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Postmortem Healing for Fun and Profit
Death doesn’t have to be the end; your mortal remains have all sorts of uses! While normally reserved for the villains, D&D players can just as easily get into necromancy and dig up an undead army to call their own. Not a class exactly, necromancy is a school of magic, a strategy, and a commitment to black cowls and skulls covered in dribbly candle wax. Grab a shovel and head on down to the cemetery as we go through everything you need to know in this necromancer 5e guide.
What is a Necromancer?
A “necromancer” in 5e terms is strictly a wizard who specializes in necromancy magic, but broadly the necromancer is a character of any class that specializes in raising the dead. A ghoulish merchant of flesh that commands the dead rise again and do their bidding. They are often depicted as brooding and craven practitioners of dark arts, delvers unto forbidden knowledge and unholy heretics going against everything that is right and just. Or perhaps they’re simply a spellcaster that truly believes “waste not, want not”. In any case, necromancers are usually on the villainous side of any D&D adventure, but there’s nothing technically stopping you from raising up some zombies to do some good work.
Why Play a Necromancer?
It’s fun to flip the script and play the archetypal villain every once in a while, but what makes necromancy any good? As we’ll get into later there are many mechanical routes to the necromancer play style, but the goal is very simple, minions. A necromancer has a (mostly) unending supply of disposable undead minions to fight for them, protect them, and do whatever needs doing. Once fully built, you’ll get to act almost like a party all your own, with a horde of “mini-characters” that turns the action economy on its head. Don’t like the look of a room? Send a skeleton through and see if any traps trigger. Big bad monster to fight? Guess who has half a dozen fighters ready to fight it and ready to be replaced if they fall? Playing a necromancer can get complicated, as you’re not just controlling one character, you’re basically controlling a whole team that has to work in unison. But it can be a very unique and rewarding play experience when all the cards line up right for you.
Before we get too far into explaining the many ways you can achieve an army of undead to call your own, there’s two very important caveats to this whole strategy:
Firstly, being a necromancer holds a lot of cultural weight in most settings. It can range from the odd hushed gasp and suspicious looks to full blown mobs with torches and pitchforks at the first whiff of undead. You can’t expect to just roll into town with a bunch of skeletons in most settings, and the taboo of necromancy is going to be an issue for your character one way or another. Before you start rolling up a necromancer, figure out the setting you’ll be adventuring in, and just how much of a problem it’s going to be. Ask your DM ahead of time if necromancy is a good fit for their campaign, don’t just spring it on them.
Secondly, necromancy represents a logistical nightmare. Rather than keeping track of a single character, both you and your DM are going to be regularly dealing with a whole undead menagerie surrounding your actual character. This is a problem for any character that relies heavily on summoning other creatures, but it’s especially bad for necromancers as their minions will not only be involved in combat but can persist for days’ worth of adventuring. Be prepared for a lot of bookkeeping and cluttered complicated combats. I’m not trying to scare you out of the idea, but just be prepared for the work it’s going to take properly and do your best to go through your complex turns as quickly as possible. And as always, check with your DM beforehand and make sure they’re fine handling this many additional “characters” in the party.
Why Play a Necromancer?
It’s fun to flip the script and play the archetypal villain every once in a while, but what makes necromancy any good? As we’ll get into later there are many mechanical routes to the necromancer play style, but the goal is very simple, minions. A necromancer has a (mostly) unending supply of disposable undead minions to fight for them, protect them, and achieve battlefield control with. And distinctly from other summoning strategies, a necromancer can keep their minions around indefinitely (for the most part). Your theoretical skeleton army size can get massive, and at a certain point your zombies and skeletons can do the heavy lifting for the party all on their own.
Technically necromancy is a whole school of magic, mostly dealing in spooky necrotic damage and similar morbid effects. What we want to focus on are the spells that create and control undead creatures that really epitomize what it means to play a necromancer starting with their bread and butter Animate Dead.
Casting Time: 1 minute
Range: 10 feet
Components: V, S, M (a drop of blood, a piece of flesh, and a pinch of bone dust)
This spell creates an undead servant. Choose a pile of bones or a corpse of a Medium or Small humanoid within range. Your spell imbues the target with a foul mimicry of life, raising it as an undead creature. The target becomes a skeleton if you chose bones or a zombie if you chose a corpse (the GM has the creature's game statistics).
On each of your turns, you can use a bonus action to mentally command any creature you made with this spell if the creature is within 60 feet of you (if you control multiple creatures, you can command any or all of them at the same time, issuing the same command to each one). You decide what action the creature will take and where it will move during its next turn, or you can issue a general command, such as to guard a particular chamber or corridor. If you issue no commands, the creature only defends itself against hostile creatures. Once given an order, the creature continues to follow it until its task is complete.
The creature is under your control for 24 hours, after which it stops obeying any command you've given it. To maintain control of the creature for another 24 hours, you must cast this spell on the creature again before the current 24-hour period ends. This use of the spell reasserts your control over up to four creatures you have animated with this spell, rather than animating a new one.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you animate or reassert control over two additional undead creatures for each slot level above 3rd. Each of the creatures must come from a different corpse or pile of bones.
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s grab some shovels and dig in. Firstly, this is a 3rd level spell so the earliest you can cast it will be 5th level as a full spellcaster and your 1st level character is going to have to wait a bit. You’ll have to make do with some other spooky necromancy spells like toll the dead, false life, or inflict wounds before you reach the lofty 5th level spellcasting heights of actually making some undead. It's also technically only on the wizard spell list and the cleric spell list, but more on that later.
Next you should note that the casting time is a whole minute, not really a problem while traveling or while dungeon delving, but definitely too long of a casting time to perform in combat. Summoning undead this way is strictly a “before combat starts” move.
Another aspect that’s vitally important is nowhere on this spell will you find the word “concentration”. Most 5e spells that summon more creatures require you to keep concentration, making you the blaring weak point on the team. With animate dead you can take all the hits in the world and your zombie chums will keep on trucking.
The control aspect is a little wonky but translating all the jargon you basically get to command any of your undead minions to do stuff as a bonus action. You only get to make one command, but it can be to as many of your undead minions as you like, so you can really only go after one objective a turn with them. You could for example command all your undead to “go kill that guy”. You could just command half of your undead to “go kill that guy”. But you can’t command half your undead to “go kill that guy” and command the other half to “go get the treasure” in the same turn, you’ll have to pick one of your objectives and bark the 2nd order next turn. ALSO, the spell specifies that this bonus action commands any and all creatures you control, not just the ones created using this specific casting. This means you could have several uses of animate dead running at once and command them all using the same bonus action. The only limit to the size of your horde is the number of spell slots and convenient corpses you have laying around.
It's also worth noting that other than being "a small or medium humanoid" the original creature has no real bearing on the creatures you make. A peasant skeleton has the same stats as the skeleton of some great adventurer.
Also, when it comes to the “reasserting control” thing, really all you’re doing is keeping the spell slot locked into command undead duty. Just check them off as “in use” and recast them whenever you finish your long rest after you get your spell slots back.
Finally, let’s look at casting with higher spell slots, because that’s when things get spicy. A baseline 3rd level spell gets you 1 undead buddy, and you can create up to 2 more per level above 3rd. So, a 4th level slot gets you 3 undead, a 5th level slot gets you 5 undead, Etc. This does of course require having an ample supply of corpses, but we’ll get to that in just a bit. For now, know your undead horde potential with animate dead gets much higher as you advance in level and it contrasts with our next spell summon undead.
*Sadly, I can’t explicitly lay out this spell as it was introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, but I can give you the broad strokes.
Summon undead is the newest tool in the necromancer arsenal, and where animate dead generates fodder mobs, think of summon undead as your elite forces. It works like the rest of the new summoning spells, so it takes concentration, lasts an hour, and has a unique stat block linked to it rather than using the bestiary. Specifically, you get to choose between a ghoulish poison zombie that has a low chance of paralyzing a target, a long range evil magic blasting skeleton, and a ghost with intangible flight and life essence siphoning goodness.
What separates this out for us as necromancers, is that it’s from the necromancy school and specifically summons undead, which works perfectly still with a lot of the undead synergy features we’ll be talking about shortly. It’s an amazing way to bolster your horde in a pinch or create a specialist for specific needs (I particularly like using the ghost option for scouting). It’s a 3rd level spell on the wizard and warlock spell lists, and if you’re going with either of those routes for your necromancer it’s definitely worth taking. I should also mention it has a 300 gp material component in a “gilded skull”, but it’s a one-time purchase as the spell doesn’t consume the item, unlike the next spell raise dead.
Casting Time: 1 hour
Components: V, S, M (a diamond worth at least 500 gp, which the spell consumes)
You return a dead creature you touch to life, provided that it has been dead no longer than 10 days. If the creature's soul is both willing and at liberty to rejoin the body, the creature returns to life with 1 hit point.
This spell also neutralizes any poisons and cures nonmagical diseases that affected the creature at the time it died. This spell doesn't, however, remove magical diseases, curses, or similar effects; if these aren't first removed prior to casting the spell, they take effect when the creature returns to life. The spell can't return an undead creature to life.
This spell closes all mortal wounds, but it doesn't restore missing body parts. If the creature is lacking body parts or organs integral for its survival--its head, for instance--the spell automatically fails.
Coming back from the dead is an ordeal. The target takes a −4 penalty to all attack rolls, saving throws, and ability checks. Every time the target finishes a long rest, the penalty is reduced by 1 until it disappears.
Raise dead doesn’t factor into our overall combat strategy here so I won’t go too far into it, but I felt it would be a disservice to ignore. Raise dead isn’t perfect, and it can’t undo extremely messy deaths, but in most cases so long as you have access to the spell and some diamonds your party members will never die. It is going to cost you a 500 gp every time you use it, so keeping one or two on hand for emergencies is a smart move, but you have a pretty wide 10-day window to just undo a player death (or an NPC death if you really care enough). It’ll only work if you’ve got (most) of the corpse intact though, so your buddy who fell in lava or got hit with a disintegrate spell is out of luck until you get to the upgraded 7th level version of the spell Resurrection.
Resurrection works essentially the same except it costs twice as much in diamond dust (1,000 gp), has a time limit of a century instead of 10 days, and completely regrows the body instead of worrying about missing limbs. In any case though, both raise dead, and resurrection are good tools for any accomplished necromancer to pick up and keep their party going.
Casting Time: 1 minute
Range: 10 feet
Components: V, S, M (a diamond worth at least 500 gp, which the spell consumes)
You can cast this spell only at night. Choose up to three corpses of Medium or Small humanoids within range. Each corpse becomes a ghoul under your control. (The GM has game statistics for these creatures.)
As a bonus action on each of your turns, you can mentally command any creature you animated with this spell if the creature is within 120 feet of you (if you control multiple creatures, you can command any or all of them at the same time, issuing the same command to each one). You decide what action the creature will take and where it will move during its next turn, or you can issue a general command, such as to guard a particular chamber or corridor. If you issue no commands, the creature only defends itself against hostile creatures. Once given an order, the creature continues to follow it until its task is complete.
The creature is under your control for 24 hours, after which it stops obeying any command you have given it. To maintain control of the creature for another 24 hours, you must cast this spell on the creature before the current 24-hour period ends. This use of the spell reasserts your control over up to three creatures you have animated with this spell, rather than animating new ones.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a 7th-level spell slot, you can animate or reassert control over four ghouls. When you cast this spell using an 8th-level spell slot, you can animate or reassert control over five ghouls or two ghasts or wights. When you cast this spell using a 9th-level spell slot, you can animate or reassert control over six ghouls, three ghasts or wights, or two mummies.
Create Undead functions almost identically to animate dead except you get access to major undead at the cost of 150 gp per undead made (one-time, doesn’t consume the items). Sadly though, ghouls aren’t that much of an upgrade over your standard zombies or skeletons. Which would you rather have using a 6th level spell slot, 7 zombies or 3 ghouls? I honestly don’t recommend using create undead over animate dead until you get all the way up to an 8th level spell slot to summon wights, which are a significant improvement worth the lower numbers. They're also intelligent undead, and with DM approval they're likely capable of performing far more complex tasks.
Skeletons Vs Zombies
When using your tried-and-true animate dead spell, you’ll have the option to summon either skeletons or zombies assuming you have access to bones or corpses. Arguably, you could also make skeletons out of any dead body but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s take a quick look at skeleton stats and zombie stats:
Medium undead, lawful evil
Armor Class 13 (Armor Scraps)
Hit Points 13 (2d8 + 4)
Speed 30 ft.
STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA
10 (+0) 14 (+2) 15 (+2) 6 (-2) 8 (-1) 5 (-3)
Damage Vulnerabilities Bludgeoning
Damage Immunities Poison
Condition Immunities Exhaustion, Poisoned
Senses Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 9
Languages Understands all languages it knew in life but can't speak
Challenge 1/4 (50 XP)
Proficiency Bonus +2
Shortsword. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6 + 2) piercing damage.
Shortbow. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 80/320 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6 + 2) piercing damage.
Medium undead, neutral evil
Armor Class 8
Hit Points 22 (3d8 + 9)
Speed 20 ft.
STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA
13 (+1) 6 (-2) 16 (+3) 3 (-4) 6 (-2) 5 (-3)
Saving Throws WIS +0
Damage Immunities Poison
Condition Immunities Poisoned
Senses Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 8
Languages understands the languages it knew in life but can't speak
Challenge 1/4 (50 XP)
Proficiency Bonus +2
Undead Fortitude. If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5 + the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.
Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 4 (1d6 + 1) bludgeoning damage.
Comparing the two zombies are the clear winner on survivability, and skeletons are the winner on damage output. 9 times out of 10 you’ll find zombies to be the most effective. Their undead fortitude can keep them going way longer than they have any right to, and they can just bog down most enemies and keep them off you and the rest of the party.
Skeletons have an actual AC to speak of, and a decent chance of hitting, but without undead fortitude and with about half as many hit points they’re very flimsy. I usually only summon skeletons if bones are all that’s available for animation. When in doubt, go with zombies.
The closest thing we have to a “necromancer class” is a necromancer wizard, but they’re far from the only route to undead glory. There’s a surprising number of class archetypes with class features that dip their toe into the cemetery dirt and any one of the following subclasses can be your path to a graveyard full of minions:
Wizard (School of Necromancy)
Starting off with the road most traveled, the easiest and one of the strongest forms of necromancer is simply the necromancy school. It’s a strong pick regardless, but the big bonus is this feature here:
At 6th level, you add the animate dead spell to your spellbook if it is not there already. When you cast animate dead, you can target one additional corpse or pile of bones, creating another zombie or skeleton, as appropriate.
Whenever you create an undead using a necromancy spell, it has additional benefits:
- The creature’s hit point maximum is increased by an amount equal to your wizard level.
- The creature adds your proficiency bonus to its weapon damage rolls.
This means your lowly 3rd level animate dead casting will net you two super - skeletons for the price of one, each with buffed hit points and a significant damage increase. You also gain a 2nd level feature that lets you steal life essence when you kill things with spells and a 14th level feature that lets you steal undead minions from lesser necromancers. The only downside is your innate wizard squishiness. I highly recommend this route if you want to play a necromancer but also want to fill the role of utility spellcasting for the party.
Cleric (Death Domain)
A death domain cleric gains access to the animate dead spell alongside a bunch of features that buff your necromancy cantrips and touch spells that deal extra necrotic damage. It doesn’t directly enhance your undead minions like the necromancy school does, instead necromancers built with cleric levels will have weaker minions but will be far more martially capable on their own. Go with this route if you want to raise undead as part of your strategy but want to focus less on spellcasting ability and be a martial character in your own right.
Druid (Circle of Spores)
Far from your average friendly druid, a circle of spores druid not only gains access to animate dead but they can also make fungal zombies mid combat thanks to their 6th level circle feature:
6th-level Circle of Spores feature
Your spores gain the ability to infest a corpse and animate it. If a beast or a humanoid that is Small or Medium dies within 10 feet of you, you can use your reaction to animate it, causing it to stand up immediately with 1 hit point. The creature uses the zombie stat block in the Monster Manual. It remains animate for 1 hour, after which time it collapses and dies.
In combat, the zombie’s turn comes immediately after yours. It obeys your mental commands, and the only action it can take is the Attack action, making one melee attack.
You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.
Remember that zombies have the undead fortitude ability, so that 1 hit point zombie you snag for a reaction can last a lot longer than you may think. I love this archetype in general and the ability to gain extra zombie minions on the fly makes it especially appealing. Build your necromancer on this route if the idea of a melee druid with zombie backup sounds appealing.
Surprisingly, oathbreaker paladins are some of the deadliest necromancy options, at the cost of coming in late. Oathbreakers have access to animate dead but as paladins are half-step casters you won’t be seeing 3rd level spells until 9th level, WAY later than all the other options. Technically you gain an ability to gain control of existing undead at 3rd level, but you really can’t count on your DM providing you the undead minions that you need. It may be worth tolerating though due to the absolutely amazing ability they gain at 7th level:
Aura of Hate
Starting at 7th level, the paladin, as well any fiends and undead within 10 feet of the paladin, gains a bonus to melee weapon damage rolls equal to the paladin’s Charisma modifier (minimum of +1). A creature can benefit from this feature from only one paladin at a time.
At 18th level, the range of this aura increases to 30 feet.
Assuming your spellcasting ability of Charisma is 18, that’s a +4-damage bonus for both you and all the undead minions acting as your cohort. Still though, the big problem with oathbreakers as necromancers is your vastly reduced spellcasting prowess. To keep up your undead buddies you’ll have to keep on spending those 3rd level spell slots, which could be spent smiting instead of on necromancer spells. Still, if you’re planning on adventuring up in late tier 2 and beyond, adventuring as a heavily armored death knight has a lot of appeal.
Warlocks may seem like a shoo-in for necromancy but they just don’t have much in the way of features to support it. They don’t naturally gain access to animate dead, but have an invocation that grants it:
Prerequisite: 5th-level warlock
You can cast animate dead without using a spell slot. Once you do so, you can’t cast it in this way again until you finish a long rest.
That seems alright at first, until you realize that casting a spell without using a spell slot automatically casts at the lowest possible spell level. So, you’ll only ever be able to cast animate dead at 1st level, for a single skeleton or zombie at a time…
Thankfully warlocks also gain access to summon undead, which will be your go-to if you want to run your warlock as a necromancer but be aware that warlocks will never be able to build up the hoard of skeletons like other classes can.
Last updated: January 27, 2019
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