emanating horrible manifestations of that unnatural state onto the world around them. This is typically what makes ghosts a problem, as they typically have no control over the strange occurrences that happen around them. These could be as mild as dips in temperature or as extreme as corpses rising from the grave.
Ghosts are not evil by default; they can be any alignment. Additionally, they don’t have to have died in any profound or terrible way. The only requirement to anything becoming a ghost is that it was once alive and died with unfinished business. As the GM you have an extreme amount of flexibility when it comes to creating ghostly characters for your players to overcome and that’s what makes ghosts amazingly fun.
Spicing up Combat
Combat in DnD often relies on the simple loop of attacking until the enemy’s health reaches zero, but ghosts come with an interesting combat puzzle. Due to their incorporeal nature, players can never be certain if they’re going to land a hit or have their weapons pass through the specter harmlessly. There are few more reasons why ghosts should not be taken lightly. Let’s look at things to keep in mind when putting your adventures up against spirits from beyond the grave.
Ghost Combat Features
A normal ghost has a challenge rating of 4. This is probably right based on the numbers and mechanics that surround a ghost, but an unprepared party might as well be facing a deadly encounter. Ghosts have resistance to acid, fire, lightning, thunder, bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage (from non-magical weapons) as well as immunity to cold, necrotic, and poison damage. They’re also immune to almost every condition. And that’s only the start of their features!
Ghosts are not actually strictly incorporeal. They still exist in the material plane half of the time, but can move through objects and creatures as if they were difficult terrain. The “incorporeal” part of the ghost comes from their ability to swap back and forth between the ethereal plane and the material plane as an action.
No matter what plane it is on, the ghost is still visible in either, vaguely alluding to its otherworldly nature. This gives the ghost a tactical advantage where players are never really aware of what plane the ghost is on.
Fighting a Ghost
If your players do decide to fight a ghost they’ll have their hands full. They can technically hit it since it only has resistance to all types of non-magical weapon damage, not immunity. However, the ghost must be on the material plane for it to get hit, and the players may not be able to tell which plane the ghost is on at any given time.
This feature can cause a player a lot of confusion, as they might assume it needs to be hit by magic, but then see their spells pass through the ghost when it is on the ethereal plane. With this in mind, we can already see how a single ghost can make for a long, drawn out fight. Players might waste spells and attacks while the ghost just hangs out menacingly.
Fighting Your Players
A ghost is not powerless to fight back. Its primary focus is completing its unfinished business and it won’t let anyone stand in its way. A ghost has an array of attacks it can use if provoked. Its basic attack on hit deals 4d6 + 3 necrotic damage. As an action it can display a horrifying visage, which can frighten creatures and cause them to age 1d4 x 10 years! If that’s not enough, a ghost can also possess creatures and use them against the party until their health drops to 0.
If your players get close to defeating a ghost in combat, it will prioritize escape over the fight. Its primary goal is to complete its unfinished business. Despite all its horrifying attacks, a ghost knows when it needs to leave to ensure it can continue on.
So, Maybe Not Combat?
If your team decides against combat or fails combat more than a few times, there are plenty of other ways to deal with ghosts. The simplest and most straightforward method would be to just complete the ghost’s unfinished business. If the ghost dreamed of brewing the most magnificent potion, your players can help the ghost gather the ingredients and brew the potion. The ghost will disappear and the players get a cool potion. Easy as that.
A ghost might be sworn to revenge against a family and refuse to rest until every member of a particular family line is dead. Assuming your players are not murder hobos, that’s a bit more of an ask. If peace isn’t an option, there are still better ways to combat a ghost than just charging straight.
Ghost Weaknesses – Combat’s Back on the Table
Ghosts have a unique and ambiguous trait where they can be weakened by “invoking a weakness tied to its former life.” Weakened how? The rule books don’t say specifically and give only a few vague hints about what that might look like, but this gives the GM full reign to decide how much and to what extent that takes place.
Reading a bit between the lines, a ghost could be hurt more by something that caused its death in life. A ghost might even be outright destroyed by replicating the way it died. Alternatively, a ghost who died intensely hating something could be weak to that which it hated.
Another way to read this is that ghosts might act irrationally when presented with things tied to their past. Irrational behavior might include staying in the material plane to relentlessly attack instead of preserving their undeath.
Types of Ghosts and Examples
There are all sorts of ghosts you could use in your campaign. There are a lot of good examples to follow and below are some basic archetypes you can use to make your own ghosts.
Ghosts might fall into one of a few example groups:
- The Friendly Ghost – Not aggressive, but causes unnatural trouble accidentally.
- The Rage Ghost – This creature died hating everything and still does.
- The Oblivious Ghost – This ghost doesn’t know it’s dead and will ignore any notion of this.
- The Poltergeist – This ghost haunts an area and is more about its ghostly manifestations than anything else.
- The Real Sad Story Ghost – The ghost of a dog who promised to wait for it’s owner to return from war…
Let’s take a look at a specific example and how it can be used in your game.
Example Scenario: The Friendly Ghost
Your party shows up to a beautiful seaside town with lush green hills of rolling meadows. The town is small and quite spread out, but even in the densest areas hardly anyone is out and about. After questioning a few of the locals, the party learns that there are unusual happenings going on in the town. Odd supernatural occurrences have started plaguing the town, originating from the old orchard north of town – no one dares go near it.
Once the team decides to intervene and goes out to the abandoned orchard, they find a number of unusual things on the way: trees bearing black fruit with no leaves and various cold spots despite the warm summer sun. But the real trouble starts much closer to the orchard when the party is attacked by a small number of undead birds. Perhaps the villagers understated the unusual occurrences a bit.
After dealing with the undead flock, the party finally makes its way into the main building and is greeted unexpectedly by a young translucent child. The small boy seems happy to see the party, but is clearly some sort of specter. The boy takes care to be very polite and shows the party into the building. He apologizes about the birds and the dead trees; he says he doesn’t know what causes them and informs the party that he has been hiding from those creepy things by staying inside the orchard building.
The party has many routes that they can take with the child. If they stay and talk with it, he’ll start telling them stories, the way most children do, and talk about the things he wanted to do. He explains he wanted to operate the lighthouse and help bring in the night merchant ships someday.
If the party takes a more aggressive route in exercising the boy, he gets scared and runs away. As his mood worsens, various undead creatures show up to attack the party and unusual occurrences slow them down. The party may find the boy and destroy him, but he will only attack if hurt.
If the party instead does try to fulfill the boy’s unfinished business, they can help take him to the lighthouse at night, which starts a sequence of events where they have to keep the boy, who is easily frightened, from seeing any unnatural occurrences on the way there. If they fail to ward off the scary things, he gets scared and returns to the orchard.
When the party does reach the lighthouse successfully and the boy makes it to the top, the party helps him operate the light bringing in the night ships. The boy is happy with this and passes on, lifting the blight on the town.
Ghosts are a Quest and Monster Rolled into One
Ghosts are versatile and you can do a tremendous amount with them very easily. Try to create a ghost in your setting that isn’t just a chance encounter, but instead an opportunity for your players to explore the world. If you set things up properly, your players will have to do their research to find out what the ghost’s unfinished business was and this usually involves diving deep into the content you’ve created for your world.