Necromancers are easily one of the most iconic archetypes in all of fantasy.
There’s nothing quite so spine-chilling as the black-clad sorcerer raising their arms above their head and saying, in a voice like the grinding of two tombstones against one another, “Rise, my children… Rise. Rise! Rise!!!”.
The ground begins to tremble, skeletal fingers push through cold earth, and the dead rise to obey their dark master’s command. Lightning flashes – you know, for effect.
Yet, while dark masters and mistresses of undeath are an enduring trope in fantasy, bringing that picture in your head to life at the gaming table is actually a lot harder than you might think.
In fact, the rules of Dungeons & Dragons 5e as written seem thoroughly reluctant to align with the fantasy of the classic necromancer.
This is partly because – hot take incoming – there is no necromancer class or subclass.
Necromancy is a school of magic in D&D 5e, and neither the wizard studying the school of necromancy, nor the death domain cleric, nor the circle of spores druid is actually a very good necromancer – at least in that classic fantasy sense of a commander of undead legions.
There’s this dissonance that exists between what I imagine in my head when I think about playing a necromancer and what a necromancer actually feels like to play.
That’s not to say that you can’t achieve the desired end result (stick around for some hot tips on raising literally thousands of skeletons) but the process is fiddly, cumbersome, and can lead to undermining the end result in a way that I don’t think is true of literally any other classic pillar of fantasy represented in D&D.
Want to be the Conan the Barbarian-esque hero? There’s a whole class for that.
Want to play the dextrous, nimble thief? D&D has you covered.
Want to hold dominion over death itself? Ehhh… I mean, yeah. But you’re going to want to buy a day planner.
The necromancer is what I call a duck build (not a duck-billed): implacable, unstoppable, unbearably cool on the surface (I may be over-hyping ducks for the purpose of this analogy but bear with me) and paddling away furiously underneath the water.
Basically, the classic fantasy of a dark mage raising a shambling horde of undead to overrun the world of the living is achievable.
It just takes so much planning, time management, and money that you’re likely to either forget one or more of the crucial spell timings and get eaten alive when half your army turns against you, or find yourself tearing your hair out surrounded by half-animated corpses, struck by the realization that this just isn’t fun anymore.
I think that’s the core of it actually, at least for the way that I play D&D. Trying to be a necromancer doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. I love the idea of it, sure, but the execution? Eh.
I imagine this is largely because D&D’s designers don’t actually want you to fulfil that classic necromancer fantasy. Or maybe they want to remind you that the rules of life and death aren’t to be flouted lightly.
Few things feel more like you’re finding ways to abuse the rules of D&D than working out an elaborate series of timings and amassing the right number of incredibly rare and expensive magic items so that, over the course of a year, you can raise more than 7,000 undead minions.
Maybe that’s the point: the rules of life and death may bend on a daily basis in D&D, but if you want to break them with style and scale, you have to earn it.
However, while raising and maintaining an army of darkness can – ironically – feel a bit like being buried alive, I’m here to tell you that there’s more than one way to sow the desiccated flesh back onto a skinned cat.
First, however, because necromancy is much more of a school of magic than any particular class, let’s take a closer look at some of the spells that are a must-have for anyone who wants to conquer death itself.
Necromantic Magic: A User’s Guide
There are 41 necromancy spells in D&D 5e, with applications that range from inflicting horrendous damage or even healing your allies, to hindering your enemies, and (of course) raising the dead.
Before we go through the three different types of necromancer you can play below, here’s a list of the ten most useful spells that anyone looking to meddle in the natural order of things can find a use for.
Spare the Dying (Cantrip)
You touch a living creature that has 0 hit points. The creature becomes stable. This spell has no effect on undead or constructs. It’s only a small step towards commanding life and death itself, but it’s a start.
Animate Dead (3rd Level)
One of the true core abilities when it comes to a classic necromancer build. This spell allows you to create a single undead servant from a pile of bones (which creates a skeleton) or a corpse (which raises a zombie).
If you upcast this spell, you get an extra minion per spell slot level above third. Also, if you choose a school of necromancy wizard, you’re also going to get a bonus minion every time you cast this spell for free.
The minions you raise are under your command and you can use a bonus action to mentally direct them wherever you please. The big catch, however, is that the undead you raise are only under your control for 24 hours, at which point you need to burn another use of this spell to reassert control over up to four undead.
If you can’t do this (or just forget), the undead don’t stop being undead – they just no longer recognize your authority or desperate pleas for mercy.
Revivify (3rd Level)
You touch a creature that has died within the last minute. That creature returns to life with 1 hit point. This spell can’t return to life a creature that has died of old age, nor can it restore any missing body parts.
Nothing like pulling an ally back from the brink of death at the last second. Of course, the chances that any necromancer worth their salt would use this eldritch defibrillator as a form of, ahem, enhanced interrogation, are definitely around 100%.
Speak with Dead (3rd Level)
If communing with those who have passed on is more your necromancer’s speed, then this spell is going to be the heart of your build. ou grant the semblance of life and intelligence to a corpse of your choice within range, allowing it to answer the questions you pose.
The corpse must still have a mouth and can’t be undead. The spell fails if the corpse was the target of this spell within the last 10 days.
Until the spell ends, you can ask the corpse up to five questions. The corpse knows only what it knew in life, including the languages it knew.
Answers are usually brief, cryptic, or repetitive, and the corpse is under no compulsion to offer a truthful answer if you are hostile to it or it recognizes you as an enemy.
This spell doesn’t return the creature’s soul to its body, only its animating spirit. Thus, the corpse can’t learn new information, doesn’t comprehend anything that has happened since it died, and can’t speculate about future events.
The lack of ability to speculate about the future is a pretty nasty drawback, but this is still an incredibly useful way to gather knowledge from beyond the veil.
Summon Undead (3rd Level)
You can summon a single undead spirit that is either Ghostly, Putrid, or Skeletal and has different nasty abilities depending on its type. The higher the level at which you cast this spell, the more dangerous the undead you summon.
Raise Dead (5th Level)
A much more robust version of Revivify, Raise Dead allows you to return a dead creature you touch to life, provided that it has been dead no longer than 10 days.
If the creature’s soul is both willing and at liberty to rejoin the body, the creature returns to life with 1 hit point and a brutal hangover.
Create Undead (6th Level)
Now things are starting to get spooky. You can only cast this spell at night. You choose up to three corpses of Medium or Small humanoids and each one becomes a ghoul under your control.
Now, the most interesting bit about this spell is that, when you cast it at higher levels, you can create more powerful undead. If you cast this spell using a 9th level spell slot, you can animate or reassert control over six ghouls, three ghasts or wights, or two mummies.
The wights are a particularly interesting choice, as each one can raise up to 12 undead itself, meaning your army of darkness starts to develop a real chain of command.
Finger of Death (7th Level)
Not only is this spell a fantastically cool way to dish out a ton of necrotic damage (7d8 + 30 to be specific), but any humanoid you kill with this spell rises 24 hours later as a zombie permanently under your command.
Astral Projection (9th Level)
You can transport the astral bodies of yourself and up to eight willing creatures into the Astral Plane. Perfect for a spooky seance or a mission to track down a powerful spirit and fight it on its home turf.
True Resurrection (9th Level)
The ultimate goal of necromancy. True Resurrection lets you conquer death. Just touch a creature that has been dead for no longer than 200 years and that died for any reason except old age.
If the creature’s soul is free and willing, the creature is restored to life with all its hit points. The spell closes all wounds, neutralizes any poison, cures all diseases, and lifts any curses affecting the creature when it died.
The spell replaces damaged or missing organs and limbs. If the creature was undead, it is restored to its non-undead form. Death has been conquered. Congratulations.
Army of Darkness, Re-Animator, and the Odyssey: The Different Flavors of Necromancy
First of all let me just apologize to you, the reader, for putting the words “different flavors of necromancy” into your eyes and brain. That wasn’t very classy of me.
However, it’s worth noting that there’s more to the idea of the necromancer than the dark wizard at the head of an army of the dead (think: the Night King in that one show that nobody likes or cares about anymore).
In this section, we’ll take a quick look at the history of necromancy, and how the different applications for this dark and ancient art can lead to different ways to play a necromancer in D&D 5e.
At its heart, necromancy is all about a very human impulse: to conquer or exert some element of power or our own will over death itself.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, written more than 4,000 years ago and widely regarded to be the world’s earliest surviving piece of recorded storytelling, deals with a hero on the quest to find the fountain of eternal life after the death of his closest friend.
That urge to conquer death is baked into us at a genetic and cultural level, and necromancy is just one more tool to make that happen. This gives us our first variety of necromancer: the reanimator.
Typified in everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the unbelievably good mixture of kitsch and gore that is Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, the use of dark magics (or weird science that is, to quote Arthur C. Clarke, indistinguishable from magic) in order to conquer death itself is a staple of modern storytelling.
It also speaks to a wide range of motivations: from a prideful desire to defy God or the natural order, to an enduring love that drives the necromancer to greater and greater transgressions. It’s a narrative goldmine.
If you want to play a reanimator-style necromancer, we’re not actually going to be prioritizing too many of the undead-related necromancer spells, instead focusing on abilities that help return things to life. This class can be anything from a mad scientist to a healer with bad timing.
Because of its emphasis on healing and resurrection, we’re going to use a Grave Domain Cleric from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything for the basis on this build.
This domain is going to give us lots of spells that keep people alive when they should long ago have given up the ghost, as well as pull people back from the brink of death – like False Life, Gentle Repose, Revivify, and Raise Dead.
From there you can go a number of ways in terms of multiclassing…
Circle of Spores Druid: This subclass is both aesthetically and mechanically dripping in death, decay, and opportunities for unnatural resurrection.
Artificer: You get to create a homunculus servant for an extra pair of hands around the lab, as well as extra mad scientist bona fides. Bonus points if you train it to say “Yesthh Maaasthurrr…” and walk with a hunch.
Sorcerer: The addition of metamagic and an expanded spell list lets you stretch your various necromantic abilities just that little bit further.
The Dark Seer
The oldest literary account of necromancy is found in Homer’s Odyssey. Under the direction of the powerful sorceress Circe, the eponymous hero of the work descends briefly into the underworld to consult the spirits of the dead in order to gain insight into his fate. It’s some good stuff.
Odysseus has to do some dark rituals around a fire in the dead of night, chant prayers to the gods and ghosts of the underworld, and sacrifice animals in order to make a super metal blood cocktail to get the ghosts drunk enough on life juice to tell him their secrets!
One of the central pillars of necromancy is communication with the dead, either to learn things that the dead themselves once knew or (and this is definitely more of a thing in classical literature than modern conceptions) to glimpse the future – since the land of the dead is often thought of as having kind of a wobbly relationship with time on the mortal plane.
Playing the kind of dark magician who talks to the dead is a fantastically creepy and interesting way to play D&D, and bypasses a lot of the issues with the aspect of necromancy that the game resists the most: actually raising the dead.
Ok, so in order to get hold of the necromantic spells that let us commune with lost souls, we’re going to be kicking this build off with a Knowledge Domain Cleric for spooky stuff like Speak With Dead and Arcane Eye.
Make sure you put enough points into Intelligence as well because we’re going to be multiclassing into Wizard before long and going down the School of Divination route.
The mixture of the ability to commune with the dead and the divination wizard’s Portent ability make for a great spirit whisperer or medium. Make sure you pick up the 5th level spell Contact Other Plane for the ability to ask the DM five questions that the entity you call upon must answer honestly – at the risk of temporarily losing your marbles.
Lord of the Army of Darkness
And here we have it, folks, the classic lord of darkness necromancer, pacing at the head of their undead legions, poised to descend upon the world like a tide of night from which there will be no dawn.
Pretty metal stuff.
However, as I mentioned before, while it’s possible to make this style of necromancer work in D&D 5e, you have to be ready to put in the admin. So, if you’re still with me, here goes…
There really is only one way to build this type of necromancer. If you want to make a reanimator or some kind of dark oracle, feel free to play around, but if your sole goal is to raise the biggest undead army you can muster, then there really is only one choice: take a School of Necromancy Wizard from level 1 to 20.
This solo class build gives you the broadest selection of spells and the most spell slots. And we’ll need those spell slots.
A great deal of credit here goes to this video from Taking20, which goes into some seriously exhaustive detail about the spells and magic items you need to pull together to ensure that, at level 20 (assuming money, time, and an inexhaustible supply of corpses are no object) you’ll be able to muster an army of more than 7,000 undead.
Hell, if you’re cheap and magic items are thin on the ground, they’ve calculated that you can create an army of around 1,700 undead at a total cost of around 5,000 gold. Bargain.
In order to do this, you’re going to need to be throwing out multiple uses of your Animate Dead spell every day, including reasserting control over your legion once again.
You can also upcast your Create Undead spell in order to create Wights, which can, in turn, kill more people and raise them as zombies under their (and therefore your) command.
Into this mix, you’re going to add Finger of Death, which you can cast twice per day at 20th level – ensuring that 24 hours later you’ll get another two zombies permanently under your control.
And then there’s your level 14 ability Command Undead, which lets you permanently take an undead (with an Intelligence lower than 12) as a permanent servant.
Lastly, you’re going to also want to throw out the level 7 spell simulacrum to create a perfect copy of yourself to do all of that all over again. Rinse and repeat this process for a year (literally! Go watch the video!) and at the end of it, you’ll have your army.
Now, that’s obviously an extreme example, and probably wouldn’t be all that fun for anybody involved – least of all the DM.
However, I think that there’s something to this idea. At higher levels, a necromancer can pretty easily maintain a small fighting force of a few dozen undead.
I personally prefer skeletons to zombies, but you’ll probably have to work with what you have lying around unless you want to fill the swimming pool at your party’s hideout with gelatinous cubes, which is sure to be controversial.
Given how potent the action economy (basically, the side that can do the most stuff on their turn usually wins the fight) even a few dozen shambling zombies is going to be more than enough to steamroll or swarm most encounters.
You’ll still have to stay pretty on top of managing your spell slots and timings lest you and the party be devoured in your sleep by the zombies you left on guard duty, but the idea of playing a necromancer as a slightly harassed individual, their body constantly draped in sand timers and fantasy alarms which they use to manage their minions gets funnier the more I think about it.
At the table, might I suggest some sort of spreadsheet?