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I'm running a homebrew campaign where a group of necromancers made a town into their own base of research.

World Context:

The town was abandoned many years ago and the country had no more any form of order, so crimes and looting are quite rampant. This group used its powers to restore some order, and even offers some kind of protection for people who seek shelter, as members just want to advance in their research in peace. They are neutral by nature, and don't bother with anything outside their walls.

The town was the home of the royal family, but after they got overthrown, the city was filled with criminal hideouts and such. This group came in and restored order with their power. This same group are outcasts from the main school of magics because of their interests in necromancy.

Players' Context:

I have a group of 5 PCs who play neutral or good characters. They play a group of explorers for hire. I told them about the town taken by necromancers, but I don't want them to think it's just another lair of deranged people that they will have to kill. All of my players are experienced and don't behave like murderhobos. So far they haven't come across any member of the necromancers.

From what they know, the city is run by necromancers, but refugees and homeless people also moved there. But they are not aware of how they work inside.

Added details:

Without going too much depth about everything around it, this group has an powerful artefact that it important for the players later in the campaign, if they earn the group's favor, they could use it.

If it comes down to a big fight between the PC and the necromancers, so be it. But I don't want them to be hostile from the get go.

In my world, necromancy is not evil, but taboo. I already told my players about this. But some of my players have a tendency to take necromancy badly (whatever the settings we play in) and I didn't know that until I told them about their existence. I could keep reminding them but I don't want to guide them.

Question:

How can I introduce them to the group without directly telling them directly that they are important?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 The town was abandoned, I think "taken over" just means they are now squatting in an abandoned town. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 13:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the extra details required to help answer this question focus on what role(s) as DM do you want the town of necromancers to take in the story? Have you placed them on the map to add worldbuilding depth only, or do they have some part to play in the PCs' adventures? If you understand and can explain what the NPCs are for in your world, then I am sure experts here can help you with how to present them to the players. E.g. are they quest-givers, possible allies, a town of resources that needs careful handling etc. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 13:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 thanks for pointing that out. I did mean experienced, and also changed the words used. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 13:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you tell us more about necromancers in your setting? Have you talked about your setting with your players? When/where is the disconnect happening? \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    May 25 '21 at 13:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems to have unfortunately devolved into idea gen. I'm seeing very few answers demonstrating experience and thus actually supporting themselves. If votes on the answers aren't ensuring the quality, this isn't a question we can have open. I would love for that to change, but that will require this to be more than a repository of (mostly) untested ideas. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    May 26 '21 at 11:47

13 Answers 13

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The people are not afraid... or at least not afraid of the necromancers.

So you have necromancers keeping order. Cool. They probably have skeleton guards or something. You have a bunch of refugees who are afraid of criminal scum, but not afraid of the necromancers. So lean into that. Like, when the adventurers walk into town, there's a few skeletons on guard. A little kid who's doing some random little kid thing off to the side looks up, gets real scared, and runs to hide behind the skeletons for safety. Maybe you see some random beefy guy with a club start to get concerned, and walk up to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the skeletons to warn you off. It won't be anything that the PCs can't talk their way out of, but the clear signs that the locals trust the necromancers and depend on them for protection should sell the idea that they're not all bad pretty thoroughly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt I think that phrase gets repeated enough, really. We don't need it again here. It still has value in its essence, but I'd prefer to get that essence across by showing, rather than telling. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    May 25 '21 at 19:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the image of the little kid hiding from the Good-ish PC party behind the skeleton guard so much. It's such a reversal of expectations that it should shock the party into taking a second look. \$\endgroup\$ May 26 '21 at 0:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just because the simple townsfolk trust the necromancers doesn't mean they're right. Suspicious players will think you're trying to set them up for a sudden but inevitable betrayal. \$\endgroup\$
    – user56480
    May 26 '21 at 8:36
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Are they truly not bad guys?

I know this sounds silly, but I have seen enough "neutral group of people who just want to be left alone" to know that this kind of organization can be the most hate-able. For example if they make deals with refugees so that they have to be guinea pigs in exchange for a place to live you can bet some players won't like them very much. Any shady thing like this one should be compensated with truly nice behavior that PC can know of (like maybe the necromancers give food and shelter regardless of whether the refugees accept to be guinea pigs but also offer "risky improvements" to those who ask for them)

They are not bad guys

Now that you figured out what exactly is likable about them you only have to make sure this is learnt before the PCs take a decision about them. The way you described your players I think you have a good margin for that.

An example of a first encounter with the necromancers could be a zombie that carries food and is asking in a slow zombie voice "Hungry? Hungry?": maybe the players will kill the zombie on sight and notice afterwards a note on his back saying something like "if this zombie helper doesn't satisfies you, please bring it back to the Black Tower for a refund".

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love this. We need more zombie food vendors in DND \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 14:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Zombie food vendors are a health code violation. Skeleton food vendors are much more sterile. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 25 '21 at 23:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Any zombie shuffling towards me saying "hungry" is getting its' head lopped-off PDQ. \$\endgroup\$ May 26 '21 at 11:39
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Show a disagreement - your party will always start off with a dark view of Necromancers

Some will find Necromancy objectionable, regardless of the intentions. I'd handle this by showing the players a disagreement where they can hear the objections. Perhaps the party is in a queue at the town gates, waiting to enter, and a priest is ahead of them arguing with a guard.

Since you seem fairly keen on seeing the Necromancers in a more positive light you can make the priest seem pompous and short on real arguments. Perhaps the guard points out all the times the Necromancers have helped and all the priest can do is huff and point to his holy book saying "But here, its in writing, its just bad! If we can't trust the good book what can we trust?"

Now if the party are hell bent on wiping out the town you can have a quest there, talk to the priest. In my experience, however, if you show an NPC as full of themselves the party is going to be dead set against them and so more keen to give the necromancers a shot.


Experience: I ran a similar thing with a bandit group who - on the face of it - had done some objectionable things but there are always two sides to every story. A pompous local lord trying to run them out of the town was all it took for the party to consider talking first.

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    \$\begingroup\$ yes, exactly! This same device is used all the time in books and TV shows \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 21:41
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The necromancers implement a consensual "body donation" program.

The difference between a good necromancer and an evil necromancer is consent. In order to establish themselves as good necromancers, the team has developed and implemented a consensual body donation program. Here are some of its elements:

  • Consent is given in the form of a written contract, notarized by a 3rd party
  • Consent is revocable at any time prior to the death of the individual
  • All necromantic consent contracts are reviewed annually to verify continued consent with the individual
  • An individual may not consent until they reach the age of adulthood (your mileage may vary on how old this should be)
  • The team of necromancers maintains office hours during the week for handling the affairs of the townspeople

These are just some ideas for elements you can incorporate into the fiction of the town. The important thing here is to take away the chief reason necromancers are seen as evil. Your players will have a much easier time relating to these necromancers peacefully if the townspeople are willfully donating their bodies to research, rather than the necromancers raiding crypts and graveyards.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm now imagining the necromancers giving out cards similar to an organ-donor card. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 13:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RevanantBacon Yes, that was exactly my imagination. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 13:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Fering 5e doesnt have any rules like that concerning alignment/morality. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Aren’t undead creatures inherently evil, though? When I look up undead stat block, they’re all neutral evil. Could be an interesting morality twist to harness inherently evil creatures for non-evil purposes \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '21 at 14:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Joshua Turn Undead, a whole lot of hitpoints, and a laundry list of special defenses, among other things. But the answer you really want is "golems are animated by summoned elemental spirits, while undead are animated by <lore varies by edition>." \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 25 '21 at 23:17
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Treat the Necromancers like Medical Professionals with Advanced Knowledge

Given the amount of weird vaccine-paranoia and diagnosis distrust in the wake of COVID-19, it's easy to see that the situation these wizards are in is not entirely unheard of. When I was personally in undergrad, I handled three different preserved brains in neuroscience studies, and I can kind of relate to these guys because most people just don't think of it like that.

The big concern about necromancy is generally the association with corpses. You mention that they're outcasts from the rest of the magic school... maybe they're running an academic center of their own? Perhaps they have a curated and carefully tended (and clean!) library? Maybe a friendly administrative assistant / cleric of statecraft and accounting who will greet the adventurers at the door?

This is a scenario which most players will have preconceived notions of; by violating those notions off the bat, they'll approach it less heavy-handedly. A warm greeting and the use of some disinfectant sulfurs and phenols before offering a handshake can go leagues; unless one of your players happens to be a real-life psychopath.

Combine that with reasonably literate security (I don't expect them to be rolling in wealth, but they do have some repute within the community and simple security could be a reasonable favor). Nobody too burly, but confident enough to suggest that this is not an easy place to kick in and is reasonably connected.

If you really want to go crazy, and it isn't interfering with your plans, maybe a childcare center for community helpers? Or some sign about story time in the alchemical library? Written in colored chalk on a shale board? Maybe there's some particularly savory-smelling sandwiches being prepared in a sterile way for the necromancers/researchers/monks/scholars?

Perhaps the town dealt with a plague of some kind, and the necromancers were instrumental in rooting out its cause postmortem, and saving everyone that's left? This would also be a great way for them to establish dominance over criminal leagues, at least for a while. In a sense, the ruins of the town would be an attractor to the wizards, as it would be an area where they could conduct their studies and practices in relative peace.

Mostly, these necromancers should show an immediate concern toward cleanliness, even if your PCs have no idea why that's so important. Your players, after all, will know the importance of sanitation and might, if you're lucky, even have a rough idea of what a industry research environment is like. Get them curious about these guys.

I also suggest gradually introducing the necromancers themselves. Big door, lots of locks that take time to open, peephole, style. Make sure conversation happens before physical confrontation. (I once had a player who was apparently new to D&D stab another player to death in the midst of an argument, like he was just being funny. Some kind of animal-rights vs. hunter thing, I don't remember, but we had about thirty minutes of group silence, and as DM, it wasn't an easy situation for me. You gotta watch for these people.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ unlawful physical killing or did the PCs kill each other? \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    May 26 '21 at 6:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trish One of them, henceforth referred to as "The Rookie", literally killed another player because he thought it was "in character". Yes. It happened. We were playing online via Roll20, so we couldn't literally drag him out into the street and flog him for it. \$\endgroup\$ May 26 '21 at 9:14
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Necromancy is more than just summoning undead

Necromancy is more than just summoning the undead to do your bidding. In fact, that is the least aspect.

It is also summoning the dead to ask them about the past (speak with dead). It's saving those from the brink of death (spare the dying) or conserving the body (gentle repose) or even getting them back from just beyond the grave (revivify). And of course, resurrection is a Necromancy spell.

It offers spells that don't harm the body like instill fear (cause fear), temporarily fix the body (false life) and have combat application directly (chill touch, inflict wounds, circle of death).

All of these parts of Necromancy make them actually very well community servers! They care for those dying and to move the corpses back to the families. The necromancers of the city might actually be pacifists and abhor using spells that harm the physical shell of souls, only using weapons and spells that inflict damage on the body when forced to do so.

They are a necessity, for they deal with the dead

Maybe the necromancers that have not found refugee in that haven need to offer all those valuable but disliked services to the community without which it doesn't function well to stay alive.

The Necromancers might be shunned for dealing with the dead, but they also are the only ones knowing how to investigate the human body after their demise, making them occasionally part of murder investigations and trials. The heroes might encounter a necromancer fulfilling that task when they get out of the courthouse in their robes with a guard by their side, only to be quickly thanked by a recent murder victim's family for their service, before being escorted to the gate.

Another way that the necromancers might help nearby towns is as part of the justice system. The worst punishment that those towns have to offer is not death, it's death and service for year and day. All the undead in the sewers armed with spiky poles? Those are the official cleaner crew, bound by a necromancer to do his one year of rat-hunting and keeping a tunnel clear of debris! Maybe the heroes encounter a skeletal waste brigade on a Wednesday night that does its round hauling filled bins with refuse to a cart with a member of the city guard marching in front yelling to make way for the trash mob.

A few necromancers might run a home for the old, using their knowledge about death to try to ward it off or make the passing gentle, and then arranging for the preserved corpses to be brought to their loved ones together with a few words from the recently deceased. The players might witness such an exchange: a necromancer pulling the cart with the white corpse, knocking on a door, and offering their condolescenses and a quick missive, but only gaining a quick bag of silver pieces thrown their way with the order to come back tomorrow. They leave the cart in front of the door and will pick it up or burial the day after.

They are the first line of defense

The haven for the necromancers might be deemed despicable, but it also might lie strategically on the route an enemy to all people would march. So they will be the first to fall should that threat come. Nobody likes the deathguard, because they are spooky and necromancers, but they serve a function nobody else can: they tend to the graveyards and bone houses of the town, filled by those that want to protect their descendants as well as those that were condemned to eternal guard. And should that day come, they will raise the dead to fight once more against the enemy horde advancing while the bells of the necropolis ring to try and buy the living the time to have a fighting chance.

The players might encounter the execution of a verdict in front of a village elder's house: a notorious troublemaker was caught after having stolen one cow too many and gets branded with the sign of the dead legion, and then... let go. When they ask about it, they are told that after his death, his body is to be sent to that place to wait till the day he can repay that his life was spared today.


While not with necromancers, I had a similar experience with Goblins: usually, they are seen as annoying, unnerving, and free kill material. But the moment I introduced players to a town where goblins were acting as the rat hunters, waste disposal service, and gravediggers, the behavior towards these creatures was toned down a lot. The town didn't like the goblins, but they just couldn't live without them as they did. I used similar vignettes where a goblin would do their service and generally got similar answers - at times dismissive of the goblin, but never actively harming them.

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Make necromancy not taboo to some society

You said it is taboo. By labelling that it means that there is opposition in the world and maybe not just by mortals. And depending on how strong the opposition is, it may be considered evil to some extent. At least, in your world, it's not considered a good act and hardly a neutral one (there is a reason why is label taboo, right?). The reason not necessarily needs to be a smart or very well thought reason, but it is a reason to the population of your world. And the resistant and opposition might come from very high, even gods. Even if you craft a town where necromancy seems to be a necessary "evil", it is still taboo. Your players won't have any reason to not see them as evil or, at least, forbidden. The worst part is that you cannot blame them for the world you built if they decide to act accordingly to the situation.

Until the framework changes there is no reason to thinks differently.

If you introduce the notion that it is not a worldwide view, you open the possibility to debate the moral dilema in an easier way. If before arriving at the town, you present them with a civilisation that openly utilise necromancy and is not frown upon (as is not considered taboo), you'd have an easier time introducing the notion to them.

Basically, what you are asking to them is to work against the world you made. Change that and, maybe, they would cooperate easily.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One possible version of this that springs to mind: the OP said the group were outcasts from the main school of magic which was opposed to necromancy. Maybe it's only the school of magic that has a taboo against necromancy, and the lay population don't really know a whole lot about it or care. \$\endgroup\$
    – A. B.
    May 26 '21 at 2:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ It also brings to mind the status of people believed to be witches in mediaeval times. There, by some accounts anyway, you have one society holding two views - the Church says that magic was wrong and witches were probably in league with the devil, and the people mostly nod along with this until a problem comes up that the priest can't solve, and then somebody goes to have a quiet word with the "witch" the same as ever. \$\endgroup\$
    – A. B.
    May 26 '21 at 2:59
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Pet the Dog (Warning, tv tropes)

Have the necromancers do something clearly good. The fact that other people seem to trust and like them is a good start, but seeing is believing. If an orphan is rescued in front of your nose, even the most diehard Paladin will at least give the necromancer a chance to explain.

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Tell your players directly

Informing, and reminding, players of things that should be common knowledge to their characters is part of your job as GM, especially when running a homebrew setting and especially where things about that setting differ from common assumptions.

When one of your players says or does something that assumes necromancy is evil, just remind them that in this setting that assumption isn't valid. Do it as you do any other time your players get ideas that differ from your idea of the world in important ways.

I realize you said you don't want to do this, but it is the best way to impart this kind of information and it is a mistake not to use it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Thanks for the edit. You flagged this edit as being made for accessibility. Could you explain what the accessibility issue here, so I can do better in future? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 4 '21 at 10:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ See this meta: Use real headers instead of fake headers \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jun 11 '21 at 6:29
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I would change it from a group of necromancers to a group of mages, more of whom study necromancy than any other school. Something like 30% are necromancers and the rest study normal magic stuff. They view necromancy as just another thing to study, so they don't even feel the need to be secretive about it or to go out o their way to justify it. This does 3 things for you:

  1. You can avoid using the word 'necromancer', which has significantly negative connotations. It sounds stupid, but sometime just changing the words you use can completely reverse someone's opinion. There is a reason biased news sources renamed the estate tax the "death tax".

  2. The organization as a whole can provide many community services without needing to use necromancy. Primarily, this will let you display all the good the non-necromancer members of the group are doing without revealing that the group as a whole has ties to necromancy. It also gives the players the option of trying to convince the group to forbid necromancy and only focus on their other avenues of research.

  3. The necromancers and healers could work so closely together that removing the necromancers would undoubtedly hurt the healers' quality of work. This would heavily imply that necromancy and healing magic are actually the same discipline, just given different names based on social perception. It also opens the doors to some interesting mechanical problems you can play with later. ("This ring protects me from necromancy spells, but also stops healing spells from working! I have to wait an hour after equipping it before taking it off, so is that crypt full of zombies or goblins?")

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Frame challenge: these necromancers are evil.

I'm not kidding. Bear with me:

These necromancers do not sound like good people to me.

It appears they appointed themselves absolute rulers over the local populace, who are all criminals -- or so said the prior political order, which, as you say, just collapsed.

It sounds to me like the residents of this jurisdiction just rid themselves of some bad rulers as well as some or all of the political system those rulers had imposed.

You describe it as "chaos," which is easy enough to believe. Neither the French nor American Revolutions were tidy operations, and each was followed by years of political turmoil (to say nothing of social or economic waves). Eventually, both states stabilized; my French history is dusty, but I know it took the Americans eleven years to get from that first angry Declaration in 1776 to the federal Constitution in 1787.

But I guess these necromancers decided that time was up! The locals had failed to establish a new political system quickly enough that satisfied this group of powerful elites, so they just used their supernatural might to install themselves as the supreme political power.

Did the locals care what these necromancers might think of their journey toward self-government? Did the locals even know the necromancers existed before they seized power for themselves?

Of course, it's not described that way. They didn't seize power "for" themselves. It was "a necessity." I ask: who needed this? They say their "only" demand is to be left alone to do research. How reasonable is that request?

In a medieval setting, where many households must daily fetch water in buckets from nearby streams, hunt and kill their own food, and defend themselves from scofflaws in the absence of any competent policing, "being left alone" is truly a fantasy reserved exclusively for the landed nobility, who have servants for the work of maintaining a household. Quick googling suggests something like 5% of the population would be so fortunate (numbers vary by country, but 10% seems like the high end).

A handful of pampered, super-powerful people were in need of a new home. Why? Because they just got expelled from the company of their peers' for refusing to heed any of the countless warnings, admonitions, nota benes, cautionary tales, professional rules of conduct, written laws, stern yellings-at, and, finally, desperate entreaties from loved ones, literally begging them to stop playing with death magic.

But no, not these guys, they know better than literally everyone else. So they burned that bridge, and then I guess... roamed the countryside for a while? I imagine they probably helped themselves to some midnight exhumations ("your late father had a very particular kind of body hair that is not well understood by others in my field, which is why I had to defile his grave and interfere with his eternal slumber, and also why his reanimated corpse can't learn to make a decent MLT to save its life!").

One day they stumble upon a pocket of civilization large enough to support a class of parasitic elites, and by happy coincidence there was an opening in the penthouse apartment! What's more, the power vacuum also rendered the place defenseless: nobody in the crow's nest watching for roaming bands of supernatural predators, nobody at the helm to recognize the threat or order defensive preparations, nobody even to organize a formal parlay in hopes of deflecting the predators with a story about plague and an offering of deceptively meager trade-goods.

Possibly we have slightly different ideas of what constitutes "bad guys," but it seems like the central challenge is that the necromancers have no legitimacy as rulers, and are only in a position to impose their notions of order because they happen to be magic users.

Given that, I'd recommend:

  • show how bad things were before the necromancers took power

Before they meet the necromancers or even hear stories about them, have the PCs encounter some victims of the post-collapse turmoil. Make them viscerally sympathetic: dad was a professional under the old order, then joined some kind of last-ditch citizens' brigade to prop up the collapsing government, which is how he got injured. The old order collapsed anyway. His injury prevents him from resuming his old profession, so even though the law of the tower has mostly restored the economy, he and his family are trapped in poverty. If you really want to pour it on, have this family host the PCs for dinner.

  • show how bad things are in nearby areas outside the necromancer's control

Ideally you can do this while the PCs are traveling through that territory on their way to necrotown. Making it a total wasteland robs you of storytelling opportunities, and anyway you're trying to show that the reason the necromancers are good is that they keep everybody in line all the time. So, if your definition of "good government" is literally just "very tough on crime," have the surrounding region be populated by people who are all scheming thieves. There are lots of cunning traps that can be set for unwary travelers; everybody and their mom would have a few of these traps set up in their own homes just in case some really easy mark rolls off the turnip truck. "Traps" doesn't mean boobytraps, more like... pre-arranged scams. (Although you could go with some kind of Appalachian horror, where locals sometimes capture travelers and keep them prisoner in the basement.)

Think about it this way: if your cunning neighbor leads some simple-looking strangers into his own home, he's probably lining them up for some kind of con. So it stands to reason he'd be grateful for any help you might volunteer in making that scam work, as long as you really do help instead of spooking the target. He might let you wet your beak if you can help him separate these rubes from their wallets.

  • mark the boundary between necroland and everything else really clearly

However large is the region over which the necromancers have power, put something physical there that serves as a notice to people entering that this is the realm where the law of the tower holds sway. Not necessarily heads on spikes, but considering that the necromancers' claim to legitimacy is that they are "tough on crime," it seems appropriate for the boundary marking to somehow be about the edge of the legal jurisdiction as such. The town in Unforgiven was ruled by an evil sheriff who used this sign to alert travelers that they were entering his domain. It doesn't say "Little Bill Is King", it says "No firearms in Big Whiskey." But the point is the same.

The reason for marking the boundary is two-fold:

  1. you're about to show them how good things are in necrotown, so make sure they know it's necrotown
  2. the laws really do change there, so you and the players need to always be conscious of which side of the border events happen on, so that players and NPCs can act accordingly
  • show how good things are in necrotown

It doesn't actually have to be awesome, it just has to be better than the other areas in ways that are clearly directly related to the prevalence of crime.

  • finally, have them actually meet the necromancers

Hopefully now the players will be receptive to regular pleasantries and the polite suggestion that perhaps other magic users are simply mistaken to ban necromancy. This is when the villain would naturally make a pitch for their vision of order: they think they've just met kindred spirits, they are impressed with their own accomplishments, and they practically can't help themselves just going over all the primary and secondary advantages of this way of life. They'll be like enthusiastic kids who can't wait to introduce you to each of their toys one at a time, to demonstrate and explain each of its cool features, and then to move onto the next one literally without taking a breath between.

These necromancers have a myopic view of things, so two themes will emerge in all their dealings with the players:

  1. all their stories and anecdotes about how good things are will be told from the perspective of pampered elites who each get to devote all of every day to their favorite hobbies (because they have put the state on autopilot)
  2. they will talk about the local population as means only rather than ends, as a problem to be managed or solved rather than as individuals with inherent worth, as cattle to be herded rather than peers whose preferences are no less legitimate

Finally:

  • avoid letting the players directly witness the necromancers using their power

By "power" I mean both their magical necromancy as well as their official powers as dictators.

If you're worried that the players are not likely to sympathize with necromancers because death magic sounds bad, then you probably want to avoid forcing them to confront the gory details. It will be easier for them to either ignore the question or fool themselves into thinking it's "totes fine" if they can do some from a place of comfortable ignorance.

And if you're worried that the players will not want to ally themselves with magical tyrants whose grip on power is literally cold and dead, don't let the players see the sausage get made. Don't let them see the necromancers pronounce new laws (especially making things illegal), or sentence anyone for a crime, or handle any political or governmental challenge, because people do not normally sympathize with anyone who gets to dictate to others.

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The more you do to make the necromancers seem like the good guys, the more players will suspect a trick. If part one of the story is friendly grinning skeletons helping old ladies with their shopping, then we expect part two of the story be that the skeletons start murdering everyone. If that isn't part two, we feel let down, just as we'd feel let down if Jurassic Park ended without anyone getting eaten by a dinosaur.

The only thing I can think of that is likely to work is to focus the party's attention on another enemy, so they understand the story is about that instead. For example:

  • Fanatical priests are persecuting the necromancers unfairly due to superstitious prejudice.
  • Someone is grave-robbing. The necromancers are the obvious suspects, but it turns out they're innocent.
  • The necromancers need help identifying a traitor in their ranks.
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Don't use the 'N' word!

The group probably wouldn't refer to themselves as 'Necromancers', and you don't have to share their character sheets with your players. They could just directly lie to your players, maybe they lie to everyone and call themselves 'druids' for instance (what peasant can tell the difference anyway?) if necromancy is taboo, maybe it's a huge secret yet to be discovered?

Have them introduced to your party as 'the leaders of the town' then use the 'show don't tell' principle, demonstrate that the leaders of the town are generally good people; have people express their love for them, their joy at the old ways being replaced etc. Have some gallows in the town 'as a reminder of the old ways' before $group came along.

One idea for revealing that they are necromancers, is to have them fighting side-by-side with your PCs against some shared foe, and use their power only as a last resort to raise an army to defend the town etc. Using Resurrection to bring your entire party back from beyond the grave is surely enough to win some brownie points?

Or you could make them truly the bad guys, but your party have to discover the truth for themselves, either way you could have fun seeing how long it takes your PCs to notice "there's something not quite right about these Druids" Maybe the town is a little too perfect, troublemakers disappear a little too often or too quickly, (Watch 'Hot Fuzz' for some inspiration!)

Have fun!

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    – V2Blast
    May 26 '21 at 9:18

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