Necromancy is one of the greatest failings as a system of magic and a systematic explanation for things in the world in Dungeons & Dragons. One of the general rules of world creation is that the world must follow a set of rules which, while not necessarily realistic, must be at least internally consistent. And this goes for systems of magic. Indeed, one of the biggest complaints about the Harry Potter setting is lackadaisical way that magic works: it is apparently science enough that it may be taught in schools, but it adheres to no actual consistent system that might explain the various hows and whys. Contrast that with Earthsea, in which magic, while powerful and mysterious, in its own way adheres to Newtonian physics: matter, while transmutable, can neither be created or destroyed, for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and, as the world is all interconnected, magic must be used judiciously because using it affects the flow of matter and energy in nature and the world.
What does this have to do with Necromancy in Dungeons & Dragons? Necromancy, except, so I hear, in various splatbooks, is one of the least practical and slowest to develop schools of magic. It takes a tremendous amount of power (and levels) to begin creating even small amounts of basic undead. The problem is that Dungeons & Dragons takes place in a world where low-level undead are as plentiful as anything else, as though Necromancy resembled its Diablo II representation rather than the hard and fast rules presented in the assorted rule books.
Necromancy in D&D is largely non-functional for Player Characters, and NPCs often do not get justification for their powers. Not their character sheet or stat-block powers, but their powers in terms of strength, resources and undead man-power. A clerical necromancer could take control of a small army of existing undead, but the problem remains of how they got there in the first place. It’s just that the necromantic powers spelled out in the book just simply cannot explain or account for the necromancy within the setting. And that’s a problem. If D&D were a more flexible system, it would be easier to hand-wave, but it IS a concrete set of rules and the world should be able to conform to those rules or be explainable in some terms by them.
I think that one of the reasons why Liches in B/X (BECMI, actually) are so terribly out of sorts is because Mentzer made them powerful enough to mechanically justify the vast armies of undead they surely control. But let’s face it, individuals of levels that high simply don’t exist in most game worlds. Campaign Mastery at one point did a breakdown of how many individuals of various levels would exist within certain populations. I’d link it, but my web filter at work blocks them. But suffice to say that you’d meet very few individuals in the world with the power to actually create enough undead to account for their population in game worlds, never-mind their distribution.
One game system where Necromancy also works strangely is the Elder Scrolls games. Sure there are ‘necromancers’ but necromancy isn’t really a proper school of magic. And undead are not created, but rather ‘gated’ in via conjuration. This has to do more with gameplay and story separation. In Morrowind, the undead tend to be animated constructs rather than true undead. The only true undead in Morrowind are aethereal in nature (ancestral ghosts, dwarven spectres, etc.). Aside from the fact that there are no in-game ways to follow the proscriptions for the creation of animate dead, it’s still relatively consistent with the story descriptions of how necromancy works. There are even instructions on what NOT to do when preparing corpses for animation. Why the comparison with D&D? Because Necromancy is just a flavor of magic, rather than an actual school. Yet in the game system where there is an actual school, it feels more like just a flavor of magic. The difference is, in Morrowind, you know that there are individuals with those powers described, you simply don’t have/use/have the ability to acquire them; it’s simply a case of a disconnect between story and gameplay that has plenty of plausible, if not specifically spelled out, justification as to why that separation exists. In Dungeons & Dragons, the powers are just not there in the rules period. It requires assumptions to be made that things occur outside of the scope of the rules. Which is fine and well, but the important part is that YOU MUST MAKE IT CONSISTENT FOR YOUR WORLD.
So long as you can come up with a consistent explanation for why necromancy works the way it does in your setting despite the rules saying otherwise, you can make it work.
Personally, I like idea of accursed undead: places where a) really bad things happened and b) powerful magic items have remained for a long period of time would tend to be places where undead would ‘naturally’ occur. Of course this has another interesting implication: undead might be well likely to have powerful magic items. I like the idea that magic items have some intelligence to them. They might want to be protected or test worthy owners. Hence the undead act to guard and serve as a test for those who might want to acquire those items. Or the magic of the weapons simply runs of and mixes with the feelings and sufferings and anger of the inhabitants, and they are driven to rise and roam in that familiar place. Whatever. Run with what you like. Just make it make sense!
I might note that traffic has been down somewhat despite an inflated post count. I could attribute this to everyone being so busy with writing their own A-to-Z blogs that no one has time to read very many others, or there’s just a general drop-off of interest in Cirsova in general. Are there any topics anyone would be interested in this May? Any topics that might be driving traffic away?