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?  

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.