D&D 3.5: Wicker the Necromancer Learns about Epidemiology
I started playing D&D on a door in my friend Joel’s basement. We laid it across a coffee table, and it just barely fit our party of seven: Eric, Joel, Nick, Ben, Brent, Jess, and me. We treasured that door.
Over the two years I played D&D with the group, I learned that every party of characters starts off as a mix of good, evil, and neutral, but the entropic forces of loot, adventuring, and lack of consequences eventually turn all parties into a group of what are affectionately termed “murder hobos” by the D&D community: amoral drifters that only know how to solve problems by a) killing something or b) stealing something. Here’s the flowchart:
So Joel, our wonderful DM, would plan epic adventures for our stalwart group of heroes, assembling dungeons, creating interesting NPCs, and carefully dipping real-life paper notes in coffee to make them look like aged parchment, then watch as the party looted, stabbed, and seduced their way through the session. Most games usually ended with the party covered in blood, watching the fantasy equivalent of the Vatican burn to the ground, or at least unseating a regional government in an ad hoc coup.
Looking back on it, I think those anti-D&D church pamphleteers had a pretty solid case.
Murder hobos are, at worst, chaotic neutral. They’re a combination of every player’s id and their desire to see how far they can push a game until it breaks. When your imagination is the limit, sometimes you go a little power-mad.
Still, I always tried to play a good guy–I was the kind of person that couldn’t bear choosing rude dialogue options in Mass Effect, let alone go full Renegade. But after we put our first D&D campaign on hiatus, I wondered what it would be like to play a straight-up bad guy. So I rolled up a new character: Wicker the Necromancer.
Here’s a sketch Joel drew of him.
“I WANT TO EAT A VOID GOD.”
I wanted Wicker to be a gentleman-necromancer, not a cultist, so I modeled him off of English magicians like Aleister Crowley: scholarly, ambitious, and silver-tongued. Before the first session with Wicker, my DM walked me into a room away from the rest of the group and asked me what my character’s goals were. I decided to swing for the fences.
“I want to eat a Lovecraftian void god like Nyarlathotep and steal its power,” I told him. From there, world domination–all would bow before Wicked King Wicker.
Fittingly, Wicker nearly lost all 11 of his hit points in that session to some kobold minions in a crawlspace.
In addition to my character having a Constitution score low enough to reclassify him as a Lawful Evil Styrofoam packing peanut, the city the campaign was centered on, Greythorne, had a standing ban on magic enforced by an omnipresent organization called the Mageguard. As the first magic-caster I’d ever played, Wicker was feeling a little stifled, so I started thinking of ways to convince the Mageguard to lift the ban. Naturally, I settled on holding the city for ransom. Since I was still a part of the game’s adventuring party and trying desperately to keep my schemes secret, I decided to put the plan into action by myself.
After some careful probing of my DM, I learned that there was a school of necromancy that studied disease and decay. Paired with access to a good number of animated corpses, I started planning a Typhoid Mary scenario: use disguised zombies as disease carriers, then send them into the city until my demands were met.
But the problem with biological warfare is that it’s hard to control—if I sent a bunch of smallpox carriers into the city, I might not be able to stop the disease from wiping out the whole population. After some more research, however, I came across an elegant solution.
“Joel,” I asked my DM. “Necromancers study diseases right? Including deadly ones?”
“Yessss,” Joel said, sensing a trap. As a good DM, he knew players only ask weirdly specific questions when they have terrible, game-wrecking plans.
“And most diseases found in our world have equivalents in this fantasy world?”
“What if I told you that there was a disease present in all continents and soils across the Earth, responsible for thousands of animal deaths a year?”
“Would necromancers know of this common disease?”
“All right, great.”
The disease was anthrax.
It was the perfect solution to my epidemiology problem: people infected by spores from bacillus anthracis can’t normally infect others, meaning that the disease wouldn’t spread out of control. The mortality rate for inhaling anthrax spores ranges from 50% to 80% even with treatment, and symptoms begin to appear within a day or so. This was better than the peasant railgun.
With the help of some other members of the necromantic community, Wicker managed to infuse dozens of carrier zombies with anthrax spores and get them ready to sneak into the population of Greythorne. Their disguises wouldn’t hold up for long, but it would be long enough for death, panic, and confusion to spread through the city. After looking at CDC case studies (which, yes, is technically cheating), I was 85% sure I would have Greythorne in the palm of my hand by the end of the month.
Pablo Escobar didn’t have shit on me.
He Who Fights Monsters
As soon as I sent the Mageguard my demands, threatening to target their guard houses with anthrax unless the ban on magic was lifted, I received a response saying that the Mageguard did not negotiate with terrorists.
As a newly minted fantasy terrorist, I realized that was a damn good response.
I tried appealing to the rank-and-file Mageguard troops with a long, Machiavellian speech persuading them not to make their wives into widows and turn their children into orphans, but I was informed by Joel that the Mageguard are essentially conscripted and brainwashed into service—they have no loved ones.
I did the genocidal arithmetic in my head again and realized that if I couldn’t threaten the Mageguard, I could threaten their leaders. The Lord of Greythorne probably didn’t want an anthrax outbreak in his city—it would hurt commerce, cause a panic among the populace, and sow chaos within the city. But our party had met the Lord of Greythorne, and he seemed like the kind of coldly calculating despot that would shut down the outbreak with ruthless efficiency: curfews, roadblocks, and instant execution for anyone helping to spread the spores.
Of course, there would probably be a bounty on my head for adventurers to collect. Adventurers like my own party, who would probably connect the dots when their target was eating lunch with them every day. I hadn’t even set up autonomous cells to keep members of my operation from squealing on each other.
So there I was, with anthrax zombies waiting in the wings, ready to march at my command. It was my first rodeo as a real villain, and I already felt like an asshole. For all my machinations and threats, I was powerless. Looking over my previous speech, I realized I (and by extension, Wicker) had thrown away every shred of morality I had in the pursuit of power.
“What do you do?” Joel asked me, sitting across the tabletop.
All eyes were on me. I knew my plan was doomed, but a part of me whispered to do it anyway—send out the zombies. Show no weakness, and show your enemies how deadly you are, even in defeat. Another part of me whispered to play the long game:
When you are weaker, never fight for honor’s sake; choose surrender instead. Surrender gives you time to recover, time to torment and irritate your conqueror, time to wait for his power to wane. Make surrender a tool of power.
I opened my mouth to craft a villainous response, but I realized I couldn’t go through with it.
“I call off the zombies,” I said quietly.
Without realizing it, I had become the kind of evil overlord D&D adventurers fight each week, the kind that inevitably has their plans foiled and ends up shaking their tiny, impotent fists in rage at the heroes shortly before they’re stomped to death and looted. Now I understood what made them spend their last breaths cursing the world and everyone in it.
It was pride.
That day, I decided that if Wicker was going to rule the world, he wasn’t going to rely on grand schemes or biological warfare. Instead, he was going to do it the old-fashioned way: with ancient books and forbidden knowledge. At least then, I thought, I could face myself in the mirror as a player.
Unbeknownst to me, Joel had been planning on this from the beginning.