Until the spell ends, you can ask the corpse up to five questions. The corpse knows only what it knew in life, including the languages it knew. Answers are usually brief, cryptic, or repetitive, and the corpse is under no compulsion to offer a truthful answer if you are hostile to it or it recognizes you as an enemy. This spell doesn’t return the creature’s soul to its body, only its animating spirit. Thus, the corpse can’t learn new information, doesn’t comprehend anything that has happened since it died, and can’t speculate about future events.
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 10 feet
Components: V, S, M (burning incense)
Duration: 10 minutes
School: 3rd-level necromancy
Player’s Handbook, pg. 277
Speak With Dead 5e
Speak With Dead is your spellcasting ticket to limited conversation with the deceased. It’s also one of the vaguer spells in Dungeons and Dragons, so we’ll do our best to parse the “rules” of Speak With Dead — both for DMs and for players to set realistic expectations.
This is true for all my spell guides, but especially true for this one: DMs have the last say on how spells work, and a lot of the “rules” of SwD are more guidelines than anything else.
We’ll also cover fun ways to use Speak With Dead, as well as my two cents on how to run it as a DM.
Who Can Cast Speak With Dead in 5e?
The following classes have Speak With Dead on their spell list:
The following subclasses get Speak With Dead for free:
What Does Speak With Dead Do in 5e?
Speak With Dead grants a corpse the ability to answer up to five questions. It only knows what it knew in life (languages included), and the answers aren’t elaborate or direct. If the corpse recognizes you as an enemy or hostile to it, its answers aren’t even necessarily truthful.
Importantly, but also somewhat vaguely, the creature’s soul isn’t returned to its body, only its “animating spirit.” The meaning of this is limited to the spell’s definition that the corpse can’t:
Learn anything new
Understand what’s happened since its death
Speculate on the future
Other than that, DMs have fairly wide wiggle room with how much information they allow a corpse to divulge and how they choose to deliver that information.
Finally, Speak With Dead cannot be cast on a corpse that:
Has no mouth
Has had Speak With Dead cast on them within the last 10 days
The “no mouth” rule leaves a lot to DM interpretation, but the other limitations are pretty straightforward.
What Are the Rules for Speak With Dead in 5e?
The rules for Speak With Dead in DnD 5e are as follows:
Speak With Dead doesn’t work on dead undead creatures. While some cheeky players might argue that a dead creature is an object (which is correct, RAW), that doesn’t change the fact that a creatures type isn’t changed when it dies (Sage Advice Confirmation).
Plus, the whole point of the spell is speaking exclusively to the dead, and the spell explicitly prohibits using it on undead — so the ruling is pretty clear on this one.
Speak With Dead cannot be combined with the spell Zone of Truth. Because ZoT only works on creatures, whereas Speak With Dead is interacting with “a spirit in a corpse,” as this Sage Advice thread puts it.
In other words, there’s no way to compel a hostile corpse into telling you the truth.
The “hostile/enemy” restriction of Speak With Dead is only a factor if the corpse literally “recognizes” you as an enemy or you’re explicitly hostile toward it. So disguising yourself pre-cast is a perfectly legitimate way of preventing a hostile corpse from lying to you.
Only the caster can ask the corpse questions. Technically, the caster’s allies can’t ask the corpse questions (or at least, it won’t answer them or count against the spell’s five-question limit). That’s because the spell indicates that “you can ask the corpse,” with the “you” being the caster alone.
DMs are free to overlook this in the name of efficiency and sharing the table time among players.
You need to share a language with the corpse to ask it questions. Confirmed in the spell’s description.
A corpse animated by Speak With Dead (probably) cannot make any ability checks. Since we’ve confirmed that the corpse isn’t a creature but does retain its creature type, we’re in a bit of a pickle on this ruling. This mainly comes up when a player disguises themselves to speak with a hostile corpse without having it lie to them.
Since the corpse only has a “semblance” of intelligence, the spell suggests that a creature wouldn’t be able to see through a disguise. Again, this is my best attempt to interpret the rules, not a strict RAW.
Speak With Dead may work on skeletons. To be clear, I’m not talking about the animated, undead skeletons, but the regular kind.
The game doesn’t do much to define what a corpse is, but we do know that the corpse needs a mouth. Whether a skull with a jawbone attached constitutes a mouth is entirely up to your DM.
Speak With Dead may work on only skulls. Again, because what exactly constitutes a “corpse” is not explicitly defined in DnD’s rules, we’re left to our best interpretations.
In common, everyday English, most people don’t ever refer to a skull as a corpse, so I’m inclined to rule that a player couldn’t use Speak With Dead to talk to a skull. That being said, I also don’t see any harm in allowing it.
The corpse isn’t the same entity as the creature was in life; it’s more akin to a download version of their memory at the time of death. And the corpse is able to retrieve memories. It’s also able to lie to you if it doesn’t like you.
This one’s not really a “rule,” but a (hopefully) helpful way of interpreting the difference between a creature with a soul and a corpse with an animating spirit. The animating spirit is more of an outside energy that allows the dead’s brain to relate information in an imperfect way in response to queries.
How Do I Use Speak With Dead in 5e?
Here are a few ways to use Speak With Dead in DnD 5e:
Disguise yourself before talking to a hostile corpse. This is your go-to tactic for learning more about a Boss’s evil plans from a henchman you’ve killed. The “hostile/enemy” restriction of Speak With Dead is only a factor if the corpse literally “recognizes” you as an enemy or you’re explicitly hostile toward it.
Poke out the eyes of a hostile corpse. If you don’t have anyone in your party who can cast Disguise Self or use a disguise kit, there’s always the simpler option — making sure the enemy can’t recognize you as an enemy by literally taking away its means of recognition.
Some DMs might find this cheesy and try to counteract you in some way, but if you’re able to disguise your voice somehow (or it never heard you speak), this should technically work just fine RAW.
Learn more about the big bad evil guy/gal you’re after. While the “hostile” restriction is definitely meant to counteract using Speak With Dead this way, it’s the best way to use the spell. Even if it’s not used on a henchman, there are plenty of other ways to learn from corpses.
For instance, the body of a deceased torture victim can tell you more about the lair’s dungeons and passageways. Or a dead goblin can tell you more about the creature(s) that ransacked their hideout.
Solve murders and other who-dun-its. Intrigue-heavy campaigns are where Speak With Dead really shines. Information dead-ends can be the most frustrating element of Dungeons and Dragons, but with a spell like Speak With Dead, you’ve always got a decent way of at least getting your next lead.
Understand your environment better. Beyond learning about villains, Speak With Dead is just handy for getting a good sense of your bearings before proceeding into the unknown.
For instance, the body of a dead thief might be able to warn you about common traps to look out for, or a deceased guard could inform you of the passcodes you need to progress without bloodshed.
Keep knowledgable heads/skulls around. This one’s heavily DM-dependent, but it can be a lot of fun if they let it fly. Collecting skulls of bad guys or just interesting/knowledgable people and keeping them on your person allows for some funny RP situations.
Of course, they’re unlikely to provide much tangible benefit by way of information, as their knowledge will quickly grow stale in most campaigns.
Be reasonable. Spells like Speak With Dead have significant potential for dispute with your DM.
Good DMs will know to give you some useful information every time you cast a spell like this, but don’t expect them to reveal the whole plot right away. This is your source of leads when everything else runs dry, or you’re just looking for a small information advantage.
Who Can I Target With Speak With Dead 5e?
You can target a corpse within 10 feet with Speak With Dead, as long as the corpse:
Has a mouth
Hasn’t had Speak With Dead cast on them within the last 10 days
Is Speak With Dead 5e a Good Spell?
Yes, Speak With Dead is a good spell — in certain campaigns and scenarios. If you’re playing in a world that’s heavy on intrigue, murder, and mystery, then Speak With Dead can be an invaluable way of learning important information.
Even in a more straightforward adventure, having the means to ask for information from someone who died in the place you’re currently investigating is almost never a bad idea.
That being said, Speak With Dead very much falls in the category of spell that’s power level is directly tied to how your DM chooses to run it. Speaking of which…
Speak With Dead 5e DM Tips
DMs have a lot of power to change how potent Speak With Dead is. I’ll give my two cents on how I like to rule the spell at my table.
Always give players something. Speak With Dead is a 3rd-level spell, and there are some pretty powerful options available at this level. Don’t make players regret taking the cool, flavorful necromancy spell — give them a tangible benefit every time they cast it.
Don’t give players answers, but the right questions. For example, if a player asks “what is XYZ planning,” have the corpse respond “mine the Wonderium.”
Maybe the corpse was a miner, and that’s all they know about the plan. The important thing is, now the players have the right follow-up questions: what is Wonderium, and why does this villain want it?
Be lenient with skeletons, skulls, and disguise-breaking. Look, my understanding of the word “mouth” is that it requires flesh, meaning a skeleton/skull would not count as having a mouth.
That said, skeletons tend to be a lot more prevalent than recently-dead corpses. My feeling is, the more opportunities to use this spell, the better. That’s why I let this fly on skeletons, skulls, and other impartial corpses — so long as they have a mouth-like thing.
Likewise, I don’t have corpses try to break a player’s disguise to determine if they’re an enemy — just let them pull off the cool trick and give ’em some info.
Have fun being cryptic. This is one you’ll have to feel out, but try to get into the whole vague clue-giver thing. Learn how your players think so that your clues strike a nice balance between dead giveaways and unhelpful hogwash.
Ultimately, you only need to be as vague as your plot and desired narrative pace calls for.
Simple Speak With Dead 5e Spell Text
Speak With Dead: (3rd-level necromancy, 10 feet, 10 minutes, V/S/M (burning incense)) Allow a corpse to answer up to five questions. The corpse must have a mouth, can’t be undead, and can’t have been on a target of this spell within the last 10 days.
The corpse only knows what it knew in life (languages included). Answers are usually brief, cryptic, or repetitive, and the corpse is under no compulsion to offer a truthful answer if you are hostile to it or it recognizes you as an enemy. The corpse can’t learn new information, doesn’t comprehend anything that has happened since it died, and can’t speculate about future events.