Today I’ll talk a little about the most problematic school of magic in the D20 System, and alternative ways to look at it. Also, for those who enjoy what I do here, I do have a Patreon, and any support to it enables me to keep working on this. Thanks to everyone who does offer their support!
Traditionally, necromancy is regarded as objectively evil. It isn’t hard to see why – the concept of a necromancer, actual Latin meaning set aside, is of a person who brings corpses to an eerie half-life, animate and able to fight and work but bereft of free will and – often – thought. They’re graverobbers and tomb-breakers, refusing to let the dead rest in peace. It’s the kind of thing typically associated with dark gods and deals with the forces of hell, certainly nothing anyone righteous or civilized would want to deal in.
The simple fact that raising the dead is defined as a universally evil act tends to limit the use of necrmancers in most games. Heroes don’t pal around with someone who packs walking corpses as luggage carriers and combat minions; they hunt such people down instead. This is all fine in the usual styles of play, and there are ways for PC necromancers to work around it, never actually raising a corpse to undeath or doing it and atoning afterwards.
I feel, however, that due to the strict moral rules of the system – raising the undead is an evil act, period – we’re missing out on some incredibly interesting potential characters. Say you have a necromancer who offers to arrange for proper funerary rites to honor the spirit of the deceased and who makes sure the family of the deceased has a decent payment, akin to life insurance, in exchange for the person’s body after they die. This still won’t be a good character, but they also don’t need to be evil; a neutral character who goes out of their way to ensure the spirit of their future zombie or skeleton is safely seen off to their final reward and who acquires the body in a straightforward and lawful manner could make for an incredibly interesting character. If they go and use the skeletons of the dead as unskilled labor in places that would be dangerous for the living – digging in mines, or being weighted down and sent across a river with guides to help build a bridge – it can be argued that it isn’t an evil act, whether or not it qualifies as a good one.
Or consider a necromancer who uses magic such as Speak With Dead to talk to the spirit of someone who was murdered, offering to raise their corpse and let them participate in bringing their killer to justice in that fashion. Given how often villains in the various D20 systems leave a path of corpses strewn behind them that rivals that of the PCs, there shouldn’t be a lack of volunteers. Throw in that the body will be laid to rest properly after the villain is brought to justice, and there’s no reason such a necromancer – who secures permission and seeks to honor the dead as best they can afterwards – couldn’t incline toward a good alignment despite necromancy being something inherently evil.
Of course, each of these necromancers could easily still be an evil person – the first one might secure the corpses in a perfectly legal fashion and then use their labor to drive a community into ruin, undercutting everything with the tireless efforts of the living dead; or use their perfectly lawfully obtained undead to form a private army; or desecrate the corpses after seeing the spirit off to give rise to some other kind of undead that is evil by default. The second might seek out the corpses of those who died with a grudge, making them more willing to agree to be raised if the necromancer offers them a chance for revenge, and the spirits might be talked into being bound into undeath as well in exchange for that same chance. An advanced zombie under the control of the ghost that once lived in it is liable to be rather alarming to encounter even if you aren’t the target of its drive of vengeance.
There are plenty of things where you could play a perfectly evil necromancer, but with a bit of a twist and some thought you can play one that’s at least neutral in alignment, if not leaning to being a good person looking to put their knowledge of the undead to a good use.
Unorthodox, but it might just be worth giving a shot. I wholly encourage you to do so the next time you think about rolling up a wizard or cleric.