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A player of mine is going to play a Dread Necromancer. She obviously wants a huge army at her fingertips, but wants to be subtle about it until she is sufficiently powerful. Through turn/rebuke undead, you can use a standard action to give a command to a maximum of 1HD/lvl of undead. Now, I was wondering, is it possible to have more undead following you because of this effect, but you can only give orders to the aforementioned 1HD/lvl? For instance, let's say there is a lvl 6 Dread Necromancer or Evil Cleric. Could they order 6 HD worth of undead to "Lay in ambush here" or "dig yourself into the ground and stay there" etc in one turn, then then in another turn you give the same or another order to another group of undead, but the first group remains as they were, still obeying the last command you gave them?

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It is generally assumed that when you relinquish control over the undead (which you can do, per Nox’s answer), they aren’t compelled to obey the last orders they were given, and therefore they don’t. Actually, it’s generally assumed they start terrorizing the populace and attempting to sate their particular hungers.

Strangely, however, nothing outright says this. Skimming the relevant sections of Libris Mortis, it’s stated that spawn gravitate towards their creators and will automatically return to servitude if a cleric disrupts that bond, but spawn are different from rebuked undead. No mention is made of necromancers’ control here.

That does, however, indicate the traditional approach here: delegated control. Through the use of the appropriate undead minions, one can effectively lead an army by controlling creatures who in turn control more creatures.

But since you are the DM, you could easily rule that this isn’t entirely necessary and that the player can try to use clever temporary applications of rebuke undead to effectively control more undead at once. It sounds like you find this interesting, which is the usual reason I wouldn’t recommend it: personally, I’d find it a headache to keep track of as a DM. But if you wouldn’t, then you certainly can do this. It does make the necromancer more powerful, but in a complicated and involved way, that should lead to more a more interesting game (unlike usual routes to extra power, which lead to a more boring game because it eliminates challenges).

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Well, skeletons and zombies, although mindless, are always (for some values of always) neutral evil. They could mindlessly terrorize the populace, I guess. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Oct 28 '15 at 12:47
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I think it shouldn't be possible. The wording on d20srd:

Commanded

A commanded undead creature is under the mental control of the evil cleric. The cleric must take a standard action to give mental orders to a commanded undead. At any one time, the cleric may command any number of undead whose total Hit Dice do not exceed his level. He may voluntarily relinquish command on any commanded undead creature or creatures in order to command new ones.

Nothing compels the undead to follow the last order they received, so they will most likely dig themselves out first opportunity they have.

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Sometimes the developers of Dungeons and Dragons demonstrate a lack of imagination when naming things. The classic example is the word level and its dozen or so meanings, but word command is also overused, having a different meaning when used in, for example, the spells command and greater command, the spells command plants and command undead, a command issued to a dominated creature or an animated rope, magic item command words, and the evil cleric (and any dread necromancer) effect of rebuke undead command (control) undead.

Because of this overuse and so that this specific use doesn't get mixed up with any other uses, below is a summary of how to use the supernatural ability rebuke undead to command (control) undead .

How to command (control) undead using the supernatural ability rebuke undead

When a dread necromancer (Heroes of Horror 84-8) uses the supernatural ability rebuke undead, the dread necromancer makes a Charisma ability check (1d20 + his Charisma modifer) to determine the maximum Hit Dice of the largest single undead that can be affected (there's a table). Then the dread necromancer makes a turning damage roll (2d6 + his Charisma modifier + his level) to determine exactly how many Hit Dice of undead are affected. If the dread necromancer affects an undead, he rebukes (awes) the undead. If the dread necromancer's level is twice or more the affected undead's Hit Dice, the dread necromancer, instead, commands (controls) the affected undead creature, but the dread necromancer can only command a number of Hit Dice of undead this way at once equal to his level.

After using the supernatural ability rebuke undead to command (control) an undead creature, he can take a standard action to mentally issue orders to the undead creature.

Whenever the dread necromancer wants, including when he has the option of adding another undead to his herd after successfully using the supernatural ability rebuke undead to command (control) another undead creature, he can relinquish command (control) of any number of undead creatures, freeing up those undead creatures' Hit Dice for later (or incoming) undead.

Example

A Charisma 16 dread necromancer 6 currently has no undead under his command (control). He happens upon 12 human warrior skeletons standing around, either contemplating evil (as is their wont) or that've been ordered to slay intruders. The dread necromancer wins initiative, takes a move action to get into a position within 60 ft. of only 6 skeletons and takes a standard action to use the supernatural ability rebuke undead.

The dread necromancer makes the Charisma check, which is largely moot because, barring special circumstances, he actually can't not affect these creature with this low of Hit Dice. The dread necromancer makes his turning damage roll, which is also largely moot, barring special circumstances, as the result can't be below 11. Any result will be over the six skeletons' total of 6 Hit Dice, so the dread necromancer commands (controls) all six, his 6 levels being over twice each skeleton's 1 Hit Die.

On the skeletons' initiative, maybe because they're evil jerks but more likely because they've been previously ordered to slay intruders, the six skeletons he hasn't commanded (controlled) attack the dread necromancer. The six that the dread necromancer commands (controls) don't attack the dread necromancer, but they don't take any other actions, either, having yet to be issued mental orders by the dread necromancer.1

Next round, assuming the dread necromancer survives, he can either take a standard action to issue orders to one of the skeletons he commands (controls) or use the supernatural ability rebuke undead again.2 This latter case gets a little complicated.

Barring special circumstances, the dread necromancer can "skip over" his six already commanded (controlled) skeletons (Cadre A), relinquish command (control) over Cadre A, and command (control), instead, the other six skeletons (Cadre B). Assuming all the skeletons were previously ordered to slay intruders and now lack orders, Cadre A may be inert, and the dread necromancer is free to take a standard action per Cadre B skeleton to mentally issue each orders, probably ending the encounter.3

In short, taking a standard action to issue mental orders to an undead creature is not the same as using rebuke undead to command (control) an undead.

Your situation: Ask the DM about mindless undead

In the scenario the question describes, there're 6 Hit Dice of undead in Pile A and 6 Hit Dice of undead in Pile B. The dread necromancer using rebuke undead can only control (command) one pile at a time, and he must take a standard action to mentally issue orders to each undead creature in that pile. And, while the dread necromancer is busy commanding (controlling) and issuing orders to Pile A, Pile B is free to do whatever undead do when they're not being bossed around by some evil cleric, dread necromancer, or whoever.4 When the dread necromancer uses rebuke undead to command (control), whole or in part, Pile B, he'll have to simultaneously relinquish command (control) of, whole or in part, Pile A, leaving Pile A now free to do whatever.

A generous DM may rule that mindless undead creatures that've been issued orders yet freed from the dread necromancer's command (control) continue following the last orders issued. However, there's no guarantee of this, and the DM can instead rule, for example, that a pack of uncontrolled skeletons instinctively runs off to murder peasants or just stands around, doing nothing. Uncontrolled intelligent undead, on the other hand, will absolutely do whatever they want when freed from the dread necromancer's command (control), so it's often in the dread necromancer's best interest to treat such creatures with a modicum of respect, even if he's vastly more powerful than his commanded (controlled) undead creatures. It's unlikely even a dread necromancer wants a vengeful shadow hunting down his Com1 mom, for example.

To get multiple his-level-or-greater-in-Hit-Dice piles undead creatures to obey, the dread necromancer relies on his spells, specifically the 2nd-level dread necromancer spell command undead [necro] (PH 211) and the 7th-level dread necromancer spell control undead [necro] (PH 214). Interestingly, undead affected by these spells follow verbal orders.

Suggested House Rules

You didn't ask, but I'll offer some anyway.

  • Allow a creature that has used the supernatural ability rebuke undead to command (control) more than one undead creature to take a standard action to issue any number of his undead creatures the same order. At the table, we imagine an HUD with all of the undead creatures on it and allow them to be mentally selected like an RTS game.
  • Allow simple multistage orders such as Kill anyone who enters this room that doesn't present this symbol or Attack that monster until one of you have its head in your hands instead of mandating step-by-step Roborally-style instructions like Travel 30 ft. forward, turn left, turn left, and travel 30 ft. forward.

I've used both in my campaigns, and, while they are power-ups for the master of undead, they have, in my experience, made playing a master of undead more fun.


1 This is a slightly generous reading. Skeletons (like zombies) have Intelligence as a nonability, therefore "operating on simple instincts or programmed instructions." The DM may rule that, rather than now being, like, robocorpses without programs, the uncontrolled skeletons operate on the simple instincts of their neutral evil alignments, making them potentially hostile. Which way the campaign trends is a good thing to know before playing a dread necromancer... if the DM will tell you!
2 The dread necromancer, of course, isn't limited to these two options alone, but, hey, free skeletons.
3 The rules as written don't provide the dread necromancer the option to pick either to rebuke (awe) undead or to command (control) undead. Thus a sufficiently powerful dread necromancer must either command (control) undead or leave the undead unaffected. (Likewise, a sufficiently powerful cleric must destroy undead with Hit Dice of half his level or less.) This is unsatisfying, and I recommend a house rule allowing the dread necromancer to pick if a particular undead is either rebuked (awed) or commanded (controlled). (Likewise, I recommend a house rule allowing a cleric to pick if a particular undead is either turned or destroyed.)
4 Hint: It's probably evil.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Verbal orders, now there's a loophole. If they aren't mental is it enough if the undead believe it was their master's voice giving the order? Bluff, ventriloquism, etc... \$\endgroup\$ – Zan Lynx Mar 1 '17 at 4:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ZanLynx I knew that'd been discussed elsewhere! This might interest you. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 2 '17 at 20:19
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YES this works

(but it's not mind control)

1) Assuming you have intelligent undead, when they are not mindslaved by you, they get to go around making their own decisions. Given the text of Command Undead, we can assume they generally resent being controlled.

2) If you mindslave a couple high-level undead and make them do a thing, they should be aware that you are capable of mindslaving them in the future.

3) If you make a practice of not mindslaving your undead, except when they try to run away or disobey you or other foolish and futile things, the undead you command will generally do what you ask them to even if they aren't mindslaved, out of fear.

Caveat: They will almost certainly kill you the first chance they get

Further Caveat: Also, this won't work, at least for the reasons stated, on mindless undead like skeletons and zombies

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