Playing with dead things

ghostThis past week I finally got around to rolling my first alt in Guild Wars 2, and after a lot of internal debate, I decided to go with a Norn Necromancer.  Writers can’t resist alliteration, after all.

In typical Guild Wars style, she’s more dressed for a visit to a 16th century-era queen than for gravedigging.  I suppose her cute little ghost and quaggan backpack don’t help prop up a serious goth image. It’s weird playing a different class in that game after so long with the engineer, but skills like being able to sic vampiric shrimp (seriously) on bad guys are endearing the class to me.

Playing her has certainly got me thinking about necromancers in general.  First of all, when did necromancers become a standard MMO class?  It sort of seems like they’re everywhere, from City of Heroes to Vanguard to World of Warcraft (yeah, I’m lumping Death Knights in here, especially with all of the ghoul summoning).  I guess they’ve been around for a long time now, come to think about it, perhaps to the point where we just don’t question their inclusion.

But should we?  Let me ask this in a different way: How can a necromancer be a hero?  After all, these are classes that play with dead things, dredge up corpses, explode said corpses, and basically do all sorts of things that you’d normally find a really deranged (and very lonely) villain doing.  I mean, necromancers are routinely bringing skeletons and shambling bodies back to a semi-life to be nothing more than disposable bodyguards with no names.  I’m guessing that no permission was secured from the recently deceased or his/her next of kin for this sort of activity.  So are necromancers — cute and stylish even so — defiling the dead for selfish purposes?  Are we the heroes that other heroes shun, just because we play with dead things and have a perpetual smell of decay about us?

Are we heroes at all?

I suppose there are all sorts of ways that you could try to explain away the concept of the class.  Maybe the undead pets come from a convenient parallel dimension where everyone is a zombie and they all compete on a reality show to become your next assistant.  Maybe necromancy is the only skillset your character knows and it’s best to use it to help others than become a villain yourself.  Maybe — and this is crazy, I know — it’s just a video game and make-believe.

When I think about it, necromancers just feel like the odd class out in the lineup of heroes.  It’s got to be a really gross profession, even apart from the ethical factors.  Perhaps that’s why they don’t seem to attract a legion of players.  Since I’m attracted to odd-men-out classes (with pets), that’s why I’ll head in their direction.  But it doesn’t make it any less disturbing when an abnormal amount of examination is given to what the class does or represents.

Here, pet my doggy.  He died last week.

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16 thoughts on “Playing with dead things

  1. See, that’s all because of our perception of death and anyone related to it. We consider dealing with the dead a “bad thing”, and immediately think of power-hungry sorcerers raising armies of dead to do their bidding. That just shows our cultural bias towards all things dead, and that’s okay.

    However, once you present necromancy and its practicioners in a different way, I see no reason for necromancers to be not heroes. What if necromancy is an accepted form of magic because it is necessary? What if the savior of a nation was a necromancer, who showed the world that this gloomy art can be used to save the world from undead slavery? What if the setting presented us a world where death is not feared, but fully accepted “just another form of existence”, and necromancy is a trade like woodcutting?

    It’s all a matter of perspective and how the setting handles what feels to us like an anti-heroic concept. What matters here, though, is that you enjoy your little summoner. Happy soul-reaping! :D

  2. In the defender of GW, there was a Necromancer NPC in Yak’s Bend who pretty much tells the player: People may see his profession as evil and depraved, but in truth they are simply doing all they can to serve and protect their homeland. If that means exploiting the bodies of your fallen foes, then so be it.

    And in fairness to City of Heroes, Necromancy wasn’t available to heroes until Going Rogue. :\

  3. Hehe what an interesting topic. I can’t deny I’ve always felt suspicious and queasy about Necros – I never ever played one. there sure is an evil or at least foul air attached to the class. what are they doing in the classic hero line-up? good question. makes it even weirder when they team up with priests and paladins.
    but then, fantasy game classes (to use a broader term) are also about power fantasies. there’s a fluent line between mages, warlocks, summoners and necros. I favor the first for being spellcasters and powerful commanders of different elements. I don’t actually like pet-classes, which is why I never pick summoners. but if you’re so inclined, are looking for a caster with summons (and maybe also have a bit of a thing for zombies), Necros must be for you. and you’re scary and usually overpowered in PvP, so that helps :P

  4. “How can a necromancer be a hero”

    I wasn’t aware I was always playing such a role in GW2 or any other MMO. I merely thought I was a participant.

    Who wants to be an hero anyway? In films and literature they are often the least interesting of all characters.

  5. Hmm.. I think I end up sort of agreeing with Roger in some ways.

    Necro is my main, but to be perfectly honest, I completely ignore the whole death thing. It doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I like casters and found elementalist to be a bit too much to handle for my first toon in GW2.. I wasn’t having fun with it. But I did have fun when I tried necro as the class felt semi-sturdyish and I’m drawn to classes that have big aoes and lots of dots. So its playstyle fits what I want (in many ways necro is very like loremaster except for the whole fire/light thing :P) I play it as it’s fun and dress her up in beautiful clothes. Perhaps others think it doesn’t work/fit, but I don’t care.

  6. People probaly know, but none of the GW2 Necro pets I’ve seen are actual creatures, their more like meat constructs if you look closely, gross but not necessarily a risen zombie. And the inhabitants of Tyria clearly have an issue with the risen undead. It drives the world plot.

    I’ve only done it in sPvP where I could have all the abilities, but it’s hilarious to run around with a full army of meat creatures trailing behind. Other players aren’t quite sure what to kill.

  7. I’m curious why you picked Death Knights as the closest relative to necromancers and not the much older Warlock class.

    As was previously discussed, I think necros have a bad rep and it all amounts to perception. What’s the difference between a necromancer who brings back the dead to do his bidding and a warlock who summons demons and forms pacts with them? Further, a hunter who tames a pet or a farmhand who breaks in a horse? It’s all a question of domestication. Whatever the creature or being is is made to accept you as its master. Just because that entity has an extremely advanced case of leprosy doesn’t change that relationship. Would it help if you imagined your minions saw this rejuvenation as a chance to right their wrongs and complete unfinished business at some point, but were content to follow you around until that time comes? Of course, that time will never come, but does that help?

  8. I played my first Necromancer in 2000 on Everquest’s Test server. He’s still around. I think he’s about level 50 now. Since then I’ve played a necro in every MMO I’ve played that has the class or an analog of it, which is most of them.

    I agree with Roger above. Hero? Where did I sign anything saying I’m playing a hero? Boooooring. In my world most necros are slightly deranged mad-scientist types with little concern for conventional morality. Or hygiene.

    If you want a handle on what a real necromancer ought to be you could do worse than read http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5750628-johannes-cabal-the-necromancer

  9. First a PSA: I’ve always played necromancers so this is a strongly biased opinion.

    In GW2 my only 80 is a Necromancer. I play the pet-less variety, same as I run a Blood/Frost DK in WoW, and ran a curse/bone spirit build in Diablo 2. I’m not against the idea of minions but I can only take small doses of MMO AI. Even in tabletop games I tend toward the class.

    A Necromancer is nominally evil in a culture that places a reverential value on the dead. Add a belief that some immortal spirit exists in the living, is released upon death, and depends on the proper treatment of the former host for postmortem safety/happiness/sanity and I think you have the standard meme for necromancy. The mindful dead add a layer of compulsion – you have returned a spirit to the world of the living and are forcing it to do you bidding. I could argue that this is no different than any class with crowd control abilities but for many people it feels different because you have recalled a happy spirit from eternal rest.

    So why play one? Mostly because it’s a different take on things, you often have a strong dissonance with cultural norms and need to hide your skills. If you assume that the body does not have any special status after death, that it’s just a lump of decaying meat, reanimation stops being evil. It may be questionable, but it can be argued that this is simply making good use of otherwise wasted materiel. It’s not that easy of course. If you really play the class you have to develop some understanding of how it impacts your erstwhile allies when you work a ritual that causes the militia who fell in the last Goblin assault to rise in defense of the village. it may be for a good cause but it’s not likely to be popular.

    And, of course, the quest to conquer death is about the oldest great tale in Human history. Necromancy, whatever the inspiration for any particular character, is a continuation of that story.

  10. I think necromancers in MMOs were good (evil?) and icky right up until after Everquest. I seem to remember that starting an Erudite necromancer in EQ was a true trial – you started in a small enclave in the forest, were completely blind at night, and were kill-on-sight to all the normal guards. If you wanted to go to the mainland you had to swim around outside the city to get to the docks, because the guards would kill you. When you got to Qeynos you had to jump off early and swim the rest of the way, because the guards would kill you. It was a serious rep grind to get yourself liked enough not to have guards bopping you on the head every time you showed up at the gate.

    I think that got lost, like so many other interesting elements, in the player hatred of MMO consequences. Want to play an evil profession? Awesome, dude, necromanders are gnarly! Wait, what do you mean people don’t like me just because I’ve got their dead grandmother following me around to distract that bear I’m trying to kill? This suxxorz!

    As someone mentioned, WoW’s warlock should be in a similar vein. Forget the undead, they traffic in DEMONS. Uhm, really?

    The same thing happened there, though. If one class or other, or one race or other, happens to have a harder start or deal with a disadvantage, it’s unfair because someone thinks necromancers are cool but nothing should be any harder for them than anyone else. So they get ground into the same flavorless paste of equality as every other class.

    Disclaimer: I don’t think EQ was the awesome. It was, IMHO, a pretty horrible game. But they certainly managed to have a lot of depth and flavor to the world, and it’s sad that it all got tied up and thrown out with the parts that made EQ a genuinely bad game.

  11. I think the first comment summed things up pretty nicely. You’re looking at the concept of death through a cultural bias. There’s nothing innately evil about drawing power from something as natural and inevitable as death, unless the fiction of your particular fantasy universe creates a reason for it to be.

    I mean, is a med student who operates on a cadaver to better understand anatomy evil? How is that any different from summoning a zombie to fight off some bad guys? In both cases, you’re doing something distasteful that serves the greater good.

    Think about the necromancers in Diablo II. They viewed themselves as servants of a natural cycle of life and death. They sought balance between the two forces. There’s nothing evil about that. That’s actually quite noble.

    And even in universes where necromancy is somehow immoral (for example, it requires shackling innocent souls), there’s still the concept of the anti-hero. Some may believe that the ends justify the means.

    Personally, one fantasy trope I’ve always disliked is the idea of “evil” magic. I see the purpose the power is used for to be much more important than the source of the power. Something I appreciate about the lore in World of Warcraft is the establishment of many types of heroes who do use dark powers for noble ends. Demon hunters use their Demonic magic to quite literally fight fire with fire. Death knights used their mastery of death magic to help bring down the Lich King. Etc, etc.

  12. There’s actually a Necromancer hero in the GW2 fiction, Ghosts of Ascalon. Not only is she a necromancer, but she’s a Sylvari necromancer which makes you re-think the role even more.

    Keep in mind, we percieving the necromancer from the constraints of our world. Since we don’t have zombies and ghosts wandering about in the open for all to see, we don’t see the understand the purpose a necromancer serves. However if we lived in a world where zombies roam free and your dead grandmother could very likely come back to haunt you, then we’re going to really make sure we have someone available who knows what the hell they’re doing when it comes to handling and controlling unread.

    I’m willing to bet that Rick Grimes wished he had a necromancer or two along with him!

  13. The “Ethshar” series of books, Lawrence Watt-Evans has a world that includes many different types of magic, and none is considered any more or less valid than another, though the demonologists and necromancers are certainly viewed with at least some suspicion. He plays a little with expectations too — male witches are still called witches, and warlocks are something else entirely (and there are female warlocks to boot). Wizards are arguably the most powerful of the various types, but they have their own restrictions, etc. And of course the whole thing’s written with his tongue so far in his cheek that it’s a wonder he hasn’t bored a hole through it. Fun stuff!

    I’ve never really gone for the necromancer classes myself. Never had anything against them, really, they just haven’t appealed to me much either. I’ve dabbled with them here and there, but they just don’t hook me, though my current rdps spec in Rift is the so-called “Necro-List” and uses a skeletal mage pet, so take that for whatever you will. It’s more becuz it’s easy to play than due to any draw to the necromancer portion of the class, though.

  14. I think it’s based on your cultural beliefs about how the dead should be treated. I have trouble understanding the concept of “defiling the dead” — they’re dead. I can get offending the still living who cared about the now dead, but I haven’t run into any relatives of my bone fiends yet. When I do I’ll politely apologize and summon a different one.

  15. Pingback: Sometimes Bad is Good: Player Edition | Harbinger Zero

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