Q&A

Is Playing a Disabled Necromancer Ableist?

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I am developing a character for a Curse of Strahd campaign that is a wheelchair user (for context, I’m an able-bodied person), and I’m worried about accidentally falling into ableist tropes. My character is a lawful evil necromancer working on kind of a Victor Frankenstein theme. I’ve read your tips for writing disabled characters and specifically disabled villains (I intend to play him more as an antihero, but I still want to be conscious of those tropes) and I’ve made some adjustments to his character based on your advice. I’ve also been working with my DM to make sure that he won’t be the only disabled representation in the game.

My main concern is whether or not having a disabled necromancer is inherently ableist? These two aspects of his character are completely separate in context, but I’m worried that the association between a physically disabled character and the undead draws upon harmful stereotypes regardless. I absolutely want to play a necromancer for this campaign specifically. Is my character concept inherently flawed? Do you have any advice for taking a respectful approach to this character, or should I start over from scratch?

– Anon

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the question. I’m really glad that my writing is helping you in this process!

To start with, I want to say that, just as it isn’t inherently wrong to make a disabled villain, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with making a disabled necromancer. It’s all about being aware of ableist patterns and avoiding them, and it sounds like you are already doing some good work on this. There are two prominent concerns I would have about the representation of a disabled antihero necromancer. My first would be making sure that there is a clear separation between the character’s disability and their necromancy. My second would be not having an antihero be the only disabled representation. You already seem to be working on both of these.

You might already be doing this, but the other thing I recommend is taking some time to think through the details of your character’s disability, if it affects him in any other ways, and the mechanics of how his wheelchair works. For example, is his wheelchair manual or powered? If it is powered, what is the source of that power and what are its limitations? When he encounters locations that aren’t wheelchair accessible, what does he do?

Also, how wheelchair accessible is the setting? Most pre-made adventures include a lot of staircases in their maps, but this is usually done unthinkingly. Because D&D races range from three to eight feet tall, ramps are actually a much better design choice than stairs for most buildings. Practically speaking, any building designed to be used by multiple different D&D races should have at least some ramps in it. With your GM’s cooperation, it should be relatively easy to replace stairs with ramps.

When it comes to necromancy itself, there are some additional ableists tropes to be aware of that come up in the representation of undead monsters. On the Writing Alchemy blog I have a short article, Ableist Monsters, that covers the basic aspects of this trope and what to do instead. I do recommend checking that article out for a broader perspective of this topic. For the rest of this discussion, I’m going to focus specifically on some common depictions of undead monsters.

One of the biggest areas of concern in the representation of undead is the depiction of disease and contagion. For example, the idea that a person who has been bitten by a zombie needs to be killed because there is no way to stop them from turning into a zombie is a staple of the horror genre. This stigmatizing narrative acts out cultural fears about diseases like HIV in harmful ways. Because D&D has spells like “Cure Disease,” this isn’t usually as extreme in D&D settings, but it is still worth paying attention to how disease is being portrayed.

Another area of concern is the way that certain kinds of undead monsters are represented as having mobility limitations that are similar to mobility limitations that are associated with real-world disabilities. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with monsters that have mobility limitations, but it is important to present this respectfully. For example, it’s important to avoid portraying limited mobility as “unnatural” or using things like “shuffling footsteps” to make a monster seem more threatening.

The third major area of concern for undead monsters is the representation of monsters with “low intelligence.” It is fine to have monsters that function like automatons that have no minds of their own. It is also fine to have neurotypical, sapient characters that are undead. The trouble comes with stereotypical portrayals of humanoid monsters with “low intelligence.” Offensive representations often include depicting them as being child-like, easily manipulated, and unable to make “good” decisions. These are harmful stereotypes that affect people with developmental, cognitive, and learning disabilities.

Because of this, I would suggest having any undead that your character magically controls function as automatons, while portraying any sapient undead as characters with free will, regardless of whether or not they are neurotypical. These sapient undead could then be followers of your character who believe in him and his cause, but they would be portrayed as full people in their own right. Alternatively, you could explore creating undead animals which would have their own animal-like intelligences.

I hope that this helps. It sounds like a fun campaign!

Fay from Writing Alchemy

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Thanks for the link to the blog post, it was very interesting.

    One of my two necromancers does raise the dead, but, it seems, I have avoided all of the harmful tropes. While my undead aren’t very good at delicate work (on account of their bodies being dead), they can very well do other work. They are under my necromancer’s control and have no free will, are aware of their surroundings in a ‘not walking into walls or holes’ way, but will make no decisions on their own. They follow their orders, no matter what happens, and it’s up to their maker to change orders accordingly and they need a regular charge of life energy to remain working. They feel no pain and ignore injuries, because they are only reanimated matter, when all’s said and done, there’s no soul or self or sentience in them.
    The wraiths, on the other hand, are spirits bound to a place who are also ‘programmed’ and have no free will. They are created by fusing a dead body with the ground and bringing up its essence as a hooded figure hovering around and going for everything alive (safe for their creator and everyone they’re programmed to obey or not to attack). The wraith doesn’t only howl at every intruder, but also drains their life energy – if they stay too long, they may be killed, but the process is uncomfortable for the living, so they will usually just run away, which makes the wraiths good for guarding places.
    The only way my necromancer brings back souls is to talk to them, they’re not kept in the living world. Whatever undead creatures she raises are animated by the Spark of Life (she had to make a contract to get) and are merely reanimated matter.

    • Erynus

      How is that Necromancy at all? i don’t see it too different from creating golems. Necromancy have the inherent flaw of messing with the natural order that dictates that what is dead keep dead.
      Talking to spirits can be labeled as necromancy, but mediums are a different beast and in a way, Shamans do talk to souls without it disrupting the natural order.
      The spooky thing about necromancy is the use as a tool of someone that was a whole person. Voodoo got all its bad name from their undead mindless servants, a.k.a zombies.
      If you take out the moral burden of necromancy, any other magic “school” could do. Why using petty skeletons when you can infuse that “life spark” to an armour, which wouldn’t bother about wounds either?
      What you have describe are magical machines, organic, but machines after all.

      • Cay Reet

        The Spark of Life only works on matter which has been animalistic (no plants) and alive at some point. So, no, an armour doesn’t qualify. Neither does (as the setting is modern) a shop manequin or a sex doll.

        The spooky thing about necromancy can very well be to have your enemy stand on a graveyard which suddenly comes alive as the dead rise to fight them. Or to draw the life out of someone merely by touching their bare skin.

        Besides, the original meaning of the word ‘necromancy’ (before someone confused ‘necro’ aka ‘dead’ with ‘nero’ aka ‘black and labelled it ‘black magic’) was a form of divination which worked by calling back the spirits of the dead to ask them about the future (for obvious reasons, it didn’t catch on).

        • Erynus

          Yeah, it is a common mistake to mix mancys (divinations) and kinetics (movement) into the magic lexicon to come up with Aeromancers that move thing using wind.
          An in-universe explanation won’t make it to explain why you, the author, have choose to do it that way.
          The bio-vampirism makes sense despite it not being related to necromancy as far as i know, but why would a necromancer’s enemy stand on a grave? He should know that a necromancer can control dead bodies (despite your intent to make a “friendly necromancer” that don’t break any rule and is morally acceptable).
          As i said, a necromancer is inherently messed up, because he defies the most ancient rule that everything dies and stay that way.
          Also, using lethal guards and blaming the victim if she stay in the place for too long is kinda dark.

          • Cay Reet

            First of all, my necromancer isn’t friendly, she’s a freelancing villain who mostly works for others (providing them with workers or guards or fighters). She also has her own nemesis in the form of her own brother, who is a hero. (There’s a full hero/villain circus going on which is too complicated for a comment.)
            Let’s say her brother isn’t the most clever and thinks his superstrength will always win the day – he also didn’t fully realize what she was at that time, so she could lure him to a graveyard. It will hardly happen again.

            I’m also not blaming the victim. Just as other security measures, like automated weapons or mines, can cost innocent lives, so can the wraith. What I mean is that the loss of energy isn’t hidden from the victim, but part of the intention behind the wraith (it is possible to have a wraith invisible and draining energy without people feeling it until it’s very late), and they’re likely to realize they can’t fight the wraith in time, before it’s deadly. If they don’t or can’t get away, they’re collateral.

            Why have I chosen to do it that way? Because I think it’s an interesting concept to have a necromancer in a modern setting who has no interest in the whole ‘world domination’ business which others might use their armies of the undead for (aka ‘the regular necromancer as a villain opposed to a hero’). Because my necromancer has to revive her own occupation as well – the last before her died a hundred years prior, she only has old books full of superstition and her own powers to see what is true and what is not. She’s as much scholar as she’s villain and I like her like that.

            A necromancer can be messed up in many ways – while the one I just spoke about chose to become one and made a deal (albeit not with hell) to get her powers, I have another who has had this power since childhood, presumably since she drowned and came back to life as a small child. She makes use of her powers when she sees the need, but mostly studies necromancy to find out more about how she got the powers and why.

            As for the ‘what is a necromancer if they’re not forcing the souls back and have to live with the results’ thing – why is that the only aspect you see in necromancy when it comes to raising bodies? Necromancers can create armies which are very hard to defeat (you can’t kill what is dead etc.) and they will work better when the individual undead has no will of their own, but relies on the orders of their master. It will also make more sense to create servants who have no will of their own, if you have the power to raise the dead. If you use necromancy to raise someone to undo their death, it’s another question – there are stories about that sort of necromancer, the one I know best being Johannes Cabal. That’s another type of necromancer, one with a very personal motive to use necromancy. Yet, that doesn’t invalidate the use of necromancy to merely create a mass of workers or fighters who can be useful in dangerous environments and, one might guess, are probably cheaper than all the materials necessary for, say, a robot. The original Golem has Jewish roots, which is why I didn’t want to use it, the homunculus is often described as very small, so not that useful, and a dead human can, more or less, do the same as a living human, but without needing a break, without having an opinion, and without having any fears. The ideal worker, as it were – no long-term payments, cheap to replace, will never go on strike.

  2. Erynus

    It’s your story, after all, i don’t want to tell you how to write it.
    But my point is that it seem too “polite” for a villain. She uses someone’s life spark, but ask for it first. Feed on life force, but not too much. Have a buch of slave workforce, but are not as slave as it could be, because they don’t feel, or think, or live.
    I think you’re refraining yourself from going full on necromancy.
    From my point of view, to reanimate a corpse is as bad if you put another soul in it as is if you fill it with engines and pistons (which i think is your approach, mechanical animation by magic, there is no one on the wheel).
    It will be interesting to see what the souls and all the deities think about it.
    You can’t have a moral necromancer.

    • Cay Reet

      She has a power, called the Spark of Life (which she got from Set after passing a test which was quickly and brutally killing his physical representation, the Beast of Set, given the god in question is partial to chaos and violence). This power allows for her to raise the dead – something which mages in this setting can’t do, this ability can only be given in a deal with hell of various other ancient powers. She drains people to either weaken them or, in three cases, to kill them. There’s no asking for their energy. To raise the dead, she has to give them of her own life energy – if she uses too much too quickly, without regenerating in between, she will kill herself.

      The corpses are animated to the point where they do their work, but have no sentience, no self-awareness – very much, by the way, as zombies (both in fiction and in the deeds of people who poison their victims almost to the point of killing them and then ‘bring them back’ into a state where the self is no longer there). It’s not about morals – it’s about practicality. The undead are tools or weapons, they’re not meant to have personality. She can guarantee that – unlike a villain with henches who could develop a conscience. For other villains, she’s the cheaper alternative, because there’s a lot of dead bodies and, especially in today’s society, there’s a lot of people who are not missed, who are interred anonymously. She’s not doing this to bring back lost love or a family member or her favourite pet. She does it, because she wants to found a tradition (that’s part of the hero/villain thing). She does it, because it is something she can do – she can’t follow her mentor’s tradition, because she has no magical powers. She makes it her job and her scientific subject in one go.

      Necromancy is a type of power most people detest because it’s connected to a taboo: death. Necromancers deal in death, deal with dead bodies, interfere with the ‘eternal rest’ most religions promise. They defy the natural law that dead matter can’t come back to a semblance of life or life itself. While I can see how the whole soul business can bring in some interesting aspects, it’s not necessary to work with the topic of necromancy from my point of view. It’s also a question of belief, whether you think that there is something in humans which exists past the moment they die.

      • Erynus

        It gets clearer now. Thank you.
        I will keep the whole “First law of magical thermodynamics” for another time.

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