Death Knight 5e: Stats & Tactics for These Anti-Paladins

Death Knight

Medium Undead, chaotic evil

AC 20 (plate, shield)

Hit Points 180 (19d8 + 95)

Speed 30 ft.

STR: 20(+5) DEX: 11(+0) CON: 20(+5)

INT: 12(+1) WIS: 16(+3) CHA: 18(+4)


Saving Throws: Dexterity +6, Wisdom +7, Charisma +10

Damage Immunities: Necrotic, Poison

Condition Immunities: Exhaustion, Frightened, Poisoned

Senses: Darkvision 120 ft., Passive Perception 13

Languages: Abyssal, Common (*I would add “any they knew in life” as well)

Challenge Rating: 17 (18,000 XP)


Magic Resistance. The death knight has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Marshall Undead. Unless the death knight is incapacitated, it and undead creatures of its choice within 60 feet of it have advantage on saving throws against features that turn undead.

Spellcasting. The death knight is a 19th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 18, +10 to hit with spell attacks). It has the following paladin spells prepared:

1st level (4 slots): command, compelled duel, searing smite

2nd level (3 slots): hold person, magic weapon

3rd level (3 slots): dispel magic, elemental weapon

4th level (3 slots): banishment, staggering smite 

5th level (2 slots): destructive wave (necrotic)


Actions

Multiattack. The death knight makes three longsword attacks.

Longsword. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 9 (1d8 + 5) slashing damage, or 10 (1d10 + 5) if used with two hands, plus 18 (4d8) necrotic damage.

Hellfire Orb (1/Day). The death knight hurls a magical ball of fire that explodes within 120 feet of it. Each creature in a 20-foot radius sphere centered on that point must make DC 18 Dexterity saving throw. The sphere spreads around corners. A creature takes 35 (10d6) fire damage and 35 (10d6) necrotic damage on a failed save, or half as much on a successful one.

Reactions

Parry. The death knight adds 6 to its AC against one melee attack that would hit it. To do so, the death knight must see the attacker and be wielding a melee weapon. 

What Is a Death Knight?

A death knight is a formidable undead creature capable of spellcasting and melee combat.

Having been powerful warriors in life, typically paladins, these knights serve the bidding of a powerful undead or fiend and often come along with a group of lesser undead or fiends.

If you’re coming across one of these, you’re probably not in for a good time.

Death knights are typically adorned in full plate armor, with two glowing orbs of light shining from beneath the visor of their helms. Beneath the armor lies a skeleton (or maybe some rotting flesh).

Aside from that general imagery, you’ll probably want to add some dark tones, insignias, hell, maybe even a cape.

Whatever you can do to make this knight feel important through visual representation alone is going to help you sell this as a meaningful character.

Like most undead, death knights were once living. Death knights are created when a paladin (or another warrior) who fell from grace dies before atoning for their sins.

The 5e Monster Manual provides a story about a paladin named Soth, who fell in love with another woman while he was married, became bitter and paranoid, and eventually killed himself, his lover, and his child in a fire.

It’s a pretty sad story, but it’s that kind of drama that makes storytelling in D&D so interesting. Death knights, in this way, are just as much an opportunity for great story development as they are an opportunity for a fearsome foe.

You see, death knights aren’t necessarily evil by choice, which makes them very compelling characters.

If you bring a demon into the campaign, they tend to be evil by nature and nurture, and there’s not a lot you can do to sway their mindset.

A death knight on the other hand? Well, you just have to make it through to the paladin that lost their way.

In fact, these wayward souls can actually be redeemed. While there aren’t any specific mechanics or directions within 5e for doing so, there is talk of it in 5e and previous editions.

All of it basically boils down to the death knight being an eternal being until they redeem themselves or atone for their actions.

This bit of consciousness puts death knights closer to liches than it does to your common zombie.

They are at least somewhat responsible for their own decision-making, although they are under the control of a more powerful being. This control is likely more of an allegiance/servitude situation, rather than a full-on thrawl.

How exactly a death knight’s journey towards redemption is treated at your table can vary greatly. Sometimes, these fearsome creatures make just that – fearsome creatures. 

DMing a Death Knight

Bringing a death knight into a campaign is a really big decision. With a challenge rating of 17, it means your players are definitely going to be in for a fight no matter what.

The big decision for you is whether the death knight is a tool for something even more powerful or if their story is the one we should be concerned with.

I think the main purpose of a death knight is to give your players an enemy to be truly afraid of. After all, what’s more terrifying than a hero gone bad? 

Death knights are many things, but when it comes to combat they are martial warriors, spellcasters, and commanders. These three components are what allow them to be such a terrifying force.

A Death Knight’s Soldiers

Depending on the benefactor of your death knight, they’ll either command a force of undead or a force of fiends. Remember, you don’t want these creatures to be too powerful; if they are, they’ll take away from the death knight. 

On its own, a death knight is a deadly encounter for a group of four players of 12th level or lower. If we want to add in more than a couple creatures, they’ll have to be pretty low CR.

Here are some options to spice up an encounter.

  • Skeleton/Zombie (Undead) CR ¼ – A few of these undead will make for good fodder alongside the death knight. 
  • Minotaur Skeleton (Undead) CR 2 – A couple of these are going to stay standing longer than several of the lesser undead would, but should still be no match for your players of level 10 or higher. They’ll definitely add some action economy to the opposing side though.
  • Flameskull (Undead) CR 4 – If the death knight is a servant to a powerful necromancer, a flameskull would be the perfect start to what can turn into a much larger encounter. These undead spellcaster skulls exist to protect something and follow their master’s instructions to the letter. One of those instructions could easily be: “bring in reinforcements.”
  • Abyssal Wretch (Fiend) CR ¼ – A death knight in servitude to a demon would likely have a group of these mutated humanoid demons at their service. Much like skeletons and zombies, they’re mindless creatures that fill up the action economy.
  • Rutterkin (Fiend) CR 2 – These are particularly annoying creatures because they have the ability to poison creatures and turn them into more abyssal wretches.
  • Imp (Fiend) CR 1 – Imps are always annoying, but several under the command of a death knight are even more so.
  • Spined Devil (Fiend) CR 2 – Just because these are lesser devils doesn’t mean they’re not a threat. They have magical resistance and make multiple attacks on a turn, making them dangerous even on their own.

Ensuring you’ve built a balanced combat can be tricky, but with tools like kobold fight club and a little bit of practice, you should be able to make encounters that are just the right amount of challenge for your party.

Hopefully, by the time you decide to bring death knights to the table, you’ll have gained that practice experience. Adding too many creatures to aid a knight can make for a very deadly encounter indeed.

As for the death knight themselves, they’ll want to balance between their melee attacks and their spells in much the same way that a paladin does.

As undead creatures, they have no access to healing spells, but the rest of their spellcasting portfolio is still going to be on full display. This means a lot of smiting and battlefield control.

Since they won’t have any way to regain spell slots during battle, they should be rather conservative, pulling out their spells when they need to gain strategic advantage or when they already have it. 

Since death knights don’t have layer actions or legendary actions, that’s where their forces come into play.

Much like a PC that’s cast Danse Macabre, the death knights’ underlings should all be working for them. You’ll want to use the smaller creatures as meat (or bone) shields for the death knight, pulling hits away from their leader. 

The smaller creatures can also be used to corral players. The death knight would use its minions as distractions so that they only have to deal with one PC at a time.

A Deathly Steed

From the Nazgul to Ghost Rider, grim riders tend to have skeletal steeds. Death knights are no exception and often come along with some sort of undead horse.

The two common variations are warhorse skeletons and nightmares.

On a warhorse skeleton, a death knight is just a mounted attacker with a better movement speed. The skeletal horse might also use its hooves if the opportunity presents itself.

On a nightmare, death knights become a lot more terrifying. They gain fire resistance thanks to the nightmare’s confer fire resistance ability.

Nightmares also have the ability to phase back and forth between the Ethereal and Material planes, meaning the death knight can disappear from one location and show up in an entirely new one. 

Putting a death knight on a horse is visually stunning but can totally change the cadence of a battle.

Having the knight get off the horse for more melee-centered combat is a wise idea, but you’ll want to work on a reason why they do so. 

If a death knight sees defeat as imminent, they will likely retreat to come back at another time.

Even if they are defeated, they can’t ever be fully destroyed until they have been redeemed. So, they’ll likely make return appearances with an even more deadly host of underlings. 

Storytelling With a Death Knight

Death knights don’t have to be a significant plot element. Like any creature, you can throw them at your players for a challenge and then forget about them.

However, you can also make a very compelling story centered around a redemption arch.

A death knight is immortal. No matter how many times and in how many ways they are destroyed, they will continue to come back to fight another day. That is, until they’ve managed to redeem themselves.

Since I think we can all agree that fighting heroes isn’t the best path for atonement, it’s a great idea to plan the basis for some sort of redemption arc.

This should include a bit of a backstory, detailing how exactly this tortured soul went from a paladin to whatever they are now.

Death knights tend to not be born from mundane oath breaking. Rather, there tends to be some sort of significant tragedy in the character’s path.

In the case of Soth, that is the murder of his lover and child. In his case, atoning isn’t as simple as righting his wrongs. This is likely true for a lot of death knights out there.

It’s your decision as to what counts for atonement, but for me, any significantly good deed should be enough.

Think of Darth Vader’s redemption. Simply throwing a very evil, very old dude down an unfathomably long shaft was enough to turn him back to the light side.

A death knight in your game might be redeemed by doing something heroic to save your PCs or another important character.

Death knights don’t have to have a happy ending, but it makes for great storytelling if they do. Otherwise, they’re just some scary piece of armor that is a real thorn in the sides of the adventurers.

If you’re looking for an undead creature that will scare the willies out of your players, a death knight is the perfect stop.

Even introducing them as a high-ranking henchman to the BBEG early on in the game and setting your players up for the eventual battle is enough to raise the blood pressure of everyone sitting around the table.

I hope you enjoy this creature as much as I do, and as always, happy adventuring.