Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Retrospective: The Necromican

Last week, I took a look at Booty and the Beasts, an unofficial bestiary for use with Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games published in 1979. The book is worthy of examination not just for its idiosyncratic content but also for its creators, the most notable of whom are Paul Reiche III and Erol Otus, both of whom would go on to work at TSR during the final years of D&D's Golden Age

Booty and the Beasts is thus a significant historical artifact of the early days of the hobby. However, it was not the only product of the partnership of Reiche and Otus (and Mathias Genser, who does not appear to have any RPG credits beyond these two collaborations). The same year, they also published The Necromican, "a book of spells compatible with most fantasy role-playing games." As with their other effort, "most fantasy role-playing games" very likely meant Dungeons & Dragons, though, in fairness, the spell descriptions are sufficiently loose that they could be used for any FRPG that makes use of spell levels, such as Tunnels & Trolls or Arduin (itself in a rather complex position with regards to its relationship to D&D). The fact that the spells presented in The Necromican range up to level 12 suggests that the authors may well have had an expansive notion of the book's potential audience.

This is what the book's forward [sic] states about its purpose:

This book of spells is not intended to stand by itself, or replace other fantasy role playing game spell lists. Rather, it is intended to supplement the many spell lists in existence, and provide a greater variety and selection for the players. It does not offer an alternate spell system; rather, the spells should be adapted into whatever spell system you prefer. The levels given for the spells are based on our own playing experience, however, it is the privilege of the individual games masters to change the level of any spell so that it will better fit into their own universes.

This is very much in the spirit of reckless invention and experimentation that permeated the early days of the hobby. Unless you're Gary Gygax on one of his bad days, I find it impossible to understand how one could object to a single word written above. In many ways, it's the part of The Necromican I find most inspiring.

The book contains over 130 spells, divided, as I noted, into twelve levels. They range widely in utility – and seriousness. Thus, you find spells like primal premonition, which causes the hairs on the neck of the caster to rise one melee round in advance of danger, or immolation, which causes the caster to burst into flames that are harmless to him but that do damage to anyone who touches him for the duration of the spell. At the same time, there are spells like spell of good groomng, which "will act as a shower, haircut, and laundry for those affected," or color alteration, which "allows the caster to change his skim color." These are in addition to several spells obviously derived from the works of Jack Vance, such as the spell of forlorn encystment and the excellent prismatic spray. 

Like Booty and the Beasts, The Necromican also skirts the edges between fantasy and science fiction with some of its spells. For example, there is the 12th-level spell the sorcerer's spacecraft, which, as its name suggests, conjures a flying saucer that "travels at 10,000,000 miles per hour," enabling transit to Mars as part of a "pleasant afternoon flight." How one takes this, I suppose, depends on the extent to which you enjoy chocolate in your peanut butter, but there is no question that, at the time, it was not at all unusual. If anything, the popular conception of "fantasy" has ossified a great deal since 1979. The Necromican reflects this more "porous" understanding of the genre and is, therefore, a useful corrective to those of us with more straitened horizons.

That said, I'm honestly not certain I'd make use of almost any of the new spells presented here. A great many of them are useful only in very specific circumstances, while others are "game-y" in conception (e.g. competent cartography, which prevents the caster from making a mistake in his mapmaking). Others are simply so idiosyncratic that they likely reflect the circumstances of the writers' own campaigns, such as the benign boots, which transports the caster's corpse back to a safe locale via the Astral Plane. Now, I genuinely appreciate such idiosyncrasy. Indeed, I am a strong advocate for referees and players making their campaigns downright odd and impenetrable to outsiders, but, of course, doing so gets in the way of selling to lots of copies of your latest book, which may explain why we don't see efforts like The Necromican much anymore – a pity!

Behold! The benign boots in action.


  1. Writing reasonably system-agnostic spells is tricky business even in 2022. Managing it in 1979 would have been even harder, I think - although maybe the relative lack of systems that might be using them would simplify things a bit.

    My modern efforts at it still wind up dancing around the concept of levels or mastery. At least it's easy enough to use the GURPS approach and reference real-world units of measure whenever possible, eg minutes or hours rather than rounds for durations. Still only done four of them over the last year or so though:

    1. That link will just send us to our own blog administration page.