Dungeons & Dragons: How To Play A Necromancer

Quick Links

  • How To Raise The Undead
  • Growing Your Undead Horde
  • Which Classes Can Be Necromancers
  • Making The Most Out Of Your Undead
  • Necromancy Out Of Combat
  • The Best Spells For A Necromancer
  • How To Build Your Necromancer

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that provides you with a significant degree of freedom when creating your characters, supporting a wide range of gameplay styles and character archetypes through class, subclass, and race options. When it comes to spellcasters, one option that has long been associated with traditionally villainous characters are Necromancers, those who wield magic that can raise the dead.

While Necromancy is traditionally viewed as rather nefarious, D&D allows player characters to build fleshed-out Necromancers of their own that specialize in commanding the undead. So whether you're a DM looking to create a heinous necromancer antagonist for your next campaign, or a player looking to create an adventurer who makes the most out of undead in combat, we're going to explore everything you need to know about playing a Necromancer in D&D.

How To Raise The Undead

When building a Necromancer in D&D, the meat and potatoes of your strategy is the ability to raise the dead as zombies and skeletons to do your bidding. When creating undead servants in D&D's fifth edition, the most direct means of doing this is through the Animate Dead spell. Animate Dead is a third-level spell of the School of Necromancy and is the backbone of any Necromancer's arsonal.

With a casting time of one minute, Animate Dead targets the corpse or bones of one medium or small-sized humanoid, raising it as a zombie or skeleton respectively. As a bonus action, the spell's caster can telepathically issue any undead raised with the spell to carry out specific orders. When utilizing Animate Dead, there are various important factors that its important to be aware of. Firstly, this spell lasts for twenty-four hours, meaning that you can have an undead creature at your disposal for a significant amount of time.

Secondly, if you cast this spell to target a zombie or skeleton you already control before the spell ends, you reassert control over it and extend its duration for an additional twenty-four hours. This means that as long as you remember to reassert control over your undead minions, you can keep your favorite undead servants around indefinitely.

Growing Your Undead Horde

Among the most integral elements of Animate Dead to be aware of is the fact that this spell doesn't require concentration. This means that it can be reliably cast several times per day while remaining active, allowing you to control several undead minions at once. Moreover, when casting Animate Dead using a spell slot above third level, you can animate the remains of not one, but two additional creatures. This means that through the use of several higher-level spell slots, a single Necromancer can control a sizable swarm of undead with ease.

Which Classes Can Be Necromancers

Due to the importance of the Animate Dead spell when building a Necromancer, those looking to play such characters are confined to classes and subclasses capable of learning this spell. The following classes and subclasses are capable of learning the Animate Dead spell:

  • Wizard: All subclasses (Automatically gained by School of Necromancy at sixth-level)
  • Cleric: All subclasses (Automatically gained by Death Domain at fifth-level)
  • Druid: Circle of Spores at fifth-level
  • Paladin: Oathbreaker at ninth-level

While each of these classes are capable of learning Animate Dead, the class (and subclass) capable of making the most out of this spell is the School of Necromancy Wizard. While the ability to learn the spell is a nice feature for Clerics, Druids, and Paladins, Necromancy School Wizards significantly improve the benefits of controlling undead.

First and foremost, as of sixth-level, whenever a Wizard of this subclass casts Animate Dead, they can target an additional corpse, increasing the number of zombies they can command at once. In addition to improving the quantity of your zombies or skeletons, this subclass also improves their quality. All undead raised by Necromancy School Wizards gain additional max HP equal to the Wizard's level and add that Wizard's proficiency bonus to each of their weapon damage rolls, simultaneously bolstering their offense and survivability.

Making The Most Out Of Your Undead

As creatures with the ability to take actions in and out of combat, undead minions summoned through Animate Dead can offer a substantial degree of value, especially when summoned in large numbers.

One of the most notable features of the Animate Dead spell is the fact that it allows you to use your bonus action to telepathically command any number of undead that you control. This means that if several undead are under your command, you can effectively make several attacks and lock down a target as bonus action. Through the command over several creatures, you can also interact with your surroundings, move items to your allies, restrain foes through grappling, or even offer several Help actions to your comrads.

Furthermore, undead under your control will even carry out indefinite commands, such as to protect a given location, making the spell and the potential application of undead incredibly flexible.

Necromancy Out Of Combat

One element of Necromancers that may make or break the archetype for some players is the act of roleplaying this type of magic user. While Necromancers can be incredibly powerful from a mechanical standpoint, in the context of a roleplaying game like D&D, few types of magic are as morally questionable as necromancy. Due to the taboo that comes along with animating the dead to serve as one's tools, many NPCs may not take particularly kindly to your undead legion.

Playing a necromancer opens up several cans of worms regarding how the character may travel and how they obtain new undead to control. Does your Necromancer publicly travel with their horde of the undead, and are you prepared to face the consequences of doing so? Do you hide your zombies and if so, how? Do you only animate the bodies of those you defeat in your adventures? Are any types of bodies off limits for reanimation? Examining and answering these types of questions not only helps flesh out your character from a practical point of view, but it also helps you to establish your Necromancer and their rationale, especially if they aren't evil.

The Best Spells For A Necromancer

When it comes to playing an archetypal Necromancer leading a horde of the undead, Animate Dead is easily the most integral spell to learn, even being gained automatically by Necromancy School Wizards automatically. However, one spell doesn't make up an archetype on its own. As Wizards of the School of Necromancy can learn additional Necromancy spells for halved time and gold, its worth considering learning the best spells available in the school. Below are great spell options perfect for your next Necromancer.

Spell NameLevelEffect
Toll The DeadSpell Level: CantripAmong the most highly damaging cantrips in the game, when targeting a creature that is missing at least one hit point, this Cantrip deals 1d12 Necrotic damage to its target. As this damage increases as you gain levels, this Necromancy School cantrip can deal serious damage without requiring you to spend spell slots.
Mold EarthSpell Level: CantripThough not a cantrip of the School of Necromancy, Mold Earth allows you to manipulate earth or stone that fits within a five-foot cube. This means that this cantrip can be used to help move the ground that's standing between you and potential new additions to your undead horde while subverting the need to pick up a shovel.
Ray Of EnfeeblementSpell Level: 2ndThough it doesn't interact with your ability to command the dead, Ray of Enfeeblement is a solid second-level spell that can be used to prevent large sums of damage when fighting physically-oriented foes that will primarily be aiming to deal bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage. While Wizards may not have access to healing magic, Ray of Enfeeblement can at least postpone when a party will need healing in the first place.
Danse MacabreSpell Level: 5thThough less permanent than Animate Dead, Danse Macabre allows you to raise up to five corpses as your undead minions for up to an hour. In addition to providing access to up to five undead creatures for an hour, the quality of these undead is slightly higher than those created through Raise Dead, as these zombies add your spellcasting modifier to their attack and damage rolls.
Negative Energy FloodSpell Level: 5thA single-target damaging spell that deals 5d12 necrotic damage, if you kill a creature with this spell, it immediately raises as a zombie and starts to attack the creature closest to it. Uniquely, if you target an undead with this spell, it instead gains 5d12 hit points rather than sustaining damage. As the majority of healing magic doesn't work on the undead, this is one of the few means of healing your favorite undead minions.
Create UndeadSpell Level: 6thCreate Undead is a nearly identical spell to Animate Dead though with one major upgrade. While Animate Dead raises the dead as zombies or skeletons, Create Undead allows you to raise Ghouls, a more resilient and dangerous form of undead creature. Once this spell is learned, it will become a staple of your repertoire.
Finger Of DeathSpell Level: 7thDealing a sizable 7d8 + 30 necrotic damage to a single target, if the target of this spell dies, they immediately raise as a zombie permanently under your control. Unlike Animate Dead and Create Undead, an undead minion gained through this spell doesn't require you to regularly reassert your control over it.
CloneSpell Level: 8thExclusive to Wizards and incredibly useful, Clone effectively allows you to make backup bodies for yourself that your soul can transfer into when you die. This Necromancy spell single-handedly opens the door for your character becoming practically immortal.

In addition to these spells, it's worth picking up other Wizard classics such as Fireball and Counterspell in order to support your companions as your party's premier arcane caster.

How To Build Your Necromancer

Luckily, when building a Necromancer, things are somewhat cut and dry. Outside of a few decisions, there is a lot of room in regards to choices in things like your character's feats and races that can make your Necromancer feel like your own.

First and foremost, as a Wizard, the most integral ability score for your character is your Intelligence, as it is used for a significant number of your spells. Additionally, prioritizing your Constitution is never a bad idea (especially as a Wizard with a d6 hit die) as it provides you with much-needed HP. Furthermore, as a Wizard, if you care about raising your armor class, the quickest way to do so is simply by increasing your Dexterity. As for your remaining three ability scores, it's entirely up to you which you feel are the most important to the character you're creating.

As for feats well-suited for a Necromancer, two solid options include War Caster and Metamagic Adept. War Caster allows you to make your concentration saving throws at advantage, meaning that if you're concentrating on the likes of Danse Macabre, you'll be more likely to maintain control over your undead. Alternatively, Metamagic Adept is a stellar feat that provides access to two of a Sorcerer's Metamagic options and two sorcery points, meaning a Necromancer could have access to options like Extended Spell to control zombies for longer periods of time.

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