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Where do souls go when they die in 5e? Is it still an outer plane matching their alignment like in earlier editions? Are the souls of evil creatures going to the lower planes?

The spells that can raise the dead typically have restritions about the soul being free and willing, e.g.

Greater Resurrection: If the creature's soul is free and willing, the creature is restored to life

Depictions of hell make it appear to be a place that the tortured souls there should be all to eager to leave again if given the opportunity. Can souls there be rescued by resurrection spells? Or are these souls trapped? Does resurrection require the consent from whatever gods rule the plane where the soul resides?

Note: This is a more general question related to this question, which is specific for Night Hags and Hades, and may have specifics that override a more general answer.)

Background Research: The DMG has this to say about the planes (p. 43)

At minimum, most D&D campaigns require these elements:

  • A plane of origin for fiends
  • A plane of origin for celestials
  • A plane of origin for elementals
  • A place for deities, which might include any or all of the previous three
  • The place where mortal spirits go after death, which might include any or all of the first three

And

The Outer Planes are realms of spirituality and thought. (...) The plane of Elysium, for example, isn't merely a place where good creatures dwell, and not even simply the place where spirits of good creatures go when they die.

Page 44 also notes that the described planes can appear in cosmological models as either entirely separate planes, or as regions goverend by different gods and powerful entities like celestials, fiends and elementals, but says nothing on what power they have over the souls of the departed. p. 58 merely states

the landscape can change at a whim of the powerful forces that dwell on these planes, which can remake them completely, effectively erasing and rebuilding existence to better fulfill their divine needs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One should note that Forgotten Realms has a different process for souls than other settings. In fact the FR destination for souls based on deities makes it quite possible for a soul to end up on a plane different from its alignment or in the wall of souls. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 16 at 19:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelShopsin Thank you, this would be in Greyhawk. Still useful information for others that play in the FR \$\endgroup\$ Feb 16 at 19:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ For an example of "character's soul is not free", 'Soultheft', a Vhaeraun specific cleric spell from editions 2 & 3 traps a newly dead soul inside the cleric's holy symbol in order to consume that soul to charge a magical device. In order to be able to resurrect the soul, one needs to obtain the item that the soul is trapped inside of (before it is fully consumed). \$\endgroup\$
    – Tangurena
    Feb 17 at 15:59

3 Answers 3

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Plane of Deity with a fallback to alignment

Perhaps frustratingly if you expect it to be related to the planes, the DMGs section on Bringing Back the Dead is found at the end of the Magic in Your World section (p. 23-24).

When a creature dies, its soul departs its body, leaves the Material Plane, travels through the Astral Plane, and goes to abide on the plane where the creature's deity resides. If the creature didn't worship a deity, its soul departs to the plane corresponding to its alignment.

Whether a soul in a particular plane becomes trapped in a given plane isn't (to my knowledge) specified in any kind of detail.


In the case of unaligned creatures, there is little to nothing specifies: Where does an unaligned creature's soul go after death?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's also somewhat setting specific. In Eberron there are no deity planes; every soul goes to Dolurrh where they slowly lose their memories and then vanish, and nobody knows what happens after that (reincarnation and going to join the Sovereigns -- the distant gods -- are two common beliefs). Resurrection magic often doesn't work in Eberron past a couple of weeks unless you actually go to Dolurrh and manually pull their soul out first. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 16 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wait a minute, with all the polytheist pantheons in D&D, you're still only suppose to worship a single deity? This seems... weird. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17 at 10:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. no, you don't have to, and most people don't, but Cleric's and their ilk certainly do \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Feb 17 at 13:09
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Where it goes doesn’t matter for resurrection

To determine whether a character can be brought back from the dead, their soul must be:

  1. Free – not magically constrained by some means – and
  2. Willing - wants to come back and, in particular, wants to come back for this particular spellcaster.

In general, any soul that is not magically constrained is free, but it’s up to the individual whether they are willing. Even in Hell, a Soul Coin can only bind a soul that that is in some way restrained - a Lawful Evil creature that dies without defaulting on a deal or otherwise being magically bound can be raised, resurrected, or reincarnated if they are willing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems like a fine interpretation, but can it be backed up? I am pretty sure it's said somewhere, that at least in the Nine Hells, the Lords of the Nine have the power to control access to their layers via normal interplanar travel, and/or Asmodeus has power over travel in the entire Nine Hells. Is there anything to support that souls not explicitly bound are free to leave? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 16 at 13:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WakiNadiVellir if Asmodeus prohibit soul from leaving, then it probably considered as "constrained by some means" \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17 at 9:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Revolver_Ocelot Yes, that's exactly the question. Once a soul ends up in the Nine Hells, is it ever free to leave if raised/resurrected? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17 at 19:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WakiNadiVellir generally you have two kinds of souls, who went in Nine Hells: common criminals/grunts, who probably won't be released, but that does not matter, because nobody would waste resurrection spell on them. And those who did so much evil, that some devils are envious of them, and preventing their resurrection is a goal of an adventure. They would probably be released, so they could continue. In the end, it is all ~DM~ Asmodeus fiat. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 18 at 8:42
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It dependsTM

I'm going to cover the general setting lore, along with some specific links to Forgotten Realms lore in the footer. We don't have a 5e Greyhawk setting book yet so I'm relying on the general lore from the DMG for this (though the upcoming Mordenkainen's Multiverse book may provide some 5e specifics for that setting).

In general souls are free to return

From the Dungeon Masters Guide: Magic in Your World > Bringing Back the Dead section we have most of the information required to answer both parts of your question:

When a creature dies, its soul departs its body, leaves the Material Plane, travels through the Astral Plane, and goes to abide on the plane where the creature’s deity resides. If the creature didn’t worship a deity, its soul departs to the plane corresponding to its alignment. Bringing someone back from the dead means retrieving the soul from that plane and returning it to its body.

Enemies can take steps to make it more difficult for a character to be returned from the dead. Keeping the body prevents others from using raise dead or resurrection to restore the slain character to life.

A soul can’t be returned to life if it doesn’t wish to be. A soul knows the name, alignment, and patron deity (if any) of the character attempting to revive it and might refuse to return on that basis. [...] If the evil cleric wants to revive Sturm to interrogate him, she needs to find some way to trick his soul, such as duping a good cleric into raising him and then capturing him once he is alive again.

So for most creatures, in most settings1, they go to either the plane where their deity resides or the plane corresponding to their alignment.

It also gives us a constraint, separate to the specific spell based constraints, the soul must be willing to come back, and they know who is attempting the raising. As you've mentioned, most of the resurrection spells contain the additional constraint that the soul must be free.

So, the soul must be free, and willing to be raised. No restriction is provided here on souls in the afterlife, so they are by default free to be raised unless there are specific rules for a plane that prevent this. This means that on most planes where the souls reside they will be free, but they may not be willing (though that's more a question for the specific soul). Even if the specific spell being used doesn't mention that the soul must be willing, unless it specifically says that it can raise unwilling souls, the restriction from the DMG still applies (so no death-torture loops).

Nine Hells/Hell specific exception

For the Nine Hells specifically, we have more specific information (from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes):

Devils constantly strive to recruit mortals into their ranks by offering them rewards in return for their service. [...] When a cultist dies, its soul emerges in the Nine Hells and becomes another of the Blood War’s immortal soldiers. Most of the evil souls consigned to an afterlife in the Nine Hells become lemures, which make up the vast majority of the hellish forces, but some mortal recruits who willingly accept a contract offer from a powerful devil can arrive as a lesser devil.

So a creature condemned to the Nine Hells, is no longer a "free soul", it's soul is enclosed within a new creature, either a lemure, or a lesser devil (depending on the method of their arrival there). As they are in a creature shell, they no longer satisfy the condition of being dead...they are alive, just in a different body2 on a different plane. Specifically they are now a devil.

The Hades exception

The Dungeon Masters Guide section on Hades specifies:

[...] Hades is the destination of many souls that are unclaimed by the gods of the Upper Planes or the fiendish rulers of the Lower Planes. These souls become larvae and spend eternity in this place that lacks a sun, a moon, stars, or seasons.

Creatures that die on Hades are also transformed:

Optional Rule: Vile Transformation

[...] If the creature reaches six levels of exhaustion, it doesn't die. Instead, the creature is permanently transforms into a larva, whereupon all levels of exhaustion afflicting the creature are removed. [...]

Hades is crawling with larvae. Night hags, liches, and rakshasas harvest them for use in vile rituals. Other fiends like to feed on them.

The Wish exception

Wish as a spell enables mortals to do things that they would not normally be able to do as wish states:

You might be able to achieve something beyond the scope of the above examples. State your wish to the DM as precisely as possible. The DM has great latitude in ruling what occurs in such an instance, the greater the wish, the greater the likelihood that something goes wrong. This spell might simply fail, the effect you desire might only be partly achieved, or you might suffer some unforeseen consequence as a result of how you worded the wish.

Additionally, a number of features in the game call out wish specifically as being one of the only things that can resolve a situation. For example the Narzugon from MToF (thanks to Groody The Hobgoblin for the example), when attacking with it's Hellfire Lance, can do:

If this damage kills a creature, the creature's soul rises from the River Styx as a lemure in Avernus in ld4 hours. If the creature isn't revived before then, only a wish spell or killing the lemure and casting true resurrection on the creature's original body can restore it to life. Constructs and devils are immune to this effect.

So, for creatures turned into lemures by the Narzugon, a wish spell is one of the potential routes to restore them to their former life. It should be noted that this entry doesn't provide a specific exception for all lemures, just for those transformed by the Narzugon.

The Carceri exception

If for some reason, the soul were to be transported to Carceri, then they are restrained by the plane itself. The plane has the feature:

Optional Rule: Prison Plane

No one can leave Carceri easily. Magical efforts to leave the plane by any spell other than a wish simply fail. [...]

So restoration magic cannot get souls trapped on Carceri.

Godly/DM exception

Given the power invested in the gods, they would certainly be able to restrain a soul from being raised from the dead (should they wish to). In previous editions this was given explicit mechanical effect, but in 5e, it's left up to the DM.

Destroying the soul exception

It is possible, in 5e, to destroy the soul. Once a soul is destroyed nothing short of divine intervention can restore the soul (in most cases). In some cases, the destroyed soul is beyond even the power of a deity to restore.

So where do souls go?

Souls go, in order:

  1. If the soul is destroyed...then nowhere, it's gone, don't collect €200, go directly to jail
  2. To the Nine Hells if they are bound by an infernal contract, where they are assigned into the body of a devil (either a lemure or a lesser devil)
  3. The plane of the deity they worship (if any)
  4. The plane related to their alignment (see the list in the Player's Handbook which splits the outer planes by alignment)
  5. Hades if they are otherwise unclaimed (and then transformed into a larva)

Are they free to be raised?

In most planes, yes, unless a god has restrained a specific soul, or some other being on that plane has done so.

For the Nine Hells specifically, there have been measures put in place to restrain every soul attributed to the Hells (namely housing damned souls in lemures or other devils). As a result, if the soul has been condemned there, it is not free, by virtue of already having a body in the Nine Hells.

For Hades, a similar restriction applies, as the soul is transformed into a creature, the larva.

If they are on Carceri, they cannot leave (short of wish). The plane itself is the restraint.

In some cases, wish might be able to bypass this restraint, but barring a specific exception provided in the rules, that will be down to the DM and their specific setting.

Why do I assert that lemures and larvae are no longer "free" once they are transformed?

All of the resurrection spells specify that the creature must be dead. By virtue of them being a new creature that is alive they are no longer dead. Thus they lose the primary criteria for being resurrected by one of these spells. Larvae certainly fulfil the criteria of being alive (and they aren't listed as being undead or any other category of creature that is no alive), as do lemures.

Are they willing?

That depends on the specific soul. But for a soul dedicated to a deity, like a cleric, they may not want to leave the plane of their deity for any reason (short of being commanded to by said deity), and thus be unwilling to leave.


1: The Forgotten Realms has two specific modifications to this, covered by these two questions:

  1. General FR lore for souls of the dead
  2. Souls of the unaligned in FR

2: The lemure also has this specific restriction on dying permanently, which provides a specific exception to the "killing devils permanently in the Nine Hells" rule:

Hellish Rejuvination: a lemure that dies in the Nine Hells comes back to life with all it's hit points in 1d10 days unless it is killed by a good-aligned creature with a bless spell cast on that creature or it's remains are sprinkled with holy water.

This does provide a potential out for the lemure...if the raiser can find the specific lemure in the Nine Hells, kill it and either attempt to raise it while the lemure is dead, or ensure that it's remains are sprinkled with Holy Water, freeing the soul, and then raising it from the dead with it's original body...though this may be particularly difficult and a worthy quest in and of itself.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Specifically for Souls incarnated in the flesh, I wound this in MtoF's Narzugon entry (a devil) this morning: If this damage kills a creature, the creature's soul rises from the River Styx as a lemure in Avernus in ld4 hours. If the creature isn't revived before then, only a wish spell or killing the lemure and casting true resurrection on the creature's original body can restore it to life. This would seem to indicate that a Wish would be strong enough to overcome any bondage the lemure may be under? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17 at 12:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin I would categorise that exception to apply to lemures specifically killed by the Narzugon, not all lemure's, however I will add a section on Wish to my answer \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Feb 17 at 12:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Groody, updated for wish \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Feb 17 at 13:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ thank you. Also, your pointing out the respawn of lemures helps me understand the Narzugon wording about somone being able to kill, then resurrect a lemure: because the soul is not entirely destroyed in that case. This would likely not apply to a larva, so destroying the larva would annihilate the soul forever, if it is native to Hades after becoming a larva (which it likely is). \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17 at 16:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin I wouldn't equate larvae with the soul of the creature. While the soul is transformed into a larva, the larva is a creature, and has a corresponding soul (since all creatures in 5e are assumed to have a soul unless specified otherwise iirc, ala ghosts and specre's which are explicitly the discorporated souls of creatures). So killing a larva would not necessarily destroy the soul (it doesn't say that it does that, so it doesn't by RAW). Destroying a soul is an extreme act in 5e, and there are vanishingly few things that do it (there is a whole question about it) \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Feb 17 at 17:47

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