Speak With Dead spell in 5e explained

Not getting the answers you want? Learn to shake down those corpses with this Speak With Dead spell guide for both players and DMs.

Lying in a decrepit state within an ornate coffin, a corpse with ghastly pale skin and sunken features is depicted talking with Speak With Dead spell. The figure's mouth is agape in a silent scream, revealing darkened teeth, and the eyes are closed as if in eternal rest. Wisps of ethereal hair float around the head, adding to the spectral quality of the scene. The coffin is adorned with intricate details and is slightly ajar, with a heavy chain draped across the body, hinting at a desire to keep whatever remains inside from escaping. The artwork is rendered with a chilling realism, capturing the eerie essence of gothic horror.


Despite its immense utility, Speak With Dead is not without its intricacies and limitations, as highlighted brilliantly in the Honour Among Thieves movie. Both players and Dungeon Masters (DMs) should be well-versed in the mechanics of this spell to ensure its proper usage and maintain a well-balanced game. We’ll explore the Speak With Dead spell, its workings, common mistakes, and advice for players and DMs when using this potent necromantic magic.

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What does the Speak With Dead spell do?

Speak With Dead is a 3rd-level necromancy spell that enables the caster to ask questions of a corpse, temporarily granting a “semblance of life and intelligence”. The spell’s primary purpose is to gather information that the dead creature knew during its life or to gain insights into past events that the creature witnessed.

What can Speak With Dead be used for?

  • Uncovering hidden truths: Players can use the spell to reveal secrets or uncover information that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to obtain through conventional means.
  • Resolving mysteries: The spell can help solve puzzles or mysteries by providing the party with crucial pieces of information from the deceased.
  • Accessing historical knowledge: Speak With Dead can grant access to historical events or ancient knowledge, offering a unique perspective on the campaign setting and its history.
  • Gaining tactical advantages: If used creatively, the spell can provide valuable insights into enemy plans, strategies, or weaknesses, giving the party a tactical edge in encounters.
  • Enhancing role-playing opportunities: Speak With Dead can lead to engaging role-playing experiences, as players interact with long-dead characters and delve into their stories, motivations, and emotions.

How does Speak With Dead spell work?

Speak With Dead spellcasting requirements

To cast Speak With Dead, the caster must meet the following requirements:

Spell level: The spell is a 3rd-level necromancy spell, meaning the caster must have access to 3rd-level spells.

Components: The spell requires both verbal and somatic components, as well as a material component – a piece of burning incense.

Target: The target must be a dead creature with a mouth, which can be physically present or represented by a mostly intact skull.

Duration and effects of Speak With Dead

Duration: The spell lasts for 10 minutes, during which the caster can ask up to five questions.

Responses: The corpse will answer the caster’s questions truthfully, to the best of its knowledge from when it was alive. It does not possess any information it learned after death.

Language: The corpse will respond in a language it knew during its life, and the caster must be able to understand that language to communicate effectively.

Common questions when using Speak With Dead

Does Speak With Dead work on skeletons?

Without being too much of a rules lawyer, the spell description reads, “the corpse must still have a mouth”, and since a corpse is “a dead body”, some DMs may rule that a pile of bones without sinews, muscles and some soft tissue left is not a valid target for Speak With Dead. However, this is for your DM to rule and I have seen DMs allow it!

Does the corpse with Speak With Dead cast on it have to respond?

Yes, the corpse must respond, however, it is under no compulsion to offer a lengthy or elaborate response, and it may provide only brief or cryptic answers, depending on its nature and disposition in life.

Does the corpse have to tell the truth with Speak With Dead?

Yes, the corpse cannot deliberately lie, they can however intentionally mislead you by giving technically truthful, but otherwise unhelpful answers. You also have to factor in that its knowledge may be outdated, incomplete, or based on false information that it believed to be true when it was alive.

Can you cast Speak With Dead more than once?

Yes, Speak With Dead can be cast multiple times, but not on the same corpse within a 10-day period.

Advice for players using Speak With Dead

Ask closed-ended questions: If the corpse isn’t so willing to help you, asking open-ended or vague questions is inviting unhelpful answers. Sometimes answering a closed-ended question can be the best way to get the information you need. Asking Yes/No questions or giving a multiple-choice answer can be a way to stay on course with your information.

Formulate clear and concise questions: You are limited to 5 questions, so make the most of them! When using Speak With Dead, players should prepare specific and well-thought-out questions to make the most of the limited number of queries they can ask.

Disguise yourself: While the corpse will have limited intelligence, it will recognise if you were an enemy in life and may be more helpful if you presented yourself as an ally.

Collaborate with your party: Players should work with their party members to determine which questions to ask, ensuring they cover different aspects of the situation and make the most of the information obtained.

Think creatively: Players should consider various ways to use Speak With Dead to their advantage, such as exploring alternative sources of information, accessing historical knowledge, or gaining tactical insights.

Respect the DM’s decisions: The DM has the final say in how the spell works and the information provided by the dead. Players should respect these decisions and adapt their strategies accordingly.

Advice for DMs when players use Speak With Dead

Managing player expectations

The Speak With Dead spell is particularly open for interpretation. If you have a new party of players, to avoid potential disappointment and head off any disagreements, it may be worthwhile to:

Clarify the spell’s mechanics: Ensure that your players understand the limitations and mechanics of Speak With Dead, such as the requirement for a mouth, the 10-day restriction, and the nature of the responses provided by the dead.

Set boundaries: Clearly establish what types of information the dead can and cannot provide, and maintain consistency in your rulings to prevent confusion or frustration.

Creating great Speak With Dead encounters

Encourage creative problem-solving: Reward players for using Speak With Dead creatively by providing valuable insights or hints that can help them overcome challenges or solve mysteries.

Develop unique NPCs: As a non-combat spell, Speak With Dead is the perfect chance to craft intriguing and memorable deceased characters with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and motivations, to make the interactions with the dead engaging and memorable.

Incorporate emotional and moral dilemmas: Introduce ethical considerations or emotional stakes when players use Speak With Dead, such as the impact of disturbing a creature’s eternal rest, or the moral implications of gaining information through necromancy.

Balancing the power of Speak With Dead with story elements

Adapt to the information revealed: Be prepared to adjust your story or encounters based on the information gained through Speak With Dead, while still maintaining a compelling narrative.

Limit the availability of crucial information: To maintain a balanced and challenging game, avoid making essential plot points or crucial information easily accessible solely through Speak With Dead. Instead, encourage players to combine the spell’s insights with other sources of information or investigative techniques.

Offer consequences for misuse: If players misuse Speak With Dead, particularly in social situations, consider introducing in-game consequences that reflect the potential negative reactions of NPCs or other factions to the characters’ actions.

Should I take Speak With Dead?

Speak With Dead is one of the best spells for players that enjoy role-playing and is particularly well-suited for characters involved in investigative campaigns, mystery-solving, or delving into ancient lore.

It offers a completely unique opportunity between the player and DM that can change the course or fortune of an adventure.

While I love rolling a fistful of damage dice as much as the next enraged Barbarian, Speak With Dead allows for the kind of lateral role-playing fun that is at the very heart of a great Dungeons & Dragons session.

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First introduced to D&D by the cRPG Baldur's Gate after borrowing it from a friend in 1998, Mark is currently experiencing repeated bouts of unconsciousness trying to take his melee Wizard through a 5e campaign.