I set out to write something insightful yesterday but I feel like all I did was gripe about my poor project-backing decision.
So, in today’s post I’m going to try to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. In Pathfinder, Necromancy is irrevocably connected to the Negative Energy Plane so casting necromantic spells involves channeling some degree of negative energy– which is an evil act. So good necromancers quickly become neutral and neutral necromancers have to work pretty hard to avoid sliding into evil. Therefore, the assumption is that necromancy is evil. This gets bolstered by the general icky-ness of corpses themselves. They spread disease and, as a result, countless social taboos have sprung up around handling corpses. So necromancy not only violates morality but also social mores — truly the action(s) of a villain.
But does it have to be?
When you’re building your own fantasy world, you can discard all that. Maybe corpses don’t decompose (or they don’t decompose as rapidly) for a few days, so there doesn’t need to be social taboos surrounding dead bodies. In such a world, necromancers might be the holiest sort of magic-user; their ability to speak with honored ancestors (and charge for the service) would give them access to secret information (and money) which they could then parlay into becoming the toast of the city. That’s a far cry from the stereotypical black-robed, pallid, carrion-vulture that most necromancers are depicted as.
Maybe the local Necromancers Guild has an incredibly strict code of conduct, designed to prevent moral corruption (or at least keep necromancers from acting on evil inclinations. (Which then becomes a possible campaign model; the players get hired to investigate a necromancer suspected of breaking the code). In this type of world, necromancers would still be feared but they’d also be admired for their dignity, sense of honor, strength of will — all of which are necessary to follow the code.
Or, going a step further, break the connection between Necromancy and negative energy/evil. As detailed in plenty of other places, an army of undead soldiers has numerous advantages that I’m not going to go into here but the most important of which is: fewer living soldiers have to die in a war. This means that a country with necromancers has a larger post-war population than one without, which translates into a larger labor pool and a stronger economy. Instead of being terrible, rotting monsters, undead soldiers would be regarded as valuable, loyal defenders. If that seems too weird, consider this: if your grandparents could rise from the grave to keep you safe, wouldn’t they? Furthermore if that sort of thing happened every day, most people would get used to it pretty quickly, overcoming any innate fear and replacing it with respect. Some would even want to keep their undead ancestors as “healthy” and presentable as possible (regardless of whether it’s due to image-consciousness or actual affection). This might motivate alchemists and morticians to develop preservative treatments that would slow or halt decomposition and prevent the spread of corpse-borne disease.
Taking that idea a step further, countless stories tell of ghosts and revenants who rise from the grave to avenge some wrong or complete unfinished business. If undead aren’t intrinsically evil, then these ghosts and revenants become agents of justice — and so would necromancers. Able to draw information from beyond, necromancers make great investigators. They might be the head of local police forces or religious inquisitions.
Here are some of alternate necromantic groups I’ve used in past games:
The Collegium Nox was a group of arcane necromancers searching for ways to eliminate death. Basically they were all doctors, trying to discover immortality. Not for selfish reasons, but for the good of all mankind. In a campaign world without divine magic their healing skills made them welcome everywhere they went, which more than offset any intrinsic creepiness they might have had. (This was a campaign world where divine healing magic was pretty rare). Furthermore, they had a version of the Hippocratic Oath that compelled them to treat any wounded or diseased characters they encountered, good deeds which typically offset the innate slide into evil Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 to which necromancers were prone.
I used the standard D&D wizard class (with necromancy specialization) but made up a few new spells that let them transfer health/hit points to somewhat compensate for the lack of healing magic.
While not strictly necromancers, this is still an example of the type of alternate-world I’m advocating. I ran a game where all the non-human races were affiliated with one of the classic elements. Elves, being flighty and whimsical as well as being associated with the outdoors, were linked to elemental Air. I gave them some non-standard racial abilities which I won’t go into here, but the one most germane to this discussion is: Air Elves never “died” due to old age. As they aged, they became weaker and frailer, not because they were growing weaker but because their connection to Air kept getting stronger — and they became less solid with every year. Eventually, when they reached the point when another species would expire, they instead transitioned to a completely immaterial existence. I used the standard stats for ghosts to represent these ancient elves; the only thing I changed was the requirement that they be evil.
Neither required a massive change of rules — or a lot of development. I just had to think up how they’d fit into (or change) the culture.