The featured image for Haunted! Playing a Ghost-Riddled Adventurer in D&D 5e is from Wizards of the Coast in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
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Since the dawn of storytelling, ghosts have been a useful literary tool and clever plot device. From King Hamlet to the Ghost of Christmas Past, spirits have interwoven characters across time and space, challenged the morality of individuals or groups, provided integral advice or information, and more. In D&D 5e, ghosts may similarly serve these purposes, at the discretion of the Dungeon Master, and a player can facilitate this exciting plot device by strategically choosing their class archetype.
This article will provide several playable rules-as-written class options that may allow a character to be burdened by ghosts, for better or for worse.
Battle Smith Artificer
From Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, we read: “Your tinkering has borne you a faithful companion, a steel defender. It’s friendly to you and your companions, and it obeys your commands.”
But what if something inhabits the steel defender? According to the Player’s Handbook pg. 7, “The abilities [scores] […] typically range from 3 to 18 for most adventurers,” and with an INT score of 4, a Steel Defender could house the soul of a sentient being, albeit one that involves limited cognitive function. This is the perfect description of a spirit stuck on its “mission” or “unfinished business.”
Perhaps the defender is physically bound by the mechanics and magic of the Artificer’s command. And despite its questionable “friendliness” to the players, the ghost that finds home in the machine has a sentience that allows it to communicate or haunt the Artificer.
Additionally, when infusing mundane items with magic, an Artificer may accidentally be summoning poltergeists into these items to create magical effects, perhaps without knowing what they are doing. The result: whispers of lost souls, shadows at the edge of their peripheral, and nightmares unparalleled before.
This class reflavoring will be wholly dependent on the willingness of the Dungeon Master to roleplay and utilize the spirit stuck in the Steel Defender, so make sure you consult with your Dungeon Master on this build!
Path of the Ancestral Guardian Barbarian
While the majority of Barbarians of this path believe that “warriors of the past linger in the world as mighty spirits, who can guide and protect the living” (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything), it’s entirely possible that a Barbarian who chose this path, expecting to ally with benevolent and loving great-grandparents, finds themselves terrorized by wicked ancestors who coerce the Barbarian into deeds that serve the goals of their once-living progenitor.
Reflavor “rage” as great fear resulting in a fight-response. Spectral warriors are summoned by the pervading ancestor to ensure their conduit on the material plane stays alive, but the warriors also serve as a threat against the Barbarian to behave and fulfill their plans.
When a Barbarian receives disadvantage against an attack, perhaps it is the terrorizing ancestor pulling the Barbarian in an unwilling direction or finding pleasure in causing the Barbarian slight harm.
These spectral powers may also thrive off the energy of the material world. When the Barbarian’s Spirit Shield activates, a player could reskin the protection part of the ability as: “The guardian spirits feed off the power around you. If you are raging and another creature you can see within 30 feet of you takes damage, you can use your reaction to reduce that damage by 2d6, supplying the guardian spirits with the energy they crave, lest they feed off your strength instead.”
When a player Consults the Spirits at level 10, the ancestor may be magically bound to follow the terms of Clairvoyance or Augury, but they may be slightly manipulative to further their own goals.
The stronger the Barbarian gets, the wilder the Guardian Spirits grow. By level 14, they have fed off enough of the power of the Material Plane that they are able to lash out physically with “Vengeful Ancestors.”
College of Spirits Bard
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft provides one of the best subclasses for a “haunted” flavor. With the College of Spirits, a Bard may be fearfully plagued by the ghost stories they have heard in their youth. With such a shaken temperament, the Bard accidentally wills the stories to reality.
Prone to spreading fear with the ghost stories they express, Spirit Bards find they are able to lend their strength to those they have spooked via Guiding Whispers, as there is strength in numbers when abounding in fear.
When collecting charms and talismans to protect themselves against the ghosts they fear, Spirit Bards accidentally summon and channel spirits via Spiritual Focus, though this is not how they perceive the effects of their abilities.
A Spirit Bard does not delight in being scared, but so many stories rattle their frenzied mind that they can’t help but feel slightly relieved in sharing their fears. Using Tales from Beyond, each story may be spooky but retain its effects, as spooky stories tend to affect us uniquely. When we are scared, we may tend to overcompensate our bravery with higher Charisma; when spooked, we might run or act faster than normal; when adrenaline pumps through our bodies, we could very well hit harder and deal more damage. When scared, we are more alert, more cautious, more guarded. Any effect from the Spirits Tale table can apply when told a scary tale.
Reflavor Spirit Session as an exorcism gone wrong. Or perhaps the hour-long ritual is just the Bard telling a scary story or divulging their fears, and the result is a summoned spirit above the campfire.
Trickery Domain Cleric
This reflavoring from the Player’s Handbook focuses less on the spooky abilities of the character and more on the lore, background, race, or backstory of the character. Nevertheless, the abilities of the Trickery Domain Cleric are appropriate for a “flight response” to fear, which I’ll explain below.
Clerics of this domain serve Gods of Trickery and mischief makers. Perhaps a Cleric accidentally started this path or was forced to be clergy to these less-than-good deities in their backstory. After performing treacherous deeds for their gods, a Trickery Cleric may be haunted by the ghosts of those they and their deity have wronged.
The ghosts of this person may be a fabricated projection of their guilt, or perhaps it is truly haunting ghosts, which will need to be determined by the Dungeon Master. With Blessing of the Trickster, a Cleric may encourage a friend to tread lightly because they see spirits all around that wish to cause them harm, giving them advantage to Stealth.
Where there is real evil facing them in the world, a Cleric sees the haunting ghosts in an aura around the danger. Thus, a Cleric may use Invoke Duplicity when stunned by fear from the ghosts, creating a “substitute” of themselves in hope that the evil will attack the fake one instead. When panicking, a Cleric may turn invisible with Cloak of Shadows, fleeing or hiding or finding an advantageous place to fight.
For the Divine Strike ability, I recommend a player uses the Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything Cleric variant, where they may deal radiant damage instead of poison damage, in an effort to expel or exorcize the haunting ghosts.
With this Cleric domain, the character may find themselves pulling away from their trickery deities, eventually finding solace in serving a more benevolent god. This character arc may lead to them seeing fewer ghosts as they make things right in the world again.
Circle of Dreams Druid
Using the avenues of magic of the Feywild, a Dream Druid may find their normally whimsical pathways tainted with the inverse of the Fey: the Shadowfell. Wherever a Dream Druid’s fanciful magic benefits the world around them, into their mind creeps the darkness of the other side of the coin.
Remember that a Druid utilizes their Wisdom score, which may be the only thing that keeps the fear from overwhelming the Druid, as the shadowy darkness of their abilities haunts their waking nightmare.
When healing with Balm of the Summer Court, fey energy weaves with the wound to magically heal the creature. But in the space where the magic of the fey was siphoned away, dark wisps of shadow fill the void. As a Druid heals their friend, in the corner of their peripheral, they sense threads of dread. The more the pool of fey energy depletes with this ability, the further the Druid is plunged into manic trepidation as the shadow encroaches on them. This pool of fey energy is, of course, replenished with a long rest, but the echoes of fear remain, cautioning a Druid against the powers of darkness that stalk the fey.
By using Hearth of Moonlight and Shadow, a Druid “invokes the shadowy power of the Gloaming Court to help guard your respite.” While the rest of the party benefits from the obscuring magic, the Druid may feel engulfed in the shadowy magic, haunted by the wicked shadowfell creatures that threaten to intrude. This may only be perceived by the Druid, as nothing mechanical happens as a result, but the Druid may not come out of it for the better, drawing further inward in paranoia and fear.
Using the Hidden Paths feature, a Druid passes through magical fey pathways to “teleport” from space to space. But what does a Druid see in the space between the Material Plane? What else is in these magical pathways, and how long may a Druid be in the pathways during the six Material-Plane seconds? A seemingly-eternal nightmare may unfold in those few moments; Shadowfell spirits may terrorize a Druid in their passage; or maybe the fears of the Druid are simply magnified in the mythical pathways. This same description can apply to the Walker in Dreams feature as well.
While nothing mechanically may happen as a result of the Shadowfell presence, these visages of dread may haunt the Druid, resulting in significant roleplay and character development.
Echo Knight Fighter
While this type of Fighter may “summon the fading shades of unrealized timelines to aid them in battle” (Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount), there may be resonating pulses of haunting vestiges in the echoes summoned that plague and torment the Fighter.
A Fighter may not totally understand all there is to know about their echoes, for while the shadows of one’s immediate timelines may closely mirror one’s current reality, the further away the Fighter draws into possible dimensions to access echoes, the more likely they are to touch a dimension of unparalleled horrors.
When a Fighter transfers its consciousness into its echo via Echo Avatar, the consciousness of the echo may begin to infiltrate the Fighter’s mind, consciously or not. This may result in parallel tremors and shadows that pervade the edges of the Fighter’s mind, wicked or devious influences that encroach the unattached mind floating between avatar and body, or a transfer of an interdimensional parasite to the Fighter in subconsciousness.
Based on how an echo is treated with Shadow Martyr, and the fact that a multitude of shadows are used and tossed aside, these echoes may haunt the Fighter in his waking existence. When an echo is destroyed or discarded, an essence of the abused echo may persist and plague the Fighter.
You can find additional ideas for how to re-flavor the Echo Knight Fighter from the Cleric Corner’s article.
Way of the Astral Self Monk
Reflavor a Monk’s “astral self” as a possessed spirit, and you’re on your way to spooky haunting story. From Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, we read that “a monk who follows the Way of the Astral Self believes their body is an illusion.” Suppose that monk believes the illusion is actually a possessing spirit? Perhaps the presence of the spirit terrorizes the Monk, and all of the effects of the subclass are a result of the possession.
Arms of the Astral Self may be reflavored to summoning arms of the ghost that possesses the Monk. This parasitic ghost is symbiotically interested in the Monk’s wellbeing, lest they return to their spirit world, so they fight alongside the Monk, even if it terrifies the Monk.
The Visage of the Astral Self summoned could be in the image of the ghost, as gruesome and grim as one desires. Still, they allow the Monk to see in darkness, gain advantage on certain checks, and speak ghostly and afar.
Perhaps by level 17, the Monk has learned to live with the ghost, no longer fearing its effects, and gains powerful abilities that awaken its full potential.
You can find additional ideas for how to re-flavor the Astral Self Monk from the Cleric Corner’s article.
Again from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, we read that “some rogues discover a mystical connection to death itself. These rogues take knowledge from the dead and become immersed in negative energy, eventually becoming like ghosts.” Though this may be ritualistic and welcomed in some societies, I can imagine it would be terrifying for the unexpected Rogue. Tasha’s even suggests “How did you discover this grim power? Did you sleep in a graveyard and awaken to your new abilities?”
Imagine the horror of realizing “echoes of those who have died cling to you.” With the Whispers of the Dead feature, spectral entities speak secret knowledge sporadically. A Rogue, in the throes of a stressful problem, hears dreadful whispers of hidden knowledge, realizing that eerie eyes are focusing on him.
With the Wails from the Grave ability, when a Rogue cuts a creature’s tenuous thread between life and death, the Rogue sees the hungry and wicked spirits of the Negative Energy plane claw toward other living beings. The affected creature hears their wails, but the Rogue sees the souls of the damned, fueling her nightmares.
One hidden knowledge a Rogue may be reluctant to utilize is Tokens of the Departed, in which a Rogue may capture some essence of a newly-dead creature for their own benefit. However, this token may act as a charm or talisman to ward off haunting dead or death itself.
As the Rogue continually utilizes the ghostly horror around them, they begin to grow more ghostly themselves. This transformation cannot be stopped, as the Rogue gains Ghost Walk and Death Knell. “You can phase partially into the realm of the dead, becoming like a ghost.” “The spirits of the dead are drawn to you.” By having one foot in the grave, so to speak, the Rogue has drawn the gaze of accursed spirits, pitching the Rogue into perilous dread.
Another subclass from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, the Undead Warlock has “ made a pact with a deathless being.” Fearing death itself, the pact seemed like a good escape, but the Warlock begins to find this unequivocally untrue, as death now seems to have them in its grasp.
Although the Warlock’s patron grants them immunity to being frightened, that does not take away from the terror the Warlock witnesses, engulfed in this power. At times, a Warlock finds themselves transformed into a “Form of Dread,” perhaps reflecting an undeath-state.
With Grave Touched, food becomes disgusting, air becomes suffocating. They may (non-mechanically) become more sensitive to the shadows surrounding them, paranoia festering of the coming of Death.
By level 10, the Warlock is convinced they are dead. The Necrotic Husk feature states that “necrotic energy now saturates your body.” Instead of dropping dead, they are able to hold on to the thread that connects them to life, regaining 1 hit point. But by level 14, the Warlock truly becomes a ghost themselves, as their spirit is no longer attached to their physical form.
With this slow descent to the grave, a Warlock experiences true haunted fright.
Have you played a haunted character before? Did your build match any I’ve listed here? Let us know in the comments below! We love hearing player and DM ideas!