Animate dead 5e guide – Raise your zombie army [2023]

If you want to have a mighty army of zombies or skeletons, Animate Dead 5e might be the shortcut you are looking for. This fun necromancy spell is a great way to give your party of adventurers a slight boost and make the fight more in your favor. But, of course, if you are a DM, you already know Animate Dead is extremely useful in 5e.

From the perspective of a Dungeon Master, I will tell you how you can use Animate Dead in 5e Dungeons and Dragons. I will also give you a couple of worthwhile scenarios where this magic shines.

What is animate dead 5e 

  • Animate a dead body into a zombie or skeleton
  • A corpse becomes a zombie minion
  • Bones will become a skeleton minion
  • Use a Bonus action to command the creature
  • You lose control of the minion after 24 hour

Both bones and corpses work

This Dungeons and Dragons magical spell reanimates a dead body into an undead minion loyal to the caster and follows their commands. The minions you can get from animate dead are a skeleton or a zombie. 

You need to target the remains, the body or bones, of a medium or small-sized humanoid for it to work. A creature targeted with disintegrating won’t work.

Then, depending on the target’s left, you will either get a skeleton minion or a zombie minion. Dungeon Masters will thus need to say if the remains are bones or a corpse. 

animate dead skeleton 5e

Commanding the animated dead

The caster can use their bonus action to command the undead creature. You do not need to say the commands aloud, but your servant needs to be within 60 feet to work. 

When you have cast animate dead in 5e, a ‘timer starts to run. The creature you have animated will stop listening to your commands after 24 hours. You will need to recast animate dead before those 24 hours run out, or you will lose control. If you lose power, you will need to cast it on another target. 

You can have more than one target to use this spell. So for every spell slot over level 3, you control two extra undead! So that means at the 4th spell slot, you can control 3, and at the 5th, you can manage five undead minions

What happens when the magic wears off

When animate dead wears off after your monster is defeated or the 24 hours are over, a couple of scenarios might happen. The most common is that the creature returns to its natural state: being dead. I make the creature turn to dust; my players can not use it again. 

Sometimes, I make it ‘level’ up when an undead has defeated many enemies. If the spell wears off, I don’t make the creature turn to dust but give it its mind. It no longer accepts commands and either attacks the caster or tries to flee.

The last scenario is pretty fun if you set up a side-boss for your campaign. You can have your skeleton come back later, more robust and buffer! 

Use animate dead 5e on 15 creatures at once 

The max amount of undead you can have with animated dead in 5e is 15. You will have to put the spell in the 10th slot to get that many zombies or skeletons under your command. This increase is because every slot above the third gives you the ability to add two more creatures to your command.

So animate dead will give you one zombie or skeleton under your command for 24 hours in the third slot. When you put the spell in the 4th slot, you will be able to command three at once.

In the 5th slot, you will be able to have 5 of them at once. This slot makes 15 zombies or skeletons in total up to the tenth slot. You can also have a combination of the two if you have both bones and corpses. 

animate dead zombie

Animate dead 5e stats in DnD

SchoolSpell slotCasting timeRangeDurationComponents
Necromancy3rd1 minute10 feetInstantV, S, M
Animate dead 5e info

If you are already familiar with how magic works in Dungeons and Dragons, check out the animate dead 5e stat block at the end of the chapter. That block is a helpful summary for those already familiar with how spells work, components, etc. 

Level to use

Animate Dead is a level 3 necromancy spell. Necromancy is one of the schools of magic. There are many other schools, like the school of conjuration or illusion. 

Being a level 3 spell means you won’t have access to it right away. Animate dead gets more powerful if you put it in a higher slot than the third. The duration does not change, but the number of zombies and skeletons under your control quickly increases. If you put this spell in just one slot higher, the fourth, you will get two extra zombies or skeletons under your command. 

Casting time and duration

The casting time is the time needed to start and perform the spell. In the case of animate dead 5e, it will take you one minute, beginning to end, to have a servant under your control. When casting the spell, the corpse or bones will be animated into a skeleton or a zombie. 

Once the magic has taken effect, it will last 24 hours. After these 24 hours, you will no longer be able to command your undead servant. If you want to extend this duration, you will need to cast animate dead again on the target and reset the timer. If you don’t do this, the spell won’t affect anymore, and the creature will either go rogue or fall apart. 

Range of effect

The range to cast this magic is 10 feet. So the remains of a humanoid need to be 10 feet away from you at the most. If the bones or corpses are further away, you won’t be able to animate them. Remember that the range to command your undead servant is 60 feet, which is a lot additionally. 

If your undead goes outside the range of 60 feet, you won’t be able to give it any commands. That does not mean it will go rogue or start working altogether. It will try to do its final order, and if that is finished will try to get back to its master (the caster) and try and get a new 

Components needed

There are quite a couple of components needed to cast animate dead in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. I will discuss all of them here. You can find a concise summary in the stat block.

  • Verbal: You need to be able to say audible words to cast this magic. Your mouth needs to be able to produce an acoustic, understandable sound. So, physical and magical restrains could stop you from raising your undead army. 
  • Somatic: This is a fancy word for movement. Point at your target and make hand movements if you want to cast the spell. If your arms are bound by magic or by something like a bunch of ropes, you won’t be able to use the attack.
  • Materials: There are a few spells where you need to have some material. For example, for Catnap, you need a pinch of sand. Therefore, you need three different components for this magical sorcery. 

First, you will need to have a drop of blood. That drop of blood can be yours but also from a creature or an ally. 

Second, you need to have a piece of Flesh. A bit is vague, so I define this as something the size of your thumb in my campaigns. The origin of the Flesh does not matter. 

Last and third, you will need to have a pinch of bone dust. A pinch is another vague amount, so I put this at about 3 grams. 

Target of animate dead

 If you want to use this spell, you will need to find some skeletons or corpses of a humanoid creature to animate in DnD. If you’re going to have a skeleton as your servant, you will need to find bones. If your undead minion of choice is a zombie, you will need to find a corpse. 

It is important to remember that the effect only works on the corpses and bones of small and medium humanoid monsters. 

animated undead weak fire

Classes that can use Animate Dead

Two classes can use this necromancy magic. 

  • Wizard
  • Cleric

But, of course, nobody is stopping you from making your classes in a Homebrew campaign. I even recommend you do so! It is a ton of fun. 

The wizard and the cleric are the two classes that can use this necromancy spell. Since it is a level 3 spell, and you need an open spell slot for this, the earliest level a cleric and wizard can use animate dead is level 5. 

At that level, your wizard will have two open spell slots and thus be able to use this spell and another level. A great Homebrew class for magic in the necromancy school would be the Eldritch Knight. 

What are some undead monsters I can animate?

There is a lot of controversy on what you can and can not animate with this spell. As always, read the rules, and you will find out. The rules explicitly say that you can use this magic to raise undead from the remains (bones or a corpse) of a small and medium humanoid creature.

Undead MonsterResult when Animated with Animate Dead 5e
Zombie ogreCannot be animated; too large and a giant creature
Giant zombieCannot be animated; too large for the spell to work
LichCan be animated, but becomes a regular skeleton
Minotaur skeletonCan be animated; becomes a regular Minotaur skeleton
Minotaur zombieCan be animated; becomes a regular Minotaur zombie

So no, you can not start animating the bones of a massive dragon or have an undead ice elemental as your servant. You need to follow the rules. However, finding the rules and applying them to every monster can be challenging or time-consuming, so I have made a list of monsters my players frequently try to get under their command with this spell. 

1. Zombie ogre

I have bad news for you if you want to use animate dead 5e to make yourself a zombie ogre or an undead ogre. You can not use this spell. Animate Dead only works on small and medium humanoids. While yes, an ogre is a humanoid, it is simply too large. Furthermore, it is a giant creature, so the spell will have no effect.

Of course, you can ask your DM to change the rules and have the spell work on more giant creatures. However, I would advise you only to give this extra effect if you place it in a higher slot. I would even go so far as to say it should be put in the 9th or 10th spell slot if you want to animate an ogre or another giant creature. 

2. Giant zombie

You can not use animate dead to get giant zombies. The creature is too large for the spell to work. You can make a regular zombie if you have a small or medium humanoid corpse, but a giant corpse will not do. 

If you cast the spell, it will have no effect, and you will not have this undead zombie giant do your bidding! However, nobody stops you from doing a little Homebrew to tweak the rules. 

3. lich

So you have just beaten a lich, and you have a pile of bones. Liches are small and medium-sized creatures. Well, most of the time, they are. I am sure some campaigns out there use giant liches, but we aren’t talking about those. 

If you use animate dead 5e on a lich, you won’t get a lich under your command. Instead, you will have a regular skeleton without magic powers as your servant. Sorry to disappoint! 

4. Minotaur skeleton

Minotaurs are humanoids that are about 6 feet in height on average. They are medium-sized creatures. So if you come across the bones or corpse of a Minotaur, you can cast animate dead on it.

If you cast animate dead 5e on it, you will get a regular Minotaur skeleton or a regular Minotaur zombie. It won’t have the stats that it had in life. So keep this in mind before you get too enthusiastic about your new ally. 

animate dead

What alignment do zombies and skeletons have? 

In Dungeons and Dragons, skeletons and zombies are primarily aligned with evil. However, that is mainly because their masters who animate the dead (liches, necromancers, and wizards) are often evil.

In my campaigns, they are somewhat neutral beings with cravings like others. Like a cat will attack a rat, an undead will attack the living. Not out of any motivation, but due to it being instinctual. 

Is there good undead?

Of course, there is good undead too. If that undead gets the command to plant flowers or tend to the garden, a skeleton isn’t going to protest. It will just do what it has been commanded to do so. 

How powerful is Animate dead 5e? 

Now you know how the magic works; you indeed have some scenarios in mind on how to use it. As a Dungeon Master, I have seen my players do the craziest tricks and tactics with the undead. However, I have done my fair share of sneakiness to surprise unknowing and cocky adventuring parties.

Maximum UndeadUp to 15 undead minions can be controlled with Animate Dead in the 10th spell slot.
Practicality of SummoningSummoning that many undead at once is impractical; reanimating corpses in battle is preferred.
DurationThe spell lasts up to 24 hours, and it can be recast to maintain control over the undead.
ConvenienceReanimating corpses/skeletons encountered in the environment is more convenient than carrying them.
Equipment for UndeadThere are no explicit rules against equipping undead minions; it depends on DM’s discretion and fairness.

Up to 15 undead

While with animate dead 5e, you can have as many as 15 undead under your command. If you put it in the 10th spell slot, it is not as strong as it sounds. To have that many undead, you will need to cast the spell 15 times and prepare the bodies or skeletons.

So if you are playing as a death cleric or a necromancer and want to use this spell at the start of the fight, you will have to find a way to bring skeletons with you. You can do this with a portable hole or a good old cart full of corpses. Unfortunately, though, this is not the most practical solution. 

Always have backup allies

The most powerful and best use for animate undead is to use it during the battle or reanimate the very corpse and skeleton you come across and have them follow you around. You can dress them up if you do not want to raise too much suspicion. The spell lasts up to 24 hours, and you can just cast it again when it is about to run out. 

That will be a lot more convenient than carrying around the skeletons. Another good way is to use a couple of skeletons as a beast of burden. You can have one animated skeleton or zombie carry around a bag of bones for you to use later to have additional minions. 

Giving equipment to animated zombies and skeletons in 5e

There are no rules that you can not provide your undead minions with some excellent simple weapons. Just make sure that they have the actual levels to use it, and it will be fine.

From a Dungeon master perspective, there is nothing wrong with giving your skeletons and zombies a bit of extra equipment or making them into glorified pack mules for your items. 

The rules in 5e are pretty simple; if it is not explicitly forbidden and your Dungeon Master is okay with it, it is fine. The latter part of that can be tricky, depending on how strict or reasonable your DM is. Just try to keep it fair to keep the game enjoyable for everyone.

raise dead 5e

Animate dead FAQ

How do I start finding skeletons in DnD to animate?

The first option is to make them yourself. Then, defeat your enemies and turn them into skeletons. Unfortunately, this might be too much of a hassle, so you will have to rely on your Dungeon Master to litter his campaign with the occasional skeleton or two.

If you are close to a town or a city, there should be a graveyard of some kind. In some soils, it takes hundreds of years for bones to decompose. So even a small town will be more than enough for a nice inventory boost of skeletons or corpses for zombies. 

Can I animate objects with this spell?

No, this is not possible. The animate dead necromancy spell can only be used on creatures and humans that have been alive at some point and are now a corpse or a zombie. These creatures need to be humanoids and small or medium-sized. 
An object like a chair, a table, or even a suit of armor can not be animated. If you want to do this, you need to use another spell. 

What is the whistle of animate dead 5e?

The whistle is a magical item with the same effect as the animate dead. However, this trinket is not the only magical item that can do this. There is also the wand of the animate dead. These objects are a great way to use the spell if you are not a cleric or a wizard or if you do not have the required magic slot for the spell. 
In most cases, they are beginner items, so I would not give them out to my players as end-game rewards. However, you can have some villains in the beginning and middle of the campaign. And let them use these to buff the numbers of your minions. 

Can you cast animate dead on a player character?

In theory, you can. The player character needs to be dead and thus failed its final saving throw. Your player character’s remains will turn into either a skeleton or a zombie. This creature will not have any unique attributes and will be a regular undead without any memories of its previous life. 
So this is not a way to revive a player that has fallen or has an extra powerful PC in your party. It will be a regular skeleton or zombie without any additional stats. Even if your PC were a wizard, it wouldn’t have any magical powers.

What are the earliest level death clerics and wizards get this necromancy spell?

The earliest level a cleric or a wizard can get animated dead in 5e is at level 5. This limit is because the third-level spell slot is open. So the wizard will get two available spots here, and you will be able to put animate dead into one of them. 
A couple of other popular Homebrew classes can use this spell. However, you will need to check out the description of those races to find out the earliest level at which they can use this awesome necromancy. 

 Conclusion and summary

That was all you need to know about animate dead in 5e DnD! Do you enjoy playing as a necromancer, a lich, or a wizard that uses his skeleton and zombies to fight your battles? Then, you might be interested in my guide on healing undead 5e

Animate Dead 5e Spell SummaryDescription
Spell EffectReanimate a dead body into an undead minion (zombie or skeleton)
TargetMedium or small-sized humanoid remains (body or bones)
Commanding the UndeadUse a bonus action to command the undead minion within 60 feet
DurationControl lasts for 24 hours; recast before time expires to maintain control
Multiple TargetsHigher spell slots allow control over additional undead minions
Conclusion of the SpellUndead returns to natural state (dead or turns to dust); or gains autonomy
Maximum Undead MinionsUp to 15 zombies or skeletons with the spell in the 10th level slot
Combination of Zombies and SkeletonsBoth zombies and skeletons can be controlled if there are both corpses and bones

You can read all there is to know about getting your undead armies in top shape and the rules on using potions, healing magic, and so on, on creatures like ghouls, Ghasts, and more! 

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