Monster Manual A-Z is a series of quick looks at each and every monster presented in the Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons 5e. New monsters go up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in alphabetical order, touching on lore, mechanics, and ways to use them in your campaign. To search for all Monster Manual A-Z articles, search MMAZ in the search bar as we’ve excluded them from our Roleplaying Games tag to keep things tidy.
We know that paladins, especially the self-righteous ones, can be jerks. But what you may not know is that paladins that fall from grace, die, and arise as a Death Knight are even bigger jerks. Once pious and holy, a Death Knight is the undead manifestation of a paladin who died before atoning for their misdeeds. Skeletal and clad in heavy armor, these dark monsters retain their divine abilities but lose the ability to use them to heal. They command undead, or occasionally fiends, and either serve themselves or more powerful masters. But perhaps the best trick in their book is their immortality; when they die they can keep arising anew until they decide to atone or seek redemption, at which point they can truly find peace in death.
The Death Knight is easily one of the toughest monsters we’ve taken a look at so far. A very high armor class, high it points, and a few damage and condition immunities promise to keep them alive for quite a while, even after suffering major blows from a group of adventurers. Furthering its defense is a resistance to overcome spells, and an aura that grants itself and surrounding undead with the ability to resist being turned. Add on top of that that it can parry, making it nearly impossible to hit in melee once per round, and you’ll find yourself hard-pressed to find a weak spot. For attacks, the Death Knight can make a trio of swings with its longsword, dealing extra necrotic damage to anyone unfortunate enough to be struck. And on top of that, once per day they can shoot a Hellfire Orb, which is a half-fire/half-necrotic explosion that can easily take down, if not outright kill adventurers who are not able to make it out of harm’s way. And still, the Death Knight has access to the magic it had in life; multiple spells of levels 1-5 make it as potent, if not more so, than it was in life. Spells that charm, compel, smite, dispel, and banish are all present and then some, making the Death Knight truly a dangerous foe for even the most experienced warriors.
As a very powerful, high level monster, there are both a lot and not so many ways to use a Death Knight. Obviously using them as a main villain, or a lieutenant of such a villain, are easy ways of implementing one toward the end of your campaign. But considering what a Death Knight is, it shouldn’t be hard to create a lower-level version of it to use whenever you want. Simply roll up a paladin of whatever level you wish, and apply the same immunities, abilities, and restrictions. And be sure to scale back the necrotic damage, number of attacks, and damage of the Hellfire Orb! If used in this capacity, they make a great lower level villain for the party to overcome, especially if a skeletal band serves under the command of the Death Knight. But going further than that, and either at their original power or altered for your game, perhaps there is another way to use them. Maybe after enough time tormenting the living, they have finally decided to seek out atonement to escape their purgatory. Maybe they’ve finally come around to making amends with the misdeeds they made while alive, shifting them slightly away from evil. And maybe, in order for them to succeed, they need to recover some powerful artifact or other piece of power than the players are also after. It will be easy for them to see the Death Knight as an evil enemy, when in reality all it wants to do is make up for past transgressions. There should be a lot of ways this can play out, and I urge you to give it some thought if this idea has piqued your interest.
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