What's one of the scariest types of monsters that a character can face? How about one that you can't even touch! Incorporeal creatures offer several unique and powerful challenges for characters to face. We'll take a look at some ways for you to beat down these creatures that aren't even technically there . . .
Before we begin, you may want to refresh your memory about the incorporeal subtype by reading its glossary entry.
Existing on a Different Level
Incorporeal creatures interact with the real world only through concerted effort. They ignore nonmagical attacks and can pass through walls without effort. They are completely silent and usually the only way you know one is present is when it reaches out and does ability drain damage. The vast majority of incorporeal creatures are undead, which comes with its own list of problems, but ironically, also supplies more options on how to fight them and survive.
Fighting Incorporeal Creatures
Taking on an incorporeal creature can be an exasperating affair. Unless you're prepared or have the right sort of weapons and spells, you may find that the best defense against them is to flee and fight another day. However, if you have to fight, you can keep several tactics in mind when facing a creature made up of nothingness.
Stay Far Away!: Most incorporeal creatures deal damage from touch attacks. If you can avoid melee, do so, and assault the creature with ranged attacks (preferably magical!) and spells. However, most incorporeal creatures can fly and have high speeds, so remaining distant could be difficult. Rogues, denied their sneak attack ability, should focus exclusively on ranged attacks.
Magic Weapons Are Critical: The best defense of incorporeal creatures is the fact that they are completely unaffected by attacks that are nonmagical by nature. Regular weapons, fire, acid, dropping stones -- none of these have any effect whatsoever. And then, if a weapon is magical, attacking an incorporeal creature with one still has a 50% chance of missing outright. Half a chance is better than nothing, of course.
Ghost Touch Weapons and Armor: If you can afford it, using ghost touch weapons (see Dungeon Master's Guide, page 224) and armor (page 219) is extremely effective against incorporeal creatures. Ghost touch weapons have a +1 bonus to the base price, putting it out of reach for lower-level characters. Ghost touch armor has a whopping +3 bonus to the base price, but it is a must-have for your high-level ghost hunters.
There Is No Cover: Incorporeal creatures can pass through solid objects, so, in most cases, walls, floors, and ceilings are relatively meaningless to them. They can hide in the floor or inside a wall, striking out from solid cover. An incorporeal creature that uses this tactic effectively gains a +4 bonus to AC for cover and may remain in total concealment before striking. Keep your back up against an ally to prevent hit-and-run flank attacks against multiple incorporeal creatures and use readied actions to strike once you have a good idea where they are hiding.
Go the Undead Angle: Considering that most incorporeal creatures are undead, attacking them from this angle is probably your best bet. Turning or rebuking are the most effective methods for dealing with incorporeal undead, along with spells designed specifically against undead (that's a different article altogether). Holy water is another useful trick, but to use this tactic effectively against an incorporeal undead creature, you must pour it directly on the creature, meaning you must be adjacent to make the attack -- indirect splashing has no effect. However, even this attack has a 50% of missing the creature entirely.
Stock Up on Restoration Spells: Most incorporeal creatures deal ability damage with their touch attacks. These effects can be particularly nasty. Make sure your cleric has restoration prepared. Scrolls of lesser restoration are relatively cheap (150 gp) and more than worth their weight in gold when your group is assaulted by dread wraiths.
Using Magic Against Incorporeal Creatures
Unless you're armed with magic weapons, preferably those with the ghost touch special ability, or capable of dealing with undead creatures (as described above), the best way to assault an incorporeal creature is with spells that have the force descriptor. These spells affect incorporeal creatures as if they were solid. However, a few nonforce spells are just as handy.
Magic Missile: The lowly magic missile spell works great against incorporeal creatures. Almost as important, they ignore the potential cover bonus that incorporeal creatures might gain from partially hiding inside a wall or the floor, as described above.
Mage Armor and Holy Aura: Mage armoris a cheap, effective way to provide some additional protection against incorporeal attacks -- a wand of mage armor can quickly provide your entire group with some defense. Holy aura is a high-level spell, but it offers immense protection against incorporeal creatures.
Wall of Force: If you're of sufficiently high enough level, casting wall of force can at least keep one side potentially free from flanking. Remember, however, that unlike most wall spells, the wall of force can form only a single straight line -- cast it in front of you and make the incorporeal creature waste time going around it.
Otiluke's Resilient Sphere and Otiluke's Telekinetic Sphere: These spells makes a perfect traps, since they completely enclose an incorporeal creature for the duration of the spells. Box up the wraith, then set yourself up for the prime time to strike or use it as temporary shelter while you cast spells or drink potions. Otiluke's telekinetic sphere can also move the trapped creature wherever you want it -- preferably as far away as possible. However, the creature is also effectively immune to any sort of attacks, so guide it where you want before releasing the spell and pummeling the creature to your advantage.
Antimagic Field: It might be overkill, but this spell causes any incorporeal undead creature that passes through it to wink out. Just keep in mind that your spells are suppressed during the duration of this spell.
Bigby's Hands: These high-level spells can smack around an incorporeal creature as if it is solid. The lowest level version, Bigby's interposing hand, is the most effective at keeping an incorporeal creature at bay, since it follows the creature wherever it goes.
Ethereal Jaunt and Etherealness:Editor's Note: there is indeed a correction for these, as has been pointed out on the message boards; to quote from Libris Mortis, pg 143: "An incorporeal creature is visible but can't be affected (or be affected by) corporeal objects.... It still exists fully on the Prime Material plane, despite its inability to interact with most objects. An ethereal creature exists not on the Material Plane, but on the Ethereal Plane, which overlaps the Material Plane at all points.... It can't interact with objects on the Material Plane in any way. Even most of the limited options avilable to an incorporeal creature -- such as ghost touch weapons and armor -- don't work for an ethereal creature...."
Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook.
About the Author
Eric Cagle cut his teeth at Wizards of the Coast, but now lives the extravagant freelancer lifestyle. Look for his name on D&D, d20 Modern, and Star Wars books. Recent credits include d20 Apocalypse, Races of Destiny, and Monster Manual III. He is also a contributor to the Game Mechanics, Green Ronin Publishing, Dragon Magazine, and this lovely website. Eric lives in Seattle where the coffee is dark and bitter like his goddesses.