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My Question is: Where can I reference the RAW as to (1) that summoning undead is always an evil act, and (2) why summoning undead is always an evil act?

The background is: Some of the players in my game keep coming up with the theory that they can make an army of undead and only use it for good deeds, and it won't be evil. My response is that no, summoning undead is always evil. You are dealing with negative energies, it taints the soul beyond the veil even if you're only dealing with the body, and it's a desecration of body and soul.

They said, "No, you don't do anything to the soul, you're just using the body as raw materials."

I said, "Then you're not using negative energy, you're not using necromancy, and you're not making undead, you're making a golem."

They said, "What's the difference?"

Enter infinite loop until one of them said, "Where in the rules does it say that?"

And we're back to the question.

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Related: Can a D&D Necromancer be of a good alignment? –  burlap Jun 30 at 20:33
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Note, since you mention using negative energy, that in itself isn't evil...though as discussed here creating undead very much is Is negative energy (or chanelling it) necessarily evil? –  Jeff Fry Jun 30 at 23:43
    
Do not answer in comments. –  mxyzplk Jul 1 at 1:39

8 Answers 8

up vote 58 down vote accepted

Rules citations:

Animate Dead has the [evil] descriptor. "This is an evil act" is right there in the spell descriptor:

Evil: Spells that draw upon evil powers or conjure creatures from evil-aligned planes or with the evil subtype should have the evil descriptor.

Good Clerics can't cast [evil] spells:

A cleric can't cast spells of an alignment opposed to her own or her deity's (if she has one). Spells associated with particular alignments are indicated by the chaotic, evil, good, and lawful descriptors in their spell descriptions.

...But a Good wizard can.

The Alignment section calls out all [evil] spells as "minor acts of evil," and the creation of undead as a greater act of evil:

Characters using spells with the evil descriptor should consider themselves to be committing minor acts of evil, though using spells to create undead is an even more grievous act of evil that requires atonement.

Being raised as Undead clearly does something to your soul, because even True Resurrection, a spell that works even in the event of complete bodily destruction, fails if the target is currently undead:

This spell can also resurrect elementals or outsiders, but it can't resurrect constructs or undead creatures.

Note: The undead creature type contradicts this. The contradiction may be an error. It's also possible that it's intended for True Resurrection to work on undead, but that it doesn't return them to life as the undead creatures they once were.

So the rules are on your side, although perhaps not in a very satisfying way.

So far as whether or not it is moral for a Good character to create undead if that was what it took to do the greatest good... Well, that's a much more complicated question.

Just remember, in all alignment debates:

Alignment is a tool for developing your character's identity—it is not a straitjacket for restricting your character. Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies, so two characters of the same alignment can still be quite different from each other. In addition, few people are completely consistent.

Why?

It's possible that the explanation you're looking for is out there. But to be honest, I doubt that it exists. You'll find plenty of definition statements along the lines of "creating undead is foul/evil/bad" (but why?). And you'll find plenty of examples of the creation of undead leading to terrible consequences (but what if we don't feed orphans to our undead minions?). But you're not likely to find a spelled out "creating undead does these bad things" paragraph.

The explanation of this is one of those things that takes a lot of talking to explain. It's a bit like the "airplane on a treadmill" problem, in that it has to do with very fundamental assumptions that people make.

The short version is that "what causes the creation of undead to be Evil?" doesn't have meaning in the Pathfinder universe.

Real Life

Here's how morality works in the real world. You have a fundamental force like electricity. I can use this force to do good (power a machine that cures cancer), or I can use that force to do evil (electrocute those who oppose me).

In either case, the electricity isn't good or evil. I'm good or evil because of the consequences of my actions.

The electricity could also come from a bad source. A power plant that runs on burning toxic waste, for example.

The person who uses the electricity will be judged on the sum of the consequences of their actions. If my machine does more good than the power plant does evil, and there are no better alternatives than the power plant, then I'm still a good person. I used a bad means to a good end.

In other words...

  • A man does good, and therefore is good.

Or

  • A man does evil, and therefore is evil.

Well, that's the simplified version. The philosophy of morality is extremely complex. But this covers a pretty good chunk of the popular definition.

Pathfinder

This game assumes good and evil are definitive things. Evidence for this outlook can be found in the indicated good or evil monster subtypes, spells that detect good and evil, and spells that have the good or evil descriptor.

In Pathfinder, Good and Evil are fundamental forces in the world, just the same as gravity and magnetism. You can detect them. You can measure them. Something can be fundamentally Good, or fundamentally Evil. This is not realistic.

In other words, Good is a thing, and Evil is a thing. Why Good is good and Evil is bad are left to the players and DM.

In other words...

  • A Celestial is Good, therefore it does Good.

Or

  • A Demon is Evil, therefore it does Evil.

A Celestial could do Evil, but it won't. Because it's Good. It can come into conflict with the protagonists, sure. It can be tricked, or fail in a way that results in a bad consequence. But it's fundamentally Good, and its actions flow from that.

The same applies to Demons:

Creatures with an evil subtype (generally outsiders) are creatures that are fundamentally evil: devils, daemons, and demons, for instance. Their redemption is rare, if it is even possible. They are evil to their very core, and commit evil acts perpetually and persistently.

This same reasoning applies to the Create Undead spell. The spell is fundamentally Evil. Using it causes an increase of Evil in the world, just as surely as a magnet is drawn to iron. There aren't rules for either of these things. They're the responsibility of the DM and the players to enforce through roleplaying.

Mortals

Mortals with an evil alignment, however, are different from these beings. In fact, having an evil alignment alone does not make one a super-villain or even require one to be thwarted or killed. The extent of a character's evil alignment might be a lesser evil, like selfishness, greed, or extreme vanity.

The section above applies to supernatural beings. Mortals get to behave more or less realistically... Their actions define their alignment.

You can take an Orc and raise it like a human, and it will be as likely to come out Good as anyone else. But if you do the same thing with a Demon, it will almost certainly come out Evil. Because Demons are Evil.

Spells

Spells are where things get messy. Mortals aren't bound to Good and Evil, but they can use spells, which are. This is the case with Animate Dead.

Animate Dead is Evil. The rules state this explicitly. There is no room for argument.

What that means, is left to interpretation. Perhaps it increases the amount of Evil in the wielder, gradually corrupting them and changing their alignment. Perhaps it increases the Evil in the world, making things inevitably worse.

It's unlikely that Pathfinder ever takes a stand on this issue.

Where do you go from here?

Fundamentally, you and your players have a different point of view. You're closer to the published materials, but that's slim comfort when you're outnumbered. Where you go from here is up to you... But you have a number of options.

Hardline Pathfinder

You could stick to your guns, and the Player's Handbook. Animate Dead is Evil. Period. Do some of the following:

  • Show them this elegantly crafted essay.

  • Make Evil be the result of the use of Animate Dead. All large-scale attempts to use it for Good fail.

    • Perhaps casting Animate Dead attracts Demons, or weakens a barrier keeping them away.

    • Perhaps it blights the land and corrupts the minds of those around it.

    • Perhaps it involves torturing and twisting the souls of those raised, denying them entrance to their afterlife for the duration (some support for this is in the rules, see True Resurrection above), and leaving them scarred for eternity.

  • Like a magnet is drawn to iron.

Moral Relativism

You strike a compromise with your players. Animate Dead is Evil, sure. It's a perversion, and perhaps cruel, and definitely icky. But in the right hands, it can do enough good to counteract these cultural taboos.

  • Play up the concrete consequences of the Undead.

  • Limit corruption to the direct consequences of the spells used.

  • At the end of the day, a great enough good justifies the use of Animate Dead.

Alignment Teams

Finally, you can disregard the moral implications of alignment altogether, and use it simply as a designation of teams.

  • A "Good" alignment indicates that you act like Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and other PC-centric races expect you to act. You might be a terrible person, but at least you follow the rules.

  • An "Evil" alignment indicates that you act like Orcs, Goblins, Drow, and other antagonist-centric races expect you to act. You've probably been unfairly maligned by the "Good" races. History is written by the victors, etc.

  • In this interpretation an Evil spell is really just foreign. The Good aligned people would object to it, of course, but that's just their xenophobia talking.

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Just to help on source material : d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/monster-listings/undead/skeleton-medium/… "Skeletons are the animated bones of the dead, brought to unlife through foul magic. While most skeletons are mindless automatons, they still possess an evil cunning imparted to them by their animating force—a cunning that allows them to wield weapons and wear armor." That's a lot of 'foul', 'evil', etc. –  BrianDHall Jun 30 at 21:16
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@WolfmanJoe See: d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/rules-for-monsters/… Especially the part that says "5 Things Everyone Knows about Undead", point #3. Also, you can't answer why the designers made it this way using RAW. That's a design choice, and it acknowledges a long history of venerating the dead amongst actual, you-and-me humans. –  PipperChip Jun 30 at 21:18
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+1 for magnificent deconstruction of the meaning of "good" and "evil" as fundamental forces in the fantasy universe. –  Matt Thrower Jul 1 at 9:34
    
Oh, man. Thanks, Ace, for putting it all together so magnificently. I've said ... most of those things before. But just not put together so succinctly. Nicely done, very nicely done. –  Wolfman Joe Jul 1 at 14:57
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I think the very concise answer here was along the lines of: In Pathfinder (unlike the Real World), Good is a literal thing, and Evil is also a literal thing. –  Thane Brimhall Jul 1 at 19:50

Creating undead is evil because the game says its evil. Some spells are intrinsically good, some are intrinsically evil. Yeah, it does seem arbitrary, but there are spells that can decide if you're evil or not and spells that kill you for having ADD. DnD in general mixes rules and fluff just enough to make people think it has to be that way while still making it really simple to decouple them. Note this creates two sets of explanations in any game: the RAW-fluff, or how the game makers think about the setting of the game, and the GM-fluff, which is how you think about it. What makes this question really interesting, IMO, is that it's partially about how the two sets conflict.

If I understand correctly, your players want an explanation for why undead are evil that is part of the rules of DnD and not your particular setting while also being a non-arbitrary reason: "some spells are Just Evil" is not enough for them. What this suggest to me is that they expect GM-fluff to be a meaningful part of the game while Setting-fluff will not. It might be easier to get them to accept "undead = evil" if you can address this particular problem.

The first step would be to ask them why they won't accept a you-based reason. Usually this happens when the RAW-fluff has been more relevant to the game than the GM-fluff has been. If this is the case, it's pretty easy to fix! Just make the GM-fluff matter more. That they're trying to justify the act as good suggests they're afraid of the consequences of being evil, so that's a good place to start. Some examples:

You're dealing with negative energies: Why is negative energy so bad? We usually associate it with withering and decay, so let's make undead have a negative energy impact on their surroundings. Vegetation slowly dies. Animals flee. People get sick. People start hating you and don't know why.

It taints the soul beyond the veil: Who cares? Tainting souls beyond the veil should have visible consequences here: a thousand people starving to death in another country doesn't bother us, but one on TV does. Horrible dreams for the necromancer. Premonitions of where undead souls go, and how they wish they were back in Hell instead. Family members of the undead showing up, panicked, having traveling twenty miles to beg something from you, except they don't know what, just that you did something wrong and you can undo it. Zombies apologize as they attack and beg you to kill them.

It's a desecration of body and soul: Spells are too abstract to really be 'desecrations'. But if you add rituals to it you can make summoning undead feel unnatural or wrong. What if you had to sacrifice someone to raise the dead? What if you had to scar yourself? What if you had to eat part of the body you were raising? A zombie hoard with ripped out cooked flesh, and you've sampled every one of them.

I'm just using the body as raw materials: Probably better, but maybe golems aren't as "smart" or powerful as undead are. Or maybe it's actually impossible, because flesh is special and it remembers being alive.

Note that none of these things prevent using undead, it just means it has consequences. I think it's better this way, because then the players are faced with an actual moral choice, as opposed to either "it's evil because a book says so somewhere" or "it's so evil you can't do this at all". Maybe they can, in the end, fight a greater evil with a lesser one. That opens up a lot of interesting stories and character development. It also creates some space for plot hooks: what do you have to do to get the undead in the first place? What do you have to do to atone?

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If they don't accept "I've set up the setting so that summoning undead has these horrible consequences" as sufficient reason, then there's probably some bigger issues at the table that need addressing first. –  Hovercouch Jun 30 at 21:20

My Personal opinion:

  • There's plenty of reason to assume that raising undead is generally evil, mostly connected to the fact, that the "raw materials" were once intimate possessions of a person
    • A peaceful soul surely objects to its bodily remains to be used for fighting
    • No matter what ills, vices or strife has befallen that person in its life, death gives the ultimate peace, which someone is naive enough to disturb (at least in part) to fight someone else for who knows what.
    • Robbing a grave (though we all have done it, haven't we) is, just for those reasons above, generally an evil act.
    • That there's a burial mound erected, should tell "anyone" that those are not just "raw materials". It is the same as desecrating a shrine and saying "It's just a slab of stone with some gold on it. I like gold, and no one seems to need it...."
    • The RAW reasons others have pointed out here.
    • and possibly a few dozen other ones.
  • But it sounds to me as if your players want the thrill of commanding some undead army. So why not give them one? Tolkien has a nice example of an undead army, which to raise by the right person might not be an evil act.
  • I'd say: If the soul is ok with the reason, it is possible to raise its bodily possessions from the dead. But I would always connect it to some kind of "geas" as in the DND rules. Some purpose, that, when fulfilled, lifts the spell.
  • and I would consider it an evil act, not to bury the crumbled remains again and give them some appropriate ritual.
  • In one of the extra DND books, there's a character race that represents that. A (rather powerful) undead that is fully self aware and independent, but crumbles as soon as its purpose is fulfilled or some medium priest dispells it.

Since I always like to fullfill some desires the players might have, what I would (very nastily) do, all "wishmaster" like: I would say: "OK. Try to raise some undead and see what happens. Be warned!" Give them some hints along the way, telling them what the "right" way might be, but don't tell them the whole story. The "You wanted this. Now see what happens and bear the consequences" is extremely fun for both sides, if the players can trust you, that there's a right way/place/time/reason to do it. If, in spite of all warnings, they don't bother to investigate to find the right way, its all the way to hell for the ones doing the raising, and maybe some tainting in the others. Hard and lasting consequences are important, for keeping the tension alive in such circumstances.

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Well... it depends, sort of. I'm not sure what the standard PF setting answer is, but...

  • you're preventing someone's loved one from being brought back with Raise Dead, and they'll need a resurrection, which is stealing, at least.

  • Undead run on negative energy. They're an active blight on the world. Skeletons and Zombies aren't that bad, but you might presume people are just a bit more sickly, food grows poorly etc. in areas where they appear in numbers... not enough to show up in rolls, but as a long time trend.

  • An evil god may have a portfolio over undead, in which case they can observe their divine rank in miles around every undead, so making them is helping an evil god, and...

  • If taint rules are in use, undead spread taint.

Take your pick, really.

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Think about process of creating undead. To make it, you need to get remains of humanoid corpse. And playing with corpses, is consider as showing disrespect for dead person, which is socially unacceptable and evil behaviour.

What about golem? To create golem you use clay not corpse. Hence it is not evil.

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I frequently wonder why GMs feel compelled to answer such things with chapter and verse of the rulebook, instead of "in universe", which would allows suspension of disbelief -- this is about roleplaying, not beating a game engine.


Virtually every culture that ever existed in our world, as well as being described in fantasy / SciFi works, buries their dead with ceremony, and handles burial grounds in general as hallowed. The rest burn their dead and bury the ashes, or disperse the ashes.

May they rest in peace.

Desecrating a burial ground, and raising the half-decomposed corpses of a fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, wifes and husbands to throw them at someone's army to get chopped to pieces, desecrating them even further (and most likely not bothering to re-bury them with the same amount of decorum as they originally were)?

Even if you don't get them chopped up, but use them e.g. as a guard force. Even if you don't think it's evil, what do you think how the people will react, seeing the corpse of a loved one lumber mindlessly around, decomposing where he stands?

(Actually, that would probably be my reaction to such PC plans: Let them do it, and deal with the consequences. I can already see the torches and pitchforks in my mind...)

And while I don't know about Pathfinder, in most systems the Undead spread disease, if they are not outright feeding on the life essence of the Alive.

Sorry, but no matter what you make an Undead do, just having them around is evil.

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Enter infinite loop until one of them said, "Where in the rules does it say that?"

That's the basic problem: unless you're playing PFS then the rules are just guidance and the GM gets to decide.

So if you decide summoning undead is evil then it is (even if it weren't marked as an evil spell) and if you decide it's evil because, for example, the Good Gods have decreed that to be the case or because it does damage to the animated creature's soul or it increases the amount of negative energy in the world and therefore it is evil: that's your call.

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The inclusion of the rules-as-written tag precludes "GM gets to decide". –  okeefe Jul 2 at 13:44

hmmm..

what good deeds would you use a skeleton horde for? I can only think of defence of a town - skeleton guards everywhere keeping the populace safe and secure. They can also act as a police force to ensure safety from muggers, endlessly patrolling all night without rest and without any corruption that too-often plagues poorly paid human policemen. And without pay either, what could go wrong?!

Well... what about all the people who would have gotten jobs in the guards? They'll be unpaid and unemployed. Good job you have those skeleton police to catch these evil thieves and drag them off to prison! And as for the dissenters who think its fun to attack the guards, well, they get what they deserve - they were the types who are only complaining that their nefarious business has been disrupted by the relentless skeletal forces of good. And those merchant who short-change their customers, you can stop that kind of low-level evil with your skeletons who will make sure every transaction is properly measured out to ensure fairness. Not to mention keeping the people safe by enforcing a ban on all weaponry, after all, why do they need weapons when they have a skeleton army ready to fight on their behalf so they can enjoy their peace. As for drinking, you have to ban public houses to prevent all that rowdiness keeping the law-abiding local awake at night.. skeletons outside every pub at 10pm to drag off drunks to prison.

So you've quickly gone from a "good deed" to totalitarian oppression the masses. Well done, but then I guess you wouldn't notice anything amiss as you sit in your castle, counting the money you saved by not hiring proper guards, keeping the confiscated wealth of those deemed criminal, enjoying the ever-so small tax take on each 'fair transaction' and practising your necromancy. Mouhahahahahahaaaaaaaa.

--

you see, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Power corrupts, and anyone given the chance to use just a little bit of evil, even for good works, will find themselves ... not quite so shiny as time goes on. Isn't that the way evil works?

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