A post in which I contemplate something related to tabletop roleplaying games. Roll a Wisdom saving throw with a DC of 16; on a failure, you’re a geek (Level 5).
In my recent return to tabletop RPGs, I’ve joined some Facebook groups, discussed ideas with gamer friends, and watched some Youtube videos–both of live-streamed games and thoughts on how to run the game better.
One topic caught my eye: someone suggested the possibility of a “good” necromancer character, which triggered a lot of discussion. Shortly after reading the back-and-forth, I chatted with a co-worker about an upcoming group. “I’m thinking necromancer,” she said, which led to further discussion of the idea. The next day, I spotted a panel of experienced players covering a variety of topics, including:
Is necromancy inherently evil?
If you’re not familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons, first off, it’s not the gilded double-door into a witches’ coven or a neon-lit path into Satanism. Players take on the role of a hero or heroine in a fantasy setting: perhaps the beefy fighter or barbarian (think Aragorn, Eowyn or Conan), or a bearded wizard (Gandalf or Dumbledore). Maybe they choose a stealthy rogue or burglar (Bilbo Baggins, maybe Arya Stark) or someone with the power to heal (Elrond or Galadriel). One person plays the rest of the fantasy world… everything from the squire polishing armor to the great personalities like Jamie Lannister, Queen Cersei, and King Joffrey… all the bad guys, from the unnamed scrub Bandit #3 to the White Walkers to Ramsay Bolton and even Danaerys’ dragons.
In a game like this, monsters lurk around every corner, many of them with civilized faces to mask their dark hearts. In a game like this (usually), magic is real and so are the gods and goddesses who grant divine power to their faithful.
In a game like this, a wizard or other magic-user might even learn how to raise the dead and command the skeletons or zombies produced to fight for him or her.
Can there be such a thing as a “good” necromancer?
In other words, like the title suggests, in a game like D&D, are there some methods or powers that you cannot possibly justify using for noble purposes?
I flipped on the YouTube video of the discussion panel and skipped to the part about necromancy, hoping for some unique twists to add to my own ideas. To my surprise, all the participants shot the idea down without hesitation.
The best argument pointed out that in all societies, grave-robbing and defiling burial grounds are strongly forbidden and frowned upon. It’s kind of a universal rule. That being the case, one expects some severe consequences for any necromancer–a person who uses magic to animate the dead bodies of ancestors or loved ones. I think that’s a valid point and a consideration for how other characters in-game would interact with such an oddity. Fair point.
But then it devolved to “That’s just boring, lame character building.” “A necromancer is evil just like paladins are lawful good.” “It doesn’t make any sense–why in the would she do this?” One guy’s whole argument was “Necromancers are evil, because I ran a game with a guy who played one as the stereotypical ‘muahaha I shall make a city of undead and rule over it.’ And that dude was a jerk–I mean, apart from being a necromancer, he just was a bad person in game.”
I strongly disagree with all of these points, and not just because the idea of the good necromancer inspired a character and some creative writing. (I posted a scene with Fleuris earlier.)
I also think these points are poor arguments. So let me tackle these in order:
Good Necromancer is boring. Lame character building.
Sure, if you want to create something that follows cookie-cutter norms. I suppose “the generous thief” or “the intelligent barbarian” or “the conflicted paladin” would also be lame.
Playing a character that doesn’t quite fit a stereotype–or rather, outright challenges it–can lead to fantastic role-playing moments.
In my first campaign, I had a player who rolled random dice for every decision about the character he was making. He ended up a Dwarf Paladin of Nature… something that doesn’t really fit the standard fantasy tropes. It made his backstory come alive–an outcast from his clan because of his strange religious views, a perfect ally to the husband and wife pair of elf rangers in the party, a hero with a cause to champion and built-in conflict a DM can exploit–er… use to craft interesting encounters.
Similarly, I had a player running a rogue in one campaign who, on our downtime, would tell me what his character was doing in the city. While his allies were off pursing personal goals and looking for leads on the next big score, the rogue would donate half his earnings to the orphanage that took him in as a child, and volunteer time with the kids. No one knew this was going on “in game” because it happened in messages and emails. His party members even got to the point of joking about how “you know how the rogues are, always sneaking some money and pick pocketing their way through the market.” But he played the most generous and selfless character I’ve seen in a campaign.
Yeah, playing against type is super lame. Don’t do it.
Of course there may be role-playing consequences. Not everyone will welcome a necromancer with open arms. Not everyone will buy the idea that “I’m using these powers for good.” But that’s all part of the fun and the conflict which makes RPGs great.
A necromancer is automatically evil, like paladins are automatically good.
One flaw in that statement: Depending on the edition of the game, paladins aren’t inherently good. If you’re devoted to an evil or chaotic deity, you probably lean toward Chaotic or Evil alignments. If a “good” deity can grant their champions powers and favor, so can a bad one. Paladins are just a mechanic for describing a warrior who is committed to a cause and blessed with divine power to pursue that cause.
Similarly, necromancy is a tool… one traditionally associated with evil, perhaps, but still a tool. But this logic is lost on some. One of the DMs in the YouTube video actually argued as follows:
“It just doesn’t make sense. Here you are, going after the evil necromancer, and the guy walking along next to you is a necromancer?”
The flaw in that logic is revealed when you substitute any class or archetype for “necromancer.” There are evil wizards, but the party doesn’t kill their resident magic-user before fighting an evil wizard. An evil cleric or assassin might be the villain in an encounter, but that doesn’t make the party cleric or rogue a villain.
Magic, like any class power, is a tool. How one uses it communicates more than the nature of the tool. A paladin who curb-stomps defenseless enemies because “they’re bad guys” isn’t what we’d call good. A necromancer that uses her powers to protect others and serve a noble cause shouldn’t be what we call bad.
It doesn’t make any sense.
For one, you’re in a fantasy setting. Nothing makes sense. Someone is channeling power into their weapon to deliver a blast of radiant power that damages the enemy. Someone else is waving their hands and becoming a human flame-thrower. Another person communes with supernatural entities that grant her otherworldly powers. But the necromancer trying to do something heroic? That, sir, is where I draw the line!
Necromancy used for “good” absolutely makes sense… if we try to consider how that can work. Imagine the noble who tells his subjects, “Our ancestors fought to establish this kingdom against all odds, spilling their very blood on the rocks where our city’s walls now stand. And now they return, ready to stand beside us, once again willing to take up arms against those who threaten all they worked to build!”
Imagine the party member whose personal quest, like Fleuris, is to find and raise the bodies of infamous villains or evildoers as part of their penance for their sins. Is it twisted, misguided, a little off? Yeah–and that’s what makes it great!
Guns don’t kill people, my horde of skeletal minions kill people.
Needless to say, I fall right into the camp that deems necromancy an amoral (okay maybe highly questionable) practice where what matters most is the end result. Use it to establish your undead army and create a necropolis to rule over? Evil. Use it to cleanse the necropolis and eliminate a growing threat to the nearby kingdom of goodly peoples? Good.
As in all things D&D, creativity and fun are what matter most. I’m having fun imagining Fleuris and the sorts of situations she might find herself in. I hope others are inspired to take a trope and turn it on its head… then run with it and see where the story leads.
What do you think?
Am I off course? Am I missing some key point? Let me know in a comment; I’d love to hear your point of view.