I've been pondering this, and I'm curious to find out what potential issues could be created by even tightly licensed necromantic practices. Would the economy simply scale up to cover the extra workforce? Would this, essentially free, form of labour lead to a utopia of worklessness and free goods?

Edit for clarity: Yes, apologies, I intended the mindless dead. I've been pondering on the effects of raising Granddad for his weekly visit, but I think that touches on such a different issue that it deserves a separate question at some point. I've shuffle the non-economic issues away, to reappear as a purely social question on the same topic at a later time.

Double or triple edit, I forget: I've changed the question to make it clearer. I'll go for the economic here, and focus on the social elsewhere, including religious, political, cultural etc. I wonder how many questions I'm going to end up spinning this out to :D. I assume undead controlled with magic, so they essentially carry out the wishes of the necromancer, in the manner in which the task was requested. This doesn't prevent the undead from performing highly skilled tasks, but tends to limit it to tasks that could be performed by the necromancer, since their intention forms the action, and if they have no idea how to perform the action, the undead has no idea either.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome Rowan. Can you elaborate on your question a bit? I could assume that you are suggesting that raised zobmies, if publicly acceptable would be a free workforce but I do not like to assume. Please elaborate on your post. Also, you ask about 5 questions in this opening post, if you could try consolidating or narrowing the focus it would improve the question. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Oct 3, 2014 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ Do you want us to consider any religious turmoil from this event? How specific of instructions can the mindless dead perfrom? Are they restricted to grunt labor or can they perform any skilled functions, like carpentry or be scribes? $\endgroup$
    – Vulcronos
    Oct 3, 2014 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Vulcronos I think the question of skill vs manual labor begs the same distinction as mindless dead vs visiting relatives mentioned in the question $\endgroup$
    – Culyx
    Oct 3, 2014 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking about only the economic differences or do you want some elaboration on social changes as well - they're both quite big subjects, it'd be good to now how focused the question is, if it is. $\endgroup$
    – mechalynx
    Oct 3, 2014 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ How common is the necromancy skill -- can anybody do it, is it something that requires 10 years of post-doc training, or something in between? And does performing necromancy take any sort of toll on the one doing it? $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2014 at 21:23

4 Answers 4


I think a nice way to arrive at an answer is to replace "zombies" with "robots", to at least get a sense of the labor difference.

Since you've already established that they're not incapable of high-skill tasks and that performing them depends on the necromancer's skill, I'd parallelize it to robots being as skilled as their programming, thus as skilled as those who program them are at the task at hand and describing it (don't need 1 person programming - you can have a team, including experts).

If control is powered by magic, that means magic is a resource that, in economic terms, can be parallelized to electricity (or other forms of power). The big difference is building materials - with robots, you need to make them, with zombies you just need to have bodies around to raise.

  • If magic cannot be stored or replenished without nourishment, you're essentially looking at ranks of necromancers doing menial labor, which only solves the danger issues but doesn't really change the amount of labor needed much.
  • If magic can be stored, then it can be bought and exchanged. Depending on how easy it is to store, it can become a form of currency (although unlikely, since it wouldn't have the same value across those that can produce it themselves and others).
  • If magic can be generated through mechanical means, you have a whole separate market there, but probably not a big one (I would assume no bigger than catering for offices and workplaces).

So what we're looking at is an economy where we have super-cheap robots that aren't autonomous and always require an operator but can perform any human task. I don't really think that would make as much of a difference as might be expected. Did automated machinery have us work less? A bit maybe, but as menial tasks become easier, new jobs emerge. I'd expect however that upon standardization of this form of labor, a short economic boom of a decade (or two, at most) would be observed barring other advances due to said boom.

The real question is, how quick do zombies degrade and how often do you need to replenish them? Also, what is the economic effect of the demand on bodies?

I can think of a few of these:

  • People can sell dead relatives

    • The undertaking business might suffer a bit, but it's there for psychological reasons so maybe not too much
    • If lots of people die, the rest can get out of poverty faster? So a plague is a good thing? :P
  • Wars have a different kind of cost

    • The more dead you can collect and the better their condition, the larger your available work force for the rest of the war and the faster you can rebuild
    • Training and equipment might change to accommodate this; you want to kill the enemy, but not mess them up too much. You don't want your guys getting messed up either, unless they're caught. A lot of research, work and money can be put into developing equipment for these purposes, since the effects of using the dead can be economically quite high, especially if a society is dependent on undead labor.
    • Wars are already performed for economic reasons, so nothing changes there. However, handing over your own dead might be a means of negotiating a treaty, possibly having the victor gain all the advantages they gain anyway, plus a huge repository of dead people to work for them.
  • The amount of laborers increases faster than the population

    • People die and procreate at greater numbers with prosperity and less menial labor, but if zombies degrade slower than this rate, eventually you might have more than you can use. Labor export can be a thing and vast tourist attractions could be built using the excess labor.
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting. A different take on the issue there. I'm not sure I'm happy with all those parallels, but the issues you raise are solid enough. The degradation of corpses might actually mean that one body has several uses. A lifelike stage, when the corpse is fresh, followed by manual labour, as the fingers and whatnot decompose, and a final stage, during which only the skeletal remains... remain, and which can't really do physical or dextrous labour, but might do administrative work. Perhaps necromancers trade corpses to maintain a stable that complements the necromancer's own talents. Hmm... $\endgroup$
    – Rowanas
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ This is what I was coming here to say -- use robots as a parallel -- and you developed it nicely, in ways I hadn't thought of (particularly the military parts). Nice job. $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2014 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ It is important to note that one nation would probably steamroll the others as during the renaissance wars were commonplace. A nation would end up with a lot of corpses which in turn fuel its military might which in turn gives it more corpses and so on... zombie army? $\endgroup$
    – Joze
    May 7, 2015 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Joze Well, that assumes that said zombies are capable of the task of fighting. It's not a skill that, considering the time period, requires a massive amount of competence to do adequately when there is a huge amount of fodder infantry at one's disposal, but it does require speed and reflexes, which, if the controller isn't capable of executing at massive scales, would make a zombie army useless. It would also imply a tradeoff between economic and military power - would you want to waste zombies as war fodder or just use people that can, after they're killed, can help rebuild? $\endgroup$
    – mechalynx
    May 8, 2015 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx A plague still isn't a good thing for anyone but the necromancer. There would be so many bodies that they would have much less value to Necom Inc. (Trademarked) $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2016 at 3:11

Lets look at the labor "market" in this case, assuming we can buy/hire skeleton help at a base cost only; you purchase a skeleton laborer in the same way you would buy a tool like a hammer.

Lets also assume that we have transferable ownership (i.e. simply telling a skeleton who to obey, redirects their "who owns me" status) and that they can perform simple manual labor based on verbal or visual examples;

"Work the bellows."
"Plow this field with the skeleton horse and then plant corn."
"Chop this tree into fire wood and stack it by the barn."


Skilled labor remains valuable, casters, blacksmiths, and artists would still retain a viable economic place in society. Simpler jobs like plowing fields or harvesting crops would be less abundant/gone; you may still need a farmer to know when/what to plant but his work force would largely be undead.

This may result in (partial social quip here bear with me) unskilled labor only being valuable in death. If a poor family sends their strong son off to a necromancer to make a strong skeleton and they get a cut for providing the "materials." This creates a strange economic niche market; not body snatching but literally preparing to leave a "good corpse."

Question was Edited: I'll leave my original thoughts and expand here.

If the undead only can follow the will of the necromancer who created them then the economic model more closely resembles a rental or lawn care sevice you pay a company (the necromancer) to dispense workers (undead) to perform labor with a monthly fee.

I like this:

This doesn't prevent the undead from performing highly skilled tasks, but tends to limit it to tasks that could be performed by the necromancer, since their intention forms the action, and if they have no idea how to perform the action, the undead has no idea either.

It allows for some rather unique issues to arise, overconfident necromancer says he can do a task, his intention results in poor/comical issues as the undead try to interpret his will into a physical result. i.e. build a sailing ship...

If this magicly servitude is locked then other questions arise what do the undead do when their necromancer dies? Do they wander aimlessly? Does another company start up that offers to clean up "unbound" undead?

  • $\begingroup$ Heh, certainly an entertaining answer in places. I didn't want to specify anything about transfer of ownership, but yes, these things certainly alter the nature of the workforce. $\endgroup$
    – Rowanas
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:00

I like the answers already posted, but I want to cover a different aspect of this scenario: The necromancers themselves.

I'm assuming that whatever civilization you're talking about (okay, I guess I'll go with Renaissance Europe) has a lot of dead people. The problem is, a lot of dead people doesn't equate with a lot of necromancers. Especially when necromancy is licensed.

Let's say that necromancy springs up overnight - maybe Igor had a few too many drinks and began poking around Dr. Frankenstein's lab, and one thing led to another, and all of a sudden you have a couple necromancers walking around making zombies. The first thing that springs into your head: Instant labor force. Great, right? Millions of dead people, employers delighted to get around all the labor laws possible, and licenses available so the whole thing is legal. Awesome.

There is one thing you're in shortage of, though, and that is the necromancers themselves. Unless there's a secret society already in place in this civilization that's been practicing this black art for centuries, there probably aren't that many necromancers. And that's a problem.

How many of the un-dead can a necromancer reasonably manage at one time? Maybe ten? Great; assuming you have ten or so necromancers, you have 100 zombies - enough un-dead workers to fill an automobile factory or two. The point is, at the start of this movement, you'll only have a small number of workers.

Even if you have a lot of necromancers to start with, it will take a while to get the ball rolling (or even to give it a push). After all, the necromancers have to have licenses, right? So the governing body will have to work quickly to not only legalize necromancy, but give out licenses, too.

My point is that it will take a while for this new supply of labor to grow. It won't be a driving force in the economy for a while. You'll also need to train more necromancers - when you do, you might see the rise of a more powerful economic class, who eventually take a lot of power. But it'll take some time.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, yes, that is an interesting point. For the same reason as getting any other kind of licence is a pain, this would be too. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Rowanas
    Oct 5, 2014 at 20:12

Assuming that this is socially acceptable, the undead would do what no one else wanted to do. Much likes slaves in human history, they would take on the jobs that citizens feel are below them or not of interest.

Would the economy simply scale up to cover the extra workforce?

  • Free manual labor tends to do wonders for the economy, at least for those in control of the manual labor. Depending on the nature of the Necromancers, or those who control the necromancers in your example, it could be a boon for society as a whole or just for a few of the wealthy. Free labor is also usually great for gathering raw materials and infrastructure, road building, bridges, public works etc.

Would this, essentially free, form of labour lead to a utopia of worklessness and free goods?

  • Doubtful. Humans are in large part industrious for the sake of creating things. This is not a universal truth but a realistic claim. Free goods...probably not. Those that have something usually want something else in return for their goods. Like I mentioned in the other answer the disposition and benevolence of those that control the free labor play a huge part. Additionally if people don't have jobs, they don't have money and they can lash out at the perceived cause of that situation... zombies.

One last point. If you are trying to create a utopian world supported by this system, Necromancers would have to be VERY common to support the needs of the entire population.

  • $\begingroup$ That's a dark vision of our own future you put out there. I was rather hoping that if the cost of creating all goods and supplying all services were to drop to nothing, we'd all get an early retirement. I'm actually hoping not to create a utopia, because if I did, my roleplaying setting would be ruined :D $\endgroup$
    – Rowanas
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ Not necessarily Rowan. If we know nothing else about fantasy Utopias its that there is usually a dark secret or two behind their creation (most recently in my mind is FFXIII), and if nothing else, humans like to tear things down from time to time. Dostoevsky writes some interesting stuff about the "crystal edifice" that could be of use to you. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ I've read a lot of influential works, but I think if I read Dostoyevsky i'd have to smother myself with my own cravat. :P Honestly, as a vision of utopia, I prefer Brave New World. No real darkness to that Utopia, and that's what I think of when I think of Utopia. If it's got darkness, then it's only Utopia for the people living on the great cloudstriders, sipping oolong. Shadowrun would be a utopia if viewed from a penthouse suite. $\endgroup$
    – Rowanas
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ Well, Brave New World accomplishes it by narrowing down to the one person in the whole system that isn't happy. The society is perfect and blissful, but because of an error, one person in millions suffers misery, so we watch his story. Like any good tale, if there's even a single person on earth doing something exciting, we'll watch that person. I suppose there is no perfect utopia, or we really wouldn't read about it, save as an instruction or an example. $\endgroup$
    – Rowanas
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ @RowanKallioBaker-Whittaker I think you will find that most readers find Brave New World at least somewhat disturbing. The lack of ambition or even individuality in many of the characters leads many to not want to live in that Brave New World – nice for a visit, but we want to do something with our lives. And I certainly think the reader is intended to identify with those people not satisfied by the system – who, by the way, were plural, there were a few of them. $\endgroup$
    – KRyan
    Oct 3, 2014 at 20:13

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