“Noisy ghosts” auf Deutsch, poltergeists are the spirits of those who died in great agitation and/or with things left undone, or whose graves have since been desecrated. As the Bestiary 2 makes plain, their trauma turns them evil, and they take their pain out on the living by hurling objects telekinetically and frightening those they encounter.
I like the poltergeist a lot. It’s a nice low-level undead threat, but since it requires PCs to use their detective skills (and compassion) as much their brawn, it’s a deeply satisfying role-playing spur. Sure, you can have a poltergeist attack just be a random encounter at a crossroads—they’ll never know it comes back in 2d4 days. But how much better to have to lay to rest a poltergeist in a castle, museum, college, guildhall, or some other site! It’s a chance to get PCs out of the dungeon and into the town, interacting with NPCs they might never meet otherwise—all showcasing a range of reactions against the terror/threat/nuisance of the ghost. (Plus, you can enjoy the frustration on your players’ faces when their patron complains they didn’t finish the job the first time: “You mean we have to go back?”)
Also, historically poltergeists have been tied to sites of teenage strife. There’s a world of squires, apprentices, trade schools, seminaries, and colleges (magical or otherwise) waiting to be explored. A hazing ritual turned murderous, a master whose beatings go too far, a lovelorn suicide, a hidden pregnancy birthed and then discarded… Take the worst teen crisis you’ve ever heard of, put it in a medieval context, and you have a reason for a poltergeist to manifest. It could even be one of the PC’s own crimes come back to haunt her…
If you’re a GM into customization, the poltergeist practically begs to be tinkered with, since its telekinesis is tied to its Hit Dice. Bump up that number and add some more special abilities (perhaps cold damage or an unholy aura, for instance) and you have a unique undead encounter that’s useful long beyond CR 2.
One final thought: In “basic” D&D (courtesy of the Companion Set, I believe), the poltergeist was a way nastier threat—one that, if perceived through …hmm, I can’t recall if it was through its invisibility or when glimpsed on the Ethereal Plane…was revealed as a many-limbed/tentacled horror.
There’s something really interesting about spirits having a different manifestation depending on the plane/dimension—that what we see in the Material Plane is just an aspect of a being’s whole. It’s something to think about for many incorporeal or semi-corporeal undead—allips, bodaks, poltergeists, spectres, and wraiths in particular—particularly if you have a campaign that bounces back and forth into the Ethereal (Limbo/the Spirit World/etc.) often. (See “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” in Dragon Magazine #190 for more on that as well, with poltergeists as servants of the Minion of Chaos. A quick Google will find you a copy…) I didn’t work that thread into the adventure seeds below, but you might…
A wizard’s college is plagued by a poltergeist—the soul of a student murdered by his classmates in a grisly prank. The poltergeist has lingered so long because the guilty students have sworn blood oaths to preserve the secret, and the proud headmaster refuses to consult any clerical help, having run the last monsignor out of town.
An avowed racial separatist, fencing instructor Marcus Lido makes sure each of his half-blooded students meets with some terrible accident. As yet no one has identified the pattern—if anything, the diverse (if often scarred) faces in each graduating class attest to his training academy’s open admissions policy. But now a slain half-elf hurls blades in the same studio where he fell. To lay the poltergeist to rest, adventurers must not only find and properly prepare the half-elf’s body, but also reveal Marcus’s secret—that the elfin, rapier-quick man’s was born to a half-orc mother.
A fight against a poltergeist turns deadly inside a gigantic windmill. The Advanced poltergeist is particularly adept at not just hurling objects, but also manipulating the mill’s many gears and levers by its mere presence. While the poltergeist alone may not be able to kill meddlesome adventurers, it can ensure they are crushed between the runner stone and the bedstone…or pushed off the tower in full metal armor…
—Pathfinder Bestiary 2 211
The Bestiary 2’s poltergeist illustration by Branko Bistrovic is nicely creepy.
Looking for the poison frog? We covered it more than a year ago.