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I have a player who is a necromancer and insists on always keeping their risen dead "concealed" by use of large cloaks and masks.

Generally, this includes 4 skeletons and 4 zombies. The PC is very certain that if they took the time to scrape every ounce of flesh from the zombie's bones that they will become odorless. A long while back, I gave this some thought and decided to allow it, lowering the stats of each zombie (primarily their hit dice). As the game has progressed, this PC wishes to now pad the 8 undead minions with some clothing to reduce noise of clattering bones, throw large cloaks on them to hide everything, and furthermore puts masks on each one to hide their faces and claims that no one will notice or care.

So basically, this PC has 8 cloaked "bodyguards" with masks who can't speak or respond to anyone else, shy of being attacked. The longer this goes on, the more silly it becomes, walking into libraries with an entire host of undead cloaked figures with masks, having them wait in rooms or areas during lengthy social engagements, etc.

This PC is one of those power players who insists on a lot of far fetched theories and ideas that are always requiring me (the DM) to come up with possible scenarios or solutions based on these - while not wanting to say no to everything unless it's unreasonable to me. I don't mind this method of disguising undead minions in certain areas of the game, but some of the other players are starting to complain and I'd like to nip this in the bud and find a solution everyone is happy with before it gets too out of hand.

Is there a way to have NPCs react to this or have some kind of checks/saving throws to discourage this kind of behavior?

In this homebrew world, magic is rare and generally frowned upon by most people - as they are ignorant of it and generally fear it. Undead are not a common thing and are typically associated with evil if a populace has even ever encountered such a thing. The fallout from the undead being discovered would be rather large and potentially ruin the reputation the party is trying to build with the region they are in. Suspicious guards and the occasional person may ask them, but perhaps there is a better answer that I'm not thinking of that directly involves this not working due to their undead states or something. I don't want to flat-out say that the PC can't do this, but I generally forget about them when the party is in a city or somewhere that, if these were found out, would cause a lot of interesting issues, to say the least.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by NautArch, Szega, Ruse, Pyrotechnical, mxyzplk Feb 16 at 0:03

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are for requesting clarification and suggesting improvements only. They are not for “I agree” or “Try this as well” or “I disagree”, such comments will be deleted without notice. Answer in answers and vote your conscience. This conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 14 at 18:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is Necromancy commonly understood to be illegal in your setting? It sort of sounds like it is by your description thus far. \$\endgroup\$ – DoverAudio Feb 14 at 23:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JonSG See this FAQ for why your comment was removed. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 15 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Based on answers, I'm starting to think this may need to be closed as opinion based. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 15 at 20:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ I concur. If answers don't start showing experience or citations (Good Subjective, Bad Subjective) this will get closed - your SWAG on "what I'd do in this case" isn't helpful to anyone if it's untried. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 15 at 21:32

12 Answers 12

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Dan B raises a good point - having your PC's undead troupe called out and identified is likely only going to cause issues.

However, if you have a way of controlling this - perhaps when they do get caught out, the guards issue him with a warning "Hey guy, we know you're in charge of these things, but we can't just trust you to keep them in line. You sneeze the wrong way and they might jump little ol' granny over there. Next time we won't be so lenient"; to catch them out, you can take some inspiration from the Monster Manual:

[…] They move with a jerky, uneven gait, clad in the moldering apparel they wore when put to rest, and carrying the stench of decay.

As you explained, they have dealt with the apparel and the smell, but the way they move is still identifiable. These are half-dead creatures that do not have full control of their motor skills.

[...] Zombies take the most direct route to any foe, unable to comprehend obstacles, tactics, or dangerous terrain. A zombie might stumble into a fast-flowing river to reach foes on a far shore, clawing at the surface as it is battered against rocks and destroyed. To reach a foe below it, a zombie might step out of an open window. [...] A zombie can follow simple orders and distinguish friends from foes, but its ability to reason is limited to shambling in whatever direction it is pointed, pummeling any enemy in its path.

Even if they are controlled by the Necromancer, that does not make them smarter. They will still act in this manner when instructed to "get them!" If they're on the second floor of a tavern, and their target is below them, they will still clatter straight over the balcony - the shortest, straightest path. For the Necromancer to make them somewhat believably smart in their decisions, he would have to micro-manage them - even when walking through crowds. This mob of shambling bodyguards would simply bump into stalls and completely ignore passers-by as obstacles. A crowded street would be hell for him and his posse.


My only other argument is that the type of magic that keeps a skeleton in one piece is different to the magic that simply brings life into a rotting corpse - flaying the zombie is not upholding the magic that keeps a skeleton together.

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In some sense, the problem you're having is that your necromancer is holding your plot hostage.

He's decided to try to bring these undead into the city. If you call him on it and have the undead discovered, then the player characters get in a lot of trouble, and potentially a big chunk of the adventure gets replaced with "the player characters are in hiding from the law" or "the player characters have to fight a bunch of guards" or "there's a bounty on the player characters' heads now". You don't want that to happen, so you have to have the NPCs fail to notice the undead.

You can't solve this problem by making the undead easier to notice. If you narrate the undead being jerky or uneven or stupid, it still leaves you with the same problem, which is that you can declare that the NPCs have noticed the undead (and now the rest of your campaign is about how the group is a bunch of outlaws), or you can declare that they haven't noticed and then there are no consequences for bringing the undead into the city.

One option to resolve this is to just tell him: "no, you can't bring the undead into the city, because then they'd get discovered and it would wreck a bunch of the adventure, and I'd rather not let you wreck the adventure for the rest of the group."

Some DMs don't like to directly interfere with player agency. If you don't want to do that, another option is to have passive defenses in cities. Maybe someone has cast Forbiddance on an area and made it permanent, so the undead burst into flames and die when they enter that area. (This is a surprisingly good spell, and if your world contains high-level casters, then good worldbuilding should include people casting it on anything important!) Maybe the the group travels through the temple of Pelor, and undead can't enter the holy ground. Maybe someone casts teleport on the group but they can only move the characters and not the guards. Maybe there's some other similar effect.

I also like Vaelus's suggestion: individual NPCs (perhaps NPC necromancers) might notice the group's undead and might try blackmailing the group. This is a nice way to generate a consequence but not have it be adventure-ending.

Good luck with it.

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This isn't the fault of the player; it's a problem with the subclass, and should be handwaved away.

While all of the answers so far have been great, I want to present another viewpoint here.

I don't think the problem is the Necromancer player so much as the existence of the Necromancer build.

He's not just "Roleplaying too well", as Miles points out. It's him having picked a character concept and not wanting to be punished because of it. The Necromancer sacrifices almost all of his spell slots every day just to maintain his undead hoard. His entire character is built around this mechanic. He's basically asking for a way to hand-wave away all of the problems this character will cause the party, and it may be wise to do so.

  • Does the Barbarian get punished for walking into rooms in a loincloth and a bloody great axe?
  • How about the Teifling, does he get disadvantage when doing sneaky things in a city because the guards know to watch out for that race because of the stereotypes around it?
  • How about Monks? They're a well-known and recognizable fighting style, do Monk players have to wear shackles when they enter a "No-weapons allowed" scenario?

    The problem boils down to the fact that there are very few ways in-character to deal with this character concept, and any decision you make will probably just feel bad to the player.

If you choose to punish or straight up not allow the minions in cities, the Necromancer Player is forced to choose between either sitting out of all RP/combat scenarios that happen inside cities or completely lose both his subclass (Necromancer) and most of his main class (most of his Wizard spells are being consumed to keep the hoard alive daily).

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for not interfering with class features! But I think he's actually just losing two third-level spell slots, and it's unusual to describe that as "almost all of his spell slots". \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Feb 14 at 21:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ (The animate dead spell will let you re-control four undead creatures for 24 hours, per casting.) \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Feb 14 at 21:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanB not "just" 2 3rd level slots, ALL of his 3rd level slots. And that's assuming he never summons any more, which he'll definitely want to do since it's his main class feature. Due to how the Necromancer subclass works he'll want to be investing as much as he can into it. \$\endgroup\$ – lee A. Feb 14 at 23:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like you think the group is exactly fifth level. Do we have evidence of this? I asked OP for clarification but haven't received a response. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Feb 15 at 19:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanB As far as I know the OP hasn't addressed it specifically. But i find it far safer to assume the "Power Player" he describes has as many minions as he can safely control, than to assume he's not, especially since the OP seems to think the number will increase in the future (which I took to mean once he obtains more spell slots). This assumption also lets my answer apply to a broader set of issues revolving around the necromancer class. \$\endgroup\$ – lee A. Feb 15 at 19:52
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This is a fine example of a player roleplaying too well.

A necromancer is obviously going to keep undead minions, and they're obviously going to want to stay beside them in every situation. This is actually very close to a My Guy Syndrome, where the necromancer character is causing problems for the party's balancing and plot, and the player might be just staying true to character.

It sounds like it's a problem because the necromancer is now steering the party and other players are limited in their actions because they can't risk exposing their undead posse.

In this case, I'd actually suggest the exact opposite of the other answer and say that if it's becoming distracting, make it so easy that it's a non-issue. Have the government in your game recognize necromancy as a legal practice of magic. Or maybe the next few cities you go to are less up-in-arms about undead servants. Now your other players can do what they want without having to worry about exposing the necromancer.

As the amazing comments underneath have pointed out, this is a great chance to provide some really interesting worldbuilding as undead servants become socially equated to pets or animal companions. Edit: Since the comments were removed, here's what was suggested:

  • Undead being put on leashes
  • Undead requiring special tags and licenses

Edit: Given the new information on the homebrew world, this may not apply in this specific situation, as the "magic is weird and unknown" country isn't going to be amenable to any magic, much less necromancy. Lee's answer applies much more in this situation. The necromancer took a very inappropriate subclass for this world.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You may want to include some ownership of the problem is on the DM as well. If the DM didn't specify that this would be a problem, then it's not really on the player. We also don't know the rest of the classes, but if any of them are magically focused then they should hav equal issues. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 14 at 18:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ True, but necromancer is a risky subclass in general, and the player took it without confirming how much trouble it would cause the party. And now he's taking risks with the party's reputation. I can see why the party is complaining \$\endgroup\$ – Miles Bedinger Feb 14 at 18:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes and no. This answer covers the real concern here. If a DM thinks certain classes will be problematic, they need to be up front with that. It's a viable class option, it's not inherently evil in 5e, and there really isn't a reason to punish a player for choosing it if it's an option on the table. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 14 at 18:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Relevant meta: Don't signal your edits in text. Instead of just noting that part of your answer is irrelevant at the end, you should edit your answer to stand as if it were always the best version of itself. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 14 at 22:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's potentially useful to other future readers dealing with Necromancers in other campaign settings. Maybe say that in a header at the top of your answer. And/or expand on ideas for how to go forward. Like maybe let the player rebuild their character after discovering this growing conflict between chosen subclass and campaign setting that can't be hand-waved convincingly. It doesn't have to be anyone's "fault" that this problem wasn't forseen at char creation time, if the worldbuilding hadn't been done yet. But an in-world person might have anticipated and not become a necromancer. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Feb 15 at 13:59
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Undead or no undead, if I'm at the public library and eight masked figures get in, I'll treat them as an immediate threat. In my case, that means to run or hide from them, but there are other cases. The presence of a handful of unmasked armed people willing to vouch for them won't change much.

I don't think a medieval fantasy world would be any different in this respect. If it was, walking in through the gates would be standard procedure in every invasion and takeover.

Even if the disguise is perfect, there's all sorts of trouble your party should be stumbling over, all the time, until this stops.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you cite any experience of how this approach works out in practice? Please see our citation expectations for subjective answers. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 14 at 20:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener What sort of citation are you expecting for this and all the other answers you wrote this comment on? (And why do the answers you didn't comment on apparently not require one?) This answer "explains why and how", is moderately "longer, not shorter", and has a "constructive, fair, and impartial tone", as suggested by your meta post. So do several of the others. The only thing they don't include is a citation of personal experience trying it, and none of the answers have that. \$\endgroup\$ – Ray Feb 14 at 22:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ray It's in the link. I'm making a judgement call here based on how voting's gone, and leaving this comment on answers that say approximately "here try this" with zero indication of even an iota of experience-based confidence it's remotely workable as a solution. Inexperienced armchair speculation solutions are cheap and easy but not what we're looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 14 at 22:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener it seems inconsistent. The answer from aherocalledFrog has no citation and is just a do this answer. Which I think is entirely fine for this question. I haven't had to deal with a player like that, but from decades of RP and RL experience I know how to respond. My answer is pretty much this sentence 'You need to ask yourself if it's plausible in your game world that you could walk a group undead around town without anyone being suspicious.'. It's quite evident the necro is the only one that believes it is. \$\endgroup\$ – Philip Tinney Feb 15 at 2:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener also want to let you know, I respect the time and effort you must put into this. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$ – Philip Tinney Feb 15 at 2:07
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This isn't the player's decision. It's the party's.

At a certain point, merely discouraging a player from doing something isn't enough. You can warn the necromancer, you can describe the likely results, but the player is going to make their choice.

The problem isn't 'What do the NPCs do?', it's 'What do the other players want from the game?'. As DM, when the decision has been made, you should describe the outcome realistically and consistently. Things are likely to go bad. But this doesn't just affect your necromancer. The whole group should have a say in whether or not it's worth the risk.

When the party is about to enter town and your necromancer is describing the hours it'll take to properly disguise his undead horde, ask the other players what they want. Do they help? Do they wait? Do they move on and let the necromancer face the consequences on their own? Do they stop him? Going through with the necromancer's plan will significantly change the game, and the rest of the party needs to decide if that's the kind of game they want to play.

If everyone else is opposed, don't let it happen. You're not exerting your will on a player, you're enforcing the decision of the party.

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Have someone accidentally notice one day. Perhaps someone bumps into a zombie and gets mad, punching the zombie in the face. What are the zombie's orders in that case? What happens? A brawl seems quite possible. Do the other undead join the fight?

It seems quite easy to develop this into a case for the watch. The watch arrests the necromancer and bans him from the town or city. They also mention this to the watch organizations in other nearby cities and towns. Soon, every town watch is requiring everyone entering the town or city to show their face or make a short statement, perhaps the person's name.

If you don't like the bump-into trigger, you can have a fight start for some other reason. All you really need is one interaction with a town or city watch where the undead are observed. It's reasonable for the town or city to then ban the necromancer.

He overused his trick and it stopped working.

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Explain the consequences thoroughly and clearly to your player: "When I approved this character, I didn't realize you would have an undead horde. People will eventually notice that you have skeletons in your control. I can't guarantee how they will react. If this is a dealbreaker, you can always try a new character concept."

You, as a DM, are partially at fault for OK'ing the character concept at all.

You, as a DM, are also partially at fault for enabling/bargaining with the player on the "smell" issue instead of making a ruling. You need to stop the cycle before this player's weird decisions run your game.

Because you've been cooperative --you approved the player's class choice and even tried to make it work -- he will rightfully be mad if he is totally hamstrung or punished arbitrarily.

The fact is, his character concept doesn't fit your setting and should not have been permitted without some serious warnings or caveats.

What is done is done. But by explaining this clearly (you are not bargaining, you are forewarning the player), you can now act as you think appropriate in your world. Then the player cannot complain about being punished or blindsided.

I do not recommend that you have the undead "disappear". His "solution" has serious problems of its own. I suggest you do your job as a DM and play out the consequences of his decision.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 14 at 21:12
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I think that the solution to this dilemma is going to fall down to your style of DMing. There's been a lot of good suggestions on here and I wouldn't feel the need to add mine, except that the top answer right now focuses on what you should do as the DM.

You don't need to do anything. You could just let it play out and see what happens. You could just deal with the consequences of the character getting their way.

However, if the real dilemma is that your other players are getting irritated, then you might try asking them what they plan on doing it. Just because you, as DM, agree to a ruling question, it doesn't mean their players have to be okay with the situation. It's ok to let them handle it. If they are unwilling to handle it, then dole out the consequences for the necromancer's actions and let them deal with the fallout.

Most important in my mind, is be clear that the players have a choice in how the situation plays out, and be clear about how what your ruling does and doesn't cover. ie. Yes you can disguise them well enough to pass a casual inspection. But if anybody gets too close it's going to be obvious.

Hopefully, you can turn the situation around in the group's favor. Everyone is there to have fun, and sometimes a disaster is exactly what the party needs to really bond. For example, one of my characters decided to burn his way out of a jail cell; in a wooden room, in a wooden palisade. Most of us escaped. The next time the group got caught, and my PC suggested using one of my ever-present oil flasks they knocked him out. So it's turned into a running gag for us.

Good luck, and always remember everyone is there to have fun.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Good first answer! \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 14 at 21:38
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This isn't a case of a player role-playing too well. In fact it's very poor role-playing. We can't model all the details of the game world. We create abstractions to facilitate game play.

If we spent the time we could probably brainstorm a fairly long list of characteristics that the necromancer would need to mitigate, to allow undead minions to go unnoticed. For example, I'd have dogs react to them.

As mentioned by others, I don't think you can remove the rotting flesh from a zombie and have it still live. At best it's now a skeleton, not a zombie.

You need to ask yourself if it's plausible in your game world that you could walk a group undead around town without anyone being suspicious. Based on issues brought up in other answers, I feel something will end up happening that will cause them to be discovered. You can't let the necromancer create one off fixes for every issue. If you want to allow it, I'd offer an abstraction to the issue. Say every hour they are interacting with NPCs, you come up with some sort perception roll.

I for one think a group of 'A Christmas Story' snow-suited, masked shambling "people" would make me very suspicious.

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I would suggest progressively introducing the idea that the minions can be detected and would not be welcome. In other words, give stronger and stronger in-game hints that he will be in trouble if he does this.

For example, your party gets mugged by some random thugs. They escape, but not before they have 'unmasked' one of the minions. Now there is a rumour circulating that masked undead are in the city. A few key conversations will let the players know what is in store if they keep bringing the minions into town.

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Have specific people who are common in cities who can identify them.

Cities do need border control, and ways to keep out evil. Many clerics are opposed to undead, so if it's a city where undead are banned it would make sense people would check it out.

Have a number of wandering clerics, with the grave domain so they can sense undead do random checks on crowded areas, along with them using perception and their arcane knowledge to try to find smuggled undead.

You can explicitly explain that this is a thing in cities- they have low level clerics going around who don't like undead, and that it's very high risk to bring in undead.

From personal experience, you can calibrate such warnings to either completely bar zombies from an area or limit their access, and if you explicitly say "This area is too dangerous for you to bring undead" or "This area is risky" then they understand the difference. As noted in the comments, players may see this as something to overcome, but if you explicitly say "This city has frequent anti undead scanning, there is no chance of you getting inside" then that works to bar them from a particular area. You can calibrate the intensity as you wish.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm sorry to downvote this, because it's a good idea that intuitively should work, but by my experience it doesn't really solve the issue. Players often treat dangers like this as challenges to be overcome, and you arrive at the problem that the top answer addresses: the necromancer is holding the group's story hostage. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Feb 14 at 8:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kviiri I must agree. In theory this is a good suggestion, but when you break it down it's just creative ways to punish the player without having to address the bigger picture, and just adds another thing they have to "deal with" before every trip into a city. \$\endgroup\$ – lee A. Feb 14 at 18:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you cite any experience of how this approach works out in practice? Please see our citation expectations for subjective answers. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 14 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I added clarification- you can vary the intensity to either make it a challenge to be overcome, or make it simply unfeasible to do so. \$\endgroup\$ – Nepene Nep Feb 15 at 17:08

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