Animate Dead is a powerful spell that is essential for any aspiring necromancer in D&D 5e.
Because this is such an important spell for necromancers, it’s important to get into the details of how it works.
After all, the first step to raising an undead army is knowing what you want to do with an undead army!
Whether you want to raise a family in peace or simply make a few friends, we’re heading to the cemetery. This is our guide to the Animate Dead spell in D&D 5e!
What is Animate Dead in D&D 5e
Animate Dead is a level 3 spell from the School of Necromancy.
If you’ve ever wanted to build your own army of undead minions, this spell is exactly where you start!
Whether you are animating skeletons or zombies depends on the remains that you are using to cast the spell.
For example, a pile of bones will become a skeleton warrior while the fresh corpse of a recently defeated enemy can become a zombie in your service.
The uses for these undead minions are virtually limitless.
In combat, they can throw out extra damage to your enemies while taking damage that would otherwise be inflicted on you or your allies.
But let’s get creative!
Maybe you know that there is a poison gas trap protecting some macguffin that you’re trying to acquire. Have your undead minions grab the item for you! It’s not like the poison gas is going to affect them anyway!
Need some guards while you and your party rest? Your minions don’t need sleep!
Want to trap enemies in one of your AoE spells (especially something like Cloudkill)? Have your not-quite-alive friends grapple your foes to keep them in place!
Don’t want to run errands? With a clever disguise and shopping list, your minions are like a really grim version of Instacart!
Whatever you can convey with simple orders, your minions are DYING to obey your every command. (Oh come on, you didn’t think I wouldn’t be making puns like that, did you?)
As always, we’ll provide the official spell description below from the 5e Player’s Handbook for reference and clarity.
Animate Dead – Spell Description
Spell Level: 3
Casting Time: 1 minute
Range: 10 feet
Target: A pile of bones or a corpse of a Medium or Small humanoid within range
Components: Verbal, Somatic, Materials (A drop of blood, a piece of flesh, and a pinch of bone dust)
This spell creates an undead servant. Choose a pile of bones or a corpse of a Medium or Small humanoid within range. The spell imbues the target with a foul mimicry of life, raising it as an undead creature. The target becomes a skeleton if you chose bones or a zombie if you chose a corpse (the GM has the creature’s game statistics).
On each of your turns, you can use a bonus action to mentally command any creature you made with this spell if the creature is within 60 feet of you (if you control multiple creatures, you can command any or all of them at the same time, issuing the same command to each one).
You decide what action the creature will take and where it will move during its next turn, or you can issue a general command, such as to guard a particular chamber or corridor. If you issue no commands, the creature only defends itself against hostile creatures. Once given an order, the creature continues to follow it until its task is complete.
The creature is under your control for 24 hours, after which it stops obeying any command you’ve given it. To maintain control of the creature for another 24 hours, you must cast this spell on the creature again before the current 24-hour period ends. This use of the spell reasserts your control over up to four creatures you have animated with this spell, rather than animating a new one.
At Higher Levels: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you animate or reassert control over two additional undead creatures for each slot level above 3rd. Each of the creatures must come from a different corpse or pile of bones.
Who Can Cast Animate Dead in D&D 5e?
Animate Dead appears on both the Cleric and Wizard spell lists. As such, any Cleric or Wizard can learn this spell, though it’s obviously a must-have for Necromancy Wizards.
However, there are a few subclasses that get Animate Dead as a bonus added to their spell list.
Circle of Spores Druids gain this spell, though I think that subclass leans towards a different way of flavoring the effect. Perhaps they aren’t animating the corpse so much as the fungal spores that inhabit it in a way like The Last of Us.
The other two subclasses feature in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and may or may not be allowed for players in your group.
The Oathbreaker Paladin and Death Domain Cleric subclasses also gain Animate Dead with their list of bonus spells.
Meanwhile, Warlocks can learn Animate Dead by taking the Undying Servitude option for one of their Eldritch Invocations. This option becomes available to Warlocks at level 5.
Finally, Bards can also choose to learn the Animate Dead with their Magical Secrets feature. While this is a bit of a weird option, maybe zombies can make good roadies?
How Does Animate Dead Actually Work?
So, you’re ready to raise some undead minions, eh?
First things first, you’re going to need some materials. Of course, by that, we’re talking about bones and/or corpses.
(Remember: the remains have to be of a humanoid that is/was either Medium or Small sized!)
For skeletons, you need bones. For zombies, you need corpses that haven’t entirely decomposed yet.
Keep in mind that you need a separate corpse or pile of bones for each creature. One corpse = one zombie minion and one pile of bones = one skeleton minion.
(For simplicity’s sake, we’re not going to get into dealing with “partial” materials…)
Make sure that all the… umm… materials… are within 10 feet of you and that you have a solid minute to cast the Animate Dead spell.
Once the spell is cast, your undead minions are animated and spring to something that loosely resembles life.
For the next 24 hours, the undead creatures are under your control.
To maintain control over your minions, you need to cast Animate Dead again before those 24 hours are up. This extends your control over up to four animated creatures for another 24 hours.
Casting Animate Dead at a higher level lets you animate up to two more corpses (or reassert control over existing minions) for each slot above level 3.
|Spell Level||New Minions||Reassert Control Over Up To…|
Commanding Your Undead Minions
Now that you’ve got your freshly animated corpses on their feet, it’s time to start giving them some orders!
First things first, you can only issue commands to your minions if they are within 60 feet of you. Thankfully, that’s a solid range.
Commanding your minions takes a bonus action. If you have multiple minions, you can command any number of them with this bonus action.
When a skeleton or zombie under your control goes beyond that 60 feet range, it is still under your control.
If you already gave it orders, it will continue to try to follow them to the best of its ability. You just can’t give it new orders until you are back within range.
Orders might be specific (“move to that spot and attack that creature”) or more general (“guard the party’s encampment.”)
To make sure that you keep things moving in combat, make sure that you know in advance what you’re having your minions do. When possible, try to put them into small groups to keep things simple when managing them.
Otherwise, the rest of the table might be staring daggers at you while you take your turn and then unique turns for each of your 12 zombies.
So now that we’ve covered how to animate your undead servants and how to command them, let’s talk about a seriously important consideration…
Maybe your party has come to accept the pack of undead that are traveling with you. Maybe they’ve even come to like them!
But the unassuming townspeople you encounter when you visit various cities and villages on your travels might have a different opinion. The city guards certainly will…
Because of this, you’ll want to make sure to disguise your undead minions.
You might be able to give them a glow-up if you or someone in the party is handy with a disguise kit. Though makeup might be slightly easier with zombies than skeletons.
Of course, you also can’t go wrong with dressing them up in some spare armor and a helmet that fully covers their face.
It’s probably not a bad idea to cast prestidigitation or something to help cover the smell as well.
Trust me: you’ll have a very difficult time making a good impression in a new town if the first thing they see is you leading a small horde of zombies up to their gates!
Is Animate Dead a Good Spell?
In my opinion, Animate Dead is somewhat of an “all or nothing” kind of spell.
Let me explain…
If you’re playing a necromancer, Animate Dead is an essential spell. Your whole schtick is building a force of undead minions to help you.
In that case, it makes sense to set aside a certain portion of your spell slots per day to maintain control over your existing minions.
Think of it like tax. You pay the tax to keep your undead allies standing upright and obeying your orders.
But what if you’re not a necromancer?
You might find some use for some undead servants in certain situations, but it might not be as economical to pay that “undead tax” in that case.
So now we’re wondering if that spell slot could better be used on something that you’ll get more regular use out of.
Animate Dead is a spell that heavily rewards patience and gradually building up your group of undead servants.
The true power of this spell lies in the number of minions that it can create for you.
FAQs – Animate Dead in D&D 5e
As we wind down this guide to the Animate Dead spell in D&D 5e, let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions.
Of course, feel free to reach out in the comments if you still have any questions. I’m always happy to help!
Is Animate Dead Permanent?
Yes and no…
When you animate a corpse, it stays under your control for 24 hours.
If you wish to maintain control of the undead that you have animated, you will need to cast Animate Dead again before that 24-hour timeframe is up.
As long as you keep casting Animate Dead to maintain the effect, your minions will stay up.
What Happens When Animate Dead Ends?
It’s ultimately up to your DM what happens when the Animate Dead spell ends.
In some cases, your DM might reason that the magic that is animating them simply stops and they fall to the ground.
However, the arcane magic that is used to animate corpses is some seriously intense stuff. I mean, what else would you expect when you’re upsetting the delicate balance between life and death?
It’s not unreasonable for a DM to instead reason that the zombie or skeleton fades into dust if you don’t maintain the magic that is keeping them animated.
How Many Times Can You Cast Animate Undead?
Animate Dead is not a concentration spell which means that the only real limit to how many times you can cast it is your number of spell slots.
Just make sure to factor in that you will be using some of those spell slots to keep the effect going.
More undead minions equals more spell slots to keep them functioning!
Does Animate Dead Require a Corpse?
One corpse results in one undead minion. The type of minion that you create depends on what corpse you’re using.
So, let’s say your party defeats a gang of three bandits. Casting Animate Dead as a level 4 spell, you can animate the corpses of all three bandits. They will rise as zombies.
Let’s instead say that you decide to go graverobbing like the feral ghoul that you are.
You pry open three coffins and find the skeletal remains of whoever was buried there. Casting Animate Dead as a level 4 spell, you animate all three corpses and gain three skeleton minions.
For a corpse to work with the Animate Dead spell, it has to satisfy two conditions:
- Belong to a humanoid creature.
- Be either Small or Medium in size.
So, you can’t use Animate Dead to raise the skeleton of a dead Frost Giant or Ogre, for example. Neither are humanoids (they’re giants), and both are larger than Medium size.
Can You Cast Animate Dead on a Player Character?
This is a question that never fails to make me laugh.
So… technically… nothing in the rules stops you from casting Animate Dead on the corpse of a deceased player character.
Of course, this is assuming that they were playing a Small or Medium sized Humanoid character. (They most likely were.)
However, this is when we get into table etiquette…
Your friend is probably upset (at least a little sad) as they mourn the loss of their character. One of the few things that can make the situation even more traumatic is to then see their character be raised as an undead abomination.
I once joked about mixing up the Animate Dead and Revivify spell in my group when one of our party members died. While the DM laughed, everyone else stared DAGGERS into my very soul until I clarified that I was truly just joking.
So while there’s no real mechanical reason that you can’t do this, remember the most important rule of any D&D table: don’t be a jerk.
Conclusion – Animate Dead in D&D 5e
I hope you’ve found this guide to the Animate Dead spell in D&D 5e helpful!
Got questions, a fun story about Animate Dead in your own games, or just a bone to pick? Let’s chat in the comments!
Subscribe To Tabletop Joab's Newsletter!
Subscribers get updates on all of the latest news, posts, and offerings from Tabletop Joab!