A certain thread in the WotC-forum regarding a DM who wanted some advices, since he got a new player who wants to play a necromancy wizard, gave me the idea to speak about a thing, that has only little to do with D&D 5e. Even though I mainly reason within the 5e rules and setting.
The DM who opened that thread was mainly concerned about the 6th level feature: Undead Thralls, which gives Animate Dead as a known spell, an additional servant when casting said spell and some boost for any created undead spells due necromancy spells (including Finger of Death’ed zombies).
So I divide this post in 2 questions: Regarding necromancy by itself and about creating undead.
What is necromancy and why should it be considered evil? First of all, there are only 26 necromancy spells out of 362 spells in the PHB, since there are 8 schools of magic, you might think that it should be rather an eighth (about 45 spells), but actually it’s just about 7%. And 8 spells aren’t for wizards. Just so that you can consider it while reading the rest.
Necromancy is the school of life (but not healing, which is evocation), death and undeath. The PHB says, that not all necromancers are evil, but their forces are considered a taboo in many societies. But for what reasons? Well, a lot of spells are things, which you would only do to your worst enemies, but since a fireball isn’t a warm welcome either, but a flaming sphere of destruction, we might oversee the fact, that half the spells are about letting the target suffer (and one which can be used that way, but isn’t necessarily).
Then there are some spells which allows you to raise dead and Spare the Living, which normally would be called good. Somehow heretic, but generally good. As long it’s not a bad guy who get another life! Then there are some utility spells which are at least macabre (like Speak with Dead… no rest in peace here?) but generally neutral and finally the creating undead part, which will be discussed soon.
In the end I think it’s naturally that especially the border of life and death would be taboo by most societies. It’s here much less the aspect of being generally evil, but more like a healthy amount of respect and fear, since this is something the gods (which are present in most campaign settings; when playing Dark Sun there are other problems) should better handle. It’s simply the lack of knowledge, the religiosity and the bad examples of evil necromancers, which are regularly threaten the world, digging up up graveyards and killing people per necromancy or the created undead due that school of magic. And after getting killed by adventurers, there are villages to rebuild, corpses to be bury and more annoying work.
But in the end, necromancy is a tool and it’s more about how you use that magic than the possibilities itself.
What about creating undead? If necromancy isn’t necessarily evil, then undead shouldn’t be a problem either, right? Wrong, this is a different manner, since creating undead is one of the possibilities you can utilize with necromancy, so here we see the tool at work. So excusing necromancy won’t automatically excuse animating dead. But maybe the act itself is harmless enough to be considered at least neutral. Let’s see.
Morality: What’s right and wrong in a society is mostly bounded in the morally consensus in said society. So an act is good, when the society says it’s good and likewise for evil. So as long as the society acknowledge the use of undead, it’s not evil, like Karrnath or Aerenal in the Eberron campaign setting.
But maybe they’re wrong? There are some societies in D&D which do really, really bad stuff, like the drow of the Forgotten Realms. So maybe it won’t give us an absolute excuse, but at least a personal. So the necromancer can be proud of his art, while being a good aligned character, since this particular bit of magic is a normal thing for him/her. As long as the character shows a good alignment in other aspects, I’d agree to a good alignment as a DM.
God’s Order: Like I said, societies can be mislead, so before deciding how evil it is, to create undead, we better turn to an absolute point of view, beings which far outclasses any society and are flawless in the alignments: The gods! Here we have some good gods which were ready to have an interview about their perspective. Who would better know what’s really good than those cosmic forces which presents it?
- Mielikki: Hunt down the unnatural abominations!
- Tyr: Kill it!
- Pelor: I’d rather see those things burned. So please do it.
- Dol Dorn: There is some sword-work to do!
- Silver Flame: Aren’t they dead yet?!
OK, maybe we asked the wrong guys. But the neutral ones might get creating undead right into its neutral place!
- Aureon: It’s the Shadow, right?
- Blood of Vol: Yes, my philosophy is lawful neutral. Vol herself is not. Evil, you know…
- Kelemvor: I stand for death how it should be. No undead, if I can pretend it!
- Raven Queen: Right so! SMITE THEM!!!
- Wee Jas: I’m rather open, as long the deceased is or was willing.
Yes! Finally one! And now we look on the evil side, which is already waving at me, while having some rites ready, to… I’ll better skip them. Just because so-called gods are representing their alignment and domains and about every god of undead in the usual settings are evil, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily evil.
Just let’s ask another one, the one who should know more about undead than anyone else: Orcus, demon prince of undead! What are you thinking about… *getting hit by scepter, died miserably and multiple places at one time, arise as an undead mass* Be… undead-gooooooooood!
Real-life: After my fictional me had a case of undeath, I’ll just consider the real-life part of this case.
- In most countries it might be declared as desecration of corpses, so it’d be against the law
- You’d break another law, if you animate someone without its permission, since its either an act of slavery or theft (when argued that a corpse is an object)
- Most families won’t like their grandma anymore, when she was walking around while rotting or a skeleton and it might be a bit rude to her remembrance
- Even if it’s for a good cause, only few will acknowledge the means as ‘not evil’
OK, in most cases you might say, creating undead is evil and after taking some time how you would think about people who animate your dead friends and family members, saying “It’s for a good cause!” and taking them away to slay and be slayed by monsters, you know exactly why. Since our fiction is mostly based of reality (since we need models), our own morality compass is in most cases the one which is used for games.
As long as the target is willing, you might consider it as a not evil act and that’s OK. There are so many corpses, that a good character will only use them, as long there is another way, even if said way is much harder. Convenience shouldn’t dictate your doing, since your character is more than a lazy bum, who spends free-time at a table, playing with acquaintances and friends a make-believe with written rules. The PC has the abilities and the willpower to aim for higher levels, so there is plenty power left to be concerned about those things, if you play a good character.
But when necromancy is mostly evil, why is the necromancer in the PHB and the Death Domain not? Since the developers are seeing the Death Domain as a DM-tool for NPCs, since most deities which have it are evil, while they seem to thought it would be better to have all schools of magic as Arcane Traditions. And boosting your undead thralls is a great thing, since it makes the necromancer finally a better necromancer than a cleric (at least until the Death Domain comes into play)!
Personally I’d like the Death Domain in the PHB, since it’d mean less searching when creating a character… But oh well.
If you want to play a neutral or good necromancer, remember: Talk to the living beforehand or after their demise (teamwork with a Bard or Cleric or at least 3 levels in either one; or a 9th level warlock) and ask them if they’re willing to be useful as undead servants. Treat those undead with respect. Then it’s A-OK! 😉