A chill runs down your spine as you turn the corner into the unlit hallway of the abandoned house. Suddenly, a stream of cold energy is ripped from your chest. As you fade out of consciousness you see it. A specter. Perhaps they were once a resident of this dilapidated mansion.
During the first session of my Curse of Strahd campaign, my 6-player party ran into the specter on the 3rd floor of the Death House. While it’s technically a balanced fight, I can’t imagine running this devastating creature as-is for the recommended 4 person party.
It’s not that a CR 1 is an unfair fight on paper. It’s that the specter has the potential to straight-up murder a player character if they fail a save. While this save is only DC 10, the party’s fighter came within inches of being one-shot.
This is a nasty creature to pit up against a group of level 1’s, but it’s a worthy adversary for low-level PCs nonetheless. It’s mobile, defensively-gifted, and potentially devastating. What more could you want from an undead menace?
Let’s fly through the walls of the Monster Manual and take a look at the creature that terrorized my party in the Death House, the specter!
A specter is a type of ghost or spirit albeit with one caveat. They have been maliciously prevented from passing into the afterlife. They have no semblance of who or what they were in life. They are angry. Justifiably so, but angry nonetheless.
Most ghosts are tethered to the world of the living because there’s something that is preventing them from passing. For example, unfinished business from their past life.
Specters, however, have nothing. They’re doomed to walk the Material Plane until their spirit is destroyed.
The longer a specter exists, the more they loathe the living. Their existence serves to taunt the specter. Showing them what they lost. Due to this, specters seek out and kill any living creature that enters their domain.
The only time a specter feels minute happiness is when they are snuffing out the life of others.
Specter Stats and Abilities
You can find the specter’s statblock on page 279 of the Monster Manual.
Size: Medium undead
HP: 22 (5d8)
Speed: 0 ft.,fly 50 ft. (hover)
STR: 1 (-5)
DEX: 14 (+2)
CON: 11 (+0)
INT: 10 (+0)
WIS: 10 (+0)
CHA: 11 (+0)
This is an uninspired array. Actually, as a whole, this section is god awful outside of their 50 ft. of flying (hover) speed and +2 Dexterity modifier. Everything else is mediocre at best.
Their AC and HP are both godawful which is interesting since I claimed that their defenses are solid. Fortunately, they draw upon their defensive prowess from other sections of their statblock. However, these two low stats do pose a problem for the specter still.
Their common saving throw abilities are “meh” at best. Sure, +2 to Dexterity is respectable or a CR 1, but they have nothing else going for them. However, this doesn’t count against them thanks to their plethora of condition immunities it’s unlikely they’ll be crowd controlled.
Resistances, Immunities, Saves, and Skills
Damage Resistances: acid, cold, fire, lightning, thunder; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities: necrotic, poison
Condition Immunities: charmed, exhaustion, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone, restrained, unconscious
Senses: darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 10
Languages: understands all languages it knew in life but can’t speak
CR: 1 (200 XP)
Look at those resistances! Every single common damage type is on that list aside from poison which they’re immune to. The only damage types they’re not resistant or immune to are: psychic, force, radiant, and magical weapon damage.
Considering that these creatures are built to fight low-level PCs, it’s going to be very rare for them to deal most of those types of damage regularly. Radiant and maybe force damage are the party’s best bets and it’s not guaranteed their party composition will have access to either of those.
Their condition immunities list is impressive as hell. It’s all but guaranteed that the specter cannot be crowd controlled by a low-level party. Good thing too, because their ability scores are trash overall and wouldn’t have much of a chance to save against incoming crowd control.
I think CR 1 is a decent rating. They’re not CR 2-level, but they’re certainly stronger than a CR 1 creature in my opinion. However, this is due to the many intangibles in their statblock which is difficult to assess from a CR point of view.
Traits and Abilities
Incorporeal Movement. The specter can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. It takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn inside an object.
Sunlight Sensitivity. While in sunlight, the specter has disadvantage on attack rolls, as well as on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.
Incorporeal Movement is such a strong trait. Their 50 ft. of flying (hover) speed is powerful already, but this puts it over the top. They can completely ignore terrain, walls, etc. that would block their path to their target. This is a strong positioning and maneuverability trait.
Plus, you can use it to completely shield the specter at the end of their turn. The 1d10 force damage tax may be worth the price of completely avoiding the party’s attacks for an entire round.
Unless of course they wisen up and use a Ready Action.
Sunlight Sensitivity is a flavor trait. There isn’t much of a lore reason for a specter to be in a spot where they’re in direct sunlight. You’d have to go out of your way to put them at such a disadvantage. Regardless, keep it in mind in case your party gets crafty and lures the specter outside of the safety of their dark hovel.
Life Drain. Melee Spell Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 10 (3d6) necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the creature finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.
The specter doesn’t have much variety in their kit. It’s Life Drain or bust!
+4 to hit at an average of 10 damage per turn is solid for a CR 1 creature. Although it’s worth mentioning that the specter deals necrotic damage which is a very rare damage resistance for PCs. Doubly so at the lower tiers of play.
It’s the secondary saving throw that takes this action and makes it deadly for level 1 characters. While a DC 10 Constitution saving throw is very forgiving, there’s still a solid chance that a level 1 character, that fails this saving throw, can straight-up die due to the action’s 3d6 damage.
This is considerably less deadly even at level 2 where the PCs gain more health to act as a buffer from perma-death, but a temporary reduction of their max HP is still a terrifying debuff.
A Laundry List of Resistances and Immunities
The specter is well-guarded against the vast majority of damage types in 5e. Many of which are not readily available to most low-level PCs.
They may not have great HP or AC, but this laundry-list of high-value damage resistances and immunities can keep a specter in the fight for a considerable amount of time.
This longevity gives them ample opportunities to use Life Drain and either outright kill or heavily hinder PCs as they continue to explore the rest of the dungeon.
The movement and maneuverability prowess of the specter is their most valuable asset.
For starters, they have 50 ft. of flying (hover) speed. This is just under 2x the speed of an average medium-sized adventurer. Couple this with Incorporeal Movement and you have a creature that cannot be outrun. It will find you, and it will kill you.
In addition to all this, the specter also has a ton of condition immunities which prevent it from being crowd controlled or have its movement hindered. There’s almost nothing that can slow this creature down.
Lethal for Low-Levels
Life Drain’s potential to straight-up kill a level 1 character is terrifying. As I mentioned before, that almost happened to a level 1 fighter in my group’s Death House playthrough.
The characters have a solid chance to save against the DC 10 Constitution save, but it’s still a possibility that one unlucky roll can obliterate the character you just spent an hour+ working on.
Even at level 2-5, Life Drain can still be a real pain in the ass to deal with. Reduced maximum HP is a dangerous debuff to have when traversing dark dungeons full of unknown enemies.
It makes healing less effective, and the only way to remove the debuff at this level is to sleep it off with a long rest. This forces the party to desperately look for a place to rest, giving your creatures ample time to fortify their defenses or ambush the party when they wake up.
Easy to Hit
The specter is a strong creature aside from its physical defenses. 22 HP is mediocre at best but is padded well by the specter’s damage resistances and immunities.
Their AC, however, is much to be desired. Not only that, but their ability modifiers low making it easy to hit them with attacks that require saving throws.
These creatures are easy to hit, and even the reduced damage will still quickly add up.
How to Play a Specter
Keep Applying Pressure
The party is going to keep slowly chipping away at the specter so it’s only a matter of time before it’s destroyed. Specters have an expiration date and you need to be wary of it.
Ergo, you need to throw everything the specter has at the party. Use its exceptional movement to pursue the party and relentlessly assault them with Life Drain to either kill or knock them out.
The quicker the specter can down its foes, the more incoming attacks it reduces. Since the quantity of incoming attacks is the primary weakness of the specter, limiting these is an enormous boost to its survivability.
Leverage Incorporeal Movement
Incorporeal Movement is a fun trait for many reasons. The most obvious of which is that it allows the specter to ignore walls and other obstacles that obstruct its path.
However, there’s a condition in this trait that can give the specter a huge boost in survivability. If the specter ends its turn inside of and object, such as a wall, it will remain in there and take 1d10 force damage. This averages out to 5.5 damage each time they’re “stuck”.
In most scenarios, this is less damage than the party would do to the specter in any given round.
Hiding in the wall is a high-risk, high-reward play that has a solid odds of paying off for the specter. Provided that the party doesn’t catch on and levy a bunch of Ready Actions against the specter as soon as it leaves the safety of the wall.
5 Specter Plot Hooks
- Lost Soul – After years of wandering the forest a once-kind ghost has shifted into a specter out of sheer frustration. Its rage has left it with no semblance of self. It lashes out at any living thing that dare crosses its path.
- No Respect for the Dead – A young necromancer has been experimenting in the town’s graveyard at night. One such experiment has created an insatiable, incorporeal spirit that took his life. It now seeks to continue its revenge spree on the innocent townsfolk.
- The Family Home – A construction company purchased the land an abandoned house is on. However, the demolition team refuses to step into the house after being spooked by the rumors of a family of angry ghosts that live in the basement of the house.
- Rest In Peace – A priest believes they’ve found the secret of giving specters a peaceful rest. Although they’re looking for some… protection in case their theory proves to be ineffective.
- Locked in the Crypt – Two days ago a group of children were playing in the graveyard when a specter appeared and chased them into the crypt. Their families are offering whatever money or possessions they own for someone to save their children before it’s too late.
All in all, the specter is a lethal creature to go up against as a 1st-level PC. Life Drain‘s ability to straight-up murder a character is terrifying for characters with single-digit max HP.
They’re fun creatures to use as a DM. Their obscene maneuverability and mobility thanks to their flying speed and Incorporeal Movement are a treat to pilot. Life Drain is a fantastic resource-drainer for low-level characters (above 1st level) too.
They’re an all-around solid creature with a clearly-defined role. They’re melee skirmishers with a ton of mobility to get them into position to pick off the enemy.
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