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The spell speak with dead says:

You grant the semblance of life and intelligence to a corpse of your choice within range, allowing it to answer the questions you pose. [...]

[...] The corpse knows only what it knew in life, including the languages it knew. Answers are usually brief, cryptic, or repetitive, and the corpse is under no compulsion to offer a truthful answer if you are hostile to it or it recognizes you as an enemy. This spell doesn't return the creature's soul to its body, only its animating spirit. Thus, the corpse can't learn new information, doesn't comprehend anything that has happened since it died, and can't speculate about future events.

What is an "animating spirit" in this context? In what way is it different to a soul? Specifically, is an "animating spirit" established in published lore anywhere? I'd prefer sources from D&D 5e, but lore from previous editions is welcome as well. Also, if "published lore" isn't specific enough, assume Forgotten Realms.

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I do not believe it is part of any existing lore.

It is hard to find evidence for the total absence of something, however I have never come across the term, and searching the PDFs I have accumulated from DMSGuild does not turn up any results. There is no mention of it on Forgotten Realms Wiki (one, two). I have not come across it while reading many novels set in the Forgotten Realms.

This verbiage appears to be new to 5e. Let's compare Speak With Dead across editions:

5e

... This spell doesn't return the creature's soul to its body, only its animating spirit. Thus, the corpse can't learn new information, doesn't comprehend anything that has happened since it died, and can't speculate about future events.

4e

You ask the corpse of an intelligent creature questions and receive answers. The corpse knows what the creature knew in life, what has occurred near the corpse, and no more; the spirit has (usually) moved on to another plane and is not present in the body.

3.5

You grant the semblance of life and intellect to a corpse .... The corpse's knowledge is limited to what the creature knew during life .... Answers are usually brief, cryptic, or repetitive .... This spell does not let you actually speak to the person (whose soul has departed). It instead draws on the imprinted knowledge stored in the corpse. The partially animated body retains the imprint of the soul that once inhabited it, and thus it can speak with all the knowledge that the creator had while alive. ...

2e

... the priest is able to ask several questions .... Even if the casting is successful, such creatures are as evasive as possible when questioned. The dead tend to give extremely brief and limited answers, often cryptic, .... A dead creature that successfully saves can refuse to answer questions ...

AD&D

... the cleric is able to ask several questions of a dead creature .... The length of time the creature has been dead is a factor, since only higher level clerics can converse with the long-dead ...

Basic/Expert - not present

OD&D Greyhawk

A spell which allows the user to converse with a dead body, the Cleric being able to ask three questions. Note that the length of time the creature has been dead will be a consideration. ... riddles [are] recommended! ...

Looking back through these incarnations, it looks as if this is just verbiage to illustrate the unhelpfulness of your conversational participant cough

There is no official D&D cosmology, and if you try to construct one, you will find books published in the same year directly contradicting each other. Cosmology is ultimately up to you.

On page 12 of the DMG, during a discussion of Animism, it is stated,

Animism is the belief that spirits inhabit every part of the natural world. In an animistic worldview, everything has a spirit, from the grandest mountain to the lowliest rock ...

So, sorry, but there do not appear to be any other references to "animating spirit", anywhere.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer. I find 4e and 3.5e's speak with dead descriptions particularly interesting; 4e seems to use the word "spirit" to mean "soul" (just to add some more confusion), and 3.5e talks about the "imprint of the soul", which is likely what 5e meant by "animating spirit" (kinda wish 5e had just used 3.5e's wording, it seems the clearest in that regard). \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Mar 26 '20 at 8:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ultimately, I think Sam is right... this is the author's way of preventing any "now that his soul is back in his body, I'm going to..." weaseling by the players. There's no other definition of it, therefore it can't be used in any unintended way. \$\endgroup\$ – Reginald Blue Mar 26 '20 at 20:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ A shorter answer would be "it's the rule authors using normal English, not mechanically burdened rules mechanics style text" and be true, but I really appreciate the deep dive you did there. +1 👍 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast yesterday
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An animating spirit is likely the intangible foundation of a creature (other than certain constructs that rely on animating magic). Accordingly, an animating spirit is in effect a creature, likely has zero hit points, and is likely not a monster.


Background: As an aside, it appears likely that every soul has an intangible spirit. Refer to the description of Revenant in MM pg 259 which indicates:

A revenant forms from the soul of a mortal

and later in the description:

If the revenant's original body was destroyed or is otherwise unavailable, the spirit of the revenant enters another humanoid corpse.

Accordingly, a Revenant (like a Wraith) has an animating spirit, however it likely does not have a soul (a Wraith definitely does not have a soul). This is different from a Specter (a spirit that does have a soul) and a Ghost (a soul, presumably with an animating spirit).


There appear to be two types of spirits: intangible spirits and incorporeal spirits.

An intangible spirit does not create difficult terrain for other creatures moving into or through it's space. Other creatures can move into it's space without it being slowed, and can end their turn in the intangible spirit's space. Refer to the Healing Spirit spell in XGtE pg157 which refers to the spirit as "intangible".

An incorporeal spirit has a Fly (Hover) speed and it can move through other creatures and objects including hostile creatures as if they were difficult terrain, and can end its turn in another creature's or object's space. However, it will take force damage if ends its turn in another creature's or object's space. Refer to the descriptions of various undead in MM including Ghost, Specter, and Wraith.

Spirit Guardians from the spell of the same name in PHB pg278 appear to also be incorporeal spirits in a reverse fashion, as hostile creatures appear to be able to move through their space as though it were difficult terrain, and it it the hostile creature that takes damage (Radiant, rather than force, in this case) when, among other things, finishing it's turn in that space.

An animating spirit, while being a creature, is likely not a monster. The definition of monster in MM pg 4 indicates the following (bold emphasis mine):

A monster is defined as any creature that can be interacted with and potentially fought and killed.

From this, it follows that an incorporeal spirit such as a Specter is clearly a monster.

However, it is does not appear that an intangible spirit like a Healing Spirit is a monster, as it does not appear that it can be fought or killed. It appears likely that an animating spirit or the spirit from a Find Familiar spell would be similar.

Finally, I would argue that it is likely that intangible spirits have 0 HP. From the descriptions of Polymorph and True Polymorph spells in PHB, it is clear that incorporeal creatures can not be polymorphed, and it seems nonsensical that intangible creatures could be polymorphed. Instead, those spell make clear that creatures with 0 HP cannot be polymorphed, which to me strongly indicates that - along with the limited interactions ascribed to intangible spirits - intangible spirits have 0 HP.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not voting either way on your answer (there's some interesting food for thought there) but this answer is a good illustration of, I think, an attempt at treating written English as computer code and looking for keywords where there aren't any. You can write yourself into a corner doing that, and arrive at a dead end. I can't find any support for 'animating spirit' being a creature, whereas simply viewing it as a 'means' or 'mechanism' to accomplish Magic - a spell that lets a dead creature communicate with the living via speech - doesn't risk falling into that trap. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast yesterday
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, if you can find a way to wedge Reginald Blue's comment into this answer, it might improve it; up to you, that may be beyond the scope of what you are trying to get across. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast yesterday
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast good point. the reason I believe this is more specific (ie. computer code as it were) is the Find Familiar spell and treatment of spirits. Obviously it is not really that important to the game, \$\endgroup\$ – Weiramon yesterday
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, not sure if you want to add a ref to Find Familiar, even though they are described explicitly as Fey, Celestial, or Fiend spirits ... might not be as helpful as I first thought when I read your comment. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast yesterday

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