Magic Building #1: Necromancy
Updated: Mar 4
I've been looking forward to sinking my teeth into this series for a while, for a number of reasons! Firstly - I love taking core elements of DnD and flavouring them in a way that is fun and unique to different campaigns and settings, and the schools of magic are the perfect thing to do this with! Secondly, Wizards Of The Coast recently released a dossier on Vecna, who is probably one of the most famous Necromancers in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting! It is probably no accident that this very much lines up with the release of the newest season of Stranger Things given some elements of the plot within that show! All of this means that Necromancy has been very much on my radar as of late, and so I felt that it was the perfect school of magic to start with.
So what is Necromancy? Well interestingly, it comes from the latin nekrós (meaning 'dead body'), and mantía (meaning 'divination'), so the original meaning of the word referred to a form of fortune telling via the dead - communicating with spirits or receiving visions from them for example. Since then, the term has come to encompass any magic that involves corpses or the spirit world at all, including the manipulation, resurrection, or raising of dead bodies. This form of magic most likely evolved from Shamanism, which involves calling upon spirits or ancestral ghosts and communicating with them. There are records of these practices in many ancient cultures - Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman being just some. Homer's Odyssey records the first written account of Necromancy in which the sorceress Circe aids Odysseus in travelling to the Underworld and communicating with the dead their to gain insight into his impending voyage.
While these classical cultures may have considered communication with the dead par the course, and even useful at points, the bible warned Jews of the Hellenistic period against Necromancers or Bone-Conjurers. They considered it a violation against God and, under Mosaic law, anyone practicing it would receive the death penalty. It is probably from here that Death Magic or Black Magic began to get its rather nefarious reputation. As miracles such as resurrection became attributed to God only throughout the Medieval period, Necromancy became associated with summoning demons pretending to be spirits and was known as Maleficium, and condemned by the Catholic Church. It was seen as a blasphemous attempt at replicating the power of a God. The Renaissance period began to see some more conflicting ideas surrounding these practices which pointed out some of the hypocrisy around the prejudice against it. For example, practitioners utilised holy language and names in their spells so that they could easily be construed as prayers. Nowadays, elements of Necromancy can be found in occult practices and Spiritualism - séances, possession, ouija boards, and psychics or mediums are all interpretations of these ancient practices.
There are an outstanding number of references to Necromancy in popular culture, mostly referring to its more modern interpretation relating to evil, manipulation of the dead, and the pursuit of power. One such famous example arrives in the form of the Night King in Game Of Thrones who, along with his White Walker generals, resurrect those that they slaughter to amass a powerful army of undead. The Dragon Prince also has some great examples of necromantic magic - consuming the life force of a creature or oneself in order to fuel a magical effect. Many fantasy based video games reference Necromancy also - including Dragon Age, the Elder Scrolls series, Dark Souls, the Warcraft universe, and Diablo to name but a few. The book Pet Semetary by Stephen King gives a horrifying insight into what might happen if we did have our wish for pets or loved ones to return from the dead fulfilled. Some examples have even replaced magic with science or medicine to achieve the same effects, giving birth to a whole host of zombie movies, or movies such as Frankenweenie that play with Mary Shelley's original horror story, Frankenstein.
So how could the concept of Necromancy be included in your games then? Well, for the most part, people will often turn to the BBEG, or at least a minor boss. After all, the practice is often seen as defiling natural laws and so synonymous with evil. This could of course be a really fun way to go as there are plenty of amazing Undead creatures that a party could fight along the way to the final confrontation, and so many intriguing reasons for someone to have turned to such magic in the first place. But why do they have to be a villain? Why not your favourite new ally?
Let's start with some flavour then. I wanted to come up with a few thinking points for building your next Necromancer - especially regarding the magical flavouring! Whether you are planning the campaign's next villain, a unique NPC for your party to meet, or are even a player hoping to create a Necromancer to play, I hope you'll draw some inspiration from these ideas!
DESCRIPTION: When thinking of a Necromancer, I think of their physical description as a general 'vibe'. Perhaps their magic takes a toll on them in some way? Or some element of their get-up is surprising considering their favoured magic?
Everything about this character suggests control and authority. Their clothing neatly pressed, boots laced impeccably, chin held high, and not a single hair out of place. They regard everything with a solemn, steely gaze. One hand is covered by a glove worn at all times.
Wearing colourful, bright, frilly clothing and with a loud personality to match. Outspoken, even a little obnoxious at times, but they are charming in many ways. They enjoy the flamboyance and theatrics that come from manipulation of the dead.
Exceptionally polite and respectful in everything they do, they are softly spoken and detail-oriented. No matter how dire the situation, they remain calm. Their clothes lack intricate detailing of any kind, remaining plain and uninspiring.
They wear ragged, unkempt clothing covered with holes and tears. It is dark and form-fitting, and they carry themselves with an air of unhinged swagger wherever they go. Occasionally, one of their teeth, nails, or a clump of hair will fall out which they will cast aside with mild irritation. It grows back quickly.
Riddled with scars, including one across their eye, they pick at them absent-mindedly. Especially if they are agitated. They have a nervous demeanour for the most part - almost as if they fear the consequences of disturbing the dead from their slumber.
They speak very few words and struggle to move about, plagued with a hacking cough and laboured breathing. Despite their physical frailty, their demeanour exudes power and their clothing is of exceptionally high quality.
MOTIVATION: What drives the character to choose Necromancy of all things? Why that magic type? This is a really interesting question that can inform their backstory massively! I have kept their motivations vague so that they can be reworked to suit both an evil or good mindset.
Their own experiences with the loss of their loved ones fuels them to experiment with necromancy to hopefully bring them back.
They seek answers on what lies beyond their mortal lives, and feel they can only gain this knowledge from the dead, who have direct experience with it.
They commune with the deceased in order to impress and amaze their peers, console those who are grieving, and perhaps garner a reputation in the process.
They see corpses as little more than a useful tool that can aid them in their work or lifelong ambition.
Their mastery over the dead is little more than an accident, and an unwelcome one at that.
They are fascinated by the macabre and so the ability to manipulate it was exceptionally appealing. They like the sense of dread it inspires in people, and making people uncomfortable.
UNIQUE FLAVOUR: So what about the magic itself? Describing what happens when your character casts spells or uses their abilities is all part of the fun!
The sounds of distant, unintelligible whispers fills the air. Every so often, words can be made out in different languages. Perceptive players could make out a sentence that describes an event that is yet to come.
The caster approaches each spell as a ritual of sorts and likes to use tools - tarot cards, bones, ouija boards, etc. to perform their magic. No matter how loud the environment, silence momentarily falls over the caster's surroundings as their spell takes place.
Each time the caster performs a spell, their hair begins to turn white and dies. When it grows back, it is its usual colour again unless the magic is exceptionally powerful.
The caster's eyes become black and necromantic energy swirls around them, accompanied by the faint sound of screaming.
Spirits surround the caster and momentarily become visible when the caster performs their magic. They carry out the intent of each spell for the caster.
While the spell is being cast, all plant life dies within the surrounding area, only to bloom and flourish once more once the spell is over. If they are using necromantic magic to drain life from something, the opposite effect is seen.
MINIONS/COMPANIONS: I absolutely LOVE giving my NPCs pets, or companions, and a Necromancer would be absolutely no different. In fact, the familiar they might find themselves with would be very interesting indeed!
The caster likes to surround themselves with dead things that in life would have been loved but now horrify. Beloved pets and animals, now zombified though just as tame.
A single Undead giant (perhaps an Ogre, or a Troll) or Mummy of some kind acts as a mindless bodyguard to the caster.
This caster prefers quantity over quality - hordes of skeletons, zombies, and/or spirits protect them. They have very little attachment to them.
Their closest confidante is a spectral servant of sorts. It is relatively powerful when it needs to be, but mostly busies itself with chores and the organisation of other unseen servants.
A group of small, child-like Undead are at the caster's beck and call. They don't speak or interact with anyone, though they seem intelligent with distinct personalities.
The caster rides a skeletal horse wherever it goes, which they treat as their lifelong companion.
LAIR/HOME: Everyone has to live somewhere, or at least have a preferred 'spot'. A villain might have a favoured lair, while a hero a beloved home. Here are some suggestions!
A hut in the middle of a nearby swamp, known by the nearby village to belong to the caster. The residents have very mixed feelings about its resident and their particular magic.
A grand Manor House with very ornate, gothic decoration both inside and out. People often whisper about strange sounds coming from the house during the night.
A cave decorated with bones and parts of various animals. Odd scribblings cover the walls with various prophecies of the future, some of which have already come true.
A tower in a very secluded area of the world, with no signs of plant life or fauna for miles around. The area has an odd magical energy to it, and performing any kind of magic within it has the chance of triggering a necromantic effect.
In a long forgotten graveyard, undisturbed by other people. The various crypts, graves, and tombs are something of a playground for the caster and its inhabitants their companions.
In an unassuming cottage surrounded by flowers and colour and life. The insides are impeccably clean, even cosy, and the only sign that any necromantic magic takes place here is the very slight smell of decay masked by the sickly sweet scent of baked goods.
It is also a good idea to have a think about your world's stance on Necromancy as well as that of your individual Necromancer. It is a relatively controversial school of magic with some potentially very dark links, so it could be an interesting theme to explore. Perhaps your world, or at least a city or two, has banished it in any and all forms. Those found practicing it would certainly face some kind of retribution...but WHY has it been banned? Maybe your world has no qualms with magic that manipulates the dead. But then, perhaps a force beyond the Material Plane DOES have an issue with its use, or even may seek to use it for ill gain.
What does Necromancy even mean in your world? The spells that it covers in core DnD content have a variety of effects. Spells like speak with dead evoke the original meaning of the word - communing with the dead to seek some kind of knowledge or answers. Beyond that, the effects can be split into a few different categories - manipulation of corpses and spirits (e.g. spirit shroud, animate dead, dance macabre, create undead); the restoration of a soul within a body, or life energy (e.g. revivify, raise dead, resurrection); and the harm or draining of a creature or area's life energy (e.g. chill touch, blight, circle of death). It is certainly fun to imagine a world where maybe some of these types of Necromancy are more acceptable than others!
When it comes to creating characters, I'd certainly recommend a few different stat blocks dependant on the tier of play that your party may be at:
Vellynne Harpell (CR 4): From Icewind Dale: Rime Of The Frostmaiden, Vellynne is a good example of a lower level Necromancer that may help or hinder players at lower levels.
Deathlock Mastermind (CR 8): Bound as Warlocks to their patrons, this stat block has access to quite a few Necromantic abilities. There is also the original Deathlock (CR 4) stat block too for lower levels, both found in Monsters Of The Multiverse.
Necromancer Wizard (CR 9): A great generic stat block, also from Monsters Of The Multiverse. There are some great spells and abilities themed around Necromancy with this one!
Lich (CR 21): A bit of a jump, but we are looking at a much higher tier of play now. A Lich is basically DnD's answer to when a Necromancer takes things too far and becomes Undead themselves. They are incredibly powerful and there are a lot of different kinds!
Vecna the Archlich (CR 26): The Necromancer of the hour, this stat block delivered in The Vecna Dossier is one of an ascended deity, and will be a tough challenge or an incredibly powerful ally. There are a number of cool magic items associated with Vecna too that are well worth a look!
Necromancy or Death Magic can also be found in a variety of character classes, and I'll briefly list them here:
Barbarian (Path Of The Zealot)
Bard (College Of Spirits)
Cleric (Death Domain)
Cleric (Grave Domain)
Druid (Circle Of Spores)
Monk (Way Of The Long Death)
Warlock (The Undead)
Warlock (The Undying)
Wizard (School Of Necromancy)
All of these can be well flavoured to be the result of, or be linked to Necromancy in really interesting ways. I would encourage anyone building a PC associated with Death Magic to think outside of the box!
And there we have it! I've had a blast coming up with ways to incorporate a Necromancer into your games, as well as how the magic itself could be flavoured within a fantasy setting based on its real-world context. Have you ever played one or incorporated one into your game? Let me know!