Nowadays, Wraiths in D&D are understood to be incorporeal (not physically present or touchable; able to pass through doors and walls, etc.), but that hasn't always been the case. How did it happen? Let's open our dusty tomes of forbidden knowledge and look into the distant past:
Pre-Chainmail Fantasy -- A really interesting article by Gygax appears in the Wargamer's Newsletter from October 1972 (preserved at Grognardia). Here, Gygax describes his games with Tolkien-themed creatures, using the Chainmail rules, and promoting the upcoming expanded release with the Fantasy section. He doesn't yet use the generic word "wraiths"; at this point they're just simply Nazgul:
The Balrog has caused considerable problems, and right now we are using a giant sloth from an assortment of plastic prehistoric animals, which (converted) makes a fearsome looking beast, albeit not quite as Tolkien described it. Nazgul, like the Balrog, are also difficult. Presently we are employing unconverted 40mm Huns on black horses, but we would like to put wings on the steeds and cloak the figures riding them.
Chainmail Fantasy -- When Chainmail Fantasy does get published, the text for Wraiths looks like this:
WRAITHS: Wraiths can see in darkness, raise the morale of friendly troops as if they were Heroes, cause the enemy to check morale as if they were Super Heroes, and paralyze any enemy man -- excluding all mentioned in the Fantasy Supplement -- they touch during the course of a move (not flying). Paralyzed troops remain unmoving until touched by a friendly Elf, Hero-type, or Wizard. Touch means either actual contact or coming within 1" of. A Wraith can either move normally or fly, remaining in the air for as many turns as desired. They melee as either two Armored Foot or two Medium Horse, and they are impervious to all save magical weapons or combat by other fantastic creatures. [CM p. 33-34]And then there's something else pretty interesting if you look closely at the Fantasy Reference Table [CM p. 43]: the listing for the type is given as "Wraiths (mtd)". Which is to say, wraiths are assumed to be traveling mounted on undead horse-creatures -- just as they're described in the Wargamer's Newsletter earlier on ("40mm Huns on black horses, but we would like to put wings on the steeds..."). And of course that's also consistent with the Ringwraiths' alias name of the "Black Riders" or "Dark Riders" in Lord of the Rings. Can Wraiths only fly by means of their (possibly winged) horses at this point? Perhaps so.
Original D&D -- Pretty short text here:
WRAITHS: These monsters are simply high-class Wights with more mobility, hit dice, and treasure. Hits by silver-tipped arrows will score only 1/2 die of damage, and magic arrows only score 1 die of damage when they hit. [Vol-2, p. 9]Of course, Wights and Wraiths now have their feared energy-drain ability, replacing their earlier paralysis capacity in Chainmail (maintained only for Ghouls). While OD&D by convention includes all of Chainmail by reference, there's no mention of the Wraith's mounts in either the text or the monster reference table at this time. While Chainmail gave them movement of 18" (36" flying), here they're reduced to 12" (24" flying), and that's what you'll see in all later versions. Is that a reduction from loss of their winged steeds, or some other game-balance consideration?
Advanced D&D -- When the Monster Manual came out in 1977 (collecting the various D&D monsters, together with optional attacks & damage from the Greyhawk supplement, new art, etc.), there was still to this time, no mention of Wraiths being incorporeal. This is the main text block:
Wraiths are undead, similar in nature to wights, but they exist more strongly on the negative material plane. They are found only in dark and gloomy places, for they have no power in full sunlight. In addition to the chilling effect of its touch (1-6 hit points damage), a wraith drains on life energy at the rate of 1 per hit, just as a wight does. Similarly, the wraith can be struck only with silver weapons (which cause only one-half damage) or weapons which are magically enchanted (which score full damage). [MM p. 102]Note that the language that they "are found only in dark and gloomy places, for they have no power in full sunlight" seems to prohibit much of the action previously performed by creatures such as the Nazgul (Ringwraiths). Even more important, perhaps, is that the Wraiths entry came with this very evocative piece of art by David C. Sutherland III ("DCS"):
Of course, this looks like a very unusual creature, with no visible features, apart from lamp-glowing eye-spots, and apparently crackling energy-waves throughout the body. It doesn't even have distinct legs or feet -- no way to ride a flying horse, or even walk upon the ground, like that! I suspect that what came later was largely a response to this single, powerful image.
Holmes Basic D&D -- Holmes says this, mostly like OD&D:
These monsters are immaterial and drain life energy, 1 level per hit. They are like wights, but have more hit dice and are harder to hit. Silver tipped arrows score 1/2 die of damage. Magic arrows score only normal damage. They are impervious to normal weapons. [Holmes, p. 33-34]Now here's the first time that anyone has admitted to the key thing about Wraiths: "These monsters are immaterial..." Holmes was first published in 1977, the same year as the AD&D Monster Manual. Was Holmes responding to the Sutherland illustration, or was there some pre-existing consensus in the house that Wraiths should become immaterial? Either way, there's not much by way of an explicit effect given for this observation (except maybe as an explanation for their hard-to-hit quality).
Cook Expert D&D -- Dave Cook writes this in 1981:
A wraith is an undead monster that drains the life-force of its victims. It has no physical body and looks like a pale, manlike almost transparent figure composed of thick mist. It is immune to sleep, charm, and hold spells. A wraith can only be hit by silver or magical weapons, but silver weapons will only do half damage... [Cook Expert, p. X42]So far, this is definitely the most explicit description of what a wraith's body is like. And then let's proceed to 2E...
Advanced D&D, 2nd Edition -- The Monstrous Manual says this:
The wraith is an evil undead spirit of a powerful human that seeks to absorb human life energy. These horrible creatures are usually seen as black, vaguely man-shaped clouds. They have no true substance, but tend to shape themselves with two upper limbs, a torso, and a head with two glowing red eyes. This shape is a convenience born from the habit of once having a human body... [2E MM]Now, if that isn't a description of the Sutherland illustration, then I really don't know what one would sound like.
D&D, 3rd Edition -- Finally, in 3rd Edition, the aspect of Wraiths' incorporeality is given a full-throated sermon: "incorporeal" becomes a special-ability tag, given a special-handling section in the DMG, and it includes a whole host of simulationist add-on effects. Here it is from the SRD:
Incorporeality: Incorporeal creatures can only be harmed by other incorporeal creatures, by +1 or better weapons, or by spells, spell-like effects, or supernatural effects. They are immune to all nonmagical attack forms. They are not burned by normal fires, affected by natural cold, or harmed by mundane acids. Even when struck by magic or magic weapons, an incorporeal creature has a 50% chance to ignore any damage from a corporeal source—except for a force effect.Yowza -- that's of a lot to keep track of for Wraiths and their ilk! But at any rate, at this point they're truly incorporeal, with all that goes along with that. There's even an illustration in 3E of wraiths flying out of a wall to attack your friendly neighborhood cleric (before he gets a chance to turn them, perhaps).
Incorporeal creatures move in any direction (including up or down) at will. They do not need to walk on the ground. Incorporeal creatures can pass through solid objects at will, although they cannot see when their eyes are within solid matter. Incorporeal creatures are inaudible unless they decide to make noise. The physical attacks of incorporeal creatures ignore material armor, even magic armor, unless it is made of force or has the ghost touch ability.
Incorporeal creatures pass through and operate in water as easily as they do in air. Incorporeal creatures cannot fall or suffer falling damage. Corporeal creatures cannot trip or grapple incorporeal creatures. Incorporeal creatures have no weight and do not set off traps that are triggered by weight. Incorporeal creatures do not leave footprints, have no scent, and make no noise unless they manifest, and even then they only make noise intentionally. [3E SRD]
Open questions: At what point do you think the best Wraith was presented? Do you like them to be incorporeal to the extent of flying through walls & floors to attack? Was it, at least initially, a good model for Tolkien's Nazgul? Do you think it was the Sutherland illustration that convinced writers to make them "immaterial", or were there other contributing factors?
[Top photo by San Diego Shooter under CC2.]