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Undead
Dragon's-Eye View
By Jon Schindehette

I 'm heading off to Las Vegas for my son's wedding, so I'm going to keep this short.



Undead.

They are dead . . . kinda. Right? If I ask you what a zombie looks like, you can give me a pretty descriptive visual. If I ask you about a mummy . . . same kind of thing. Even if I ask you to tell me what a ghost looks like, I can usually follow along with the description.

Now, let me ask you what the visual differences are among a ghost, a specter, and a wraith. Remember, I'm looking for a visual difference—not mechanics or powers. Just the visual difference.

Kinda tough, huh? We had struggled with ways to differentiate them when we were talking about the physical appearance of our incorporeal beasties. As a D&D player, I want to be able to tell the difference between those transparent nasties. I shouldn't have to rely upon a DM telling me that something is a ghost or specter. I should be able to tell by the description or picture.

So how do you go about making differences? Some of the ideas that were kicked around are as follows:

  • Clothing/armor
  • Transparency
  • Attitude
  • Location
  • Color
  • Appearance (look just like they did in life, look degenerated, are just phantom bones and skull)

What if I said that ghosts are just apparitions of people who died and who have ties to their past lives that keep them around? They are typically not hostile or aggressive. Usually they're just lost, sad, lonely, and so on. Would it make sense to have them look pretty much just like they did in life, but ghostly?


What if I said that specters are apparitions of people who died in a very violent manner? Their deaths are often the result of treachery, and their spirits are tied to their previous lives through the desire for vengeance. You could even say that they are just spirits wrapped in anger, rage, and the desire to destroy all life in order to try to strike back at the life that cast them in their various fates. Their appearance is generally degenerate and horrifying. They strike fear when they show themselves, and they instill terror with their actions.


What if I said that wraiths are apparitions that are bound to life through a geas, curse, or task that was left unfulfilled? They are often found in barrows guarding graves or treasures. They tend to be militaristic in appearance and have no distinct features.

What do you think? Without getting into a lot of the fussy details, do the descriptions above give you enough visual information to be able to quickly tell these three incorporeal creatures apart? Please don't pick on the descriptions themselves. I'm not saying this is the background or lore of these creatures—it's just prose I'm using to give you something to work with regarding this topic.

Please share your thoughts about how to differentiate incorporeal creatures in the comments below.

Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.
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