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Back in AD&D and the d20 editions (3e, 3.5e), the ethical necromancer could obtain corpses to be animated through several means, the most basic one would be using a couple of spells to shape stone into statues, then using stone to flesh to create corpses.

3.5 flesh to stone:

(...) The spell also can convert a mass of stone into a fleshy substance. Such flesh is inert and lacking a vital life force unless a life force or magical energy is available. (For example, this spell would turn a stone golem into a flesh golem, but an ordinary statue would become a corpse.)

This way he could build up his undead horde without killing anyone (thus the "ethical" adjective).

But there is no stone to flesh spell anymore in the 5e basic books, and I haven't found a way to create corpses without killing naturally born creatures.

Is there a RAW way for a spellcaster to obtain corpses to animate as undead without having to use the corpse of any natural born creature?

  • For the purpose of this question, a natural born creature is a creature whose existence was brought about without interference of the spellcaster. There is this whole debate at the wizardry academy about the torture of souls and redemption. I want to circumvent that by making magical corpses.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Would magical means of creating a pile of bones for skeleton raising be acceptable as well, or are you specifically looking for a way to raise a corpse as a zombie? \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Jul 24 '17 at 14:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ You said in a comment on a now-deleted answer, “The ethical necromancer does not uses bodies that were previously attached to souls”. This seems to be a much more specific requirement than described in the question (no corpse of a “natural born creature”). Could you edit your question to detail this requirement to save future answer-writers the trouble of submitting answers that don't meet that requirement? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 22 '17 at 18:34
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Yes, you can create magical corpses

Here are the spells that can allow you to conjure dead bodies out of nothing.

Wish

It goes without saying, but for completeness, I'm including it here. This can create a horde of magically summoned corpses that were never alive in the first place, at a 33.33% risk of not being able to cast this spell again.

True Polymorph

You can take a humanoid-sized object and transform it into a corpse. If you concentrate on the spell for the whole hour, the transformation is permanent.

Clone

By cloning someone, you are creating an empty vessel for their soul to return to should their primary body die. However, if the clone's vessel is ever disturbed, the clone's body stops being inert and starts decaying. This exact duplicate of a (potentially) humanoid creature is, of course, now a corpse a this point.

Alternatively, the primary creature could kill themselves so that their soul transfers to their clone. There may be some incentive to do this because the clone can be a younger version of the cloned creature. Their primary body can then be raised as a zombie.

Creation

You can create nonliving vegetable matter, which will last for 24 hours. If you include minerals, it lasts for 12 hours. Depending on where you stand on the "dead creatures are objects/creatures" debate, you can arguably conjure a corpse from this spell. The corpse can then be animated, as long as it isn't a material component in your animation spell.

Fabricate

Similar to creation, depending on where you stand on the aforementioned debate, you can possibly fabricate a skeleton/corpse from raw materials, which you would be able to animate. You can't use this spell to create things that normally require a high degree of craftsmanship, though, unless you can craft that object in the first place -- so you might need to learn how to put together a skeleton/corpse from inert materials with your own hands first.

The Major Image family of spells, plus Illusory Reality

Minor Illusion, Silent Image, Major Image, Programmed Illusion, etc., can all create images of corpses. Combining it with Illusory Reality, these corpses can become real for 1 minute. You can then animate these corpses, and even possibly make their reality permanent. Of course, as you are a necromancer, you will need the help of a high level Illusionist to pull this off.


Do corpses have to be once living?

Marq's answer claims that a corpse needs to belong to someone who once lived, and a clarification about this has also been raised in the comments. However, a corpse is just "a dead body," not "a body that once lived."

A dead body is simply a body without life. "Corpse" is not a defined game term, and a plain English reading can call a body bereft of life, produced scientifically in the lab, a corpse as well.

While it's valid to say corpses are bodies which belonged to once-living people, there are other perspectives. One is that a corpse can simply be a body that isn't alive.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Much discussion on what constitutes as dead can be found in chat. Please remember that comments are intended for suggested improvements/clarifications. If a post's author doesn't seem to be taking your advice, comments aren't the place to try to long-form convince them. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 24 '17 at 18:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting answer, but most claims are not sourced. Sourcing it with rule text would greatly enhance it, as now it's just a nice discussion of the topic. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala Jul 24 '17 at 19:30
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Necromancy seems to require dead creatures.

Animate Dead:

This spell creates an undead servant. Choose a pile of bones or a corpse of a Medium or Small humanoid within range.

Note specifically that it's the corpse of a humanoid, not a dead organic body in the form of a humanoid. In order to be a corpse, it must have once been alive.

However, clone may offer an exceedingly expensive way do to do this. For the low, low cost of an 8th-level spell slot and 3000gp in components, clone will, after one hundred and twenty days, produce:

an inert duplicate of a living creature

This isn't a corpse (it was never alive), so it can't be used for animate dead, however, once the duplicated creature dies:

if the original creature dies, its soul transfers to the clone ... The original creature’s physical remains, if they still exist, become inert and can’t thereafter be restored to life, since the creature’s soul is elsewhere.

While the original creature's remains — it's corpse — are now inert, there's nothing to indicate that they can't be animated.

So an "ethical" necromancer who can cast 8th-level wizard spells can simply clone people they suspect will die soon, wait 120 days for the clone to mature, then wait for the cloned person to die, then give them the amazing gift of not being dead, and then make necromantic use of their now-unused corpse, which is guaranteed to be free of any souls that might or might not be tormented.

(Note that the 2000gp vessel used as one of the material components of clone is not consumed, although it might be assumed that it can't be used for another casting of clone until the previous clone activates).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You can update the materials section with this info: a diamond worth at least 1000 GP (...) which the spell consumes. A vessel worth at least 2000 GP (...). The diamond worth 1000gp is consumed, the vessel is reusable. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Jul 24 '17 at 16:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually i think he could go and sell his rejuvenation and beautification services for the nobility. 1000gp for a new shot at living is not that expensive. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Jul 24 '17 at 16:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the body had to be a living creature to be considered a corpse. Then the Flesh to Stone example in the original question wouldn't have worked. Why can the "corpse of a Medium or Small humanoid" not be fabricated? There seems to be a logical jump from the spell description to a corpse "must have once been alive" that I'm missing. \$\endgroup\$ – gaynorvader Jul 24 '17 at 16:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @gaynorvader The jump is my understanding of the semantics of the noun "corpse" as a native English speaker. \$\endgroup\$ – Marq Jul 24 '17 at 16:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Marq you're stuck on clone. Just go to a butcher shop, tannery, or kitchen, and ask for the left over bones. \$\endgroup\$ – Voromir Kadien Dec 23 '17 at 9:16
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Obtain the owners' permision.

Just to try an outside-the-box solution. Approach people who are terminally ill, or condemned prisoners. Offer to pay their survivors a tidy sum to help support them in the deceased's absence, in return for the body they will leave behind. I realize this is a bit of a frame challenge in that the body was once alive and not magically created, but it is about as ethical as you can get with a natural body, obtaining permission from the original owner.

Along these lines, but probably harder to accomplish, is to have a public-spirited intent for the zombies and skeletons you intend to create. If they are to be used for the defense of a city or town that is perpetually imperiled (perhaps on the borders of civilization, or next to an expansionist empire), you might convince people to "donate their bodies to the cause", in a manner similar to how modern folk donate their bodies to science, or sign organ donor cards. It might require the equivalent of a public awareness campaign to bring about a mindset that would support this, but it could be seen as an honor to give one's material remains to the service of mother, gods and country after death.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "When I die I'd like to donate my body to Magic." \$\endgroup\$ – T.E.D. Jul 24 '17 at 18:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @T.E.D. "While I'm living, I'd like to donate my body to Kate Upton." (That didn't work out too well, needless to say ...) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 24 '17 at 21:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are also gradients of ethical. Killing townsfolk to mask zombies is pretty evil and murderous but operating a funeral home that provides budget cost funerals to the poor and secretly reuses the corpses, is only fraud, deception and possibly theft. There also just grave-robbing. \$\endgroup\$ – bp. Jul 25 '17 at 2:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, of course. That has nothing to do with my answer, which advocates knowing consent. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jul 25 '17 at 13:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ The ethical necromancer does not uses bodies that were previously attached to souls. It is a requirement of the question that this answer does not addresses. Contrast with Marq's answer, where he states that it is not possible without using the bodies of previously living creatures. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Dec 22 '17 at 14:49
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It doesn't technically require a corpse at all.

Animate Dead requires a corpse or a pile of bones. Nothing states that those bones have to be a full skeleton's-worth, or that they have to be human, or anything like that. They just have to be bones, and enough of them, in a pile. This opens up new options.

  • If there are animals that you are confident do not have souls, just use their bones.

  • Dig through battlefields for limbs that don't have associated bodies.

  • Regenerate spell, a high pain tolerance, and a sharp axe. Alternately, ring of regeneration, a high pain tolerance, a sharp axe, and a lot of patience. Alternately, work out a deal with a troll, probably involving large quantities of food.

Alternately, if you have a friendly druid with access to reincarnate, you can go around casting that on likely-looking corpses pro bono. If the soul takes the deal and reincarnates, their old body will still be there, but no longer souled.

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