Late Review – The Complete Book of Necromancers

Welcome back to the Late Review, which is both much sooner after the last one than normal and somehow simultaneously a little bit late!

In any case, I decided to look at The Complete Book of Necromancers after finishing up the review of Al’Qadim: Arabian Adventures primarily because I didn’t want to spend too much time being negative. So I chose a book I knew I liked, because that would fix it, right?

And then I proceeded to rag on Lords of Darkness for seventeen years and now here we are.

But still, The Complete Book of Necromancers is an excellent supplement. And, for the most part, this post will focus on that. Because this book deserves praise – it is, simply put, excellent.


As always (except for once), I’ll note that I do actually own this book. It is in my house, in my bedroom, next to the chair where I don’t read it before bed anymore because we have a new cat and she likes to play on the bed. She’s extremely cute and it’s a bit of a miracle I’m able to pull myself away from playing with her long enough to write this stuff.


Publication Details

As a part of TSR’s series of DM-oriented supplement books, The Complete Book of Necromancers was published in 1995 to very positive reviews. As a little “behind-the-scenes” treat, I’ll reveal that I almost always check a book’s Wikipedia page before beginning a Late Review article – primarily to verify the book’s publication year since I have ADHD and can’t get from wherever the physical book is back to my computer without forgetting my own name.

Anyway, I found it interesting that the “reception” comments listed there seemed to think The Complete Book of Necromancers was too “tame” and should have maybe included more body horror. Only one included comment seemed to realize the likely cause of this, namely that the infamous Satanic Panic was still very much a thing at the time and thus there was a distinct incentive for TSR to not go body horror with this book.

Honestly, in my opinion I think the book was just fine. This isn’t supposed to be a body horror nightmare of Lovecraftian abominations. It’s about necromancers, not mad professors or eldritch horrors. Also it does a better job talking about the negative ways that disabilities are treated in narrative than any other D&D book I’ve seen up to right now.

And with that aside completed, let’s look at the book.


Overall Quality

To begin, let me just state this very clearly: this is the single highest-quality 2e product I’ve ever read. Seriously. No hesitation.

It’s a great book with an absolute wealth of great content, but one of the main things that makes it so good is its simple acceptance of how D&D really works in real life. This book makes itself clear on multiple occasions that the necromancy kits, spells, and items described are not intended for PCs. And then it turns around and gives advice on how, if forced, you can allow PCs to use them.

Essentially, The Complete Book of Necromancers makes this statement with full knowledge and acceptance that PCs will absolutely ignore it and beg to play these characters regardless.

Quite a few old 2e supplements will offer similar warnings, just saying “this isn’t for PCs” and giving zero guidance on how to even consider using the given mechanic with a PC. This book, on the other hand, says “this isn’t for PCs” and then “buuuut… if they insist, here are some things you can do to make it usable.” It’s very clear this stuff isn’t intended, balanced, or optimized for PCs. It’s also very clear that the book prioritizes helping DMs over everything else, and thus provides advice even for “un-sanctioned” uses.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. To me, doing this is like beginning the book with an intro saying “this book loves you, DM, and wants you to be happy and healthy.” This book cares about me and my sanity. Ironically enough.

It was an insanely good first impression.


And speaking of first impressions… another recurring theme in this book is that it offers in-universe narrative intros to each chapter. And these narrative intros are, without exception, absolutely, unabashedly phenomenal. That’s what got me started with comparisons to Lords of Darkness, in fact – my notes keep saying “god, why couldn’t Lords of Darkness have been written by this guy?”

Because Lords of Darkness came out like five seven (see? ADHD strikes again) years before this book, so… anyway.

These narrative intros come before almost every chapter. Furthermore, they actually all focus on the same set of characters – NPCs whose backstories and stats are included at the very end of the book. The result of this is that you get frequent peeks into the life and experiences of Talib, the Lich-Hunter, throughout the book before you even get to his statblock at the back. The included mini-setting at the end of the book mentions “the archmage Kazerabet” and you go “wait, I know that one!” because she’s been mentioned in three narrative intros already.

Overall, the intros work really hard to set a tone and atmosphere for the book. While it isn’t quite as “in-universe” as something like Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (which I felt did a fantastic job of atmosphere), it still makes the book really stand out among its peers.

I’ll mention some of my favorites of these intros a bit later. As a hint of how good these are, I initially only disliked a single one – because it failed to tell me how the viewpoint character had escaped the lethal circumstances at the end of the narrative. I forgave this once I got to the next chapter, the intro of which promptly did precisely that. Yes, these intros are interesting enough that I wanted a sequel to and intro, and this book is good enough that it actually gave me that.


Necromancer Kits

We’ll begin with the book’s selection of character options. They’re all very high quality, and I’d recommend any of them as prime NPC creation tools.

To begin, we have the “Archetypal” necromancer, which is a generic necromancer wizard. It’s a solid archetype, though it does depend on later chapters for a bit more than I’d like. It gets dark gifts and dangerous side effects which are detailed later (and are, themselves, quite good). It’d be nice to get a slightly better sense of what these gifts and side effects did right now, just for context, but I understand why they held them back. They’re definitely worth a full chapter, so no complaints here.


The first “original” kit is the Anatomist. It takes inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of course, but also from real historical doctors. Early students of anatomy had a lot of trouble back in the day due to taboos around “mutilation of the dead” (IE dissection), requiring them to get into grave-robbing. This historical tidbit is a classic period-piece for “gothic” narratives of all kinds.

I was also surprised at the diversity in this book. It’s still a late 1900s book so it isn’t great at all times, but… there’s only a single “doctor-themed” kit in this book, and its description uses nothing but female pronouns. The example NPC of this kit included at the back of the book is also a woman. That might not be a huge deal nowadays, as representation has improved quite a bit since the 90s, but it’s cool to see this early nonetheless.

As for mechanics, it’s a solid kit! The Anatomist is specifically called out as having “little interest in the undead,” which is a bold choice in a book about necromancers. But it really works! The Anatomist gets bonuses to non-magical healing and the ability to perform quite useful-sounding autopsies.

They do have one of the sillier hindrances though, namely that they have to dissect at least one body each month or lose their perks. I get it from a mechanical standpoint – it’s trying to replicate the idea of “getting rusty” while also requiring the character to regularly engage in dubiously legal/ethical activities – but the game system itself just doesn’t support it well. But hey, that’s a small complaint.


Next up is the Deathslayer, which mentions Batman by name in its description. Their benefit is essentially the ranger’s favored enemy ability, but less racist and more functional mechanically speaking. Which is great!

I wanted to call out the hindrance of this one as well, though, since it also strikes me as a bit funny. A Deathslayer must target undead combatants before any living opponent. If they don’t, they get no experience from the fight. The book presents this as a form of mania, which works pretty well with the character narrative.

Even so… “murdering one living necromancer can get you many destroyed undead.” I know it’s a mania, I know that isn’t supposed to be logical, but still. Seems a bit silly. But also, again – what a petty complaint to have! It’s a great kit.


Then we have the Philosopher, which is a fascinating take on a necromancer kit. It’s definitely inspired by the more Lovecraftian idea of “scholar drawn unwittingly into the Dark Arts,” but it doesn’t have much actual “cosmic horror” elements to it other than that characterization. Maybe this is why people expected more Call of Cthulhu from this book?

More importantly, it’s a prime example of how much this book cares about DMs. It’s another of 2e’s infamous “NPC kits” which, like the diviner wizard, are basically worthless when actually playing the game. They work as NPCs contacted by the players, but playing one would be miserable.

Luckily, The Complete Book of Necromancers understands that someone will inevitably want to play as this kit anyway, and so the book does its best to give DMs advice on how to manage it. Their first piece of advice, of course, is “don’t end up in this situation” – but I just appreciate the effort.

Ultimately, this is a kit with solid benefits that do have some use for PCs, but the combination of severe drawbacks and (hopefully) DM guidance should keep most players from wanting to use it. Oh, and it also gets psionic Wild Talents, which seemed really weird until I stopped and thought about it, after which it made a sort of sense.


Then we have the Undead Master, which is what you’d probably expect from a book about just necromancy. The Undead Master’s implementation is what makes it so good, though, because the kit logically thinks out the assumptions of such a character.

Basically, if you want to control hordes of undead, that somewhat implies that you like controlling others. Normally, being a necromancy specialist means you can’t learn enchantment spells. Enchantment is primarily used to control people. Do you see where I’m going?

The basic benefit of this kit is the ability to learn enchantment spells, which no other necromancy specialist can do. And that’s an awesome benefit because it’s mechanically powerful and narratively appropriate. They also get the evil cleric’s Command Undead ability, which is another great pick.

As for drawbacks… they’re fair. You lose both major divination and alteration spell access (along with illusion, which is an opposition school for all necromancer specialists). I like these drawbacks because they, again, play into the kit’s narrative while being mechanically significant. Major divination and alteration are both very useful schools of magic, but both are also a bit redundant given a comprehensive network of servants, lackeys, or thralls. And yet treating divination spells as being replaceable by minions also leads to great adventure narratives – a minion’s incompetence is their master’s downfall.


Finally, the book ends its kits section with honorable mentions from other supplement books. This is great! It really expands the amount of inspiration you can take from this book, though it unfortunately doesn’t include the full kit details. But that’s fine, it’s a cross-sell!

One of the kits mentioned stood out to me, however. It’s the ghul lord, which is a sha’ir kit. Except, as you may remember, sha’ir itself is also a kit. A kit so complex that I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it got its own supplement, The Complete Sha’ir Handbook.

Aside from the insanity of a wizard kit itself also having kits, I thought it was funny when The Complete Book of Necromancers pointed out that the major problem with the ghul lord is that they’re hard to use in combat without at least three dozen meat shields since it takes the sha’ir like four hours to cast spells.

Glad to see I’m not the only one baffled by that.


Dark Gifts

This chapter begins with yet another of the book’s excellent narrative intros, this one focusing on Talib the Lich-Hunter, a good-aligned necromancer. It details how, even before learning the Dark Arts, Talib suffered from haunting visions. It’s a great tone-setting piece, and I really appreciate it.

Anyway, the “Dark Gifts” in this chapter definitely seem to have at least a little Ravenloft inspiration to them, as you might guess from the name. And as mechanics, they’re all pretty good!

Before getting to the specific powers, though, it first goes through existing options to customize an NPC and “surprise” players. The first suggested method is multiclassing/dual-classing. This is a system which is quite complex, so the book says that it’s likely easiest to imagine what the NPC was before they became a necromancer – this is the easiest way to build a character with more than one class.

The book then lists out a few example combos and runs through their strengths and weaknesses both in-game and in DM ease of use. The fighter/necromancer gets a higher THAC0 (ugh) and more weapon damage, and thus can hold their own in a fight. But a thief/necromancer is less useful, since many of the thief’s abilities can be replicated by low level spells like knock – and yet despite not recommending it, the book still goes over what you’d need to know if you want to do it anyway. This book cares about me.


After a brief run-through of Wild Talents (part of 2e’s nigh-incomprehensible psionics system), the book moves on to discrete powers and abilities. The book takes a significantly harder stance against giving any of these powers to PCs, but it explains its position well – these abilities are meant to surprise and challenge the PC party. They just aren’t balanced for regular play and in many cases aren’t really “interesting” except as a surprise twist during an encounter with the villain.

There are a lot of powers, so I’ll just go over my favorites:

  • Animate Dead By Touch. Pretty much what it says on the can, but a great power nonetheless. These undead are notably weaker than those created by spells, but still… it’s a body in between you and the angry paladin, so I’d just take it without complaining.
  • Augmented Hit Points. A fairly standard “boss monster” benefit. What I like about it is the “goes unconscious at -10 HP rather than 0 HP” because it really nails the “undeath” tone.
  • Chilling Touch/Fear Aura. A pair of abilities which mimic, at a lower power level, two classic lich features. It’s definitely thematic for a necromancer hoping to become a lich.
  • Skull Scry. The necromancer can see through the eyes of any non-animate detached head they know of within a mile. They can also potentially speak through the head. Very spooky, very cool.

It’s also really notable that all of these powers are good and there’s only a single one that I would consider problematic. That one, by the way, is the Death Curse – a curse the necromancer can pronounce on the people killing them. It’s a great idea narratively, but the effects are just too vague and there’s no established way to prevent or avoid the effects of the curse, which could be death. Just seems a bit unfair to no-save kill a PC just because they accomplished their goal of killing the bad guy.


Dark Drawbacks

And now we move to Dark Drawbacks (they don’t actually call them this). I was extremely impressed with this section for its intelligent and measured treatment of the classic “disabilities as symbols of villainy” issue.

The first category of drawback, social stigma, also seems directly targeted at PC necromancers, which is another great concession since they know someone will ask to play it. All it boils down to is “people usually don’t like creepy death wizards” but still, it’s nice to take a moment to discuss the specifics of an “unsanctioned” usage.

I know I’ve said it a lot, but the fact that this book wants to help me even if my players want to do something the book thinks they shouldn’t do… it really endears me to the book. Again, this book cares about DMs.


Next up are Physical Deformities, which is when I began to get worried. I’ve discussed this before when talking about Van Richten’s, but let’s do a quick refresher. Essentially, there’s a very strong tradition of demonizing various physical ailments as “evil signs of villainy” – this is something that we should try to avoid in the modern day. I’m sorry, but having a hunchback doesn’t make you evil. It just doesn’t and we shouldn’t try to pretend that it does.

This section worried me with how it began by talking about Richard III, one of the most famous “evil cripples” in English-language literature. But then, this book just… turns it all around. It notes the existence of the trope, but then refocuses to an alternative – mannerisms.

Essentially, a necromancer’s “deformities” should be behavioral. They have a sinister laugh which only comes out in response to another’s pain, or their smiles all come out as hungering wolf-like grins. It recognizes the existing tradition, notes the issues with it, and suggests an alternative. It’s wonderful.

And even when it lists out twenty deformities later on in the section, only four seem to be actual medical conditions – club foot, skin discoloration, hunchback, and extra fingers/toes. The vast majority of “deformities” are clearly supernatural, like having the “face of an animal” or “scales and fur” or similar.

It was just really refreshing to see that from such an old book.


Then there’s Bodily Afflictions. And again, we start with notes about how disease and suffering were seen as “divine retribution” that “punished the wicked.” And while those were both actual beliefs in history, the book immediately points out how irrational they are.

Instead, the book suggests looking at “Bodily Afflictions” as a direct consequence of evil behavior not in a spiritual way… but rather because necromancers will tend to be around rotting corpses a lot and that’s anything but healthy. A necromancer’s persistent cough isn’t divine wrath – it’s literal grave dirt from a plague victim’s corpse.

There’s also a note saying that these diseases aren’t really for use on PCs and pointing out that rather than lethal diseases, minor illnesses with lasting effects are more narratively interesting.


Then there’s Insanity or Madness. Like clockwork, I approach the section cautiously. And, like clockwork, the book upends my expectations brilliantly. It really takes the time to draw a clear causative line from contacting evil entities to going insane. Mental illness doesn’t cause evil behavior, rather evil behavior and the inherently mind-breaking quality of dark entities from the beyond cause villains to gain minor mental illnesses.

The madness options are also all very safe choices, at least in my opinion. There’s Phobias, Melancholy, Delusions, Paranoia, and Amnesia – those are all fairly “negative” conditions. The psychological equivalent of things like asthma or allergies. They don’t define you as a person, they are symptoms you experience.

I think I was really just surprised that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and similar things weren’t listed. They’re staples of “insane villains” in literature, so it’s nice that the book didn’t just reuse them without a care.


Dark Arts (“Defense Against” Not Included)

This section focuses on new spells, but first I want to call out what might be my favorite narrative intro in the entire book. This one focuses on a ship captain who encounters pirates on the open seas. One of his passengers – “a sorceress of sorts, as well as a surgeon” – emerges and comments on her late husband’s hatred for pirates and how he was killed fighting them. She then uses magic to make all the pirates shrivel up and die right on the deck of their ship, before retreating back to her room. The captain then notes that for the rest of their journey, the crew could hear her late at night weeping and calling out to her long-dead love.

Just… dear god. It’s a narrative intro, they didn’t have to go that hard. But they did and I love it. The emotion! The history! The romance! And, most importantly for a book about necromancers, the gruesomeness! You could spin an entire module out of that one snippet of narrative. It’s simply astounding how good some of these are.


Anyway, on with the spells! I’ll also be including here the new cleric spells which are actually found in a later chapter but are necessary to mention here. This is due to one of my rare complaints about this book, something which is actually just a problem in 2e in general and in no way caused by this actual book.

There’s a wide variety of new spells for both wizards and clerics. None of the wizard spells stand out, though they’re all solidly designed. One thing I like about the wizard spells essentially is how many are designed to work in tandem with each other. In particular, there’s a set of spells you can use to essentially reanimate a surrogate to adventure on your behalf – with you safely controlling it from a distance. I loved the old spell interactions of 2e, even if I understand why 5e ditched them.

My complaint, however, has to do with the wizard and cleric spells – namely that many are quite close to one another in function and yet inexplicably have different casting levels. As I mentioned, this is a failing of 2e in general, not this book, but it’s still worth noting.


While we’re here, I’ll also briefly mention magic items. It’s a subject the book covers quite aptly, but not with the same degree of brilliance as everything else. It isn’t bad, but the new items are just largely plain. Which isn’t bad!

The thing I wanted to mention the most, though, is another entry on my list of “reasons this book loves me” – in addition to new items, the book specifically goes over prior items to help explain which ones work best for a necromancer.

Much like with the “honorable mention” kits from other books, this is a fantastic addition. It isn’t content since it doesn’t actually detail any of those items, but it existing is enough to massively help out new DMs.


Death of God

And now we come to an interesting and slightly prophetic section – namely the one covering death priests.

When I first read this section, I thought it was one of the weaker ones in the book. It primarily describes death-related deities which can constitute “kits” for clerics. And while the writing continued to be superb, these just didn’t hit quite as well with me. But they were specifically written to be usable with The Complete Priest’s Handbook, which is a nice little bit of consistency that I can appreciate.

Spoiler Alert: The next several Late Reviews will be able The Complete Priest’s Handbook. It’s even worse than Lords of Darkness, even more insane than Al’Qadim and the sha’ir. It’s… we’ll get to it later. I literally don’t have time to go over everything wrong with it, and I’m less than a third of the way through it.


So let’s look quickly at the priesthoods mentioned in this chapter, but just keep in mind that if I complain about anything in them, that thing is almost definitely only included to match with the horror that is The Complete Priest’s Handbook.

  • The God of the Dead. Ruler of the land of the dead. A very simplistic priesthood design with good theming. My one criticism was that their “Granted Powers” seemed a little strong – on reading The Complete Priest’s Handbook I realized that these were, in fact, dramatically underpowered in comparison.
  • The Goddess of Murder. A chaotic evil god of slaughter. I briefly wondered at why the book bothered to set the god a gender when it previously said any of the gods could work as either gender, but once again – The Complete Priest’s Handbook is to blame. This one also suffers from feeling a bit more like a thieves’ guild than a priesthood, since they kill people who don’t pay protection money.
  • The God of Pestilence. A deity who has been very active recently. The cult doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – they’re essentially nihilists who spread disease for no real reason – but it’s still fine.
  • The God of Suffering. Not what you’d expect. This is actually presented as a benign god whose followers seek to suffer that others may live free of suffering. Simply put, they’re flagellants – a real world religious concept. There are also evil priests who are more into sadomasochism, but we don’t talk about them.
  • The Lord of Undead. Also known as “the Ghoul God.” It’s a much better take on “evil cult” than the God of Pestilence or the Goddess of Murder since followers commit evil acts for a specific reward – namely undeath. They also may or may not get into cannibalism or necrophilia which is something I likely could have gone without knowing.
    • This is made infinitely worse by an awkward turn of phrase in one of the cleric spells, spectral senses, (sharing senses with a corpse) which states that it “establishes a sensual link between the priest and a skeleton or zombie.”
    • If my own eyes had to read that, everyone else gets to as well.
    • Please never phrase it that way.

And finally there’s a list of honorable mentions, some from the accursed Complete Priest’s Handbook and others from various other sources.


Narrative Spirit

Much of the rest of the book is dedicated to writing a compelling necromancer NPC. And it’s good advice, all of it. In particular, I find it’s approach to villain characterization refreshing since it stresses the human element of a villain. One chapter goes over secret societies that necromancers might be members of and notes that even villains like to feel accepted.

And it’s true! The only villains who don’t long for acceptance or recognition are the truly antisocial ones, and they usually happen to be the least interesting too. People like to talk to other people, and people like it when other people can see their accomplishments.

The book also goes to great lengths to suggest underling options, familiars, associates, apprentices and everything else to help flesh out (ha) a necromancer villain. It doesn’t get much into mechanics, but just giving these pointers is such a huge help for a new DM.


And finally there’s the “adventure module.” This is another of my rare complaints about the book – this is not an adventure module. It’s definitely a scenario, or a setting, but it isn’t a module. Still, it’s a competent and necromancy-focused setup which a DM could easily use to start a campaign.

The book also provides NPCs, another welcome addition in my mind. Many of these were mentioned in the narrative intros throughout the book, so you already know a lot about them. Their statblocks then detail how they fight before giving a little bonus background on them just to make sure they’re easy to use.

I will say that a few of the NPCs are a bit more or less… well, let’s just say it’s obvious which ones are the favorites. The first is Kazerabet, who I believe is mentioned in more intros than any other character. She’s the one the book seems the most in love with, so it’s clear she’s the favorite. The other is, of course, her multi-classed 20th+ level fighter/necromancer estranged husband who has a bunch of rad tattoos – Talib the Lich-Hunter.

The rest of the book is so good that I’ll just give it a pass for that. I’ll even ignore the part where it pointedly establishes that the lich-priestess NPC, despite her spooky skeletal face, is still curvaceous and sexy. I’ll ignore it because… hey, nothing’s perfect, right?


In Conclusion

The Complete Book of Necromancers is a phenomenal book. It’s the best 2e book I’ve ever read. From the very start it establishes a sense of DM-friendliness which no other book thus far has matched. In between solidly balanced mechanics and helpfully inspirational DM advice are a series of engaging narratives which perfectly set a tone for the book. Everything is centered around usability first.

It’s wonderful.


If you have a chance to get this book, I highly recommend it. The narrative and game design advice it offers is timeless – it’ll work for you right out of the box, no conversion needed. And the mechanics? They’re all good enough to be worth the time and effort to update to 5e, should you be so inclined.

And I could talk about it even more, if I wanted to. It wouldn’t really be anything interesting – just a summary of what the book offers followed by me saying “and it’s all completely, 100% correct” and then going on to the next chapter.

But in the interest of keeping things vaguely close to a reasonable length, let’s just end it with this. The Complete Book of Necromancers is a great book. If you need advice for a necromancer NPC (or a stubborn PC!), there’s nothing I can think of that would work better than this. Even now, after all these years.


And with that, we end our look at necromancy-themed supplements. Look forward to next time, when we cover the dread Complete Priest’s Handbook. If it weren’t so far away, I’d save it for a Halloween special – it’s just that terrifyingly bad.


Oh, and like always, let me know what you think!

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