The PHB II introduced the knight, a champion of the battlefield, effective in heavy armor and able to challenge the field's strongest opponent. Looking for these strengths in an evil-aligned character? Champions of Ruin's vengeance knight may just be the way to go--and its designer, Wil Upchurch, explains how.
The vengeance knight prestige class from Champions of Ruin makes an already effective fighter into a brutal killing machine. They hunt their master's enemies relentlessly and pursue opponents in personal combat until one or the other no longer breathes the same air. The vengeance knight's single-mindedness can be his greatest strength, but it can also be a glaring liability to a party whose goals diverge too far from the task to which he has been set.
In the following article, we examine the genesis of the vengeance knight, and offer strategy for effective adopting this prestige class.
As I said in my last article, Champions of Ruin gave me the opportunity to view the Realms through the lens of evil player characters, rather than within the traditional heroic PC/villainous NPC paradigm. It's fun (and feels slightly devious after all these years of having my PCs protect the Realms) to give players the tools to try and dominate Faerun, to crush all good and civilized opposition, and to clear the way of any do-gooders that have plans to get in their way.
When you conjure heroic images, one of the most powerful archetypes is that of the knight, dressed in full armor defending the weak and helpless against great evils no matter the peril. Of course, the reverse is the black knight, a selfish bully who uses his strength and training to dominate all those around him. In between those two extremes lies a wealth of interpretations and gradations of the knight's code. You've got the hedge knight, a wanderer who protects travelers for money; the country knight who protects and leads his home region out of a sense of duty; or the crusading knight, a landed servant of the king who fights abroad for gold and glory.
Since knights are archetypal, I knew I wanted to include some variation in Champions of Ruin. After all, just because the players will be taking on anti-heroic or even villainous roles doesn't mean they're not going to be driven by the same core desires. Some players enjoy tying their character to an ideology, organization, or strong leader--something greater than themselves that they exalt by adventuring and acting upon their principles.
From Concept to Execution
The Dungeon Master's Guide already presented D&D's version of the black knight in the blackguard, and I didn't want to step on its toes. An anti-heroic hedge knight was not that interesting a concept, and a bit too generic for a Forgotten Realms book, so I shied away from that route. I finally decided to tie the knight to an organization, so that he'd have somewhere from which to derive his code of behavior. I've always loved the Lands of Intrigue, and felt like they were getting a bit shortchanged with the new edition, so I looked there for inspiration--and found the Knights of the Shield. A group like that, with its long-ranging mercantile interests and powerful rivals (the Rundeen, the Shadow Thieves, and others), could definitely use some independent enforcers that worked alone and ranged out all over the Knights' territory.
Once again, the idea was formed, but a prestige class's abilities are of equal importance to its background and role. How could I make this class knightly, flavorful, and innovative? I really had two things in mind when I started determining the vengeance knight's abilities: he should excel at things that are traditionally knightly, and he should be able to stand on his own against anything his employers sent him up against. The latter would prove especially problematic, since it's always difficult to prepare a combat class to fully stand against supernatural and magical threats.
Alleviating the difficulties of wearing heavy armor seemed a no-brainer to me, and was a stark way to mechanically link the class to its theme. Plus, I always wondered why there hadn't been a "heavy armor specialist" class presented before... so I decided to add one to the mix (although, named aptly enough, the PHB II's knight class tackles this heavy armor role as well).
After that, I focused on the vengeance knight's single-mindedness. Once they are set to a task, generally threatening or enacting physical violence on an enemy or debtor, they carry it out with dogged determination. I really wanted the notion that you might be a vengeance knight's target to carry with it a certain amount of fear and inevitability. The bringer of vengeance and counterstrike abilities are interesting because they reward the vengeance knight that picks (or is given) a target and sticks to that foe until it is dead, or at least properly intimidated.
Finally, in order to help them guard against magical domination and firepower, I gave the class the arcane backlash ability. Sure, it doesn't do that much damage, but it's a passive ability that's always functioning, and serves to put any opposition mage on notice--you're messing with someone who's soon going to turn his attention to you. As an intimidating effect, I thought it met this purpose well.
Becoming a Vengeance Knight
The vengeance knight is geared toward those players that want to feel like their characters are a part of the larger world, or who want their characters to be individualistic, goal-driven, and governed by a code or directive from above. You help keep your party's focus on the task at hand, and you raise their status (or at least that status born of fear) by your very presence. Here are the prerequisites for becoming a vengeance knight:
- Lawful evil, lawful neutral, or neutral evil alignment
- Base attack bonus +5
- Intimidate 6 ranks, Ride 4 ranks, Sense Motive 2 ranks
- Feats: Iron Will, Weapon Focus (any sword)
- Heavy armor and shield proficiency
This class forces you to at least focus some combat training with a sword, which is expected to be your primary weapon. You also have to be proficient with the armor and shield that you'll learn how to utilize better than others with similar training. Fighters are most commonly recruited by the Knights of the Shield, since they naturally fit most of the class's requirements, but ex-paladins and even blackguards seeking a new master have been known to take up the group's standard.
Playing a Classy Vengeance Knight
People who play great vengeance knights usually keep the following in mind:
Do What You Do Best
Your singular focus is a great strength... although it can also get you in trouble when you're outmatched but compelled to fight on. Look for opportunities to take advantage of your increased mobility in your armor. Attack on horseback when possible, or feign the weaknesses of a heavily armored opponent until your target overextends himself.
Know Your Limitations
Even though your saving throws are weak against most spells, mages don't worry you as much as other fighters because of your arcane backlash ability, which deters them from attempting too many targeted spells. Still, you should always have a backup plan in case your target has too many friends to deal with. Don't get overconfident in your armor, either--you're still going to be somewhat impaired next to someone in lighter or no armor.
Don't Lose Focus
Some of your best abilities kick in when you're fighting one opponent specifically, especially if it's a target you've been given by the Knights of the Shield or one of your temporary employers. Even if you don't have a specific target, you should look for the most powerful creature on the battlefield and attempt to isolate it in single combat (another comparative point to PHB II's knight). That makes it more likely that your counterstrike ability will kick in, allowing you to maximize your damage-dealing capability each round. You've likely got the best armor class in your party, anyway, so why not utilize it by occupying a major threat while they deal with any other threats that might distract you from your target.
Some Key Equipment
Vengeance knights must remain equipped with the best armor, shield, and sword that money can buy. Since they never know what kind of adversary they'll be asked to face next, they should also keep a variety of other magic and equipment around so they're ever prepared. Here are a few things to keep in mind when stocking up:
Armor All: Since you'll be in armor almost all of the time, it makes sense to pour as much into it as possible. Enhancement bonuses are important, but at the upper end it makes more sense to spend your money adding special abilities to the armor instead. After all, you're getting less benefit as a ratio from enhancement bonuses than armors with lower bonuses to AC. Slick armor will help you avoid one of the most effective ways to neutralize you--grappling. Invulnerability can help you build the image of being a juggernaut, and fortification lessens the chances of you being taken out of a fight with a lucky blow.
Don't forget your shield, either. Adding bashing to your shield synergizes well with the Improved Shield Bash feat, while dancing might free you up to use a larger sword in both hands to deal even greater damage. Enhancement bonuses to your shield also increase your AC at a cheaper rate than adding more to your armor.
Potions, Potions, Potions: Because you're going to need different abilities to deal with different targets--and your employers don't really care what dangers you face, just that you face them--the best way to stay prepared is by keeping a variety of potions on hand (besides, a masterwork potion belt is a must-have for front-line fighters anyway). Defensive potions such as shield of faith are good, while some potions such as enlarge person can help you intimidate your foes. Blur and displacement will help you survive, while haste and heroism can make you even more fearsome in melee combat. A variety of healing and effect removal (remove blindness/deafness, neutralize poison, remove curse, etc.) can help you deal with unexpected setbacks.
Have a feat progression you prefer for the exotic weapon master? Any additional advice you would include for this prestige class? Let us know, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Wil Upchurch is co-author of the acclaimed Midnight campaign setting, and a contributor to the Forgotten Realms and Dungeons & Dragons. There's pretty much nothing he won't write for money, and pretty much nobody who will pay him to do so. So, he spends most of his free time playing Dreamblade and evangelizing Nickel Creek.