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The Toolkit: After Life

Back in the days when D&D 3e was the only game played at my table, I bought a fair few sourcebooks, supplements, and other accouterments that I thought would improve my game. Unfortunately, for the most part they didn’t do anything other than bloat an already-complicated ruleset, and add fuel to the power creep fire already prevalent in D&D at that time. Some of the books didn’t even make it into the campaign I was running at the time, after an inspection of their contents left little to be desired. One of these books was Ghostwalk.


Ghostwalk’s premise was interesting enough, death didn’t have to be the end of an adventurer’s career, there were plenty more adventures to be had as an incorporeal spirit joining the party and using your new-found spirit powers. Alas, the premise was about as interesting as it got, rather than fitting neatly into your campaign and creating a bolt-on system that would make character death more interesting and less of an inconvenience, Ghostwalk added in a new setting centred around the city of Manifest, with some lukewarm standard sword-and-sorcery lands around it and some conflict with Yuan-Ti cultists.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of a city like Manifest sounds interesting, a place where the dead and the living interact, sharing knowledge and pursuing their own agendas (The Acquisitions Incorporated podcast series revisited the concept with the dwarven city of Kraghammer), but adding in a heap of half-baked setting lore did nothing for me, and I suspect for most of you, too. Combined with the way Ghostwalk handled undead characters, it didn’t grab me and it has sat forlorn on a shelf for several years, untouched, unloved, unused.

This week on The Toolkit, I want to try and make something that’ll create the feel I wanted for Ghostwalk, or at least get you thinking about how you might handle a ghostly character or campaign at your table.

Revisiting Ghostwalk

Before starting with any rules or adventure ideas, we first need to glean what we want from the Ghostwalk premise, and what our design brief is. Whilst it might seem pointless, creating a brief for yourself is one of the most important parts of a design, in order to have something you can measure your work against, and to keep yourself focussed on the end goal. These are the highlights that I think Ghostwalk’s premise promised, and that I want this design to hit:

  • Address death in 5e, making it meaningful and an important part of the campaign.
  • Give the player some agency in what occurs after their character dies.
  • Present the player of a deceased character with the opportunity to keep playing that character, and for that character to grow.
  • Allow the player to continue to contribute to the group in some fashion.
  • Explore the potential dangers and wonders of the afterlife in a D&D cosmology.


I’m not including the city of Manifest or the Ghostwalk setting within those highlights, because frankly most of us are more happy to use a setting with greater support (like Forgotten Realms) or our own settings, rather than the setting included within the book. The information included within the original Ghostwalk book is fine if that’s the setting you want to play.

Death in D&D 5e.

As my colleagues at Stories of the Fifth Age discussed on their recent podcast, character death isn’t really discussed in the D&D 5e core books. The Player’s Handbook tells us that death occurs if we fail three death saving throws or take massive damage, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide talks about the planes and mentions souls being ferried on the River Styx or dwelling within the Outer Planes, but all three books are remarkably coy on what happens between a character dying and ending up in their respective afterlives. If death is an instantaneous transition, then why do beings destined for the lower planes have to travel on the River Styx, or travel on the Infinite Staircase? How do some spirits get waylaid, eventually becoming ghosts, spectres, or wraiths?

If death isn’t to be the end of a character, then there has to be some kind of afterlife at the very least, and perhaps even several stages, in order to communicate the idea that a character doesn’t simply cease to be once they’ve finished uttering their last death rattle. Maybe in your cosmology there are no Outer Planes, and souls go through stages of abandoning impurities before achieving true nirvana, or perhaps souls are collected in the ethereal plane by hooded figures who direct them toward their final resting place. They could even awake after death in some form of judgement chamber where a clerk of the dead will weigh their sins against their virtues in some kind of magical scales. Here’s a few ideas on what kind of form that journey might take, but ultimately go with what feels right for you:


(And here’s a Google Sheet)

In order for players to make the choice between a permanent death (and rolling up a new character) and continuing to invest time and effort in a dead character, we have to make them aware that there is a choice. Personally, I like the idea of giving them a moment after death and presenting them with their options, either to follow the appropriate path chosen for the souls of the dead in you setting, or to continue as a ghost or ghostly character. That moment of choice could make for great drama, or give the player character the moment of closure necessary to move on and choose a new character now that they feel the character has reached a satisfying end (especially if the death itself was unexpected or unsatisfying). Below are a couple of ideas for ways you could present the player with the choice whether to move on or continue as a ghostly character.

Introduce an NPC, perhaps a deceased family member or mentor, or some kind of supernatural guide, who explains that they’ve died and it’s time to move on from their mortal existence. The player can choose to go with them or refuse their help.

Describe the means by which souls are taken from the ethereal plane onto the next stage of their journey, such as being pulled inexorably toward a great light in the sky by some invisible force, other souls floating upwards serenely, some screaming and fighting. Present the player with the option to fight against the process, clinging to some anchor that will prevent their ascension, or letting go and accepting it.


The main problem with rules for ghostly characters is that, in a high fantasy setting, resurrection spells are available, taking the sting out of death as a character’s death is rarely likely to be permanent, assuming that an adventuring party is willing to spend time and gold gaining the costly spell components necessary to fuel the spell. Without artificially limiting resurrection spells by putting a limit on them or banning them outright, most character deaths will be temporary inconveniences unless the player considers the investment of their time and effort worth less than that involved in creating a new character. However, just because a character’s resurrection might be inevitable, doesn’t mean it has to be easy. If the adventurers want their friend back, make them work for it, make it an adventure in itself.


When it comes to player characters searching nearby settlements, ask yourself whether that one-horse town is likely to have “rare oils and unguents” or a single “diamond worth 500gp”. That kind of value is probably only going to be found in the high-class jewellers of the biggest cities or the larger treasure hoards (At least a Challenge 11-16, going by the Dungeon Master’s Guide rules on treasure). It might even be that such diamonds make up highly-prized pieces of royal or noble jewellery that can’t be bought, though they might be bartered for services provided to the crown or nobility. That’s assuming the adventurers even have a body (or at least part of one for the reincarnate spell), or else the components are even more difficult to acquire, and the wait might grow even longer.

A resurrection spell might even be out of the party’s reach because they lack a spellcaster able to prepare it, putting them at the mercy of clergyfolk who might want them to perform services in return for the favour. By making resurrection a challenging outcome to achieve, we can give ghostly characters enough spotlight time to be worth the effort of continuing to play, rather than the player just sitting out until the necessary spell can be cast. Here are a few ideas about how you could extend or complicate the party’s attempts to resurrect one of their comrades.

Diamonds aren’t cheap or particularly common amongst the common populace, and their use in powerful spells — however rarely — means that the supply is constantly dwindling, and is in great demand by powerful rulers eager to secure the means to cheat death by assassination, war, or mishap. Whilst increasing the price of diamonds might prove only a minor deterrent, restricting their supply to royals, nobles, and high-ranking clergy (in a similar manner to purple dye in the middle ages) adds an increased level of complication toward acquiring them. Suddenly it’s not the local jeweller that the party have to bargain with, but the King’s chamberlain or the High Priest of the Sun God, and they might want a favour or three before agreeing to hand over a single gemstone.

All but the most powerful resurrection spells require a body (or some body part) in order to function, what happens when the party can’t find the body, or bring it with them? City guards on watch for disease or undead aren’t likely to allow them to bring a body within city limits, so they’ll have to negotiate, hide their friend’s corpse somewhere, or sneak it in somehow. What happens if someone else steals it, and suddenly the party have to parley with the local graverobbers in order to find their comrade’s cadaver?

The deceased’s soul has to be free and willing to return to life, which could mean the spell might be prevented by a curse or malicious entity ensnaring the departed soul. It might be that the deceased’s god refuses to give their permission for resurrection until a quest has been fulfilled or penance made.


Put the party cleric (or bard…wait, bards can resurrect people now? How did that slip by me?!) in a position where they find themselves struggling to save their high level spell slots for resurrections. Just because a character is patiently waiting to be brought back doesn’t mean that the real world comes to standstill, adventurers still face constant danger and threats.

Now that we’ve talked a little about character death and making the choice to continue on as a ghostly character, it’s time to think about what a ghostly character might be.

Rather than rehash the ghost entry from the Monster Manual, I want to try to create a definite difference between ghosts and ghostly characters, who I’m going to call spirits in order to make matters less confusing. Part of that lies in recognising that ghosts are obsessive creatures with little free will and less humanity, in short they are what the adventurers might become, should they linger too long. A spirit character should seem more human (or elven, or dwarven… you catch my drift), because they’re not long since dead, and because it makes the most sense around the game table. Here’s what I have so far, with design notes shown like (this):

A humanoid character who dies, and then makes the choice to refuse to journey toward the afterlife, gains the Spirit Template, as listed below, appearing in the Ethereal Plane at full hit points, in the space roughly equivalent to where they died. The Spirit Template and its features are removed from a character when they are resurrected, or temporarily lifted whilst they possess a host until they return to their natural state.

Spirit (Template)

A departed soul that refuses the call of the afterlife wanders the world attempting to right wrongs committed to them in their mortal life, avenging their own death and completing any unfinished business. Unfortunately many perils lie in wait for such wandering spirits within the mortal realms, and these spirits must combat their own obsessions and misplaced anger, lest they become some twisted and bitter towards those who still yet live, or give in to the call of the afterlife, abandoning the mortal world for their soul’s next destination.

Equipment: Spirits bear facsimiles of the equipment they carried at the moment of their death, including weapons, armour, spell books, arcane foci, and so on. (Whilst starting a dead character off effectively naked might seem like an interesting premise, you’re probably hastening them to a second death.)

Undead: A spirit doesn’t require air, food, drink, or sleep, and replaces its original type with the Undead creature type. Spirits gain darkvision 60 ft. and the following resistances and immunities. If a spirit is reduced to 0 hit points, they are destroyed, their soul ceasing to exist whilst their spiritual energy causes a spectre to rise in the place they were destroyed, 1d3 days later.

Damage Immunities: poison

Condition Immunities: poisoned

(Ghosts get a ton of resistances and immunities because they’re incorporeal, however until such point as they leave the Ethereal Plane, spirits are solid ectoplasmic constructs, so spell attacks and weapon attacks will effect them as normal. A spirit’s undeath is intended to be fragile, with more running or bargaining than fighting, at least until they begin to gain further powers.)

Ethereal Sight: A spirit can see 60 feet into the Material Plane when it is in the Ethereal Plane, and vice versa. (This is stage one of keeping a dead character connected to their party, rather than becoming some kind of solo adventure).

Ethereality: If a spirit leaves the Ethereal Plane by whatever means, they become invisible, inaudible and intangible, except to other undead-type creatures, who remain able to perceive and touch them. Whilst in this form, spirits can only interact with other undead or through the use of their ghostly powers, their weapon and spell attacks having no affect on living creatures or constructs. (This feature is designed to limit the ability of a ghostly character outside of the ghostly realms, so that a spirit wizard couldn’t cast Plane Shift and will themselves to the material plane to interact the world as if they were still alive.) A spirit exudes an unnatural aura antithetical to the Material Plane that causes unusual stenches to follow In its wake, cold spots to form in areas it lingers too long, or the lights to dim in a room it enters. In more extreme cases (where the spirit might spend more than a day in a small area), the bodies of the dead begin to rise as mindless zombies or skeletons.

Ghostly Powers: When a character first gains the spirit template or when they gain a class level, they also gain one of the following powers. If a spirit is brought back to life, they immediately lose these powers, though the powers return if the resurrected character is killed again and returns to existence as a spirit a second time. (These powers are intended to be a tradeoff for the lack of use the dead character would get from their class features outside of the Ethereal Plane.)

Telekinesis: The spirit gains the ability to move Small or Smaller objects that it can see on the Material Plane, up to a weight of fifty pounds. This can be used as the following attack: Telekinetic Slam. Ranged Weapon Attack (Proficiency + Dexterity) to hit, range 60 ft., one creature. Hit: d6+STR damage.

Possession: The spirit can possess one humanoid within 5 feet of it, forcing it to make a Charisma Save against a DC equal to the spirit’s Charisma + Proficiency Bonus + 8. On a failed save, the target is incapacitated and loses control of its body. The spirit controls the target’s body, using the target’s physical statistics (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution) but otherwise using it’s own statistics. The target has full awareness throughout the possession, remembering any actions it was made to perform. If the target body is reduced to 0 hit points, the spirit chooses to leave the target body (as a bonus action), or the spirit is exorcised with an effect like the dispel evil and good spell, the control ends and the spirit appears in a space within 5 feet of the target body. The target is immune to further possession for 24 hours after either succeeding on their save or when the possession ends.

Incorporeality: The spirit can assume a ghostlike form as an action, giving it a fly speed of 40 feet, the ability to pass through solid objects and creatures as difficult terrain, and granting it the following resistances: Damage Resistances: acid, cold, fire, lightning, thunder; bludgeoning, piercing and slashing from nonmagical weapons. Condition Immunities: grappled, paralysed, prone, restrained. Whilst in incorporeal form, the spirit is unable to perform weapon attacks other than those provided by the ghostly powers abilities.

Life Drain: The spirit gains the following attack: Life Drain. Melee Weapon Attack (Proficiency + Strength) to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 2d6 necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a Constitution (DC equal to 8 + Proficiency Bonus + Charisma) Save or have it’s hit point maximum reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the creature finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.

Ethereal Step: The spirit can move between the Ethereal Plane and the Material Plane as an action, and vice versa, though the limitations explained by the Ethereality feature are still in force. A spirit character under the effect of an ethereal step can move tiny objects weighing no more than 5lbs, not enough to wield a weapon but enough to manipulate small objects such as pens, crockery, etc.

The spirit template is still pretty rough but I wanted to show you an idea of something you could use within your games, keep your eyes peeled for an update following some testing and tweaking.

Making it worthwhile

Once you’ve armed your player with a ghostly character, it’s natural that they are going to want to be able to participate in whatever adventure the party are currently tackling, especially if they’re thinking of dishing out some revenge against the creature that did them in. As far as I can see it, there’s no approach here that’s absolutely fool-proof, but play it by ear. Offer a handful of challenges that can be best solved in the Ethereal Plane (such as dealing with an ethereal spy or predator), opportunities to use their ghostly powers to greater effect (putting them in a position to possess an NPC that is posing a problem) or even distracting them with short encounters that give them something to separately from the party that gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Between adventures, throw in unique challenges, such as unforgiving priests intent on exorcising all restless spirits, including the departed soul, or have the departed soul act as intermediary between the living party and undead spirits needing their help. Here’s a few ideas to help you get started.


(And here’s a google sheet)

That should just about do it for this week, hopefully I left you with some desire to go and explore the potential adventures within your campaign’s own afterlife. I may return to this topic at some juncture, but next week I want to talk about horror in your game. Stay tuned folks!

If you enjoyed today’s Toolkit or have a question or suggestion you’d like me to tackle, feel free to reach out and contact me, either here in the comments, the contact form for the Mad Adventurers Society, or through Twitter at @jay_jaydraper. If you like The Toolkit and want to help the Mad Adventurers Society to put out more quality content, consider visiting our Patreon page. Too Many Dice is my overflow for ideas, adventure hooks, short rants and stories, and other bits and pieces, if you’ve got the time go and see for yourself!

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