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One Spell Can Change the World

Most editions of D&D have featured a spell called speak with dead (which I’ll call Speak with Dead for readability) that allows the caster to, for the span of a brief conversation, talk to a corpse.

In D&D, it’s a pretty minor spell — cool, but it’s got nothing on flinging fireballs and waving around your finger of death.

Except here’s the thing: Speak with Dead would change the world.

And not just a little — it would change the world a lot.

Changing the World One Corpse at a Time

Why? For starters, investigating murders becomes much simpler: find a wizard who can cast Speak with Dead, cast it on the corpse, and ask who murdered them and why. Done. It’s not the lowest-level magic, but you don’t need that many wizards running around casting Speak with Dead to make this possible.

Which would, in the fullness of time, give rise to a new practice: When committing murder, dispose of the body so thoroughly that Speak with Dead wouldn’t be a factor. Not so different than the real world, sure (disposing of bodies is a good idea here, too), but if every murderer knew that any murder could be solved this way they’d sure think twice before leaving a body where anyone could find it.

Not to mention that every detective would either be a low-level wizard, or would have access to one — every city watch organization would have several on staff, for example. And what if those wizards, seeing the importance of their role in the justice system, decided to band together into a realm-spanning guild and agree to only use their services in certain ways, or to only teach Speak with Dead to certain people?

Would wizards be banned from church grounds on the basis that they might sneak into the cemetery and uncover secrets best left six feet under? Or might thieves’ guilds hunt wizards down and kill them as a matter of policy, to keep them from spoiling lucrative assassination contracts?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg — and that’s just one low-level spell, one that’s not too far beyond making farting noises with a cantrip in D&D. Think about the breadth and depth of D&D’s spell list, especially pre-4th Edition (when books of spells ruled the day, rather than powers).

It works in D&D because, by and large, D&D isn’t about the social ramifications of the possibility of 100% crime-solving rates; it’s about bigger, flashier, more fun things.

But from a worldbuilding perspective, Speak with Dead is a fascinating little spell to consider. And it’s not the only D&D spell that fits the bill — lots of others do, too, like Purify Food and Drink, Charm Person, and Detect Thoughts, to name a few.

Broad vs. Deep

In fantasy fiction, I tend to think of worlds as being either broad or deep, though they can be both. A broad world is full of big ideas, any one of which could be the subject of a novel of its own; Middle Earth is a good example of a broad world. Pick a people, an event, or a big topic in the Lord of the Rings, and you could spin an entire book out of just that element.

Deep worlds are just a few details away from our own (or some historical version of our own), often summed up as “It’s like Earth, except…” But those small details are fully explored, as are their ramifications. The reality in the film Jumper is a good example of a deep world (the film’s lack of depth notwithstanding): it’s just like Earth, except a handful of people can teleport anywhere in the world without expending any resources.

Speak with Dead is a spell that could easily be the single detail that sets apart a deep fantasy world: it’s just like Earth, except you can interrogate the dead. The whole fabric of society would be altered by the existence of that single spell; it’s power as a seed for changing the world is way out of proportion to its power in D&D terms.

Aargh, Everything I Allow In the Game Will Change the World!

Well, OK, sure — but that’s not the point of Speak with Dead. You can’t police every detail that goes into your world, and you shouldn’t try to.

The point is that, considered in the right light, you could create a really cool world around changing just a detail or two. And despite the fantasy example, this isn’t limited to fantasy worlds.

For example, Jerry Oltion’s novel The Getaway Special is just like Earth, except someone invents a dirt-cheap hyperdrive anyone can build in their garage, and The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, is just like Earth except someone invents a device that lets anyone in the world view any place or time, present or historical.

Change one thing. Change a few — and then consider what effects those small changes, those powerful seeds, would have on your world.

Take a few notes, free-associate and brainstorm, and you’ll be somewhere interesting in no time.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "One Spell Can Change the World"

#1 Comment By Liack On February 16, 2011 @ 7:58 am

Funny you didn’t mention the movie Jonah Hex. The movie in itself wasn’t all that great, but the Speak with Dead is nicely interpreted.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 16, 2011 @ 8:32 am

Your points are good ones, but it does come down to what the GM will allow a spell to do. Speak with Dead only allows the corpse to tell a person what the living person knew.

So what if the response to “Who killed you?” was “I do not know. I was stabbed from behind and never saw my assailant.”

Or “I was poisoned. Someone tampered with my wine, but I never saw who did it.”

Or “The assassin wore a mask.”

Speak with Dead may only reveal clues. It does not guarantee solutions (if the GM wants it to be that way).

I do like the idea behind developing more complex societies from the relatively simple resources available to all. I just wanted to point out that you really have to think these ideas through.

If the wizards are the cops of the world, then there will be wizards who are the criminals as well. They will cast enchantments on murder victims to prevent Speak from Dead from working on the corpse (or to mislead others when it is cast upon them). Illusions will be cast upon assassins to make them look like another person before they kill a target. Assassination techniques will change from physical attacks to nearly untraceable and slow acting poisons so that death appears to have been a result of a disease and not malice.

Of course, my coming up with these counter tactics proves the real point of your article. The simplest of things can change the world as we know it. πŸ™‚

#3 Comment By tman On February 16, 2011 @ 8:51 am

See also “The Truth Machine” by James L. Halperin.

Premise: someone invents a 100% accurate lie detector which can be worn like a ring on your hand. Pretty soon, *not* wearing one makes you look suspicious. And what are the societal ramifications of every person you come into contact with wearing a device which will tell you if they are lying or fibbing or deceiving you?

It’s a great book and a very thoughtful read.

#4 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On February 16, 2011 @ 9:01 am

Thoughts like this is the reason I love speculative fiction.

#5 Comment By Timaeus On February 16, 2011 @ 9:05 am

An interesting article, but one thing kept bothering me:
Speak with Dead is a cleric spell!

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On February 16, 2011 @ 9:59 am

If you’d enjoy a book exploring this idea in more detail, check out Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky. It’s very near future sci-fi, viewing people who have just one alteration…

#7 Comment By Knight of Roses On February 16, 2011 @ 11:02 am

A very good point about considering how easy access to certain kinds of magic will have knock on effects on a world.

Though you could have chosen a stronger example, there are, as has been mentioned above, several ways to work around Speak with Dead.

#8 Comment By Sarlax On February 16, 2011 @ 11:07 am

The rippling of small details in a game setting provides for me both endless entertainment and deep frustration.

I’m entertained by chasing these possibilities to their logical conclusions. Speak with Dead is a great example. Not only does it change investigations, it might change the entire nature of social relations. Americans often argue about things like “What the Founding Fathers meant.” With Speak with Dead, people could find out. In D&D, entire governments could be built on this spell: When a lord dies, his corpse is specially preserved so that his descendants can consult with him (see Orson Scott Card’s “Wyrms”).

The flip side of these exercises is when a setting fails to sufficiently explore such consequences. In pre 4E, I thought of this as the “basement portal problem.” FR had rules for making permanent, free-standing portals. Were they used to join major cities? Did armies time an invasion for the exact moment at which its creation was finished? Nope. They were typically used as replacements for elevators, secret doors into castles (open from the top in a world where almost everything can fly), or connecting the kitchen pantry to the well in the backyard.

#9 Comment By Rob Abrazado On February 16, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

“…one thatÒ€ℒs not too far beyond making farting noises with a cantrip in D&D.”

First time through, my brain read that as “farting noises with a caltrop,” and I sat there for like a full minute going, “What edition was THAT?!”

#10 Comment By DocRyder On February 16, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

[1] – GURPS Techomancer ( [2]) did this. With the return of magic, a whole new branch of historical research started, with necromancers using speak with dead to do their research.

Yeah, most speculative fiction starts with the “change one premise/fact about the world, now GO!” kernel. I’ve got a book on writing sci-fi un which the author develops a story based on the worm-like lifeforms that live deep in the ocean near the volcanic vents. These creatures tolerate high pressure, temperature and acidity. He did a “what if these creatures were intelligent and hostile to humanity” story with the idea.

#11 Comment By drummy On February 16, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

I like this concept, and have found its repercussions already in my TFT fantasy game. Unlike D&D, there is no healing spell for magic-users in this 1980 system (a precursor to GURPS), but I knew that without some kind of magical healing it would be improbable to have a party perform any kind of extended dungeon crawl and the like.

So early on in their adventures, I had them discover a fissure that led down to a lost temple of a priestess whose ancient god influenced the healing arts. The party saved a 1200-year-old priestess in suspended animation and was rewarded with a blessing of a healing spell for their wizard (along with increased powers for their ‘doctor’, for lack of a better word).

Well, that changed everything. Although the spell wasn’t unusually powerful — and actually began to corrupt the mage’s body the more he used it — news of his ability to heal magically spread like wildfire. On a later adventure, he tried (and failed) to heal a dragon that had died in a huge battle, drawing the attention of other dragons, who then kidnapped the party to attempt to save one of their kind that had been cursed with a rare sleeping disease.

When that adventure ended, the word really got out that this character could heal wounds, diseases, and the like. Pretty soon many groups, governments, and individuals were after them for help and attention. Also, the ancient healing goddess (who had mostly been forgotten in the world’s ‘modern era’) got renewed attention and power, causing sudden interest in the ancient pantheons.

Now all the modern-era priests are wary of the party and there’s constant sources for adventure: half the continent believes the party members are sacred missionaries and the other half wants to kill them either to promote their religious powers or to take the magic for themselves.

Sorry this has been all about my group’s experience, but I’d say that dropping the right spell into a system can indeed make all the difference; in fact, it’s been my party’s lightning rod for adventures of all shapes and sizes. Fun stuff.

#12 Comment By Sarlax On February 16, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

@drummy That sounds like a very cool campaign tangent. I like it.

On that idea, the program The 4400 used the “one spell” idea as its entire premise. In that show, 4400 people who had disappeared in the past (and were presumed kidnapped, dead, etc.) suddenly all appear simultaneously in the present in a single location, and they all possess some kind of superhuman ability. The show then explores the effects of such abilities on the world.

#13 Comment By Razjah On February 16, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

This post is very thought provoking.I’m going through some of this right now as I work on a new setting for an upcoming game. I want to embrace magic and move away from low magic settings.

#14 Comment By Roxysteve On February 16, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

For the best Forensic Wizard stories, you need to check out the Lord Darcy stories of Randall Garret.

For the very best suggestions on how to play Speak with Dead in a game, you should drop everything and read Jack McDevitt’s “Polaris” now.

No, it doesn’t have wizards or clerics. The story is a Marie Celeste mystery in space set many thousands of years from now. The dead in question are avatars played by AI’s using information recorded by whomever it was before they died. The AIs can also make an avatar from non-personal anecdotal information, allowing the POV character to converse with people who died long before the avatar process was made possible, but they get less “realistic” the less personal information that is available.

Really. This story is worth your time on its own strengths. But it also will provide valuable insight to the use of the spell Speak with Dead in your game.

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 16, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

[3] – Well, less funny since I’ve never seen it. πŸ˜‰

[4] – Full circle — I love it. Good points about SWD’s limitations.

[5] – Oooh, sold! That sounds like a neat book. Thanks for the rec!

[6] – I have a BRILLIANT excuse for that mistake: … OK, no, I just fucked up. Good catch!

[7] – Dammit, my to-read stack is tall enough!

[8] – I’m sure there are better examples — what did you have in mind? (SWD is just one that’s always fascinated me.)


[9] – 3.0, with all its dungeonpunk. πŸ˜‰

[10] – Nothing to be sorry about! It’s a good story.

[11] – S T O P ! My wallet is bleeding.

#16 Comment By recursive.faults On February 16, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

I have a hard time with game worlds. Or at least the game worlds that are implied by the system.

I remember everyone in our group digressing in to a huge sideline based on a simple question, “What color is Floating Disk?” Of course the answer doesn’t really matter, but the more you ask, the more implications you wind up wondering about.

Why do people care about quality food if Prestidigitation could make every scrap of bread taste wonderful?

You could spin a world asking those questions, and it would be crazy and bazaar.

What I’ve been thinking though, is instead of winding a world backwards, wind it forwards. Let the players build and develop their world. Not just in the sense that story is changed by them, but that the world and what it tolerates is developed by them.

Would religion matter in this world, and how much? Does magic exist, and how much, and everything else? Let the players paint the world. At least, that’s the idea for the campaign I’ve been working on.

I talk with another GM and they took a similar approach. They started the players out in a series of adventures that let them discover the world around them. The difference was that GM had the world developed and just got the players comfortable. I’d rather have the players create the world for themselves.

#17 Comment By Donogh On February 17, 2011 @ 5:53 am

Great article.
I have a slightly altered version of the spell in my setting; which allows the priest to act as a bridge between the dead person and an immediate blood relative or direct descendant.
But my main emphasis is (as Patrick Benson points out) that the interaction depends on the dead person – not just in what they were aware or, but also their personality and prejudices (i.e. like any NPC). So they can lie or just be confused about what is discussed.
Once the players realised the ramifications of the spell, one of the world’s great mysteries (King who never nominated an heir before his death leading to endemic civil war) took on a completely different tenor – why could his sons not contact him?

#18 Comment By Roxysteve On February 17, 2011 @ 11:09 am

[12] – Re: Bleeding Wallets – there are these things called “Libraries” in most towns.

Established before the end-of-the-century “license madness” set in, they exist as a sort of Open Source effort. Get this: You sign up for free and they let you borrow books.

For nothing!

Better yet, if they don’t have the one you want, they can often get it for you in a matter of a couple of weeks.


Seriously – you’ll be able to borrow “Polaris” (it’s recent) but probably not the Randall Garrett stuff which has been OOP for years. However, it’s always worth trying.

And Polaris is definitely worth it.

#19 Comment By recursive.faults On February 17, 2011 @ 7:31 pm


#20 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 17, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

[13] – *glances around at hundreds of books* Wait, I thought this was the library?!

(Yeah, yeah, I know — and libraries rock. I just like owning my books. It’s a curse!)

#21 Comment By Roxysteve On February 18, 2011 @ 8:03 am

[14] – Yah, me too. I own all the stuff I was talking about. The sad part is I own all the long oop stuff, and I bought some of it new. Garret was alive (but very ill) when I came to the States, and I worked a block from a world famous Science Fiction bookshop.

By the end of the first year I had boxes and crates and trunks full of books for which twenty six years on I have no bookshelves.


#22 Comment By tman On February 18, 2011 @ 8:09 am

[15] – Well, borders just announced they will be closing around 30% of their stores. That means all those bookshelves will have to go *somewhere*.


#23 Comment By Volcarthe On February 19, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

[16] – Prestidigitation won’t make a gourmet meal out of gruel. It can spice or flavor, but not -well-. Think of it as adding a bit of ketchup to a steak instead of A1.