Monthly Archives: December 2011

Necromancer Draft

A while back, I posted a classes overview for a B/X-style game. That was missing the necromancer and the thief. This is my work so far on a necromancer class. I’m going to do this one a little differently than the others. I realized that I was writing more rules than flavor, because no existing class really represented the necromancer I wanted. I want a necromancer that focuses on raising and commanding the dead, like the necromancers in the fiction of Clark Ashton Smith or the necromancer in Diablo II.

I thought about using the BRW Necromancer (which I like), but the BRW Necromancer is very much a spell-casting specialist wizard. Another option is The City of Iron Labyrinth Lord Necromancer (free PDF here). That is another great class, and includes more than 50 new spells; by all means, you should go take a look at it. But it is not solving the problem that I am trying to solve. The Undead Master from The Complete Book of Necromancers has some good qualities, but like most D&D necromancer classes it suffers from being designed only for NPC use.

This necromancer that I have designed is not a magic-user with a different spell list. In fact, this necromancer can’t even memorize spells (at least, I’m leaning in that direction). Instead, from the very beginning, this necromancer is engaged in raising the dead to do his bidding. In Talysman’s formulation, this necromancer gets undead minions to solve problems for him. In some sense, from a game perspective, this class takes the idea of retainers and builds a class around that.

The main objection to this kind of class is that it can result in an army-of-one. Even if that does not end in a more “powerful” character, it can still slow the game down by requiring lots of rolls during one player’s turn. Fourth edition takes the most extreme position on this problem: you need to spend your own actions to control animal companions, familiars, or summoned creatures. This army-of-one problem does not really bother me though, for the following reasons.

  1. I’ve played characters with several animal companions, and it never seemed to bog down.
  2. Any character can have hirelings, which can result in the same problem.
  3. Necromancer minions are not under the control of the player in the same way a PC is; the player gives commands, but the referee interprets how the minions carry out their actions.
  4. Based on these rules, the number of minions the necromancer can control is based on level, so it will be a long time before there are many of them.
  5. Time-saving rules: one attack roll for all undead of the same type (see below).
  6. Minions could be used as pit-trap detectors (this problem does not hold for mortal hirelings, as they would not consent to being so used). However, is this really any worse than probing with a 10 foot pole before every step? (Actually, yes, it is, at least a little, because probing ahead with a 10 foot pole slows down exploration.) In the end, I don’t think this is a big problem though, for one simple reason: creating minions costs money and finding minions is risky and requires adventuring. Thus, minions are not a resource to be thrown lightly into a pit trap. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Necromancer summary:

  • Hit die: d4
  • Control undead as cleric of equivalent level
  • Cast “command” incantations on controlled minions
  • Create undead
  • Worst attack bonus (primarily uses minions to attack)
  • Uses the magic-user advancement table
  • Cast necromancy spells from scrolls as thief

(Use your favorite retro-clone or version of D&D for advancement tables and other details.)

The quantity and potency of undead that can be controlled by a necromancer is as a magic-user’s spell memorization table, with hit die substituted for level. For example, if a magic-user of equivalent level could cast 2 first level spells and 1 second level spell, then the necromancer could control two 1 hit die minions and one 2 hit die minion. A higher-level slot may be filled by a lower-level minion. Following the above example, that could mean either two skeletons and a zombie or three skeletons.

Once an undead minion is under the influence of a necromancer, the necromancer must issue commands. Such commands are minor incantations, and require that the necromancer have use of voice and hands (a weapon or implement may be held, but may not be used during the command). Such a command requires one combat round and functions in the same way as casting a spell. Once so commanded, an undead minion will forever attempt to fulfill their charge, with various degrees of creativity and cleverness, to be determined by the referee in line with the nature of the type of undead in question. For example, a ghoul’s overwhelming desire is to feed, and all actions will be biased toward that end. Skeletons and zombies are virtually mindless, and will exhibit no creativity with regard to fulfilling commands. No minion will knowingly cause harm to their master or their master’s close associates. Though the necromancer can only issue one command per round, all minions will continue to pursue their last command.

How do necromancers acquire minions? One way is to find previously created undead and exert control over them. This works exactly as a cleric’s turning ability, except that the end result is servitude rather than fleeing. The other way is to create or summon minions. As the necromancer advances, each time a new strength of undead can be controlled, the necromancer gains access to rituals for creating or summoning one iconic type of undead. For example, at fifth level, a necromancer gains the ability to maintain control over one 3 hit die undead, and one ritual to create a 3 hit die undead. Each ritual also has a components cost, which is consumed in the ritual. The necromancer starts with the 1 hit die ritual for skeleton. Other rituals can be found through the course of adventuring. Costs are just guesses for now. These minions are consumable in a way that something like a magic sword is not, but in the end if these costs are appropriate or not depends on how wealthy PCs are likely to get through adventuring in any given campaign (I need to look at XP advancement values and compare to treasure hoards). An appropriate body must also be procured for the corporeal undead. Perhaps more specific components will be required also, but from the point of view of basic game-play, the cost is the most important thing (though I love the idea in Carcosa of binding particular components to hexes on the wilderness map).

Undead minions by HD:

  1. Skeleton (cost: 10 gp, requires a cleaned skeleton)
  2. Zombie (cost: 100 gp, requires a somewhat whole corpse)
  3. Ghoul (cost: 500 gp, requires a living subject)
  4. Wight (cost: 1000 gp)
  5. Wraith (cost: 5000 gp)
  6. Mummy (cost: 10000 gp, requires a prepared corpse)

Rituals to create necromantic golems are also possible, following the same rules. The necromancer binds a spirit into the inert prepared golem body, thereby rendering it animate. Golems so created should remain within the 1 to 6 hit die range; these are not quasi-artifacts like iron golems.

Necromancers may restore HP to minions by performing particular rituals. A necromancer that spends one day so engaged will restore 1 HP to each minion controlled. This must be a full day of work, and cannot involve travel. Treat it as natural healing for game purposes.

When the necromancer controls more than one undead of a particular hit die value during combat, one attack roll can be made per type of undead to speed up play. Generally, one attack roll will be made for each type of undead under the necromancer’s control to expedite combat.

The spawn of undead controlled by a necromancer (for example, those slain by wights or wraiths) are not automatically under the control of the necromancer. Control must be asserted as normal.

If a necromancer is slain, all his undead minions are immediately freed. In the case of mindless undead, they will continue to attempt their last task until destroyed or controlled by another necromancer. In the case of sentient undead, such as wraiths, the undead will immediately become hostile to the necromancer and any of his allies, and attempt to take revenge for the enforced servitude.

Spells that have an obvious connection to necromancy can be cast without chance of failure from scrolls. All other spells require a successful intelligence check.

When a necromancer reaches name level and builds a stronghold, 1d4 apprentices of level 1d4 + 1 will seek to learn from him. In addition, a necromancer’s stronghold is enchanted with powerful magic that extends the necromancer’s control over undead within his own domain. Within the bounds of the stronghold, the necromancer may control four times the normal number of undead.

Some questions:

  1. Can minions use equipment such as armor or weapons? I’m leaning towards no.
  2. I thought about including some anatomist or doctor skills (embalming, tending wounds) due to the knowledge of life and death (a doctor is just a kind of necromancer, right?). I think this necromancer is more mystical and fantastic though, so probably not. I’m not looking to model Dr. Frankenstein.
  3. Do I really want to completely avoid spell memorization? Maybe, in addition, have a limited spell list, like the AD&D illusionist? But with fewer spell slots, like the second edition bard?
  4. Magic item creation by binding spirits?
  5. Are the advancement tables in any of the major retro-clones Open Game Content?
  6. Should dispel magic be able to break the link between a minion and a necromancer?
  7. Necromantic cantrips for free? Examples: wilt a rose, cause a corpse open its eyes, make a mouse skeleton dance.
  8. Should necromancers acquire the ability to issue commands telepathically at higher levels (as in, without the requirement of the incantation)?
  9. What should the range of the command incantation be? I’m thinking that it should be based on level.

This class clearly needs play testing, but I’m really excited about it. It seems to have all the qualities I am looking for, and is not just a skin-job on another class. More details about particular rituals will be included in later posts.

Talysman has also posted a great cleric-based necromancer.

Points of darkness

If the traditional D&D wilderness is made up of small bastions of law floating in a sea of chaos (the points of light trope), then maybe games like Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness are points of darkness in an otherwise mundane reality. Since present reality is manifestly mundane, it makes sense that fantastic games that use the present as their setting often use some variation of this pattern. The super hero genre is the only exception I can think of, and that works primarily because the bar for suspension of disbelief is so low for supers.

Perhaps points of darkness, rather than points of light, are needed for a weird horror game. This would be another reason for LotFP to move away from fantasy settings and into the historical world and away from the D&D level system (with all the power inflation it entails). This is often how horror movies work: some aspect of expected reality is upset, and then (usually) restored by the end of the story, providing an experience of catharsis.

Countdown to Carcosa

I have been trying to avoid posting more than once per day, but I have already broken my rule once today for the recent Oubliette 7 announcement. So I might as well break it again, right?

Also sprach JimLotFP:

…the Carcosa book is going to be right almost as thick as the Grindhouse box…

That sounds fantastic. This is by far the OSR product I am most looking forward to right now.


More than that, Eero (design/layout guy for the project) linked every hex on the maps (and the room numbers of the Fungoid Gardens map) so clicking on it goes straight to the entry in the body of the book.

I’m particularly excited because I missed the original release (being blissfully unaware of the OSR at that time).

Oubliette 7

Free from RPGNow “for a limited time” (original announcement here).

I haven’t read the whole thing cover to cover yet, but it served nicely as my breakfast reading. Some highlights:

  • The Pareto Principle applied to RPGs.
  • Black Blade advertisement about Monsters of Myth. I thought physical copies were no longer available (Lulu no longer sells them). I sit happily corrected.
  • Extensive set of replacement dungeon random encounter tables (with precalculated hit points).
  • Short adventure in the sword & sorcery mode (for Labyrinth Lord characters of level 3 to 5): Tomb of the Snake King. This looks really nice.
  • The 10-foot pole: variations on a theme.
As always, the art is really the differentiator. Worth checking out for the visuals alone.