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Basic Necromancer (Cleric)Edit
If you just take a bunch of Cleric levels one after another you get a substantial pile of necromantic abilities as long as you are at best Neutral. The investment of a fair amount of cash into Rebuking bonuses is quite a deal, as these items are generally substantially underpriced. And of course as a Cleric you automatically know every Cleric spell ever, which means that you know General of Undeath and Undead Lieutenant whether you like it or not. So by high level, you’ll have the ability to raise a horde of the undead that can topple nations on accident. Making a “build” out of this is therefore fairly redundant. You can grab some good Domains like Evil (but you should stay away from the Death Domain unless you’re Good, because its power is dumb and it doesn’t give you any spells you don’t know) or Deathbound. All of your feats are pretty much not spoken for, so you invest them in absolutely anything. It can even be crazy hook-up feats that make you good at Perform. I don’t even care. Ultimately it won’t be acceptable to take any PrC unless it advances spellcasting and Rebuking (few do), but you could accept no BAB advancement at all once you hit 8th level – you can replace your BAB with that of a Fighter of your total level (thanks Divine Power!). Strongly consider using some Divine Metamagic Persistent cheese, as Rebuking is something that you generally don’t use on a day-to-day basis.
Basic Necromancer (Wizard)Edit
Much of Arcane Necromancy is actually Conjuration. Major Creation, Lesser Planar binding, and of course, Gate are all in the school of Conjuration even though they are absolutely invaluable to the Arcane Necromancer, meaning that Conjuration will absolutely not be on your banned school list. Evocation, on the other hand, probably will be (unless you are an Uttercold Assault Necromancer).
The first couple of levels of Necromancy are actually kind of crappy. Shivering Touch (Lesser) is nice to put into a spell storing weapon, but it’s no great shakes on its own. Being a 1st or 2nd level Necromancy specialist is kind of painful. The best spell on your list is Cause Fear, a spell that makes people who make their save shaken for a round. But Color Spray and Sleep are the kings of low level offense and everyone knows it. 2nd level spells give more to work with, handing out Blindness and Ghoul touch which are fine and upstanding Save-or-Die spells. At 3rd level you get Vampiric Touch and Shivering Touch (which kills Dragons right dead in one hit, it’s quite humorous). At 4th level you finally get Animate Dead, but you don’t care because if you were going that way you’d be a Cleric or Dread Necromancer instead. The real charm here is Fear, because that is a cone-shaped Save-or-Die that has no hit die cap. At 5th level, you get Magic Jar, and then you never need another spell effect ever because you can take your enemies over and use their abilities.
The key here is that you are a master of Save-or-Dies. People who fail their saves don’t get to act anymore. You want to maximize your Save DCs and Intelligence is of course primary. You don’t get any class features worth noting except spellcasting after 6th level, so you want to PrC out. It doesn’t really matter where you go with it, take a level of Mindbender, or start climbing up Gondian Techsmith. You already have the only things you will ever care about (Spell Focus and GSF: Necromancy) by the time you hit 6th level.
At high level, you can take Archmage. This allows you to get your spells as spell-like abilities. It’s tempting to get something like Animate Dead, but you need to resist that. Take Major Creation instead. Use it to make cages around people that steal their souls when they die. Then use the souls for item crafting.
The Leader (Dread Necromancer)Edit
Dread Necromancers can’t even raise undead until 8th level, but when they get there they get a +2 bonus to hit points on all their undead hit dice that noone else gets and a higher hit die cap than anyone is comfortable with. They also Rebuke Undead and can Control Undead as well. From 8th level on, therefore, they are the skeleton horde platform. If you don’t have to survive those first couple levels, a Dread Necromancer can invest nothing whatsoever into melee combat and simply take all their feats and sink them into Corpse Crafting.
Master of Shrouds (Cleric)Edit
What you are supposed to do with Master of Shrouds is to take 6 levels of Cleric and then hop into Master of Shrouds. Don’t do this. The actual prereq is that you have a Will Save of +5, you can have that at 3rd level if you multiclass. You can be a Master of Shrouds at level 4, and while that may not sound impressive, the fact that you’re getting access to those incorporeal monsters 3 levels early is a big deal. Everything that a Master of Shrouds conjures is designed to be slightly underpowered at the level you’re supposed to get it. But 3 levels ago it would have been really handy.
So for your first 2 levels, you’ll be a Cleric. You’ll take Spell Focus: Conjuring and Augment Summoning, which is just plain setting feats on fire. But you’re a cleric, you don’t really care, because you can heal yourself and wear heavy armor. You’re only missing 1 BAB on a fighter and your two domains probably give you something faintly cool. Then you’ll take Hexblade or something similar to boost your base Will Save. I won’t insult you by pretending that this gives you good abilities, but at this point you are surviving as a warrior archetype anyway so it’s not a big deal. At 4th level you hurt, because you’re still only casting 1st level spells and your BAB is only +2. There’s really nothing good you can say at this point. But at fifth level you start being able to produce Shadows in large numbers as standard actions. That’s completely playable all the way up to 13th level where you are popping Dread Wraiths out and have 5th level spells. It’s no good after that of course, the undead summonings stop scaling and you are a whole spell level behind for an increasingly marginalized benefit – but there are a lot of games that exist in the 5th – 13th level range and this is a valid character in those arenas. Beckon the Frozen is a nice little feat you pick up at 6th level because being immune to cold is nice, but 1d6 cold damage on a shadow as a touch attack is just mean.
The Tank (Dread Necromancer)Edit
A Dread Necromancer Tank is the party’s front line fighter for much of her career. A combination of bottomless healing, easy access to temporary HPs, and DR/”you won’t beat this”, she basically soaks damage better than any character in the game.
Uttercold Assault Necromancer (Wizard)Edit
The ultimate goal is to cast spells with the Cold Subtype that do half negative energy damage, while you and all your undead minions are immune to cold and healed by negative energy damage. Basically, this is done with Energy Substitution[cold] (a prereq for Lord of the Uttercold) and the feat Lord of the Uttercold. Then you put up Walls of Fire(uttercold) and you and all your minions dance around in them like Homer Simpson at the American Embassy regaining all your hit points every round and inflicting real evocation-style damage on your enemies. It’s hilarious. You can burn lots of feats and be a blaster mage at high levels, or take Beckon the Frozen to get cold-subtyped undead with Summon Undead that you heal with uttercold, but the essential build is two feats (though you are required to be undead or take Tomb-tainrted Soul if you want in on the fun).
For people who like numbers, look at your favorite Evocation modified by a resonable amount of Sudden or Rod-based Metamagic(or even vanilla metamagic). Then imagine your cold-immune undead like Skeletons or cold-Subbed Zombies like Frost Giants taking 1/2th of that damage each round as healing. A simple thought exercise is the 10th level Wizard with a vanilla Empowered Cold-subbed Fireball: average damage to your enemies is 15d6 (52.5 points of damage), with a save for half, and an average of 26 points of healing for every one of your minions. Makes Inflict look like crap, right?
Now, lets play this excercise with a real blaster mage: A 12th level Sorcerer with the feats from Races of the Dragon that drop metamagic costs and speed metamagic and a Rod-Maximised, Twinned Fireball: a flat 120 points of damage with a save for half and a flat 60 points of healing. Thats not even counting a once per day Sudden Empower for an extra 10d6 (35 damage, save for half, and an extra 17 points of healing).
Even if you don't want to be a blaster mage or don't want to sling together complex battle plans involving Walls of Fire(uttercold) to heal your minions and hurt your enemies, the ability to cast a single Wall of Fire after every combat to heal all your minions and perhaps yourself is an invaluable Necromantic aid.
Level by Level ProgressionsEdit
The abstracts on playing the basic necromancers are fine and all, but here’s playing them in a bit more detail:
This is where you have to make the big decisions in build priorities. If you’re in the FRCS, you have to select a god. Anyone else can just grab some domains and go. There are a lot of stupid domains, and only a few good ones. The Evil Domain adds to your Caster Level, and the Deathbound Domain increases the size of your eventual undead horde by 50%. That’s a good start, and may require you to worship Afflux, depending upon the whim of your DM. You get your starting feat, and you select a race and skills. Pick some that will eventually lead you to wherever you want to go Prestige Class wise. You have very few options that raise Rebuking and Casting. You could start investing cross class into Ride to eventually get into Bone Knight I suppose. You can start in with the Corpse Crafting. It doesn’t do anything right now, but in the long run you need to sink a lot into Corpsecrafting before you care.
You can’t even draw a melee weapon and move with the same action, because you have a BAB of +0. And as a starting character you can’t afford any good armor. So you’re kind of a placeholder character at this point. Carry a shield with some javelins on it. Throw javelins at anyone far away. Draw your morningstar and club anyone who gets too close. Life is cheap at 1st level, don’t sweat it.
There are no choices at this level. You can finally afford to have decent armor made for you, and you now have a BAB, so you’re the Tank. Pure and simple, you’ll wander up and hit things with a stick. You’ll have to prepare cure spells if you want to heal people, but remember to only cast cures out of combat (during combat you have better things to do).
You select a Feat. This will probably be more corpse crafting. You now have Hold Person, so for no reason you are a badboy spellcaster now.
You’ve continued to gain BAB and are kind of hard d’core in melee. Also your Save-or-Dies still matter a lot, so you’re just ambiently good at anything you do for no reason.
You now have Animate Dead. Your Corpse Crafting suddenly pays off as you can make Undead in Desecrated areas with big bonuses to everything they do.
You get another Corpse Crafter Feat. You’ll continue to do that until you run out of minor bonuses to give to your undead.
Suddenly you can outfight any Fighter because you have Divine Power. That continues to be true from now on…
This is where you have to make the big decisions in build priorities. You have to choose your skills. One of these skills is going to be Intimidate (more on that later), and if you ever want a prestige class you'll have to start working on it now (You could do worse than working towards Divine Oracle by taking Knowledge: Religion, Wild Mage by taking Spellcraft, or Mind Bender by taking social skills). Otherwise you can get pretty much anything you want. Unless you're human or a human with glowing blue eyes, you're only going to have one feat. That feat is going to be Tomb Tainted Soul, because not having that feat is unacceptable. Finally, you get to choose a martial weapon - and in all deference to the really hot Asian necromancer picture, that weapon is under no circumstances going to be an axe. You are going to have proficiency with the composite longbow.
Combat at first level for a Dread Necromancer is nasty and brutish, much like it is for a Rogue. You'll try to keep things at range as much as possible because you're soft and squishy. When it does come to melee, you're going to dish out big damage. Your Charnel Touch is a touch attack, so it is substantially more likely to land than a sword attack from a ranger of your level (they have +1 BAB on you, but how many creatures have less than a point of armor and natural armor?), and depending on your DM's reading of the ability - may do more damage. The key is whether Charnel Touch is an attack action or a standard action, it is heavily implied to be an attack action but this is unclear in the text. You can combine a Charnel Touch with a touch spell such as Chill Touch (making you do as much damage in melee as a Rogue's Sneak Attack with a longsword), but your DM may rule that you have to spend a round "powering up," so ask before you get into combat.
You're still running in there with the crappy light armor you can afford (studded leather), and 6 + Con HP, so even your high damage output shouldn't trick you into getting into melee much. Of course, any combat you survive causes you no damage, as you'll just Charnel Touch yourself back to full life during even a minute of down time. Touching yourself is a standard action, after all.
There are no choices to make at all once you hit level 2. All of your skills advance, and you don't have any feats or proficiencies to select.
But combat is a whole new world for you, as you now have DR 2/ Bludgeoning and Magic. By this point you've probably gotten your hands on a masterwork chain shirt, and you're what passes for a decently resilient melee combatant. Your rebuking is now powerful enough to command basic skeletons, and your BAB is still only a point behind the fighters. So you still dish out the pain like a Rogue, but now you're survivable - so run in there and start slapping people.
There is a very large choice at this level: your new feat. The obvious choice is to just take Arcane Disciple every feat from now until you've exhausted all the domains of your favorite god. I won't fault you for doing that, but you can also get some good effect out of Weapon Finesse (as it modifies touch attacks), and if you're thinking long term you might want to go for Mounted Combat as you will eventually be able to pull some tricks with undead warbeasts that are alarming.
Combat is pretty similar at 3rd level to 2nd, but the monsters are tougher. You won't have gotten noticeably better at melee (unless you took Weapon Finesse), but you now have the ability to pull a combat muligan - you are within 5 feet of yourself by definition, so if melee is turning against you a burst of negative energy will heal you and hurt them - that's all good.
Level 4 is where you start being a halfway decent caster, and your big character choice reflects that. You can dumpster dive throughout the whole of D&D and find any Necromancy spell off the Cleric or Wizard list from any book. Good choices include Lesser Shivering Touch (which can again be combined with Charnel Touch) from Frost Burn, and Faerun has a number of nice offerings such as Stone Bones, Spirit Worm, Death Armor, and Shroud of Undeath can all be pretty useful. The Spell Compendium is a good place to go shopping, but this is a very personal choice.
We're not even going to pretend that your "Mental Bastion" makes a difference, so combat is going to be livened up by your increased BAB and your second level spells. False Life is key, remember that your DR is applied before you lose temporary hit points, so you're pretty much the tank at this point.
Special Note: Once you attain 4th level, you will continue to accrue new spells known every 4 levels even if you take a +1 caster level PrC. Gaining new levels for the purpose of learning new spells is awesome for a Dread Necromancer.
There are no choices at 5th level, but this is where your intimidate finally pays off. A character with max ranks of Intimidate usually succeeds at intimidating things, and anything that gets into melee with you has to make a Will save or become Shaken (as written, you can jolly well just use the fear aura again and again, stacking up fear effects until your opponent becomes panicked or makes a Will Save, but we'll assume for the moment that your DM will limit you to one booga-booga a round), and if it works you can spend your action intimidating them, which stacks their Fear up to Frightened, so they lose their action running out of melee while you slap them in the back of the head. It's quite an effective "juggle" to use fighting game lingo.
This is a level where you get a feat, and that means that you have a lot of choices again. You could get Leadership, or Skill Focus: Knowledge Religion, or Death Blow (see below), or anything else you need to get into a PrC at level 9.
Combat doesn't change for you much from your new "ability". Scabrous Touch is pretty much crap, so it's not important that you have it (though you can combine it with your basic attack so it doesn't cost you anything). You can't use it to generate any of the good diseases like Ghoul Fever or Festering Hate unless you have a very generous DM. You're gonna throw in Blinding Sickness unless you want to try to kill an animal with Mindfire, but don't get your hopes up. Once again, your life revolves around the spells you just got. With Vampiric Touch and Death Ward, your tanking expertise is way up there.
Special Note: You can cast spells while using a Mithril Breastplate, so by now you should own one and wear it all the time.
You have only one choice at this level: your familiar. There are two good choices: Quasit and Ghostly Visage. The Ghostly Visage is the combat choice, because it makes you immune to mind affecting effects and uses your level as its Hit Dice to generate a save DC for a gaze attack that paralyzes your enemies. Quasit is the less-combat choice because it gives you Commune, unlimited Detect Magic, and can still hand out quite sizeable amounts of Dex damage and its 1/day fear stacks with your fear aura.
Combat has changed for you utterly. Your DR has become bigger and you have a familiar that accentuates your combat strategy greatly (either making enemies helpless as the Ghostly Visage is wont to do, or by adding Dex damage to the pile as the Quasit can).
Once again, you are stuck with choices. You select a new spell to go with your shiny 4th level spells. Shivering Touch is a dragon killer - 3d6 Dex damage will drop many enemies. But you're also going to probably want to de-emphasize your melee role now that you can make high quality flying mounts. Undead Mastery is high quality, because it makes your Control Undead ginormous. You also get a second Negative Energy Burst each day, but this is more for emergency healing than it is for harming enemies.
You now prestige class out, because there are no more good Dread Necromancer abilities for a long time.
So your big Wizardly choice is already made. You’re specializing in Necromancy! If you weren’t, you probably wouldn’t be this far into the Necromancy Handbook, now would you? You need to pick two banned schools. Since this isn’t the Uttercold Assault build, you’re going to drop Evocation. You’re probably going to drop Enchantment or Illusion (those schools pretty much do the same thing – completely own creatures that aren’t immune to mind affecting magic). At this, and every later level, you’ll have to select some spells. You also have to select spells every day from your spell book. You specialize in Save-or-Die spells. An enemy that fails a save vs. Cause Fear is going to be killed by your party without ever landing another attack. And you should accentuate that by taking other spells with a similarly deadly motif so you can mix it up. Grease isn’t good until you get a few levels, but Color Spray and Sleep are extremely deadly right now. Whichever one isn’t from your banned school is the one you’ll go with. As a Wizard you don’t have anything to horde except Spellcasting, so you have dozens of workable PrCs. And you have a lot of skill points to burn because the only skill you actually need is Spellcraft. Pick a PrC (I like Gondian Techsmith) and go for it.
Your combat role hasn’t changed at all. But you have 4 1st level spells each day instead of 3, and that makes a big difference.
You now have 2nd level spells to throw around, and that’s good times. That gives you a whole new world of whupass. But don’t limit yourself to just Necromancy, as your Conjuration is also filled with joy and cream. Grease is now important (3 turns of flatfootedness will geek most enemies in melee), and you have access to Web or Glitterdust. The obvious thing to do would be to take Greater Spell Focus: Necromancy, but you could make an argument for taking Spell Focus: Conjuration as well.
Your tactical role changes in no way. You are still the artillery.
You have 3rd level spells, which means that you can kill Dragons. Remember that your familiar can deliver Touch Spells, including Shivering and Vampiric touch. You get a bonus feat, which will probably be Extend Spell or Craft Wondrous Item, depending entirely upon whether your DM is more likely to allow you to cheese out the Slay Mate (2 rounds of Shakening when people make their save vs. Fear is good times), or the Soul Crafting Rules.
You now have a variety of 3rd level spell options. Also you pick up a feat. This will probably be blown on something that you don’t care about at all in order to get into a PrC. It could be anything. Initiate of the Sevenfold Veil or something. It doesn’t even matter.
Wizard doesn’t give you anything at this level except a caster level. No BAB, no Saves, no class features, nothing. So if you can PrC out here, you should do that.
Feats for the Necromantically-InclinedEdit
Now that you’d decided that hanging out with the unliving and stealing souls is your bag, you’re stuck with the nitty gritty of details of day-to-day Necromancy. Here are the feats you’ll want to consider, as well a few that fool people, in no order:
Corpsecafter: This feat is the bee’s knees. Not only are your skeles stronger and harder to hit, but they get what they need to minimize their one weakness: extra HPs. The other feats in this line of feats are nice, but this one really stands out as a must-have for the dedicated Necromancer.
Nimble Bones: This is a nice feat, as its adds a +10 speed and an initiative boost to your undead. If you add in that skeletons get Improved Initiative and a Dex bonus, this means you will almost always win initiative with them, basically giving you first strike on your enemies.
Destructive Retribution: This is a feat that I’m really torn about. In a nutshell, it makes any undead you create with a Necromancy spell explode into small amounts of negative energy damage when they die (meaning free undead created with spell-likes and Supernatural abilities are right out). While some people have tried to optimize the heck out of this, it basically means that you are turning all your undead into suicide bombers. Frankly, it’s a bad idea to allow good undead like giants or hydra to ever explode; you want to keep those guys around. On the flip side, abundant crap undead like kobold skeletons can basically bum-rush single enemies for massive damage, or you do the same thing for massive healing for your good undead. Basically, if you are paying for your undead, then don’t do it; if your undead are free with something like Fell Animate, go crazy and fill up your unused HD cap on Animate Dead with tiny piñatas of negative energy. If you are undead or Tomb-tainted, they can even be bite-sized snacky treats for free healing.
Fell Animate: Alright, some suckers think you take those +3 spell levels and pop them onto a Fireball and go around raising Zombies during your normal blasting: that’s not true. This feat is one of the easy ways to avoid paying for the onyx to create undead and to get your Zombies a little earlier. Pop it onto a damaging touch attack cantrip and Coup De Grace your enemies and its free undead for you. An even better situation is to use Divine Metamagic on this feat (two human zombies at first level!).
Lichloved: Despite the icky connotations of this feat, the actual ability is pretty useful. It makes unintelligent undead ignore you. Normally, this is a non-ability, since you any time you encounter this flavor of undead you want to be casting Command Undead or using Rebuking to control them, and the ability to have them ignore you isn’t going to help the party. The real use is that you can keep rooms of unintelligent undead in your lair for two uses: shock troops to wear down invaders, and short-term fodder controlled by your spells/rebuking.
Planar Touchstone(The Shrine of Acererak): Ok, assuming you don’t mind doing a sidequest (and possibly getting XP for it), this is a fine little feat. Basically, you get all the effects of Lichloved without having to be Evil or have carnal knowledge of the undead. On top of that, you get a Suggestion-like ability to control an undead creature that’s usable once a day (5 times total before you have to go back to the site and French-kiss a statue. I’m not even joking).
Planar Touchstone(Catalogues of Enlightenment): Ok, assuming you don’t mind doing a sidequest (and possibly getting XP for it), this is another fine little feat. It grants the ability of a Domain and with a high Wis you can cast a spell of the domain once per day (3 time total before you have to go back and spend days or weeks doing paperwork). Basically, this a great way to get a domain power for an arcane caster, as well as a great way for high Wisdom characters to get access to spells not normally on their list (like Desecrate, Awaken Undead or Revive Undead).
Necromantic Presence: For a non-Rebuking character, this is a fine way to get +4 Turn Resistance to your nearby undead, an amount large enough that you can really feel it. For a Rebuking character, this is a shot in the foot (see Rebuking section). Overall, it probably not worth the cost, even if you get Necromantic Might.
Necromantic Might: An odd little feat, to be sure. First, you have to have Necromantic Presence, so you don’t have rebuking. That being said, the feat gives nearby undead a +2 enhancement bonus to attack rolls and saves, which means it won’t stack with any GMW magic weapons you might hand to your giants, but it works great on your hydras. The save bonus is also nice and it stacks with almost everything.
Deadly Chill: Another of the Corpsecrafter feats, this grant a d6 of cold damage to a corporeal undead’s natural attacks. Is this pretty good? Sure, a lot of your skeles and zombies will not use weapons. Is it worth a whole feat? Probably not. Any creature with Cold Resistance 5 will ignore you, and this is an ability not used by all your undead. In a game where you get around five feats ever, this one just doesn’t make the cut.
Bolster Resistance: Yet another way to add +4 Turn Resistance to your undead. Its good, but not crazy good. A bonus vs an ability that won’t come up that often is a waste of a good feat.
Hardened Flesh: This is a flat +2 natural armor bonus for your created undead, which is useless as it doesn’t stack with any other natural armor bonus you might get (as it doesn’t use the “increase natural armor by X” or “enhancement bonus to natural armor” terminology). Unless you can convince your DM to improve this feat, it’s a joke. Even if you can convince him to turn it into a flat increase, it’s a small bonus and unless the creature’s AC is already crazy high, this isn’t worth it.
Profane Vigor: This is a pretty good deal if you haven’t found a good way to heal your undead. Essentially, you burn a Rebuking use to heal all undead of small to moderate amounts of damage. While it’s a joke for combat healing, it does heal enough damage that it makes a good way to burn rebuking attempts after a battle (assuming you don’t expect to meet any undead the rest of the day).
Stitched Flesh Familiar: This feat is useless unless you are planning on Spellstitching your familiar, and then its awesome. Use it on a raven and you get to keep the great parts of a Raven(flying, speaking) and lose the dumb parts (+3 bonus to Appraise checks). The raven also becomes undead, which most likely makes it easier to heal.
Tomb-tainted Soul: Since most Necromancers invest in a method to heal their undead with negative energy, this is a way to benefit from that without becoming undead yourself (though you lose healing from positive energy). The rest of the feats in this chain are an exercise in burning real feats for extra flavor text. Nuff said.
Spell Focus(Evil): A trap, since it doesn’t stack with Spell Focus.
Malign Spell Focus: If you’re evil, it’s a great way to add another +1 DC to a bunch of your Necromancy spells.
Undead Leadership: Its just like Leadership, but slightly bigger for undead mooks and much smaller for living mooks. The only thing going for it is that you can get Leadership as well as this feat.
Lord of the Uttercold: This feat is the basis for the Uttercold Assault Necromancer, so if you are a wizard you will take this feat in order to turn your damaging Evocations into healing for your skeles, hurting your enemies and healing your skeles with the same action.
Arcane Disciple: For an arcane caster, this is a great way to get access to a few key clerical spells like Desecrate. Don’t forget that you need a high Wisdom.
Profane Boost: This feat lets you maximize an Inflict spell for the cost of a Rebuking attempt. I’m not sure if it take a standard action to use, so if it does then this is an after-battle boost to any Inflict-based healing you might do. If not, then it’s a worthwhile combat feat.