Mechanic Series: Necromancer

 My favorite Youtuber is Abraham Zentia, who uses the handle, Talking About Games; he is an intelligent guy who reviews table top RPGs in a way that I really enjoy; never one to just point out the obvious, he actually tells you how he feels on certain subjects, and interjects true opinions which matter when one is looking at rule books.

Everybody plays the game in different ways, and I was surprised by one of his comments: He enjoys 2e, but he finds the Necromancer Player Class to be too weak. A Necromancer PC? My mind was blown!

Now, in regards to Necromancers, I had gone through a phase that dictated that the worst monsters are of the human variety, and we played a TON of Ravenloft, so I personally over-used the Necromancer and have no desire to go back. I can’t think of any new ways to play the same character! But the Necromancer has always been an Evil NPC in my games. The 2e rules support this, but it also makes one wonder. The Necromancer is only effective if he is at high levels, but if this is the case, how did he survive to become high level?


In original AD&D all wizards, with the exception of Illusionists, were general wizards. They all cast basically the same spells, with very little variety. 2e set out to make wizards more unique from each other by encouraging players to specialize in schools of magic, and while the general wizard class is still a very popular one, if one chooses to specialize they will be less diversified, but more powerful, even at lower levels of play. Not all of the schools are created equally; the more powerful schools, while not restricted to just the spells from that school, are restricted from one to three schools of magic which oppose them, and can’t learn or cast spells from those schools.

While the Illusionist suffers the most restrictions, unable to cast Necromantic, Invocation/Evocation, and Abjuration spells, he can still fake it by creating illusions that simulate those spells. The true sufferer of the rule change is the Necromancer, he is unable to cast spells from the schools of Illusion and Enchantment/Charm. While he doesn’t really need spells from the Illusion school (after all, he can cast the real thing), since he can’t cast Enchantment spells, he’ll never be able to create his own magical items, which is a HUGE drawback. But the biggest problem isn’t the schools which oppose him; it is the lack of spells in his school in the first place. In the Players Handbook, there are only 18 spells which he can cast at a higher level because of his specialization. It is the smallest spell pool in the manual.

It is, of course, no secret why this is. This was done on purpose to appease our Mom during the Satanic Panic. Mom didn’t want us playing a Necromancer because before you know it we’ll be arrested for digging stuff up in the cemetery, which is actually a logical conclusion!


The necromancer is typically a power hungry guy. He doesn’t seek to control the living, if he did he’d specialize in Charm and Enchantment; no, his desires are to control the dead. Of course he still can borrow spells from other schools; well, that isn’t all that accurate, because he will HAVE to borrow spells from other schools because his specialized spell list won’t fill even a traveler’s spellbook.

His spells are good, but not very well rounded; he’s got only one mass attack, Death Spell, which even then requires a higher level to cast than the mass attacks of other schools. He also gets pseudo healing spells in the form of Reincarnation and Clone; good luck using Clone as it is an 8th level spell, but even for Reincarnation he must be 12th level.

I suppose that as a role-playing guide, this horrible spell progression would imply that he must hide what he truly is, he’d study normal magic, but in his own private researches he would be collecting tomes of the darkest nature possible. If he is discovered, he will no doubt be slain by his peers. He must bide his time until he feels that it is too late to stop him.


If one takes a look at the spell lists broken down into different schools, one can see what was done. Clearly they stole spells that were better fit for the Necromancer, and assigned them to other schools of magic. Was this fair? At epic levels a Necromancer can kill your entire army and turn it against you. One can say that that is a pretty strong ability to have, and one that balances itself out in the long run. If a PC uses this ability without moral obligations of any kind, then he could take over the entire campaign, but how is this any different from the other schools of magic? Enchanters don’t even need to kill you to turn your army against you. Illusionists can create entire armies of whatever; all of the wizards are truly epic in high levels of play. The Core Rulebooks go out of their way to tell us, specifically, how powerful the Necromantic School of magic is, which if you know anything about propaganda, the reason why they single this one school out as often as they do, is because that statement is utterly false.

The best fix is to restore the spells to the school by simply rewriting an expanded list of spells to Necromancy in Appendix 5. I’m not going to do this because it wouldn’t serve much purpose here; you can do this just as easily as I can, and in a format that you prefer.


I have always believed that the spells included in the Players Handbook are just there to get you started. As you play the game you’ll invent new spells, there is advice in the DMG to help you do just that. Once you understand how the magic system works, you can port spells in from other systems and settings if you don’t have the imagination to come up with them yourself. Players will have to submit them to the DM, as it is the DM that will have to live with this stuff. It is also helpful to let the player know that you are play-testing the spell, and things can always be altered later to make it better fit in the campaign world.

The Necromantic School has been expanded by the Ravenloft Setting; you’ll have to modify the spells that you take from the setting down, as the nature of that world promotes the art of necromancy specifically. You can usually cut one or more characteristics in half and it will be properly suited for your world, but that, of course, is just a suggestion. The books that might help you the most are, of course The Compete Necromancer’s Handbook (which I found to not be very helpful and don’t even own it), or Domains of Dread by William W. Connors & Steve Miller, and the Wizard’s Spell Compendiums Volume I-IV which had collected a huge range of TSR spells invented after the publication of the Core handbooks.


We are dealing with a character that can raise the corpses of your dead loved ones, and turn them against you. It is a psychological assault on so many levels that the very implications are horrifying. To force you to fight your dead loved one is one thing, but to also be forced to see your loved one in the shape that they are in is an additional insult and an attack all in itself.  The fact that this school of magic would appeal to the forces of evil is beyond questioning. The more one thinks about what is happening, and its implications, the more unsettling these spells become. What requires a true work of imagination and creativity is coming up with ways that one can perform acts of good within this very dark school.

A necromancer may be summoned to help with moving a cemetery to a different location, but then again, wouldn’t a cleric of the dead be better suited for this job? Hiring a known Necromancer probably wouldn’t make anybody involved feel better.

A necromancer may be hired to retrieve corpses from a calamity. A respectful one would cover them up and have them walk to where clerics could properly intern them. I can see that as a PC class, but again he can only do this job at very epic levels, which sucks. The Necromantic Priest is much more powerful in regards to this, as he is able to STEAL the undead by altering the Turning Ability.

Fighting Fire with Fire:  A scholar who is well-versed in Necromancy can use his powers to hunt evil magic users, and destroy them. If one created a Corruption Table, that would be one hell of a fun class to play. Very Call of Cuthulu, but so what? I can see a Necromantic avenger in Forgotten Realms.

Necromantic Battle Mage: Again, an epic level character, which sucks, but this mage is a soldier. Those that he raises from the dead are his allies, and once the war is done, the battle mage will make sure that the men that were slain and in his charge are properly interned as beliefs and custom dictates. Fellow soldiers would not see this type of Necromancer as evil, but as a blessing as they can still complete their missions even if death takes them. Becoming a ghost because of failure is probably more feared than this option.

If one looks through modules they’ll notice that even TSR hated the Necromantic weaknesses inherent in the class. I had converted the 5e Starter Set and found a huge error; a low level wizard of Thay had raised a bunch of zombies and was controlling them with no explanation as to how he was doing this. Either the spells were dramatically lowered so a 5th level wizard could use this stuff at will, or the module was cheating. Personally I’d say that the designers were cheating, but it proves a point. Low level Necromancers are severely underpowered. The only benefit of the school is to control undead, and they can’t even so much as raise a skeleton until 9th level? The Necromancer can’t even create magical items to allow him to do this; apparently the only way to fix this mess is create a spell, which should be core in the first place. Even a first level Enchanter can cast Friends. A Cleric can Animate Dead at 2nd level, why would Mom say that that is okay for evil clerics but not for Necromancers? That makes no sense at all, thus our friend, Talking About Games, has found a HUGE hole in the system, the question is, how can we patch it up without having to totally rewrite the book.

ADDENDUM: Our friend Brandon Lighter whose blog is The Rosetta Drake had this to say on Google+
As just-another-specialist-wizard, the Necromancer hardly bears discussing as a separate class -- though the Complete Book of Necromancers helps this tremendously (giving a lot of love to the classic villain -- including 1st and 2nd level spells that let them animate skeletons and zombies, albeit only 1 per casting), thus making low-level adventures to stop the zombie-creating apprentice Necromancer make sense. They are no more or less powerful than any other specialist -- though party tactics and the nature of encounters the DM runs can skew this one way or another (i.e. invoker has a clear advantage if the game features large-scale combat too heavily).

One of my longest-running campaigns featured a PC Necromancer who was the only truly good character in the entire party. The party (in 5 years and 28 levels of playing) never acquired a cleric, so the Necromancer quickly stepped up into that role, loading up on spells like: Hold Undead (in place of turning), paired Empathic Wound Transfer and Vampiric Touch (taking her allies wounds on herself then healing them at the expense of their enemies in place of more normal healing), and rampant Reincarnation at high levels (in place of Raise Dead). With the exception of VT for work-around healing, the character was otherwise a committed pacifist, studying the powers of death in order to understand how to counter them.

Talking about Games said:

 That's a really good blog post, thanks a lot for mentioning me! So far, my favorite versions of d20 Necromancers are the ones presented in "13 True Ways" and in "Adventures Dark & Deep". If you are curious about those or haven't seen them already, here are the links:

Talking about Games reviews 13 True Ways, and Adventures Dark & Deep

 The first one feels powerful and customizable without 'stealing the spotlight' from the other members in the party. The second one is pretty standard old school stuff, but the spells, the ability to create magic items and affect undead make it a lot better.

I also somewhat liked the 3.5 versions presented in "Libris Mortis" and "Heroes of Horror", but the former felt too fiddly, and the latter felt too powerful at times.

CORRECTIONS: Paolo Greco (AKA: Tsojcanth) whose blog is Lost Pages pointed out that Enchant an Item is also associated with the school of Invocation, so Necromancers ARE able to create magic items.


jbeltman said...

Talking about necromancers being good I think the attitude would come from whether the society fears death or not. If you look at it from the point of ancestor worship, where you revere and know them, then a spell like Speak with the Dead would allow you to consult with your great-great grandfather who could give you advice. Raising the dead might would raise an ancestor in time of need who is happy to help you.

RipperX said...

I think that you've got a good idea going jbelman. I think that we still do this, even today. Christians evoke the spirit of Christ to aid them in a time of need. But it goes back further than that, if you look at the Norse myths, I think that all of these gods, at some point, were living men and women. What makes the Norse Gods rather unique is that even though they are gods, they are not eternal, their deaths are fated and new gods will stand to take their place.

Some modern Secret Societies have kept the bones of important members; if one possessed the skull of Merlin, and could consult it in times of need, would this be an evil act? I don't see how. The system could be corrupted, a spirit imitating the great wizard, mixing truth with lies and bad advice. That is the place where our games come from, isn't it.

Brooser Bear said...

I think that you are missing a big point about Necromancers. In AD&D, all Clerical healing spells are of the Necromancy school. Necromancers are healers! This brings it to my interpretation of Necromancers.

There are three things that are absolute taboos in Midlands: Assassins Guilds, Slave Trade, and Necromancy. These individuals are lynched on sight or taken, tortured, executed on the spot. That is because, Slaves are often sold to alien cults practicing human sacrifice, Assassins learn to impersonate other's core beliefs (i.e. Alignment) and have none of their own. That has major transformative implications in Midlands. At the layman's level, to kill someone for money while having to hatred for the individual, is evil beyond all measure. Necromancers are persecuted because they practice painful vivisection. I.e. human experimentation. Medicine is the side-line of Necromancy. They can help you grow lost limbs, replace missing eyes and other organs, maybe even grow new and wondrous limbs and appendages, and their prices for regular healing is cheaper than a regular wizard charging you to do the research and get you unproven results for the same service. Clerics can do a high level healing much easier, but you need to have the social standing and relevance to the Church community before you can get that high level restorative healing. Why would the deity bother with a non-believer, who is anything less? Healing is a crutch, as far as strengthening your spirit is concerned, anyway.

Regarding the weaker specialist schools. This would make sense, once you realize that there are applications of magic outside adventuring. Perhaps specialists earn their living in the non-adventuring world. If you will run them in your campaign, (1) let them make their gold by practicing their spell craft outside adventuring. and (2) let them pick up some fighting or adventuring skills or buy magical items using their spell-gotten gains to make them more effective and survivable while adventuring.

Andy Action said...

Good stuff! I've got a few Necromancer type PCs in my games - mostly Clerics of Nerull and Orcus. It's a challenge keeping them fresh (heh) past the Animating Skeltons/Zombies phase. I've introduced opposition Necromancer NPCs to keep them in check and as competition and it has borne fruit in the form of fun! That said, the class tends get a bit nihilistic at time and they aren't "anti-heroes" in the classical sense. They're more sociopathic murder-hobos on crack...

RipperX said...

RE: Broozer

The necromantic cleric isn't just a little better than the specialized Necromantic wizard, he is WAY better. That is part of my issue. It disagrees with fiction, yes a cleric of the dead, or even the undead, should be powerful, but when one thinks of the word Necromancer, they see a wizard, not a priest; but in D&D Necromancers are pale shadows compared to them.

By adding a means of summoning a fiend, through sacrifice and favors, one can get it to cast spells for you, until you are able to master the art yourself? I've always wanted to add a sacrificial spell component to the game which allows the wizard to steal the powers of the one he kills and is able to use them to access spells that would be too high for him otherwise.

RipperX said...

RE: Andy Action

I think that it is very easy to see the Necromancer as an archetype of evil, but this would imply that the entire school of magic is evil, which isn't possible as schools are all neutral. Any wizard from any school of magic can be evil and harness the same forces as good wizards do. Many of the spells were, no doubt, originally crafted by evil wizards, it is implied in the names themselves.

To take this to a realm where we can better understand it, we'll go to Forgotten Realms. Necromancy, like other schools of magic, comes from the Goddess Mystra, who isn't evil. Then, you go to her living champion, Elminster, who is a figure of good. By him not opposing the school of Necromancy, one that brings nothing but sorrow and pain, is he also a sponsor of it? This would be an evil act, if that is indeed what is going on. One must also wonder if it really is Mystra that is supplying this energy, or if this magic comes from someplace else? That would imply that it is not a true school of magic, but a force introduced to the planes by demons, but if this is the case, than general wizards wouldn't be able to access the school at all.

Brooser Bear said...

Before we get too deep into archetypes of evil. Let us define Good and Evil first.

RipperX said...

Anybody who plays AD&D already has a working knowledge of Good/Evil, that is a separate topic which would dominate this simple theory of discussion.

Perhaps the school of Necromancy is a negative side effect of healing magics, one that devious minds have been able to twist and warp in ways that were never truly intended. Many wizards have used this school to extend their own lives without losing themselves nor becoming evil, however it may be one of those schools that corrupts those who delve to deep. If one studies to hard, one becomes a victim of it in the form of a Lich, one is gaining power but at the expense of their humanity. Is this the only school of magic that does this? I suppose that a Diviner slowly loses their mind, an Illusionist may lose his grasp on reality, should we be enforcing some sort of consequence to those who harness too much power?

Brooser Bear said...

I think that there is a real difference between the Necromantic Clerics in fantasy and in history. In D&D Necromancers are essentially devil worshippers raising the undead. That's the twisted modern mindset. Historically, the priests of the dead were seen as guides of the loved ones in the afterlife, leading them to a better place. Prime example was the Egyptian Set. He was viewed as evil and alien, but not for the reasons you would think. His cult was brought to Egypt by the Assyrian invaders from the North, who left his temples after they retreated. This cult was a precursor to monotheism. Set did not proclaim himself to be the only God, but his priests SUGGESTED to Egyptian worshippers, that Set is more important than other Egyptian deities, and that the worshippers should go to Set's temple more than to the temples of the others. No other Egyptian cult had that demand, you can go to any and all or not at all, and Set's cult struck Egyptians as Selfish, Alien, and vaguely evil, because it was putting down other deities. Far cry from You shall have no other God before me.

Yes, Magic will tend to weaken the wizard's contact with reality. Historic shamans did go psychotic with too manybout of body tips. Not sure how this should play out in D&D. Historically, early doctors and their play with cadavers gave the medical students pretty much the same reputation as Necromancy in D&D.

Andy Action said...

@Ripper X:
That's as maybe, but these PCs have opted to play true death-cultists (Pawns of Nerull & Orcus, respectively). Both campaigns are set in Oerth, World of Greyhawk. We use B/X D&D rules,but I port in some concepts from other systems & editions, including 2nd Ed. AD&D (I think they got the Specialty Priesthoods right!). They use divine magic and granted powers (animate & control undead, for the most part) that are granted directly from their deities.

Both PCs are mid levels (6-7th level, respectively) and I plan on having a lot more "divine reciprocity" necessary to gain those higher level spells (some of them are gnarly!). I too used custom spell lists, gathered from myriad sources including the Encyclopedia of Magic, various OSR publications (Dyson Logos' "Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts," Gavin Norman's "Theorems & Thaumaturgy" and Paulo Greco (Lost Pages)'s stellar "Cthonic Codex," "Pergamino Barocco," and "Wonder & Wickedness" and Rafael Chandler's "Obscene Serpent Religion") to flesh them out - there are some pretty unique offerings therein!

I copy/paste the spell descriptions onto a shareable Google Drive document, which I share with the Players, as needed.

Also, I have ported in the concept of "Invoke Patron" from Goodman Games' DCC (Dungeon Crawl Classics), which really personalized a PC's interaction with their "higher power" be it a death god (Nerull, from Greyhawk's canon pantheon) or a demon (Orcus). It ramps up the risk factor of working so intimately with such dark powers - as their Oerthly vessels, their choices have begun taking a toll on their persons...

Lastly, I'm currently devouring Clark Ashton Smith's short stories (Averoigne, Poseidonis, Hyperborea & Xothique) which I can't recommend highly enough - they heavily feature dark & evil Necromancy of all stripes, with both protagonists and antagonists. I am extremely inspired!

RipperX said...

Okay, I suppose that the easiest thing to do is just call evil clerics, necromancers. I have done this in the past, I enjoy Hammer Films, and secret devil worship is one of my favorite tropes. Being caught red-handed with your silly robe on tends to bring out the worst in people.

As far as Mages go, perhaps no low level necromancer exists? One is simply corrupted and seduced by the school at high levels?

I really like the idea of a Necromancer Avenger, however, a class like that would probably be better served through play.

RipperX said...

Clark Ashton Smith, I think that I read some of his stuff. Like many DMs I read a lot! I must had borrowed a book from the library that was authors writing tributes to H.P. Lovecraft. I don't own it, I wish I did, most of the stories are gone from my memory, but I do remember Robert E. Howard's short story in the collection which was about a man who stumbled across worshipers of some evil religion making human sacrifices to a monolith that was bloody god-awful (in the good sense)! Those images that he invoked will probably never leave my mind.

I read a lot of horror in my youth, now I find that it is too much. I get pulled in and depressed all day. Today I read mostly fantasy and science fiction, genres which I had neglected in the past.

Andy Action said...

RipperX said...

Holy crap that is some good stuff! Inspiring as well. When I was first playing with undead I could care less where they came from, they were just zombies or what not, but today I see a more sinister side. The fact that the undead in this story are possessed by their own tired spirits is something new. Typically I had always played out that reanimation was a mockery, that the bodies are mindless. Intelligent Undead are trapped and are always fun to explore, but this story reveals a better undead. NICE!

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