Diablo 3 recently released their latest expansion to the franchise with the new Necromancer pack. Inside, you have the new Necromancer hero class, along with new areas to explore, and much more. I thought back to the oldest evil villain trope: the evil Necromancer and his undead horde was always enjoyable though nowadays overused and sometimes mundane in comparison. There are plenty of players who played Dungeons & Dragons who love the idea of casting spells from the school of Necromancy but always felt that there was a darker aspect that was strong along with it. A stigma that heralds back from the earliest iterations of the game, how Necromancy has evolved since, and where that leads us now.
Necromancy – Evil or Misunderstood?
The school of necromancy is an often misunderstood, as dealing with death and life can sometimes possess negative connotations. Typically, animating the dead or effects that cause instantaneous death is perceived as evil. Necromancy spells were never tagged as evil until D&D 3rd Edition, for even iconic spells like Finger of Death in AD&D weren’t even Necromancy spells. Under the 3.5 rules, evil spells were either only cast by evil spellcasters, or if cast by good-aligned characters, they would slowly become corrupted by the vile magics. This was thematically challenging for players wishing to play either good-aligned necromancers. If these players wanted to use necromancy for the service of others, often times they were neutral alignment in some fashion; for example, followers of Wee Jas typically were Lawful Neutral. In the Forgotten Realms, Kelemvor’s alignment settled within Lawful Neutral as well. The emphasis was placed on maintaining a delicate balance between life and death, hating the undead, and spreading the word that death wasn’t terrible. Of course, you had deities that were evil and were in full support of necromancy and death; gods like Nerull, Myrkul, and Velsharoon.
4th Edition introduced Necromancy for the Wizard in Heroes of Shadow, that replicated many of the aspects that seem renowned for a student of this school. They could summon shadow servants, animate the dead, cast iconic spells like circle of death and finger of death. Unfortunately, I personally got around to playing this particular Wizard build, but on paper, it looks great and models after the traditional tropes of having hordes of undead servants.
Depending on your setting, some necromancy spells can be attributed as being of evil intent, but honestly, I never believed in a spell being inherently evil. Unless we’re going back to 3.5 with the Book of Vile Darkness, then we can say “yes, there are such things as evil spells.” That’s a separate discussion for another time, but personally, I do believe an entire school of magic to inherent evil. It’s use and implementation can be perceived as evil but like many things in life, “it’s how you use it.” Now, 5th Edition does not have label spells as evil or good like previous versions, so realistically, you can have a good-aligned necromancer character if you want. Especially if this character seeks to lay the dead to rest, to free the spirits from dark forces, and preserve life against foul necrotic energies. Don’t discount the great roleplaying potential that can come from such a unique perspective of this kind of magic, it’s an avenue seldom explored and warrants a good playthrough.
Necromancer Build #1 – Worshippers of Death and the Dead
Our first Necromancer build follows the concept of a Cleric of a God of Death or the Dead. Generally, such deities have possession of powerful necromantic spells, and some include the ability to animate the dead. Most of our builds focus on just animate dead and create undead but also other offensive/defensive necromancy spells and their related class features. For clerics, there are no present player options other than the Death domain in the Dungeon Master’s Guide pg. 96-97.
Let’s break down the pros & cons of a straight 20th-level Death domain Cleric.
- Access to animate dead & create undead.
- Reaper and Improved Reaper allows multiple targets with necromancy spells.
- Inescapable Destruction is a feature that allows Channel Divinity and spells to ignore necrotic damage resistance.
- Access to medium armor, with a shield for a potential AC around 18 (before enchantments).
- The caster can self themselves, improving their longevity in combat situations.
- Can buff undead horde with spells like aid, bless, protection from energy
- Access to harm spell (the spell deals an average of 49 necrotic damage, on a failed save, the creature’s max hit points is reduced by the damage dealt)
- Access to resurrection and true resurrection spells (yes, they are necromancy spells)
- Inescapable Destruction does not affect necrotic damage immunity or include the Death domain’s Divine Strike damage.
- No offensive necromancy spells after 6th-level (which includes create undead and harm).
- No features rewarding the creation of undead hordes.
Necromancer Build #2 – Student of the Necromancy tradition
Another traditional route is the studious wizard who dabbled into the dark magics of necromancy. Your stereotypical mad wizard or undead lich sometimes will specialize in this particular school and tradition. Like the cleric, there are some similar spells granted to both classes, but the wizard has far more utility and a variety of necromancy spells.
Let’s go through a 20th-level Necromancy Wizard:
- Access to animate dead & create undead.
- Necromancy Savant means that the wizard can learn every Necromancy spell at the cost of gold and time
- Grim Harvest encourages use of Necromancy school spells to gain healing effects, boosting survival
- Ability to resist necrotic damage at 10th level
- More thralls! The only class feature to grant more undead per casting and they’re beefier
- Signature Spell means Animate Dead can be cast once for free at 3rd-level, which combined with the Undead Thralls feature, means 2 skeletons/zombies for free.
- Spell Mastery is great for keeping defensive spells like shield and misty step at will and don’t have to worry about expending higher spell slots.
- Access to powerful necromancy spells like eyebite, finger of death, magic jar, horrid wilting (EE), and clone.
- Command Undead class feature. Enemy cleric creates undead? Steal theirs and use it against them.
- Little access to defensive measures, Armor Class is often an issue
- Smaller hit dice (d6 compared to a d8 from the Cleric)
- Cannot heal themselves other than through the Grim Harvest feature
- Spellbook, it’s a weakness because if the Necromancer loses it, they cannot prepare future spells and must spend gold to recreate it
The wizard has less downside and way more upside with its variety of necromancy spells. Magic Jar and clone are powerful contingency spells for players, better served to evil NPCs more but nonetheless, these spells can lead to hilarious situations. The wizard has access to far more damage dealing necromancy spells, finger of death on average deals 61.5 damage, which is far more deadly than harm from the cleric’s side. Horrid Wilting can deal quite a bit of damage as well, averaging 45 necrotic damage per casting on a 30-foot cube space. While this particular focuses more on the undead horde than casting powerful death spells, these iconic spells are far stronger than their cleric counterparts. With the Undead Thralls feature, all the undead created via animate dead have a hit point maximum increased by the wizard’s level and they add the wizard’s proficiency bonus to damage rolls. Animate Dead also targets another pile of bones or corpse when casting under this feature, so it’s two targets which mean two zombies/skeletons at 3rd level. If this Necromancy Wizard chose Animate Dead as its Signature Spell, then they can cast it for free without expending a spell slot at the 3rd level. So two free zombies mostly. If we had this wizard cast animate dead using a 9th-level spell slot, the undead horde would be two (at 3rd-level) plus 12 more (two undead per spell slot above 3rd) which be 14 undead creatures at the necromancer’s control. Unfortunately, the Undead Thralls feature does not apply to the create undead spell, which can be quite powerful as well when used at the 9th-level spell slot.
Necromancer Build #3 – Lord of Death
So for our final conceptual Necromancer build, we’re going to take everything we know about the Necromancer and blend it all together into something fierce. We want to maximize on the undead generation while providing an array of powerful necromancy spells in their arsenal.
For this build, we are going for a Death Domain Cleric 6/Necromancy school Wizard 14.
Things to consider with this build:
- Multiclassing rules result in a 20th-level spellcaster with spell slots of such a character
- The Cleric portion can only prepare up to 3rd level spells, and the Wizard can know up to 7th level spells in their spellbooks.
- Death Domain clerics gain proficiency with a martial weapon, perfect for Nine Live Stealer longswords
- This Necromancer can wear armor and bear a shield, providing ample protection for the caster.
- We only get the Reaper feature for cantrips and not the Improved Reaper for our spells. So spare the dying is a good choice here, since the Wizard can pick up the slack with chilling touch. Note that this feature does not state cleric spells, so under RAW, the Wizard portion casting chilling touch should apply with this feature.
- While the Channel Divinity: Touch of Death feature loses some potency, it still can deal 17 points of necrotic damage per expenditure, which isn’t too horrific. The reason we chose 6th-level cleric was for the extra Channel Divinity between rests.
- Inescapable Destruction only works with vampiric touch (from the domain), inflict wounds, and spirit guardians (for evil necromancers) in this build since it specifically mentions cleric spells. BUT you can cast these spells at higher spell levels, so it can still be compelling applications. A 7th-level inflict wounds spell deals 9d10 (or 49.5) necrotic damage on a melee spell attack, which is not as high as a 6th-level harm spell that deals just a little less, and definitely not as powerful as a 7th-level finger of death. But when you really want your necrotic damage to not be prevented, it’s not a terrible trade off.
- We do lose out the Divine Strike with the extra necrotic damage, but honestly, we make up for it with powerful Wizard utility and offensive spells.
- We still retain access to some of the most destructive necromancy spells in the game like eyebite and finger of death.
- It’s advised that this particular Necromancer uses their 9th-level slot for create undead to have two mummy allies and use an 8th-level slot to cast animate dead, the Undead Thralls feature grants twelve zombies/skeleton allies. Between the mummy rot and skeletons, that is a formidable squad of undeath. This leaves the remaining slots at 7th-level and below for free reign and usage. The undead created from animate dead gain 14 hit points on their maximum hit points, and gain the +6 proficiency bonus from a 20th-level character.
- The biggest loss would come from the Improved Reaper feature as we cannot target multiple creatures. But there are other methods to mitigate that problem but at the cost of spells known.
There are many different ways to build a Necromancer, it all depends on your gameplay focus. A Cleric 17/Sorcerer 3 is pretty potent for a necrotic damage dealing engine of destruction for example. You can do Cleric 2/Sorcerer 4/Wizard 14 to the build to incorporate Spell Points and Metamagic elements. However you wish to create your Necromancer, understand how the features affect your spells and playstyle, and you’ll have a grand ole time being the living avatar of death.
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