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The Ghostly Grasp feat is described in Libris Mortis (page 27) and states:

You can wear, wield, and otherwise use corporeal items as though you were not incorporeal.

Emphasis mine.

According to the incorporeal subtype any “equipment worn or carried by an incorporeal creature is also incorporeal”. Once again, emphasis mine. Libris Mortis confirms this on page 141 and extends this to the general “objects”:

An incorporeal creature only shares its incorporeal nature with objects that it actually holds, carries, or wears.

As far as I can find, anything picked up with Ghostly Grasp will instantly become incorporeal together with the creature. This feel unintentional. Or wrong even. Did I miss something? Is Ghostly Grasp documented in any other RAW source, expending on this?

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2 Answers 2

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It's a mess.

By RAW, Ghostly Grasp is completely nonfunctional most of the time. It works for ghosts and other incorporeal edge cases with a Strength score, though, and for them, it doesn't turn objects incorporeal by RAW. See the end for how.

The feat grants this effect:

Benefit: You can wear, wield, and otherwise use corporeal items as though you were not incorporeal.
Special: Without this feat, an incorporeal creature can only wear or wield items that have the ghost touch special ability.

Seems straightforward enough, right? When I first posted an answer to this question, I thought so too, but then I was prompted to do more research, and the whole rules situation around this feat is a mess.

The incorporeal subtype was updated in the Monster Manual III's glossary (p. 214), to include the following passages, among other things:

Any equipment worn or carried by an incorporeal creature is also incorporeal as long as it remains in the creature’s possession. An object that the creature relinquishes loses its incorporeal quality (and the creature loses the ability to manipulate the object).

So! Normally, when an incorporeal creature picks up an object (somehow), it turns incorporeal with them. This is done through ghost touch weapons and similar effects in most cases, though there are a few others. Thankfully, these rules are not relevant here, because of Ghostly Grasp's statement that you "use corporeal items as though you were not incorporeal."

This means that when you are choosing to use the feat ("can"), you just ignore all of the incorporeal subtype's rules, including the part about turning objects incorporeal. However... when using items in this way, you run into some other rules.

Incorporeal creatures, by and large, have a Strength score of — (a nonability).

According to the rules for nonabilities, such a creature suffers from the following (MMIII, p. 217):

Strength: Any creature that can physically manipulate other objects has at least 1 point of Strength.

A creature with no Strength score can’t exert force, usually because it has no physical body (a prismatic golem, for example). The creature automatically fails Strength checks. If the creature can attack, it applies its Dexterity modifier to its base attack bonus instead of a Strength modifier.

So, while an incorporeal creature with Ghostly Grasp can use objects as if they were not incorporeal, they cannot exert force, nor can they physically manipulate other objects. That's a bit of a bummer. They don't even get a place on the carrying capacity table.

But hey, thanks to their Ethereal Plane weirdness, ghosts have a Strength score, despite being incorporeal! Or, more particularly, while manifested on the Material Plane, they are incorporeal, and per the incorporeal subtype, have no Strength score (despite having one):

It [an incorporeal creature] has no Strength score, so its Dexterity modifier applies to both its melee attacks and its ranged attacks.

Luckily, Ghostly Grasp lets our hypothetical ghost use corporeal objects as if they were not incorporeal... which means their Strength score applies, as that rule is no longer in the way.

In conclusion

Ghosts and similar beings who have the incorporeal subtype while retaining their Strength score on the stat block can use Ghostly Grasp to pick up corporeal objects. They will not turn said objects incorporeal when using them in this way.

Other incorporeal creatures, thanks to their Strength nonability, can take the Ghostly Grasp feat, but cannot exert physical force or lift objects at all. They likewise will not turn objects incorporeal when fruitlessly pushing on an object in this way.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This question has really hurt my brain, and I'm glad someone else was brave enough to take a crack at it. What bothers me about the feat Ghostly Grasp is that you "can… use corporeal items as though you were not incorporeal," which should mean that you don't turn corporeal items incorporeal when you grasp them ghostily because that's what happen normally, the specifics of the Ghostly Grasp feat overriding the general rules of being incorporeal. But that's such a weird—and grammatically precise—reading that I'm unsure. Can this answer accommodate or refute that reading? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 3, 2017 at 23:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually that's a good point. I'm going to go do more research. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 3, 2017 at 23:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chemus If you want some stat to replace Str, it most probably should be Cha, certainly not Dex. Dex has nothing to do with exerting force. Cha is questionable, but at least stated by RC to govern interactions between incorporeal creatures, so it may be extended onto this feat. Not if I like this ruling or RC itself. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 4, 2017 at 4:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Martijn the big thing is that ghosts retain their Str score in the stat blocks; otherwise they would have two scores listed. If something says to do something without the effects of incorporeality, they still have that Str score, and now they don't have a line saying they don't have one. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 4, 2017 at 16:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd stick with Cha. Libris Mortis on page 143 explains what happens when an Incorporeal creature loses incorporealness, and while this is not exactly the case, I think it's close enough: "The now-corporeal creature gains a Strength score equal to its Charisma score (not including any nonpermanent modifi ers to Charisma, such as an eagle’s splendor spell)." I am not entirely sure about interpreting “as though you were not incorporeal” as "incorporeal traits don't apply to you", but in case of doubts I'll rather be over-restrictive than the opposite. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 6, 2020 at 15:35
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In my opinion, since incorporeal creatures can't generally interact with material objects, the ghostly grasp feat allows an incorporeal creature to pick up / wear the object in the first place, because the creature couldn't do it without the feat (or without the item being Ghost Touch).

The Incorporeal traits do state this: "An object that the creature relinquishes loses its incorporeal quality (and the creature loses the ability to manipulate the object)" (emphasis mine), imho this proves that incorporeals don't normally have the ability to pick up corporeal stuff.

The feat's words "You can wear, wield, and otherwise use corporeal items as though you were not incorporeal" don't specify that you count as corporeal in general, only for the purpose of touching and picking up stuff. Once you did pick up the stuff, you "pass" the incorporealness to your equipment, so your carried and worn objects become incorporeal.

In the end, I think that:

  • Ghostly grasp feat allows you to pick up the object, but that alone could result in an incorporeal carrying around corporeal stuff, and that's lame (can't pass thru solid walls, unsure if strenght or charisma should be applied to swing the weapons...)
  • Incorporeal traits specify that the items you gasp become incorporeals, thus resolving the aformentioned issues. Also, this is reinforced by the line stating that a weapon wield by an incorporeal creature can't harm a corporeal one, unless it's a magical weapon (a solid weapon would have no reason not to hit a solid target)
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