Ah, necromancy. The gift that keeps on giving, even beyond death. In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, the Arcane Tradition of Necromancy deals largely with animate dead and bringing other undead under your control. Nerdarchy’s longtime stance on bringing skeletons and zombies into the world remains rooted in the undead creatures’ evil nature, making this sort of magic straight up evil. But that’s Nerdarchists Dave and Ted. I’ve got my own opinions about necromancy, necromancers and their supernatural relationship to life and death. So I’m going to smudge the palette of black, gray and white necromancy for 5E D&D a bit and add a few more shades of magic.
A wizard’s guide to black, gray, and white magic
In the video, the guys talked about the 5E D&D wizard spells in the school of necromancy, discussing whether the nature and effect of each spell was evil, good or morally indifferent. Most of the damage-dealing spells fell into the gray area. At the end of the day, whether you explode monsters with fireball, dominate your foes into destroying each other, or wrack bodies with inflict wounds (which is just gross), it’s just a difference of damage type.
It was fun hearing their thoughts on the implications of necromancy spells, but when I think about necromancers in these terms it’s more about how they use their magic. What they cast isn’t as important as why these necromancers use magic the way they do. It’s only fair to point out, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted’s “creating undead is evil” view only pertains to the rules as written in 5E D&D. Everyone adapts game material to fit their campaigns, and for a lot of necromancers out there, raising skeletons and zombies is perfectly fine — when done for the right reasons.
A recurring NPC in my campaigns is Snilor, a young necromancer. He always runs a creepy curio shop, tries to come across dark and dangerous, but is generally an amenable person. His shop, Lost and Bound, is a good place to bring unusual and gross discoveries like monster parts, fiendish tomes and the like. There’s a lot going on in the back of Lost and Bound that players never see. But as far as they know Snilor and his skeletal employees have never done them wrong.
Even a spell like soul cage doesn’t have to be the purview of evil necromancers. While the caster does trap the soul of a dying creature for 8 hours, nothing in the spell description says you must torture it. In fact, imagine a scenario where the target of the spell is a trusted companion, the only one with the knowledge to vanquish the enemy and complete the quest. But they fall in battle. Thankfully, the friendly necromancer in the party uses their reaction to snatch that soul from the jaws of annihilation. Success is just a Query Soul away.
Hands down, my favorite necromancy is the protagonist from the Necroscope series of novels. Harry Keogh could speak with dead basically at will, but it went far beyond asking five questions. Now that I think about it, his interface with the dead shared some similarities with soul cage. The dead could grant their skills and knowledge to Harry temporarily, which he often needed to overcome his enemies — alien vampires from another planet (or another planet in another dimension? The series got really weird).
In honor of Harry Keogh, here’s a magic item you can add to your 5E D&D game. It allows a character to be a bit of a necroscope themselves.
Oh, and for my 2 cp here’s the most evil necromancy spells in 5E D&D, because their effects just sound really gross to me.
- Abi-Dhalzim’s horrid wilting
- Inflict Wounds
And the best one is shadow of Moil. Because it’s fun to say.
wondrous item, rare (requires attunement)
The thick lenses on these silver-framed glasses magnify the size of your eyes to anyone looking at you.
While wearing the lenses, you can see undead within 30 feet, even if they are invisible or otherwise concealed.
If you are attuned to the lenses, you can cast speak with dead once, and you regain this ability after a long rest.
The lenses have 3 charges. It regains 1d4 – 1 expended charges daily at dawn. If you expend the lenses’ last charge, roll a d20. On a 1, the lenses crumble into ashes and are destroyed. If you are attuned to the lenses, you may expend 1 charge to use one of the following effects:
- As an action, target a corpse or undead of your choice within 10 ft. You ask a question and receive a brief telepathic answer in a language you understand. The target knows only what it did in life, but must answer truthfully.
- As a bonus action, target a corpse or undead of your choice within 10 ft.. You draw on the target’s experience and make your next attack roll, ability check or saving throw with advantage.
- As an action, target a corpse or undead of your choice within 10 ft. and name a place the target saw in life. An invisible sensor appears in that place if it is on the same plane of existence and remains for up to 10 minutes as long as you concentrate. The sensor provides audio and visual information.
That’s all from me, some thoughts on necromancy and in 5E D&D and a quick and dirty magic item for all those necromancers who want to help the dead.
Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, world building, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy or his own blog The Long Shot, he’s a newspaper designer, copy editor and journalist. He loves advocating the RPG hobby and connecting with other nerds and gamers on social media and his site thelongshotist.com.