In the Reborn campaign, I have played a cleric from 1st level to 12th, and because of how clerics work in that campaign, I also got the full boat of features from the Necromancer wizard tradition. What I discovered is that the Necromancer tradition almost never did anything useful for me. I think there are serious problems with the School of Necromancy, and in this post I’m both examining the problems and proposing an alternative.
Student of the Dark Arts
I want to break down the issues with each feature – though I have no problems, at present, with Inured to Undeath and Command Undead.
First off, I get that every tradition has a version of this as their first feature. That’s cool. Most features have more than two spells at each level. Necromancy doesn’t even get that many at some levels. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything offers a tiny bit of help here. Between the two books, it looks about like this (I might miss one or two):
- 3 spells, 1 damaging
- 3, 0 damaging
- 5, 1 damaging (not counting life transference as damaging). You get animate dead for free at 6th level.
- 1, 1 damaging
- 3, all of them in XGTE, 2 damaging
- 4, 1 damaging
- 1, 1 damaging
- 2, 1 damaging
- 1, 0 damaging
Point being, if you pick just one of your two free new spells at 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, 15th, and 17th levels to be in-school, Necromancy Savant doesn’t have much to offer you; some levels are rendered entirely barren. To this end, I’ve written a lot of necromancy spells of my own, in Tribality and in EN5IDER releases, over the years. Buy My Stuff is indeed my solution to this issue, not that the linked PDFs currently include necromancy. I’ll let you all know when I fix that.
Now we get to the meat of it.
Once per turn when you kill one or more creatures with a spell of 1st level or higher, you regain hit points equal to twice the spell’s level, or three times its level if the spell belongs to the School of Necromancy. You don’t gain this benefit for killing constructs or undead.
In the event that you kill more than one creature on your turn, well, bully for ya. But no payoff.
Outside of corner-case circumstances, you’re only killing anyone with your damaging spells. There are 8 necromantic damaging spells, not counting cantrips that do you no good for this feature. You’re basically trying to last-hit something, but you’re going out of school for most of your damage output until vampiric touch and blight.
The real problem is the on-kill trigger. Almost no DMs tell PCs in any detail how many hit points the monsters have left, so players aren’t making informed choices about who to target or how hard to hit. Your teammates, without meaning to, are entirely likely to block your use of this feature, even after you’ve probably sunk several spell-levels into softening the targets up. Confirmation bias is biased indeed, but I would swear that more than half of all my players’ kills include one player reducing the creature to 1 hit point.
The other… the necromancer is probably either at full health or super screwed, stray arrows notwithstanding. An occasional 2-3 hit points per spell level is probably not healing through their problems. If there were something that regularly cost the necromancer a small number of hit points, so they needed to top off again? We’ll give it a go in a minute.
Animate dead and the Undead Thralls feature mark this Tradition as a pet class of sorts, just one that regards its pets as eminently dispensable. You can functionally run a whole mess of minions at once, but these don’t scale well. You’re running skeletons or zombies with some extra hit points and a tiny bit of extra damage output, so even within the bounded accuracy of 5e, you’re getting to a point where this is mostly a ton of whiffing and tracking comparatively small pools of hit points. Anytime you can get a creature to target one of your pets instead of an actual party member is a win for you, but it’s a lot of gameplay slowdown for little overall return. That’s a general problem with classes built around multiple controlled creatures. (Conversations about various iterations of the Beast Master are… for another time.)
Further, undead are hated and feared in almost all D&D settings. Unless you have a party that doesn’t object and you stay away from NPC population centers, you’re going to be in a lot of situations where you can’t have any undead pets active. This means you’re turning off what “should” be a key piece of your action economy (your bonus action to command the pets) and gameplay dynamic, almost as much as the fighter who has to go somewhere out of armor. I’m guessing the necromancer is the fish out of water a lot more often than the fighter, though, so it’s not a great foundation for a playstyle.
What I want to see is a further paragraph that opens with “when you do not have any undead under your control…” See, I think there’s a major necromancer concept that is completely left on the table here, until Command Undead at 14th level: the necromancer of the right-handed path, elsewhere called “white” necromancy. A casual glance at a particular 5e group on Facebook attests to the popular interest in good necromancers. These kinds of characters should be weakening and destroying the undead with their command over the powers of life and death, rather than adding to the ranks of the undead legions. The benefits of Inured to Undeath feed into this beautifully, and Command Undead is all about turning existing undead to your own cause.
I’m not changing Necromancy Savant, except to add more necromancy spells to the wizard spell list. I’m not changing Inured to Undeath or Command Undead.
Alternate Grim Harvest
At 2nd level, you gain the ability to strengthen your magic through the dark art of blood sacrifice, and to reap life essence from the freshly slain.
As a bonus action, inflict 1d6 necrotic damage to yourself, or to a willing or incapacitated living humanoid within 5 feet. This damage can’t be taken on temporary hit points and ignores damage resistance and immunity. The next time you hit with a spell attack and roll for damage before the end of your turn, your spell deals an additional 2d6 necrotic damage.
As a reaction when a creature within 60 feet of you dies, regain 1d6 hit points. If you have dealt damage to it since the beginning of your previous turn, instead regain 2d6 hit points if you damaged it with a cantrip or weapon attack, or 3 hit points per spell level expended if you used a spell slot of 1st level or higher. You can’t use this reaction in response to a construct or undead dying.
Alternate Undead Thralls
Starting at 6th level, you add the animate dead spell to your spellbook if it is not there already. If it is, choose another 3rd-level spell of the School of Necromancy and add it to your spellbook. When you cast animate dead, you target one additional corpse or pile of bones, creating another skeleton or zombie, as appropriate.
You can choose to cast animate dead as an action in place of its 1-minute casting time. You can do so a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (minimum 1), and regain all uses when you finish a long rest.
Whenever you create an undead using a necromancy spell, it has the following additional features.
- The creature’s hit point maximum is increased by an amount equal to your wizard level.
- The creature adds half your proficiency bonus to its AC and its attack rolls, and adds your proficiency bonus to its weapon damage rolls.
Further, while you have no undead under your control, when you deal necrotic damage to an undead, you can treat that damage if it were radiant instead.
I’ve already explained most of my thinking here. The dice-vs.-fixed-values question in Grim Harvest’s healing may leave something to be desired. I’m going for a risk mechanic (sacrificing hit points for an attack that hasn’t yet made its attack roll) with a follow-up recovery mechanic. I would expect to see necromancers sacrifice hit points repeatedly early in a fight, only to make it all back, possibly with interest, off of the harvest.
The 1-minute cast time of animate dead is a real bummer in mid-fight, or any other time you’re currently out of pets. Rise, my minions! in the midst of combat seems so on-theme for a dedicated necromancer that I wanted to give them something there. I think a big part of the theme (and dread) of necromancy is watching your dead friends become undead enemies right before your eyes, so that a bad situation suddenly gets a lot worse.
The additions to the second bullet point of Undead Thralls can be justly criticized as fiddly math that really wants you to print out a separate stat block and fill in the math, but no improvement to +attack and AC makes me think this linchpin feature would simply fall out of usefulness at higher levels.
“As if it were radiant” in the final piece of Undead Thralls is to say, you’re not really dealing radiant damage (for purposes of DM description of the fight scene), but your command of undeath is such that your necrotic spells can undermine an undead’s connection to the Shadowfell or other dark powers, and the undead are as vulnerable as if you had dealt radiant damage. Thus, your necrotic spells bypass a zombie’s Undead Fortitude, and you give shadows a real bad day, instead of going exclusively out-of-school to fight something you should be great at fighting.