Sometimes, there’s a tension between the rules of the game and the story you want to tell. Nowhere is that tension more palpable than speak with dead. The spell does precisely what it says on the tin, allowing the caster to ask questions of a dead body. Especially if you happen to find yourself operating within the context of a murder mystery, it’s hard to imagine a bigger obstacle for a would-be mystery writer. After all, it’s not going to be much of a mystery if the body can sit up, point a decaying finger, and croak, “J’accuse!” at its murderer. And so, even though the spell has built-in workarounds (the magic might fail if the creature’s alignment is different from the caster’s; answers are always cryptic; etc.), GMs are obliged to build murders around the spell.

In the Pathfinder novel Death’s Heretic, for example, James Sutter’s protagonist-investigator Salim Ghadafar encounters some familiar obstacles between speak with dead and an easy solution to his whodunit:

Salim ran his fingers up the man’s neck and beneath his chin, feeling the ragged line there. “Removed?” he asked.
“The whole jaw,” Khoyar confirmed. “Servants found it in a trash heap several estates to the west. My priests reattached it just enough to be functional.”
Salim nodded. Without a jaw, the magic wouldn’t work, and any serious assassin or career criminal understood the value of a corpse that stayed mute. 

Once the questioning begins, it turns out the corpse was facing away from his murderer, further frustrating the investigation. Unable to see its killer in life, the victim could offer no help in death.

In everyone’s favorite Pathfinder module, Rise of the Runelords, a different set of murderers have also taken the same precautionary step of removing their victims’ jawbones. And in book one of the Giant Slayer AP, the author instructs game masters that the local priest, “Refuses to cast speak with dead on the body, in accordance with [the wishes of the victim’s family]. Even if the PCs have access to such magic, they learn very little, as [the victim] was unconscious when he died, though the corpse can confirm that he did not commit suicide.”

To my way of thinking, this sort of blocking maneuver represents a game master struggling against the world established by the game rules, a world which makes it trivially easy for players to solve a murder mystery. The same holds true of spells like zone of truth, locate object, and (most generally) detect magic. There’s a balance to be found between clever antagonists who know to cover their tracks, and “irritating GMs who never let my freaking spells do what they’re supposed to do.” As a GM, I find that it’s best to vary it up, and to add in ‘blocking maneuvers’ about half the time. YMMV, and that of course leads us to our question of the day!

Have you ever struggled against “easy magical solutions” as a GM? What spell or ability was trivializing your encounters, and how did you deal with it? Should you deal with it? Or is it better practice to not plan around player abilities? Let’s hear the eerie, whispered tales from all those missing jaw bones down in the comments!


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