Spells Through The Ages – Reincarnation

Reincarnation is traditionally a 6th-level spell for D&D wizards that doesn't get a lot of use, because (much like contact other plane: link) there is a clerical spell that gets the same job accomplished more easily and without the potentially very nasty side-effects. But in my no-cleric D&D games, reincarnation is the only spell available for resuscitating a slain PC, so it is of much more interest. It usually gets used once in most of my high-level convention games, and I spend a lot of time trying to "dial it in" properly for both tournament and campaign play. The concept of reincarnation is of course most closely related to various Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism; in particular the idea of cross-species migration), but the idea also had a major role in early Greek thought, among the Celtic druids (as reported by Julius Caesar), certain Norse myths, and many other cultures (link). Here are the various aspects through which the D&D spell passed over the years:

Original D&D

Reincarnation: A spell to bring a dead character back to life in some other form. The form in which the character is Reincarnated is dependent upon his former alignment (Law, Neutrality or Chaos). Use a random determination on the Character Alignment table, and whatever the result is, the reincarnated character is that creature and must play as it. If he comes back as a man, determine which class, and roll a six-sided die to determine which level in that class,and similarly check level for reincarnation as an elf or dwarf.

This spell is brief because it gets to offload the various body-type possibilities to a table from the start of the book, a listing of OD&D monster types under three columns for "Law", "Neutrality", and "Chaos". In the interest of comprehensiveness, here it is (Vol-1, p. 9):

That's almost all of the monsters in OD&D Vol-2. It includes all the humanoids, including giants. Dragons, hydras, purple worms and sea monsters (HD 15+) are included. So are all the higher-level undead types, making those technically possible targets for the reincarnation spell. Some things that are not included appear to be -- totally mindless undead (skeletons, zombies), extraplanar types (elementals, djinn, efreet, invisible stalkers), cleanup crew (jellies, puddings, slimes, oozes, molds), a few beast-like monsters (cockatrice, basilisks), animals and insects (including horses), etc.

Note that in these rules if you come back as a human, dwarf, or elf, you get your class randomized and new level based on a 1d6 roll. That's probably better that having to start over at 1st level, but still a pretty bad beat if you used to be 11th+ level (the level required to cast reincarnation, for example), and there doesn't seem to be much visible connection between the old character and the new.

Expert D&D Rules

Range: 0'
Duration: permanent

This spell brings a dead character back to life in a new body, which magically appears in front of the magic-user casting the spell. The DM should roll on the Reincarnation Table below to determine if the character returns as a character class or a monster. If the character is reincarnated as a character class (as opposed to a monster), the level is randomly rolled on a six-sided die. This level can never be higher than the character's level when slain. If the character returns as a monster, the kind of monster must be rolled on the table that matches the character's alignment. If the monster rolled has more hit dice than the character had at the time of death, then the monster type must be rolled again. A monster does not advance in experience: the character must play as reincarnated or retire from play.

The DM is free to add more monsters to the lists if desired. Such monsters should be 6 hit dice or less and should be at least semi-intelligent.

In the Expert D&D Rules, Dave Cook creates a new table for reincarnation, such that all the possibilities are encapsulated and available at a glance in the spell listing. One radical change is that by the OD&D rule, the chance of returning as a classed human/elf/dwarf was almost negligible (3 out of 12 options for Lawful characters), while here in Expert D&D it is almost unavoidable (9 out of 10 options on the main table). Class is still randomized (except in the #8-9 slots) and level is based on 1d6 just like in OD&D (with a restriction that level can't increase this way). The second major change is that the possible monster types are greatly reduced, with some foresight that they should be semi-intelligent, mostly humanoid/bipedal, and restricted to 6 HD or less (in line with the random level determination).

AD&D 1st Ed.

Reincarnation (Necromantic)
Level: 6

Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: Person touched

Explanation/Description: This spell is similar to the seventh level druid spell of the same name (q.v.). It does not require any saving throw for system shock or resurrection survival. The corpse is touched, and a new incarnation of the person will appear in the area in 1 to 6 turns, providing the person has not been dead for longer than 1 day per level of experience of the magic-user. The new incarnation will be:

Note: Very good or very evil persons will not be reincarnated as creatures whose general alignment is the opposite. The material components of the spell are a small drum and a drop of blood.

In AD&D, Gygax crafts his own custom table, and as you can see the entries are all entirely humanoid-types (topping out with the troll, at 6 HD, reminiscent of the previous returning level limits). There is no specific comment on class or level in any event (another case of leaving out the most important detail in the OD&D-to-AD&D matriculation?). Unlike previous versions, this table is not split up by alignment (although there is the "very good or very evil persons" guidance at the end).

The old corpse must be touchable (so I guess no reincarnation if the body is lost or disintegrated), and there's a detail that the "new incarnation of the person will appear in the area in 1 to 6 turns". I always interpreted this with the understanding that the new body would wander onstage from some outside location (much like the way monster summoning was written), although you could arrange some contrived example where that wouldn't be possible.

The other alteration in AD&D (as referenced in the first line of the spell above), is that a very similar spell is given to the new PC druid class, called reincarnate (note the slightly different spelling). This spell has entirely sylvan woodlands creatures on it, starting with -- badgers, bears, boars, centaurs, etc. Humans, elves, and gnomes are possibilities, as well as a 15% chance to be sent to the magic-user's table, above. The 1E DMG has this note for both (p. 44):
Reincarnation: Regardless of the form of the creature in which the character is reincarnated, allow the new form to progress as far as possible in characteristics and abilities. For example, a badger character could grow to giant size, have maximum hit points, plus bonus points for a high constitution, and the intelligence level of its former character. A centaur reincarnation might eventually gain hit dice up to 5, 6, 7, or even 8, and it would be eligible to wear armor, use magic items, etc.

So while that's very sketchy, there is at least some hope held out for any creature type to have the possibility of advancement.

AD&D 2nd Ed.

Range: Touch

Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: Person touched

With this spell, the wizard can bring back to life a person who died no more than one day per level of experience of the wizard before the casting of the spell. The essence of the dead person is transferred to another body, possibly one very different from his former body. Reincarnation does not require any saving throw, system shock, or resurrection survival roll. The corpse is touched, and a new incarnation of the person will appear in the area in 1d6 turns. The person reincarnated recalls the majority of his former life and form, but the character class, if any, of the new incarnation might be different indeed. The new incarnation is determined on the following table. If a player character race is indicated, the character must be created.

Note: Very good or very evil persons will not be reincarnated as creatures whose general alignment is the opposite.

The material components of the spell are a small drum and a drop of blood.

This version of the spell looks pretty much the same as in 1E. The table is identical. So is the parallel listing of the druidic (priestly) reincarnate spell (although the 15% likelihood of going to the wizard's table has been replaced by "DM's choice"). The only real difference I can spot is Cook's addition at the end of the main paragraph, "If a player character race is indicated, the character must be created."; does this mean rolled up fresh at 1st level? If so, then it doesn't seem like this reincarnation spell actually buys you anything.

D&D 3rd Ed.

Level: Drd 4
Components: V, S, DF
Casting Time: 10 minutes
Range: Touch
Target: Dead creature touched
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: None (see text)
Spell Resistance: Yes (harmless)

With this spell, the character brings back a dead creature in another body, provided death occurred no more than 1 week before the casting of the spell and the subject’s soul is free and willing to return. If the subject’s soul is not willing to return, the spell does not work; therefore, subjects who want to return receive no saving throw. Since the dead creature is returning in a new body, all physical ills and afflictions are repaired. The magic of the spell creates an entirely new young adult body for the soul to inhabit from the natural elements at hand. This process requires 1 hour to complete. When the body is ready, the subject is reincarnated.

A character reincarnated recalls the majority of his former life and form. The character retains his or her Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores, as well as any class abilities or skills formerly possessed. The character’s class, base attack bonus, base save bonuses, and hit points are unchanged. Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution scores depend partly on the new body. First eliminate the character’s racial adjustments (since the character is no longer of his or her previous race) and then apply the adjustments found below. The character’s level is reduced by 1. (If the character was 1st level, his or her new Constitution score is reduced by 1.)

It’s quite possible for the change in the character’s ability scores to make it difficult for the character to pursue his or her previous character class.

The new incarnation is determined on the following table or by DM choice.

Some bodies may make it impossible for the reincarnated character to use some of his or her class abilities. The reincarnated character does gain any powers or abilities associated with his new form. A humanoid reincarnated into an animal body can speak the languages it formerly knew and is a magical beast.

A wish spell can restore a reincarnated character to his or her original form.

The biggest change that 3E makes is that reincarnation is entirely deleted from the wizard's spell list; all that's left is the druidic version, shown above. The table is very similar to the one for druids in 1E/2E, with just a small number of changes (deleted fox, raccoon, stag; replaced faun → satyr, lynx → leopard; reduced DM's choice, formerly the trigger to wizard's table, to just 1%).

A minor change is that the new body doesn't walk in from offstage; the spell "creates an entirely new young adult body for the soul to inhabit from the natural elements at hand", thereby dodging any complications of its arrival; the former up-to-6-turn arrival time is here changed into 1 hour of body-creation (growth?) time. A major change is the new paragraph that explicates mental abilities and class stay the same, and while physical abilities have the same basis, they are subject to new racial modifiers (very much like the language in the 3E polymorph; link). Level is reduced by just 1, in line with all the other 3E rules on returning from the dead -- enormously more generous than in prior versions of the game.

And that's where we'll end our story -- at the point where reincarnation itself escapes from the cycle of officially-published D&D wizard spell lists for all time (moksha, you might say).

Open Questions

How much have you seen the magic-user reincarnation get used in play? Any memorable examples of PCs turned into interesting animals or monsters? If clerical raise dead and the like were not available, what would your preference be in how this spell functions (for example -- arbitrary monsters as in OD&D; humanoids-only as for AD&D wizards; or mostly animals-types as restricted to 3E druids)? What level should the PC come back as, and how should it be handled for non-standard PC types?


  1. I think I remember our 1st ed. AD&D group using Reincarnation once but it wasn't very exciting. I think a human character returned as an elf.

    There are a few examples of reincarnated characters in the "Personalities" chapter of the Rogues Gallery supplement (1980).

    David Cook's character Talbot was reincarnated as a centaur after dying on a mission for a druid. Jeff R. Leason's (co-designer of Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan) 10th level fighter Phoebus returned as a lizard man with 18:00 strength.

  2. A few years back I ran a 3.5e game in which a half-orc character was killed and reincarnated by an NPC druid. We were all kind of hoping for a badger, or something similar, but he came back as an elf. This got interesting a bit later on when in a dungeon they encountered a band of orcs, and the reincarnated character swaggered forward, trying to pull a bluff like "it's okay boys, they're with me" having forgotten that he was no longer an orc. In the words of Order of the Stick, "I think I failed a Bluff check!"

  3. We used it once in 2nd ed. when we had no proper Cleric. If I recall, the player did not like the result, so opted for a new character, and that was fine.
    My current homebrew has a random chance, with an entry for all the main races plus "original race", animal, beast, goblinoid, humanoid, and "Special".
    I have "the reincarnated creature recalls the "majority" of its life and form. Sp they come back at the same class and level. Even it is otherwise a rules violation.

    To answer your questions:
    In the absence of Clerical magic, increase the likelihood of coming back as something "normal". Come back at level or level -1

  4. I had Paladin come back as a dog. Didn't quite know what to do about his mount. But, he eventually attracted every free dog in area to his "cause".

  5. When we played 1st edition, we had a guy who had the most amazing luck good and bad. His character died and failed his resurrection survival roll. He had been playing the character a long time and was very bummed out. It occurred to us, that reincarnate may work for him. So it turns out there are no wizards we can find to cast it for us, but there is a druid who owes us some favors, so we get him to cast it. He is still a little bummed, what if I come back as a badger. But he starts getting into it more, wow this could be pretty fun, I could be a bear or something. So he rolls 100 the part of the chart where he has to use the wizard chart. Well that could be kind of fun, I could be an Orge or Troll or something. He ends up rolling Human, which is what he had started as.

  6. It's kind of interesting how many people's recollection is along the lines of, "We only used it this one time".

  7. Yeah, we were never much for the resurrection magic anyway. Not that we were frequently high enough level to have access.

  8. I've never seen the point of the Reincarnate spells (I've played three versions of the game). In all cases, where we had access to Reincarnation, we had access to Raise Dead and Resurrection, so there's little incentive. Now, perhaps we were playing it wrong: we never used the resurrection survival roll when casting Raise Dead/Resurrect. If that chance is a factor, then I can see using Reincarnation as a back up.

    But even then, there seems little incentive. Might as well make a new character instead of messing around with something incapable of relating to anyone (badger?) or incapable of advancement (all monsters). But... what if Reincarnate was allowed at an earlier level? The advantage is that you can use it earlier than Raise Dead. The drawback is that you have to accept the results and play the character.

    1. No group I ever played with saw any point to it either. Thinking on it now, I can only see two applications other than idle experimentation:
      1) When a character has unique knowledge (e.g., the location of a quest objective), and conventional resurrection isn't an option;
      2) When the players have slain an enemy that they fear will be resurrected by others, Reincarnation could be an effective "FU" -- "Okay Necros the Dark Wizard, try to conquer the world as a Kobold..."

    2. Yeah, I agree with all that. I guess my thinking here was mostly "What if clerical raising didn't exist, is this spell well-written?"

  9. @ Delta:

    If I remember correctly, 1st Edition AD&D had restrictions on who could benefit from Raise Dead/Resurrection spells. Specifically, there was something about elves (and half-elves and maybe dwarves) having "spirits" not "souls" and so the only thing that could bring back a dead elf was Reincarnation (or a Wish).

    These rules were either in the DMG (spell notes section) or Deities & Demigods/Legends & Lore. I don't have my hardcovers with me in Paraguay, so I can't look it up...sorry!

    1. Yeah, you basically remember correctly. 1E PHB raise dead text says, "can restore life to a dwarf, gnome, half-elf, halfling, or human" (p. 50). I tend to read that as just an oversight to not include the PC race of elves (and half-orcs), and the Deities & Demigods later justified that block of text with the whole soul-spirit thing. But you're right, specifically in 1E if read literally you'd need reincarnation to bring back an elf PC.

  10. We've had two reincarnates in my campaign so far, and under the B/X rules you're correct that it's pretty darn likely to come back as the same or close enough to the same race to keep the character going. Once this was seen as a blessing, and the second I detected some disappointment around the table -- I think they were into the idea of the player coming back as something unusual.

    In both cases the player came back as same race and class, but did end up losing a couple levels in the random level roll. This was viewed with mixed emotion: happiness to have a beloved character back that would have otherwise been lost forever, but disappointed to have lost some levels to a random die roll. (One player has since mentioned want to search out sages to discover how to reclaim his lost knowledge -- personally I love that kind of play, but so far he hasn't convinced the party to go along with the plan.) I think in both cases though it was a "this or nothing" situation, and saw the lost levels as a necessary cost.

    The interesting thing about reincarnate in my campaign is that it's sort of the ultimate fallback for worst case scenarios. It has the following advantages over Raise Dead:

    1. No time limit -- raise dead caps out after a number of days, depending on the cleric's caster level. Often the party is off in the wilderness when a death occurs, so traveling back to town to get a raise dead can be a race against the clock. If they miss the timer, there's still reincarnate.

    2. Complete body restoration -- I've ruled that while some part of the body must be present for reincarnate, it need not be the whole thing, a skull or bone or whatever is enough. This is often pretty useful when the death was something very destructive (eg. disovled by acid). Also limb loss is fairly prevalent in my campaign with the critical charts I use, and my interpretation has been that raise dead will not restore lost limbs, while reincarnate will as you're getting a whole new body.

    I know a lot of the above is driven by house rules or on-the-fly interpretation, but it has made a niche for reincarnate that may otherwise not have existed, and all of that came up naturally through play. I was not trying to devise ways to make reincarnate relevant, but I'm happy with how it's turned out.

    1. Good stuff, thanks for that feedback, Paul! I'm hoping there's some "sweet spot" for how often PCs come back changed or unchanged, as you've seen me doing lately I adjudicate that with a saving throw. B/X is certainly an outlier in how assuredly you come back as a PC race.

  11. Yeah, this was one of those spells that made us go, "Ummm? Ok....why?"

    It seemed like an odd thing to have a spell for so we never used it. I've never actually seen it come up or get used outside of Dungeon adventures.

    1. With raise dead in the game, I totally agree.

  12. I have had several campaigns where reincarnate was not just the only option, but also preferable.

    The first time I used it was in a game back in 1e. The player rolled badger, and just like everyone seems to, did not like that result at all. He insisted that the party kill him again and cast the spell over. We were kids.

    The second use was in a 2e game.. Elmdar the half elf was reincarnated into Dar the troll... this was when we had all these monster manual supplements in the old binders (which I still have somewhere) and we decided to roll what kind of troll. Got a Rock Troll. Ridiculous strength. Dar became partially cannibalistic (are you a cannibal if you eat goblins?) and made the rest of the party very nervous.

    The third major instance was in 3.5 when Alain Pathfinder, 15th level elven arcane archer, was reincarnated into a dwarf. Interestingly, he ended up an inch taller (we rerolled his physique) and the beard was the finest silver flax. I ruled that he could no longer advance as an arcane archer (but he kept his levels in it), but for the same reason, I could not deny dwarven racial benefits. So he became a dwarven defender. He referred to himself as a "dwelf".

  13. Wow I am raising this one from the dead (har har), but as it's the best discussion of the topic...why not?

    I've never used nor seen used Reincarnation/Reincarnate. I've always seen it as a high risk option especially given Raise Dead. Elves are the exception, however, and we always knew that to be the case. But it never came to pass.

    But now, almost 40 years into my D&D career, I have a case where an Elvish NPC (the Elvish Advisor from B2!) was slain in the course of completing a mission he had hired the players (veterans of B2) for (provide security for transport an item of great power from the Wild Coast (where I set the Keep) to Celene across the Suss Forest).

    I decided that Druidic Reincarnate was most appropriate for what would be available to his masters, and rolled 48 on the 1st Edition AD&D table, resulting in Human. But he's a Level 3/3 F/M-U (what I make a 3rd Level Elf from Basic in 1e AD&D).

    As there's no rules regarding class, just the advice in the DMG: "allow the new form to progress as far as possible in characteristics and abilities." So...he has no level limits now but can't be multi-class? Or does he still abide by the class restrictions of his elvish mentality?

    Human NPC with two classes might seem like a possibility, but he doesn't have the prerequisite characteristic scores to qualify.

    So, DM Fiat will have to be my guide. No biggie, I got this. I'll judge that he's only a human in form, and there are no physical impediments to progressing in his professions, so he can continue to multiclass. Now if he'd come back as a Badger...

    1. Very neat, sounds like good judgements. As mentioned, with my game devoid of clerics, Reincarnate gets a lot more interest and usage (sometimes to horrific results).

      Side point: Interesting you'd bring up your B2 placement. I was just fiddling with maps a few days ago for similar placement in the same area. I wound up deciding it should be at about the northernmost point of the Principality of Ulek, just across the river from the Wild Coast. Great minds.