Life after death D&D 5e lore featured image is credited to Wizards of the Coast’s D&D 5e Mythic Odysseys of Theros.
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An Orc charges the enemy with abandon, seeking the glorious, bloody death that will grant him access to the eternal battlefields of Acheron. A Halfling Cleric, taking her last breaths after a fatal spear wound, sees a gaunt white-robbed figure and his faithful black hound arrive to herald her to the Green Fields to be with her family. During a deadly battle, a Warlock sees an Ultroloth watching them, a reminder that should they die, their soul belongs to their fiendish patron.
In my experience, the afterlife rarely comes up during play, but there’s a lot of fascinating lore that could affect how players interact with the world. Whether you want to integrate the afterlife into your campaign, incorporate planar travel and interactions with the souls of the dead, or just use the afterlife as part of a campaign wrap-up, this article will cover your bases and give you a run-down on what 5th edition has to say on the afterlife.
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The Dungeon Master’s Guide on p.24 describes what happens after someone dies: “its soul departs the Material Plane, travels through the Astral Plane, and goes to abide on the plane where the creature’s deity resides. If the creature didn’t worship a deity, its soul departs to the plane corresponding to its alignment.”
The DM has ultimate power over the planes and gods in a setting, and as such, ultimate power over what the afterlife will look like. However, traditional 5e cosmology provides a good basis that will work for most campaigns or serve as a starting point when creating your own religion and multiverse. In traditional 5e cosmology, most deities and higher powers reside in the 16 Outer Planes, which are referred to as the divine planes, the spiritual planes, or the godly planes. The most common depiction of these planes is the Great Wheel, as shown on p.303 of the Player’s Handbook. The planes are separated into sides of Good, referred to as the Upper Planes, and Evil, referred to as the Lower Planes, as well as Law and Chaos, left and right on the Great Wheel.
These 16 Outer Planes correspond to the alignment system that D&D uses. The overlap between the alignments of the planes also demonstrates the shades of philosophical interpretations of what an alignment can be. The table from p.302 of the PHB shows which planes correspond to which alignments and is reproduced below with some slight changes to order. The only alignment left out of the Outer Planes is true neutral, which is represented in the Outlands, a separate plane between and a meeting point of the 16 Outer Planes.
|The Peaceable Kingdom of Arcadia||LN, LG|
|The Seven Heavens of Mount Celestia||LG|
|The Twin Paradises of Bytopia||LG, NG|
|The Blessed Fields of Elysium||NG|
|The Wilderness of The Beastlands||NG, CG|
|The Olympian Glades of Arborea||CG|
|The Heroic Domains of Ysgard||CN, CG|
|The Ever-Changing Chaos Limbo||CN|
|The Clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus||LN|
|The Windswept Depths of Pandemonium||CN, CE|
|The Infinite Layers of The Abyss||CE|
|The Tarterian Depths of Carceri||NE, CE|
|The Gray Waste of Hades||NE|
|The Bleak Eternity of Gehenna||NE, LE|
|The Nine Hells of Baator||LE|
|The Infinite Battlefield of Acheron||LN, LE|
D&D can have a very “heaven and hell” vibe to its afterlife, where good characters go to a heaven in the Upper Planes, and evil characters go to a hell in the Lower Planes to suffer. However, this is not always the rule, and the variation in the afterlives can create some moral ambiguity. For example, orc souls mostly go to Acheron in the Lower Planes, but since their culture values war and fighting, being granted a spot in an eternal war is a reward for them, even if it would be a punishment for other creatures.
The cosmology of the D&D universe is something that’s written about by sages and philosophers and has only been explored by the most powerful individuals. As such, the extent of the knowledge about the afterlife can vary wildly by setting. A high-fantasy setting where magic items are as commonplace as coins could have a detailed map of the heavens that even common folk would know about. This could give rise to a rigid moral system that is dictated by your future place after death. Or, the afterlife could be shrouded in mystery, the only clues of which are in ancient tomes lost in dangerous ruins and what the religions claim their gods can grant their followers. This could lead to a rise in cults and other religions that promise their followers eternal life or power in the world after, or a disbelief in the afterlife itself.
This gives the DM broad power to determine what players even know about the afterlife. Some questions to consider when implementing the afterlife into your settings are:
- What would a commoner know about the afterlife?
- What do the gods tell their followers about the afterlife?
- How would knowledge of the afterlife affect people’s actions?
Since the afterlife is also determined by alignment, if you incorporate the afterlife into your setting, changes in alignment could have drastic consequences on where a character would end up after death. For example, if a Dwarf character experiences a change from a neutral alignment to an evil alignment, it could lead to immediate consequences. They could feel cut off from their ancestors’ afterlife and be struck with the realization that their actions could lead them to never return to the halls of the All-Father. Or they could feel the pull of an evil god, like Laduguer, the god of the Duergar, calling to them, and know that Laduguer is vying for ownership of their soul.
When creating a character or NPC, their beliefs in the afterlife can reflect their actions or personality. A righteous Paladin might be even more self-assured and reckless due to their belief that they will be rewarded in the afterlife for their service to their god. A cultist might have joined a cult due to fear over the afterlife, and the cult claims their god will give great rewards to their followers after death. A Barbarian might worship a god because they claim their followers will eternally fight in glorious battles after death but only if the Barbarian reaches a worthy death. A Warlock may have bartered their soul with their patron for power but now fears what death and the afterlife would bring.
D&D has never given a good definition of what a “soul” is, but they do provide clues based on how it’s used. Primarily, any creature that would go to an afterlife has a soul. Most sentient creatures have a soul, but sentience does not guarantee a soul, such as elementals who are the spirits and embodiments of their respective elemental plane, or sphinxes. Some descriptions in various places imply that all mortal creatures have a soul, but there is no clear answer.
Since D&D doesn’t discuss what souls are in depth, the limit to what they can do is unclear and up to DM interpretation. It may be possible for adventurers to seek out and talk to the souls of friends by travelling to the afterlife. It may even be possible for the soul to travel with adventures for a time, though whether they’d want to leave or even be able to leave the Outer Planes is something to consider.
Gods and greater powers want to collect souls for various purposes: hags collect souls to gain absolute control over that creature, devils use corrupted souls in their hellish armies, some good gods want to grant their followers eternal life in paradise, and some evil beings consume souls for power.
The Outer Planes are not the only fate for souls. Sometimes, misfortune can befall someone and prevent their soul from reaching their desired afterlife. Here’s a list of some of those.
- Devils barter in souls, and when they claim a soul, they drag it to the Nine Hells to become a lemure, twisted and tormented. However, lemures have the ability to be promoted to higher forms of devils with more power and freedom, and even have the potential to overthrow Asmodeus and become the ruler of The Nine Hells.
- Tiamat can turn her followers’ souls into a devil called an abishai.
- Certain souls can skip the lemure stage and be transformed into a different devil, such as fallen soldiers becoming merregons, fallen paladins becoming narzugons, and worthless, wasteful souls becoming nupperibos.
- A body possessed by a demon is at risk of having its soul dragged down into the Abyss if the host dies.
- Souls that are shunned or cursed by the gods are sent to the Abyss where, if they can survive, they are turned into manes. Manes can progress in power to become a stronger demon, even a demon lord, if they are able to survive being destroyed by other demons.
- Night Hags corrupt souls and then harvest them to bring them to Hades for their own purposes. Perhaps they use them to barter with devils, or perhaps they use them in foul magics.
- Undersea powers may bargain with sailor’s souls to avoid death, either caused by accident or by the undersea power itself. These souls are transformed into the horrific creatures called Deep Scions. The fate of these souls after these transformations is unknown.
Souls can be prevented from passing, causing a wide variety of undead, such as:
- Specters: angry, tormented souls doomed to never pass from the Material Plane. Their only end is the oblivion that comes with the destruction of their soul. Can be formed when a wraith rips a living soul from a body.
- Revenants: the soul of a mortal creature who met an undeserving end and clawed its way back into the world to seek revenge. It has one year before it must pass on to the afterlife.
- Ghosts: a soul bound to haunt a location, creature, or object due to unfinished business it had in its life. Such business could be avenging its death, fulfilling an oath, relaying a message, or destroying an entire family or organization.
- Mummies: a soul bound to its body through a necromantic ritual after its death. Some mummies are created as punishment for their misdeeds in life, and some are created as guardians to tombs of power rulers.
- Mummy Lords: similar to a lich, but instead of binding its soul to the mortal plane, its soul is prevented from passing with dark rituals.
- Vampires: when transformed by a vampire, the creature’s soul is trapped in its undead body until the body is destroyed, upon which its soul is released. Most vampires create vampire spawn, which are under the total control of the vampire who created them.
- Will-o’–wisps: created by the death of evil beings that perished in misery or anguish in forsaken realms steeped with powerful magic.
- Boneclaws: A failed lich transformation. When the aspiring spellcaster is too weak to compel their spirit into the phylactery, it insteads finds the nearest evil soul and binds to that instead. It then manifests as a boneclaw, bound to the evil creature until either the creature dies or turns away from the path of evil, upon which the boneclaw soul is destroyed.
- Deathlocks: created out of the soul of a warlock who failed to live up to their end of the bargain.
- Eidolons: forged from a fanatical soul to protect the secrets of gods. Sometimes granted as a special reward to followers.
- Sword wraiths: the soul of a glory-obsessed warrior who died in battle without earning the honor it sought.
- Lich: a powerful spellcaster who escaped death by binding their soul to the Material Plane. The lich must consume souls to feed their else they will wither and perish.
- Banshees: female elves can have their souls trapped through the banshee’s curse if they use their grace and charm to corrupt and control others.
- Death Knights: fallen paladins who, after death, are transformed by dark and malevolent powers. They can only escape undeath by atoning for their misdeed and seeking redemption.
- Wights: people driven by dark desire can plead to a dark power, such as the demon lord Orcus, to escape the afterlife in return for waging eternal war on the living.
- Liches consume souls to feed their phylacteries.
- Wraiths are formed when an evil soul is obliterated. When an evil soul has been suffused with enough negative energy, instead of their soul being shuttled off to a terrible afterlife upon death, they implode and cease to exist, leaving behind a wraith.
- The Negative Plane will often obliterate the souls of those who visit it, leaving a horrific monster known as a Nightwalker in its place.
- A soul can meld with primordial matter, destroying the soul but creating a genie in the process. The genie may have some memory of the soul that created it, or it may have no connection to it.
Some races have a specific way their souls are handled after death or belong to a specific god or pantheon that call them back after death.
The lore around Elvish souls is directly linked to their creation myth, which you can read about in detail in Chapter 2 of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. For a great oversimplification, elvish souls are not allowed to return to their creator god Corellon for eternal rest due to the actions of Lolth, an Elf goddess-turned-demon queen. As such, after death, the soul is returned to the other Elf gods, the Seldarine, in Arvandor, a realm of Arborea, for a period of time to rest and reflect on their creator’s disappointment. The soul is then reborn into a new Elf body, meaning that elves are reincarnated souls who are reborn again and again, unable to achieve eternal rest. Elven priests believe that as long as Lolth exists, the rift between them and their creator god can never be healed.
At the end of an Elf’s life, they experience an event called Transcendence, which is believed to be the Seldarine opening a pathway for the elvish soul to be reborn. However, in certain Elves, this event does not happen, and their soul passes on to other planes and is never reincarnated. This occurs among the Drow, who are bound to Lolth, as well as elves who turn away from worshiping the Seldarine and worship other gods.
Their god Urogalan told the Halflings that after death, their souls are taken to the Green Fields, a place of lush farmland, bright sunshine, and all the comforts of home. There the Halflings mingle with their god-heroes and watch over their loved ones, able to send messages back to the material world. The location of the Green Fields in the Outer Planes is uncertain, but the description is similar to that of Elysium.
They believe they belong to Garl Glittergold, who brings souls back to the Golden Hills in the Plane of Bytopia. Souls are sent out to experience the wider world before they return to join those who went out before them.
Orcs belong to Gruumsh, who, if they fight well and bring glory to their tribe, will be called home to the plane of Acheron to fight in external extraplanar conflict against the Goblinoids. Orcs too weak for battle seek out Yurtrus and Shargaas, who take them after death. Luthic is the goddess of both life and death who guides the Orcs after death to their afterlife.
They now belong to Maglubiyet, the Conquering God, who conquered and either destroyed or subjugated their other gods to bring all Goblinoids under his rule. Their souls are brought to Archeron to fight in eternal war against the Orcs.
Dragons belong to either the evil goddess Tiamat in the first layer of the Nine Hells or to the good god Bahamut who lives in the Seven Heavens of Mount Celestia.
Kobolds belong to a vassal of Tiamat, the captive god Kartulmak. The fate of Kobolds after death is unclear, but they presumably return to Tiamat.
Drow belong to Lolth, an evil Elven goddess who dwells in her own layer of the Abyss, the Demonweb.
They may belong to the evil god Laduguer, who freed them from enslavement by Mind Flayers; however, in some lore, Laduguer is dead. Asmodeus, the ruler of The Nine Hells, often impersonates Laduguer and, as such, may have claim to the souls of the Duergar.
Giants belong to Annam the All-Father, who has forsaken them for allowing the empire of Ostoria to fall. They worship a variety of other gods who are the children of Annam, and worshiping a non-Giant god is considered a great sin. Giants may be locked out of their true afterlife with Annam and have to settle with a lesser afterlife with the other Giant gods.
Illithids don’t believe they possess souls. When a mind flayer dies, it is returned to the elder brain to be consumed so its intellect may live on. Only if an illithid’s brain isn’t retrieved after death would its consciousness be cast into oblivion.
Whether your character or non-player characters believe in an afterlife or subscribe to a deity who determines their fate, the toll of the question “where do I go after I die” could weigh heavily on the actions they take—consciously or not. Consider integrating beliefs on the afterlife into your setting and developing your character’s relationship with their gods and their thoughts on the afterlife. You may be surprised with the depth this gives to your world and your character’s choices.
You can find alternative ways to handle death and resurrection in D&D 5e with the Cleric Corner’s article.
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