On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
“Necromancy”—it’s a word weighed down with centuries of moral preconceptions, even in D&D. It drips with cultural memories of medieval satanism and wicked witches. So, in a game where most players embrace heroism and duty, why would Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) devote an entire school of magic to such an utterly evil pursuit? To be frank, they didn’t.
In Dungeons & Dragons, necromancy isn’t necessarily evil. Like all magic schools, its spells are tools: ethically neutral, available to casters of any alignment, and able to be used without any effect on a character’s morality (well, sort of).
For a further dive into the idea, read on!
What is the Official Opinion?
On this last point, even the Player’s Handbook seems to be of two minds:
- On page 118, it says: “The School of Necromancy explores the cosmic forces of life, death, and undeath…Most people see necromancers as menacing, or even villainous [but] not all necromancers are evil…”
- Then, on page 203, it rather contradictorily states that necromancy “is not a good act, and only evil characters can use such spells frequently.”
So, if Wizards can’t even make up their minds, what are we to think?
Ask most players, and they’ll condemn necromancers without a second thought. They’ll tell you about how their group once stopped a Lich or Daemonic Priest from flooding the earth with an endless horde of undead minions.
Far be it for me to defend the sort of person who harvests an entire countryside population for their maniacal schemes.
That same player, however, will often go on to tell you how lucky they were to have had a diamond on hand to revive their soul-drained barbarian, and they’ll neglect to consider that this, too, is necromancy.
We, as a community, have always seen the wickedness in this particular kind of magic but rarely acknowledged the good.
The Case for a Morally Neutral Necromancy
Even WOTC has pushed towards neutrality in magic, removing the alignment descriptions of individual spells in 5E. The ethics of casting Fireball lie within whether you fire it into a Goblin’s den or an orphanage. Why should Animate Dead be treated any differently?
Let’s see if there’s a case where Animate Dead isn’t utterly corrupt.
The text describes its effects as a “foul mimicry of life,” which isn’t a great place to start, but it does imply one thing: you aren’t actually wrenching the pacified souls of the dead back into the shambling bones and putrid flesh from which you mold your servants.
Your undead thralls aren’t technically sapient. They’re just fleshy robots that do your bidding. There’s a case to be made, then, that considerately sourced and responsibly utilized remains might not be damning.
Looking to challenge your players?
Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?
For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!
Consider this classic idea for an NPC—a member of the indentured class who has gained access to fell necromantic powers.
They use their powers exclusively to raise the corpses of fellow serfs who agreed to the procedure. These zombies are not used to swell the ranks of an army of darkness or even sent to inflict revenge upon the cruel feudal lord that worked them to death in the first place.
They only join their living counterparts in the fields, working tirelessly, needing no food nor sleep. With every additional reanimated laborer, the living peasants’ workload grows lighter. Soon, they could live lives as leisurely as their masters’.
Nobody’s agency has been violated.
No one’s soul has been tainted (except, arguably, the necromancer’s).
Any sin inherent in the ghoulish labor could be easily argued as the lesser of two evils when held up against the suffering of the masses, and this is the sort of conflict that leads to much more interesting player choices than “he cast the ‘bad guy spell,’ so we should kill him.”
Is our class-conscious necromancer immoral? Well, maybe. That’s up to the party to decide. All I’m saying is that it isn’t so cut-and-dried.
There’s room for player interpretation.
What 5e Spells Are Evil?
To be fair, there is some necromantic magic that is harder to defend:
- Blight withers and desiccates your enemies into dust.
- Contagion inflicts terrible disease.
- Vampiric Touch lets you sap the life out of unwilling targets.
Still, every spell school has its black sheep:
- Enchantment will give you access to Dominate Person, forcing others into your psychic slavery.
- Illusion lets you summon a Phantasmal Killer to murder the minds of your foes!
- Conjuration allows you to call forth the Arms of Hadar, opening a gateway into frigid darkness and unleashing an otherworldly horror that will unmake anyone in its grasp.
These “evil” spells, to me, don’t signify a barometer by which to condemn their respective schools as a whole but are instead secondary options that allow players to make evil characters with proportionately unsavory powers.
So, how do we redeem necromancy in the eyes of our players? An easy first step is to let them regularly benefit from its’ powers.
House Rules: Healing As Necromancy
It immediately bolsters the pretty thin spell list and mostly only steals from the already-overpacked Evocation school (Speaking of—what’s up with that? How in the heck is healing elemental?).
It also just makes sense. The PHB says, “necromancy spells manipulate the energies of life & death”. If that isn’t healing, I don’t know what is.
You could even make the God who grants clerics curative magic be the God of Death. That’s wonderfully complex and immediately grounds your world in a distinct cultural context.
Though, this is all academic if you’re a player with a DM who’s all-in on necromancy being pure evil. If that’s where you’re at, there’s only one way to move forward: lean into it.
Embrace the Darkness
As long as your DM & fellow players are cool with it, why not be a bad guy?
D&D is a risk-free space to explore the full breadth of human experience. Empathy is what role-playing is for, even empathy with the truly awful aspects of our common nature.
Just don’t be a jerk to the real-life people you’re playing with. I’m sure they’re nice, and they probably bring dope snacks.
- Necromancy is a valuable resource, provided that it’s taken at face value, and the baggage it’s collected over the years is considered as critically as any other aspect of our hobby.
- Like many things in this game, interesting play emerges when necromancy is treated not as wholly evil nor as entirely good—this would be just as boring (and explicitly contrary to the PHB).
- To find middle ground, we may need to bend some of the rules to fit our new expectations. Give necromancy some useful, respectable spells. Give the people of your world a complex relationship with death. Maybe even reshape your Gods to match the underlying philosophy.
- If all else fails, embrace the evil! Sometimes it’s fun to play bad guys.
Above all, make the choices that lead to everyone at the table having fun.
If another player hints that having to consider the ethical implications of slaying every cultist is a bummer, then ignore this article. Give them a world with the moral complexity of Tolkien and let them hack-‘n-slash to their heart’s content.
Don’t assume, however, that this is the default preference. I constantly challenge my players tactically, intellectually, and philosophically. They rarely disappoint.
Don’t underestimate your players; you may be missing out on a great deal of fun.