Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Ghosts and Ghost Stories

Almost every culture has them. Ghost stories. Whether the belief in the supernatural is a mainstay of life at large or something people on the fringes base their lives upon, death affects us all and stories abound regarding those who linger on, not in body but in spirit.

Many ancient cultures believed spirits of the dead lived on like the living, just in a different plane of existence where they ate, visited with other deceased relatives, slept and performed other activities similar to the living. Many of these people believed maintaining the graves of their ancestors was important, so the spirits wouldn’t grow angry and cause havoc on the earth, plaguing the living with illness or bad luck. There are still cultures in the world who believe this, with holidays meant to honor ancestors and practices that keep the dead part of life.

Ghosts are believed to be formed in different ways and depending on the setting/culture, are able to do certain things. Many people believe ghosts are a result of some kind of suffering, either at the time of death or in the afterlife itself which causes the ghosts to manifest. Violent deaths, accidents, murders bring back the spirits of the slain to sort out their final moments or exact revenge upon those who sent them to their graves. Other times a life poorly lived causes the spirit to spend out its days in torment, never having peace, disfigured with otherworldly emotion and torture.

Ghost stories are a way to show what people think about death and the dead. They showcase what people fear and run rampant with themes of revenge, loss, longing, betrayal and corruption. Every culture has ghost stories. The Epic of Genji, Arabian Knights, the Illiad, the Torah and the Gospels all have ghost stories or mentions of ghosts. Stories of the dead also remind us that we’re still alive, able to enjoy those still living and and to live life in such a way that we don’t take regrets or things that would make us feel guilty beyond our last breaths.

Even the bravest individual can still get spooked by a ghost story and a spooky story can set any adventuring party on edge. What will make your PCs neck hairs stand on end?

For GMs

  • How are ghosts believed to be made in the world? What circumstances surrounding a death propagates a ghost? Or are all who die able to become spirits that walk the earth?
  • Are ghosts neutral forces that can be swayed by the living? Malevolent creatures with their own agendas? Spirits who might have relatives running around?
  • What abilities and qualities do ghosts have? Do all ghosts look the same? Do they resemble how they looked in life? Or are they just glowing bits on the wind?
  • Can they affect the corporeal world? Can they touch things and/or move things? Can they possess things? Wither crops? Cause illness?
  • Can people communicate with the dead or are there special individuals within the community who handle such matters?
  • What is the Underworld/Afterlife like?
  • Do the dead possess knowledge of their life on earth or are their memories wiped when they die?
  • Are there any holidays which encourage the telling of ghost stories? Are these stories meant to inspire fear? Warn? Prove that ghosts are real?
  • What ghost stories are well known in the culture? How have they changed over the years? How have they adapted themselves to different regions.
  • What do people call ghosts/different kinds of ghosts?

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs become trapped in a dungeon where a spooky individual appears. It will let them out if they can regale it with a story scary enough to frighten it. Who is the individual who has trapped them? What kind of story will sufficiently scare the individual?
  • Arriving late to the city, the PCs find refuge in an inn, only to find out why the prices were so reasonable. The inn is said to be haunted by a relative of the innkeeper. When things go bump in the night, the PCs have trouble sleeping and investigate the causes of the sounds. What do they find?
  • While traveling in a foreign land, a local overhears their travel plans and suggests the PCs take plenty offerings for the dead. The land they are traveling through once was a battlefield in an epic and terrible battle and the spirits of the slaughtered soldiers are said to cause mischief to those who do not leave them offerings. Do the PCs heed the person’s words? What do they have to offer? Do they believe the plains are haunted? What kinds of things do they encounter there?
  • The PCs are sent to peddle ‘Vanishing Powder’ throughout the land, a substance said to get rid of ghosts. Upon announcing their wares in one village, an angry mob forms and chases them out of town, physically assaulting them if they do not leave peacefully. While being chased out of town they overhear people yelling, ‘You aren’t going to get rid of our ghosts!’ Do the PCs leave peacefully and never return? What do they make of the reaction from the villagers?

For PCs

  • Do you believe in ghosts?
  • Do you have a favorite ghost story? Is there a ghost story or something about ghosts that creep you out?
  • Have you ever encountered a ghost or a supernatural creature? Ever been to a place that was haunted?
  • How do you feel about ghosts? Do you fear them? Pity them? Are you curious about them?
  • If you were by yourself and encountered a ghost, what would be your first reaction?
  • What are possible, non-supernatural explanations for ghosts?
  • What would it take for you to come back as a ghost?

What say you? In the mood to have a spooky encounter during your next session?

3 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Ghosts and Ghost Stories

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the article. In many campaigns we’ve used ghosts, mostly as a way to tell information about the past.
    They are not that scary because we play with a light-hearted, sometimes silly mood.

    However, I never thought about ghost possession, the culture surrounding ghost stories, memory-wiped ghosts, etc.
    They can be used in our campaigns.


    1. My pleasure!

      Ghosts across cultures are really interesting; some of them are more like monsters, manifesting ideas more than dead people but dead people nonetheless.

      One of my favourite mind wiped ghosts (though the wipe was only partial) was Annie from BBC Being Human. She remembered things about her past but she didn’t remember how she died exactly. Because she couldn’t remember, she couldn’t get the closure she needed to pass on. Over the course of the season, she discovers how she died and can then do something about it.


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