Speak with Dead 5e Guide

Speak with Dead 5e Guide

The staff nervously made way as the great detective and College of Lore bard entered the newly deceased baron’s library. The tiefling had his companions clear the room and prevent outside interference. One look at the tiefling’s infernal horns, and the baron’s body servants and bodyguards knew better than to challenge this great detective who had been held in high regard on various planes of existence throughout the multiverse.

Once the interlopers had been removed, the tiefling detective casually lit up his oily briar pipe as he regarded the corpse. The baron was lying face down on the carpet with a dagger in his back. The Asmodeus tiefling used his knowledge of Investigation and Arcana to examine the corpse and the rest of the crime scene.

After some time in deep thought, the Asmodeus tiefling put out his pipe and unstrapped his kobza. As his devilish fingers touched the strings of his Cossack instrument, he began to sing in Infernal, the language of the Nine Hells,

“The dead shall speak when they are told,

It matters not if they are cold

It matters not what they did in youth

When I ask, they speak the truth.”

After his verse, he switched to the Common tongue, so that he could interview the baron’s corpse. Welcome to a Speak with Dead 5e Guide.

Bottomline on Speak With Dead

Speak With Dead lets you ask up to 5 questions of a corpse. This spell enables you to ask up to 5 questions of a corpse within range. The spell will not work under the following conditions:

  • The corpse was the target of this spell within the past 10 days
  • The corpse no longer has a mouth
  • The corpse is Undead

As per the Player’s Handbook (PHB) p. 277, the answers to these questions are usually “brief, cryptic, or repetitive” and subject to certain conditions:

  • Questions must be in a language the corpse knew in life
  • Answers are based only on what the corpse knew in life up to the time of its death
  • If the corpse recognizes you as hostile or an enemy, it does not have to answer truthfully
  • Corpse cannot make guesses about future events

You should also note that only the animating spirit is returned to the corpse, not the creature’s actual soul. Here are the spell’s stats:

Speak With Dead

  • 3rd level Necromancy Spell
  • Casting time: 1 action
  • Range: 10 feet
  • Components: V, S, M (burning incense)
  • Duration: 10 minutes

Who Can Use Speak With Dead?

This spell is available to bards and clerics as per PHB.

Is Speak With Dead Good?

Yes. Speak With Dead is great both for problem-solving and for enjoyable role-play. Having this spell in the game adds texture to the storytelling.

Speak With Dead Caster: Character Build

Speak With Dead Caster: Character Build
Image From David Blanc

To provide some context, I’m going to provide a character that can cast the Speak With Dead Spell. In this case, I’ll use a 6th-level male tiefling College of Lore bard and name him Crossroads.

My opinion is that if you have both a cleric and a bard in your party, the bard should be the one to choose Speak With Dead in order for the cleric to be free to focus on healing and anti-undead spells. Speak With Dead is also great for College of Lore bards like Crossroads because they are the perfect investigators due to their many proficiencies.

Basic Stats

Ability Strength Intelligence Wisdom Dexterity Constitution Charisma
Standard Sequence 15 14 13 12 10 8
Customized Sequence 8 15 10 13 12 14
Racial ASI   +1       +2
4th Lvl. ASI           +2
Ability Scores Total 8 16 10 13 12 18
Ability Modifiers -1 +3 +0 +1 +1 +4


Lvl AC HP Move Weapon Equipment
6 13 39 25 Rapier +2. +6/+3  Dam 1d8+3 (4-12) Studded leather +2, Rapier +2

Spells and Cantrips

Innate magic spells due to Infernal Legacy are italics. Spells from the Additional Magic Secrets feature are in boldface.

Cantrips (3) +1 Mage Hand, Minor Illusion, Vicious Mockery, Thaumaturgy
1st level (4) Comprehend Languages, Detect Magic, Healing Word, Speak With Animals
2nd level (3) +2 Detect Thoughts, Invisibility, Zone of Truth, Hellish Rebuke, Darkness
3rd level (3) +2 Clairvoyance, Dispel Magic, Speak With Dead, Fireball, Revivify

Applications and Considerations for Speak With Dead Spell

What are your boss’s weaknesses? Where is all the treasure that you know of? Where are all the traps that you know of?

These are just a few examples of the seemingly infinite number of questions you can ask.

You can also offer to do some favors for the deceased, burial rites, messages to relatives, etc. You’re only allowed 5 questions but, depending on your DM, offers might not count as questions. Who says the dead can’t be bribed?

A lot of players never think to disguise themselves when casting Speak With Dead. DMs should definitely penalize players that are recognized by the corpses they kill. Of course, if you cannot create a convincing disguise, you could always be ghoulish and pluck out the corpse’s eyes. Just make sure you do this before you animate your corpse with a Speak With Dead Spell. Example:

Being Recognized As An Enemy

Being Recognized As An Enemy
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Crossroads kills a bugbear chieftain in single combat. He knows that the chieftain must have seen him face-to-face, so a disguise is necessary. If he doesn’t disguise himself somehow, the bugbear will remember the bard from the fight and recognize him as an enemy.

The party’s half-orc barbarian suggests that they solve the problem by poking out the bugbear’s eyes before the bard casts Speak With Dead on its corpse.

Crossroad’s player Christopher knows that this could work but he also knows that their DM likes good role-play. He decides to disguise the bard.

Because Crossroads has the disguise kit tools proficiency as part of his Urchin background, such a plan is quite possible.

Like most tieflings, Crossroads has horns. He could, of course, cover up these horns with a hat/helmet/hood. Instead, he decides to go in the opposite direction. He uses his disguise kit to amplify his horns and paint his skin a deep red. Rather than appear to be half-a-devil, he wants to appear as a full devil, a cambion.

Like all Asmodeus tieflings, Crossroads has the Thaumaturgy cantrip. He uses this cantrip to modulate his voice and make his eyes glow yellow like two flames.

Take Me to Your Leader/Where’s the loot?

Take Me to Your Leader/Where’s the loot?
Image From David Blanc

Bugbears don’t speak Bugbear; they speak Goblin. Crossroads doesn’t speak Goblin. The party’s dwarf does, but only the caster can ask the questions. Luckily, Crossroads has access to the Comprehend Languages Spell.

Christopher talks with the other players to plan out his five questions perfectly. The other players want to know where the treasure is, but Christopher wants information related to the larger adventure.

He also knows that he doesn’t want any of his statements to sound anything like questions. He knows that he will lose one of his five questions if he says something stupid like,

“Would you mind if I ask you some questions?”

“You can ask five questions and that was an answer to one of your questions. You have four questions left.”

Christopher knows better than to fall into that trap.

Before he asks his questions, Christopher wants his bard to make some statements to set the tone, because he doesn’t want the bugbear to see this fearsome cambion as hostile. Depending on your DM, statements are free.

Crossroads the Tiefling Bard casts Speak With Dead Spell on the corpse of the bugbear chieftain. The corpse’s eyes open as it speaks,

“What would you have of me?” The bard responds,

“I’m a cambion who means you no harm and might even be able to help your soul on its journey, but I must know, who is your master?”

“My master is the drow sorcerer, Acton De Vir.”

1 question expended. Christopher smiles at the other players. His hunch paid off.

“What are your master’s weaknesses?”

“I know not.”

Now the other players smile and pressure Christopher to proceed with their plan. 2 questions expended. 3 left.

“Where is all the treasure that you know of?”

“All my treasure is in my cave, locked in a chest. My warriors keep their treasure in their coin purses.

My master keeps his treasure in his tower.”

The DM allows Christopher to spend a few minutes chatting with the other players. Some want to ask questions about the cave. Some want to ask questions about the tower.

“What traps guard these treasures?”

“My chest has a poisonous needle that pops out of the lock when someone tries to pick it. I do not know all of my master’s traps, but one of his chests is really a monster that eats those who touch it.”

4 questions were expended. 1 left. Christopher confers with his party. They decide that they can interrogate more corpses as they get closer to the drow sorcerer’s tower. The short-term plan is to focus on the bugbear chieftain’s cave.

“How do we get to your cave?” The corpse lets out a hideous laugh,

“You can walk if you like!”

Location Questions

Location Questions
Image From David Blanc

As you can see from question 5 above, you have to be very careful when asking location questions. In the real world, people have walked across continents over the course of months and years, so “walking distance” doesn’t narrow it down.

Getting a precise location with as few questions as possible is an art unless the deceased wants to be cooperative. Let’s see how an interview between Crossroads and the animating spirit of this bugbear chieftain could go wrong:

“Where is your cave?”

“In the Underdark.”

For those who don’t know, the Underdark is a very large network ranging from 3 to 40 miles deep below the surface of the continent of Faerun, containing many cities and realms. As you might expect, “in the Underdark” doesn’t exactly narrow things down.

Since Crossroads only had 1 question left when he was interrogating the bugbear chieftain’s animating spirit, the ideal question would have been something like,

“Is your cave within 1 mile of here and on this level of the dungeon/tunnel complex/cavern?”

Victims Into Allies

Victims Into Allies
Image From David Blanc

After Crossroads and his companions leave the bugbears and do what they can to find the chieftain’s cave, they continue towards the tower. After a few more encounters and a couple more corpse interviews, they have a pretty good idea of the tower’s location. En route to the tower, they come up to a gruesome sight.

They see a barren tree being used as gallows for several corpses. So many corpses, but only 1 Speak With Dead Spell! What’s a tiefling bard to do?

When Crossroads examines the tree the hanging bodies include several races: goblins, dwarves, elves, humans, and even a tiefling or 2. He can only pick 1, but Crossroads decides that his best conversation would be with a fellow tiefling.

After preparing the spell, he addresses the hanging corpse,

“I know that the drow sorcerer did this to you. Please tell me his strengths and weaknesses so that, through me, you may have your revenge.”

The tiefling corpse stirs,

“Please cut me down so that this damn rope isn’t squeezing my neck.”

The half-orc barbarian says,

“Not until you answer our questions first!”

The bard disagrees with that tactic and has the half-orc remove the rope from the tiefling corpse and lay it on the ground. After the bard apologizes for his friend’s behavior, the dead tiefling speaks,

“The drow sorcerer has a draconic bloodline with blue dragon ancestry. I’ve counted 20 bugbears and 2 trolls in and around the tower. He has a wand that casts lightning bolts. He wears no armor and I haven’t seen him fight. I have seen him cast spells though, and he always speaks when he casts.”

As you can see, the tone of this conversation is very different than the one with the bugbear chieftain. Even if the chieftain doesn’t identify the bard as an enemy, he has no motivation for the bard to find a treasure that rightfully belongs to him.

The dead tiefling knows that his real enemy is the drow sorcerer and that the tiefling bard and he have a common enemy and are therefore allies. This is because the bard set the tone right away with his statement. This motivates the dead tiefling to not only be generous with information but to not identify the bard as hostile despite the half-orc’s rude behavior.

The bard could ask about traps but he has a more direct approach,

“What’s the best way into the tower and to wherever the drow sorcerer is most likely to be?”

The dead tiefling laughs,

“You are greedy, my fellow tiefling! Those are really 2 questions and yet you try to ask them as 1. Regardless, I will answer them both.

You must somehow slip past the guards and get to the top of the tower. Do not enter through the roof or the top window. Enter through the window that is second from the top. That was the answer to your second question.

The drow sorcerer will be in 1 of 2 places. He will either be in his laboratory, conducting his experiments or in his study, reading his books and scrolls. His study is on the top floor. His laboratory is underground, as is his dungeon.”

Christopher and the other players laugh. Another dungeon? A dungeon inside a dungeon?

“You have 2 questions left, traveler. Ask wisely.”

Morgues, Cemeteries, and Battlefields


Speak With Dead need not only be employed during adventures. It can also be used throughout the campaign between adventures.

A bribe to some local gravediggers or morgue guards could give a character like Crossroads an unlimited number of guests to his “talkshow”. The advantage of this situation is that it is not done during adventuring time. Therefore, he talks to 1 corpse on 1 day, takes a long rest, and interviews another corpse on another day. There’s no time limit because the bard is on his “down time”, not his adventuring time.

How valuable is this information?

Depending on the DM, it might not be any more valuable than the local gossip in a tavern, but you never know. It certainly adds flavor to the campaign. Typical corpse questions between adventures could include:

  • Who’s the real power behind this town/city/plane of existence?
  • Where can I get magic items to purchase/unguarded treasure to steal/knowledge to exploit?

You can also provide services for the dead in exchange for information:

  • I can provide messages to loved ones and maybe even some cash.
  • I can right a wrong that was done to you.

Whodunnit Mysteries

Detective stories are a great way to break up the routine of dungeon adventures. Speak With Dead is a great tool for solving murder mysteries, but it should be used in conjunction with proficiencies, other spells, and good role-play. Example:

Crossroads is called to the manor of Baron Whitefield, who has been found face-down in his library with a dagger in his back.

Crossroads has some of the party members secure the crime scene and prevent unwanted visitors, before running Investigation and Arcana checks. He also has one of the party members assigned to take notes of the exchange.

After singing a verse on his Cossack kobza, the tiefling bard begins his interview.

Before he begins asking questions, he makes a statement to put the animating spirit of Baron Whitefield at ease. (assuming statements are free)

“I’m sorry to meet under these circumstances, Baron Whitefield. While it’s too late for me to bring you back to life at this time, I might be able to raise you from the dead in a year or so, should you want to come back. In the meantime, I’d like to ask you some questions in the hopes of bringing your killer to justice.”

Christopher knows better than to waste one of his 5 precious questions by asking things like:

Who did it?

Do you know who did it?

He assumes the DM would never make a whodunnit that easy.

Instead, he asks,

“What did you see and hear for the last few minutes of your life?”

Since the baron’s corpse is lying face-down on the bloody carpet, the animating spirit turns the corpse’s head to the side so it can speak,

“I was in the bath, closing my eyes, when suddenly I felt a strong pair of hands on me, pushing me down into the water. As the water filled my lungs, I struggled with all my might, but those hands were too strong.

The last thing I saw through the water was the ceiling of the bathhouse. I never saw my killer’s face or even his hands.”

This is valuable information indeed! Obviously, the murder didn’t happen in the library, but in the bathhouse before the body had been moved. Furthermore, the baron did not die from a knife to the back but had been stabbed after he had already been drowned.

From that one answer from Baron Whitefield, Crossroads is inspired to do many follow-up actions.

  • He will run an Investigation check and an Arcana check to follow the trail from the library to the bathhouse.
  • He will run an Investigation check and an Arcana check at the bathhouse.
  • He will use Invisibility Spell and Detect Thoughts to spy on the household staff, family members, and all possible suspects.
  • He will eventually interview all people above and subject them to his Zone of Truth Spell. Of his companions, he will invite the one with the best Insight modifier, the party cleric, to sit in on the interrogations.
  • He will eventually interview the baron’s cat and any other pets or livestock that could be potential witnesses by casting Speak With Animals Spell.
  • He will cast Detect Magic on both the library and the bathhouse.
  • He will have the party’s cleric cast Detect Evil on both places.
  • He will have the party’s cleric cast Augury before making various decisions during the investigation.
  • He will have the party’s cleric cast Guidance every time he runs an Investigation or Arcana check.
  • He will talk to the locals to find out more about the baron’s life, especially about his enemies and the barony’s political situation.

It suddenly dawns on Crossroads’s player Christopher that a lot of these tasks above should have been completed before his interview with the animating spirit of Baron Whitefield. He only gets 5 questions and won’t be able to talk to the Baron again for 10 days. By then the body would start to decompose in a nasty way.

Had Crossroads done these tasks before the interview, he would have a lot more information before expending his 5 questions. The advantage of obtaining this information before the interview is that you can pick your questions more carefully and word them more precisely.

In a sense, the more investigation you can do before any corpse interview, not just a murder investigation, the better your 5 questions will be.

What’s the Difference Between a Soul and an Animating Spirit?

Image From Memory Fandom

According to RPGStackExchange, there is no real mention of animating spirits in 5e other than the Speak With Dead Spell.

In Western religion, we tend to think of 2 bodies: a physical body and a soul. In Eastern religion, they often don’t limit themselves to just 2. Sometimes they believe in as many as 7 bodies. The great yogi Yogananda, of whom Steve Jobs was a huge fan, stated that we have 3 bodies: gross, subtle, and causal.

The gross body is the physical body. The causal body seems pretty close to me to what we would call the soul. The subtle body lies somewhere in between.

In game terms, I think the subtle body is this animating spirit. It never gets to heaven or hell. It’s literally between the world of the living and the afterlife.

In Yogananda’s terms, this subtle body was a vessel used to take the Self across the Astral Plane. Depending on what the Self did in its life on earth, it might be in the Astral Plane for a very long time.

In game terms, the animating spirit does not travel across the Astral Plane but apparently remains in the Material Plane. It is possible, however, that this animating spirit spends its time on the Astral Plane or even the Ethereal Plane and is summoned back to the Material Plane by the Speak With Dead caster. The fact that it is being forced to travel across planes to answer questions might explain why it is no more cooperative than it has to be.

What’s useful about Eastern religion’s concept of the subtle body is the idea that we have a body specifically designed for transition from the living world to our final resting place. In game terms, this animating spirit is a body that has been left behind by the soul. It is the equivalent of a boat left docked on the opposite shore. How does this body feel about being left behind?

That question could create a lot of role-playing with Speak With Dead and other situations related to the transition to the afterlife. My belief is that the animating spirit is partially composed of the soul, but to some extent, is autonomous of the soul. It is basically an imprint of the soul, but less real and in lower resolution.

This is why the animating spirit only knows what the creature knew in life, but does not really see what is going on in the afterlife. Does it actually care about the people it knew in life?

I would say it does because it still has the option of refusing to answer questions from enemies. If you kill its physical body, the animating spirit will take things personally. Therefore, if you do something good regarding what it cared it about when it was alive, it could feel a sense of gratitude when it is an animating spirit.

As a DM, I view this spirit as an imprint with a low-resolution view of its former life and of the life it has now. It cares, but only in the way of someone waking up from a dream. It is not yet ready for the waking world, the afterlife to which it will never go because that place is for souls. It is also in the process of forgetting its former life the way we would forget our dreams, minute-by-minute after we wake up.


Question: Do skeletons and skulls count as “interviewable” corpses?

Answer: At the DM’s discretion. It’s also a matter of discretion whether or not you can keep a bunch of skulls in your backpack for interesting conversations.

Qestion: Do statements and offers count as questions?

Answer: At the DM’s discretion.

Question: Can I bribe or intimidate an animating spirit?

Answer: At the DM’s discretion. Obviously, you can’t kill what’s already dead but you can help or hurt something or someone it cared about in its previous life. Depending on your magical powers, you might be able to figure out how to enter the animated spirit’s realm (Astral Plane, Ethereal Plane, Shadowfell, etc.) and affect its current life.


Speak With Dead allows you to ask 5 questions from a dead creature’s animating spirit by being in close proximity to its corpse, provided the corpse still has a mouth. It does not have to answer truthfully, however, if it knows you are an enemy. You can’t interview the same corpse twice within a 10-day period.

As you can see, the role-playing possibilities are vast with this spell. The implications of what happens after we die in the 5e world are also interesting.

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