Illustration Copyright 2008 Wizards of the Coast.

At last we come to another iconic D&D monster! If you’re following VoidDrifter’s thread on the Dragon Magazine monster articles, you can read about the history of Death Knights in the game here. The article was published before the Monster Manual came out, so here we finally get to see what 4e Death Knights look like.

They exist in both the Monster Manual and the Monster Vault.

The Lore

Death Knights share some similarities with liches, in that they’re people who became undead through a profane ritual so they could live forever. The main difference here is that they were great warriors instead of potent spellcasters. The ritual is also a bit different: instead of binding their soul to a phylactery, it binds it to their favored weapon, which becomes known as their Soul Weapon.

Death Knights retain the memories and abilities they had in life, but the ritual distorts their personality into something much nastier than it used to be. Not that they were all that nice to begin with, of course - becoming a Death Knight is a choice and the ritual itself is an extremely evil act. Still, it’s common for their to retain a twisted version of whatever code of honor they followed before. Maybe a Death Knight will wax poetic about how it fell from grace while it guts you.

You can expect them to always be superlative combatants and have great skill at leading troops. Even nonsapient skeletons become more dangerous under the command of a Death Knight.

If you manage to disarm them of their soul weapon, they become dazed and weakened, though anyone else who holds the weapon suffers the same effects. Destroying the weapon is useless - the knight can restore it with a touch. There’s no shortcut to destroying a Death Knight: you have to defeat them in combat. When they fall their soul weapons lose their special properties.

The ritual for turning someone into a death knight comes from Orcus himself. The agents of Orcus seek out legendary warriors who are reaching the end of their lives and tempt them with immortality. Others seek the ritual of their own volition.

The Numbers

“Death Knight” is actually a monster template, the first we’ve ran into here. The way 4e templates work is that they make a regular monster Elite and add a suite of thematic powers. You can technically add two templates together to make a Solo as well, with a few modifications to the process.

The detailed rules for adding HP and defenses from the template to a monster are a bit awkward. In practice, you’re better off making an Elite or Solo monster from scratch with the traits from the templates you want. We get two example Death Knights here, both of which have MM and MV versions.

Death Knight (Human Fighter)

Called just a “Death Knight” by the Monster Vault, this dapper fellow is a Level 17 Elite Soldier. The MM version has 264 HP, but the MV one has 324. In both cases it has darkvision, Resist 10 necrotic, and Vulnerable 10 Radiant, and moves with Speed 5 due to its heavy armor.

Power-wise, there’s quite a bit of ground to cover, so we’ll list things in the MV order, by action type.

The Death Knight has a passive trait called Marshal Undead, which gives any undead allies of level 17 or less within 10 squares of the knight a +2 to all attacks.

It attacks with its Soulsword, which in the MM does a mix of physical and necrotic damage plus extra necrotic damage on a hit. In the MV, it does a whole bunch of necrotic damage and marks the target for a turn even on a miss.

It can also use the sword to perform a Containing Strike, which is like the basic attack above but allows the knight to make a free attack against the target if they try to shift until the end of the next turn. The MM version is single-target, the MV version can target 1 or 2 creatures, making this the monster’s basic Elite multiattack ability.

Oncer per encounter it can use Warrior’s Challenge, which I believe is a Fighter power. It does encounter-power-level damage, pushes the target 2 squares, and marks every enemy within 2 squares of the target at the end of the push.

Finally, on a recharge 5-6, it can unleash Unholy Flames in a Close Burst 2, which does a heap of necrotic damage to enemies and gives 2d6 extra fire damage to the attacks of any undead allies for a turn.

The MM Death Knight also has a Second Wind it can use once per encounter to recover 66 HP. So that’s why tie MM version has less HP!

The Death Knight can punish marked targets like a fighter.

The MV version has one other triggered action: Implacable, which lets it make an immediate save against being marked, slowed, dazed, immobilized, or stunned. This means all of those effects have only a 40% chance of actually landing unless the party can try to apply them multiple times in a turn.

This monster works really well as the commander of an undead unit, and the suggested encounter features just that: Level 16, a death knight, 2 abyssal ghouls, and 2 sword wraiths. Perhaps these were the knight’s old subordinates, made into undead servitors as part of the ritual that transformed it.

Death Knight Blackguard

This MV-only variant is a Level 18 Elite Skirmisher with 338 HP. It mainly shows the advantage of dropping the somewhat rigid structure of templates and making your own monsters from scratch using them as guidelines.

It has the same darkvision and resistances as the classic Death Knight above, and exchanges Marshal Undead with Slayer of the Living, an Aura 3 that slides any enemy who ends its turn in the aura 3 squares. A handy tool for drawing in the squishies while keeping the defenders away.

Its basic attack is still the Soulsword, which here allows the knight to shift 2 squares before or after the attack instead of marking. It can use this attack twice in a turn, against different enemies.

It can also choose to do an at-will Overpowering Attack against 1 or 2 enemies, which slides them instead of shifting the knight.

The Blackguard possesses an Abyssal Blast encounter power that targets Reflex and does a heap of fire and necrotic damage to enemies in a Close Burst 5, or half damage on a miss.

As a minor action, it can use Chilling Glare to make one enemy within 5 squares automatically grant combat advantage for a turn.

And finally, the Blackguard is just as Implacable as the MV Death Knight.

Yeah, keeping any sort of formation while one of these is on the field is a hopeless endeavor. It becomes even more dangerous when paired with a classic death knight and a few other lesser undead, preferably ones that do nasty things if they get combat advantage, which it can give out freely.

Death Knight (Dragonborn Paladin)

This MM-only variant is a Level 25 Elite Soldier with 373 HP (466 if you add the Second Wind). It has darkvision, Resist 15 necrotic, and Vulnerable 15 radiant.

This Death Knight combines many of the powers of the classic model (which come from the template) with a few paladin-like attacks. This means it has the same Marhsal Undead aura and Unholy Flames burst. Being an MM-only monster it lacks Implacable.

Aside from the basic soulsword attack, it can use the Valiant Strike at-will power that gives it an extra +1 to the attack roll per adjacent enemy. It also has a Terrifying Smite encounter power that does extra damage, pushes the target 5 squares and prevents it from moving closer to the knight for a turn.

Its mark power is the paladin’s Divine Challenge, which lasts until the knight marks someone else and does a bit of automatic necrotic damage to targets that flout the mark.

This death knight features in the second suggested encounter of the Monster Manual entry, which is level 24 and has it accompanied by a fell wyvern, a great flameskull and a bunch of abyssal ghoul minions. It’s something you can expect when raiding Orcus’s neighborhood in the Abyss.

I can see why they fixed the paladin’s mark in Divine Power, and why they dropped much of the fiddly bits for adding templates. Not having any multiattack ability makes it a little less effective than an elite monster of its level should be. The lack of Implacable is also keenly felt. This is a bit disappointing since we’re probably looking at someone who had a direct hand in the fall of Arkhosia.