Most editions of D&D have featured a spell called speak with dead (which I’ll call Speak with Dead for readability) that allows the caster to, for the span of a brief conversation, talk to a corpse.
In D&D, it’s a pretty minor spell — cool, but it’s got nothing on flinging fireballs and waving around your finger of death.
Except here’s the thing: Speak with Dead would change the world.
And not just a little — it would change the world a lot.
Changing the World One Corpse at a Time
Why? For starters, investigating murders becomes much simpler: find a wizard who can cast Speak with Dead, cast it on the corpse, and ask who murdered them and why. Done. It’s not the lowest-level magic, but you don’t need that many wizards running around casting Speak with Dead to make this possible.
Which would, in the fullness of time, give rise to a new practice: When committing murder, dispose of the body so thoroughly that Speak with Dead wouldn’t be a factor. Not so different than the real world, sure (disposing of bodies is a good idea here, too), but if every murderer knew that any murder could be solved this way they’d sure think twice before leaving a body where anyone could find it.
Not to mention that every detective would either be a low-level wizard, or would have access to one — every city watch organization would have several on staff, for example. And what if those wizards, seeing the importance of their role in the justice system, decided to band together into a realm-spanning guild and agree to only use their services in certain ways, or to only teach Speak with Dead to certain people?
Would wizards be banned from church grounds on the basis that they might sneak into the cemetery and uncover secrets best left six feet under? Or might thieves’ guilds hunt wizards down and kill them as a matter of policy, to keep them from spoiling lucrative assassination contracts?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg — and that’s just one low-level spell, one that’s not too far beyond making farting noises with a cantrip in D&D. Think about the breadth and depth of D&D’s spell list, especially pre-4th Edition (when books of spells ruled the day, rather than powers).
It works in D&D because, by and large, D&D isn’t about the social ramifications of the possibility of 100% crime-solving rates; it’s about bigger, flashier, more fun things.
But from a worldbuilding perspective, Speak with Dead is a fascinating little spell to consider. And it’s not the only D&D spell that fits the bill — lots of others do, too, like Purify Food and Drink, Charm Person, and Detect Thoughts, to name a few.
Broad vs. Deep
In fantasy fiction, I tend to think of worlds as being either broad or deep, though they can be both. A broad world is full of big ideas, any one of which could be the subject of a novel of its own; Middle Earth is a good example of a broad world. Pick a people, an event, or a big topic in the Lord of the Rings, and you could spin an entire book out of just that element.
Deep worlds are just a few details away from our own (or some historical version of our own), often summed up as “It’s like Earth, except…” But those small details are fully explored, as are their ramifications. The reality in the film Jumper is a good example of a deep world (the film’s lack of depth notwithstanding): it’s just like Earth, except a handful of people can teleport anywhere in the world without expending any resources.
Speak with Dead is a spell that could easily be the single detail that sets apart a deep fantasy world: it’s just like Earth, except you can interrogate the dead. The whole fabric of society would be altered by the existence of that single spell; it’s power as a seed for changing the world is way out of proportion to its power in D&D terms.
Aargh, Everything I Allow In the Game Will Change the World!
Well, OK, sure — but that’s not the point of Speak with Dead. You can’t police every detail that goes into your world, and you shouldn’t try to.
The point is that, considered in the right light, you could create a really cool world around changing just a detail or two. And despite the fantasy example, this isn’t limited to fantasy worlds.
For example, Jerry Oltion’s novel The Getaway Special is just like Earth, except someone invents a dirt-cheap hyperdrive anyone can build in their garage, and The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, is just like Earth except someone invents a device that lets anyone in the world view any place or time, present or historical.
Change one thing. Change a few — and then consider what effects those small changes, those powerful seeds, would have on your world.
Take a few notes, free-associate and brainstorm, and you’ll be somewhere interesting in no time.