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How Would You Build And Play A Necromancer

Allistar1801

Villager
Recently I was asked by my DM if I would like to try playing in an evil campaign (we're starting from level 6). Sure why not, this means I can finally play a necromancer, I think to myself. Upon looking at the spell options and different paths of play I get a bit stumped.

Spell selections
I'm not too sure, so I just went with my usual wizard suite but this time with some more necromancy

1st) Detect Magic, Identify, Comprehend Languages, Mage Armor, Shield, Sleep, Find Familiar, and 1 extra one I couldn't decide on. I don't think there are any really good options though, so its a filler
2nd) Misty Step, Mirror, Image, Flaming Sphere, and Ray of Enfeeblement.
3rd) Animate Dead (because necromancer), Counterspell, Thunder Step, Haste, Fireball, and Leomund's Tiny Hut (we were allowed to start with an uncommon magic item and I decided to take a scroll and scribe it into my spellbook)

Strategies
The way I see it, I could blow all of my level 3 slots and get a quite good investment. A combination of 6 body blockers and damage dealers seems pretty good to me. Considering every zed is an extra 28 HP I just put in front of myself, or maybe moved into a flanking position for some of my other buddies (doubt it with 20 speed, but a man can dream). At the very least they can run up and use the help action/act as ADS for the enemies. In any case if you don't want to be touched just make a line of 168 HP (that has the potential to keep going past it's mileage) in front of you and I guarantee the enemy fighters will have a great time trying to stab their way to you. Another thing to consider is that every skeleton is a ranged fighter along the likes of myself that have a pretty good bonus to hit and they add a respectable extra 1d6+5 damage each to your potential DPR. If all of them are skeletons you have the potential to 6d6+30 damage in 1 round. Realistically however the average is somewhere between 2 and 3 hits worth of damage, but that's still a nice piece of hurt when it's happening turn after turn. (
don't worry, If I decide to do this we have a system ready to go that will keep my horde from becoming an inconvenient hold up during combat... and I guess we could just off them or put them in a bag of holding when we're in a city or something)

Alternatively I could be responsible and keep 2 slots open for counterspells, or heck maybe cast haste on a buddy. Buffs start getting a bit better around this time as well, and so does battlefield control. I suppose one thing that can be said is that minions are a form of battlefield control and I can kind of get that, but It's not the same as dropping a sleet storm and watching an entire section of map get marked as a nope zone. I've always been a fan of the support class and buffing allies while controlling the enemy boardstate, but I kind of want to give the whole undead army thing a shot

Potential Changes- (most of which involve being in cities and not being able to have a horde)
I'll probably cut flaming sphere for something else since my bonus action will probably be spent controlling the horde, but I think it would be a pretty useful bonus action ability for when I dont have my horde. I'm not super sure about thunder step, not only because I'm thinking about sacking all of my spell slots for undead, but also because of how versatile it may or may not be when I didn't have the horde (It's misty step with an upside and it can get a buddy out of jail with you, maybe even a melee one if you decide to run up and save them---- but we have misty step for this exact reason)

I dunno, rate my build, tell me if I'm wrong, and give your own suggestions.
 

DM Dave1

Present
I'll just address the spells, as just two necromancy spells feels a bit light for a necromancy.

Ray of Sickness and Vampiric Touch seem like some natural additions to avoid being the one-trick pony that is the Animate Dead guy. Also to help boost your Grim Harvest feature. You might want False Life or Bestow Curse in the mix, too. I really like the thought of the altruistic necromancer casting Life Transference, too.

What cantrips are you considering?
 

Allistar1801

Villager
*Forgot about the cantrips... facepalm*
Cantrips are also pretty basic: Prestidigitation, Toll The Dead, Chill Touch, and Minor Illusion. 2 for flavor/marginal benifiet, and 2 for damage.

I also looked at each of those spells while I was making the character. I was thinking of having the 1st level one be ray of sickness, but I figured since I wouldn't be able to upcast it very often it's usefulness was probably limited and could be achieved with ray of enfeeblement. I also kind of liked vampiric touch, but then i thought about it.... if they're in melee, I'm in a lot of trouble and I would need to get out of dodge (that's why thunder step is up there). As for life transference, I was considering it quite a bit for that very reason (I'm trying to be a bit of a grey necromancer), however I'm not sure what the party comp is yet since not everyone has made their characters. I know for fact there is 1 conquest paladin, and there is one guy in particular who likes playing cleric. Not sure if he'll keep the trend going or if he'll switch it up on me but in the case that he doesn't, life transference is both a yikes in damage for a wizard (I have 48 HP) and it wouldn't even hold a candle to either of their heals. Also not sure how it reacts with the next feature where you are resistant to necrotic damage, but I assume it would half the damage and by that half the healing too
 

Dausuul

Legend
Strongly dislike vampiric touch. It does less damage than a cantrip, it requires you to wade into melee, and if you are taking enough damage to need the healing, you'll lose concentration in short order, so what's the point? It's a truly terrible spell and Grim Harvest does not make it better. If you want to deal damage with a 3rd-level spell slot, throw a fireball.

In fact, I would not even consider Grim Harvest when making spell picks. It's a nice bonus when you get it, but you're a wizard with an army of meat shields. You shouldn't need that much healing in the first place.

I've been giving a lot of thought to playing a necromancer myself lately, when I wrap up my current campaign and get to play again. My theory, which I shall have to test in actual play, is that a necromancer should specialize in battlefield control. You have a horde of durable, slow-moving meat shields who can be ordered to attack, grapple, or shove; your goal should be to bring the enemy into their reach, or keep the enemy from escaping.

(You can also go skeletons instead of zombies. Skeletons offer far better damage output due to ranged attacks and higher attack bonus, but you sacrifice so much in durability - an area attack can easily wipe them all out, where the zombies have at least a chance to weather one blast. And skeletons aren't nearly as good at grappling and shoving. I'm leaning toward zombies right now but could see going with skeletons instead.)

Spells in the 1-3 range that I like for a necromancer:

Grease: Block off an exit or an escape route that the enemy could use to evade the horde. Note that this spell does not require concentration.

Tasha's hideous laughter: Drop a flying enemy out of the sky into the midst of the zombies. (A flying creature that falls prone falls to the ground unless it can levitate.)

Blindness/deafness: Not really battlefield control, but good enough to take it anyway. Blindness on a failed save, multiple targets at higher levels, and NO CONCENTRATION? Yes please. For bonus points, it's a necromancy spell so it's on theme.

Slow: This is a really vicious debuff. Huge area, half speed, AC penalty, only one attack per round, no bonus actions and no reactions. The half speed and the AC penalty in particular will make zombies very happy.

I'm debating on stinking cloud. On the one hand, "poison cloud" effects are very nice for undead. On the other hand, the enemy has to start its turn inside the cloud to be affected - if they just run through, it doesn't stop them - so it's more a way to cripple someone who's already engaged with your zombies, rather than hold them in place so the zombies can get them.

Animate dead: Obviously you're going to take this, but I wanted to point out that while you can only create 1-2 undead per casting, you can maintain control over 4. As soon as you hit 5th level, you get three 3rd-level spell slots per day (two normal and a third from Arcane Recovery); so if you have corpses and a few days, you can build up to 8 zombies and still keep a 3rd-level slot in reserve.

On a non-spell-related note: Get proficiency with an herbalism kit so you can do some embalming pre-animation. Your fellow PCs will be so very grateful. :) More to the point, if they aren't stinking of rotting flesh, you can dress your zombies up in long robes and masks when you are in an environment where undead are not welcome (i.e., most environments). It's not foolproof but it could come in handy. When you get to 9th level, definitely pick up seeming.
 
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Dausuul

Legend
On cantrips: Obviously toll the dead is any necromancer's go-to damage cantrip. Also, I highly recommend mold earth. It's not much for combat, but any time you need to dig up a grave, you just wave your hand. And if you need to stash your undead buddies while you go into town, you can bury them in short order.

And one more interaction to point out: The conquest paladin is going to be your absolute best friend. Whenever your zombies are reduced to 0, they get a saving throw to not be destroyed. If they're standing next to the paladin, they get to add the paladin's Charisma bonus on that saving throw. This will add so much to their survival rate. :)
 
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Xeviat

Explorer
I'd personally think about 2 levels of cleric for grave or death domain. Having some healing capability could round out your role, and I love the flavor of a necromancer dabbling in theology.
 

Allistar1801

Villager
Absolutely love the suggestions (especially the ones about embalming the zombies, mold earth, and the theological aspect of this)! now this presents a couple of good questions

1) Which is better, party buffing or enemy de-buffing? I'm inclined to think casting haste on the paladin over the course of a few turns will end up with a lot more output and more love to go around the table. On the other hand mass de-buffs are so good, they make enemies easier to hit for everyone, prevents damage, and is generally amazing, but they get a save every single turn. That's a lot less of an issue when you're playing a divination wizard and become the Thanos of the table when you say "Reality can be whatever I want". I suppose the benifiet increases exponentially depending on how many enemies are effected and how many people can get attacks on them.... I'm liking that a bit more now

2) Zombies, or skeletons? Zombies have a couple things going for them. They tank and they tank and still ask for more, and now that you pointed out the paladin's aura would effect them, I'm inclined to give him a small squad of them to flank his enemies and use the help action since their to hit and damage are less impressive than skeletons. Skeletons on the other hand have a marginally better to hit and damage, but they are ranged attackers. Being able to pincushion an enemy before they act is really good and it maximizes the potential for other melee bros to get involved, but they are a considerable bit more fragile. Both hate AOE but most zombies could probably take it at least once, maybe twice depending on their undead fortitude rolls. Skeletons seem like they would shatter to a single AOE, and not even a high level one.... like, I think a good burning hands gets the job done. But if they get to hit more and deal more damage when they do, the choice is a bit harder.... (You have definitely made me re think zombies though)

3) The last 2 levels of wizard are pretty bad so I'm liking the 2 level dip into cleric, but when do I do it? I don't have the spells list memorized but off the top of my head level 7 gives 4th levels like polymorph for supreme control, and summon greater demon which can be a pretty good accent to the undead squad. 9th level gives stuff like animate objects to bolster my selection of minions and wall of force for even more battlefield control. The wizard train just never stops giving.... until 19th level.
 
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iserith

Explorer
I think the biggest concern above all is:

How much are your minions going to bog down the game?

Because, frankly, they will, at least to some degree. In a game like mine which runs fast, it's very noticeable. When a player in my game wanted to play a necromancer, he had the good sense to ask me for my opinion on how many undead he could have at one time. I told him "When the game slows down unreasonably on your turn, then that's too many." So he generally stuck to 2 to 4 undead, tops, and it worked fine. Still slower than other players, but not so much that it was negatively impacting the game experience.

I was a player in another game wherein they had a necromancer who also cast summoning spells. It was terrible. I quit the game because, among other reasons, that player's turn would take an age to resolve and the player of that character was so self-absorbed that he didn't understand what the problem was as everyone else waited around for him to finish up.

So, I would have a discussion with your DM and the other players and ask for their opinion on this before you make any decisions about playing a necromancer. I would also do some critical thinking about my own abilities to see if I could pull it off without slowing down the game. Then I would ask the DM about using mob rules (DMG, page 250) to speed up resolution of my turns. After all, the goal of play is for everyone to have a good time and to create an exciting, memorable story during play. That's harder to achieve with a bunch of undead slowing down the game.
 

DM Dave1

Present
Strongly dislike vampiric touch. It does less damage than a cantrip, it requires you to wade into melee, and if you are taking enough damage to need the healing, you'll lose concentration in short order, so what's the point? It's a truly terrible spell and Grim Harvest does not make it better. If you want to deal damage with a 3rd-level spell slot, throw a fireball.

In fact, I would not even consider Grim Harvest when making spell picks. It's a nice bonus when you get it, but you're a wizard with an army of meat shields. You shouldn't need that much healing in the first place.
One does not always "wade into melee". Sometimes melee comes to the PC, especially if a DM is paying attention and keeping things interesting. Not to mention that a wizard can deliver a touch spell via a familiar. Terrible spell? I suppose we can disagree there. Obviously, YMMV.

@Allistar1801, if you are just looking to optimize your build, you might consider re-posting over here:

https://www.enworld.org/forum/forumdisplay.php?363-Character-Builds-amp-Optimization


PS - I do really like your Mold Earth suggestion, however, [MENTION=58197]Dausuul[/MENTION]. "put away your shovels, people, I got this..."
 
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Dausuul

Legend
Personally, I would not dip cleric as long as there were new wizard spell levels to be had. I'm addicted to the stream of new toys, and cleric toys just aren't as much fun for me. However, the necromancer is a very good subclass to dip with; any time you have a high-level spell slot and nothing good to put in it, you can always convert it to MOAR ZOMBIES. :) So, if you're going to dip, I say put your 7th or 8th level in cleric. That will get you access to all the 1st-level cleric spells, plus medium armor and shield proficiency (a huge bonus for any wizard), and a nifty domain ability.

The second level of cleric... well, Channel Divinity is nice, but you don't get much else for it and none of the CD options seem particularly necro-friendly. So I would leave that one to the very end.

As far as buffing versus debuffing: In general, wizards are much better at debuffs. However, haste is an exception and a very good spell. If you're going skeletons, then get haste, no question - ranged attackers don't care if they can catch up to the enemy. If you go zombies, I think the case for slow is stronger, because it benefits the entire party including your undead. Keep in mind that it also cripples the enemy's offensive capabilities, so you're soaking less damage. You could also just prepare both and use whichever one seems better at the time. :)

Skeletons versus zombies - for the reasons I listed, I favor zombies, but I will freely admit that I have yet to test this out and they might be far less effective than I think.
 

Allistar1801

Villager
I think the biggest concern above all is:
How much are your minions going to bog down the game?

Because, frankly, they will, at least to some degree. In a game like mine which runs fast, it's very noticeable. When a player in my game wanted to play a necromancer, he had the good sense to ask me for my opinion on how many undead he could have at one time. I told him "When the game slows down unreasonably on your turn, then that's too many." So he generally stuck to 2 to 4 undead, tops, and it worked fine. Still slower than other players, but not so much that it was negatively impacting the game experience.

I was a player in another game wherein they had a necromancer who also cast summoning spells. It was terrible. I quit the game because, among other reasons, that player's turn would take an age to resolve and the player of that character was so self-absorbed that he didn't understand what the problem was as everyone else waited around for him to finish up.

So, I would have a discussion with your DM and the other players and ask for their opinion on this before you make any decisions about playing a necromancer. I would also do some critical thinking about my own abilities to see if I could pull it off without slowing down the game. Then I would ask the DM about using mob rules (DMG, page 250) to speed up resolution of my turns. After all, the goal of play is for everyone to have a good time and to create an exciting, memorable story during play. That's harder to achieve with a bunch of undead slowing down the game.


Yep, we already thought about that, that's why I said we've already talked about it in the strategy section. We were actually going to use a variation of the mob rule, to make sure it didn't bog down play. I also in general don't think summoning spells and minions should ever take very long since you either control 1 guy in specific to do something, or you order the entire group to do something. It's not complecated.... just go down the list of mooks... if your target is alive then you're good, if not just go to the next guy.
 
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Tony Vargas

Adventurer
Thinking back to the last time I played a Necromancer...

..it was a half-elf, Priest of Ancestors Prophet/Necromancer Mystic...

...no help there.

(yeah, those're Kits, it was like 25 years ago... I mean, I had a build for a 3e necromancer - he was going to be a jongleur who used a scrimshawed human femur in his act, a happy-go-lucky necromancer - but I never got around to it...)


Zombies, or skeletons?
Think of it this way: Night of the Living Dead? Or Jason & the Argonauts?
 

iserith

Explorer
Yep, we already thought about that, that's why I said we've already talked about it in the strategy section. We were actually going to use a variation of the mob rule, to make sure it didn't bog down play. I also in general don't think summoning spells and minions should ever take very long since you either control 1 guy in specific to do something, or you order the entire group to do something. It's not complecated.... just go down the list of mooks... if your target is alive then you're good, if not just go to the next guy.
It's not that it's complicated - it's just that it's more transactions per turn or round which necessarily takes longer than just the one, even with very capable players. Turn after turn, combat after combat, it adds up. An important part of DMing in my view is sharing the spotlight, that is, making sure that the PCs have more or less the same time in the spotlight over the course of the session. The more "things" the player has to manage on his or her turn virtually ensures that this balance of spotlight will go lopsided. It helps if the player is aware of this, which it appears you are, but certain delays are unavoidable especially in a complex tactical situation.
 

Allistar1801

Villager
It's not that it's complicated - it's just that it's more transactions per turn or round which necessarily takes longer than just the one, even with very capable players. Turn after turn, combat after combat, it adds up. An important part of DMing in my view is sharing the spotlight, that is, making sure that the PCs have more or less the same time in the spotlight over the course of the session. The more "things" the player has to manage on his or her turn virtually ensures that this balance of spotlight will go lopsided. It helps if the player is aware of this, which it appears you are, but certain delays are unavoidable especially in a complex tactical situation.
Ahhh... good old action economy. Yeah, I can see how this might interfere with that a bit.
I dunno, I'm always thinking of ways to make things less of a pain to the other players. Streamlining the whole mob business is one thing, but I also want to give the other players the spotlight and help them achieve their crazy goals (kinda the reason I love playing support).

I think If I make the zombies a meat shield to soak up hits for the paladin and give him advantage while dishing a small bit of extra damage here and there I'm not stealing too much of his thunder and helping him out in the process, all the while he is secretly enabling by build since these zombies would be much harder to pull off without his aura. It was the same way with the last divination wizard I played, he was secretly an un-optimized piece of garbage, but through some clever support/control spells and me instigating the other players we ended up having a blast and I honestly cant wait to play that character again.
 

Dausuul

Legend
I think the biggest concern above all is:

How much are your minions going to bog down the game?
Yeah, that is certainly something to be aware of. In my case I'm not too worried, because I DM on the regular and I'm used to managing large groups of monsters efficiently. And since I can only give one order per round, which all of the minions then follow, and the minions in question have Int 3, there's no question of putting together elaborate strategies where this zombie goes here and then that zombie makes a shove attack and then that zombie tries a squeeze play. It's more "Each of you attack the nearest monster" and then a bunch of attack rolls. With average damage, it shouldn't take any longer than some of my fellow players spend planning their turns.

I do need to spend some time crunching the numbers on grapples and shoves, though, since opposed rolls will slow things to a crawl. I plan to work out a table or something so it's possible to execute a grapple/shove with just one die roll, without significantly changing the odds of success.

I would definitely be wary of having a necromancer player in the group who wasn't a veteran DM, if they planned to have significant numbers of minions and didn't seem like they had a plan to manage them.

Another option, if you and your DM are willing, is to split the zombies up and have each player control some part of the horde in combat. It wouldn't speed things up any - in fact it might slow things down if the other players are less skilled at handling minions - but it would split the time more evenly, and it would help the entire party to feel invested in you commanding a lot of pets.
 
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Blue

Orcus on a bad day
How much are your minions going to bog down the game?
Absolutely with iserith on this one. Get buy-in from your whole table, describing it in the worst possible way so you don't minimize the impact.

If they *are* good with it, one bit of advice someone else had for summons that I loved was to put them on cards and let the other players in your party run them if they would like. So they have things to do and not as long between getting to roll dice, even if it's for a minion of yours.
 

Esker

Explorer
Another option if you're a math nerd and like to speed things up without drastically increasing the variance of outcomes the way swarm rules do is to convert a bunch of attacks into a single roll of percentile dice, and give the DM a printout with some tables showing the thresholds for 1 hit, 2 hits, etc., then another roll of percentile dice to determine crits. I did this in my group for our bard when he got Animate Objects to reduce 8 rolls to 2. But it's a super nerdy approach, for sure, and puts the burden of reading the tables on the DM (since you have to know the target's AC to know which column to look at). Two sample tables are below; I can share the full packet if you're interested in this admittedly ridiculous thing (yes, there are sets for advantage and disadvantage too; it's a lot of tables).

8 attacks
natural roll to hit
# hits 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
8 35 58 74 84 91 95 98 99 100 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
7 7 20 35 51 64 75 84 90 95 97 99 100 -- -- -- -- -- --
6 2 5 12 21 33 46 58 69 79 87 92 96 98 100 -- -- -- --
5 -- 2 3 7 12 20 30 42 53 65 75 84 90 95 98 100 -- --
4 -- -- -- 2 4 7 12 18 27 37 49 60 72 82 90 95 99 100
3 -- -- -- -- -- 2 4 6 10 15 23 33 44 56 69 81 90 97
2 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 2 3 5 7 12 18 27 38 51 67 82
1 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 2 3 4 7 11 18 28 44


4 hits
natural roll to hit
# crits 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
4 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 100 95
3 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 100 100 100 99 98 96 90 70
2 99 99 99 99 99 98 98 97 97 96 95 93 91 88 83 75 60 32
1 82 81 79 78 77 75 74 72 69 67 63 60 55 49 42 33 21 7

Edit: I swear those were aligned before I hit post. They're aligned in the doc.
 

Li Shenron

Adventurer
Honestly I hate the utilitarian approach. You end up again with the usual Wizard that does the same vanilla things, "efficiently" therefore boring.

If I were to play a necromancer, I would just be a Wizard with the School of Necromancy, and pick ALL necromantic spells I can get, and LEARN how to make them work well.

Then, whatever extra spells I still need to choose (assuming all necromancies won't cover the whole amount), I would allow myself to pick something known to be powerful, but I would change the narrative at least to make it look more like a necro: Unseen Servant can be described as a ghost, Cloud of Daggers may change to a cloud of sharp bones, or make Tiny Hut look like a crypt or a tomb.
 

Tony Vargas

Adventurer
I would change the narrative at least to make it look more like a necro: Unseen Servant can be described as a ghost, Cloud of Daggers may change to a cloud of sharp bones, or make Tiny Hut look like a crypt or a tomb.
I like it.

One of my players went crazy, in 2e, with "Sense Shifting," a spell that let you do that sort of thing, change what another spell looked like. In 3e you could do it with Spell Thematics, in a limited way, which very much fit what you have in mind, above. In 4e such re-skinning was explicitly a player option according to the how-to-read-a-power rules.

In 5e, that's more a DM thing. But, like asking for a new Background, doesn't seem unreasonable.
 

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