Libris Monstrum #9: Ghosts & Hauntings
Once again the approach of this article is not going to be what I had intended when I first added the idea to the list. Originally there were going to be considerations for ghosts outside the normal humanoid aspect that the Monster Manual covers. Dragons, umber hulks, giants, and the like. However, as fun as that will be eventually, I want to stick to the standard “human” ghost and we will start by looking at why.
Something occurred to me: the ghost just scratches the surface of real-world stories of such things. The latest version does a great job of giving incorporeal undead a host of abilities. Between the ghost’s ability, the specter, and the poltergeist variant of the specter we have all kinds of terrifying encounters. However, not all ghosts are destructive or horrifying in the specific way the Monster Manual leans. Nor are they necessarily so powerful. I want to expand the range of the ghost a bit to create even more flexibility. There’s a billion dragons, why not ghosts too??
One thing I really want is a low level ghostly apparition that isn’t the soul draining specter. Here I imagine a haunt which would not necessarily be a ghost with unfinished business but more like something stuck or lost. A soul whose death may not have been discovered and even psychopomps may have been unable to sense the lost soul and retrieve it. Such a creature would be scary but not necessarily belligerent.
We can start with the main features that differentiate this creature. Rather than having a withering touch, I see these things as causing psychic damage as the character’s are weighed down by a desperate loneliness. Etherealness and incorporeal movement are important, but as weaker beings I think we can create an attack that fuels its abilities. I imagine an area effect that drains heat from the space for energy. This would deal cold damage but might allow the haunt to interact with the party for a time, confused as it might be.
Echoes & Major Haunts
From the haunt I think we can extrapolate some more creatures. First let’s downgrade the power of the haunt and create an echo. Many ghosts are thought to be just recordings of what was, of emotional weight, playing out on repeat as years go by. An echo would be similar, perhaps there isn’t even a full soul connected to it. Instead it is a ghost which briefly appears and disappears. I can see it as much as a hazard as anything else, dealing cold or psychic damage whenever it passes through someone but otherwise not interacting at all.
On the flip side a major haunt might not be as lost or confused, but simply trapped. The “unfinished business” of a ghost has a relatively strong implication of nefariousness to it. Something like a murder or betrayal. I see a haunt as having something much simpler like a message in needs to leave behind or the need for a proper burial. A major haunt might be aware of what it needs and reach out to the players for help by moving objects and attempting to appear to them without hurting them too much.
The Possessed Object
All of these versions of a ghost tend to haunt a specific place, but stories abound where a ghost possesses an object. Sometimes there is simply a connection, such as the slow rocking of a chair, but other times it might make the object move, such as with a creepy doll. The latter of these can be created by combining the ghost or the haunt with an animated object. The former might have some interesting implications though.
Imagine a spirit with unfinished business but that spirit has been trapped within an object. Perhaps it was cursed or some powerful necromancy jailed it. Regardless, what if we made it so that the wielder of the object risked becoming possessed? Something like smoking from a haunted pipe, playing a haunted lute, or drinking from a haunted flask. From there the ghost might try to enact whatever deeds it thinks it must in order to move on.
Maybe we give these ghost more indirect methods of influence such as spells like minor illusion and, while possessing someone, thaumaturgy. We could even allow the ghost to utilize horrifying visage but only while possessing someone. And we don’t need to imply that these ghosts are aggressive necessarily. Some may just want help and only use the visage when angered or frustrated.
When it comes down to it there are LOTS of ghosts out there and we need some more flexibility to have them at the table. Don’t get me wrong all of these things can be done without new stat blocks, but when it comes down to it stat blocks are the tools to help use manage mechanics and that would be helpful for all of these. What kind of ghosts would you like to see show up in a manual? What creatures would you like ghostified in another Libris Monstrum entry? Let me know in the comments below!