Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Necromancer: A 4e Warlock Build

Dominic Matte
The necromancer is a classic character archetype featured in countless fantasy stories, but for some reason, it hasn't made its way into 4e D&D as a player option. You might think that 4e's focus on heroism naturally excludes necromancy as a player option, but on the other hand, lich is available as an epic destiny, so...

I decided to fix this gap in the available options. My solution was to use the wizard's summoning rules to create a master of undeath. But, of course, necromancy encompasses a lot more than summoning zombie minions, so I also included some simple rules for blood magic, which are entirely contained within a single keyword, as opposed to creating a whole new subsystem.

This is a full build writeup, containing new class features, at least one power for every level, feats, paragon paths, and magic items. 

Want to play a necromancer? Download the PDF from my Dropbox here, and read on if you're interested in the design notes!
(I apologize for the lack of images; I didn't want to risk any copyright issues)
In terms of general design, I thought the warlock would make a better necromancer than the wizard for a few reasons. The first is that the warlock, having the option to use Con as a primary attribute, is a lot tougher than a wizard. Constitution might not tie directly into magical ability in most minds, but when you're working with corpses and necromantic energy, you're probably going to want a high level of fortitude, both in terms of mentality and physicality. In exchange for your high HP and many powers that grant temporary hit points or keep you out of the fray, you sacrifice the mobility normally associated with strikers.

Second, the wizard already has options for summoning, and I thought it would be fun to give some summons to a class and role that normally operates on its own and with single-target spells. Not only does this provide the warlock with some cool new roleplaying options, but it also adds a cool mechanical twist: a striker focusing on dealing damage as a function of battlefield control, overlapping a little bit into the controller role.

Third, from a lore and story perspective, necromancy tends to be treated as a forbidden and reviled area of study. In most campaign worlds, it would be hard to explain a low-level wizard stumbling across the secrets of necromancy. One of the few feasible options is to discover an ancient forgotten tome of some sort. The warlock, on the other hand, earns his power by making a pact with a stronger entity. It makes perfect sense for a warlock to learn the secrets of necromancy from, say, a lich or a lieutenant of Orcus.

And finally, from a mechanical perspective, wizard summons are dailies. If you play a necromancer, you want to be able to summon undead much more often than once per day. The warlock has a basic class feature that allows this.

The Reanimator pact boon allows you to summon an undead minion whenever a cursed enemy drops to 0 hit points. Basically, whenever you kill an enemy, you reanimate the corpse as a zombie. This means that you can potentially summon multiple undead every encounter.

Of course, in a solo battle, this feature is completely useless, since you won't get to summon anything until after you kill your opponent. For this reason, every time you earn a daily power, one of those options is a summon that creates one or more zombies. These summons aren't tied to creatures in your current combat, and for the most part pull bones from underground to create minions, since anywhere you go you're likely to find some measure of remains at some depth. Naturally, you're free to reflavour these powers in areas where it doesn't make sense to pull bones from the ground. These daily powers give you access to minions even when you don't have the option of using corpses created in combat.

I've also introduced a pair of new keywords with this supplement: Minion and Sacrifice

Minion powers require you to have at least one active undead minion to use that power. These powers use your minion to create a new effect in combat. Minion powers are inspired by the beastmaster ranger: their range is determined not from your square, but from the minion's square. 

Sacrifice powers represent another aspect of necromancy: blood magic and the exploitation of one's own life energy. Sacrifice powers require you to spend a healing surge without gaining the normal benefits, but in exchange, they're much more powerful than typical powers of their level.
Why don't sacrifice powers consume hit points directly, you ask? That's because it's no fun not to be able to use your powers without dropping yourself. If I'm at 5 hit points and the only big attacks I have are sacrifice powers, I have to choose between dropping myself to make the attack, or not using my big powers until/unless I heal up a bit. By spending healing surges, you can use your powers without worrying about dropping yourself, but you still have to be careful since you're only exchanging short-term resources for long-term ones. If you spend all your surges only to realize you're bloodied and can't heal, you're in trouble.

Each power in this supplement bears one of these two keywords. Be careful with your power selection: choosing only minion powers can leave you vulnerable at low levels when you have fewer options to create minions, and using too many sacrifice powers in a day can put a strain on your party's healing resources. If you're going with a lot of sacrifice powers I recommend taking the Durable feat, which grants you two extra healing surges per day.

The two available paragon paths - Bloodmaster and Minion Master - each focus on one of the two power types presented here (sacrifice and minion powers, respectively). Both paths give you a boost to the respective power type which applies every time you cast one of those powers, and of course provides some more power options as you level up.

I didn't include an epic destiny for the simple fact that there's an existing one that fits perfectly: archlich. Really, what better destiny is there for a master of undeath than lichdom?

I'd like to finish up with a bit of a warning. If you play a necromancer, don't expect every character you meet to be OK with your combat methods. There isn't really any reason to hate wizards other than prejudice, but many races in the D&D world have strong traditions and beliefs surrounding their dead, and tend to see necromancy as a violation of their customs and the natural cycle of life.

That said, this class was designed to circumvent those problems to an extent. With most of the powers using enemy combatants as a resource and the effects ending when the combat does, you'll usually only deal with hostility from creatures that are already fighting you. If you're only using the bodies and souls of creatures temporarily, most civilized races will be much less hostile towards you, since you won't be constantly followed by a retinue of undead servants. 

If you go the extra mile and create a necromancer who actually has great respect for the souls of the dead and the beliefs of the living, your allies and observers will be far more likely to see your chosen power source as a tool rather than a violation of the universe. With this kind of approach, you might even create a lawful good necromancer who takes the time to bury the corpses of his enemies.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the class writeup! It hasn't been playtested, so if you spot any major balance issues or problems, let me know and I'll gladly upload a revised version of the class. I'd love to hear what you think of the build, good or bad.


  1. This is awesome! I really like the work you put into it to incorporate it into 4e. The lore, and the motivation behind it and all the powers and paragon paths, is really cool too. I have a couple of things I'd like to point out, which caught my eye:

    1) In Summon Bone Minions, you say they have half the normal hit points. I assume you mean that they have half your hit points at this point as summons usually have the summoners hit points, yes? I'm not too familiar with summoning rules, and summoning creatures in a power which has minion in the title confused me.

    2) One thing everybody would have to be careful of is using healing surges on credit. In Summon Bone Minion, and maybe others, you don't lose your healing surge until they drop, but a player might (foolishly) forget, and use all their healing surges, then their bone minions drop. I think there should be a strict penalty for this, mechanically or flavour, just because people make mistakes/try to exploit them.

    3) A lot of the powers give the Warlock temporary HP. I think this could be good and bad. I know it's part of the lore, but I wonder how easy it would be to kill the Warlock? If two encounters occur too quickly, the necromancer might not have time to recover; their temp. HP disappears at the end of the encounter, and they've used their surges for minions, now they have 2 HP left. Not a complaint, just a thought, could prove really interesting.

    4) I really like the Minion Master paragon path. I especially enjoyed the flavour text which gave the character some added motivation, i.e. "You suspect there might be a bridge between the methods, and only by continuing your work can you discover it." A lot of the paragon paths speak toward what you've become but don't always give me the feeling of motivating you further, so nice work!

    All in all, I'd love to see this play-tested. If we didn't have so many games in the works, and if we played as often as we wanted to, I would play test it myself to see how it feels. Keep up the good work!

    1. Responding to the gameplay-related stuff:

      1 "half the normal hit points" does indeed refer to the normal summoning rules, which I believe first showed up in Arcane Power under the Wizard entry.

      2&3 There's a lot of resource management involved in this build. I'm wondering if I should specify that it's for advanced players, since you have to keep track of your surges used, your potential lost surges for summons, and take actions for your minions. There's a lot to manage, but it should be pretty rewarding, I hope.

  2. Your PDF link is broken. Can you please look into the issue as, from your description, you have compiled class template that i have been looking to make for a while now. Thanks in advance.

    1. Works fine for me, so I'm not sure what the issue is.
      If it still won't work for you, send me an email (through my profile) and I'll send you a copy of the PDF directly.