Dungeons & Dragons is quite literally chock-full of odd and questionable characters. It is after all a role playing game in which one might imagine themselves as a hobbit or half-orc, rogue or barbarian warrior. It is a chance for people to step outside of who they really are (to a limited extent) and to explore being someone or something that they couldn’t ever really be for a few hours a week. The challenge of course is that they don’t attempt to tackle anything so outrageous as to set the other players on edge and/or disrupt the entire flow of the story because the fantasy that they wish to indulge might have more negative consequences than they might have imagined.
Take for instance the necromancer. Now don’t get me wrong, everyone loves a properly placed and well-thought out necromancer. These gruesome social misfits thrive on learning all of the things they aren’t supposed to know. In the immortal words of an Ed Woods film “they tamper in God’s domain.” They stink of death, possess few if any viable social skills, and have a hundred and one uses for a femur bone. They are the quintessential D&D villain or sinister minion of a villain, or at the very least subservient foil to any heroic endeavor to defeat a proper villain. Taken another way, the necromancer has never had nor is it likely ever to have a place among the good guys.
All of this is of course nonsense. A necromancer Player Character is every bit as rich and challenging as any other type. They have strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly they also have significant challenges that only get bigger as they go up in levels. A simple Google search will show that using the spell “Animate Dead” is considered to be an evil act. This spell is key to any necromancer’s spellcraft, either as the ultimate result of a lifetime of learning or as a basis for even more terrifying magic further down the road. When casting just one spell that is so central to your character’s theme and essence is an evil act a player must consider carefully how they want that character to develop. The easiest path is to just give in to the call of wickedness and play that character as a neutral or lawful evil, still able to get along with other players more or less while spending little to no time considering the implications of their misdeeds. But a far greater challenge is to tackle the notion of a neutral good or chaotic good necromancer, a specialist wizard that knows where the line is and skirts it ever so carefully. If done successfully such a character would be an invaluable sage in any quest to defeat an undead enemy, or a great physician that uses their understanding of death and dying to thwart such threats to the common folk, or a gifted soul able to reach out to those that have already died in order to divine information (perhaps to solve a murder or some other skullduggery). The options are nearly endless and do not have to be evil at all.
The key to pulling off a good-aligned necromancer is naturally going to be tied to how the Game Master runs the world in which all of the players are a part of. Close collaboration with the GM is the only way to make such an odd and terrific character function. What spells would be considered inherently bad? Is there any situation in which they could be considered a force for goodness and virtue? What types of races are even able to be necromancers (spoiler alert: only humans are able to be true necromancers so you can just roll up that idea you have for an elven necromancer and cram it in your casket)? What cultures or nations would view this character as a problematic threat purely by virtue of it existing? Is being burned at the stake really all that bad or is it just hysterical witches spreading fake news? I cannot emphasize this enough; whenever a player is deciding on a new character they absolutely MUST collaborate with the GM. And if the character has as much potential to go horribly, tragically, and epically wrong as a sloppily portrayed necromancer that collaboration becomes even more urgent. In my world I could easily see a player tackling a “van Helsing” sort of necromancer, perhaps with a dash of Sherlock Holmes or Morticia Addams. But that character is going to be a lot of work for both myself and the player.
Great characters are never easy but that is the nature of the game. I would argue that that is the heart and essence of D&D, to develop a truly remarkable and memorable character that is a source of delight for everyone in the group. It is the fellowship. To that end it would behoove all players to work on their roles with great care and a passion for delightful storytelling. And by all means tread carefully. The wrong spell could cast your entire party into the line of fire for more trouble than you ever thought possible.