Animating the Dead

In Dungeons and Dragons 5e there are a handful of spells for animating the dead to create minions. At first glance, some of these spells seem a bit weak, creating a large number of low-CR monsters, but thanks to bounded accuracy even a pile of Skeletons will murder tons of dudes. We’ll examine which spells are good to use and ways to boost up your growing army of the dead.

Table of Contents


RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational. Nearly never useful.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances. Useful sometimes.
  • Green: Good options. Useful often.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character. Useful very frequently.

We will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, in handbooks for official content because we can’t assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. We also won’t cover Unearthed Arcana content because it’s not finalized, and we can’t guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released, and the article will be updated accordingly as time allows.

Undead Upkeep

As an aspiring Necromancer (with or without the actual School of Necromancy), you must first understand that an undead horde is an investment. Maintaining control requires the recasting of Animate Dead and/or Create Undead every day, semi-permanently investing those spell slots. Also, Undead do not come with free weapons and armor. This is a further price that must be paid to get your minions ready to go.

But sure, you’ve resolved that these requirements are a fine thing to do for your little sub-party of Skelemen. You’re invested in this venture. Now convince the rest of the board of investors. Convince the rest of the party and the DM that this is a good investment for everyone. My own personal advice: don’t bring more than double the party size in minions and everyone gets two personal Bone Buddy sidekicks to kit out and play with in combat alongside their own PC. You taking an extra ten turns every round is dumb, but everyone getting to play around with their own minions is great.

Animating the Dead: Spooky Spellcraft

Animate Dead – 3rd-level

The spell everyone thinks about when they think of basic Necromancy. This is one of the better options because Skeletons are really the best option for general-purpose undead minions. You need a humanoid corpse for a Zombie, but a pile of bones from anything, even a former Skeleton, is a valid target for creating an eco-friendly 100% recycled Skeleton. The text doesn’t even specify that it needs to be intact bones.

The entry on Skeletons in the Monster Manual (page 272) reads thus: “Still, skeletons are able to accomplish a variety of relatively complex tasks. A skeleton can fight with weapons and wear armor, can load and fire a catapult or trebuchet, scale a siege ladder, form a shield wall, or dump boiling oil. However, it must receive careful instructions explaining how such tasks are accomplished.” This means that, yes, Skeletons are proficient enough to understand and use weapons and armor.

Exactly what kinds of weapons and armor you would want to put on your Skelemen depends partly on your funds and mostly on the fact that Skeletons have 10 Strength and 14 Dexterity. This means that you’ll need to stick with Finesse or Ranged weaponry and Medium armor for the best output. Now how much can you expect to get out of your Skellys?

Out of the box, for a 3rd-level slot you can get a Skeleton that swings with a +4 to hit and does 1d6+2 damage with a shortsword. At fifth level that’s not bad. It creates a body to take up space on the field and foes have to decide what to hit: the expendable skeleton or your party. That’s some good utility. But does it hold up when upcast and as you gain levels? That depends on if you have other methods of boosting your minions.

For example, the Oathbreaker Paladin’s Aura of Hate adds the Paladin’s Charisma modifier to all melee attacks by Undead (and Fiends) within 10 feet of the Oathbreaker. Importantly, this benefits the entire party’s undead minions, and greatly extends their usefulness. Another scaling option is to be a School of Necromancy Wizard, which increases the hit points and damage of the minions.

If we were to combine these options with a little upcasting to 4th-level slots, a Necromancer at ninth level with an Oathbreaker partner could have 9 Skeletons with 22 hit points, still rolling +4 to attack, but each doing main-hand 1d6+2+4+4 damage and 1d6+4+4 damage off-hand by Two-Weapon fighting with Shortswords. That’s 18 attack rolls. Statistically, some of those will hit. That’s a lot of damage.

Danse Macabre – 5th-level

Compared to Animate Dead, Danse Macabre has some benefits and drawbacks. The biggest drawback is that it’s a Concentration spell and it only lasts one hour. Actually, that’s the only drawback. Compared to upcasting Animate Dead, this spell will always make the same total Zombies or Skeletons, but these minions will gain a bonus to their attacks and damage rolls, greatly boosting their output over Animate Dead. Does that make this spell better than Animate Dead? No: it makes it have a different use.

Combining the two spells is the superior strategy for a Necromancer Wizard. With Animate Dead up front to take hits, you’ll worry less about losing your five Skeletal Snipers who are firing shortbows for about 1d6+11 damage. Technically you could give them double shortswords and send them in with the Oathbreaker for even more damage, but Danse doesn’t make them any harder to kill. But if they do die, Danse has one more trick: While it always creates the same basic person-shaped Skeletons, the target corpses have no type restrictions. Just recast it on the same pile of Skeletons.

Finding enough conveniently-placed piles of bones to keep Danse Macabre can be a challenge, so don’t. Bring your own. Bring your own piles of bones (or fully pre-armed, pre-armored, inanimate skeletons), have your Animate Dead skeletons carry them around, then cast Danse Macabre when it’s time to do work. Compared to Summon Undead, upcast to 5th-level and with no outside bonuses (School of Necromancy, Oathbreaker Paladin), the Summoned Spirit will have 16 AC, 40-50HP, and have a two swing multiattack for 1d8+3+5 (avg 12.5) Necrotic damage using your Spell Attack modifier for the attack roll.

Assuming a 20 in casting score at 9th class level where Wizards and Warlocks can access both spells, Danse Skeletons and Undead Spirits will both be rolling with a +9 to hit. The DPR of the one spirit is 16.70 but it has optional rider effects depending on which type of Spirit. The DPR of 5 skeletons with shortbows and no outside bonuses is 35 and increases to 63.5 if they all use double shortswords. If you need the fancy effects and have no corpses, Summon Undead is fine, but the raw DPR of Danse Macabre wins before it gets to add the benefits of Necromancer that Summon Undead cannot.

Create Undead – 6th-level

I’m not a fan of this spell. The Ghouls and Ghasts have the same attack roll as your basic Skeletons, though they do a little more damage per hit. For a 6th-level slot you could get three Ghouls or seven Skeletons which is already skewed towards the Skeletons before we start adding on the flat bonuses we’ve discussed above. Sure, the bonuses do apply to the Ghouls as well, but because it’s a flat bonus applied to all the minions equally (and the Skeletons can cheat with Two-Weapon fighting), seven Danse Macabre Skeletons just blow three Ghouls out of the water.

It’s true that ghasts and ghouls have Paralysis and other effects beyond damage, and Wights can add additional Zombie capacity to your Undead army, but this just further ties up your high level spell slots every day. Animate Dead on the other hand has that built in efficiency of controlling slightly more than it creates at any given spell level, allowing one to devote the low and mid level slots to maintenance as opposed to never ever casting Wish ever again because the Wights will eat you.

Finger of Death – 7th-level

You’re not really using this to make Zombies, you’re using it to kill people that will incidentally become Zombies. That said, it’s a free Zombie and it doesn’t try to stop being your minion every day. But still, you’re casting this to murder people, not to very slowly make infinite Zombies.