This is a discussion of how to play a necromancer. Not how to make a weird 20th level build that does something cute, but actually how to play a character interested in the dark arts in real games. There are many ways to build a decent necromancer, and unfortunately many more ways to make a necromantically inclined character that is tragically incapable of contributing to the machinations of their party. Hopefully, this handbook will help you avoid the pitfalls even as it introduces you to the interactions of the bewilderingly large school of necromantic effects in such a way as to allow them to be used for good. Or at least awesome.
We are aware that in many cases the rules as written for necromancers are unclear, inadequate, or simply unsatisfactory. This is outside of the scope of this guide, and these problems are tackled in its sister publication the Tome of Necromancy.
Necromantic Classes: There are three necromantic base classes of note: the Wizard, the Cleric, and of course the Dread Necromancer. There are a number of other classes capable of using Necromancy (Sorcerers, for example), but they rarely do it well and often fail in surprising ways. Many of the signature Necromancy spells are used very rarely (Create Undead is not a spell to be used every day, or even during adventures generally – it’s a downtime spell) and the vast majority of characters with “spells known” are completely unsuited to necromancy in the traditional sense. Spell preparation is definitely the way to go, with the notable exception of the Dread Necromancer who has such a large list of spells to spontaneously cast that she might as well have a spellbook. There are some surprisingly good spells nominally of the necromancy school on the Druid and Wu Jen lists, but as they are not thematically related to what we think of as “Necromancy”, these spellcasters will be dealt with elsewhere if at all.
Becoming a Necromancer late in life, by entering a prestige class that provides spellcasting is nominally an option as well. Unfortunately, the most flavorful classes (such as Blighter and Death Delver) are pretty universally terrible, while the actually effective classes are either so obviously broken (Ur Priest), confusing (Chameleon), or both (Beholder Mage) that DMs won’t actually let you play them. There are to my knowledge no playable builds that involve these classes. Between the pain of “catching up” by crawling through low level spellcasting when facing monsters of medium CR, and the tremendous inertia of DMs as regards being forced to learn the rules of an entire new spellcasting class, these paths are a non-starter in almost all cases.
The Necromancer Wizard Wizard is a class that is 6 levels long (unless you intend to take the Planar ubstitution level at 10th, in which case the class is 10 whole levels long). Necromancy as a wizard is a surprisingly hard road. The first thing to realize is that you do not have an army of the dead! If you wanted an army of the dead, you’d be a Cleric or a Dread Necromancer. Wizards have bonecrushingly powerful necromancy at their disposal, but almost none of it has anything to do with having a shambling army of animated corpses following you around. Necromancy from the wizard perspective is usually about the Soul, and is a deeply powerful school centered around Fear, Possession, and more recently – Cold.
Hilarious note: All the Unearthed Arcana Specialist wizard necromancy trade-ofs are terrible. Except the Enhanced Undead, which gives an unnamed (and stackable) +2 hit point per hit die bonus to all the undead you make. You can benefit from that even if you one-level dip into Wizard.
Clerics are better than Wizards At its core, the Cleric is a better class than the Wizard. It gets better armor and weapon proficiencies, better saves, more spells per day, more hit points, the ability to ignore ASF, free knowledge of the entire spell-list, and a better BAB. That's not to say that any particular Wizard is outdone by any particular Cleric, there are some very powerful spells on the Wizard list that are not on the Cleric list. But if a Wizard finds himself casting a spell that's on the Cleric list, at least for that round he's the big sucker.
So while you can certainly make a serviceable Wizard who happens to focus on Summon Monster, this character is going to be inferior to a Cleric that does the same thing. Even more so because there are domains like "Summoning" that give Clerics powers in that field that a Wizard can't duplicate. Such a Wizard character may be a vital member of whatever team he's on, but the fact is that there's a guy in the corner singing everything you can do. Like taking the 7th level of Fighter, it may be "good enough" for your game at home, but it's objectively inferior to other things and will not be taken seriously as a choice here.
Of course, Wizards are in an even worse position vis a vis the Cleric in the arena of animating corpses. While command undead is quite competitive with rebuke undead, and Animate Dead apparently works the same whether you are a Wizard or a Cleric - that's an optical illusion. Clerics get access to Animate Dead early. And they get access to Desecrate at all, which means that all their skeletons have 2 extra hit points a level that the Wizard can't match for some time (remember to construct an altar to Nerull everywhere you want to make Undead, because it doubles the Desecrate bonuses and doesn't cost anything). Finally, there are domains that give real bonuses to your necromancy that you can have if you aren't stuck shelling out for the worthless Death Domain because you are trying to get into True Necromancer (Boo!).
A real dead animating Cleric can have the Deathbound Domain, which gives her an additional 50% to the skeleton hit-die cap. That means that a Cleric's army of the dead at 5th level is bigger and better than the Wizard's army of the dead at 7th level. And using those spells didn't even take up valuable space in a spellbook or anything.
The Necromancer Cleric Cleric is a class that is potentially as much as 12 levels long, but is actually quite variable in length. Clerics are the default necromancers from the standpoint of the Skeleton Army. It is normally required that you forfeit your ability to heal the party by being a Cleric Necromancer. It’s not like you’re going to prepare a cure spell – that’s crazy talk! However there are some obscure loopholes you can exploit here. Nothing bad happens to Clerics if they cast spells with an opposed Alignment to their own, it’s just that such spells are not normally on their list. A Cleric who gets Undead Animating off of their domain lists or similar other sources can jolly well cast those spells even if they are Good. So if you happen to be a Lawful Good Cleric of Wee Jas, you channel positive energy but can still animate the dead (because you get all those Death Domain spells).
The Dread Necromancer The Dread Necromancer is a class that is 8 levels long. Early in its life it is a melee warrior, and later on it’s a passable Undead Leader. You can cast any spell on your spell list as a spontaneous effect, which is a unique way to do things and of course is the most favorable spellcasting mechanic ever. Adding spells to your list is easy and fun, the default method is to use Arcane Disciple, which adds 9 spells to your list each time, but more elaborate methods (such as a Ring of Theurgy) exist. All Dread Necromancers, regardless of their ultimate goals, have Tomb Tainted Soul as their 1st level feat. That’s not a recommendation, that’s a simple fact. The ability to heal yourself with your own touch is invaluable, and in the long run you are going to have the ability to spray negative energy all over everyone within five feet of you, including yourself. If you don’t have Tomb Tainted Soul, your negative energy bursts are a suicide bomb, if you do have it they are instead an vampiric healing attack.
Other Spellcasting Classes There aren’t just 3 spellcasting classes, there are just 3 spellcasting classes that are good. Many times a player may be tempted to play one of the many other spellcasting classes that dot the landscape and we can say without the slightest shadow of a doubt that under no circumstances should any of them be used. For example:
Don’t be an Archivist: Archivists don't have Domains or Rebuking, and they don't automatically know all the Cleric spells. So unless something weird happens, they are in all ways inferior to a Cleric at Necromancy, or anything else. That weird thing, of course, is that as an Archivist you have the ability to have the DM allow you to find powerful and unique spells that you can scribe into your book and rock the house with. But these spells aren't under your control. They fall into your lap because the DM puts them in your lap, and not otherwise.
So there aren't really any Archivist "builds". It's just a "maybe the DM will give you some cool things to do" class. Like Pun-Pun, the power of any particular Artificer has nothing whatsoever to do with its own intrinsic abilities, it is entirely based on whatever the DM felt like forking over out of pity because you couldn't do anything good on your own. And when it comes down to it, Wizards already have the "The DM can give you additional awesome spells by dumping magical writings in your lap" power. And they are independently good. So no, we won't give any examples of Archivist builds, because they aren't independently verifiable.
Don’t be a Warlock: Warlocks get access to an Invocation called The Dead Walk, which has two uses. It can either work like normal Animate Dead (that you pay full price for), or it can act as a special kind of Summon Undead that has a duration of several minutes and has a material component of one corpse. That's weird, but it's not particularly good. If it was backed up with anything else along these lines it might be worth thinking about, but it isn't. Warlocks get no desecrate, and no special Undead leadership. They don't actually have any cool powers at all.
Yathrinshee, the Dark Beauties of Bad Class Features Like the True Necromancer, this is an arcane/divine combo PrC that is very cool and we'd totally play it if it wasn't completely crippled. Aside from the class requiring you to be a totally hot necromancer dark elf chick, it wants you to have five levels of Cleric of some god you don't care about and three levels of Wizard. Then, over the coarse of 10 levels you lose FOUR more caster levels from both your classes. Add in your level adjustment for being a drow, and at 20th level you are...wait for it...NINE levels behind in your cleric spells and ELEVEN levels behind in your Wizard casting. You can't even try to mitigate this with Ur-Priest cheese, since you need to follow this one god to get into this class.
Basically, this class has all the problems of a True Necromancer, but worse, and better flavor abilities. Their one great ability is the Curse of the Revanancer, which is awesome, as it lets you kill things with spells and they automatically become zombies under your control. Thats cool, and even very powerful under the right circumstances, but how are you even supposed to kill things with your spells at any point in your career?
You are not going to play a True Necromancer! A lot of people love the True Necromancer, even though it’s a completely crippled class. Even a Mystic Theurge is better, and that’s saying quite a bit because that class is a dog with fleas. You’re 5 real caster levels behind the curve. If you just took Leadership, and then your cohort took Leadership, both of the cohorts would have better casting than you (being 2 levels behind and 4 levels behind respectively). You can provide the party better and more powerful Necromancy as a single classed Fighter that happens to have Leadership than you would if you were a “True” Necromancer.
Top Ten Reasons True Necromancers Are Bad
1. At 14th level, you are five caster levels behind in both classes, so if the party Fighter took Leadership, and his cohort got Leadership, he’d actually be bringing more Necromancy to the table than you. As a fighter. 2. You have to take the Death Domain as a Necromancer Cleric, which is a waste of a Domain Slot when you are trying to be good at Necromancy. 3. In the early levels, you postpone your access to Animate Dead by 4 levels. 4. At 8th level a True Necromancer can create, but not control Ghouls. A Cleric at that level can control but not create Ghouls. Guess which is better? At 11th level, the True Necromancer gets the ability to control Ghouls, and the Cleric gets the ability to create them, so there’s no point at which this is advantageous. 5. The only unique ability of the True Necromancer class is unimpressive. Desecrate is a great spell, but it’s also a second level spell. 6. True Necromancers eventually get a bonus to Rebuking – at 17th level they have a +1 bonus to their Rebuking level. But at 7th level they have a 3 level penalty to their Rebuking level. So at low levels when rebuking is good they can’t use it, and at high levels when Rebuking doesn’t matter they don’t care. 7. True Necromancers are always going to have underwhelming Save DCs. Between MAD and the fact that they are often forced to use spells that are 3 spell levels lower than what the single-classed casters can use, they’re going to be out enough Save DC that it shows. A lot. 8. As a True Necromancer you have all the disadvantages of both a Cleric (the gods can take away all your spellcasting at any time), and a Wizard (you have Arcane Spell Failure, preventing you from wearing good armor). Also, your BAB and HPs stink when compared to a Cleric. 9. Control pools from Animate Dead actually don’t accumulate between your two classes. It’ right in the spell, if you cast the spell it considers all undead you control from all castings of Animate Dead, not just your Arcane or just your Divine castings of the spell. Some people say differently, and some even quote CustServ, but when was the last time you won an argument with your DM using the line "some guy on a board said that CustServ told him....."? 10. There is almost no synergy between Cleric and Wizard Necromancy. Any synergy you desperately want to find could be replicated by just taking the Apprentice feat at first level and having some Use Magic Device. Get yourself a couple of Wizard Scrolls or something. It’s a better buy than setting 5 caster levels on fire. Smart cookies can even get the right spell effects off monsters for free, no less.
All About Rebuking Rebuking is a potentially wonderful, and horribly underused ability that is itself shockingly level dependent. Additions to your Rebuking checks are virtually worthless, as you can only command undead that are half your level in Rebuking in hit dice. Undead have the BAB of a commoner and no Con bonus, so high CR Undead have many more Hit Dice than their CR. Even if you keep your Rebuking up to full level, the creatures you will be able to control will become increasingly outgunned by the monsters you meet in your day-to-day adventuring. And if you allow your Rebuking to fall behind even a tiny bit, you might as well not have the ability at all. The Rebuking handed out by such classes as the Blackguard is useful only for powering Divine Feats – it should not be confused with an actual manner to control or bolster the Undead.
Rebuking can of course be increased, and rather easily. The key is that the ability itself is “as Turn Undead” with no provision on level bonuses. So any bonus to Turn Undead also bolsters Rebuking by default, but the reverse is not also true. So an Amulet of Turn Undead increases your effective level of Rebuking, but a Mark of Apostasy won’t aid Turning in any way. Remember that all bonuses to Turning (Rebuking) level are unnamed, so they all stack. You can even have multiple copies of the same item and they’ll still stack. For those of you keeping track at home that means that a character with an Amulet of Turning (+4), a Scepter of the Netherworld (+3), and a Sacred Shield (+2) can command 5 Hit Die Undead even as a first level character.
The creatures you can command become relatively weaker when compared to you unless you pull Turning bonus shenanigans, but they also become easier to command in the first place. By the time you can command a 5 Hit Die undead monster it is actually impossible for you to fail to do so. The turning check itself just isn’t that meaningful. Your real enemy of course is Turn Resistance, as every +1 Turn Resistance means you need to have 2 more whole levels worth of Rebuking to command the creature. Surprisingly, many abilities such as “Necromantic Presence” actually make it harder for you to push your undead minions around. Hilariously, when you take over an undead monster when you have this ability, it gains +4 Turn Resistance: almost assuredly making it ineligible for you to control it (this always happens, as Rebuking only has a range of 60 feet, the same as the range of the feat).
Rebuking isn’t something you use on a day-to-day basis. Undead, once controlled, follow you around until you get tired of them or they are destroyed. So if you can spend your Rebuking attempts on things, that would be good.
Templated undead (with the exception of the very earliest skeletons and zombies), such as the Ghost and Vampire, are not listed because they don't exist at a specific standard hit die. Generic undead, such as the Vampire Spawn, are shown at the level you can command them. You can generally use Rebuking to smacks them down very much earlier if that's important to you. Undead Monsters which themselves have Rebuking (and can thus be used in convoluted schemes involving handing scepters of the netherworld around) have been underlined.
Rebuking Doesn't Work how you Think it works You have a "level for the purposes of Rebuking". If you never take any level other than Cleric or Dread Necromancer or prestige class that adds to Rebuking, that level with equal your class level. If you multiclass, that number will be lower. And if you take feats like Improved Turning or magic items like an Amulet of Turning, you can have a level for these purposes that is higher than your Class level.
Undead have a "hit dice for the purposes of Rebuking" as well. This is normally equal to their Hit Dice plus their Turn Resistance. While Positive Energy Levels exist that will reduce their effective Hit Dice, they are so broken when used on living creatures (which is almost every player character) that your DM isn't going to use them. Ever.
If your level for the purposes of Rebuking is twice the hit dice for the purpose of Rebuking of the undead, and the undead is affected by your Rebuking attempt, and you have space for it under your control, you control it.
Your turning check does not affect your level for the purposes of Rebuking. It affects the maximum hit dice of the undead that can be affected. If you completely bungle your Rebuking check, you can only affect a creature 4 hit dice less than your level. Of course, this means that if you are Rebuking at the 8th level, even getting a negative check result won't stop you from commanding the most powerful creature you could command.
Turning Check: The first thing you do is roll a turning check to see how powerful an undead creature you can turn. This is a Charisma check (1d20 + your Charisma modifier). Table: Turning Undead gives you the Hit Dice of the most powerful undead you can affect, relative to your level. On a given turning attempt, you can turn no undead creature whose Hit Dice exceed the result on this table.
The reason why getting a big roll on you Turning Check doesn't let you command a more powerful undead creature is that it doesn't add to your level for the purposes of Rebuking. It adds to the maximum Hit Dice of an undead creature you can affect relative to your level. If something does actually add to your level for the purpose of Rebuking, then of course it would increase the Hit Dice of what you could command.
Stacking Rebuking If you have more than one class that provides Rebuking, all those levels stack together. Normally that’s not very hard to figure out. If you have 2 levels of Dread Necromancer and 2 levels of Cleric, your Rebuking level is 4 (although you have a terrible character and we in no way condone this sort of unmin/maxed build). It gets more complicated if you get access to weirder classes like Wearer of Purple from Faiths and Pantheons. That class specifically doesn’t ad to Rebuking, but it gives you a domain, and if the domain it gives happens to be Scalykind it gives its own special Rebukin, which then makes it a Rebuking class – you can now have an argument with your DM over whether or not the class adds to Rebuking. CustServ has come down on both sides of that issue.
Necromancy on a Budget OK, normally it wants you to pay 25 GP per hit die of undead, and that’s more than a little stiff. I’m not even going to pretend that you’d be willing to spend 50 GP for a human Zombie – those guys aren’t better than 1st level Experts, and those guys only cost 1 SP a day.
A funny little detail is the fact that you don't even know how much onyx to use: HD is an abstraction your character is not supposed to know about. The spell Trap the Soul does say that its possible to research someone's HD, so take that for what you will, but it doesn't really say how long it takes to research Bob the Fire Giant Mook's HD, and frankly you don't care; if you use the incorrect amount, the spell fails and the slot is wasted, but you don't lose anything else. This means your onyx is not used up if you fail in the casting, so if you are not in a big hurry, you can simply cast the spell over and over (each time adding 25 gp of onyx) until the spell works and you burn up the minimum amount of onyx (in a combat or other situation where time or slots might need to be conserved, you can just grab a handful of onyx gems and hope you have enough for the casting).
The really funny thing fact: I’m not even sure how you’re supposed to get these onyx gems into the eye sockets or mouths of the creatures you are animating. Onyx isn’t all that valuable, and 50 GP is a whole pound of gold: really a decently high hit die creature should require the placement of an Onyx bigger than its actual head inside its eye socket/mouth. That may require uses of Shrink Item if your DM is actually using material components as written. If you don’t want to get involved in that argument, consider raising your army of the dead for cheap or free, use scrolls or staves with Animate Dead, or do one of the following:
Play through The Sunless Citadel The Azun-Gund only cost 3 grand. They aren’t even hard to make. They make 2 Zombies that’ll follow you around, and can make Zombies of up to 10 hit dice. Further, that’s per party member, you can jolly well pass that whistle around. A party of fourth level adventurers can have 8 zombies running around with it at all times.
Be a Pale Master Pale Masters suffer a little bit from the fact that they kind of blow. They lose actual caster levels and don’t get any abilities at the time. But they quickly get the ability cast animate dead for free, and eventually get to punch people in the face so hard that they join your army of the dead free of charge (and without limit). With enough patience, you can have an undead army of literally unlimited size free of charge.
Hand People Unholy Arrows Unholy Arrows are very modestly priced. They cost about 361 GP each. And any Good aligned character takes an actual negative level if they hold it in their hand. A character can wield however many arrows happen to be in their quiver, so they can potentially get a lot of negative levels. Any character with negative levels equal to their hit dice dies and rises as a Wight, and the arrows are not consumed in the process. Repeat with Holy, Lawful, or Chaotic arrows as desired.
Fell Animate Maybe you’re supposed to Try to cast Animating fireballs, but that’s like a 6th level spell. What you actually do with it is make Animating Acid Splashes that you use on enemies that have been dropped and haven’t bled to death by the end of combat. It’s like a death knell only it adds to your zombie army. It’s available as your 5th level bonus feat as a Wizard (precisely when it becomes available for use).
Have a Spell-like Ability Spell-likes default to a single standard action and bypass all components (including XP and GP). So if you have Animate as a Spell-like ability you can raise all the dead you want. Really. You can get this by a number of feats, special class features, or the old standby of using Planar Binding/Ally on Fiends that happen to have Animate Dead as a Spell-like in the first place.
Proper Care and Feeding of Skeletons Look at the stats of every monster you ever kill. Look at its hit dice first, and compare its strength, dexterity, attacks, and natural armor compared to its Hit Dice to determine if it is a good skeleton or a bad skeleton. Zombies are usually crap as they only get a single standard action or move action, but they can fly while skeletons can’t. Also note that skeles and zombies keep subtypes except for alignment and subtypes determining “kind” (which I assume is race and things like Angel), meaning that you can animate fire giant skeletons and they’ll have the fire subtype and be immune to fire(and cold, as skeles). Don’t forget that things with a bunch of templates are usually just better than anyone else of their HD. Mostly, you’ll want to reanimate the bodies of fast bruisers.
Eventually you will get your grubby mitts on Awaken Undead and then you can start considering the abilities of dead bodies. Note that the Spell Compendium version of Awaken Undead gives back feats and skills to your skeles. The problem is that your DM will decide if you pick those feats and skills or he does, since its not mentioned in the rules, meaning they might have awesome fighter feat chains that you pick or complete crap like Toughness taken seven times that your DM might pick for ease of use.
Out of the box, skeletons “retain any extraordinary special qualities that improve its melee or ranged attacks.” Now, that’s a straight DM call, but it nominally means that things like Ettins keep their hardcore two-weapon fighting. Zombies do as well, and they keep their flying at the cost of only getting one action a round; this means that unless you want a dragon to fly you around for transport, you shouldn’t make them.
Coincidently, Wizards get Animate Dead at the same time they get Lesser Planar Binding, meaning they build a “trap room” in their lair with loads of magic traps and a summoning circle, automatically killing anything they summon. Then they animate those powerful outsiders and elementals who have a great HD to stats ratio.
The ideal way to fight with skeletons is to keep a small and elite cadre of pimp skeletons. Boost them with spells, equipment like armor and magic items, and heal them between battles. Some people like massive undead armies, but that kind of thing pisses off DMs and fellow players and is actually not very cost-effective in a world of area effect spells. Your DM will start busting out ways to clear swathes of your undead and your pocketbook will suffer, or he’ll find ways to neutralize the bulk of your army like making your adventure only accessible by flying or teleport. You are better off with a few really good undead and you bring them back occasionally with Revive Undead and/or upgrade them with the Spellstitched template. With the Uttercold Assault Necromancer build, you can almost be assured of never losing an undead except to lucky Save or Dies.
Dragon Undead Dragons deserve their own paragraph. Normally, they blow because they have high HD and have a bunch of abilities that don’t come with the MM templates; however, if your DM uses the Draconomicon, you can get the awesome Skeleton Dragon and Zombie Dragon templates. The important thing to note is that these guys don’t cap out at base HD of 20 for skeles and 10 for zombies, meaning you can get very, very large undead this way, and that’s so good that your DM most likely won’t let you do it (even though its possible to create up to four times your caster level of an undead if you use the errated Deathbound domain and a Desecrate area). It breaks down like this:
Skeleton dragons lose all their wicked natural armor, get bonus HP equal to twice HD, and get the default skeleton natty armor, but they keep Ex Special Attacks, and they can’t fly. Except for the HD cap removal, this is in all ways worse than using the old rules for skeletons with an Awaken Undead.
Zombie dragons keep half their natural armor, get bonus HPs equal to twice HD, keep their breath weapon at half strength, and lose any Cha-based special attacks. This is actually kind of awesome, even with the usual zombie single action. You can potentially choose a really big dragon, animate it, and it will be an actual tank with large armor, HDs, HPs, and with Awaken Undead it will have mass of skills and feats, effectively becoming an actual vehicle for your party to fly around in. As an example, a 10th level Necromancer (with Corpsecrafter, and in a Desecrate area with altar) can animate an Adult Green dragon (CR 13) that is Huge with 20 HD, a BAB of +10 with a Str of 27, and an average of 250 hps, though its AC is only 17, meaning you’ll need to give it AC items. Ideally, you want to animate a Silver Dragon, as the DC on its paralyzing breath is based on its HD, meaning a 19 HD Young Adult Silver Dragon becomes a Zombie Dragon with a DC of 20 on its breath weapons. Also note that with the Spell Compendium version of Awaken Undead cast in maximized form, our Adult Green Dragon is looking at 96 skill points with skill maxes of 24 (with dragon skills in-class) and 7 feats.
A Note on the Power and Hit Dice of the Undead There is no relationship between the hit dice of an undead monster and its relative threat level. Heck, undead creatures aren't even very well priced out for their CR, their Hit Dice appear to have been selected by consulting a dartboard. Perhaps the worst offender as far as low-CRs is concerned is the Ephemeral Swarm from the Monster Manual 3. It's a 90 hit point swarm that is incorporeal and does a d6 of Strength Damage every round in an area of effect that always hits and allows no save. It's CR 5, but is individually capable of killing many high-level parties all by itself. As far as hit dice are concerned, let's just leave it at the fact that a Hulking Corpse has more than twice the hit dice of an Atropal Scion, despite being very much inferior over all. You want the Best you can get A second level Cleric could theoretically use Rebuking to command a Paragon Ghostly Visage. It would have a Save DC on its paralyzing gaze of 39 and completely own every monster you ever encounter for many levels to come. It doesn't even get a save, you just make a Turning Check and if you get a result that is capable of effecting creatures with at least 1 hit die less than your effective turning level, it's yours! Assuming of course, that you ever ran into one.
The problem is that this is basically Pun-Pun. If the DM happens to arbitrarily decide to give you power that is completely out of scale with your level, you'll have power that is completely out of scale with your level. So while there are all kinds of crazy things that you can control with Rebuking or create with Animate Dead, the fact is that in an actual game these killer combos are simply not likely to occur. The DM could have you find the Sword of Orcus and the DM could have you find the corpse of a Pseudonatural Great Wyrm Silver Dragon, but unless you're 14 the DM is probably not going to do that.
Necromancy therefore, is an ability with very little pre-game min/max capability. Whether you are controlling undead or creating them yourself, you are throwing yourself at the DM's mercy. Like how every fighter I've ever seen has eventually taken to using some magic weapon that was found as a trophy, only more so because D&D does not currently support an "available corpses by level" guideline.
However, here are some things to shoot for:
Level 2: A Cleric or Dread Necromancer gets access to Rebuke Undead, allowing her to control 1 HD undead. Ideally you'd want a Ghostly Visage, but in reality you're going to make do with humanoid skeletons. Likely you're going to be going up against generic Human Warrior skeletons because those are very little work to put together as a horde monster. They can make quite effective archers at this level and you can control two at a time. You can't replace them, so keep them in the back.
Level 4: The 2 HD undead just aren't impressive. At level 4, zombies are only a modest irritant, and any you command with rebuking are best use to shamble ahead of the party setting off traps.
Level 6: Shadows only have 3 HD. That's the big deal at 6th level, because while every 6th level party is going to have magic weapons all around (enabling them to go through Shadows like butter), the fact of the matter is that most CR6 monsters don't. Incorporeal creatures can't be hurt except by magic attacks, and having attacks that "count as magic for the purposes of penetrating DR" doesn't count. Of the 26 monsters in the Monster Manual that are rated at CR 6, only 8 of them are capable of hurting a Shadow. Against all others, a single Shadow automatically wins.
Level 8: Two common monsters come on-line at level 8: the Wight and the Ghoul. If you are given the choice, use the Wight as they are better in all ways. Wights are pretty hard core, and have control over their spawn. If you arranged things right, you could have a small army of Wights under your control via delegation of authority. Wights are really common and can be created by killing anything with negative levels.
Level 10: Theoretically, you could turn a Deathlock into your Pokemon at this level, but chances are your DM has never heard of a Deathlock, so you're not liable to meet one. Ever. The Deathlock has detect magic at will and is thus a great utility monster - but it's a CR 3 and you simply aren't going to be using one for combat at all.
Higher Levels: Rebuking does not keep up with the CRs of the monsters you'll be facing by itself. If you want to make a name for yourself with Rebuking at higher levels, you're going to have to pump it up. A lot. To pick up a CR 11 Devourer you'll need to crank your Rebuking up to level 24. Which is doable actually. More likely you're going to end up cranking your Rebuking Level out to 20 and still settling for grabbing a couple of monsters that show up in hordes for your CR.
Command Undead: Command Undead is a weird effect. It gives no saving throw when used on unintelligent undead monsters and has a duration that lasts for days. When you get it you'll be able to automatically seize control of the first CR 4 Zombie Minotaur that shows up. Zombies are a total waste for creating with Animate Dead because they have a low effectiveness ratio to hit dice. But Command Undead gives you indefinite control over them as long as they have no Int score, so if you happen to encounter Zombies they'll make a great HP sponge.
You can get things that are way out of your league. There are unintelligent Epic Undead out there, and with enough invested in Greater Spell Focus you could theoretically capture one even at low level. Then you could march them around slaughtering literally everything that screws with you at even close to your level. Practically speaking however, you're just going to grab any unintelligent undead that comes your way (in fact, if you encounter mindless undead and don't have slots left for Command Undead it behooves you to run away and come nack later once you've prepared new spells). Zombies of your level have about 20 hit points per level - which makes them decent enough sponges that they are worth healing between combats.
Creating Undead The golden spell is animate dead. Spells like Ghoul Gauntlet are pretty much crap (it gives you ordinary Ghouls, which are pretty underwhelming, but more importantly casting it at all reduces the number of Undead you can control - avoid this spell like the plague). Create Undead can be gained at various low levels by various means - none of which are good. Create Undead doesn't do anything useful until you get to a Caster Level of 15, at which point it can give you a half-way decent Mummy (and Mummy's can be argued to retain their class levels, making this a potent way to bring characters back from the dead if you don't mind the fact that they can't gain levels anymore). Create Greater Undead gives out Shadows as the first thing, so it's all about the world conquering army.
Level 5: Assuming that you have the Deathbound Domain, your Cleric can make up to 30 HD at one time. Now, you lose everything you already controlled if you make more than 20 HD of Undead, but you specifically have control over everything you animate in one go even if it's over the cap. So you could animate the skeletons of two Fire Giants at once. Once you outfit them in some very reasonably priced armor and give them access to some Large Greatswords, these suckers will dish out more hurt than anyone else in the party (2d8 + 18 damage is no joke). If you have Corpsecrafter, both Giant Skeletons will have 157 hit points, which makes them individually competitive with the entire party.
But where are you going to get Fire Giant Skeletons? Certainly not from beating them in combat, they're CR 10. You're going to try to convince the DM to let you go graverobbing in the Giant Town or something. And this is pretty much your life with Animate Dead from now on. Even at the lowest level you get it, you'll be able to very plausibly craft some bruisers that are going to overshadow the party Barbarian in tanking and damage outlay, but access to corpses is probably going to be very tightly controlled.
Level 11: You have Create Undead. And you know what? You don't care. You have Ghoul Gauntlet as well, and you just don't care. You can't do jack with Ghouls, and a caster level bonus just gets you Ghasts (which also don't matter).
Level 15: You can make Mummies with Create Undead. This is important, because Mummies are hard core. Also, the rules for Mummy Lords are extremely vague, but could be read to allow you to use this spell to bring your friends back to life. You also get Shadows with Create Greater Undead. That's key, because 3 out 4 of the CR 15 monsters in the Fiend Folio are still completely powerless against a single Shadow.
Level 18: You can now make much larger incorporeal undead, which doesn't really matter because while Incorporeality is an automatic win against many enemies, even a Spectre can't survive in the environment of CR 18 monsters that can hurt it. More importantly, you can make a Mohrg. Mohrgs are pathetic losers who are so weak that you don't even get XP for killing them. However, they turn any monsters they kill into Zombies under their control with no hit die limit. This means that with patience you can use your Mohrg at home as a complex Deathknell effect that gives you powerful zombies. Your house Mohrg is a coup de grace machine that makes Zombies for you.
The Importance of being Desecrated Desecrate is an effect that is of astounding importance to a Necromancer. Any Undead created within a desecrated area gains an unnamed bonus to all its Hit Dice, and the cost of using it is minimal compared to actually making undead in the first place, so failing to desecrate before making undead is inexcusable. Desecrate can also be used to cut off an area from sacred power (whether it is sacred to a good or evil god even, so the fact that Good clerics can’t normally cast this spell is one of the many reasons that in official D&D: Evil Wins), and even makes turning checks more difficult. That includes Rebuking checks, so beware that your Desecrate aura is going to interfere in you controlling your own undead, so plan accordingly. Desecrate is not available as a Wizard spell, but its effects can be replicated by Black Water (from It’s Raining Outside) or Lesser Planar Binding (as always, mid-level fiends come to the rescue of the arcane necromancer – A Zovyut can desecrate all day for free if you happen to be an Infernal Bargainer, and a Maurezhi can just do it).
Unusual Undead Creation The standard methods of creation are all well and good for the average character, but what if you insist on thinking outside the box? That’s a possibility. Here are some undead creation methods you may not have thought of:
Spawn: Spawning isn’t just for controlling one Shadow with your Rebuking and then making a chain of spawn that will conquer the world beneath an ephemeral boot. Oh, it does do that, but did you know that the control the spawning creature gains over its progeny is an instantaneous effect that triggers at the time the power is used? That means that you can use shapechange to pick up the Spawn ability of your favorite high-end undead monster, and make as many minions as you want that will serve you forever, even after your spell has worn off and you go back to being a halfling in a bathrobe.
Create Undead Warrior: In Unapproachable East there’s a spell called create undead warrior that has no cap on how many undead it can create, and which gives you full control over what it makes. The undead warriors are kind of disappointing, having no Con and a penalty to Int and Cha, the potential of lost feats, and only a modest Strength bonus to make up for the pantsing (btw, what you really want to make is Drow Rogue Undead Warriors, because that takes best use of their few advantages). Also it costs a ridiculously large amount of XP (though no money) to activate the spell. So on the face of it, you’d never do that right? Well, you’re not going to pay that XP. Rather than playing Thought Bottle cheese, you’re going to spellstitch this spell, because it’s a 6th level Arcane Necromancy spell. Then you don’t pay the XP cost, and you can make one Undead Warrior every day for the rest of your life to join your army for free with no limit to your control pool. This would initially be so cheesy that we wouldn’t even suggest it, except that it’s in the flavor text of the spell that the leader of the Thayan Necromancer, Szass Tam himself, is already doing just that. Weird, huh?
Necrocarnum Necrocarnum allows you to make hats that bind to your soul and allow you to make a Necrocarnum Zombie that is really quite good. You can only have one at a time, and creating one does a pile of damage to you that can’t be healed as long as the Zombie is active. That sounds like it would be problematic, but actually it isn’t because you just cast False Life before making a Necrocarnum Zombie and take the damage to (temporary) hit points that you couldn’t heal anyway. Problem solved. Like all things Incarnum, if you’re willing to spend a very long time reading the book and then an equally long time explaining to your DM how it works, you can have a very effective power set with just a small level dip into an Incarnum class.
Interestingly, there is an entire Necrocarnate PrC that supposedly advances your zombie making. It doesn’t. The ability to make Necrocarnum Zombies for less lost HP is meaningless because as previously noted, noone actually spends HP for Incarnum Zombies. If you want a Necrocarnum Zombie, take a level dip and don’t look back.
Some Surprisingly Good Undead: Not all undead are created equal, and when you apply those templates, creatures will arbitrarily gain and lose all kinds of stuff. For example, a Remorhaz is ungodly vicious for their hit die. The heat is an Ex ability that improves their basic attack, so they keep it while a skeleton somehow. It’s nasty. Also, don't forget that any form of Giant Kitty is horribly powerful because pouncing in D&D is so very very effective.
Generally, it’s good to keep in mind what kinds of creature will pull through with the best advantages. Here are a few:
Hydras make good Zombies. A zombie loses the ability to make a full attack because it can only make a standard attack or a 3rd edition style partial charge each round. That’s fine for a Hydra, because they arbitrarily have the ability to attack with every head as a standard attack anyway! They don’t lose anything by becoming a zombie, and when you Awaken them, they get back Fast Healing, which is good times.
Outsiders make good Zombies Zombies gain natural armor on top of their existing natural armor, so Outsiders made into Zombies go from very hard to hit to crazy-go-nuts hard to hit. Start with a Green Slaad, say, and its AC jacks up to 26. Start with a Marilith and its AC goes up to 32! Planetars only have 14 Hit Dice... you know where this is going, right?
This fact neatly puts Zombies into the "damage soaker" category of monster. If you can find T-rex style monsters with single large attacks and great AC, these Zombies can be quite competitive with their Skeleton brothers.
If you’re going to Awaken something, start with a Hellwasp Swarm Skeleton! Oddly enough, you can make a swarm into a skeleton. Once you use Awaken Undead, it gets its EX abilities back, and those are alarming. Fun tactics include...wait for it.....MAKING ZOMBIES! Not only are you bypassing the whole "caster level limit" business by making crazy HD Zombies with each Hellwasp Swarm, but you get to Dominate Monster as well.
You might even want to Revive Undead your Hellwasp Swarm every time it dies. Losing HD is actually good, since you then can eventually animate and control more Hellwasp Swarms.
Skeletons mostly keep their Movement Forms, and Zombies keep all of them. That means that a Bulette can still burrow, for example, just as a Scrag can still swim. That’s quite a bit of mobility you can pick up. Run around with a Thoqua Skeleton and you have a tunnel-maker on a stick, as their burrow specifically makes tunnels.
Skeletons don't get flying unless your DM thinks that they fly "magically". What this exactly means is beyond me, but it generally means that you can have a flying beholder skeleton but not a flying griffin skeleton. Zombies are all good if you reach a level high enough to cast Animate Dead and all you want is a cheapo flying mount.
Basic Necromancer (Cleric) If you just take a bunch of Cleric levels one after another you get a substantial pile of necromantic abilities as long as you are at best Neutral. The investment of a fair amount of cash into Rebuking bonuses is quite a deal, as these items are generally substantially underpriced. And of course as a Cleric you automatically know every Cleric spell ever, which means that you know General of Undeath and Undead Lieutenant whether you like it or not. So by high level, you’ll have the ability to raise a horde of the undead that can topple nations on accident. Making a “build” out of this is therefore fairly redundant. You can grab some good Domains like Evil (but you should stay away from the Death Domain unless you’re Good, because its power is dumb and it doesn’t give you any spells you don’t know) or Deathbound. All of your feats are pretty much not spoken for, so you invest them in absolutely anything. It can even be crazy hook-up feats that make you good at Perform. I don’t even care. Ultimately it won’t be acceptable to take any PrC unless it advances spellcasting and Rebuking (few do), but you could accept no BAB advancement at all once you hit 8th level – you can replace your BAB with that of a Fighter of your total level (thanks Divine Power!). Strongly consider using some Divine Metamagic Persistent cheese, as Rebuking is something that you generally don’t use on a day-to-day basis.
Basic Necromancer (Wizard) Much of Arcane Necromancy is actually Conjuration. Major Creation, Lesser Planar binding, and of course, Gate are all in the school of Conjuration even though they are absolutely invaluable to the Arcane Necromancer, meaning that Conjuration will absolutely not be on your banned school list. Evocation, on the other hand, probably will be (unless you are an Uttercold Assault Necromancer).
The first couple of levels of Necromancy are actually kind of crappy. Shivering Touch (Lesser) is nice to put into a spell storing weapon, but it’s no great shakes on its own. Being a 1st or 2nd level Necromancy specialist is kind of painful. The best spell on your list is Cause Fear, a spell that makes people who make their save shaken for a round. But Color Spray and Sleep are the kings of low level offense and everyone knows it. 2nd level spells give more to work with, handing out Blindness and Ghoul touch which are fine and upstanding Save-or-Die spells. At 3rd level you get Vampiric Touch and Shivering Touch (which kills Dragons right dead in one hit, it’s quite humorous). At 4th level you finally get Animate Dead, but you don’t care because if you were going that way you’d be a Cleric or Dread Necromancer instead. The real charm here is Fear, because that is a cone-shaped Save-or-Die that has no hit die cap. At 5th level, you get Magic Jar, and then you never need another spell effect ever because you can take your enemies over and use their abilities.
The key here is that you are a master of Save-or-Dies. People who fail their saves don’t get to act anymore. You want to maximize your Save DCs and Intelligence is of course primary. You don’t get any class features worth noting except spellcasting after 6th level, so you want to PrC out. It doesn’t really matter where you go with it, take a level of Mindbender, or start climbing up Gondian Techsmith. You already have the only things you will ever care about (Spell Focus and GSF: Necromancy) by the time you hit 6th level.
At high level, you can take Archmage. This allows you to get your spells as spell-like abilities. It’s tempting to get something like Animate Dead, but you need to resist that. Take Major Creation instead. Use it to make cages around people that steal their souls when they die. Then use the souls for item crafting.
The Leader (Dread Necromancer): Dread Necromancers can’t even raise undead until 8th level, but when they get there they get a +2 bonus to hit points on all their undead hit dice that noone else gets and a higher hit die cap than anyone is comfortable with. They also Rebuke Undead and can Control Undead as well. From 8th level on, therefore, they are the skeleton horde platform. If you don’t have to survive those first couple levels, a Dread Necromancer can invest nothing whatsoever into melee combat and simply take all their feats and sink them into Corpse Crafting.
Master of Shrouds (Cleric) What you are supposed to do with Master of Shrouds is to take 6 levels of Cleric and then hop into Master of Shrouds. Don’t do this. The actual prereq is that you have a Will Save of +5, you can have that at 3rd level if you multiclass. You can be a Master of Shrouds at level 4, and while that may not sound impressive, the fact that you’re getting access to those incorporeal monsters 3 levels early is a big deal. Everything that a Master of Shrouds conjures is designed to be slightly underpowered at the level you’re supposed to get it. But 3 levels ago it would have been really handy.
So for your first 2 levels, you’ll be a Cleric. You’ll take Spell Focus: Conjuring and Augment Summoning, which is just plain setting feats on fire. But you’re a cleric, you don’t really care, because you can heal yourself and wear heavy armor. You’re only missing 1 BAB on a fighter and your two domains probably give you something faintly cool. Then you’ll take Hexblade or something similar to boost your base Will Save. I won’t insult you by pretending that this gives you good abilities, but at this point you are surviving as a warrior archetype anyway so it’s not a big deal. At 4th level you hurt, because you’re still only casting 1st level spells and your BAB is only +2. There’s really nothing good you can say at this point. But at fifth level you start being able to produce Shadows in large numbers as standard actions. That’s completely playable all the way up to 13th level where you are popping Dread Wraiths out and have 5th level spells. It’s no good after that of course, the undead summonings stop scaling and you are a whole spell level behind for an increasingly marginalized benefit – but there are a lot of games that exist in the 5th – 13th level range and this is a valid character in those arenas. Beckon the Frozen is a nice little feat you pick up at 6th level because being immune to cold is nice, but 1d6 cold damage on a shadow as a touch attack is just mean.
The Tank (Dread Necromancer) A Dread Necromancer Tank is the party’s front line fighter for much of her career. A combination of bottomless healing, easy access to temporary HPs, and DR/”you won’t beat this”, she basically soaks damage better than any character in the game.
Uttercold Assault Necromancer (Wizard) The ultimate goal is to cast spells with the Cold Subtype that do half negative energy damage, while you and all your undead minions are immune to cold and healed by negative energy damage. Basically, this is done with Energy Substitution[cold] (a prereq for Lord of the Uttercold) and the feat Lord of the Uttercold. Then you put up Walls of Fire(uttercold) and you and all your minions dance around in them like Homer Simpson at the American Embassy regaining all your hit points every round and inflicting real evocation-style damage on your enemies. It’s hilarious. You can burn lots of feats and be a blaster mage at high levels, or take Beckon the Frozen to get cold-subtyped undead with Summon Undead that you heal with uttercold, but the essential build is two feats (though you are required to be undead or take Tomb-tainrted Soul if you want in on the fun).
For people who like numbers, look at your favorite Evocation modified by a resonable amount of Sudden or Rod-based Metamagic(or even vanilla metamagic). Then imagine your cold-immune undead like Skeletons or cold-Subbed Zombies like Frost Giants taking 1/2th of that damage each round as healing. A simple thought exercise is the 10th level Wizard with a vanilla Empowered Cold-subbed Fireball: average damage to your enemies is 15d6 (52.5 points of damage), with a save for half, and an average of 26 points of healing for every one of your minions. Makes Inflict look like crap, right?
Now, lets play this excercise with a real blaster mage: A 12th level Sorcerer with the feats from Races of the Dragon that drop metamagic costs and speed metamagic and a Rod-Maximised, Twinned Fireball: a flat 120 points of damage with a save for half and a flat 60 points of healing. Thats not even counting a once per day Sudden Empower for an extra 10d6 (35 damage, save for half, and an extra 17 points of healing).
Even if you don't want to be a blaster mage or don't want to sling together complex battle plans involving Walls of Fire(uttercold) to heal your minions and hurt your enemies, the ability to cast a single Wall of Fire after every combat to heal all your minions and perhaps yourself is an invaluable Necromantic aid.
Level by Level Progressions: The abstracts on playing the basic necromancers are fine and all, but here’s playing them in a bit more detail:
Cleric First Level: This is where you have to make the big decisions in build priorities. If you’re in the FRCS, you have to select a god. Anyone else can just grab some domains and go. There are a lot of stupid domains, and only a few good ones. The Evil Domain adds to your Caster Level, and the Deathbound Domain increases the size of your eventual undead horde by 50%. That’s a good start, and may require you to worship Afflux, depending upon the whim of your DM. You get your starting feat, and you select a race and skills. Pick some that will eventually lead you to wherever you want to go Prestige Class wise. You have very few options that raise Rebuking and Casting. You could start investing cross class into Ride to eventually get into Bone Knight I suppose. You can start in with the Corpse Crafting. It doesn’t do anything right now, but in the long run you need to sink a lot into Corpsecrafting before you care.
You can’t even draw a melee weapon and move with the same action, because you have a BAB of +0. And as a starting character you can’t afford any good armor. So you’re kind of a placeholder character at this point. Carry a shield with some javelins on it. Throw javelins at anyone far away. Draw your morningstar and club anyone who gets too close. Life is cheap at 1st level, don’t sweat it.
Second Level: There are no choices at this level. You can finally afford to have decent armor made for you, and you now have a BAB, so you’re the Tank. Pure and simple, you’ll wander up and hit things with a stick. You’ll have to prepare cure spells if you want to heal people, but remember to only cast cures out of combat (during combat you have better things to do).
Third Level: You select a Feat. This will probably be more corpse crafting. You now have Hold Person, so for no reason you are a badboy spellcaster now.
Fourth Level: You’ve continued to gain BAB and are kind of hard d’core in melee. Also your Save-or-Dies still matter a lot, so you’re just ambiently good at anything you do for no reason.
Fifth Level: You now have Animate Dead. Your Corpse Crafting suddenly pays off as you can make Undead in Desecrated areas with big bonuses to everything they do.
Sixth Level: You get another Corpse Crafter Feat. You’ll continue to do that until you run out of minor bonuses to give to your undead.
Seventh Level: Suddenly you can outfight any Fighter because you have Divine Power. That continues to be true from now on…
Dread Necromancer First Level: This is where you have to make the big decisions in build priorities. You have to choose your skills. One of these skills is going to be Intimidate (more on that later), and if you ever want a prestige class you'll have to start working on it now (You could do worse than working towards Divine Oracle by taking Knowledge: Religion, Wild Mage by taking Spellcraft, or Mind Bender by taking social skills). Otherwise you can get pretty much anything you want. Unless you're human or a human with glowing blue eyes, you're only going to have one feat. That feat is going to be Tomb Tainted Soul, because not having that feat is unacceptable. Finally, you get to choose a martial weapon - and in all deference to the really hot Asian necromancer picture, that weapon is under no circumstances going to be an axe. You are going to have proficiency with the composite longbow.
Combat at first level for a Dread Necromancer is nasty and brutish, much like it is for a Rogue. You'll try to keep things at range as much as possible because you're soft and squishy. When it does come to melee, you're going to dish out big damage. Your Charnel Touch is a touch attack, so it is substantially more likely to land than a sword attack from a ranger of your level (they have +1 BAB on you, but how many creatures have less than a point of armor and natural armor?), and depending on your DM's reading of the ability - may do more damage. The key is whether Charnel Touch is an attack action or a standard action, it is heavily implied to be an attack action but this is unclear in the text. You can combine a Charnel Touch with a touch spell such as Chill Touch (making you do as much damage in melee as a Rogue's Sneak Attack with a longsword), but your DM may rule that you have to spend a round "powering up," so ask before you get into combat.
You're still running in there with the crappy light armor you can afford (studded leather), and 6 + Con HP, so even your high damage output shouldn't trick you into getting into melee much. Of course, any combat you survive causes you no damage, as you'll just Charnel Touch yourself back to full life during even a minute of down time. Touching yourself is a standard action, after all.
Level 2: There are no choices to make at all once you hit level 2. All of your skills advance, and you don't have any feats or proficiencies to select.
But combat is a whole new world for you, as you now have DR 2/ Bludgeoning and Magic. By this point you've probably gotten your hands on a masterwork chain shirt, and you're what passes for a decently resilient melee combatant. Your rebuking is now powerful enough to command basic skeletons, and your BAB is still only a point behind the fighters. So you still dish out the pain like a Rogue, but now you're survivable - so run in there and start slapping people.
Level 3: There is a very large choice at this level: your new feat. The obvious choice is to just take Arcane Disciple every feat from now until you've exhausted all the domains of your favorite god. I won't fault you for doing that, but you can also get some good effect out of Weapon Finesse (as it modifies touch attacks), and if you're thinking long term you might want to go for Mounted Combat as you will eventually be able to pull some tricks with undead warbeasts that are alarming.
Combat is pretty similar at 3rd level to 2nd, but the monsters are tougher. You won't have gotten noticeably better at melee (unless you took Weapon Finesse), but you now have the ability to pull a combat muligan - you are within 5 feet of yourself by definition, so if melee is turning against you a burst of negative energy will heal you and hurt them - that's all good.
Level 4: Level 4 is where you start being a halfway decent caster, and your big character choice reflects that. You can dumpster dive throughout the whole of D&D and find any Necromancy spell off the Cleric or Wizard list from any book. Good choices include Lesser Shivering Touch (which can again be combined with Charnel Touch) from Frost Burn, and Faerun has a number of nice offerings such as Stone Bones, Spirit Worm, Death Armor, and Shroud of Undeath can all be pretty useful. The Spell Compendium is a good place to go shopping, but this is a very personal choice.
We're not even going to pretend that your "Mental Bastion" makes a difference, so combat is going to be livened up by your increased BAB and your second level spells. False Life is key, remember that your DR is applied before you lose temporary hit points, so you're pretty much the tank at this point.
Special Note: Once you attain 4th level, you will continue to accrue new spells known every 4 levels even if you take a +1 caster level PrC. Gaining new levels for the purpose of learning new spells is awesome for a Dread Necromancer.
Level 5: There are no choices at 5th level, but this is where your intimidate finally pays off. A character with max ranks of Intimidate usually succeeds at intimidating things, and anything that gets into melee with you has to make a Will save or become Shaken (as written, you can jolly well just use the fear aura again and again, stacking up fear effects until your opponent becomes panicked or makes a Will Save, but we'll assume for the moment that your DM will limit you to one booga-booga a round), and if it works you can spend your action intimidating them, which stacks their Fear up to Frightened, so they lose their action running out of melee while you slap them in the back of the head. It's quite an effective "juggle" to use fighting game lingo.
Level 6: This is a level where you get a feat, and that means that you have a lot of choices again. You could get Leadership, or Skill Focus: Knowledge Religion, or Death Blow (see below), or anything else you need to get into a PrC at level 9.
Combat doesn't change for you much from your new "ability". Scabrous Touch is pretty much crap, so it's not important that you have it (though you can combine it with your basic attack so it doesn't cost you anything). You can't use it to generate any of the good diseases like Ghoul Fever or Festering Hate unless you have a very generous DM. You're gonna throw in Blinding Sickness unless you want to try to kill an animal with Mindfire, but don't get your hopes up. Once again, your life revolves around the spells you just got. With Vampiric Touch and Death Ward, your tanking expertise is way up there.
Special Note: You can cast spells while using a Mithril Breastplate, so by now you should own one and wear it all the time.
Level 7: You have only one choice at this level: your familiar. There are two good choices: Quasit and Ghostly Visage. The Ghostly Visage is the combat choice, because it makes you immune to mind affecting effects and uses your level as its Hit Dice to generate a save DC for a gaze attack that paralyzes your enemies. Quasit is the less-combat choice because it gives you Commune, unlimited Detect Magic, and can still hand out quite sizeable amounts of Dex damage and its 1/day fear stacks with your fear aura.
Combat has changed for you utterly. Your DR has become bigger and you have a familiar that accentuates your combat strategy greatly (either making enemies helpless as the Ghostly Visage is wont to do, or by adding Dex damage to the pile as the Quasit can).
Level 8: Once again, you are stuck with choices. You select a new spell to go with your shiny 4th level spells. Shivering Touch is a dragon killer - 3d6 Dex damage will drop many enemies. But you're also going to probably want to de-emphasize your melee role now that you can make high quality flying mounts. Undead Mastery is high quality, because it makes your Control Undead ginormous. You also get a second Negative Energy Burst each day, but this is more for emergency healing than it is for harming enemies.
Level 9: You now prestige class out, because there are no more good Dread Necromancer abilities for a long time.
Wizard: Level 1: So your big Wizardly choice is already made. You’re specializing in Necromancy! If you weren’t, you probably wouldn’t be this far into the Necromancy Handbook, now would you? You need to pick two banned schools. Since this isn’t the Uttercold Assault build, you’re going to drop Evocation. You’re probably going to drop Enchantment or Illusion (those schools pretty much do the same thing – completely own creatures that aren’t immune to mind affecting magic). At this, and every later level, you’ll have to select some spells. You also have to select spells every day from your spell book. You specialize in Save-or-Die spells. An enemy that fails a save vs. Cause Fear is going to be killed by your party without ever landing another attack. And you should accentuate that by taking other spells with a similarly deadly motif so you can mix it up. Grease isn’t good until you get a few levels, but Color Spray and Sleep are extremely deadly right now. Whichever one isn’t from your banned school is the one you’ll go with. As a Wizard you don’t have anything to horde except Spellcasting, so you have dozens of workable PrCs. And you have a lot of skill points to burn because the only skill you actually need is Spellcraft. Pick a PrC (I like Gondian Techsmith) and go for it.
Level 2: Your combat role hasn’t changed at all. But you have 4 1st level spells each day instead of 3, and that makes a big difference.
Level 3: You now have 2nd level spells to throw around, and that’s good times. That gives you a whole new world of whupass. But don’t limit yourself to just Necromancy, as your Conjuration is also filled with joy and cream. Grease is now important (3 turns of flatfootedness will geek most enemies in melee), and you have access to Web or Glitterdust. The obvious thing to do would be to take Greater Spell Focus: Necromancy, but you could make an argument for taking Spell Focus: Conjuration as well.
Level 4: Your tactical role changes in no way. You are still the artillery.
Level 5: You have 3rd level spells, which means that you can kill Dragons. Remember that your familiar can deliver Touch Spells, including Shivering and Vampiric touch. You get a bonus feat, which will probably be Extend Spell or Craft Wondrous Item, depending entirely upon whether your DM is more likely to allow you to cheese out the Slay Mate (2 rounds of Shakening when people make their save vs. Fear is good times), or the Soul Crafting Rules.
Level 6: You now have a variety of 3rd level spell options. Also you pick up a feat. This will probably be blown on something that you don’t care about at all in order to get into a PrC. It could be anything. Initiate of the Sevenfold Veil or something. It doesn’t even matter.
Level 7: Wizard doesn’t give you anything at this level except a caster level. No BAB, no Saves, no class features, nothing. So if you can PrC out here, you should do that.
Feats for the Necromantically-Inclined Now that you’d decided that hanging out with the unliving and stealing souls is your bag, you’re stuck with the nitty gritty of details of day-to-day Necromancy. Here are the feats you’ll want to consider, as well a few that fool people, in no order:
Corpsecafter: This feat is the bee’s knees. Not only are your skeles stronger and harder to hit, but they get what they need to minimize their one weakness: extra HPs. The other feats in this line of feats are nice, but this one really stands out as a must-have for the dedicated Necromancer.
Nimble Bones: This is a nice feat, as its adds a +10 speed and an initiative boost to your undead. If you add in that skeletons get Improved Initiative and a Dex bonus, this means you will almost always win initiative with them, basically giving you first strike on your enemies. Destructive Retribution: This is a feat that I’m really torn about. In a nutshell, it makes any undead you create with a Necromancy spell explode into small amounts of negative energy damage when they die (meaning free undead created with spell-likes and Supernatural abilities are right out). While some people have tried to optimize the heck out of this, it basically means that you are turning all your undead into suicide bombers. Frankly, it’s a bad idea to allow good undead like giants or hydra to ever explode; you want to keep those guys around. On the flip side, abundant crap undead like kobold skeletons can basically bum-rush single enemies for massive damage, or you do the same thing for massive healing for your good undead. Basically, if you are paying for your undead, then don’t do it; if your undead are free with something like Fell Animate, go crazy and fill up your unused HD cap on Animate Dead with tiny piñatas of negative energy. If you are undead or Tomb-tainted, they can even be bite-sized snacky treats for free healing.
Fell Animate: Alright, some suckers think you take those +3 spell levels and pop them onto a Fireball and go around raising Zombies during your normal blasting: that’s not true. This feat is one of the easy ways to avoid paying for the onyx to create undead and to get your Zombies a little earlier. Pop it onto a damaging touch attack cantrip and Coup De Grace your enemies and its free undead for you. An even better situation is to use Divine Metamagic on this feat (two human zombies at first level!).
Lichloved: Despite the icky connotations of this feat, the actual ability is pretty useful. It makes unintelligent undead ignore you. Normally, this is a non-ability, since you any time you encounter this flavor of undead you want to be casting Command Undead or using Rebuking to control them, and the ability to have them ignore you isn’t going to help the party. The real use is that you can keep rooms of unintelligent undead in your lair for two uses: shock troops to wear down invaders, and short-term fodder controlled by your spells/rebuking. Planar Touchstone(The Shrine of Acererak): Ok, assuming you don’t mind doing a sidequest (and possibly getting XP for it), this is a fine little feat. Basically, you get all the effects of Lichloved without having to be Evil or have carnal knowledge of the undead. On top of that, you get a Suggestion-like ability to control an undead creature that’s usable once a day (5 times total before you have to go back to the site and French-kiss a statue. I’m not even joking).
Planar Touchstone(Catalogues of Enlightenment): Ok, assuming you don’t mind doing a sidequest (and possibly getting XP for it), this is another fine little feat. It grants the ability of a Domain and with a high Wis you can cast a spell of the domain once per day (3 time total before you have to go back and spend days or weeks doing paperwork). Basically, this a great way to get a domain power for an arcane caster, as well as a great way for high Wisdom characters to get access to spells not normally on their list (like Desecrate, Awaken Undead or Revive Undead). Necromantic Presence: For a non-Rebuking character, this is a fine way to get +4 Turn Resistance to your nearby undead, an amount large enough that you can really feel it. For a Rebuking character, this is a shot in the foot (see Rebuking section). Overall, it probably not worth the cost, even if you get Necromantic Might. Necromantic Might: An odd little feat, to be sure. First, you have to have Necromantic Presence, so you don’t have rebuking. That being said, the feat gives nearby undead a +2 enhancement bonus to attack rolls and saves, which means it won’t stack with any GMW magic weapons you might hand to your giants, but it works great on your hydras. The save bonus is also nice and it stacks with almost everything.
Deadly Chill: Another of the Corpsecrafter feats, this grant a d6 of cold damage to a corporeal undead’s natural attacks. Is this pretty good? Sure, a lot of your skeles and zombies will not use weapons. Is it worth a whole feat? Probably not. Any creature with Cold Resistance 5 will ignore you, and this is an ability not used by all your undead. In a game where you get around five feats ever, this one just doesn’t make the cut.
Bolster Resistance: Yet another way to add +4 Turn Resistance to your undead. Its good, but not crazy good. A bonus vs an ability that won’t come up that often is a waste of a good feat. Hardened Flesh: This is a flat +2 natural armor bonus for your created undead, which is useless as it doesn’t stack with any other natural armor bonus you might get (as it doesn’t use the “increase natural armor by X” or “enhancement bonus to natural armor” terminology). Unless you can convince your DM to improve this feat, it’s a joke. Even if you can convince him to turn it into a flat increase, it’s a small bonus and unless the creature’s AC is already crazy high, this isn’t worth it.
Profane Vigor: This is a pretty good deal if you haven’t found a good way to heal your undead. Essentially, you burn a Rebuking use to heal all undead of small to moderate amounts of damage. While it’s a joke for combat healing, it does heal enough damage that it makes a good way to burn rebuking attempts after a battle (assuming you don’t expect to meet any undead the rest of the day). Stitched Flesh Familiar: This feat is useless unless you are planning on Spellstitching your familiar, and then its awesome. Use it on a raven and you get to keep the great parts of a Raven(flying, speaking) and lose the dumb parts (+3 bonus to Appraise checks). The raven also becomes undead, which most likely makes it easier to heal. Tomb-tainted Soul: Since most Necromancers invest in a method to heal their undead with negative energy, this is a way to benefit from that without becoming undead yourself (though you lose healing from positive energy). The rest of the feats in this chain are an exercise in burning real feats for extra flavor text. Nuff said.
Spell Focus(Evil): A trap, since it doesn’t stack with Spell Focus.
Malign Spell Focus: If you’re evil, it’s a great way to add another +1 DC to a bunch of your Necromancy spells.
Undead Leadership: Its just like Leadership, but slightly bigger for undead mooks and much smaller for living mooks. The only thing going for it is that you can get Leadership as well as this feat. Lord of the Uttercold: This feat is the basis for the Uttercold Assault Necromancer, so if you are a wizard you will take this feat in order to turn your damaging Evocations into healing for your skeles, hurting your enemies and healing your skeles with the same action. Arcane Disciple: For an arcane caster, this is a great way to get access to a few key clerical spells like Desecrate. Don’t forget that you need a high Wisdom.
Profane Boost: This feat lets you maximize an Inflict spell for the cost of a Rebuking attempt. I’m not sure if it take a standard action to use, so if it does then this is an after-battle boost to any Inflict-based healing you might do. If not, then it’s a worthwhile combat feat.
There's lots of odds and ends in the Necromancer's arsenal, and many of them can be potential rules headaches. They go here.
What are Souls good for? As a Necromancer Wizard, you will often end up with the souls of your enemies lying around. While in your possession, the people whose souls you have can’t be brought back to life by normal means, but they can be used to get in your stuff in other ways. Souls, therefore, are basically a liability to keep around the house, and should be disposed of as quickly as possible. Fortunately, a soul can be destroyed by using it as a spell component or item creation component. The benefits are small (you get like 10 bonus XP or a +10 bonus to a spell resistance roll), but a destroyed soul can’t be brought back to life by any means. That’s good times.
If you want to get souls in your possession, there’s the old standby of Magic Jar. But if you want a little more security in your life there’s Major Creation. It can produce special materials, including thinaun (from the Complete Warrior), a metal that traps the soul of anyone killed next to it. The metal evaporates after not very long, but that’s plenty of time to destroy the soul utterly casting a Chill Touch that is virtually impossible to resist.
Becoming Undead Yourself There are a number of Undead templates that can be added to your character, with variable costs. Some of these templates have a substantial cost now and no cost in the future. Some templates have a huge cost in the future and no cost in the future. Which you will want will depend entirely upon how long the game is going to progress. Becoming a Vampire costs no XP and makes you lose nothing at all – but you also gain no XP for doing it and your rate of XP growth goes down and your ECL is five levels higher. So if you become a vampire, you’ll never gain another level for the entire duration of the campaign – which is no cost at all in a one-off game. On the flip side, becoming a Necropolitan costs you a level right now (it can’t cause you to lose 2 levels. If you’re 2nd level when you use the ritual you die, and if you are 3rd level or higher the 1,000 XP loss isn’t enough to make you lose 2 levels. I don’t even know why that rule is in there), but since you’re adventuring with characters who are higher level than you, you’re gaining more XP than the rest of the PCs. You’ll catch up in a few levels, and then have all the power for nothing.
Liches get all the fun and all the women, but it is up in the air as to whether you are supposed to pay levels in addition to the massive GP and XP cost. If your GM plays it that way, don’t be a Lich. Otherwise, do it. A Dread Necromancer looks like they hand out Lichdom for free at 20th level, but the class is only 8 levels long so that ability doesn’t really exist. The fact that there aren’t any good class features at level 9,10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, or 19 completely invalidates the genuine awesome that exists at level 20. You could have had the 10th level of a transformative PrC some time ago.
Once you become Undead, it is imperative that you become Spell Stitched. That gives out Spell-like abilities, and can be a convenient way to get free Animate Dead. You can also go far by making your Raven into an Undead Raven with the Stitched Flesh Familiar feat and then Spellstitching him. Remember to hang a Periapt of Wisdom on your bird just before the template is applied, as the template only checks the wisdom of the creature while it is being written, not the rest of the time.
Stacking Fear There are three levels of Fear in the game: Shaken (which provides minor penalties), Frightened (which makes people lose all their actions until they leave LOS of the necromancer), and Panicked (which makes people lose all their actions, move randomly, and drop their swag for the duration). If you can apply a Shaken effect to someone already affected by Fear, they move up one category of terror.
The Precise Rules about Clerics and Domains Every so often, a Cleric Domain will give out a spell that you have no business being able to cast, either because it isn’t on the Cleric list at all, or because it has an alignment subtype that would normally prevent your character from being able to cast it at all. That’s OK. As a Cleric you have a class feature to be able to prepare and cast 1 spell per level from your domain lists, which trumps any general rules that would keep you from casting it. So you can make Lawful Good Necromancer Clerics if you want. They won’t be very good, because they won’t have Rebuking and such, but if for some reason it’s really important to you, it can be done.
Ghoul Gauntlet screws you. Badly. Ghoul Gauntlet reduces your undead control limit. Maybe it’s not supposed to, but that is what it says. Here's the exact quote:
No matter how many ghouls you generate with this spell, however, you can control only 2 HD worth of undead creatures per caster level (this includes undead from all sources under your control). If you exceed this number, all newly created creatures fall under your control, and any excess undead from previous castings become uncontrolled
Is that a cut-and-paste error? Maybe. But as written, if you have your caster level in Ghouls and you cast Animate Dead to revive your caster level in gnoll skeletons, all the ghouls go uncontrolled even though you haven't exceeded your animate dead cap. It doesn't say "all castings of this spell" it says "all sources". It doesn't say "the newly created creature", it says "all newly created creatures" - even though this spell only creates one Ghoul at a time. That means that there really isn't an argument that can be made that Ghoul Gauntlet doesn't completely screw your control limit that doesn't fall back on "I'm sure that this is an editing mistake and this spell is supposed to be much better than it is."
And if that's the argument you're making, we can't help you.
Spell Compendium has an undated version of this spell that doesn't mess up your control pool, but still wants you to fill up your control pool with ghouls. Its less of a crap spell, but still on the side of crap.
Undead Fortresses: Ok, so you’ve decided to build a base of operations. There’s a few things to remember. First, despite what everyone tells you, you are not going to have walls made out of bone or permanently desecrated hallways or pools of blood or any of that dramatic and expensive accessory items of out of The Sims, Necromantic Style. You are going to build it along a few practical lines.
You will have “dead-man rooms”, which are rooms full of masses of uncontrolled undead, and you’ll have taken a feat or spell like Lich-loved so that you don’t have to worry about being eaten when you restock the rooms. Then, when heroes come to bust up your tea-party your “Hive” breaks open and destroys the heroes, and perhaps the nearest city as well despite the number of turning attempts or Command Undead spells they might have.
For your intelligent undead, which are most likely incorporeal, you’ll have deep stone floors and walls so that have space to pop in and out as needed, and even 5’ deep walls for “ghost doors” usable by incorporeal guys. (This takes advantage of the fact that incorporeal creatures can only move 5' through objects).
If your DM is using the optional rules on how masses of undead creates ambient Turn Resistance, then you can abuse the Haunting Presence rules by taking a large number of low-HD skeles and turning them into para-ghosts that mass the area, putting enough necromantic mojo into the air to clot the holy artery of any cheeky bastard with Turning (even you, unfortunately).
That’s about it. Add in a few summoning rooms and a hospital ward to inflict dudes which ghoul fever and/or harvest liquid pain, and you are the Martha Stewart of the necromantic world.
A fun way for Necromancers to boost DCs The easiest way to boost DCs is to take Snowcasting the Cold Specialization and Improved Cold Specialization feats. If you are willing to carry around ice (like a blue ice lined chest with regular ice), this is a +2 to all your spells for three feats, and your spells are cold subtyped, which is a nice bonus favor for an Uttercold Assault Necromancer.
If you are a Wizard, another option opens up. The 10th level Planar Substitution level of Wizard lets you slap on alignment subtypes onto your spells, and this adds a +1 to caster level and DCs when you cast spells on creatures with the opposed alignment, which upgrades to +2 if the spell naturally has that alignment (like adding Evil to an Evil spell). This is nice, but the real fun is when you get feats like Spell Focus(Evil) or Malign Spell Focus (or both). This adds some nice DCs to all your spells.
Add these two techniques together, which stack with Spell Focus and Improved Spell Focus, and you can take all your feats and set a little fire and dance around it and be the master of Save or Dies at 10th level. Other setting specific-feats can also add to these numbers.
The Deathbound Domain errata and a Desecrate area Most people don’t even know that the Deatbound domain was seriously changed in the errata, so it up to tell your DM about the change or not. That being said, some people are confused as to how the domain works with Desecrate, as the errata on the Deathbound domain power lets you create up to three times your caster level in undead per casting(instead of your double your caster level), and Desecrate allows you to create up to twice your usual limit of 2 HD per caster level of undead(instead of your caster level). You are thinking “How you they stack, if ever?” The answer is that we go to the rules in animate dead itself. When you cast the spell, you specifically control every creature you animate with that casting – losing only creatures from previous castings. This means that you actually can use you whole 6HD per caster level of animated dead – even though your control limit is only 4HD per caster level. This is pretty neat, as it allows a basic Necromancer to create undead armies in one go that are larger than what he can make in multiple steps. You can also make individual undead that are so large that to have a second undead servitor you’d need a Rod of Undead Mastery*.
A note on Undead Creation with a Rod of Undead Mastery Remember that undead creation is an instant effect that only checks your “max HD controlled” when you cast the spell, meaning you can cast the spell with the rod, then put down the rod to go to sleep and you won’t have to worry about undead becoming uncontrolled. You can pull similar tricks with temporary bonuses to your caster level, such as with Deathknell.
Creating Corpses. Using the powers of Stone to Flesh and Polymorph any Object you can create bodies, the exact item you need to be able to animate or otherwise create undead. What actually happens at this point is not addressed anywhere. What does it mean that you have the corpse of a creature that was never alive in the first place? Is a statue of a Pit Fiend capable of being made into elaborate undead forms to get its Wish ability “back”? Noone knows. This is a realm of the rules that aren’t addressed anywhere even a little bit. We wish you the best of luck.
Failing that, a conjuring circle for your Planar Binding spells set in the middle of about 12 killer magical traps is generally sufficient to create any kind of corpse you want. Go crazy.
Black Sand: Ok, Black Sand is a substance out of Sandstorm that’s both a magical location and an actual substance. Normally, you wander the desert for forty years until you find it, then you cry because it sucks for you and your party. In effect, it is an area of sand on the surface of normal sand and it produces magical darkness and a d4 in negative energy damage every round.
Not impressed? While it is nice to have a location that provides small amounts of healing over time to your undead, the really neat fact is that anyone killed by black sand joins the black sand. Since black sand can be temporarily created by a clerical spell, your job will be to find a way to get the spell cast on some normal sand, and then you drag your enemies onto it, thus allowing you the ability to create more black sand. This neatly avoids the problem of finding an initial area of black sand.
From this point on, you can carry around a large amount of black sand in a Portable Hole or something, or you can keep it in a Shrink Item form. Toss it at your enemies in Shrink Item form for its magical darkness properties, or keep it around as perfect healing for your undead after battles (or you, if you are undead or Tomb-tainted).
Necromantic Ballista are hilarious: Heroes of Battle has a fun little option for magical seige engines called the Necromantic property. Basically, you hit an area with a seige weapon shot, then it casts a spell that animates a bunch of uncontrolled zombies/skeles for 10 rounds and they attack the nearest person. For a cost of 3k on the encantment and 2k for initial enhancement, this is a great item to carrying around in Shrink Item form. If you are Lichloved, these guys won't even attack you.
Not to be picky, but you switch from talking about the Archivist to the Artifacer under "Other Spellcasting Classes". It's obvious you are talking about the Archivist, but I thought I'd mention it for the sake of cleanliness.
K]However there are some obscure loopholes you can exploit here. Nothing bad happens to Clerics if they cast spells with an opposed Alignment to their own, it’ wrote:
However there are some obscure loopholes you can exploit here. Nothing bad happens to Clerics if they cast spells with an opposed Alignment to their own, it’s just that such spells are not normally on their list. A Cleric who gets Undead Animating off of their domain lists or similar other sources can jolly well cast those spells even if they are Good. So if you happen to be a Lawful Good Cleric of Wee Jas, you channel positive energy but can still animate the dead (because you get all those Death Domain spells).
This isn't actually true. Spells with alignment descriptors opposed to a cleric's or their deity's alignment are still on their spell list. However, due to the Chaotic, Evil, Good, and Lawful section of their class abilities, they are not able to cast them regardless of that. This actually applies to all their spells, so even if they pick up the spell in a domain, they still can't cast it. (There isn't a negative effect to casting an opposed alignment spell because they just can't cast it in the first place.)
I feel that it is written quite aggressively and is very offensive. It brings across the impression that those choices it sees as optimized (in a general scenario though every scenario is specific) are such by virtue of some kind of obvious, undenyable truth and that disagreeing on any level would in the least be stupid, in the worst morally wrong. It never really discusses anything, merely states that this and that is so without offering counterarguments or any further scrutiny. One gains little understanding from such a text, but one may gain convictions however founded or unfounded those may be. This is not a handbook, this is a bible and that is not a good thing to be. I would advocate a more neutral language, something a bit more impartial and advising as opposed to judging and condemning.