My Problem with Necromancy

I’ve always been bothered by how necromancy and undead work in games. Lots of low level dungeons out there feature a handful of undead, such as skeletons and zombies, and maybe some 3rd level schmuck ‘necromancer’. There is next to no mechanical explanation or justification for the presence of these undead, especially in the service of low-level magic users.

First of all, there are no ‘necromancy’ spells at lower levels. Yeah, I know in AD&D there are some spells in the Necromancy school at those levels, but they’re pretty piddly. The books give no detail on how undead are created. One can only assume, then, that all dead are created via some combination of Animate Dead and Permanency, both of which are pretty high level and beyond the capabilities of those 3-5th level petty mages and their unexplained 1 HD bone squads. Also, use of these high-level spells seems like a pretty inefficient way to create mooks for L1 dungeons.

Secondly, many of these tombs and lairs of ‘necromancers’ will have some pretty sweet traps and illusions. But these illusions are typically things far beyond the mechanical abilities of the resident wizard. Of course, we handwave a lot of these things, simply because it can suck the fun out of the module’s narrative. Still, how did that guy who has Sleep, Floating Disc, and Light memorized for his daily spells end up with all of those skeleton friends and crazy magic puzzle traps in his lair?

So, for undead, and how they work, if there is no magical mechanical means for their creation, we must assume that undead are part of nature, in that if a place sucks bad enough, Skeletons & zombies will just sort of rise and animate on their own. Maybe magic is like chemical fertilizer; when enough old people use it, the run-off gets into the water and the next thing you know there are dead things popping up for miles around.

Anyway, I was inspired to write this post because of Papers & Pencil’s post on Hidden Tomb of Slaggoth the Necromancer, which I am in no means slagging (it’s a fun little module, you should definitely check it out!). But the (spoiler) prize of a spellbook containing “any necromancy spell up to 3rd level” and the really cool mirror puzzle got me thinking.

Every now and then, I come across a module where the low-level necromancer has some plausible explanation, such as some 3rd level bum has found an evil artifact that he’s kind of figured out how to use and got some low-level undead servants, but more often than not, undead themed dungeons often tend to be “some evil wizard died and now his tomb is haunted by 1-3 HD undead because he was super evil” or “a group of 1st-3rd level necromancers/evil priests have a small legion of skeletons & zombies for no reason.”

Anyway, Slaggoth herself is a pretty interesting character, as is her apprentice, and I’d be interested in seeing a sequel to this module.

7 responses to “My Problem with Necromancy

  1. I’m so glad you liked the module, thanks for the plug!

    Funny story, that spell book originally had “a 75% chance to contain any given Necromancy spell up to level 5.” But after consulting with a few people, it was decided that this was far too complicated in practice, and probably wouldn’t work out the way I envisioned.

    Regarding the issue with the origins of undead, you make a good point. I like your explanation of a sort of “natural magic.” Perhaps the game could also use some minor undead animation spells at low levels? Something like “Animate Dead Hand,” or “Animate Lesser Skeleton?”

  2. I just figured that those low level necromancers banded together to do some sort of ritual that mimicked “Animate Dead.” But you’re right, it can be hard to create a low-level necromancer that’s a meaningful threat just using the rules and spell lists as written–Chill Touch? Why would a necromancer get close enough in combat to do that? Oh wait, if he’s got Spectral Hand he can do that at a distance. Ah, heck, just blast away with magic Missile.

    “The Complete Book of Necromancers” for AD&D 2e shows how you can give necromancers more options (and spells) by having them make vile pacts and the like.

    • True, but most modules (especially the OSR ones) out there don’t assume that you use splatbooks, and, as someone who’s never had a lot of money to dish out on supplemental books (Tome of Magic is the only supplement I actually own), I haven’t used them much either. I might check CBN out, though.

      Interestingly enough, even though most of the Necromancers people want to write and play tend to be mages, only Clerics have the innate class abilities to actually be functional necromancers. Even if they can’t create undead, low level evil clerics can fairly easily find cast off undead, cow them with some evil reverse turning and get a few minions that way.

  3. Cool article and good point. I’ve always felt the same way, so when I started writing for Castles & Crusades I set out to change that and first developed a product called “The Black Libram of Nartarus” which offered the Necromancer as a de-facto prestige class. Ultimately C&C is more of an oldschool game but the spells are in an ogl game so they fit the typical RPG formula. Anyhow, Black Libram is out of print now but all of those necromancer spells and more appear in Return to the Haunted Highlands. The solution I basically came up with was that Necromancers possess a turn/rebuke ability similar to clerics. My other solution was to open up “becoming a necromancer” to any casting class. Gives games a lot more variety.

    I agree that the 2e Complete Book of Necromancers was one of the best of the burgundy cover books to come out.

    Necromancers are one of my favorite foes, and I have had a few players run them successfully. I’ve played since original Basic D&D and wrote extensively for Necromancer Games in their heyday, so I’m pretty familiar with 3e/Pathfinder. C&C just happens to be my game of choice now because we tend to get a lot more playing done and a lot less consulting manuals on what i could do if I have such and such feat/power/skill tree thingamajig. Running epic level 3.5 got nuts because it would take an hour to get around the table with 6 level 22+ characters.

    Great article!


    C. Christofferson

  4. Pingback: “Our ______ are Different”: Liches in my low-level OSR system. | Cirsova

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