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.