Monday, September 10, 2012

Necromancy and Necromancers in Heoric D&D

Necromancy has always been a popular subject in RPGs and fantasy fiction. Usually, necromancers and undead are the villains. So when I look at the Necromancer theme/specialty in the new playtest, I'm a bit unsettled.

First, its great that they include it. 4e went far too long without a good mechanical way to support this archetype. Reflavoring can only take one so far, though the Shaman did relatively well as a necromancer type. It doesn't even take much searching to find a small host of third party OGL necromancy products, so the necromancer is probably popular/iconic enough to warrant some treatment in the basic D&D rules.

3.5/OGL products:
  • Hollowfaust: City of Necromancers (Sword and Sorcery Studios)
  • Necromancy: Beyond the Grave (Mongoose)
  • Encyclopaedia Arcane Necromancy (Mongoose)
  • Secret College of Necromancy (Green Ronin)
  • The Dread Codex (Adamant)
  • The Dread Codex 2: The Necromancer's Tome (Adamant)
  • Necromancer's Legacy: Gar'Udok's Necromantic Artes (EN)
So why does this new necromancer theme grind my gears? Simply put, its not a necromancer.

This theme lets you steal power from a fallen enemy, but that's not what necromancers do. They raise the dead, either contacting spirits or creating zombies. Sure D&D necromancers do a bit more than that, but this is the archetype. So when the necromancer isn't asking spirits for advice or creating a zombie familiar... Bleh. Ok, this one does get a zombie familiar, by why is soul-stealing what a necromancer primarily does?

Sure its cool. But a real necromancer theme would be too. And that they call this one the Necromancer. Ugh. But this just doesn't seem to represent what a necromancer does. A spirit or skeleton familiar? Great. A finger of death that will kill insects and small animals? Sure. These are pretty iconic. Capturing the souls of your enemies... Maybe. Less iconic there. I guess this is part of my problem with the new design concept of special powers for everything, rather than using a more unified system like the spell system. I'd rather the necromancer get a bonus spell slot that they can use to case exterminate or Raise Animal Skeleton or otherwise create a corpse servant (maybe a zombie from one fallen enemy but it only lasts for the rest of the encounter). Give a simple way to add a couple necromancy spells to one's class list (maybe one per level, or one every few levels). There's flexibility. There's iconicity. This inflexible one-shot power. Meh. Sure, a soul-thief is a type of necromancer. Maybe. But its not my idea of a necromancer. Its, ya know, a soul-thief.

Anyway, necromancy is a bit of a slippery slope. Beyond the fact that I dislike the specific implementation, it has effects on the setting. If D&D is heroic roleplaying, the necromancer theme should probably be heroic, not stealing the souls of his enemies. Let him fight fire with fire, or gain knowledge from interrogating his dead foes. The simple spell-system that I suggest for the theme would let a heroic necromancer use Hide from Undead, Detect Undead, or Turn Undead spells as well, or at least choose one of them.. The Anatomist and Deathslayer from the Complete Necromancer's Handbook (AD&D 2nd Edition) make the most heroic type of necromancer, so why not focus on that?
At any rate, I'd like to see a much more flexible necromancer theme or option. I think tying it to the spells one knows, rather than to some fixed magic powers, is a much better way of building a flexible necromancer option that can represent a broader range of necromantic archetypes. A death priest would be able to cast necromancy spells usually reserved for wizards, a sorcerer with the soul of a ghoul would have a more thematic necromancy spell list, a specialist wizard or lich-pact warlock might have greater flexibility and focus as well. Heck, even a medium Shaman or death druid could work. I have some hope, but I don't think this is how they'll be designing D&D Next.

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