Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Necromancers of Dwimmermount (Part I)

First, some admissions.

As both a referee and a player, I have a thing for the undead. They're among my favorite monsters in D&D and I like to use them as often as I can without lessening their impact. I'm sure there are some deep-seated psychological defects on my part that explain my fascination with walking corpses.

I also love the idea of specialized magic-users. Unfortunately, I've never seen them done in a way that really appealed to me. They've all been deficient in some way or other, but the most consistent flaw in my opinion is the sacrificing of flavor for mechanical compatibility and vice versa. What I want is a specialist MU that feels noticeably different than a "standard" one but whose supporting game mechanics aren't too bizarre.

Combine these two facts with the growing prominence of the city-state of Yethlyreom in my Dwimmermount campaign and it was inevitable that I'd try my hand at coming up with a necromancer variant for use with OD&D/Labyrinth Lord. What follows is a something I've been intending to introduce into the campaign to represent NPC necromancers. I'd also allow it for PCs, too, with the caveat that necromancy is not a common magical specialty and, in the current campaign area, is known only in Yethlyreom, whose magic-users are none too keen to share their secrets with just anyone.

The text in the quote box below is hereby designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License.
Necromancers are magic-users who have plumbed the secrets of life and death in order to gain power over both. Necromancers use the same experience point charts as ordinary magic-users and must abide by the same weapon and armor restrictions. However, at various points in their progression (as noted in the chart below), necromancers gain the option to exchange a single spell slot for the use of a new ability unique to their class. These abilities are spontaneous, meaning that they do not need to be prepared ahead of time like spells (though they can be, if so desired) and can be used at any time so long as the necromancer has a single unspent spell slot of the appropriate level. Necromancers also have access to a number of unique spells, described in Part III.

Character Level (Spell Level)

Necromancer Ability

2 (1)

Pass through Undead

4 (2)

Sleep/Charm Immunity

6 (3)

Command Undead

8 (4)

Paralysis/Hold Immunity

10 (5)

Animate Dead

13 (6)

Energy Drain Immunity


Pass through Undead: Gained at 2nd level, this ability expends a 1st-level spell slot per use, granting the necromancer the ability to move among undead beings without being attacked for 6 turns. This ability affects only the necromancer not his companions. Likewise, intelligent undead get a saving throw versus spells to overcome this ability.

Sleep/Charm Immunity: Gained at 4th level, this ability expends a 2nd-level spell slot per use, granting the necromancer immunity to sleep and charm person spells, as well as abilities and magic items that mimic those spells, for 6 turns. If the necromancer is willing to forever sacrifice a 2nd-level spell slot, this ability becomes permanent.

Command Undead: Gained at 6th level, this ability expends a 3rd-level spell slot per use, granting the necromancer the ability to command 2D6 undead to do his bidding. The necromancer is treated as if he were a cleric three levels below his actual level, with a successful turning roll or "T" result indicating that the undead unquestioningly obeys the necromancer for 1D4 hours and a "D" result indicating obeisance for 1D4 days. This ability can be reapplied later, but each reapplication requires a new roll (if applicable) and the expenditure of an additional 3rd-level spell slot per re-application (i.e. the first re-application expends two 3rd-level spell slots, the second three, and so on).

Paralysis/Hold Immunity: Gained at 8th level, this ability expends a 4th-level spell slot per use, granting the necromancer immunity to all forms of paralysis and hold person, as well as abilities and magic items that mimic them for 6 turns. If the necromancer is willing to forever sacrifice a 4th-level spell slot, this ability becomes permanent.

Animate Dead: Gained at 10th level, this ability expends a 5th-level spell slot per use, granting the necromancer the ability to create any combination of corporeal undead whose total hit dice do not exceed his level. These undead obey the necromancer and remain animated until they are destroyed or until dispel magic is cast upon them.

Energy Drain Immunity: Gained at 13th level, this ability expends a 6th-level spell slot per use, granting the necromancer immunity to all forms of level drain, whether cause by undead or some other source. If the necromancer is willing to forever sacrifice a 6th-level spell slot, this ability becomes permanent.

26 comments:

  1. I like this method of creating specialists...it adds a lot of flavor without being too weird. Plus, I suspect it could easily be used to create schools or traditions of magic, an idea I've become very enamored of since seeing in an AD&D2 netbook.

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  2. Undead are great for many reasons. As monsters, you don't have the moral questions you get from Lawful Good characters slaughtering entire orc villages.. they're already dead. You can mash armies of skeletons and zombies, no problem!

    The intelligent undead are incredible choices for long term villains. A lich or vampire working from the shadows can drive a campaign for a long time before the PCs even figure out what they're up against.

    One worldbuidling note: In a world where mages can animate and use the corpses of the dead for their own ends, cremation is going to be fairly common. Funeral rites will include burning and the breaking of the long bones as a precautionary measure.

    I like the specialty mage. It does seem to focus more on the corporeal remains end though. You should add an ability to speak with ghosts somewhere in there.

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  3. One worldbuidling note: In a world where mages can animate and use the corpses of the dead for their own ends, cremation is going to be fairly common. Funeral rites will include burning and the breaking of the long bones as a precautionary measure.

    That's a very good point!

    I like the specialty mage. It does seem to focus more on the corporeal remains end though. You should add an ability to speak with ghosts somewhere in there.

    That'll come up in Part II tomorrow :)

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  4. Similar to how psionics works in odd (give up an ability gain another). Your level 13 ability feels out of place. Technically being level drained at level 5 takes just as long to recover from as being level drained at 13.

    Given that level draining is the single biggest "fear" ability--shouldn't necromancers be protected fro this "fear" earlier, so that they have the morale to actually work and experiment with the undead? This ability should kick in right around the time PCs would start encountering level drainers. It would seem odd for a 6th level necromancer to exhibit the same warriness around a wight as any other class.

    Also...no down side? Even the illusionist had some restrictions on magic item use, or spells he could cast. Psionics too had some pretty nasty downsides. I'm not seeing any in your necromancer. Physical effects perhaps? Reaction adjustments?

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  5. Why would anyone *not* be a necromancer? Are there any drawbacks?

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  6. The downsides to the necromancer class will be discussed in Part II. They're primarily social and/or setting-based, but they exist.

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  7. This is very cool. I kind of want to see this done for the full 1-36 progression for Rules Cyclopedia. Have to wonder what powers you'd get at levels above 20.

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  8. I like this very much, but I agree with Gridlore about the need for an ability to speak with the deceased. After all, it's the very definition of the word "necromancer," necro=dead, mancer=diviner.

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  9. Very nice. Like you, the Undead are a special favorite of mine for both foes and just plain weird (in the old sense) NPCs to interact with.

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  10. That illustration is very reminiscent of the one on p.83 of Red Book C&S (though clearly by a much better artist) - where does it come from?

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  11. Prince Herb,

    I do not know the precise origin of the illustration, only that it's a 19th century version of a much older image depicting John Dee and Edward Kelly engaged in necromancy. If you search around, you can find several other similar images depicting the same event. The illo in C&S 1e is certainly based on it.

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  12. Regarding my comment, I just noticed in your answer to Gridlore that you said it would be addressed in Part II. I should have read it more carefully. Sorry!

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  13. Sorry if I missed it, but did you indicate if necromancers have to be chaotic?

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  14. I've only ever seen one specialty mage that I liked, and oddly enough it was also a Necromancer! Unfortunately, it came from a game where controlling monsters was just a complication with no real payoff, leaving Necromancers with more or less nothing. Shame, really.

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  15. I like the idea of giving up a spell slot for the special abilities! Very clever. This could be an interesting way to create any number of specialty mages.

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  16. very good idea!
    and useful for any kind of specialization :)

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  17. James :

    Thanks for the information! It was enough to track it back to a drawing of Edward Kelley and Paul Waring that appeared in a work titled :

    "Astrology, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly, M.D. F.R.H.S., Embellished with Curious Copper-Plates, London, 1806".

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward-kelly-987x1275.jpg

    A redrawn and reversed version of this then appeared in Robert Cross Smith's The Astrologer Of The Nineteenth Century (1825).

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/Magician_Raphael_1825.jpg

    Another minor mystery solv'd!

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  18. I've always been torn when creating Necromancer specialists, should I classify them with the Magic-user/Wizard types or with Clerics? Always seems to be a bit of overlap with their domains so to speak.

    I've been dabbling with a necromancer specialty class in my current campaign in which a standard magic-user essentially makes an agreement with profane powers for the ability to animate/control/speak with undead etc... which costs them the ability to advance further as a magic-user and instead puts them on a cleric path (with existing magic-user spells and armor restricition, etc...)

    I had difficulty rectifying the fact that both clerics and a magic-user necromancer could create undead and control/turn them...if they were in fact different classes and had different sources of magic power, shouldn't their undead be different and thus unable to be affected the same way by the other class? Would a magic-user created zombie be the same as a cleric created zombie and thus be vulnerable to holy water etc? Or are they something different?

    Maybe I'm over-thinking this (and I probably am), but I couldn't get a satisfying answer having necromancers separate from clerics, so I'm ending up combining them in some manner.

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  19. Good deal and a lot of good thought put into it. I'm lazy when I do a campaign with specialist mages I do via secret societies. I just take some spells and say you can only learn them from the order of say Necrophages. Then I get the flavor out of what the order demands of its members.

    Lazarus Lupin
    http://strangespanner.blogspot.com/
    art and review

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  20. I've always been a great fan of representing "specialty paths" as completely new character classes in old style D&D. There was a time when people were producing lots of new character classes in The Dragon, White Dwarf and Alarums and Excursions. It's something you don't see much of any more, probably because so many people are scared of the boojum of game balance (which I believe to be a myth anyway with regard to rules systems).

    Specialty mages were the most popular type in this regard, because it was easy to create new spell lists.
    In my game even the standard cleric class simply represented a single militant semi-monastic order (the Church Militant), rather than any old generic village priest. Other orders soon gained their own character classes and abilities.

    It all worked quite well. I kind of miss them.

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  21. Just to continue on the theme of dealing with the dead in fantasy setups...

    What might be the effects of giving the dead proper funerary rites? Does the correct ritual, correctly performed, prevent raising of the corpse?

    Should this be an actual priest spell or ability? It gives cleric characters more to do, and PCs in general more reason not just to loot their dead pals' bodies.

    This is the real-world practice of 'maschalismos' - without a reliable priest ritual, it will be common to behead or stake dead bodies, or bury them face down (so they dig the wrong way when animated), or lock them securely into coffins and tombs.

    Are the dead regularly blindfolded? Fed to temple dogs? Nailed to heavy wooden doors?

    Loads of interesting colour here.

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  22. I thought James' Peaceful Repose spell might cover this, but I see it's not well-known among the clerics of the Dwimmermount world. I too would imagine that if necromancers were common at all then something like cremation would be similarly common, unless there are significant taboos against it (legal ones? If Raise Dead is well known in the setting then maybe cremation amounts to silencing legal witnesses/inheritance fraud?). I'm in favour of towers of silence myself, except that they attract harpies.

    level draining is the single biggest "fear" ability--shouldn't necromancers be protected fro this "fear" earlier, so that they have the morale to actually work and experiment with the undead?
    If these were my necromancers I'd channel HPL and Michael Moorcock here and say "no." I'd also steal Joesky's lich itch and say that for those necromancers who want to cheat death, there's a significant chance they'll lose their minds doing it. But what James is doing here, regarding time-limited protections, strikes me as genius: then I'd probably keep the mechanical drawbacks of necromancy to a minimum - after all, it has to be a tempting path to power for anyone to choose it. But if you're going to spend your nights consorting with the ravenous dead, there will be risks involved, and you'd better be very, very careful in your experiments...

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  23. @ Adam:

    Just speaking off the top of my head...

    "What might be the effects of giving the dead proper funerary rites? Does the correct ritual, correctly performed, prevent raising of the corpse?"

    It could be that the proper rituals prevent raising/defiling of a corpse, though then I'd like to see rituals on the part of Chaotic/Evil/Really Not Nice priests that could break these protections. On the other hand, maybe the ritual gives the deceased some sort of save versus being raised as Undead,so that there's an ever-present, though increasingly small, chance of failure.

    "Should this be an actual priest spell or ability? It gives cleric characters more to do, and PCs in general more reason not just to loot their dead pals' bodies."

    I'd certainly make it part of the portfolio of the god(s) of the dead, though it could also be part of any god's or alignment's available powers, with the right rationalization.

    "This is the real-world practice of 'maschalismos' - without a reliable priest ritual, it will be common to behead or stake dead bodies, or bury them face down (so they dig the wrong way when animated), or lock them securely into coffins and tombs."

    This could be one of those signs of the breakdown of civilization and order.

    "Are the dead regularly blindfolded? Fed to temple dogs? Nailed to heavy wooden doors?"

    Like I said...

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  24. BTW, I know it completely unfair of me, but I can't look at that picture without thinking of Edward Gorey.

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  25. I love the necromancer idea, and will probably work it into my current campaign. I appreciate all the ideas I steal from this blog, so in the spirit of reciprocity, I'll share a monster I just created. The characters in my campaign are exploring an ancient barrow outside of town. Because they are low level, I've gotten pretty creative with skeletons, zombies, and ghouls, but I still wanted to vary things a bit, and throw something at them that they had never seen before. I am hoping that the Drowning Corpse will provide a frightening encounter that feels desperate, yet doesn't end in a total party kill.

    The text below is hereby designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License.

    DROWNING CORPSE

    Number Encountered: 2d4 (4d6)
    Alignment: Chaotic
    Movement: 90’ (30’)
    Armor Class: 8
    Hit Dice: 5
    Attacks: 1
    Damage: See below
    Save: F4
    Morale: 12
    Hoard Class: None
    XP: 150

    Drowning corpses are hideously bloated, undead creatures that are usually encountered in flooded areas of tombs and barrows. Often, they are completely submerged in some dark, fetid pool, will rise from the water to attack. Drowning corpses move slowly (like zombies, they always attack last in a given round), but they are immensely strong. They attack by seizing and paralyzing an opponent, and then drowning the helpless character in a watery embrace.

    Any opponent that is hit by a drowning corpse must save versus paralysis or be dragged helplessly into the drowning corpse’s hideous embrace, after which that opponent will die in a number of rounds equal to1d4 + its constitution modifier, unless it is freed by its allies. Drowning corpses will usually absorb a great deal of damage before releasing a trapped opponent.

    If an opponent is hit by a drowning corpse but succeeds on its saving throw, that opponent is still dragged against the drowning corpse, but it is not paralyzed, and may attempt a strength check each round to free itself.

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