Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted discuss what happens when a necromancer’s undead army stops being a few minions and starts being a real pain to conceal from the rest of the world. Around the Nerdarchy HQ we joke about how creating undead brings evil into the world and therefore is an evil thing. The caveat to this of course is zombies, skeletons and the like by rules as written are evil creatures. House rules and personal campaign settings and cultures aside, animating corpses with necromancy creates a “foul mimicry of life.” You can assert all the control you want and at the end of the day (literally) you’re keeping a hateful spirit on a leash. If your control slips for an instant, any living creature nearby is in jeopardy. So let’s have some fun with it and reimagine some ways an undead horde can fit into your 5E D&D games.
Creating undead isn’t evil
The easiest house rule to reimagine how mindless undead interact with the world is animate dead and the like simply animates corpses but without the habitual behaviors associated with these dark servants. The flavor text accompanying skeletons and zombies gets overlooked a bit, particularly these parts from the 5E D&D Monster Manual:
“When skeletons encounter living creatures, the necromantic energy that drives them compels them to kill unless they are commanded by their masters to refrain from doing so. They attack without mercy and fight until destroyed, for skeletons possess little sense of self and even less sense of self-preservation.”
“A zombie left without orders simply stands in place and rots unless something comes along that it can kill. The magic animating a zombie imbues it with evil, so left without purpose, it attacks any living creature it encounters.”
Necromancers get a bit of a reprieve here, if you consider uncontrolled skeletons and zombies perhaps become completely inert or even cease to be altogether if the reanimator stops maintaining control.
In this scenario undead minions are just that — mindless minions useful for fighting, labor or other tasks. In a society or culture accepting of this practice creating undead may be a preferred process. Undead soldiers spare mortal lives and undead workers don’t get tired or expect payment. In this way undead are kind of like robots and automation, which could cause problems of their own for mortals in lost wages and opportunities. I don’t suspect they’d develop any sort of intelligence though, so ethical concerns about their rights and so forth probably won’t come up. But it’s your world and this would be an intriguing avenue to explore.
There’s worse things than undead hordes
Some of my favorite television shows and movies feature dark and disturbing protagonists. Dexter comes to mind. What fascinates me is knowing as a viewer the main character is a terrible human being, but in some cases the antagonists in their stories are even worse. Dexter is a serial killer but he has a code including among other things “Targets must be killers who have evaded the justice system.” The killers he targets are reprehensible and you’re shown the perspective that without Dexter’s dark deeds even more heinous acts would take place.
In this scenario creating undead is better than the alternative. You could represent this a couple of different ways. In a grim, dark campaign setting the average person understands the peril all around them. A few skeletons and zombies under the command of a mortal necromancer might be cause for curiosity but not immediate fear and revulsion. Take a setting like Ravenloft, where Barovians are inured to undeath in a pedestrian sense (they’re not all 10th level School of Necromancy wizards). There’s frightening undead creatures roaming the valley, but there’s also wolves, berserkers, druids and twig blights, werewolves, hags, witches and who knows what else going bump in the night. A necromancer passing through Vallaki with their animated corpses in tow won’t be the worst thing denizens of the Domain of Dread see that day.
Another way for undead hordes to find acceptance is a setting under immense threat, perhaps even extraplanar in nature. In a campaign featuring an explicit world threatening problem it might be the only thing mortals can do to throw everything they’ve got at the problem. Undead minions might be so prevalent that its customary for those with the means to include several undead guardians in their retinue.
Undead object lesson
It’s not the hateful spirit underneath the rotting flesh, but what a necromancer does with it that defines them. This idea pops up in comments the most often in defense of creating undead as a neutral action. A necromancer who creates undead to harm innocent lives or cause wanton destruction in the name of Orcus clearly aims to spread evil. On the flip side maybe a friendly local necromancer’s skeleton minion helps get kitties down from trees and all the neighborhood children adore ol’ Knucklebones.
A necromancer who follows a code to only animate dead evil doers, putting their remains to use doing good deeds might do this to provide of form of penance for the deceased. I rather like this approach to necromancy. It might weird some people out to see a zombified gnoll helping rebuild the village it participated in raiding when it was alive, but it’s a fitting way to earn a measure of justice.
Zombies are fun!
I’ve certainly played in many games where zombies and skeletons took on lighthearted qualities. In the video Dave mentions Nate the Nerdarch’s necromancer whose first undead creation is the skeletal remains of his childhood nanny. He really cared about that skeleton! In my own experience playing Gusamon the svirfneblin Circle of Spores druid he animated several NPC henchmen we’d all come to care about despite their constantly deadly predicament in the dungeon beneath Castle Greyhawk. And a recurring NPC in my games, Snilor is a fair to middling young wizard more who digs the occult lifestyle but really is just a nerd with a few skeletal friends. Years ago I played an asura necromancer in Guild Wars 2 who summoned a whole bunch of undead critters who were essentially magical experiments and no one seemed off put by a gang of horrifying undead beasts strolling through Rata Sum.
My point here is treating undead like any other creature, and there’s a few dials you can turn to suit your taste. Turning down the gore dial might be more challenging in a campaign with a more serious tone, but goes a long way towards lessening the attention on undead minions. Zombies with more of a shuffling mindless humanoid vibe can be kitschy but leaky skulls and insides on the outside is gross and ain’t no one want to see that. Although there is something to be said for gallow’s humor.
You might also turn up the contrast with the tremendous number of powerful and threatening creatures in a D&D world, a small undead horde seems quaint. Later on when you roll into town with ghouls, wights and mummies maybe eyebrows will raise but for now, even the town guard has crossed swords with restless undead. Fun fact: ghasts are quite smart, the most intelligent out of the various undead you can create with create undead.
One wildly different take on animated undead is turning up their level of sentience with even a rudimentary intelligence and personality. A sniveling skeleton that calls you boss or a Solomon Grundy-esque zombie that’s kinda got an odd measure of charm all of a sudden gets players more invested. Adventurers in a game of mine created a zombie once, and when it came time to turn it into an alchemical bomb and send it shambling into the villain’s inner sanctum, they did so with heavy hearts.
If lighthearted necromancy sounds fun to you, check out Speak with Dead here on the website where our resident necromancer Maxillae the Mad takes time from her busy life as a alchemist and practitioner of death magic to offer her unique insights and advice to denizens of any world or setting.
When it comes to raising and maintaining an undead horde in 5E D&D it’s all about perspective. Unless you’re playing straight RAW. In that case you are creating evil undead creatures and they only thing keeping them from killing living thing is your attention to the time. They can’t be reasoned with and they don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear and they absolutely will not stop.