Wraiths Through the Ages

Or: When Did Wraiths Become Incorporeal?

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 (Nazgûl, etc.): 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.

Note the explicit parenthetical sub-name here of "Nazgûl" (this was removed after the second printing of Chainmail). And 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. Of course, we all know that Wights are corporeal, so when the text here says that "These monsters are simply high-class Wights" we might certainly think that Wraiths are likewise still corporeal. 

Now, we also need to look at the related entry for Spectres here, which reads as follows:

SPECTRES: These monsters have no corporeal body which makes them totally imprevious to all normal weaponry (but can be struck by all magical weapons), including silver-tipped arrows. (The Nazgul of Tolkein now fall into this catagory rather than as Wraiths as stated in CHAINMAIL.) They drain two life energy levels when they score a hit. Men-types killed by Spectres become Spectres under the control of the one who made them.

Just to highlight: (a) they explicitly have "no corporeal body", and (b) the "Nazgul of Tolkien now fall into this catagory [sic]" (this latter reference was removed in printings after the first). But contrast that text with the artwork on the inside cover of the same book -- signed by Keenan Powell in 1973, it's labeled "Nazgul". Note that the creature is depicted with fully-formed head, jaw, clawed hands, legs, and feet, clothed and crowned, and riding its mount. (Again, this label was removed in printings after the first; and likewise, Wights were initially noted as "Barrow Wights (per Tolkien)".) So there are at least some mixed signals about the state of Nazgûl (Spectres) here.

OD&D Vol-2: Nazgul

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).

We should also point out the Holmes retains the OD&D shout-outs that Wights are "Barrow wights (per Tolkien)", and Spectres are "[t]he 'Nazgul' of Tolkien", and these were never elided from any later printings.

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. There's no artwork for the Wraith per se in these rules but the illustration for the Spectre by Erol Otus is memorable and suggestive:

Expert D&D: Spectre

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.

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]

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):

D&D 3E: Wraiths Attack Cleric

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.]


  1. Nice list! I always like seeing these comparisons written out.

    The original version of Monsters & Treasure had an extra sentence in the entry for Spectres, stating "The Nazgul of Tolkien" fall into this category. This was later deleted from M&T, but Holmes used it in the entry for Spectres, and it was never removed there.

    Here's a list the changes to Tolkien references in OD&D.

    I don't know of a corresponding list for the changes in Chainmail, so I'm not sure if the word "Nazgul" was originally used in the Wraith entry.

    As far as I can tell, Holmes added the language about Wights being "nearly immaterial", perhaps because they are equated with Tolkien's Barrow Wights. He also then added Wraiths being "immaterial", perhaps because they are harder to hit than Wights.

  2. It's pretty clear that by OD&D, the specter was the stand-in for Nazgul (it states as much in the original text, later echoed in Holmes Basic) while wraiths had simply become, well, wraiths..."evil ghosts" or spirits in the Celtic sense of the term.

    If I had to guess WHY they did this, I would imagine that in creating a more personal-level skirmish game, the wraith (as presented in Chainmail) was a bit "underpowered" to model Nazgul in the OD&D game. Specters seem to be about the right power level (note that a high level cleric can Turn a specter but not Destroy it outright). 6 hit dice also seems about right (not accounting for those earlier Monty Haul games described in Supplement IV).

    As far as your original question (my preferred version of the wraith), I go with the B/X (Cook/Marsh) version. It conveys everything necessary and gives DMs the option of how they want to rule on a being that has "no physical body" rather than the explicit, long-winded discussion found later in 3E. I mean, one could treat the wraith as a ghost (going through walls and such), but doesn't NEED to...who's to say a wraith might be bound by the same doors and walls (albeit on the etheric plane) that effect the living?

  3. ^ Zenoupus, that's a great resource and additional notes.

    The other thing I'd really like to see plainly laid out is exactly what those cut OD&D references/sentences about Tolkien say (since I have a later printing). Such as: The stuff about Tolkien Orcs, Barrow Wights, Nazgul (what and where? same as Holmes under Spectres?), etc.

  4. ^ JB, I think you just answered my last question while I was typing it. So the earliest print of OD&D definitely has the same line as Holmes that Nazgul are Spectres?

  5. Yes, I'd like to see a more detailed list of the changes. Some are just one word changes, but some are longer. If you ask on a place like OD&D discussion, you can usually get the information - I was just doing that recently for Balrogs.

    I found a thread on the Acaeum regarding the changes to Tolkien references in Chainmail, and the original printings did mention the Nazgul in several places, including a reference to "wraiths (including Nazgul)". Still not sure if the Wraith entry mentioned Nazgul.

  6. See the wraithform spell, "New Spells for Illusionists," Dragon 66 (Oct 82).

  7. Zenopus: Another great link. Note for the discussion that the first thing the poster says is -- "On Page 25 in the 2nd Edition there is a reference to 'wraiths (including Nazgul)'".

    So Nazgul were still Wraiths in Chainmail, but became Spectres in OD&D.

  8. ^ Unknown has a pretty good reference there (by Gygax, same as seen in Unearthed Arcana):

    "When this spell is cast, the illusionist becomes insubstantial and can be hit only by magic weapons of +1 or better, or by creatures otherwise able to affect those struck only by +1 or better magic weapons. Undead of all sorts will ignore an individual in wraithform, believing him or her to be a wraith or spectre. The illusionist will be able to pass through small holes or narrow openings, even mere cracks, with all he or she wears and holds in his or her hands, as long as the spell persists..."

  9. @ Delta:

    For the spectre, at least, the uncensored OD&D text is very similar to Holmes:

    "These monsters have no corporeal body which makes them totally imprevious [sic] to all normal weaponry (but can be struck by all magical weapons), including silver-tipped arrows. (The Nazgul of Tolkein [sic] now fall into this category rather than as Wraiths as stated in CHAINMAIL.) They drain two life energy levels when they score a hit. Men-types killed by Spectres become Spectres under the control of the one who made them."

    [that's the exact OD&D text in my "balrog-edition" LBB]

  10. ^ Hey, that's great! Thanks a bunch for that. (I particularly like the explicit admission that a change is being made from the prior edition.)

  11. Hi,

    Just found this blog, via a link from Grognardia, IIRC. This was a really interesting discussion; I'd had no recollection that Wraiths were anything other than immaterial, even though I've been playing since OD&D. I'd agree that the Sutherland illustration set the tone for the future.

    Looking at the varieties of Wraith, I find the idea that they have physical form appealing, but especially so that they could paralyze at a distance, as implied in Chainmail. (While the text calls 1" "touch, in a tabletop RPG I'd call that "within 10 feet.") I've never really liked level drain, but the idea that a warrior would have to make a save vs. paralyzation while closing to battle the Wraith is intriguing. :)

  12. I think a huge influence (which probably influenced the spooky ghost drawing) is that the word "wraith" in standard English refers to an insubstantial form, a vaporous apparition, etc. I think it's more unusual that wraiths didn't start out as non-physical.
    I expect that there were players using incorporeal wraiths even before the rules described them that way just because that is what the word "wraith" means to many people--they equate it with a ghost or phantom not a solid death-knight type.

  13. I'm confused by your "pre CHAINMAIL fanstasy" comment. That letter was published in 1972. CHAINMAIL was published by Guidon in the late spring of 1971. Sure, the fantasy supplement in the 1st print only had 4 spells, and there were a few other additions between 1st and 3rd edition, but I'm fairly sure all the monsters were there. The only version of CHAINMAIL that didn't have the fantasy supplement was that published in the Domesday newsletter.

    Anyway, sinsce you are interested in Tolkien refernces, here is the text of the Wight, Wraith and Spectre entries in Dave Arneson's draft from '73:

    "(Barrow) Wights: Nasty monsters who drain life energy every time they hit. When they score a hit they drain one level away, so that the hit figure loses both the hit dice and corresponding energy to fight. Wights cannot be hit by normal missle fire, but Magic Arrows will have double effect upon them (Elf Arrows triple), plus hits by magic weapons will score damage equal to the die roll plus the level of the

    Wraiths: Nothing more than tough wights who are more mobile ..Hits upon them must be made by fantasy figures only, and magic weaponry will score added points damage according to the level of the weapon as with wights except that Magic Arrows only score normal hits, and Elf Arrows will score double.

    Spectres (~ Nazgul): High-powered wraiths who, when touching an en- emy, paralyze him: (not including fantasy characters) until either
    tranquilized or having a Dispell Magic spell cast within 30 teet of
    ~ by a Cleric (see above). With fantasy creatures, spectres drain
    two life energy levels when hitting. What's more, they are impervious to all but attack with Magic Weapons vs. the Undead, or elven swords.

  14. ^ Thanks for the correction; I guess you're right, sometimes I just grab my copy of the LBBs and look at the copyright date (1974), which isn't actually the earliest version.

    And also appreciate seeing the early Arneson draft of the OD&D undead text. Very interesting! Wow, they really liked their Elves uber, didn't they?