posted Tuesday, November 6th 2007 by
Back when I ran a D&D game with the group that first got me started playing, we had this one fellow who was a huge fan of undead. Originally he was disappointed at being roped into cleric, until he realised the benefits of playing “chaotic neutral”. In the long run, his strategy of undead use proved to be so popular, I’m almost surprised to find spellcasters without their own skeletal minions.
Starting from level 1, a cleric who channels negative energy – this does not have to be an evil cleric, merely a nongood one – can begin to command undead. Should you be lucky enough to encounter any, you can maintain control indefinitely over up to two human zombies or three human skeletons, or similar. Any undead with half your hit dice is vulnerable to control, and at any given time you can hold a total equal to your hit dice. However, the benefit of commanding undead is limited as you rise in level. As you rise in power relative to your minions, they become increasingly fragile and replacements are hard to find.
Luckily, there’s another option. At level 5 for a cleric, or level 7 for a wizard, our budding evil overlord gains access to animate dead, a handy spell that lets you create your own skeletons and zombies. Not only that, but you can create undead worth twice your caster level (instead of half) and automatically control 4HD per caster level indefinitely, on top of any undead you command. This spell is the mainstay of any undead user. At level 5 you can create a 10HD ettin skeletons and control two such creatures, and at level 9 some 17HD cloud giant skeletons. Its drawbacks are the cost and the level cap – 25gp per HD non-refundable, and skeletons/zombies are limited to 20HD.
The next spell up is create undead, available from level 11 for both cleric and wizard, allowing you to create ghouls, ghasts, mummies and mohrgs. However, this spell has two major drawbacks. One, it costs twice as much as animate dead – 50gp per HD. Second, you have to control the creature yourself by commanding undead. In other words, at 11th level you can control five ghouls, at 12 three ghasts, at 16th a single mummy, and actually controlling the mohrg you can make at level 18 is out of the question. At this point, you’re almost better sticking with animate dead.
Level 15 sees create greater undead, which lets you create a shadow, wraith, spectre or devourer. Although you won’t be powerful enough to command the devourer before level 24, the incorporeal undead you can create here are good value for money since they’re immune to many opponents’ attacks. A fifteenth level cleric can spend 750gp – a third of one percent of his total wealth – on three Strength-draining incorporeal shadows, while a 20th level cleric can own two level-draining spectres and one Con-draining wraith. Not exactly epic level power, but it fills up what at high level are useless command undead slots.
It may seem very cleric-biased here, but thankfully the sorcerer and wizard still have a few tricks up their sleeve. The second-level spell command undead gives you control over a single undead for one day per level, making it friendly to you – you can generally count on them as an ally for the rest of the adventure. However, undead tend to have high Will saves, and you don’t control them outright. Seventh level sees a spell which does afford you complete control for a shorter duration, control undead. It also affects multiple targets, with a hit dice cap of twice your level.
However, both command undead and control undead rely on you finding undead creatures. Although you can create them with create undead, you are at best spending a lot of gold pieces to create and control an undead for a single adventure, whereas a careful cleric can keep control of his own minions indefinitely.
In any case, for an additional investment it’s often wise to equip your undead with anything they’re able to use. Often you’ll find wondrous items that are only going to sit in a bag of holding until you get back to town, and some undead (skeleton and zombie warriors included) are proficient with weapons and armour. Even when they’re not, a full-plate clad human commoner zombie with a large shield can still act as an AC21 DR5 meat shield, or at worst a moveable barrier. Finally, you can always try to take a vampire cohort with the Leadership feat, and, if your DM is as malleable as I was back then, start building toward lichdom yourself.