Some locations—the wizard’s tower, the sunken temple, the haunted house—appear repeatedly in stories and adventures. In this series, we’ll explore these archetypal locations, playing with or defying tropes, and presenting rules and ideas to bring these locales to life and to set you up for success when incorporating them into your game.
Whether a windswept manor on the moors, a dilapidated hut outside of town, or a castle on the verge of ruin, haunted locations are ripe areas to introduce backstory, side plots, clues, atmosphere, or some undead bashing.
This section is about the interactions with magic in haunted locales. We’ll start with some suggestions to adjust how magic works in haunted locales for heightened mood or to preserve mystery. After that, check out a ritual spell emulating an iconic haunted house pastime: the séance!
Should necromancy spells be stronger on haunted grounds? Should it be easy for magic to fix up these rotten, abandoned mansions? Should divination spells be reliable when there’re malevolent spirits about?
These are questions worth considering when running your players through a haunted locale. A few adjustments to how some spells work can introduce some interesting complications to an adventure.
Of course, changing how spells work shouldn’t be undertaken just to try and head off PC problem-solving. Instead, look at these suggestions as opportunities to enhance a haunting’s atmosphere or introduce new approaches.
Undead Summoning. Isn’t a haunted house (or better yet, a graveyard) the perfect place to summon up undead? Consider allowing PCs to cast undead summoning spells like animate dead with higher-level spell slots without expending the slots, taking advantage of the necrotic energy. Summoning undead in haunted locations could also be risky. Instead of stronger summons—or in addition to—add an Intelligence saving throw to these spells. On a failure, the PC risks losing control of their necro-charged minions.
Divinations. PC divinations can make short work of a good mystery. The goal shouldn’t be to stymie magical intelligence gathering but make it work for the setting. Divinations used in areas of tragedy, death, and necrotic incursions could come with an element of risk. Introduce a percentile chance that divination spells, such as speak with dead or séance (see below), get a hostile spirit answering instead of the intended target. A successful Wisdom saving throw clues the PC in that they’re being duped, but otherwise, they may be misled.
This is one to use cautiously. It’s not always fun to find out a spell might be unreliable. If you proceed with this idea, make sure they understand ahead of time their divinations may fall prey to malevolent piggybacking.
Passive Illusions. For more cinematic hauntings, give the creatures there a passive major image ability that triggers when the living are nearby. The illusions can play out relevant memories or emotional scenes, giving context to the events unfolding. With a passive spell, the creatures using it don’t even have to be aware they’re doing it, so even hostile undead like wraiths or specters can reveal their tragedies.
Resistance to Mending. Haunted locations tend to be rundown and broken. To reinforce the entropic mood of forgotten and forsaken areas, have haunted locales resist repair. Craft checks to fix things always have disadvantage. Mending spells have to be cast at one spell slot higher or fail. This could affect living things too. Healing spells require higher-level spell slots to function and natural healing takes twice as long.
Séance (New Spell)
4th-level necromancy (ritual)
Casting Time: 1 hour
Range: 10 feet
Components: V, S, M (a crystal ball, spirit board, or other focus worth at least 25 gp)
Duration: 10 minutes
By conducting a ritual using some kind of focus, like a crystal ball or a spirit board, you reach out to a deceased creature, usually one nearby. You must identify the creature, either by name or an identifier, such as “the ghost haunting this place.” This creature must have an Intelligence score of at least 3 or higher, and its soul cannot be trapped or have been destroyed. If either of these conditions are not met or if the creature named is not dead or is not haunting the area nearby, make a DC 10 Charisma saving throw. On a success, the spell simply fails. On a failure, your spell attracts hostile spirits instead, summoning 1d4 + 1 wraiths (or other appropriate undead, per GM discretion) to your location.
Otherwise, you summon a ghost of the target, hovering above the spell’s focus. Drawing the spirit renders it initially hostile. You must succeed a DC 20 Intelligence saving throw to control it, or it attacks. For every other creature participating in the séance, this DC is lowered by 5 (to a minimum of 5).
Once the ghost is summoned and under control, you may ask it up to 5 questions. These questions must be asked and answered within the duration. The spirit is not bound to be truthful or cooperative. At the GM’s discretion, you may need to succeed relevant skill checks for diplomacy or to discern lies.
The ghost is unable to answer questions about the afterlife or the specifics of its death, though it can recall information leading up to it. It is otherwise able to respond as a creature of its Intelligence, languages, and skills should.
Once the five questions are asked, or once the duration expires, the ghost vanishes back to its afterlife.
Attempting to summon the same ghost more than once in 10 days incurs disadvantage on both the spell’s saving throws.