My question is: Where can I reference the RAW as to (1) that summoning undead is always an evil act, and (2) why summoning undead is always an evil act?

Some of the players in my game keep coming up with the theory that they can make an army of undead and only use it for good deeds, and it won't be evil. My response is that no, summoning undead is always evil. You are dealing with negative energies, it taints the soul beyond the veil even if you're only dealing with the body, and it's a desecration of body and soul.

The problem is that even with the big [evil] descriptor on the spells, they don't understand why it would be evil. It seems arbitrary to them, and they don't want to accept any flavor I might give for it that they can't read in the book. They have a knee-jerk reaction to being told something is evil without a good reason.

So they said, "No, you don't do anything to the soul, you're just using the body as raw materials."

I said, "Then you're not using negative energy, you're not using necromancy, and you're not making undead, you're making a golem."

They said, "What's the difference?"

Enter infinite loop until one of them said, "Where in the rules does it say that?"

And we're back to the question.


6 Answers 6


Rules citations:

Animate Dead has the [evil] descriptor. "This is an evil act" is right there in the spell descriptor:

Evil: Spells that draw upon evil powers or conjure creatures from evil-aligned planes or with the evil subtype should have the evil descriptor.

Good Clerics can't cast [evil] spells:

A cleric can't cast spells of an alignment opposed to her own or her deity's (if she has one). Spells associated with particular alignments are indicated by the chaotic, evil, good, and lawful descriptors in their spell descriptions.

...But a Good wizard can.

The Alignment section calls out all [evil] spells as "minor acts of evil," and the creation of undead as a greater act of evil:

Characters using spells with the evil descriptor should consider themselves to be committing minor acts of evil, though using spells to create undead is an even more grievous act of evil that requires atonement.

Being raised as Undead clearly does something to your soul, because even True Resurrection, a spell that works even in the event of complete bodily destruction, fails if the target is currently undead:

This spell can also resurrect elementals or outsiders, but it can't resurrect constructs or undead creatures.

Note: The undead creature type contradicts this. The contradiction may be an error. It's also possible that it's intended for True Resurrection to work on undead, but that it doesn't return them to life as the undead creatures they once were.

So the rules are on your side, although perhaps not in a very satisfying way.

So far as whether or not it is moral for a Good character to create undead if that was what it took to do the greatest good... Well, that's a much more complicated question.

Just remember, in all alignment debates:

Alignment is a tool for developing your character's identity—it is not a straitjacket for restricting your character. Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies, so two characters of the same alignment can still be quite different from each other. In addition, few people are completely consistent.


It's possible that the explanation you're looking for is out there. But to be honest, I doubt that it exists. You'll find plenty of definition statements along the lines of "creating undead is foul/evil/bad" (but why?). And you'll find plenty of examples of the creation of undead leading to terrible consequences (but what if we don't feed orphans to our undead minions?). But you're not likely to find a spelled out "creating undead does these bad things" paragraph.

The explanation of this is one of those things that takes a lot of talking to explain. It's a bit like the "airplane on a treadmill" problem, in that it has to do with very fundamental assumptions that people make.

The short version is that "what causes the creation of undead to be Evil?" doesn't have meaning in the Pathfinder universe.

Real Life

Here's how morality works in the real world. You have a fundamental force like electricity. I can use this force to do good (power a machine that cures cancer), or I can use that force to do evil (electrocute those who oppose me).

In either case, the electricity isn't good or evil. I'm good or evil because of the consequences of my actions.

The electricity could also come from a bad source. A power plant that runs on burning toxic waste, for example.

The person who uses the electricity will be judged on the sum of the consequences of their actions. If my machine does more good than the power plant does evil, and there are no better alternatives than the power plant, then I'm still a good person. I used a bad means to a good end.

In other words...

  • A man does good, and therefore is good.


  • A man does evil, and therefore is evil.

Well, that's the simplified version. The philosophy of morality is extremely complex. But this covers a pretty good chunk of the popular definition.


This game assumes good and evil are definitive things. Evidence for this outlook can be found in the indicated good or evil monster subtypes, spells that detect good and evil, and spells that have the good or evil descriptor.

In Pathfinder, Good and Evil are fundamental forces in the world, just the same as gravity and magnetism. You can detect them. You can measure them. Something can be fundamentally Good, or fundamentally Evil. This is not realistic.

In other words, Good is a thing, and Evil is a thing. Why Good is good and Evil is bad are left to the players and DM.

In other words...

  • A Celestial is Good, therefore it does Good.


  • A Demon is Evil, therefore it does Evil.

A Celestial could do Evil, but it won't. Because it's Good. It can come into conflict with the protagonists, sure. It can be tricked, or fail in a way that results in a bad consequence. But it's fundamentally Good, and its actions flow from that.

The same applies to Demons:

Creatures with an evil subtype (generally outsiders) are creatures that are fundamentally evil: devils, daemons, and demons, for instance. Their redemption is rare, if it is even possible. They are evil to their very core, and commit evil acts perpetually and persistently.

This same reasoning applies to the Create Undead spell. The spell is fundamentally Evil. Using it causes an increase of Evil in the world, just as surely as a magnet is drawn to iron. There aren't rules for either of these things. They're the responsibility of the DM and the players to enforce through roleplaying.


Mortals with an evil alignment, however, are different from these beings. In fact, having an evil alignment alone does not make one a super-villain or even require one to be thwarted or killed. The extent of a character's evil alignment might be a lesser evil, like selfishness, greed, or extreme vanity.

The section above applies to supernatural beings. Mortals get to behave more or less realistically... Their actions define their alignment.

You can take an Orc and raise it like a human, and it will be as likely to come out Good as anyone else. But if you do the same thing with a Demon, it will almost certainly come out Evil. Because Demons are Evil.


Spells are where things get messy. Mortals aren't bound to Good and Evil, but they can use spells, which are. This is the case with Animate Dead.

Animate Dead is Evil. The rules state this explicitly. There is no room for argument.

What that means, is left to interpretation. Perhaps it increases the amount of Evil in the wielder, gradually corrupting them and changing their alignment. Perhaps it increases the Evil in the world, making things inevitably worse.

It's unlikely that Pathfinder ever takes a stand on this issue.

Where do you go from here?

Fundamentally, you and your players have a different point of view. You're closer to the published materials, but that's slim comfort when you're outnumbered. Where you go from here is up to you... But you have a number of options.

Hardline Pathfinder

You could stick to your guns, and the Player's Handbook. Animate Dead is Evil. Period. Do some of the following:

  • Show them this elegantly crafted essay.

  • Make Evil be the result of the use of Animate Dead. All large-scale attempts to use it for Good fail.

    • Perhaps casting Animate Dead attracts Demons, or weakens a barrier keeping them away.

    • Perhaps it blights the land and corrupts the minds of those around it.

    • Perhaps it involves torturing and twisting the souls of those raised, denying them entrance to their afterlife for the duration (some support for this is in the rules, see True Resurrection above), and leaving them scarred for eternity.

  • Like a magnet is drawn to iron.

Moral Relativism

You strike a compromise with your players. Animate Dead is Evil, sure. It's a perversion, and perhaps cruel, and definitely icky. But in the right hands, it can do enough good to counteract these cultural taboos.

  • Play up the concrete consequences of the Undead.

  • Limit corruption to the direct consequences of the spells used.

  • At the end of the day, a great enough good justifies the use of Animate Dead.

Alignment Teams

Finally, you can disregard the moral implications of alignment altogether, and use it simply as a designation of teams.

  • A "Good" alignment indicates that you act like Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and other PC-centric races expect you to act. You might be a terrible person, but at least you follow the rules.

  • An "Evil" alignment indicates that you act like Orcs, Goblins, Drow, and other antagonist-centric races expect you to act. You've probably been unfairly maligned by the "Good" races. History is written by the victors, etc.

  • In this interpretation an Evil spell is really just foreign. The Good aligned people would object to it, of course, but that's just their xenophobia talking.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Just to help on source material : d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/monster-listings/undead/skeleton-medium/… "Skeletons are the animated bones of the dead, brought to unlife through foul magic. While most skeletons are mindless automatons, they still possess an evil cunning imparted to them by their animating force—a cunning that allows them to wield weapons and wear armor." That's a lot of 'foul', 'evil', etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – BrianH
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 21:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WolfmanJoe See: d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/rules-for-monsters/… Especially the part that says "5 Things Everyone Knows about Undead", point #3. Also, you can't answer why the designers made it this way using RAW. That's a design choice, and it acknowledges a long history of venerating the dead amongst actual, you-and-me humans. \$\endgroup\$
    – PipperChip
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 21:18
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for magnificent deconstruction of the meaning of "good" and "evil" as fundamental forces in the fantasy universe. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 9:34
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ I think the very concise answer here was along the lines of: In Pathfinder (unlike the Real World), Good is a literal thing, and Evil is also a literal thing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 19:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AceCalhoon About True Res and undead, it cant bring back an undead creature, but if their body is an undead that should have no impact on the spell from my reading. \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 2:40

Creating undead is evil because the game says its evil. Some spells are intrinsically good, some are intrinsically evil. Yeah, it does seem arbitrary, but there are spells that can decide if you're evil or not and spells that kill you for having ADD. DnD in general mixes rules and fluff just enough to make people think it has to be that way while still making it really simple to decouple them. Note this creates two sets of explanations in any game: the RAW-fluff, or how the game makers think about the setting of the game, and the GM-fluff, which is how you think about it. What makes this question really interesting, IMO, is that it's partially about how the two sets conflict.

If I understand correctly, your players want an explanation for why undead are evil that is part of the rules of DnD and not your particular setting while also being a non-arbitrary reason: "some spells are Just Evil" is not enough for them. What this suggest to me is that they expect GM-fluff to be a meaningful part of the game while Setting-fluff will not. It might be easier to get them to accept "undead = evil" if you can address this particular problem.

The first step would be to ask them why they won't accept a you-based reason. Usually this happens when the RAW-fluff has been more relevant to the game than the GM-fluff has been. If this is the case, it's pretty easy to fix! Just make the GM-fluff matter more. That they're trying to justify the act as good suggests they're afraid of the consequences of being evil, so that's a good place to start. Some examples:

You're dealing with negative energies: Why is negative energy so bad? We usually associate it with withering and decay, so let's make undead have a negative energy impact on their surroundings. Vegetation slowly dies. Animals flee. People get sick. People start hating you and don't know why.

It taints the soul beyond the veil: Who cares? Tainting souls beyond the veil should have visible consequences here: a thousand people starving to death in another country doesn't bother us, but one on TV does. Horrible dreams for the necromancer. Premonitions of where undead souls go, and how they wish they were back in Hell instead. Family members of the undead showing up, panicked, having traveling twenty miles to beg something from you, except they don't know what, just that you did something wrong and you can undo it. Zombies apologize as they attack and beg you to kill them.

It's a desecration of body and soul: Spells are too abstract to really be 'desecrations'. But if you add rituals to it you can make summoning undead feel unnatural or wrong. What if you had to sacrifice someone to raise the dead? What if you had to scar yourself? What if you had to eat part of the body you were raising? A zombie hoard with ripped out cooked flesh, and you've sampled every one of them.

I'm just using the body as raw materials: Probably better, but maybe golems aren't as "smart" or powerful as undead are. Or maybe it's actually impossible, because flesh is special and it remembers being alive.

Note that none of these things prevent using undead, it just means it has consequences. I think it's better this way, because then the players are faced with an actual moral choice, as opposed to either "it's evil because a book says so somewhere" or "it's so evil you can't do this at all". Maybe they can, in the end, fight a greater evil with a lesser one. That opens up a lot of interesting stories and character development. It also creates some space for plot hooks: what do you have to do to get the undead in the first place? What do you have to do to atone?


Only summoning evil undead is evil. Summoning good undead is good, lawful ones lawful, and chaotic ones chaotic. Summoning neutral ones probably isn't neutral, though, because there's probably no [neutral] descriptor.

The rule that says this is the following one, found in pretty much every summoning spell, and in particular summon monster I:

When you use a summoning spell to summon a creature with an alignment or elemental subtype, it is a spell of that type.

So undead-summoning spells are usually evil, because undead are usually evil. As for why said spell is evil, it's for the same reason summoning a fire elemental is [fire], whatever that reason is. Fundamentally, it's because "that's how magic works", but I realize you might find that unsatisfying.

As for if/why casting [evil] spells is evil, that's another can of worms entirely:

Casting an evil spell is an evil act, but for most characters simply casting such a spell once isn’t enough to change her alignment; this only occurs if the spell is used for a truly abhorrent act, or if the caster established a pattern of casting evil spells over a long period. A wizard who uses animate dead to create guardians for defenseless people won’t turn evil, but he will if he does it over and over again. The GM decides whether the character’s alignment changes, but typically casting two evil spells is enough to turn a good creature nongood, and three or more evils spells move the caster from nongood to evil. The greater the amount of time between castings, the less likely alignment will change. Some spells require sacrificing a sentient creature, a major evil act that makes the caster evil in almost every circumstance.

Those who are forbidden from casting spells with an opposed alignment might lose their divine abilities if they circumvent that restriction (via Use Magic Device, for example), depending on how strict their deities are.

Though this advice talks about evil spells, it also applies to spells with other alignment descriptors.

And the source for that is here.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This only holds true so long as you summon a creature, which is entirely different from raising a creature. Raising Undead actually does have a spell descriptor for evil already, where Summon Monster does not have one for either good or evil. \$\endgroup\$
    – FvB
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 8:39
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @FvB Good thing this question is about summoning undead, not raising them, then. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 9:13

Look to the traditional undead:

I think that this is an inversion of cause and effect. Legends of vampires, ghouls, zombies and ghosts predate role-playing games. In folklore such undead are pretty universally evil. (I just asked the folklorist sitting next to me). So when they are are simulated in RPG's it's pretty natural for them to be evil.

In contrast, there are plenty of examples of folklore/religion where people are brought back from the dead and that is pretty universally thought of as a good thing. There are also many traditions of venerating the dead. All of these preserve the personality of the departed.

What is missing is any folk tradition of animating the dead with another spirit or force and having that be a good thing. This is viewed as a violation of the person who died, at least certainly an indication of disrespect.

Ask your players if they mind cannibalism? After all, a body is just meat, right? If they have some twinge that it is wrong, that it is a violation of ethical norms to treat a human corpse the same as a cow corpse, then that may help them understand the underpinning of the revulsion for animating dead humans to "put them to good use."

For reference you might look at Michael Swanwick's short story "The Dead" which explores the ultimate in outsourcing of manufacturing.


It is completely arbitrary. It is, however, not completely meaningless.

  1. You can create an undead, and steal its soul (or a part) from its final destination. The gods say this is evil. That's why it is evil. No player can counteract the will of the gods. Done.

  2. Taking the soul of an outsider and trapping it in a construct (making a golem) is not an evil act. But you've done the same damn thing. Destroyed a soul to trap it in another body. So they have an argument that it is arbitrary to call the one Evil and the other "just playing with magic." They have a valid point.

  3. Clerics have to adhere to the dichotomy of the alignments because - get this: they represent the gods. If I play a N dual channel cleric of Nethys, who can raise and control undead, can I do this without eventually becoming Evil? Well, the alignment rules say yes: so long as I cast Good spells to counteract the corruption on my soul for casting the Evil spells. The player doesn't have to worry about it as long as it is in balance. A Good cleric would shift alignments immediately. A N cleric has a few chances to even things out (I think it says 3 castings). And a N cleric can use the Feat Control Undead without ever suffering from corruption. Because, in theory, they didn't make the undead.

    • This came up in a module where there were undead guarding a Noble's resting place. We were charged to restore the cairn. Well, the undead guardians were already slain. My cleric wanted to restore the cairn, and was going to use the bodies of the intruders to do it. Some people at the table highly objected to it. I was like: look, the cairn needs protection, are you going to stay here and do it?

Enter infinite loop until one of them said, "Where in the rules does it say that?"

That's the basic problem: unless you're playing PFS then the rules are just guidance and the GM gets to decide.

So if you decide summoning undead is evil then it is (even if it weren't marked as an evil spell) and if you decide it's evil because, for example, the Good Gods have decreed that to be the case or because it does damage to the animated creature's soul or it increases the amount of negative energy in the world and therefore it is evil: that's your call.


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