The Alexandrian

I can’t do a murder mystery because the PCs will just cast speak with dead.

I’ve seen this sentiment a lot, but it’s never really made any sense to me: The act of investigating a mystery is one by which you reveal that which is unknown. When we talk about PCs casting a speak with dead spell, we’re describing a situation in which the players reveal that which is unknown (i.e., they investigate the mystery), but then, oddly, we’re supposed to conclude that they can’t investigate the mystery because they investigate the mystery.

I think part of the problem here lies in an erroneous instinct that I talked about as part of the Three Clue Rule:

There is a natural impulse when designing a mystery, I think, to hold back information. This is logical inclination: After all, a mystery is essentially defined by a lack of information. And there’s a difference between having lots of clues and having the murderer write his home address in blood on the wall.

But, in reality, while a mystery is seemingly defined by a lack of knowledge, the actual action of a mystery is not the withholding of knowledge but rather the discovery of knowledge.

Let me put it another way: Strip the magic out of this scenario. Imagine that you’ve designed a mystery scenario in which there was a witness to the crime. The PCs turn to this witness and say, “Who killed him?” and the witness says, “It was Bob.” And it turns out Bob is just standing there, so they arrest him. End of mystery.

You wouldn’t conclude that you can’t do mystery scenarios because people can talk to each other right?

Speak with dead should be no more alarming than an FBI team taking fingerprints or a CSI team enhancing video and running facial analysis.


You may also see people suggesting that you “nerf” the spell to one degree or another. (Corpses that refuse to answer questions, for example.) Nothing is more frustrating to a player than having their smart choices blocked because the GM has some preconceived notion of how they’re supposed to be investigating the crime.

But what you can do is design your mysteries to the reality of the spell. Generally speaking, after all, people in the game world know that the spell exists, right? So they aren’t going to plan their murders in ways that will expose them. (Any more than people in a magic-free setting will commit their murders while standing directly in front of surveillance of cameras.) They will find ways to conceal their identity; they may even find ways to try to use the spell to frame other people. (For example, imagine a murder scenario where the victim thinks one of the PCs did it because the perpetrator used a polymorph spell.)


The same advice generally applies to other divination spells, too. The only divination effects which are truly problematic are those which allow you to contact omniscient beings and receive crystal clear information from them. Fortunately, these spells basically don’t exist in D&D (and most other games). The closest you can get are commune and contact other plane, but both are explicitly limited to the knowledge of the entity you’re contacting. (1st Edition AD&D actually had a lovely table for determining “Likelihood of Knowledge” and “Veracity”.)

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13 Responses to “Random GM Tip – Speak With Dead Mysteries”

  1. Arnaud Gomes says:

    I’m not sure about older editions, but both Pathfinder and 5E require the corpse to still have a mouth in order to answer questions. OK, now you have to find the victim’s head. 😃

  2. Colubris says:

    He’s back! *Cheers*

    This makes me want to comb the spell list from the POV of an assassin trying to outsmart an investigator.

    That’s 2 character ideas right there, and it implies a professional economy.

  3. David says:

    This are good tips, but I think what people are complaining about is that it makes designing mysteries harder than they already are. Consider the neophyte DM. He is feeling adventurous and sets up a murder mystery scenario. If a player snaps his fingers and solves it in a few minutes by use of magic, what is more likely? The DM starts designing his murder mysteries around the thousands of D&D spells or throws in his hat and just rolls up another Monster Zoo dungeon?

  4. Rob Rendell says:

    Welcome back, Justin!

    There is a lot of good information about which spells might be used in investigations, and likely in-game counters to them, in the Ultimate Intrigue supplement for Pathfinder, which is available to read for free at d20pfsrd

    Admittedly, that’s specifically for Pathfinder, but like Justin’s advice here about murderers hiding their faces from their victims in a work with Speak with Dead, a lot of the observations in Ultimate Intrigue work without reference to specific rules.

  5. Xercies says:

    Just because you know the general description or if the corpse knew them the name of the killer doesn’t mean the adventure is over. You still have to figure out where they are and also maybe have some more evidence then a talking corpse to arrest them.

    I mean there are many episodes of crime dramas where they pretty much know the killer but need to prove it.

  6. Roger GS says:

    Right, the corpse is just another witness, and might be unreliable, or even want to frame someone other than the real killer. What happens when all the evidence contradicts the dead guy?

  7. Picador says:

    Rashomon, the greatest film ever made about the fundamental unknowability of the truth about a murder, has a medium speaking with the spirit of the victim as part of its central narrative.

  8. Ilbranteloth says:

    As Arnaud points out, some editions (like 5e) require the corpse to have a mouth to reply, and that’s an important factor. It also highlights the fact that D&D doesn’t really have a seance-like spell where you can speak with dead spirits.

    In my world, though, there are some other mitigating factors. First, while magic is relatively common, the average person doesn’t know that “speak with the dead” is what could be considered a common spell. So most murderers aren’t concerned about it (especially since so many are crimes of the moment). So when the PCs started coming across bodies that have the jaw removed, that concerned them more.

    The bigger aspect, though, is how easy it is to get the spell. Or not. The local clerics don’t just cast it for the watch every time there is a murder. It’s not really appropriate. Sure, there might be a church or temple (or Deity) that MIGHT consider that as a viable source of income. But in general, divine magic is reserved for the faithful.

    The bigger issue is the nature of necromantic magic and spells that contact other planes in my campaign. To start with, acts which can be considered evil acts are depicted as leading down a dark and dangerous path. This is a combination of the sort of “Dark Side” approach, and the way our world, particularly in the Victorian era, perceives black magic and occultism.

    Fiends cannot just enter the material plane at will, they have to be summoned, or find another loophole. Any connection to another plane can provide a potential loophole. Creatures that perform necromancy also draw unwanted attention to themselves as fiends and similar creatures have an affinity to the dark arts.

    Speak with the Dead is a spell that actually doesn’t have a significant connection to the dark arts itself. But the world is set up in a way that the PCs (and NPCs) generally avoid anything that could be. The Speak with Spirits variation is more risky. This is in the Forgotten Realms, so if the spirit is among the false, it may remain as a ghost after the spell summons them. If the spirit is in the lower planes, the spell can act as a summoning spell, allowing them to cross into the material plane. Possession by fiends is another significant risk when a conduit like this is opened.

    So what happens is that whether it’s the local watch fetching a cleric to cast the spell, or the PCs choosing to use the spell, they don’t do it lightly, and look for other opportunities first.

    The spells themselves provide cryptic (although not usually intentionally misdirected) information. I don’t limit them to a certain number of words or questions, just time. If we’re going to go to the trouble of a divination spell like this, I prefer to play it out as a big deal that is used rarely. So in general, it provides more clues, rather than actual answers. But sometimes it’s as simple as “Bob killed me.”

    As Justin points out, it’s just like interrogating any other witness. The most important factor for me when designing a mystery is not to find ways to make it interesting for the players per se. I consider what happens in my scenarios based on what would happen. Would the killer consider that “speak with the dead” might be used? Do they even know about the spell? If not, why would they take measures to prevent it?

    There are some things that are relatively known and common. There are spell casters. So any potential spell caster will be bound and gagged when thrown in jail to prevent spell casting. Shackling folks to the wall in a standing position with arms outstretched comes to mind as a particularly likely and suitable medieval approach in the light of the common use of magic. Likewise, druidic magic is inhibited by metal (which is why they don’t wear metal armor in my campaign), so this prevents shapechanging too. Not everything is 100% preventable, but if the townsfolk learn that the suspect is also likely a lycanthrope because they turned into a rat and escaped, then that suspect has more than just the law to worry about going forward.

    In the majority of cases, considering the in-world effect of a given ability or spell existing helps frame appropriate adjudication of the spell. In some cases I’ll make changes. For example, the shift from druids being able to shapechange at 1st level instead of the original 7th-level alters the world fairly significantly. But the bigger change is that druids themselves are not only more common, but they aren’t the wilderness living loners that they used to be. Of course, including them as a PC class in AD&D started that trend right from the start. But it drastically changes world itself if there are now potentially thousands, even tens-or-hundreds of thousands of druids wandering the countryside, and happily joining bands of adventurers. It’s a bit different than the one near-mythical and fear-inducing wild sorcerer of the woods.

    So just accepting the spell (or special ability) as written is fine, and works just as Justin is describing. But I find that if you look a bit deeper at the implications, then you can get a better understanding of the impact on society, and make any changes that might be appropriate to make it fit your campaign better. In our case, rather than eliminate it altogether, or go the cop-out route and just be antagonistic about it, we have an in-world reason why it’s not used on a daily basis that also has the potential of adding additional short-term and long-term story elements.

  9. Wyvern says:

    Not to disagree with anything you said, but there’s one point you didn’t address: pacing. To build on your analogy:

    “The PCs turn to this witness and say, “Who killed him?” and the witness says, “It was Bob.” And it turns out Bob is just standing there, so they arrest him. End of mystery.”

    When you read a murder mystery, you don’t expect the murderer to be revealed in the first chapter. (If they are, it usually means that a) the witness is either mistaken or lying, and the rest of the story will be devoted to uncovering the true culprit, or b) the murderer escapes, in which case the story is a fugitive thriller, not a murder mystery.) Likewise, if the GM has prepared a murder mystery scenario, and the PCs solve it in the first ten minutes, then either the scenario comes to an abrupt end or it turns into some other sort of scenario.

    Of course, a good GM prepares in advance for that possibility, so they’re not left scrambling to adapt on the fly. And this problem isn’t unique to mystery scenarios: a GM *can’t* exercise full control over the pacing of an adventure without heavy railroading. Using speak with dead isn’t really inherently different than teleporting to the end of the dungeon, or disintegrating the Big Bad Villain before they can blink. As a GM, you have to live with the reality that the PCs may wreck the pace of your adventure, and be prepared to adjust.

  10. icekatze says:

    hi hi

    Sometimes murder mysteries are split up based on when the crime is revealed. If anyone has ever watched an episode of Columbo, they’ll be familiar with the style of storytelling where the killer is given at the very start of the story. The other is when the killer is only revealed in the accusing parlor.

    As long as your game is in a setting where the player characters can’t just walk up to someone in the street and cut them down without consequences, it is entirely possible to give away the killer right at the start. In that situation, it is more about making sure beyond a shadow of a doubt for everyone, rather than grasping at straws for where to begin.

    After all, if Speak With Dead is a spell that is in common use, it probably won’t be admissible as evidence. At least, not after that one famous person found out that their significant other was cheating on them, and tried to get revenge by taking their own life and accusing them from beyond the grave.

    I was going to mention Rashomon but I already got beaten to the punch. And if memory serves, the account of the deceased was one of the most unbelievable of the bunch. It doesn’t really fit into either category, and it ends up being more about the personal journey of the bystanders, and the one unrelated truth they find at the very end.

  11. rabbiteconomist says:

    Welcome back. It’s hard to juggle life and writing a regularly updated blog.

    I also write adventures with Speak with dead in mind. I have observed that players do not necessarily remember that you CAN shoot first and ask questions later, even among 10+ year DnD veterans. Another twist on this is making the mystery focus on finding the body (keeping in mind that Scrying is a thing) in order to get the key witness.

    Speak with Dead combined with Gentle Repose allows people to consult the preserved poverty long periods of time. In order to understand how much that affects a society, imagine if the US Supreme Court regularly consulted the US founders on the ideas they knew while alive in order to make decisions on original constitutional intent.

  12. Pteryx says:

    While I have mixed feelings about it overall as an addition to the series, one of the strong points of the latest Ace Attorney game, Spirit of Justice, is that it features SEVERAL examples of designing murder mysteries to fit a divination spell that allows one to see the last several seconds of a victim’s memories. The classic DL-6 case in the original Phoenix Wright game is also a good example of designing around Speak with Dead.

  13. Charlie F says:

    Pushing Daises was a TV show that featured a detective who could talk to the dead, and it worked fine.
    The dead person doesn’t always know who killed him/her. I mean, imagine being killed by a masked man on the street, even if you could talk to the dead person, it’s just another witness providing clues.

    Second is the fact that a clever murderer in a magical world has to know the magical means of detection. It’s only natural. A murderer in the XVII century wouldn’t care about wearing gloves because fingerprints aren’t a thing, but a XXI century has to worry about traffic cameras, DNA, cell phones, bank account, etc. It’s not unrealistic to expect a smart killer in a magic fantasy setting to work around those issues.

    I don’t know about D&D, but usually I use magic as a planning tool. You usually know what skills the PCs bring, so you design around them. Not to screw completely with an ability because a player invested points in that character so that wouldn’t be fair. But the spell could provide clues instead of immediatly revealing the murderer.
    For example in HARP there’s this spell called Past Visions. Basically it allows the caster to see what happened minutes ago in that particular location(usually a room), and you can scale it up(providing you have enough skill ranks) further and further up the past. It’s available to Bards and Mages. So, imagine a woman kills a man in a crime of passion. She knows about the spell, so she moves the body(while wearing a disguise) to a completely different location. The caster would know exactly that so now in order to solve the mystery they need to know WHERE the murder took place. And if the party is low level, the spell has a limit as to how far back the caster can see, so now they have a time limit to find out before it’s useless. That both empowers the PCs while still providing a challenge.

    And there’s more, in HARP there’s also a magical assassin profession called the Shadowblade who has a spells designed to counter magical detection like Past Visions. They can cast the spell so that whoever uses the spell will only see a shadow. They also have spells to change their appearance. That’s fair and square. You have magical detectives on one hand, and magical assassins on the other. (Of course, casting Past Visions still reveal that the killer was a Shadowblade, so it’s not a waste of time)

    Anyway my point is a GM has to know the game system when designing a scenario and mysteries aren’t an exception. If you know your PCs are level 10 you wouldn’t pit them against normal lvl 1 goblins would you? The same goes for mysteries. Design the challenge accordingly and keep in mind the PCs resources, just like you would for any other adventure.

    (Sorry for my weird english, I’m not a native speaker)

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