A very effective set piece can be conflict with the spirit world. A nice example of the kind of thing I am thinking of is from the 1982 Conan film, where the wizard opens a gateway to the spirit world to get demons to revive Conan, and where Valeria fights incorporeal demons to save Conan (YouTube, from 6:45 into the clip to the end & onto next clip).

RQ3 had nice mechanics for dealing with these situations, with shamans who can take characters to the other side through their fetch, spirit combat to handle attacks by hostile spirits, using magic points as an orthogonal measure of strength to hit points.

AD&D was pretty lousy for this kind of thing back in the day: its distinction between combat involving the incorporeal attribute or in the ethereal and astral realms didn't really work for setting up situations. But newer D&Ds seem to have better resources, though I've not seen this in action.

What good game mechanics are there for handling conflicts with spirits?


The kind of thing game mechanics need, I think, to sustain interest in spirits and spirit combat are:

  1. Spirits are immaterial and that means you have to do different sorts of things to influence them. E.g., if the best way to deal with an ancient ghost is to chop it up with an axe, that'll spil that atmosphere a bit;
  2. Likewise, spirits are potentially powerful adversaries. Not very high-powered spells that can get rid of most spirits with a 65% chance of success detract from interest;
  3. Characters can be experts in spirits, and it is good if the nature of those experts draws on resonant real-world and fictional atmospheric devices such as shamans, ancestor worship, fetches, and the like. It's also good if characters regularly need the services of these figures.

4 Answers 4


Dogs in the Vineyard

DitV is great at handling escalation of conflict, especially with woogy demons. The process of conflict escalation can be mapped into spiritual conflict quite effectively. For that matter, most Lumpley's games can be mapped to this sort of subtle conflict. The video itself depicts stuff that I could trivally find in DitV, even the start of the clip (6:45) of the bargain and painting of symbols. The flexible time-frame of conflict means that the clip, as a whole, can be represented by one scene in dogs.

However, that's a very narrative approach that is not to everyone's taste. When I've used it, a number of my players didn't like it at all.

Any combat system, reinterpreted

One approach is to roll your own, by mapping attributes into a "spirit-character" and abstracting combat that way. Your favorite combat system will work there. I'm not hugely impressed by 3.5 and 4e's way of dealing with "spirits" as a "spirit conflict system." Both editions were more concerned with combat in general than the specific symbolic interactions of spirits.

Ars Magica

This one is a bit of a stretch. I've used a modified version of Ars Magica's certamen in my long running campaign. Certamen is a non-lethal fight between magi, involving power versus power and symbolic interaction. By requiring players to describe how they are modifying "the scene" (set by the person who wins initiative) it actually became an interesting way to perform symbolic conflict. The system itself is fairly trivial to adapt, and the forms and techniques can be mapped to things appropriate for spirits, representing a very granular control over particular aspects of spirits.

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    \$\begingroup\$ All this DitV 'round here has been making me think I should take a look. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 26, 2011 at 12:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Generic rules: it's helpful to the atmosphere if the spirit combat mechanics are really different to regular combat, I think. It's a weakness of HeroQuest, I think: it detracts from the atmosphere. It just doesn't feel as spooky. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 26, 2011 at 12:31

The Dresden Files

The -powered Dresden Files RPG has very good rules for summoning, containing, and controlling spirits / faeries / ghosts / demons.

Each of those three tasks - summoning, containing, and controlling - is dealt with in sufficient detail to be flavorful, but like most of the rules, you can skip the boring parts.

Is your wizard calling a minor friendly, like Toot-Toot? You can probably get away with a single roll.

Pulling up something from the wrong side of the Nevernever? A big bad Thing that would pick his teeth with your athame if it weren't for that pesky summoning circle? Oh, and is that a pack of howling ghouls hammering at your door while you chat with this critter? Then you're in for all the rolls and attention that such a dramatic, possibly climactic moment deserves.


Ron Edwards' Sorcerer is all about summoning, binding, and interacting with demons. I have never played it, but I hope to remedy that soon!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Watch and decide for yourself. In RQ terms, I'd say the graveyard is close to the spirit realm because of all the heroes buried there, so the sorcerer would cast an Axis Mundi spell, perhaps a Summon Ancestor or three, send his fetch to the other side to beg for a favour and wait for all hell to break loose. The sorceror can then try to influence things with binds, protects and commands, but won't be able to control such a manifestation. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 27, 2011 at 7:10

White Wolf's nWoD (particularly Werewolf: The Forsaken and Mage: The Awakening, afaik) has real extensive support for stories involving the spirit world(s) and spirits, well built rules that could easily be tweaked further to allow for homegrown settings independent of nWoD as well.

(The old versions of these games would work great too, though the new one's general system - Storytelling - is more streamlined, so I'd go for that one instead of the old Storyteller system.)

Edit: Here's a link to a summary of nWoD's spirits. Without having read the abovementioned books (and the core), parts of it will naturally be hard to understand, yet even by skimming it you may get a general picture of how Storytelling views and handles spirits by default.


I hate to be simple about this but insubstantial in 4E rules does apply to most ghostly figures. This simply allows all characters to 'attack' ghosts and apparitions but if the attack is physical it only does partial damage.

You can describe this as the pure will of the player characer transferring some effective force into the target as their weapon streaks through the semi-transparent body. Just as some classes perform attacks that manifest pure will, a warrior purposefully assaulting a ghost with a weapon would send some residue of human psychic/willful/spiritual energy that could hurt the transcendent target.


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