Is there a more iconic example of Necromancy than the humble Animate Dead? After all, what kind of mad re-animator would you be without a coterie of shambling minions to do your bidding?
As far as many Necromancy-focused Wizards are concerned, this is probably the most important spell in the game. When you cast it you can turn a nearby corpse into either a skeleton or a zombie – depending on how squishy the body is at the time – that will serve you without complaint or hesitation.
The undead minion is yours to command in pretty much any way you want. They’ll happily march into battle, guard your lab or simply act as a particularly pungent manservant. Controlling them in battle only requires the use of a bonus action so you can easily have them fight alongside you without sacrificing your own effectiveness.
The spell doesn’t require concentration so you’re free to cast it as many times as you want, but this comes at the cost of only lasting 24 hours at a time. After one full day the skeleton or zombie will slip from your control and resume their typical brain-munching/death-to-the-living lifestyle. Reasserting your dominion requires you to give them another burst of Animate Dead, placing a limit on how many minions you can have running around at one time.
On the plus, side, if you cast it at higher levels then you get to both animate and dominate many more corpses – two for every level above third. If you’re willing to burn a ninth-level slot on your undead army you can raise 13 minions with only a single use of the spell.
Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that unless you pick Necromancy as your Arcane Domain you don’t get to upgrade their stats as you increase in power, and even if you do the boost isn’t all that significant. Basic zombies and skeletons are pretty weak to begin with, and by the time you get to raise them in any real numbers your foes will probably be able to mulch them with ease.
Still, every round they spend pulverising minions in one in which they aren’t killing you or your party members, and 5E’s commitment to bounded accuracy means that even the most inept of zombies has the potential to deal a bit of damage the Dragon, Dread Lord or whatever else it is that you’re fighting.
Beyond the sheer mechanics of it, however, there are also a couple of more ephemeral concerns with relying on Animate Dead to solve your problems. The first of these is that dragging a horde of zombies around with you can make combat a real slog.
Even if you have a relatively modest entourage of only five minions that’s still five more creatures that you have to move around each turn, five more attacks you have to roll and five more lumps of HP you have to keep track of.
If you’re working off a grid it makes battles messy at best, and at at worst makes things feel like the adventures of Zombie-Man and Friends, rather than of the party as a whole.
Some DMs like to work around this by allowing you to bring back a smaller amount of more powerful minions when you burn higher spell levels, but getting the balance right on this is extremely tricky.
There’s also the minor issue that as far as most people are concerned, raising dead people and enslaving them for all time is more than a little bit evil. There’s a good reason why necromancers are among the most common fantasy villains, and playing one as a hero requires some very challenging role-playing.
Bear in mind that even if your character has squared their use of zombies with the party members, you may have to think fast if a villager notices that your servants are looking a bit thin – especially when he comes back with the local Cleric of Pelor who starts asking pointed questions about why the guy he buried last week is following you around.
Iconic and powerful, but tough to use extensively without incurring the wrath of your DM, fellow party members or NPCs.
Casting time: 1 Minute
Range: 10 feet
Components: V, S, M (a drop of blood, a piece of flesh, and a pinch of bone dust)
This spell creates an undead servant.
Choose a pile of bones or a corpse of a Medium or Small humanoid within range. Your spell imbues the target with a foul mimicry of life, raising it as an undead creature. THe target becomes a skeleton if you chose bones or a zombie if you chose a corpse (the DM has the creature’s game statistics).
On each of your turns, you can use a bonus action to mentally command any creature you made with this spell if the creature is within 60 feet of you (if you control multiple creatures, you can command any or all of them at the same time, issuing the same command to each one). You decide what action the creature will take and where it will move during its next turn, or you can issue a general command, such as to guard a particular chamber or corridor. If you issue no commands, the creature only defends itself against hostile creatures. Once given an order, the creature continues to follow it until its task is complete.
The creature is under your control for 24 hours, after which it stops obeying any command you’ve given it. To maintain the control of the creature for another 24 hours, you must cast this spell on the creature again before the current 24-hour period ends. This use of the spell reasserts your control over up to four creatures you have animated with this spell, rather than animating a new one.
At higher level
When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you animate or reassert control over two additional undead creatures for each slot level above 3rd. Each of the creatures must come from a different corpse or pile of bones.