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I'm having difficulty understanding how Necromancers (as in the Wizard subclass) can pull their weight at lower levels. Necromancy spells are few, vary in ranges (often require melee range), provide no defenses, and have very few support effects for Wizards.

The School of Necromancy benefits are fairly negligible, as they require you to land a finishing blow and have lost health, at a level where two attacks can off you without difficulty.

I cannot see how a Necromancer has any realistic use in lower levels compared to almost any other caster.

But perhaps I'm missing something. What value does a low level (2-4) Necromancer bring that another choice wouldn't surpass you at?

My goal is to see more diversity in my groups, and one thing preventing a lot of players from ever touching the School of Necromancy is its first 4 levels, and nobody wants to be a stick in the mud for 6 sessions. With a solid answer, I will set the early scenarios to make our group's necromancer feel as valuable as the team's bard, hopefully without bending too many rules.

In case it is relevant for any decision making, characters will be made via Point Buy, and I would expect the campaign to run until about level 7 (just kind of a vague guess at the moment).

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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast As a DM, I'm trying to target issues with the RAW rules with the game and find ways to address them. There is a lack of diversity with what I find players picking, causing fairly boring compositions. To encourage more unorthodox classes (purple dragon knight, for example), I want to get some insight on what they do well first at low levels, and later find ways, hopefully without breaking the system, to address their weaknesses. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Zastoupil Jul 18 '18 at 18:06
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As valuable as any Tier 1 wizard: wizards are generalists by design

The limit of the scope of this question to levels 1-4. The wizard does not choose a school until level 2. A focus on levels 2-4 leads us to initial spell selection. That single feature, the six initial spells and three cantrips, selected before adventure day one, is step one in the Necromancer Wizard, or any wizard, being good for the party. The choices made for second level spells (a total of four of them at levels 3 and 4) are the next significant levels of being beneficial to the party.

There is no requirement to choose necromancy school spells initially, though choosing some is valid if the character is being built with an eye to the future. If you require that the character choose necromancy spells as they level up, as the DM, the problem isn't with the Necromancy school of wizardry. As a game design matter, levels 1-4 are that crucial to character effectiveness (see PHB p. 15). A power and capability spike happens at level 5: multi-attacks for martial characters and 3rd level spells for casters. New features for all sub classes arrive at level 6.

  • Consider the necromancy school spell: Cause Fear (XGtE, p. 151). You can take a monster and neutralize it for an encounter if it does not make the save. (Monsters sometimes make saves). At 3rd level that spell gets inside of the heads of two monsters. The frightened condition helps the party; keyword crowd control.
  • Shape the battlefield: Fog Cloud, level 1. (I'd consider that at level 2 for a pick). For part of the battle, some of the enemy can't see your party which provides a variety of tactical benefits. Later in the character's life, having the zombies or skeletons emerging from your own fog cloud is a neat cinematic effect.

All of the party's characters at levels 1-4 (Tier 1)...

... are effectively apprentice adventurers. (PHB, p. 15, Tiers of Play)

A core benefit at second level regarding necromancy school spells is that spells that are found cost half as much to put into the spell book -- as with each other school.

The other benefit, the occasional hit point gain for killing an enemy takes pressure off of the healing resources of the whole party. Design paradigm: it's a team game.

  • This is useful. Healing magic and Hit Dice for HP recovery are in short supply at low levels. If the two burning hands spell takes out three goblins, or if two shatter spells takes out some goblins, that is 2 or 4 HP healed without expending a valuable HD, potion, or other healing resource. With arcane recovery at third level and 4th level can get a second level slot back, or two firsts, which may increase this benefit depending on which spells you choose to recover.

At first level

The problem is that there are too many good spell choices. The quick build offers an OK starting point for any school of magic.

... Second, choose the sage background. Third, choose the light, mage hand, and ray of frost cantrips, along with the following 1st-level spells for your spellbook: burning hands, charm person, mage armor, magic missile, shield, and sleep. (Basic Rules page 30)

Experience base: six wizards played (Five, if the UA Loremaster is discounted, which IMO it should be).
I'd suggest firebolt over light depending on party make up, and chill touch over ray of frost since it has a chance to foil attacks by undead against the wizard casting it. (Also thematic for your necromancer). As I've not played with toll the dead I won't comment on it, but it looks to be a good fit.

  • We discovered that chill touch is very handy if there are lots of undead in the campaign. I was surprised enough at its usefulness when our Eldritch Knight used it in one group that I made sure to choose it on the next wizard I had the chance to play. The undead having disadvantage on an attack against your wizard is almost as good as a shield spell (which gives +5 AC) against that foe without it costing a spell slot. It also reduces the chance of a critical hit on you from 1/20 to 1/400; at low levels, crits can mean game over.

You can pick up area of effect spells, like shatter at level 3, and more battlefield control spells (example: web). The point is to help the team succeed. That is true for any wizard. Both of my brother's wizards (illusionist and transmutation schools) focused on party support and various attempts a battle field control at low level since that was the best way to leverage spell casting (beyond the use of cantrips).

There is no need to worry about the necromancer

I don't find the concern to have much merit, unless the game will only last until level 4. From the comment you provided, the campaign is expected to reach level 7. The Necromancer has plenty of chances to shine as new spells and class features arrive.

  • Key Point About Wizards
    They can theoretically find and place into their spell book every wizard spell in the game. No other arcane spell caster can do that.
  • What I have found is that the tyranny of choice -- what do I prepare today? What spells do I choose at this level? -- is as perplexing (if not moreso) as it was for the cleric I first played. Guessing at what we'd need beyond a few standard spells was an inexact science. This was true regardless of school. Evoker, Transmuter, Illusionist, Abjurer -- it didn't matter. (None of these got above level 7; campaigns dormant or dead).

How many additional spells the wizard has access to (beyond what they can pick at level increase) is up to you as the DM / adventure-loot quality control specialist. How many spells, spell books, or scrolls do you intend for them to discover at early levels? They are generalists as a class, regardless of magic school specialty.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While full of facts I find this seems to sum up to say 'there is no real benefit being a necromancer at these levels' which can also be translated as 'you are better off picking something else and having their benefits from 1-20 instead of 5-20', which is exactly what the OP seems to suspect. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jul 19 '18 at 9:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is essentially "yeah, pretty much everything else is better than a low level necromancer, but you still get to do normal wizard stuff and wizards are pretty good to begin with" \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic Jul 19 '18 at 9:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ While the benefits of being a low-level necromancer may be lower than other wizard schools, that doesn't automatically mean that you should choose another school - if the benefits at higher levels are more attractive than other school, then you can think of that struggle at lower levels as an investment; it'll pay off later when you're a high-level necromancer and reaping the benefits (pun intended). Having aid that, if your campaign isn't going to reach higher levels, then sure, maybe it's best to choose something else. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 19 '18 at 12:55
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Well the first thing I would say is roleplaying differs greatly. Maybe the person playing the necromancer has some other strange quirks. Perhaps they start collecting corpses or particular bones. Maybe they run off randomly to play with dead animals. They'll likely want to search out other necromancers and books of necromancy that may lead the party into interesting situations.

And you as the DM can help guide them there.

It's not all about combat and face damage.

None of the Wizards really start getting their best spells until 5th level (3rd level spells) so I don't see how this is any different. Wizards aren't born with spellcasting abilities, they must learn them. It takes time. Roleplaying that is part of the fun.


Okay this part is going to get confusing but I'll try to explain as best I can:

First we need to recognize that Necromancy is a school of magic just like abjuration or enchantment or any of the others. The primary classes that make use of Necromancy are Clerics, Wizards, or Warlocks.

You could probably argue that Warlocks are superior if your goal is being a life siphoning necromancer. It would probably still be in the build's interest to multiclass Necro Wizard for the Grim Harvest.

Necromancy Wizards are vastly superior to other necromancers when it comes to building an army of undead.

Yes other classes can take these spells... likewise other classes can take enchantments from enchantment wizards or abjuration from abjuration wizards etc. But they're designed to do certain things better.

In your comments (before this edit) you mention other wizards and warlocks can horde corpses better. I'm not sure why you think this when its simply not accurate. As soon as Necromancy Wizards get the Undead Thralls ability, they are vastly better at hording corpses.

Honestly, it seems like you're looking at a narrow scope to deliberately devalue wizard necromancers. Your question is what makes them different - they are the only ones to get:

  • Grim Harvest
  • Undead Thralls
  • Inured to Undeath
  • Command Undead

Just like every other wizard class they get these unique abilities at 2nd, 6th, 10th, and 14th level. An evocation wizard is only unique by their 4 abilities, an abjuration wizard is only unique by its 4 abilities, etc etc etc. Those abilities and how you roleplay the character is what makes it unique.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I agree the roleplaying can differ, that doesn't quite address the concern of specifically the school of necromancy. Other options get cantrips, class abilities, pets. What you're describing is less about the class, and something more defined as a background, which are available to every class. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Zastoupil Jul 18 '18 at 20:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanielZastoupil you're not even making sense now. Are you implying necromancers don't have cantrips or class abilities? Every class gets cantrips, every class gets abilities... \$\endgroup\$ – RyanFromGDSE Jul 18 '18 at 20:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry if I didn't make sense. What I meant was, is that other class choices a player can choose provide options to roleplay specifically with their class. Almost every other wizard subclass gains benefits to roleplaying. Those that don't get a bonus to combat instead, but indirectly get a roleplaying boost by having access to cheaper Role Playing spells. Warlocks, at level 2, can Disguise Self at will. And every one of these options I mentioned can role play a corpse hording psychopath and do it better. So what does the School of Necromancy get? \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Zastoupil Jul 18 '18 at 20:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Only the last paragraph here offers substantial insight into the problem posed by the question, and even then it is just an assertion that all wizards have this problem (which contradicts the claims made in the question). That could use more backing up. Personally, I think the aside about roleplaying could use to just go away, since it really isn’t adding anything, but if you want to insist, I recommend moving it to a less front-and-center position in the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 18 '18 at 20:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I mean.. literally any class can hoard bodies then. A rogue could rp as a psychopath who keeps taxidermy corpses as lampshades and bed frames. Not sure why this is even a talking point in this question. What the players do with their RP is largely independent of their class, unless they're just doing tropes. \$\endgroup\$ – JackChance Jul 19 '18 at 16:12
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Necromancers benefit more from off-turn damage than any other spellcaster at levels 3-4

They don't at present at level 2 due to a lack of non-cantrip delayed area damage spells for wizards at spell level 1.

So, you aren't a necromancer at level 1 so we're gonna ignore that level. At levels 2-4 you get grim harvest, which is generally worse than the other possible arcane traditions, but does still have a small niche it can occupy.

Grim harvest can trigger at-most once-per-turn and provides an essentially trivial amount of healing provided it only triggers once per spell. However, with spells that deal damage over time on enemies' turns, the ability can trigger multiple times with a single casting. Create Bonfire, for example, kills targets when they end their turn in or move into the fire. If Create Bonfire was a 1st level spell instead of a cantrip, you could heal 2 hp per creature killed instead of 2 hp no matter what, which could be a decent amount of hp with enough affected creatures in a very limited number of situations (e.g. a narrow chute with a pile of extremely-low-hp enemies in it, leading down to narrow corridor you can block, with you having enough hp to take a critical hit from said enemies).

At 3rd level, you get second level spells and thus access to the following Wizard spells that complement Grim Harvest:

  • Cloud of Daggers, which is like Create Bonfire only 4d4 slashing damage instead of 1d8 fire, and there's neither save nor attack roll.
  • Dust Devil which deals 1d8 bludgeoning damage with knockback on turn ends in a mobile 3X3 grid and provides heavy obscuration
  • Flaming Sphere, which deals 2d6 fire damage on turn ends in a mobile but ground-bound 3X3 grid, plus 2d6 fire damage per turn if you ram it into people with your bonus action.

Of these, Cloud of Daggers is potentially good enough to make this work, if your opponents are e.g. a group of 8 giant centipedes that attack from one side of the corridor while a larger opponent attacks from the other side. In that sort of situation, by setting the Cloud of Daggers on one side of the hallway and then fighting in melee on the other side, you can ensure that you are healed by the dying centipedes between turns enough to make up for the damage you'll take in melee, and the 32 hp you maximally heal this way over the course of the fight is much better than the abjuration wizard's temporary hp would be, provided you have enough Constitution to take the hits without dying and make your concentration checks.

Essentially, what you can do that other wizards can't is, in incredibly rare situations and with much preparation, be a better tank than the abjuration wizard. You only reach that point when you're draining a lot of hp from each spell while at the same time having things worth hurting yourself for, so that's pretty unlikely.

Note that, as mentioned, you can't currently do this at level 2. There seems to be no particular reason for that, though-- area effect damage over time spells are not particularly uncommon, and there's even already a cantrip you could take to do that. If your GM allows spell research or homebrew spells, you should be able to make a 1st level necromancy or conjuration spell in this vein and such a spell would be semi-frequently useful, as at first level even Create Bonfire's 1d8 is often lethal to weaker enemies.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this answer predicated on having spells come out in the future that might be able to help a necromancer? What makes you think this will happen? As is, all I can read here is a hopeful wish for more spells. Do you have a reference that helpful spells are coming? \$\endgroup\$ – Tal Jul 18 '18 at 19:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with @Tal, the opening line reads as if there is reason to expect this to happen. If there isn’t, then that should be clearer. That said, I think this is a pretty sound analysis. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 18 '18 at 19:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your thought process is rational, with but a single problem: hope is not a method. Reference is Gordon Sullivan. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 19 '18 at 2:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ You still make a claim about the future without any basis for that claim that I can see. Why do you think that there will be spells printed in the future that improve matters? \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 19 '18 at 2:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer It is a bad claim, if you just assume it, because it’s entirely plausible that they would instead want to maintain the status quo as far as overall balance is concerned. Moreover, exactly what claim you are making is unclear, which leads the reader to think that you specifically know about plans to add such spells to the game, when you’re only assuming that. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 24 '18 at 12:38

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