Speak With Dead

One spell can change the complexion of a campaign

If two people are casting Speak With Dead on the same body, does one get a busy signal?

In my Riddleport Pathfinder campaign, an NPC named Halcos was assassinated as the PCs were dragging him away to be interrogated. In reaction, the party plans to bring the body to an allied temple for a Speak With Dead service.

The faction who killed Halcos does not want this to happen. Halcos knows stuff the faction wants kept a secret.

Two enemy tactics come to mind immediately. One is to get to Halcos first in his afterlife and warn him of the consequences of talking with the PCs. Second is to physically foil the PCs’ Speak With Dead attempt.

These are great ideas, but how to bring them into the game? I do not want to wave my GM wand and tell the PCs the body is missing. There’s no fun in that. There’s especially no game in that.

So, as I’ve done in the past, I go through a short process to figure out how to make a game of spells. I want to bring things down to the encounter level where actions are possible and ready to trigger.

I find these kinds of encounters compelling because they are tied to the party and past campaign events. They are not random or isolated encounters.

If the PCs succeed in foiling the faction’s attempts, and succeed in talking with Halcos, then not only has the victory been well-earned, but they’ve changed the game world a bit and seen it change around them as well.

The steps for casting a spell on your campaign

Here is a rough list of planning actions I take to turn spells into encounters:

  1. Determine limitations
  2. Guess PC actions
  3. Turn limitations into tactics
  4. Turn limitations into details
  5. Determine the cost
  6. Embed into your world
  7. Bonus: generate encounter seeds

1. Determine limitations

We’re dealing with a spell as the central issue. The PCs are going to pay to have one cast. The faction is going to try to get it cast before the PCs do. What happens?

First, lets look that spell up in the rules and determine all the parameters we have to work with. Limitations are a source of creativity. They defeat blank page writer’s block.

I enjoy going back to the rules and seeing how they shape the reality of the game. Doing this often gives you a bunch of options for PCs and foes to overcome, deal with, or take advantage of, depending on the nature of the limitation.

So, before I do anything, I like to look up the spell description and note the parameters I have to work with.

The spell in question: Speak With Dead for PFRPG. It offers these parameters:

10′ range

The person casting the spell needs to be within 10′ of the body. Interesting! This gives the PCs the current edge because they have the body right now. Their foes will have to find a way to get within 10 feet to speak with Halcos in his afterlife.

Cleric, spell level 3

Means the PCs will need to outsource the casting because they are not powerful enough to cast it themselves. An alternative tactic would be to wait until they were powerful enough. Is this likely?

Well, they own an inn with a chilly basement and even a couple of secret rooms. So body storage is not an issue. Is the information they need urgent? From their point of view, they just want to know why Halcos was murdered before he could be interrogated. It’s a mystery, which is compelling, but otherwise there is no current need for urgency.

This is cool, because I can now use Halcos as a source of clues. As the PCs play through various plot threads, I can hint that Halcos might have important information regarding these. I have a lever to create urgency when desired for the PCs to Speak With Dead on Halcos. I just need to include Halcos in other plot threads. This lever could help me meta-game things in favour of more exciting encounters.

To answer the main question though, yes, it is possible the PCs will delay the spell casting.

How about the he PCs’ foes? They do have immediate access to third level cleric spells, so they can disregard this parameter. However, the PCs could figure out who could do the casting for their foes and neutralize them, making it impossible for their enemies to speak with the dead Halcos. Interesting!

As the party is low level and weak, and without much obvious leverage, I do not think the possibility of neutralizing the enemy’s casting sources likely; however I will keep it in mind.

Can the foes execute the same tactic – neutralize PC ally casting sources? The PCs would likely go to their friends at the Temple of Dreams for the casting. A raid on the temple might work. Perhaps some politics or coercion with the temple’s leadership so they deny the PCs’ request. That is also a good possibility.

School and Level – Necromancy 3

No limitations here. The mages’ guild in Riddleport has restrictions on what spells their members can know, cast and sell castings of, but the various Riddleport temples do not, other than standard alignment and ethos restrictions.

The PCs should be able to ask their allies, the Temple of Dreams, for this service without problem as long as they have the guilders (Riddleport gold pieces). A potential tactic for foes might be to rob the PCs so they cannot afford the casting, but it is likely their ally would offer a loan or gimme.

While the PCs will need to tap their allies for necromantic spells, their foes have necromantic spells on tap. Further, they are aware of the PCs’ alliance with the Temple of Dreams.

another idea: is there a way to globally disable necromantic castings in the city? Hmmm, not really. But it was worth a shot.

Casting time 10 minutes

This means no snatch-and-cast possibility for the foes, putting things in the PCs’ favour. If it took only seconds to cast, foes could distract the PCs for mere moments to get in their spell first. This is a huge limitation. The foe caster will need at least 10 minutes undisturbed with the body to get the spell off, which means a good hiding spot, defenses, and escape plan.

This analysis provides me clear guidance on a potential foe plan. They need to find the body, determine if and how it’s being guarded by the PCs, wrest it away, hide out, and then protect a priest for 10 minutes while he casts the spell.

Likewise, PCs will need to protect the body for 10 minutes while an ally casts, or they do the casting themselves when able in the future.

The foes figure assaulting a temple should the PCs opt to tap an ally is not the best course of action, so they need to get the body before a PC ally gets involved.

Though, if the PCs opt to bring a caster to the body, that’s a different story. Aha!

The foes figure this unlikely though, but they better put a tail on the group to see if they do travel to a priest and start bringing one back to their home base.

Saving Throw

A Will save blocks the spell if the dead person has a different alignment from the caster.

Halcos was evil. The enemy has already scouted the PCs and knows their auras – alignment and magic. (You can’t beat good information gathering – foes watch and re-scan the PCs regularly.)

Good news for the enemy is Halcos cannot block resist their spell. It’s the price Halcos pays for his sins in life. Against the PCs, however, Halcos can try to resist unless the party hires an evil spellcaster, which is unlikely.


Speak With Dead needs prayers spoken, holy gestures made, and a holy symbol or divine focus. All are situational. Technically, either side could silence the area before or during spell casting, or prevent the caster from making any gestures, or take away the caster’s focus item to prevent the casting.

The enemy will have spells and tactics ready to spoil components as a long-shot backup plan. Too many variables to count on this. Beside, this would be a stalling manoeuvre, at best.


The spell lasts at least three minutes. Foes know combats last seconds, so no advantage here.

Spell Details

The spell description ends up having many juicy details that arm me with ideas and tactics.

“You may ask one question per two caster levels.”
The enemy’s caster allows them at least two dozen six questions. Likely, the PCs’ hired caster can ask a dozen three or so. A dozen too many, for the enemy’s comfort.

“The corpse’s knowledge is limited to what it knew during life, including the languages it spoke.”
Halcos spoke Teldane (common). However, see the next item for an interesting possibility.

“Answers are brief, cryptic, or repetitive, especially if the creature would have opposed you in life.”
The first opportunity is, as GM, I can swing answers how I like. I am a fair GM, though, and will answer in-character for Halcos, though cryptic is my middle name.

Second opportunity is, Halcos will oppose the PCs at every step because they got him killed. At least, that’s the way he sees it. So, Halcos will be as short and unhelpful as possible. He knows three languages. The spell does not say he needs to use a language the caster understands. So, he will try his other two languages to foil the caster.

Halcos know Korvosan and Riddleport Slang. The PCs have these languages covered, unfortunately, but there is room for them to make a tactical error. They often divide themselves. Could be, one of more PCs does not take part in this encounter, or are sent away to multi-task on something, or are indisposed of. It’s a small chance, but I’ll keep it in mind.

“If the dead creature’s alignment was different from yours, the corpse gets a Will save to resist the spell as if it were alive. If successful, the corpse can refuse to answer your questions or attempt to deceive you, using Bluff.”
We covered the saving throw above. Halcos was an expert bluffer. That could be fun to play out!

One thing my players tend to do is accept the second answer in parleys and not dig deeper. I do not know why. So, Halcos just needs to Bluff a Bluff to foil the PCs.

For example, if the PCs successfully Sense Motive on Halcos making a Bluff, they will call him on it and use what little leverage they can to make him tell the truth (probably just Intimidate, unless they take time to delve into Halcos’ life to find some leverage – it’s what I’d do, but the party will likely not go this route). So, Halcos just needs to lie about his lie and the PCs will likely accept the second explanation.

In-character, Halcos think the characters are suckers, but does not know the players are too. However, as with most evil creatures caught between a rock and hard place, they will keep lying and reveal the truth only for great advantage or as a last resort.

Still, the enemy cannot count on this, and they remain worried about what Halcos might reveal about them.

“The soul can only speak about what it knew in life. It cannot answer any questions that pertain to events that occurred after its death.”
Fair enough. Nothing comers to mind about taking advantage of this for better gameplay or NPC tactical advantage.

“If the corpse has been subject to speak with dead within the past week, the new spell fails.”
Aha! Stop everything. This little detail offers a tasty morsel of potential. The enemy just needs to cast Speak With Dead on Halcos before the PCs can, and the PCs are blocked for a week.

It’s a shame about the long casting time. A strike team could swoop in, cast the spell if it has short casting time, and buy the enemy a week of time to build a better and more permanent plan.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the caster could start the spell nearby while hiding, and then get to within 10′ of Halcos in the final few seconds of the casting. The primary goal would be to get the spell off on Halcos before the PCs get their cast. Secondary goal would be to issue Halcos a warning to shut up and stay shut up, else his afterlife is in jeopardy too.

“You can cast this spell on a corpse that has been deceased for any amount of time, but the body must be mostly intact to be able to respond. A damaged corpse may be able to give partial answers or partially correct answers, but it must at least have a mouth in order to speak at all.”
Another potential tactic, if the NPCs can get close enough. Chopping Halcos’ head off and running away with it will block the PCs entirely. So will disfiguring Halcos’ face so he cannot talk.

This again requires getting into tactical distance for melee or offensive spells. The enemy does not know where Halcos’ body is, so hopefully the tail on the PCs discovers it.

“This spell does not affect a corpse that has been turned into an undead creature.”
Wow, another sweet option. Thank you spell designers.

The enemy need only cast Animate Dead, which requires a touch but only takes a standard action (a couple seconds) to cast.

So, the enemy could ambush the PCs taking Halcos to the Temple of Dreams, have a caster sneak up and cast Animate Dead on Halcos, and the whole problem is solved.

What if the PCs kill Halcos-turned-zombie? I would rule that, once animated, a corpse has the taint of undead on it that prevents any Speak With Dead castings. The players might argue this, so I’ll be prepared to defend my position when it comes time to do a group vote on the ruling.

Note: while writing this, the fine folks at Gnome Stew wrote a post about spells changing the world. I recommend giving it a read, as well.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, where I outline the other steps for using spells to make your campaign glitter:

  1. Guess PC actions
  2. Turn limitations into tactics
  3. Turn limitations into details
  4. Determine the cost
  5. Embed into your world
  6. Bonus: generate encounter seeds

I also include examples and some tips so you can put this advice to use in your campaign immediately.

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