There are few things more terrifying than the realm of death and decay. All living things want to avoid death, so what could be better than a villain who is fascinated with death and false life?
This article will take you through the basics of Necromancy and give you the foundations of how to build the perfect Necromancer Villain for your Dungeons and Dragons campaign!
How do you build a necromancer villain in Dungeons and Dragon 5e? To build your necromancer villain, you will need to:
- Choose a Class
- Understand the unique class abilities for necromancers
- Choose your spells
- Choose your Villain’s Scheme and Methods
- Set your Villain’s lair
Basics of Necromancy
A Necromancer is different from an Undead villain. A necromancer is not him/herself undead, they create undead by manipulating the life energy that flows through all living things. If you are looking for Undead villains, Mummy Lords, Vampires and Lichs make great options.
If you are looking for a pre-made campaign with an undead villain, I highly recommend “Curse of Strahd” you can pick it up at your local game store.
The art of necromancy is about tapping into the energy that creates life and manipulating it for help or harm. Necromancers can both prevent death with cantrips like “Spare the Dying” or create undead servants from decaying bodies.
Necromancy and Your World
Most societies frown upon the use of Necromancy, seeing it as a dark art to be avoided. If you want to use a necromancer villain, I would suggest making necromancy and necromancy spells taboo in your world.
Tell your players that your world does not look kindly upon necromancy spells or those who cast them and that taking any necromancy spell could have serious consequences.
Of course, this isn’t to say that if a player has a neat character idea involving necromancy that you should automatically say no. But players should avoid taking necromancy spells just because they can.
Doing this will automatically set your villain apart and will make your players take notice when they first encounter him/her.
Alternatively, you can create a world where necromancy and dark arts are celebrated. In this world, reanimation is common, though only the most powerful can achieve it.
In this world, your villain could be the “power behind the throne” who has been working for decades to get pro-necromancy laws passed so he/she could create undead armies in the open.
These armies were supposed to be for the protection of the kingdom, but the zombies only obey their master and now, after years of careful planning, he/she can finally take the throne they deserve.
Creating a Villain
When I create a villain, I go through much the same process I use when I create an NPC or PC.
To create a villain that feels like a real person and not just a trope, think about these aspects:
- Specialties– What is it that he/she is especially good at? It could be speaking persuasively, manipulating situations, creating connections, or any other useful talent. Every NPC or Villain should have specialties on which he/she relies heavily.
- Descriptions– I like to have a complete background written (not just in my head) for my villains. Part of this includes a detailed description of their physical appearance. When you are doing this, make sure they have something that really stands out, like a calling card. It could be a scar, a smell, or an item. Whatever it is, always include it. This will create a strong sense of recognition for your players and can be used as a hint or connector before they know who the villain is.
- Wholistic Personalities– Villains tend to be one dimensional. They are evil, have an evil laugh, and do evil things. But this doesn’t have to be all there is to them. Creating full and true to life personalities for your villains will go a long way in creating connections with your players. Make sure to include noticeable ticks, flaws, and positive traits. Remember, villains are people too!
- Emotional Connection to PCs– Find a way to make the villain’s schemes personal. They could be an old friend of one of the PC whom they assumed to be dead or they could be the one that razed a PC’s village to the ground. Whether good or bad, there needs to be a connection, or the players are not likely to care.
For the complete process on how to create each aspect of your Villain’s personality, make sure to read the complete guide in my post on “Creating Unforgettable NPCs”
The next step will be to decide what class you want your necromancer villain to be.
Best Necromancy Classes
Although nearly every class has access to at least some necromancy spells, some classes lend themselves more to the archetype than others.
Here are my top picks for classes when creating a necromancer villain in order of preference.
My top pick for a necromancy villain is a wizard because they can take the most necromancy spells. Wizards also have some neat necromancy abilities that will come in useful during your epic boss fight.
I also like to use Wizards for Necromancers when I don’t want the plot tied to a god or patron, this allows me to focus on the character’s own personal vendetta or crazed mind instead of blaming it on an otherworldly being.
Necromancer Wizard Abilities (p 118 PHB)
The basic necromancy abilities for Wizards come straight from the Player’s Handbook. However, because this is your villain, feel free to dress him/her up with your own homebrewed feats, abilities, or legendary actions (more on that below) depending on the villain’s Challenge Rating and level.
If you don’t know what “homebrewing” is, or you have never done it before but would like to try, I have a complete guide that will make you a homebrewing expert in no time.
Abilities by Wizard Level
Grim Harvest (2nd Level)
Once per turn, when your villain kills a creature by using a spell of 1st level or higher, the villain regains hit points equal to twice that spell’s level or three times the spell’s level if it is a necromancy spell.
Undead Thralls (6th Level)
Add the Animated Dead spell to your Villain’s known spell list. This spell now targets one additional body or pile of bones and when the villain creates undead using a necromancy spell, it now also:
- Increases each creature’s hitpoint maximum by the villain’s wizard level
- Adds the villain’s proficiency bonus to its weapon damage.
Inured to Undeath (10th Level)
Your villain gains resistance to necrotic damage (as he/she should).
Command Undead (14th Level)
Your villain can control other undead creatures that he/she did not create. The villain can target one undead creature it can see as an action, if the targeted creature fails a Charisma saving throw against the villain’s spell save DC, it becomes charmed until the spell ends or is used again on another creature.
As you can see, these abilities would be very useful to a necromancy wizard attempting to create an army of undead to take over the world. But there are other classes that work well for this build, my next choice is Warlock.
Warlocks make excellent necromancer villains because so many of the possible patrons are dark and evil creatures already. Many Demon Lords or fiends would gladly make a pact with a warlock, granting power of unnatural life in exchange for creating mass chaos and pain.
If this is the direction you want to take your plot, warlocks are a great option.
Necromancer Warlock Abilities (p 109 PHB)
To make a necromancer warlock, use the Fiend patron. Fiend Warlocks in particular are a good choice because the abilities they grant fit well with a necromancer villain seeking to cause chaos and destruction on behalf of their patron.
You can find these abilities in detail in the Player’s Handbook.
Warlock Abilities by Level
Expanded Spell List (1st Level)
Fiend Patrons allow for some extra spell options. Though you do not have to take these for a necromancer archetype, they could add some flair to the game, such as Command, Wall of Fire, and Hallow.
This list also gives you access to the necromancy spell Blindness/Deafness, which I would recommend taking for this build.
Dark One’s Blessing (1st Level)
When your villain reduces a hostile creature to 0 hit points, the villain gains temporary hit points equal to their Charisma modifier + warlock level.
Dark One’s Own Luck (6th Level)
Once per short/long rest, you can add 1d10 to any ability check or saving throw. You can even choose to do this after you see the roll.
Fiendish Resilience (10th Level)
After a long or short rest, you can choose one type of damage, (fire, cold, necrotic, etc.) and you become resistant to this type of damage until you change it using this feature.
Hurl Through Hell (14th Level)
My personal favorite and the main reason I chose this patron type:
Once per long rest, when you hit a creature you can choose to instantly teleport that creature to hell. The creature disappears and spends the round hurdling through a nightmarish landscape, reappearing at the end of your next turn. The creature takes 10d10 of psychic damage from the experience.
Not all clerics are forces of good. Those who serve the gods of death and destruction become the embodiment of evil and pain. Clerics of the Death Domain serve such gods and they demand constant sacrifices for their dark purposes.
Death Cleric Abilities by Level (p 96 DM’s Guide)
Death Domain Spells
This class gives the Death Cleric the ability to take necromancy spells they otherwise wouldn’t, such as False Life, Vampiric Touch, and Antilife Shell. You absolutely must use these with your players.
Bonus Proficiency (1st level)
Gains proficiency with martial weapons.
Reaper (1st Level)
Your villain learns one necromancy cantrip (your choice) from any spell list. If that cantrip targets one creature, it instead targets two, as long as the targets are within 5 feet of each other.
Channel Divinity: Touch of Death (2nd Level)
When the villain makes a successful melee attack, they can choose to Channel Divinity and add an extra 5 + 2 times their cleric level in necrotic damage. This means that if your villain is level 20, they can choose to add an additional 45 points of necrotic damage using Channel Divinity.
Inescapable Destruction (6th Level)
Necrotic damage dealt by spells and Channel Divinity now ignores resistance to necrotic damage.
Divine Strike (8th Level)
Once each turn, the Death Cleric can choose to add 1d8 of necrotic damage to successful melee attacks. This increase to 2d8 at 14th level.
Improved Reaper (17th Level)
When the Death Cleric cast any necromancy spell from 1st-5th level, that spell now targets two creatures instead of one, as long as the targets are within 5 feet of each other.
There are a variety of spells your necromancer could take, depending on the class you chose and what you want to accomplish.
To help you choose your spells, or maybe come up with some ideas, I have listed all the necromancy spells from the Players Handbook below along with short descriptions. Check them out!
There are more necromancy spell options available in the additional resource book Xanathar’s Guide to Everything which are not included in this list. If you want to pick it up to use those spells, you can get it at your local game store.
This spell creates one undead servant from a corpse of pile of bones. On each turn, you can mentally command any creature created with this spell. This spell last for 24 hours and you can use it multiple times to create multiple servants.
This spell allows the caster and up to 8 willing creatures to project their astral bodies into the Astral Plane. While the spirits of the beings are gone, their bodies enter into a state to suspended animation, they do not require food, air, or water and they do not age. (This spell could be fun to have been used on a counsel of ancient Wizards, preserving their bodies for the time when they would be needed)
You touch a creature, if they fail a Wisdom Saving Throw, they are cursed. You can choose one of the curses below when you cast the spell:
- Disadvantage on ability checks and saving throws that rely on one ability (strength, dexterity, etc.)
- Disadvantage on attacks rolls made against you
- Target must make a wisdom saving throw at the beginning of each turn, if it fails it wastes its turn doing nothing.
- Your attacks and spells deal an extra 1d8 of necrotic damage.
A target of your choice within 30 must make a Constitution saving throw, on a failed save it takes 8d8 of necrotic damage, on a successful save it take half damage.
You can blind or deafen a foe. On a failed constitution saving throw, it is blinded or deafened. At the end of each of its turns, the target can make another constitution saving throw, on a success, the spell ends.
This ranged spell attack hits for 1d8 of necrotic damage and cannot regain hitpoints until the start of your next turn
A sphere with a 60 foot radius causes each creature caught in it to make a constitution saving throw, on a fail the target take 8d6 of necrotic damage, and half as much on a save. Casting this spell at higher levels increase the damage by 2d6 for each spell slot above 6th.
This spell grows a duplicate of a living creature inside a vessel. As long as the clone remains inside the vessel, it does not age and can endure indefinitely. At any time after the clone matures (which take 120 days) if the original creatures dies, its soul transfers to the clone, retaining all its knowledge, memories, and personality. (Talk about a plot!)
Your touch is death. On a successful melee attack, you can choose to inflict the creature with one of the diseases listed below:
- Blinding Sickness– Creature has disadvantage on wisdom checks and saving throws and is blinded.
- Filth Fever-Creature has disadvantage on strength checks and saves and attack rolls that use strength
- Flesh Rot- The creature has disadvantage on all Charisma checks and vulnerability to all damage.
- Mindfire– The creature has disadvantage on intelligence checks and saving throws and the creature behaves as if it is under the effect of the Confusion spell during combat
- Seizure– The creature has disadvantage on all dexterity checks and saving throws and attack rolls that use dexterity
- Slimy Doom– The creature has disadvantage on constitution checks and saving throws and whenever the creature takes damage, it is stunned until the end of its next turn.
(Only usable at night) Choose up to three medium or small humanoids who become ghouls under your command for 24 hours.
One creature within 60 who can see you must make a wisdom saving throw to suffer one of the following conditions of your choice:
- Asleep– Target falls unconscious until it takes damage or another creature spends its action to wake it up
- Panicked- Target is frightened of you. It must move away from you, effect ends when it moves 60 feet away and can no longer see you.
- Sickened– Target has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks. Effect ends when the target makes a successful wisdom saving throw.
Gain 1d4 + 4 temporary hit points
You can touch one willing creature and put it into a cataleptic state that is indistinguishable from death during, even from inspection by magical means.
Target must make a Constitution saving throw, on a fail the target takes 7d8 + 30 necrotic damage or half as much on a success. Any humanoid killed by Finger of Death rises as a zombie on the start of your next turn and is permanently under your command. (Because there is nothing quite like killing the party with their own party members.)
This spell prevents decay for 10 days and can be recast. (If you are using the scheme of resurrecting a lost loved one, this spell could keep them from decay until the necromancer was able to resurrect them, but they must return to the body every 10 days.)
On a failed Constitution saving throw, the target takes 14d6 of necrotic damage and its hitpoint maximum reduced by that same amount for one hour. It takes half as much on a success and the hitpoint maximum is reduced by half the damage amount.
A melee spell attack that deals 3d10 of necrotic damage, or an additional 1d10 for each spell slot over 2nd level.
You can put your soul into an ornamental container valued at 500 gp or higher. While in the jar, you are aware of your surroundings but you cannot move or use reactions. The only action you can take is to project your soul up to 100 feet to try and possess another body.
The targeted creature must make a charisma saving throw. On a fail, the creature’s soul is sucked into the jar while your soul possesses the creature’s body.
Once you possess a body, you control it and the creature’s soul is stuck in the jar and cannot take any actions.
Only when the container is destroyed does the spell end. If the host body dies, you can make a charisma saving throw against your own spell save DC, on a success, you reenter the container and the creature’s soul goes on to the afterlife.
You return a creature to life that has been dead no longer than 10 days.
A ranged spell attack that, on a hit, reduces the damage of weapons which use strength to half.
A ranged spell attack which, on a hit, deals 2d8 poison damage. The target must make a Constitution saving throw, on a fail, the target is poisoned until the end of your next turn.
You return a creature that has been dead for no more than a century to life with all its hitpoints.
You return a creature that has died within the last minute to life with 1 hitpoint.
You stabilize a creature that has fallen to 0 hitpoints
You animate a dead, intelligent creature with the ability to answer 5 questions. This can only be done once every 10 days.
You return a creature that has been dead no longer than 200 years to life.
A melee spell attack that, on a hit, deals 3d6 necrotic damage and you heal half of that amount.
Schemes & Methods for Necromancer Villains
Why is your villain doing what they are doing? What is his/her motivation, and “Because they’re evil!” isn’t a good enough answer.
Your villains should have a reason for everything they do. Even though it may not make sense to the world, it should make perfect sense to them. What makes them the way that they are? What is their purpose?
If you haven’t decided on this yet, here are some ideas to get you started!
Resurrection/Revenge of a Loved One
Someone very close to this person (parent, teacher, lover) was killed by a curse or a rival. The necromancer could either trade his/her soul for the power to resurrect them or spend their life in search of the knowledge that can bring them back to life.
Will of the Master
Before the patron reached out to strike a contract, perhaps your villain was lonely, neglected, or abused. Perhaps this otherworldly creature is the only thing that has ever paid them any attention, and they would do anything for that attention. Anything.
Ascend to Godhood
The desire to obtain power is quintessential to human nature. A powerful wizard may see godhood as something he/she can obtain, after all, it has happened once before.
Obtain Immortality/ Steal a Body
Perhaps your villain isn’t bent on world domination instead they simply care about living…forever.
Using the spell Magic Jar (above) a wizard has kept himself alive for centuries by stealing other people’s bodies. Your party finds a beautiful, expensive, ornamental container while exploring a dungeon and now the wizard waits to see whose body he will steal this time. Once he possesses the body, the rest of that party must find a way to get their friend back.
After you have a purpose in mind for your necromancer, you need to decide how they plan to reach their goal. Do they plan to resurrect an ancient god by gathering worshipers to become human sacrifices? Here are some method options, pick one that makes sense for your purpose:
- Agricultural devastation: Drought, Blight, corruption of forests, famine
- Assassinations of any powerful person that could stand in his/her way
- Captivity: the taking of slaves, gathering worshipers, gathering of mass living sacrifices
- Control of a natural resource, region, or geographic location
- Mayhem: Animating corpse and letting them run wild, gathering powerful undead, summoning monsters, or creating rifts to other plans
- Spreading a Disease: Perhaps there aren’t enough dead bodies for your necromancer villain to play with. They need more, and quickly. Your villain could spread a devastating disease throughout the kingdom for the purpose of creating bodies to animate. If you like this idea you can see my post on deadly diseases in d&d 5e which includes a step-by-step guide on how to make your own disease.
If you need more ideas, check out the chart on page 95 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
A Necromancer’s Lair
Finally, to set the stage for your Necromancer Villain, you need to create their lair. Remember, location, location, location!
When I am creating a lair, I think about the following things:
- Where is it located? On this plane or another? It should be a place that is difficult for the party to find. If part of your methods include controlling a region or geographic location, where would the lair be located in that specific area?
- Is it hidden? Obviously, there won’t be a sign that says, “Final Boss, This Way!” but how hidden is the lair? Some villains take precaution so seriously that their lair would be nearly impossible to find while others prefer to “hide in plain sight.” Which will your villain prefer?
- What will the party find inside? Again, this depends on the personality of your villain. Are they the kind that likes traps, monsters, and illusions? Or are they the straight-forward, “come-get-me-if-you-can” type? This category should also include magical items and treasures that the party could find. I like to make sure I know exactly what the party could find in there and where it is located before they venture inside.
- Where do they keep the bodies? For a necromancer, bodies are necessary. Animate Dead, Create Undead, and spells like them require a corpse to already be present, and you can bet a necromancer’s lair would have plenty. What condition are they in and where are they kept? Is your villain the neat and clean type, or more likely to have them strewn around everywhere?
- Where do they keep their secrets? Every villain has a secret, whether it is a secret weapon or a secret weakness, where do they keep it? It is good to think about this ahead of time as you can leave the party hints about it throughout the campaign (or in case they unwittingly stumble across it before meeting the boss).
- If they are a high level or ancient evil, what lair effects might occur inside the lair? Note: Dragon Lair Effects have their own rules, but you can homebrew a Villain’s Liar Effects, some ideas could include:
Difficult Terrain: Make an area within the lair difficult terrain until the top of the next round.
Obscure Sight: Make an area within the lair obscured until the top of the next round.
Snaring: Objects appear that ensnare creatures within the lair (or on hostile action). Dex save to avoid, Str (Athl) / Dex (Acro) to break free. A great option to add flavor would be animated hands (yep, just the hands) that crawl out of everywhere and grapple the party.
Knockdown: The lair shakes or does something that knocks characters prone if they fail a Dex save.
Light Changing: Magical darkness or light that can block normal and darkvision, etc.
Heal Dampening: Stop a target or targets from healing for the round.
Spell Dampening: Make spell effects act as if targets have advantage on saves, or resistance to the damage type.
Effect on Enter/Exit: Perform a single action, ability, or spell effect on an entrance or exit of the lair.
Monsters for Your Necromancy Campaign
While zombies and skeletons have their purpose, they don’t have to be the only creatures in your necromancy campaign. There are lots of terrifying undead creatures your villain could use!
You players are expecting standard zombies, why not take them by surprise by using Bodaks, Husks, or even Shadows.
For more ideas on terrifying undead monsters that aren’t zombies, check out this post.
Now that you have done all that, you have a necromancer villain ready to sow seeds of chaos on the world you have created. May the gods have mercy on their soul…
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!