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In larger cities in Dungeons & Dragons, just like in real life, murder is probably commonplace enough that the city guard would have specialists for investigating corpses that turn up similar to how we have homicide detectives. However, they would likely have a huge advantage over modern detectives in that they could ask the dead who killed them. However with the 5e version of Speak with the Dead you get only 5 questions, and there is both the possibility of the corpse's spirit lying as well as not knowing certain information.

Assuming detectives are given a standardized set of questions, is it a safe bet that the first two would be "Who killed you?" and "Where did you die?". What other questions would be most helpful in solving this kind of case?

I'm assuming here that just like in reality, resources are usually spread to thin so most cases will get a single casting of Speak with the Dead and then the rest of the solving of the case would be done with more traditional, non-magic methods.

Edit: For additional context, I want to write a "multiple murder mystery" adventure, in the style of a cold case the "authorities" have given up on. This would be set in the City of Sharn, in the Eberron setting, so magic might be a bit more commonplace than in other settings. The party would likely be finding records of the special investigators SWD questions and answers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @biziclop I wonder, then, if it's possible that murder victims just have their tongues removed if the assailant had time. I could definitely see this as a common practice for assassins/organizations. \$\endgroup\$
    – Shadomew
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 15:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @biziclop FWIW a skull (with jaw) can still answer questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 15:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Shadomew there is at least one published Pathfinder adventure path (not 5e admittedly) where a series of murder victims all have their jaws removed, specifically to defeat Speak With Dead as an information-gathering tactic. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 23:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Counterquestion/Related for 3.5: How to prevent the use of Speak With Dead? \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 23:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the speak with dead investigation method is common in the world and known to murderers, wouldn't it be normal to find murdered people with a broken jawbone? \$\endgroup\$
    – pqnet
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 5:11

4 Answers 4

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The answer, I believe, really is "it depends".

Remember that, in 5e, speak with dead has limitations:

  1. Answers are usually brief, cryptic, or repetitive

  2. the corpse is under no compulsion to offer a truthful answer if you are hostile to it or it recognizes you as an enemy.

  3. the corpse can't learn new information, doesn't comprehend anything that has happened since it died, and can't speculate about future events.

#1 means that even a seemingly-straightforward question like "who killed you" or "where did you die" might have less-than-helpful answers. To the first: is "Sam" the butler or the secret mistress; is "the one I love most" a spouse, a child, a sibling, etc.? To the second: answers like "at home" or "on a bed" could be similarly unhelpful.

#2, of course, means that it's possible the corpse's "animating spirit" wants to mislead the investigator. This GM finds that to be more likely if the deceased was involved in illegal activity.

#3 - depending on the GM's interpretation - may mean that questions that are standard fare for police procedurals may not work. My immediate thought when reading the question is "who might have wanted to hurt you?", which may mislead investigators if the motive involves information not known to the deceased before their passing; or "why would someone want you dead?", which may require the corpse to "speculate about future events" (this is definitely "YMMV" territory).

And, of course, a good investigator will go where the facts lead them. If the answer to "who killed you?" is "my wife", they're unlikely to ask "who may have wanted you dead" (even though "my wife" may refer to an ex-wife or other secret unknown to the investigator).

Speak with dead is also a 3rd level spell, which (IME) is not exactly cheap/easy to get cast by an NPC in many game worlds, making it a go-to part of a murder investigation questionable in those worlds (and: whether your city's police force can assume they have access to Xth-level spells more-or-less on-demand is a great bit of world-building!).

Given its limitations, I submit that speak with dead is better used later in the investigatory process, once more tailored questions can be asked and other avenues of investigation have been ... if not "exhausted" then at least "explored".

That said, one stand-out use of the spell is when a "John Doe" is found: speak with dead requires that

The corpse must still have a mouth and can't be undead.

... so, "who are you?" and "where are you from?" are, to my mind, more common questions to ask at the beginning of an investigation. They have all of the same limitations of other questions, but even evasive answers might be helpful in identifying found remains. And, of course, it's a pretty simple undead detector: if the spell fails today, assume the target is undead and take reasonable precautions until the spell can be re-cast 10 days later; if the spell fails again, the target is undead (😈: or somebody really wants you to think they are, and they've infiltrated lock-up to cast the spell).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Grollo Interestingly the biggest winners (and thus the biggest covert supporters) of this system of investigation would be assassins, who can now charge exorbitant prices for their services, as it guarantees that the victim can't reveal any incriminating information. ("It was a guy in a black hood that did it") \$\endgroup\$
    – biziclop
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 14:24
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Asking about identity is clear

Knowing the murderer is a very useful information so this is definitely the first thing to try. While the dead can only tell

what it knew in life

this will not always be productive, for example if the victim was stabbed from behind or killed by a complete stranger. In real life in a majority of murders the murderer and victim know each other. If we assume this applies in the fictional world as well, the question will typically be productive. And just like in the real world murders of complete strangers are more difficult to solve.

The rest depends

If the question for the murderer is unproductive, there are multiple possibilities of what the next best question is.

The location of death is much less clear as second question. Since you need the body to use the spell, you might already know where the person died, depending on whether it was moved and if this is apparent. Further questions will depend on the specific case. Investigators can simply see what they find out without the spell and use the spell to fill the holes. Location of death is one thing that may need to be clarified but other things can be equally or more relevant depending on what can be found out without magic. Other things include murder weapon, motive, time of death.

A standardized set of question with five questions always asked in the same order doesn't really make sense.

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Speak with dead would be a rare and expensive ability.

Speak with dead is a 3rd level bard/cleric spell. The Adventurer's Guild guidelines give a price of 90 gp to hire someone to cast it, which is a lot of money for a non-adventurer. According to lifestyle cost rules, that's about three months' living expenses for a priest or laborer.

D&D 5th edition doesn't give exact figures for how many bards and clerics live in a major city, but the Donjon demographics calculator uses D&D third edition guidelines to give reasonable estimates. Taking the Free City of Greyhawk as an example (population 69,500), there may be an estimated 24 clerics and bards of high enough level to cast speak with dead. That's for all such characters, and only a subset of them are in the employ of the city or willing to work for hire.

The result is that speak with dead is only really going to be used for very wealthy or powerful murder victims, like nobles. A wealthy merchant might have an insurance contract which pays for his speak with dead in the event that he is murdered. Even if the city has a modern-style formal crime investigation unit, most murders are going to be solved the old-fashioned way.

However, such a useful technology be more common. A warlock of at least 9th level can have the invocation whispers of the grave, which gives the ability to speak with dead at will. Such a figure would be very useful in the employ of the city guard. They may also have a custom magic item which allows the bearer to speak with dead once per day or so. The population of Waterdeep is over 1 million and there may be many more clerics and bards there than a smaller city.

The main limitations are that the corpse's mouth must be intact and that the spell can only be cast once every ten days. (There's a trick where an assassin casts speak with dead on their victim's corpse to delay investigators...) You can ask unlimited questions if you're willing to keep the corpse on ice for later questioning.

A city with a modern-style court of law (not unheard of in D&D canon) would probably require evidence to be presented formally, either by a gruesome scene of wheeling the corpse into the courtroom for speak with dead (I recommend this, it makes for a good scene) for a or having a witness testify to what the corpse said.

A court of law may also have modern-style rules, such as the need to prove things like motive and opportunity. The investigator is therefore likely to spend his additional questions acquiring small details which help to validate the case and prove or disprove the victim's identification of the killer.

The first question will always be "who killed you?" Assuming a name or identification is given, following questions might ask:

  • "Why did they kill you?" - to establish motive
  • "When were you killed?" - to corroborate other investigation which shows where the killer was at that time
  • "What were they wearing?" - to corroborate eyewitness accounts
  • "Did they steal anything from you?" - if it looks like a robbery, perhaps a unique item was taken and later pawned, and the buyer can identify the item's seller
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  • \$\begingroup\$ FWIW regarding your first point, a forensic DNA suite can easily run ~$3k, which is easily three months of pay for many people in the US. The real issue would be having enough priests who were also interested in "Justice" enough to join the Guard to fulfill demand. \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 18:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Did they steal anything?" seems like a bad question as the corpse doesn't know it's current condition, and doesn't know anything that happened to it after death. So if someone stole their coin purse and THEN killed them, it would work. But anything stolen after death would be answered with, "How should I know, I was dead!" \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 20:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MivaScott My assumption is that the victim didn't necessarily die instantly, but most likely was stabbed and bled to death. If they don't remember because they died instantly or were knocked unconscious first, that's useful information too. It might suggest that the killer was skilled at killing, e.g. a rogue or assassin. There's an episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the recovered memory of a victim is used as evidence, and a key detail turns out to be that the killer knew enough about the victim's species' anatomy to stab them in a vital spot, which exonerates the human suspect. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 8:06
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As you said, "Who killed you?" seems the most important. Others I would have on a standard list would be:

  • Why where you killed? (Motive for Murder)
  • How did you die? (Method of Murder)
  • When did you die? (Time of Murder)
  • What are the last things you remember? (In case nothing else is working)

It is probable that not all the answers to these are known. But some of them may be and would be helpful to an investigation.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the stack, take the tour when you have a moment. Your answer here seems like it's on the right track, but it could really use some more explanation of why these questions are good questions to ask, so that we can determine if your answer is correct. Right now, it's just a "here's an idea that might work", and we aren't really looking for untested "maybe this works" solutions. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 23:49

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