Undead Tactics: Specters, Wights and Wraiths

Ghouls and ghasts are flesh-eaters; specters, wights and wraiths are life-drainers. Driven by malice, envy and despair, they compulsively consume the vitality they themselves can never possess again. They all possess darkvision and shun the sunlight, so they’re encountered only at night; in some shuttered, haunted locale; or underground.

Specters are incorporeal: they have no material existence and can pass through solid objects and other creatures, although they can be harmed by stopping inside one. They have a very fast flying movement speed of 50 feet per turn. Their only exceptional ability scores are a Dexterity of 14 and a Strength of 1. They’re immune to most debilitating conditions, although they can be blinded, deafened, frightened, incapacitated or stunned. They’re immune to necrotic and poison damage and resistant to other forms of damage, except for radiant damage and physical damage from magical weapons. Being of normal humanoid intelligence and Wisdom, they have the sense to back off from an opponent that starts inflicting these types of damage upon it.

A specter might be expected to identify and zero in on weaker victims, and if it were an evolved creature, it might act that way. But specters operate are driven by their compulsion, not by adaptive survival instincts. When they sense the presence of a living victim, they don’t evaluate how easy or hard it will be to devitalize. They just wanna kill everybody, and it doesn’t matter who’s first.

Theirs is the “scrappy” fighting style: they move around a lot but also attack relentlessly. Once they’ve identified a target, they go straight for it and Life Drain (action) until (a) it’s dead; (b) the target flees into sunlight, where they won’t follow; (c) they take any radiant damage or physical damage from a magical weapon, or (d) they take moderate or greater damage (7 hp or more from one opponent in a single round) of any other type(s). But in the latter cases, the specter doesn’t break off combat—it wheels around and attacks a different victim instead, avoiding the source of the damage until other targets are dispensed with. In case (c), it Disengages (action) and moves to a place of safety 50 feet away, then swoops in and attacks its new target in the next round. In case (d), it flies to its new target and attacks immediately, without seeking to avoid an opportunity attack, since most opportunity attacks can’t hurt it much. Alternatively, if it was hit by a ranged attack, it dive-bombs the ranged attacker and engages him or her in melee. Once a specter has found victims to drain, nothing will make it stop attacking—even Turn Undead will only deter it for 1 minute at most. As soon as the effect wears off, it will attack again.

The poltergeist variant of the specter doesn’t Drain Life—it hurls objects and people around instead. Its target selection is mostly random, varying from round to round, but its choice of action depends on its choice of target. It will use Telekinetic Thrust to pick up and hurl a player character with a Strength of 10 or less, or to hurl a Small or Medium-size object, such as a piece of furniture, at any PC; against other targets, or if it’s just hurled an object, it will use Forceful Slam. Unlike the ordinary specter, which will shy away from PCs that do radiant damage or carry magic weapons, the poltergeist is even further enraged by these things and will target those characters—albeit from a distance, if possible, by hurling objects until there are no more objects to hurl. It also will not stop attacking until it’s destroyed, or until the PCs leave whatever area it haunts.

Wights are corporeal and tough. They possess Stealth proficiency and are capable fighters both in melee and at range. They aren’t immune to as many debilitating conditions as specters (only exhaustion and poison) and are resistant only to necrotic damage and physical damage from nonmagical, nonsilvered weapons, but their high physical ability scores, moderately high hit points and Multiattack feature make them even harder to kill. Moreover, they have above-average Wisdom and Charisma as well, so it’s difficult to bring them down with spells and magical items that require saving throws to resist.

Wights relentlessly attack anyone who invades the dark and desolate burial places where they dwell. First, they move with Stealth to the nearest distance they can reach without being seen, then they attack with surprise. If they’re beyond melee range, they make two longbow attacks; within melee range, they make two longsword attacks. With each round, they advance, moving at the start of their turn (if applicable) and attacking at the end. When a wight’s target is reduced to 18 hp or fewer, it uses Life drain as its second melee attack; when its target is reduced to 6 hp or fewer, it uses Life Drain as its first melee attack, rather than its second. It would like to use Life Drain to finish off its target in order to raise the target as a zombie under its control, but its Intelligence isn’t quite high enough for it to hold back in order to be sure it doesn’t accidentally kill the target with a weapon strike instead. These guidelines are as close as it gets.

Wights, according to the Monster Manual, “pursue [a] malevolent agenda . . . relentlessly and without distraction . . . relying on their hunger for destruction to overwhelm any creature that stands before them.” Therefore, they’re undeterred by elemental damage, by foes with magic or silvered weapons, or by unusually tough or talented opponents. Unlike specters, which put off engaging with foes who can harm them more easily, and poltergeists, which focus their attacks on those foes, wights don’t care one way or the other. Taking damage would only make them angrier, if they could be any angrier than they already are. How much more angry can they be? The answer is, none. None more angry. The only thing that will get them off their chosen victims—aside from those victims’ successfully fleeing into the sunlight—is Turn Undead, and once that wears off, they come right back, extra cheesed off at the PC who turned them.

Wraiths are like extra-powerful specters, possessing the same resistances and immunities, the same incorporeal nature and the same Life Drain ability. All their ability scores are higher, making them above-average in everything except Strength, but most notably in Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom—the “big three” of saving throws. These traits, plus a sizable wodge of hit points and a wicked fast 60-foot flying speed, make them a terrifying foe.

Just like specters, wraiths want to kill everyone and everything, so they’re not super-concerned with who dies first. However, wraiths have just enough Intelligence and Wisdom to choose their targets, and they choose on the basis of . . . goodness. Wraiths’ compulsion is malice, and the purer the heart, the more they want to see it stop beating. They fly in, lock on to the greatest paragon of goodness in the party and start Draining. Multiple wraiths will probably all be drawn to the same target, but have a heart: even one wraith is a deadly encounter for a party of four third-level characters or a single seventh-level character.

Click to reveal spoiler from The Lost Mine of Phandelver

Mormesk the Wraith in The Lost Mine of Phandelver is a nerfed version of the MM wraith, with fewer hit points, lower Drain Life damage and no Create Specter feature (see below).


By default, one PC should not be attacked by more wraiths than would constitute a Hard encounter for that character alone (see the Dungeon Master’s Guide, p. 82). However, wraiths, like specters, recoil from radiant damage or silvered or magical weapons. Unlike specters, even as they switch their attacks to less dangerous opponents, they don’t forget who’s got the shiny, burny weapons that hurt them, and they look for opportunities to get the drop on those characters. If at any time a Deadly number of these wraiths are simultaneously looking for a new target, they’ll go after Burny McRighteousface. But have a heart: figure out the minimum number of wraiths necessary to constitute a Deadly encounter, and don’t ever throw more than that number at any one target. Burny’s comrades-in-arms have to have at least a chance of rescuing him or her.

One feature wraiths have that sets them apart from specters is Create Specter: they can take a humanoid who’s died violently within the last minute (I’d rule that this includes dying as a result of their own Life Drain) and raise a specter from his or her corpse. Naturally, they’ll be particularly keen to do this to the victims they lusted most to kill. But turning a PC into a specter is a cold thing to do. This is beyond remove curse, beyond greater restoration, beyond raise dead—it requires, at a minimum, resurrection (some DMs would argue that it requires true resurrection or even wish). Be judicious in your use of this feature. Don’t do it to a PC without somehow letting your players know that it can be undone, even though the undoing may be an ordeal, and allow the player whose PC has been enspecterated a role to play while his or her character is waiting to be brought back to life. Or just don’t do it to a PC at all. (But feel free to tell them, “You recall having been told once that wraiths have the power to drain people’s lives and turn them into spectral thralls,” just to make them shriek.)

Strength points lost to the shadow’s Strength Drain are restored by any rest, short or long, but maximum hit points lost to the Life Drain feature of a specter, wight or wraith are restored only by a long rest. (On the other hand, Strength Drain losses are automatic; Life Drain reduces max hp only upon a failed Constitution saving throw.) This makes these enemies a particularly rough threat at the beginning of the adventuring day; on the other hand, placing them at the end of the adventuring day nerfs their life-draining effects to the point of insignificance. The middle of the adventuring day seems about the right time to have your PCs run into them.

In summary:

  • Specters pick a target at random, fly directly toward it and use Life Drain repeatedly, round after round. They stop attacking a target when they’ve killed it, when the target escapes into sunlight, when they’re hit by radiant damage or a magical weapon, or when they take 7 hp or more of other types of damage in a single attack.
  • If a specter is hit by radiant damage or a magical weapon, it Disengages (action) and moves away its full movement distance, then returns the next round to attack a different victim.
  • If hit by 7 hp or more of other types of damage from a single melee attacker, it leaves that opponent alone and flies around to attack another, without disengaging first (potentially incurring one or more opportunity attacks); from a single ranged attacker, it flies directly toward that opponent and attacks it.
  • Only two things will stop a specter from attacking once it’s started: fleeing into sunlight or destroying it. Turn Undead keeps it away only for the duration of the feature.
  • Poltergeists use Telekinetic Thrust to pick up and hurl a PC with a Strength of 10 or less, or to hurl a Small or Medium-size object, such as a piece of furniture, at any PC.
  • Against any other foe, or if they’ve just hurled an object, they use Forceful Slam instead.
  • Against a foe who hits them with radiant damage or a magical weapon, they’ll hurl object after object until there are no more objects to hurl, then use Forceful Slam relentlessly against that foe.
  • Only two things will stop a poltergeist from attacking once it’s started: leaving the area it haunts or destroying it. Turn Undead keeps it away only for the duration of the feature.
  • Wights use Stealth to move as close to invaders as they can get without being seen, then attack with surprise. They approach at full movement speed, then Attack (action) twice with longbow if they’re beyond melee range, twice with longsword if within melee range.
  • If their target has 18 hp or fewer, wights will Attack (action) with longsword, then Life Drain. If their target has 6 hp or fewer, they’ll Attack (action) with Life Drain, then longsword.
  • The kind of damage wights take doesn’t influence their choice of target. Once they’ve begun attacking a target, they keep attacking that target.
  • Only two things will stop a wight from attacking once it’s started: fleeing into sunlight or destroying it. Turn Undead keeps it away only for the duration of the feature.
  • Wraiths target the most good-hearted characters in the party, fly directly toward them and use Life Drain repeatedly, round after round. (Limit the number of wraiths attacking any one character to those that would constitute a Hard encounter.) They stop attacking a target when they’ve killed it, when the target escapes into sunlight or when they’re hit by radiant damage or a silvered or magical weapon.
  • Wraiths hit by radiant damage or a silvered or magical weapon switch to attacking other opponents but return to that attacker with renewed intensity when they can do so in slightly greater numbers (enough to constitute a Deadly encounter, but just barely).
  • Wraiths can Create Specters from recently slain enemies, but be judicious about doing this to PCs: give their companions a path by which they can restore them to life with resurrection magic, and make sure they have something to do in the game other than imagine their miserable lives as specters. Alternatively, let the PCs know about this feature to frighten them but don’t actually use it (“The threat is stronger than the execution”—Aron Nimzowitsch).

Next: ghosts and mummies.

12 thoughts on “Undead Tactics: Specters, Wights and Wraiths

  1. Incorporeal deserves special mention, especially combined with the high fly speed. A wraith can just pass through a wall, and emerge on its turn again. Players can only hit by taking readied actions, losing multi attack. Great way to get away from magic weapons and focus melee attacks on spellcasters.

  2. As I’m reading their stat block again, I notice they’re also not resistant to force damage, unless I’m mistaken?

  3. The way I read the stat block for the Wight and similar life-draining undead allows the Wight more freedom than you imply here, at least when the wight is fighting PCs. The language is “a humanoid slain by this attack.” To me that means one of three things: (a) the humanoid’s max HP is reduced to zero by the attack; (b) the life drain attack brings the PC’s HP to negative their HP total, or (c) the life drain attack causes a PC to fail its third death saving throw.

    Am I mistaken? Does the word “slain” include knocking unconscious by bringing the HP to 0? If not, then in most cases the Wight does not have to worry about which attack knocks out its target. Reducing (non-max) HP to 0 via life drain does not start the zombification process, and reducing HP to 0 via other attacks does not prevent the zombification process from being initiated on another turn.

    1. Zombies! Their stat block says they can make them, and they can have up to 12 under their control at a time. If you want a random number, roll either 1d12, 2d6, or 3d4, depending on the minimum number you’re looking for. Just be aware that these extra followers will make the encounter significantly more difficult, given the staying power zombies are granted via Undead Fortitude.

  4. I started playing (or, more truthfully, collecting) D & D back in the early 80’s. If I remember correctly, specters used to be much more challenging monsters than they are now. Wights and wraiths were both lower than specters on the Turn Undead tables, and were right below vampires (then ghosts and then lichs, I think). Wights and wraiths could drain a level, while specters and vampires could drain TWO levels on a hit, a form of attack which always seemed too drastic to me. I wonder why specters got demoted in the undead hierarchy. Not really a tactics question, but something I’ve been curious about.

    1. I was just wondering the same thing!
      Maybe wraiths got a publicity boost from Lord of the Rings and demanded top billing…? 🙂

  5. Thanks for another fun article. These are great resources; I’m running Red Hand of Doom and my players are running into lots of Undead in the Thornwastes. For my game, I altered the Wraith life drain so that the player gets a rolled hit die worth of HP back after a long rest so that the Life Drain is a bigger deal.

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