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With Forgotten Realms being the default setting for 5e, I am curious if there is the possibility for a necromancer, specifically a wizard, to be considered not evil:

  1. In terms of alignment

  2. In terms of how they are viewed by the general populace.

I haven't seen any rules specifically pointing out necromancers as evil, but going over the list of necromancers in the Forgotten Realms Wiki the closest thing to non-evil is someone who was impersonating a neutral character before they revealed themselves as evil.

So, would it be thematically reasonable to have a neutral or even good necromancer, interested in manipulating life forces without explicit malicious intent? Would it be possible to do the same, while summoning undead?

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Related: Can a D&D Necromancer be of a good alignment? – numaroth Aug 13 '14 at 19:43
Relevant to question assumptions: Is Forgotten Realms the default setting in 5e? – SevenSidedDie Feb 20 '15 at 15:42
up vote 11 down vote accepted

From the description of the Necromancy school in the basic rules v1 (emphasis mine)

Necromancy spells manipulate the energies of life and death. Such spells can grant an extra reserve of life force, drain the life energy from another creature, create the undead, or even bring the dead back to life. Creating the undead through the use of necromancy spells such as animate dead is not a good act, and only evil casters use such spells frequently.

It seems like you can assume necromancy is evil unless a usually good spellcaster uses it infrequently. The key is in the "frequently". I think it's up to your GM to say if animating deads once a day is considered frequent enough to make you evil.

Generalizing about necromancy is a matter of survival for common folks. The crazy dude in town digging graves and experimenting with corpses is not necessarily evil, but you'd be a fool to assume he's not. In almost all the settings I know (I'm not the most literate about FR but I've never read anything about a good necromancer) necromancy is either straight evil or shady...really shady. Unless NPCs have affiliations or knowledge of the contrary, they will be suspicious of necromancers.

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You're ignoring all the necromancy spells that don't create undead. Reincarnate, clone, resurrection... It's possible to be a necromancer who never creates undead at all, though I must admit I've never actually encountered one. – GMJoe Apr 18 at 0:38

The player handbook page 118, when describing the School of Necromancy subclass feature says:

Most people see necromancers as menacing , or even villainous, due to the close association of death. Not all necromancers are evil , but the forces they manipulate are considered taboo by many societies.

There is room in the novels for non evil necromancers but you will be working uphill to convince others you are good.

Remember, that most of your necromancy school special abilities are focused on creating or working with the undead. So unless you work out with your DM alternative school features, or totally ignore your class features (in which case why would you pick necromancy to begin with?), you will be creating undead which most view as evil incarnate, and goes against many deities including the FR God of death Kelemvor. But you can always be the drizzt of necromancers.

The following are possible replacement abilities you might want to request from your DM:

School of Affable Necromancy

Grim Harvest: This can probably remain as is.

Undead Thralls: Instead of Undead Thralls at level 6, perhaps you can replace this with Revive the fallen, raise monsters from unconsciousness that were recently made unconscious and have them under your control by trapping their soul but keeping their body a bit alive. This mostly requires make a new version of the "animate dead" spell.

Inured to Undeath: Instead Inured to Undeath at level 10, perhaps keep the power the same, but change the name to Resist Undeath and the flavor so it's an overwhelming amount of life flowing through you that helps you resist the undead.

Command Undead: Instead of Command Undead at level 16, you might ask to change this to Release Undead. Same effect but instead of controlling them you release them from their state, and their soul does some action for you as a sign of gratitude. The soul is then sent to the realm of the dead.

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With respect to Revive the Fallen: I don't see how forced servitude of an unwilling creature is any less evil than animate dead. The rest all seem fine, by the level 6 ability is every bit as bad as animate dead. If you don't mind a suggestion, perhaps replace this with a spell that creates a construct from the target's gear/natural armor instead with the same stats as the animated dead creature would have had. At least this way you aren't imprisoning a soul or forcing a creature into slavery. – Lino Frank Ciaralli Jun 8 at 5:26

From the Basic rules (Player's book, v0.2)

Necromancy spells manipulate the energies of life and death. Such spells can grant an extra reserve of life force, drain the life energy from another creature, create the undead, or even bring the dead back to life.

So, you could be a necromancer who focuses on the "life" side of their powers. I'd say that sort of Necromancer is more likely to be good-aligned.

But, for the second part of your question, about creating undead:

Creating the undead through the use of necromancy spells such as animate dead is not a good act, and only evil casters use such spells frequently.

So, if you're that sort of Necromancer, you're probably evil.

Let's look at a breakdown of the Necromantic spells -

The following spells are helpful or at least not directly harmful (ie, probably "good"):

  • Astral Projection
  • Clone
  • False Life (The description says you're giving yourself a "semblance of life", so this is arguably leaning to the evil side)
  • Feign Death
  • Gentle Repose
  • Raise Dead
  • Resurrection
  • Revivify
  • Spare the Dying
  • Speak with Dead
  • True Resurrection

These are harmful (ie, maybe "evil"), but not undead-creating:

  • Bestow Curse
  • Blight
  • Blindness/Deafness
  • Chill Touch
  • Circle of Death
  • Contagion
  • Eyebite
  • Harm
  • Inflict Wounds
  • Magic Jar
  • Ray of Enfeeblement
  • Ray of Sickness
  • Vampiric Touch

These are the only undead-creating spells:

  • Animate Dead
  • Create Undead
  • Finger of Death
  • Raise Dead
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While the rules as written state that necromancers are generally considered evil and their magic is dark. One could make arguements against this:

In the book "Dungeon and Dragons and Philosophy" (2014), A chapter entitled "Expediency and Expendability: An exhumation of the morality of necromancy" by Matthew Jones and Ashley Brown provides arguements on how moral necromancy is. In summary, they say while moral absolutist would say raising the dead is bad, other argue that you are not raising the dead being soul, you are merely animating their corpse which is just using resources that are no longer being used.

In the 5E monster manual, it clearly states that skeletons are souless (as their soul can be restored) and that zombies have no semblance of their former self. So one could argue that raising them is not evil, no more than using their bones for any other purpose. One could even try to engage in consenting animation of the undead (like organ donors) or only animate the truly evil (like orcs)

One could consider other magic schools are more evil, another chapter of the aforemention book mentions that summoning spells can take freewill being away and force them to fight (which could be more evil) and this could naturally extended to enchantment spells being the control of anothers mind (dominate person, etc).

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