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Ecology of the Death Knight
by Matthew Sernett

“From the dark into the light,
From the small unto the great,
From the valleys dark I ride
O’er the hills to conquer fate!”
— “Horseman Springing,” Lilla Cabot Perry

None can win the war with death, but losing the war does not mean the combatants have seen their last battle. Warriors who wish to fight beyond the limitations of flesh and blood can seek a forbidden way to steal their souls from fate. The cost of this immortality is death, but the fearless few who pay this price become death’s allies. Indeed, death bestows power upon them. Their fleshless bones clad in skins of armor, their brittle fingers clasping weapons with a grip of iron, these knights of death take command of their souls and their destinies. When they charge from the shadowy afterlife into the lands of the living, death knights ride to wage war upon life itself.

History

The origin of the death knight lies in a period so ancient that only legends can speak of it with authority. Each race has its own version of the story.

For elves, the first death knight was a tragic figure who was tricked into becoming a death knight in order to win his love from the clutches of a rapacious rival. In this version, lies lead the story’s hero to death. His rival is not a villain. His lady doesn’t truly love him. The wicked fey creature who offers the hero a path to power leads him instead to damnation. After killing his apparent foe and learning the truth of his supposed love, the death knight embraces the flame of darkness in his heart by slaying the lady and turning his grief and rage upon the rest of the world.

To dwarves, the first death knight was a greedy king who could not release his grip on the throne. The king sullied his clan, his kingdom, and the many honored dead who passed on before him by seeking unnatural means of extending his life. Seeing foes and rivals everywhere, he arranged for his children, his relatives, and those who refused his commands to die in battle or exile. With no heirs and no kin, he claimed his throne for eternity by becoming a death knight and transforming his loyal retainers into undead servitors. Dwarven legend says the death knight still sits on his throne and rules over a kingdom of undead, entombed behind miles of rock by those few dwarves who escaped his reign alive.

Humans relate several competing legends of the first death knight, but all bear a common theme: A man or woman wanted power and received it, and with that dark power, the newly made death knight accomplished its goals. The death knight might have been tricked or cursed, but in these tales the means are unimportant when compared to the ends. Sometimes tragic, sometimes triumphant, these stories teach that great power allows the wielder to achieve great things, even if the price is cursed immortality.

Halfling legend tells what might be the oldest story of the first death knight, and the story is so simple it might be closest to the truth. They say the first death knight arose in service to Orcus, Demon Prince of Undead. The tale's protagonist, a human warrior of considerable skill and renown, was plagued with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance. When denied a position of power he felt was his right, he sought revenge but was denied satisfaction. Bloodied and disgraced, he fled to fell lands inhabited by demons. There he proved his worth to Orcus first by defeating the Demon Prince’s minions and then by killing Orcus’s enemies. When cultists of Orcus offered the man the power to avenge the slights against him, he readily accepted and became the first death knight.

Knowledge of the Death Knight

The following table shows the results of a Religion check as it relates to death knights.

Religion DC Result
15 Death knights are skeletal warriors who retain the intelligence and combat skills they had in life. They often lead other undead soldiers in a war against the living.
20 Death knights are warriors who chose to become undead. Often they have a specific goal or vendetta that provoked their transformations, but some simply fear the afterlife so much that they instead choose an eternal living death.
25 A death knight carries its soul in its weapon. This weapon has the power to become ghostly and pierce armor as if it was not there. If you take a death knight’s weapon, you weaken the knight. A death knight can also surround itself in a burst of unholy fire that burns the living and wreathes undead in dangerous green and black flames.
30 A death knight’s soul weapon weakens anyone else who wields it as long as the death knight has not been destroyed. If you break a death knight’s weapon, the knight can restore it with a touch. Death knights bolster nearby undead allies, so it’s best to separate the knight from its minions.

Becoming a Death Knight

Those who desire the dark powers of a death knight in death must first perform the proper ritual. Discovering the right ritual to become a death knight can be extraordinarily hazardous. Good-intentioned individuals often destroy copies when they find them, and the most fanatical will kill those who seek its secrets rather than allow knowledge of the ritual to spread. False rituals abound—traps laid for the unwise and unwary by those who seek souls for other dark purposes.

Despite this, working versions of the ritual exist, each with its own peculiar requirements. One ritual might simply demand that the performer sacrifice a loved one, while another might stipulate that the caster must die in battle at the hands of a foe while in a graveyard or tomb. Frequently, the supplicant must have spilled the blood of innocents with the weapon that will become the soul weapon.

The rarity of the true ritual drives many to seek it from a surer source, such as the cultists of Orcus. These vile madmen despise the gods and bow only to Orcus, who they believe will one day make eternal undead of them all. As worshipers of destruction, demons, and undeath, cultists of Orcus can never be trusted . . . but they enjoy seeing destructive undead unleashed upon the world, and few undead can be as dangerous as a death knight. The demands made of supplicants are a mystery, but the rites are terrible enough that even most Orcus cultists avoid this particular fate. Perhaps they do not feel worthy, or maybe, like many, they simply fear death.

Fear of death is a luxury those seeking undead knighthood cannot afford. Instead, they must seek death out. They must hunger for it. They must embrace death to gain its power. Through death, they become death.

Soul Weapons

The ritual to become a death knight tears the ritual caster’s soul from his body and binds it to the weapon used in the ritual. The ritual caster dies as the living parts of the body are consumed in unholy green fire. From that conflagration rise the soulless bones of the living person, guided by an evil intelligence that no longer needs a brain for its vile thoughts and an endless hatred that no longer requires a heart to drive its dark passion.

A soul weapon is similar to a lich’s phylactery in that the death knight’s soul resides there instead of in its body. But in most other ways, the soul weapon is the opposite of a phylactery. For a lich its phylactery is a weakness that allows its permanent destruction, but the soul weapon is the death knight’s greatest strength. A death knight literally wields its soul as a weapon. The soul weapon's strikes burn with death, and at the death knight's command it can become immaterial, passing through armor and shields to strike at its foes' unprotected flesh.

A death knight need never fear its soul weapon’s destruction, for with a thought the knight can restore the weapon to wholeness and unwholesome power. If the weapon is taken, a death knight becomes weakened and distracted, distraught by the loss of its soul and consumed by the need to recover it. However, no other creature can wield a death knight’s soul weapon without feeling despair, so few can withhold a soul weapon from a death knight indefinitely.

Physiology

Death knights have no flesh and blood and thus lack the needs of a living body. They are tireless warriors who only desire vengeance, conquest, and other bloody evils. Despite lacking muscle and heart, death knights maintain the strength and vigor they had in life.

Like many of the living dead, death knights can be destroyed by damaging their bodies. Although they feel little pain, enough punishment can break their bones. Unlike a lich, a death knight cannot take refuge in a phylactery, and it does not reform from its soul weapon. When its earthly body is destroyed, a death knight’s soul leaves its weapon and travels to whatever dire fate awaits it in the afterlife. None can say with assurance what happens to the souls of death knights. Some death knights might believe they know the fate of their souls, and that knowledge spurs them to maintain their undead existence by any means. For the rest, the afterlife is an intangible and terrifying unknown. If no devil or vile deity seizes a death knight’s soul, the knight can expect no quarter when its soul is weighed by the gods.

Psychology and Society

Those who seek knighthood in death tend to be courageous and ambitious individuals. Either loners or leaders in life, in death they become both, leading lesser undead but isolated from mortal society. A group of death knights might form a cadre of dark riders, but even among such a collusion of evil, one death knight typically assumes leadership over the rest. The most ancient among them might even have been the one to corrupt the rest, creating a society of undeath.

Although on rare occasions a person has been transformed into a death knight through accident, deception, or outside force, most death knights hunted for their undead fate. They might have been motivated by fear of the afterlife, but those who seek to deny gods or devils their souls cannot be considered cowards. Rather, the desire for knighthood in death stems largely from a desire for power. Those who become death knights are often already powerful warriors, so the temptation of undeath must offer them something mortality cannot: power unmitigated by age.

Most who turn to death as a means of power are frustrated in life, thwarted in their efforts to achieve their ambitions. Defeat is less tolerable than death, and they are willing to trade flesh and life for the power to avenge themselves or to accomplish a goal. Upon achieving unholy knighthood, such individuals relentlessly pursue the cause of their rage. Continued failure results in greater frustration and anger and drives the death knight to marshal superior forces. Since time has little meaning to a death knight, it might return for revenge generations after those who wronged it are buried and gone. Success provides a death knight only fleeting happiness, for after achieving its goal, a death knight can only look forward to a cold eternity of endless struggle.

Whatever their personalities in life, death knights become brooding and wrathful in death. They carry their souls in their bony hands, a constant reminder of a bargain that cannot be undone. For power to accomplish a single goal, death knights forego all other joys. That choice weighs upon its every immortal moment.

Newly made death knights and those who regret their decision usually act alone, but with time most death knights accept their status among the undead and use it as a tool for power. Death knights can command lesser undead, and though they will work with dim-witted creatures such as zombies, most prefer minions that can accept and act upon complex commands. In particular, death knights prefer the services of undead that behave like warriors. Humanoid skeletons, battle wights, and sword wraiths serve them well as foot soldiers, captains, and bodyguards.

Of course, death knights are rarely welcome among the living, and as they gather forces about themselves, they must stay on the move or find refuge lest an army be brought to bear upon them before they are ready for battle. A death knight might take command of a ruined castle, or it might raid and claim a fortress from its inhabitants. If the death knight thirsts for conquest, such conquered territory might become the heart of a dark empire. If the death knight is still marshalling forces or nursing anger about a past defeat, the fortress might remain a haunted ruin, a source of dark rumors and whispered tales.

Although the majority of death knights work alone or as leaders, some become followers to greater forces. Death knights who became undead unwillingly or at the behest of others attach themselves to a superior who shows great purpose and initiative. Sometimes this is another death knight, but it might be a powerful undead such as a lich or vampire, or even a mortal who holds influence over the undead. Death knights might serve another for years or even centuries, but most eventually turn against their erstwhile masters, waiting until they are weak due to some loss. A death knight’s loyalty and sense of honor can last far longer than any living person’s, but with its soul in hand as eternity stretches out before it, a death knight finds few promises worth keeping and morality a farce.

If a death knight makes any long-term connection with a creature, it is most likely to be with a favored mount. Few horses can stand to carry such a horror, but evil beasts such as nightmares and undead mounts willingly carry a death knight into battle. The teamwork necessary for rider and mount to act as one is often a death knight’s only source of lasting pleasure.

Monster Evolution

The death knight has been making fearsome appearances in Dungeons & Dragons games for over 25 years. Since its creation, the concept of the death knight has appeared in novels, role-playing games, and computer games.

Mechanics

Until 3rd Edition, the death knight changed little from its original form as envisioned by Charles Stross (also the creator of the githyanki) for the original Fiend Folio, published in 1981. Stross designed the death knight as an armor-wearing lich with a sword. It could cast eleven different spells, including wall of ice at will, a 20d6 fireball, and gate to bring in demon allies. When the death knight reappeared in 2nd Edition, it lost the gate spell but retained virtually every other aspect of its mechanics. The death knight’s translation into a template for 3rd Edition gave the lich some space by removing nearly all the death knight’s spells, but it didn’t really define the death knight as something other then an undead with a fear aura and 20d6 fiery blast.

In designing the death knight for 4th Edition, we originally developed the concept without including any kind of fiery blast or spellcasting. We wanted the death knight to feel more like an undead knight, so we gave it special weapon and shield abilities, an ability that activates when foes flank it, a special mount power, and a melee-oriented fear ability. Development of the concept stripped away some of the complexity, because the NPC that becomes a death knight should have interesting melee powers just like the NPC turned into a lich should have interesting spellcasting powers. The second design also brought back 3rd Edition’s abyssal blast and added undead leadership powers. Yet that version of the monster still didn’t feel right. It didn’t emphasize melee, and it felt too much like a lich because the death knights employed phylacteries.

The final mechanics for the death knight template are easy to use and reinforce the death knight as a significant melee threat. The melee-oriented abilities augment any capabilities the NPC already has, rather than making a DM choose between using a death knight power or an NPC power. The death knight retains its supernatural nature without having abilities that feel like spells, and it can be a great leader of undead without necessitating undead minions. The new soul weapon concept gives the death knight its own space in mechanics and story, bringing new life to this decades-old undead.

Appearance

The death knight has always been an armored warrior with a fleshless head, changing little in basic appearance since its original Fiend Folio depiction. The most significant change came with 3rd Edition’s Monster Manual II. There the death knight clearly had green fleshy forearms and appeared to have similarly colored skin on its face. For 4th Edition’s depiction, we returned to the classic appearance of the most famous image of a death knight, Keith Parkinson’s Lord Soth’s Charge. You can see one result of that effort on the cover of this issue.

Famous Death Knights

The first named death knight was Saint Kargoth, introduced in a 1983 Dragon article, but the most famous by far is Lord Soth of the Dragonlance campaign setting. Here’s a primer on some of the death knights D&D has named over the years.

Saint Kargoth: First introduced in Dragon and then adopted by the Greyhawk campaign setting, Saint Kargoth was a noble human knight who, along with thirteen fellow knights, became a death knight after being corrupted by Demogorgon. Kargoth was jealous that another knight was chosen to lead the Great Kingdom’s knight protectors, and his fury and envy lead him to seek the power of undeath to pursue his revenge. He became a hero to the worshipers of Hextor, hence his appellation as a saint.

Lord Soth: Like Kargoth, Lord Soth was also a great knight, but Soth’s transformation into a death knight is a far more twisted tale. Soth’s wife gave birth to a monster that was a representation of Lord Soth’s soul. Thinking his wife had been unfaithful, Lord Soth murdered her and his child, even though Lord Soth was himself unfaithful to his wife. When his crime was discovered, Lord Soth was spirited away from his execution by knights loyal to him.

While besieged with his knights, Lord Soth was informed that he could save the world from a great cataclysm. He left to pursue the quest that would save the world, but he turned back when told lies about his new wife’s fidelity. Soth confronted his new wife and their child while the cataclysm occurred, refusing to save them from a fiery death. The fire that killed them engulfed the whole keep, killing Lord Soth and his allies, but the cursed Lord Soth arose as a death knight and his followers joined him in undeath.

Miltiades: Although not specifically referred to as a death knight, a skeletal undead paladin named Miltiades appears in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Cursed by Tyr, god of justice, after dishonorably slaying a foe, Miltiades sought to do good even after death. Tyr restored Miltiades to life after suitable heroics.

Savage Tide adventure path (Warning: spoilers below)

Sample Death Knights

Death knights can be used in many ways in a D&D game, as minions of a greater foe or as a main villain. As NPCs with an applied template, death knights have any number of options. Below are a few ideas to inspire you when you create a death knight for your game.

King of Brigadoon: The death knight might be the lord of a roaming fortress that appears at certain times in particular places. The death knight and his minions can threaten the PCs wherever they are, and the haunted ruin of the castle can offer an unexpected opportunity for exploration and adventure. It might be like Brigadoon, appearing for a time and then vanishing for years, or perhaps it’s like the flying citadel of Dragonlance fame. The Ravenloft setting offers obvious possibilities, but if your players are familiar with Lord Soth’s time in that land, you might want to try something different.

Ring Wraiths: In its initial inception D&D borrowed a lot from J.R.R. Tolkien, so consider borrowing a bit more. The ring wraiths, or Nazgûl, were kings transformed into undead by the corrupting influence of the rings they wore and the One Ring. However they came about, you can arrive at the awesome image of a half-dozen death knight charging across the landscape. Your dark riders might be a legion of evil seeking to bring their brand of justice to the PCs, or they might be the servants of a more powerful master.

The Headless Horseman: The Headless Horseman from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow could very well have been a death knight. A dejected death knight might become the unseen menace of an area that the PCs frequent. Based on the PCs' actions in the area, the death knight might gain a purpose and abandon random murders in favor of a more strategic effort against the PCs.

King Haggard: Like King Haggard in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, a death knight could be the lord of a desolate kingdom that guards something the PCs need. The death knight might even have mortal servants who are not evil but serve out of a sense of loyalty to the former living knight. Dealing with this minion of evil without unduly harming his misguided followers could present an interesting challenge to players.

The Black Knight: A death knight ably fills the role of a stereotypical Black Knight. This works best if you disguise the death knight’s status as an undead warrior, and the death knight works as an ally of the PCs for a time. Like some of the black knights of literature and legend, the death knight might follow a strict code of honor despite his villainous nature.

Genghis Khan: If you really want the death knight to make an impact on your players, put it at the head of an undead army. Your death knight might be like Genghis Kahn, gathering warriors of the conquered nations into its army as it moves. These warriors might be the dead of the conquered, risen as undead warriors, or even living warriors who believe that serving the death knight offers a better chance of survival than opposing it.

Blackrazor: The adventure White Plume Mountain introduced Blackrazor, a magic sword that stole a character's soul and made him subject to its whims. In your game, you might use Blackrazor or invent a different magic weapon that steals its wielder’s soul and transforms the person into a death knight. The magic weapon might be the true villain, with the death knight as its hapless pawn.

Lancelot and Guinevere: Consider pairing your death knight with an evil partner. Perhaps your death knight is a version of Lancelot who has fallen for an evil Guinevere, or your Guinevere might the death knight and Lancelot an evil lord. One might be a vampire or demon who leeches off of the unrequited love of the other. In a dark turn on the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is secretly a vampire or succubus who preys upon the enthralled king while her dark knight Lancelot does her bidding, turning the shining kingdom into a growing blight of darkness and despair.

About the Author

Matthew Sernett has been a designer of 4th Edition, the Editor-in-chief of Dragon Magazine, a pizza cook, an onion packer, and an assembly line worker in a spring factory. In 1999, while working for Men's Health Magazine, he narrowly avoided being a wardrobe tracker in the male fashion industry. He feels very fortunate to now be employed as a creative designer for Gleemax.