Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Being a Bard can be a lot of fun. These spellcasters can turn their hands to just about anything with the right build and have a variety of subclasses designed to support this utility.
Unfortunately, D&D 5e can’t provide a subclass for everything. Although the game overflows with vibrant subclasses that bring unique perspectives and ways to play the core classes, there’s no way 5e can account for all the possible archetypes of spellcasters and weapon-wielders that live in the various genres of fantasy.
Bardic necromancers are one such hole in the dozens of subclasses (not to mention all of the Unearthed Arcana subclasses still in development) that D&D 5e offers. Even though D&D 5e doesn’t provide an official subclass for Bards who want a guaranteed audience (dead or alive), with a little bit of creative character-building, you can make a decent necromancer out of the class.
If the idea of merging the core concepts of a Bard and a necromancer appeals to you, either for mechanical utility or the sheer flavor of playing haunting melodies that command the dead, then this article will be perfect for you.
There’s no need to homebrew; D&D comes with all the rules you need to develop your own Bardic necromancer despite not having the appropriate subclass. As for the flavor, that’s entirely up to you (though I do have several suggestions).
Let’s start with the core features you’ll want to use for your Bard necromancer. Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that given the aim of necromancy, the best subclass to pick would be the College of Spirits.
That option is certainly tempting, especially with its 6th-level feature that allows you to, on a long rest, temporarily learn any spell from the schools of Necromancy or Divination.
However, while the school offers a decent amount of versatility, only a single kind of necromancy spell a day is rather limiting.
Instead, I recommend going with the College of Lore for its additional magical secrets at 6th level. With two extra spells from any class’s spell list, you can pick up some reliable necromantic spells and then use your 10th-level Magical Secrets ability for some useful support spells.
With your necromantic spells and general Bard abilities, you’ll be able to put up a respectable necromantic front complete with undead minions.
There are several good options for spells gained from magical secrets at levels 6, 10, 14, and 18. When picking your options for necromancy, however, you should be prioritizing spells that let you create or control undead minions.
For everything else, the Bard already has some decent necromancy spells.
Here are some of the best choices, though, of course, you have some freedom with these.
Animate Dead (3rd Level)
This iconic undead minion-generating spell is pretty much a must-have for aspiring necromancers.
The spell creates a permanent undead, though after 24 hours you lose control of it and must cast the spell again to reassert control. At higher levels, you can create multiple undead.
Summon Undead (3rd Level)
While the undead summoned by this spell only last an hour, this is still an excellent spell for creating undead minions.
You can summon a ghost, skeleton, or a putrid, which is some kind of flesh monster. Plus the spirit gets noticeably more powerful as you use higher-level spell slots for the spell, making this a useful spell at several levels.
Aura of Vitality (3rd Level)
While this isn’t a necromancy spell, Aura of Vitality can be a great choice for necromancers. The spell lasts for 1 minute, requires concentration, and lets you use a Bonus Action to heal a creature inside its 30-foot radius for 2d6 hit points.
The spell is best used out of combat where you can get a solid 20d6 points of healing.
What makes this spell great for necromancers is that it is one of the few spells in 5e that is capable of healing undead. Pairing this spell with your minions is great for improving their survivability between combats.
Danse Macabre (5th Level)
Once you hit 10th level, you’ll be able to grab this spell, which lets you animate up to five small or medium corpses. The corpses last until the spell ends (up to 1 hour, concentration), and casting the spell at higher levels lets you reanimate further corpses.
While requiring concentration does limit this spell, having five undead instantly on hand in addition to whatever other undead you have summoned can make you a formidable force.
Negative Energy Flood (5th Level)
This spell deals 5d12 necrotic damage on a failed save to a target creature. A creature killed by this spell rises as a zombie, though it is not under your control.
You can also target an undead creature who will be healed for half of 5d12.
The spell isn’t quite as powerful as a 5th-level spell should be, and you might not want to pick it up as one of your few magical secrets. However, it is a versatile spell, and you might find it useful and worth it.
Finger of Death (7th Level)
This is the ultimate necromancy spell for generating and controlling undead, and if you make it to a high-enough level to acquire and cast it, it’s a must-have.
The spell does 7d8 + 30 necrotic damage to a target creature on a failed Constitution save or half on a successful save. A humanoid creature killed by this spell, regardless of the outcome of the save, rises as a zombie at the start of your next turn permanently under your control.
That means, with downtime and sacrifices, you can straightforwardly create an endless zombie army. Definitely grab this spell if you can.
This Bardic necromancer build isn’t dependent on feats like other builds, but there is a feat I recommend taking if you can afford to sacrifice the ASI.
Inspiring Leader lets you take 10 minutes to grant up to six creatures temporary hit points equal to your level + your Charisma modifier. These temporary hit points are great for providing survivability to your allies and undead minions. Plus, your Charisma modifier is already going to be excellent, so this feat works especially well with the Bardic necromancer build.
While you can definitely play a respectable necromancer as a pure Bard, you might also decide to dip into other classes to enhance your necromantic powers.
Obviously, the only choice here is a necromancy Wizard. Access to the Wizard’s expanded spell list plus necromancy subclass features can greatly expand the potential of your Bardic necromancer.
That said, you might be playing a Bard specifically so you don’t have to be a Wizard to do necromancy.
In that case, or if you simply want other options, I have to recommend dipping into Paladin. While this might seem like an odd option, the Paladin’s combat and support-centered abilities can gel very well with the additional allies the necromantic approach grants you.
While the tactics of a necromancer seem simple (toss as many disposable undead minions as you can at your enemies), there are actually three important techniques to keep in mind that will make you much more effective.
Firstly, as hinted in some of the previous sections, your support abilities as a Bard (or other classes you might dip into) can be quite powerful when used to support your undead minions.
However, I hear you asking, “Why not just use those abilities on your regular allies?”
Well, the second tactic to keep in the mind is that undead minions are much more than additional ways of dealing damage. They also serve as damage sponges; every attack that hits one of your minions is damage that isn’t being dealt to your party members. It’s basically like additional healing!
This is why using support abilities on your undead can be more effective than helping your party members. Keeping those undead alive to absorb more damage means even more health that your allies can keep to themselves.
Other than these two points, however, using your minions to straightforwardly attack your enemies is still pretty effective. To keep your undead effective, however, you’ll want to arm them appropriately. Skeletons are proficient with short swords and short bows as detailed in their stat block. Therefore, arming your undead with even simple weaponry will drastically improve their damage potential.
Finally, let’s talk briefly about some ways to add some flavor to your Bardic necromancer.
Playing a Bardic necromancer will be a lot more fun if you unite the respective themes of your build rather than treating them separately. Instead of being a Bard who dabbles in skeletal minions, use your performance abilities as a channel for your magic.
Raise the dead with a pounding drumbeat that mimics the creature’s forgotten heartbeat, or summon spectral spirits with compelling eulogies that bring these undead back across the veil.
By mixing your Bard’s theatrical tastes with the magic used to create zombies, you can add unique flavor to an otherwise grim magic. Whether your tastes lean toward Jackson’s Thriller or a haunting dance of skeletons, bringing Bardic performances into your method for undead control can make for a deeply flavorful character uncommon in the Forgotten Realms.
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Growing up I spent most of my time reading, so when I first started playing RPGs in middle school and got a copy of DnD 3.5’s rules I loved their collaborative take on storytelling. These days I like to use RPGs to develop my creative problem-solving skills as well.