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5E Necromancers in 5E

Dausuul

Legend
So, for the past several months I have been playing a 13th-level necromancer in 5E. I've always been a necromancer fan, and was happy to find so much support in the core rules; I also wanted to see if a horde of skeleton archers was as powerful in play as it looks on paper (because on paper it looks crazy-broken). It's true that 5E has reinstated the old "good wizards don't use animate dead" thing, but I solved that issue by the simple expedient of making my necromancer evil. Some people were curious to hear how it played out; here's my experience. YMMV, of course.

Overall, I find a high-level wizard is extremely versatile, with a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. My go-to spells are fireball, which is top-notch both as a weapon and as an incendiary device, and dimension door, which is endlessly useful on the battlefield, particularly when the enemy is far away and the melee warriors are having trouble getting there. I also get a lot of value out of seeming, stinking cloud, and cloudkill.

The skeletons: When you can bring their full power to bear on an enemy, a big force of skeleton archers is horrifyingly effective. But that hardly ever happens. Even with necromancer bonus hit points, skeletons drop like flies in high-level combats and there are seldom enough corpses at hand to replace more than a few. Plus they quickly overload your capacity for teleportation magic, they don't work well in cramped spaces, and you have to keep seeming up at all times if you want to stroll around town with 'em. And every time you teleport out and leave them behind, you have to go to town and buy a heap of bows and arrows to arm the next batch. It's a great illustration of the difference between theorycrafting and actual play.

That isn't to say skeletons are useless! Far from it. A small group of skeletons (such that you can take them with you on a teleport, and if they all die, you can replace them from the corpses of your enemies) is not hard to sustain, and they contribute substantially even at high levels. It works out pretty well.

Synergy with your minions and fellow PCs is huge. Cloudkill and stinking cloud are must-have spells if your party includes people highly resistant to poison, like undead and dwarves proficient in Con saves. In addition, having another caster along lets you pull off some nice combos. Nothing like having the bard hit an enemy with Otto's irresistible dance right before you disintegrate. And of course there's the ol' cloudkill/forcecage one-two, which is a lot more effective when you can do it in a single round.

TL;DR version, 5E necromancers are solid but not overpowered. They are more effective as "wizard with a few skeleton minions" than "Army of Darkness."
 

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Celebrim

Legend
Doesn't sound very much like a necromancer to me.

I agree that the biggest problem with a necromancer as human corpse animator tends to be the lack of suitable corpses, and the difficulty and expense of maintaining 'the troops'.

However, most of the spells you are relying on are the same sorts of spells that a wizard of any subclass tends to rely on. I'm surprised that you say that the concept has a lot of support, given that it has very few spells and those that it does have aren't notably efficient in 5e's somewhat erratic power curve. Now that you seem to have accepted the limits of the "army of darkness" strategy, would you be substantially playing your character differently if you were an evil wizard of a different subclass? Given that most of the spells you are using are conjuration, would you actually be a more effective 'necromancer' as a conjurer?
 

Dausuul

Legend
Doesn't sound very much like a necromancer to me.

I agree that the biggest problem with a necromancer as human corpse animator tends to be the lack of suitable corpses, and the difficulty and expense of maintaining 'the troops'.

However, most of the spells you are relying on are the same sorts of spells that a wizard of any subclass tends to rely on. I'm surprised that you say that the concept has a lot of support, given that it has very few spells and those that it does have aren't notably efficient in 5e's somewhat erratic power curve. Now that you seem to have accepted the limits of the "army of darkness" strategy, would you be substantially playing your character differently if you were an evil wizard of a different subclass? Given that most of the spells you are using are conjuration, would you actually be a more effective 'necromancer' as a conjurer?
The concept has more support than in previous editions; the 5E necromancer's abilities are tailored for animating undead, rather than just getting an extra few spell slots. Your undead get your level added to their hit points, and (more importantly) your proficiency bonus added to their damage. At 13th level, that more than doubles their base damage output. Plus you can raise and sustain more undead per spell slot, so you don't have to set aside as many slots to keep them up. As a result, necromancers want as many skeletons as they can effectively maintain, which is not the case for non-necromancers. It's just that the practical upper limit falls well short of Army of Darkness.

If I were a wizard of a different subclass, I would not be playing very differently; I'd use cloudkill less often, and of course I wouldn't bother with the skeletons, but probably 75% of my tactics would remain the same. The conjurer bonuses (which focus on summoned monsters) wouldn't help me in any way given my current play style.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
If I were a wizard of a different subclass, I would probably not be playing very differently; I'd probably use cloudkill less often, and of course I wouldn't bother with the skeletons, but probably 75% of my tactics would remain the same. The conjurer bonuses (which focus on summoned monsters) wouldn't help me in any way given my current play style.
I don't know enough about 5e to know what the bonuses and advantages of a particular subclass are, but my point was that conjured monsters are a lot easier to maintain as troops (since they aren't in the way when you don't need them, are easily replaced, ect.), and are often more effective and you are mostly relying on spells from the school of conjuration like stinking cloud and cloudkill.

I agree that the concept was poorly supported in early editions, but the truth is, "Army of Skeletons/Zombies" typically doesn't even work in games like Diablo II. The problem you get is that you are becoming epic in creating an army of decidedly un-epic foes. It works moderately well for low level NPC's, because usually they are facing even lower level PC parties, but it seldom works at all for PC's who are facing higher level NPCs that can swat aside undead mooks.

So, because I'm curious what I can do in my own games to support necromancer's more, I was curious to see if 5e was doing anything novel with the necromancer concept that would communicate 'necromancer', but not be tied down to the 'my minions are very scary... to commoners with pitchforks' problem.
 


Dausuul

Legend
I don't know enough about 5e to know what the bonuses and advantages of a particular subclass are, but my point was that conjured monsters are a lot easier to maintain as troops (since they aren't in the way when you don't need them, are easily replaced, ect.), and are often more effective and you are mostly relying on spells from the school of conjuration like stinking cloud and cloudkill.

I agree that the concept was poorly supported in early editions, but the truth is, "Army of Skeletons/Zombies" typically doesn't even work in games like Diablo II. The problem you get is that you are becoming epic in creating an army of decidedly un-epic foes. It works moderately well for low level NPC's, because usually they are facing even lower level PC parties, but it seldom works at all for PC's who are facing higher level NPCs that can swat aside undead mooks.

So, because I'm curious what I can do in my own games to support necromancer's more, I was curious to see if 5e was doing anything novel with the necromancer concept that would communicate 'necromancer', but not be tied down to the 'my minions are very scary... to commoners with pitchforks' problem.
Bounded accuracy is key here. Because enemy AC hardly ever goes over 20, the skeleton's +4 attack bonus still hits often enough to matter at high levels, particularly if you have a way to grant advantage. The skeletons can't hold up to much punishment, but they can still dish it out.

Like I said--the Army of Darkness is very effective. It's just that the logistical problems of keeping them around and replacing lost troops are too much for a typical adventuring party to manage. If you're in a position to prepare for battle, and you have a graveyard and a stack of short bows handy, you can open combat with a ferocious volley. A foe without AoE attacks will then be forced to choose between swatting down skeletons while the PCs hammer it, or working on PCs while being harassed by steady arrow fire.
 

evilbob

First Post
[MENTION=58197]Dausuul[/MENTION], thanks for the update! I was definitely one of those interested in hearing about high-level necromancers in play. It's nice to know if you can get all the stars to align, it's awesome, but otherwise it's not a game-breaker. Seems like it would be a blast to play! What is your "record" of most skeletons brought to a battle? Also I LOVE the synergy with seeming and stinking cloud / cloudkill; those are great ideas.

One thought: have you tried wind walk instead of teleport? 2 extra skeletons that way and a lower spell slot, although it's a much slower method of travel (both to get there and to start it up).

Sidebar: the conjuration school (subclass) does nothing to support your conjuration spells, except at level 10 it makes it easier to concentrate on them and at level 14 it grants some bonus HP to summons. It's probably one of the weaker schools, battle-wise (although pretty amazing RP-wise, with the ability to conjure any small object into your hand).
 


Dausuul

Legend
What is your "record" of most skeletons brought to a battle?
14, I think. They made life really painful for the bad guys*, until they got hit by a breath weapon and mostly wiped out.

Oh, incidentally, make sure you have a way to quickly strip the flesh from corpses. You don't want to get stuck with a bunch of zombies because you didn't have time to skeletonize them. If you can talk your DM into letting you use acid splash on dead creatures, that's a good one.

[size=-2]*Well, the other bad guys.[/size]

One thought: have you tried wind walk instead of teleport? 2 extra skeletons that way and a lower spell slot, although it's a much slower method of travel (both to get there and to start it up).
Hmm, worth considering. We don't have a cleric in the party, though, so it'd have to wait till we level up again.
 
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Some thoughts:

1.) Playing as a Conjuror is very different from playing a Necromancer. The Necromancer's key advantage is that skeletons don't eat up your concentration, so combos like skellies + Stinking Cloud are actually feasible. I'm with Dausuul though on a small handful of skeletons being best/least annoying in most situations, although it's nice to have the option to summon 50 or so when you want them.

2.) The Inspiring Leader feat scales really well for necromancers, and it helps your party too. It's almost like +2 Con for everybody, and it makes your minions much more resilient to AoE effects. With Cha 13, a 13th level Necromancer's skeletons would have 40 HP, which is comfortably out of the "one fireball kills everything" range.

3.) While you're busy buying bows and arrows for your skeletons, buy them some chain mail and shields too. (Or just leave the enemy hobgoblin corpses in their armor before you raise them as zombies.) Archery is usually better than melee, but to the extent that you want minions on the front line they might as well be AC 16 to 18 minions, and you won't have all that many minions anyway so you might as well go for quality equipment.

4.) Bag of Holding: good place to keep spare corpses and/or extra skeletons while you are travelling/teleporting/in town/etc.

5.) Demiplane: I love the idea of teleporting into an enemy stronghold and unleashing a zombie-pocalypse of supercharged (uncontrolled-and-hating-all-life) undead out of my Demiplane.

6.) Chickens are 1 cp each, and each one that you kill with Vampiric Touch gives you back 9 HP due to Grim Reaper. You can heal 90 HP for 1 sp and a 3rd level spell slot, as long as you're willing to look mildly ridiculous by carting a bunch of chickens with you everywhere.

7.) Stinking cloud/Cloudkill + skeletons is indeed advantageous. Note that it also goes well with monks and summoned elementals, especially Earth Elementals due to tremorsense. (But you'll need a second caster in order to do both Cloudkill and elementals simultaneously, unless you use Planar Binding on the elemental(s).)

8.) This one is theorycraft, but: when you do go full-on Army of Darkness, prioritize spells that grant advantage to your skellies. Regular skellies are fairly ineffective against e.g. Ancient Red Dragons (15% chance to hit = about 1 DPR per skeleton), but if the Bard can somehow manage to hit the dragon with Faerie Fire or you can hit it with (no-concentration) Blindness your DPR will almost double (27.75% chance to hit). Red dragons aren't the best example here because they will kill your skellies pretty quickly but consider it as an option; and each round spent killing skellies is at least a round not spent killing non-expendable PCs.

9.) Create Undead (wight) + permanent undead slave at level 14 can add up to 12 free zombies and a supercharged wight for zero ongoing spell slot cost. It's not necessarily better than a pet ghost or vampire spawn, but it's nice not to be dependent on finding a pet. Ghast looks nice on paper but the stench DC is so low that anything that would fail the save is probably something you will shred without problem anyway.

Hmm, worth considering. We don't have a cleric in the party, though, so it'd have to wait till we level up again.
Wind Walk is a druid spell.
 
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Cernor

First Post
2.) The Inspiring Leader feat scales really well for necromancers, and it helps your party too. It's almost like +2 Con for everybody, and it makes your minions much more resilient to AoE effects. With Cha 13, a 13th level Necromancer's skeletons would have 40 HP, which is comfortably out of the "one fireball kills everything" range.
Doesn't Inspiring Leader have a limited number of targets it can grant its temp HP to? I'm AFB right now but I seem to recall it having a limiting factor (more than only affecting creatures in earshot). If you can't give all your skeletons temp HP, it may be better to shore up your party using the feat since they tend to be far more useful in an extra 1 turn alive than a skeleton...
 

evilbob

First Post
Oh, incidentally, make sure you have a way to quickly strip the flesh from corpses. You don't want to get stuck with a bunch of zombies because you didn't have time to skeletonize them. If you can talk your DM into letting you use acid splash on dead creatures, that's a good one.
I have always been under the impression - maybe due to some flavor text of previous editions - that when you choose to make a skeleton out of a corpse it automatically just drops all the non-bone parts off and is a skeleton. But the reading of the current spell certainly does not imply that. I'd have to say, of all the abuses associated with this spell, that seems like a minor one. :)

2.) The Inspiring Leader feat scales really well for necromancers
Doesn't Inspiring Leader have a limited number of targets it can grant its temp HP to?
Yes; it only works on 6 creatures. Not sure if that would justify the otherwise-dump-stat 13 Cha requirement, plus your precious level 12 feat. Two 4th level castings of aid by a cleric / paladin is better (although also a bit costly). Or just convince the bard to take it and include your underlings? But it is a nice feat; level 13 + 13 Cha = 14 x 6 = 84 extra hit points every single short rest (if you have 6 targets).

3) Chain mail is definitely a good idea, although it can get heavy. But sticking them all in a bag of holding is a good plan to fix that.

5) Demiplane is only a 30x30' cube. That's 36 skeletons unless you could get them to squeeze together somehow (or stand on top of each other, which seems precarious). Also there's the question of how you'd get more in when the "control duration" of the current occupants had run out. :) Still, it's a neat idea for transporting them around. If you could cast it through a scry (which the rules are murky about) that would be even funnier. :)

6) The bag of chickens would definitely fail the "bag of rats" rule.

7) Planar binding is definitely a popular one (in theory, anyway) for getting concentration spells on your powerful summons.

9) Create undead seemed pretty lackluster to me when I gave it a look months ago. You're just not getting much bang for the buck relative to what your same-level castings of animate dead can do. Maybe I'm missing something.

Wind Walk is a druid spell.
Oops, I didn't realize wizards didn't have access to this. Man, I hate how spells are organized in the PHB...
 

Dausuul

Legend
5.) Demiplane: I love the idea of teleporting into an enemy stronghold and unleashing a zombie-pocalypse of supercharged (uncontrolled-and-hating-all-life) undead out of my Demiplane.
Now that is a trick worth noting. If only I were two levels higher...

7.) Stinking cloud/Cloudkill + skeletons is indeed advantageous. Note that it also goes well with monks and summoned elementals, especially Earth Elementals due to tremorsense. (But you'll need a second caster in order to do both Cloudkill and elementals simultaneously, unless you use Planar Binding on the elemental(s).)
Hmm... that's right, monks do have some kind of poison resist going on, don't they? Forgot about that. We have a monk. I should check and see.

8.) This one is theorycraft, but: when you do go full-on Army of Darkness, prioritize spells that grant advantage to your skellies.
Yes, advantage and disadvantage are a big deal.

Red dragons aren't the best example here because they will kill your skellies pretty quickly but consider it as an option; and each round spent killing skellies is at least a round not spent killing non-expendable PCs.
Dragons are definitely a headache for necromancers. Except green dragons. We haven't fought one of those, but I really want to. Yeah, go on, hit my minions with that breath weapon. Just try it. Punk. :)

Wind Walk is a druid spell.
We ain't got one of those, either. It's me, the bard, the monk, and the crazy dwarf barbarian. (The bard has Inspiring Leader, and it's seriously awesome; but given its limited number of targets, most of it goes to protecting the PCs.)
 

Doesn't Inspiring Leader have a limited number of targets it can grant its temp HP to? I'm AFB right now but I seem to recall it having a limiting factor (more than only affecting creatures in earshot). If you can't give all your skeletons temp HP, it may be better to shore up your party using the feat since they tend to be far more useful in an extra 1 turn alive than a skeleton...
The limit is six targets at a time, and a target benefits once per short rest. No limit on how many times you can use it though so "inspiring" twenty people just takes forty minutes instead of ten.

I guess skeletons are inspired by talk of destruction and dripping blood?
 

Cernor

First Post
The limit is six targets at a time, and a target benefits once per short rest. No limit on how many times you can use it though so "inspiring" twenty people just takes forty minutes instead of ten.

I guess skeletons are inspired by talk of destruction and dripping blood?
Ah, I'd thought that Inspiring Leader could only be used during a short or long rest (like the bard's Song of Rest, but giving temp HP rather than increasing the healing from Hit Dice). If it only takes 10 minutes and can be used without resting, it's a lot more powerful than I'd initially thought.
 

evilbob

First Post
If it only takes 10 minutes and can be used without resting, it's a lot more powerful than I'd initially thought.
Oh wow - I hadn't thought of that, either. Technically you can inspire any number of creatures, since it just takes 10 minutes to inspire 6 and there are no other limits. There isn't even a duration on the temp HP (other than the normal "until a long rest," which skeletons don't even need to do). So the bard could inspire them whenever you made them, and continue to inspire them each time you made more.

Another cool cross-class combo: druid conjures woodland creatures: 8 pixies per cast (or 16 with a 6th level slot) who all cast fly on one creature. Flying skeleton archers, woooo! :)
 

Ah, I'd thought that Inspiring Leader could only be used during a short or long rest (like the bard's Song of Rest, but giving temp HP rather than increasing the healing from Hit Dice). If it only takes 10 minutes and can be used without resting, it's a lot more powerful than I'd initially thought.
Beware that it probably won't fly if you don't share a common language with the skeletons/pixies/wolves/whatever. (Yay for GOO warlocks! Telepathy is cool anyway but inspiring leader makes it actually kind of useful.)
 

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