N – Necromancy

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?  

8 responses to “N – Necromancy

  1. I like reading what you have to say about magic, gaming, and TSE. That’s me though, I can’t speak for anyone else. 😉

    It might simply be the nature of the writing challenges. I noticed when I tried one either last month or the month before, there was a sharp drop in site traffic. I’m afraid challenges might actually turn away readers…


    • Thanks! And maybe. I’ve been trying to write the same stuff I would normally write, just fitting a bit more of the breakneck pace that the challenge. I do feel like (and judging by my statistics, this is probably true) at least half of my traffic comes from people curious about MYFAROG, since I’m the only person who really blogged about it any. There’s really not a lot more to say about it, though, until it gets closer to release, and even then I don’t want to beat it to death.

      I’m finally going to get to run my B/X game starting this friday maybe, so that ought to give me some decent post-fodder. I’m sticking with my plan of dropping 6-8 retro-clone modules into an original setting and let the players sandbox around with a loose narrative timeline to give me some breathing room.

  2. What a good point about necromancy! In some ways, it has to be prevalent to give the clerics something to do with all of their anti-undead abilities, but… to the extent that they are used as fodder? Not likely.

    I love the comparison to Diablo 2… but at least in Diablo 2, your characters could actually build their own army of undead that was well into the double digits. Never actually did so (afraid for my computer’s processing power at the time…) but knowing it was there does make it all a bit more realistic.

    And yes, artifacts, and intelligent ones at that, are the sort of answer that makes sense for the dungeon master to turn to!

    On the other note, I have found your blog because of the A to Z challenge, so I don’t know. I have a pretty well-read blog (http://comparativegeeks.wordpress.com/) that has kept up pretty good numbers this month, and lots of commenting (one benefit of having bloggers stop by). My other blog is generally a ghost town (http://dbcii.com/) and has seen a huge spike… easily my best month ever. I guess maybe the challenges might hinder an established blog, but are great help for a more minor blog. The hope is to be able to do a challenge and keep steady throughout… halfway through, good luck!

    • Thanks! Yeah, at least the presence of characters who could create lots of low-level undead quickly and whenever definitely explains how there could be so many.

      As for clerics’ turning, that’s one of the most frustrating mechanical parts of D&D. Yes, it gives the clerics something unique and powerful to do offensively, but it’s such an ill-defined mechanic (what’s the range? what’s the duration? how many times can a cleric turn? Can it be spammed?) that it’s a huge pain in the butt to try to implement at the table.

      • Clerics and their powers in general can end up working like that… at any point, for a strong story or character reason, they should be able to do more than the rules say they can anyway. With direct intervention by their deity. R.A. Salvatore uses this in the Cleric Quintet, with a cleric channeling ridiculous reserves of divine energy, and aging unnaturally as he does so. But he does build a giant temple…

      • I think D&D tried to remedy this in splatbooks and in 2e in particular with “Quest Spells” that are absurdly powerful and to be given out at the DM’s discretion. The problem there is that it’s essentially trying to codify what DMs were doing anyway in a way that restricts rather than opens.

        Of course, it always depends on the nature of Divine magic in the setting. As far back as Holmes’ bluebook edition, it was debatable as to whether Clerics had holy powers or if they were simply a specialized type of Magic User who had figured out how to tap into magic in a different way. 3e’s Sorcerer class exacerbates this by having a MU class function similar to a Cleric in terms of casting. And given that all clerics, regardless of their deity, are able to cast the same spells from the same list means that either all in-game religions are essentially equal or it’s not their gods granting them powers but their order itself. The latter makes more sense than that gods would be so arbitrary in the favor of their servants when their power to intervene is indeed unquestionable.

  3. As a DM I’ve always been a bit frustrated with necromancy too. It just doesn’t work the way it should. Summoning lesser undead should be something they do early on, even if they only last for a little while.

    I’ve also noticed a bit of a drop in view to my blog, which doesn’t make much sense. Can’t tell you why… I thought maybe it was my theme for the month…

    • Blog fans, they are fickle.

      As for necromancy, I think that there ought to be some sort of function of how many hit dice of undead a necromancer should be able to create over a period of time. Maybe 1 HD per month per level, so long as the body parts are available.

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