Dragon Encounters

Making dnd combat fun, finding monsters that fit together, monster tactics and strategies, and other ways of using the monsters of dungeons and dragons

DEATH KNIGHT 1: A Duel of Questionable Honor


Combat rating 20


1 Death knight (CR 17)

1 Young black dragon (CR 7)

3 Revenants (CR 5)


Combat rating 21


1 Death knight (CR 17)

1 Cambion (CR 5)

2 Erinyes (CR 12)


Combat rating 23


1 Death knight (CR 17)

2 Behirs (CR 11)

1 Mummy lord (CR 15)

1 Rakshasa (CR 13)


Combat rating 25


1 Death knight (CR 17)

1 Death tyrant (CR 14)

1 Vampire [warrior/spellcaster] (CR 15)

2 Iron Golems (CR 16)


This is the first of two death knight articles. This one uses him as a lesser boss, in the next one he’ll be the campaign’s big bad.

How to Use – Mounts

Before I get into the meat of the article, I want to discuss the death knight’s mounts. The Monster Manual tells us they ride skeleton warhorses and nightmares, but neither of them has the HP or the CR to survive a single round of battle with PCs capable of fighting a CR 17 death knight. I contemplated the idea of giving the death knight the mounted feat, in particular the part where the rider can direct damage aimed at the mount at himself, but the fact is that the death not does not have a lot of HP for his CR, he cannot afford to take double damage on every area-of-effect spell.

What can we do?

  • Have him only use his mount to arrive at the battle (and thereby make an impressive first impression.) After he arrives, he dismounts and fights on foot. Perhaps he announces that since his enemies are on foot, he will not hold an unfair advantage over them. Rather, he will fight them on foot. (This plays into the impression of honor that I’m going to be going with in this article.)
  • Upgrade the mount’s HP: For a nightmare, you can just use maximum HP instead of rolling for it. For a skeletal warhorse you’ll have to homebrew it. Five times its regular HP should do it. (Note that this raises the CR of the nightmare to 4, and of the skeletal warhorse to 2.)
  • Use a young black dragon (CR 7) as the mount. It’s the right size, and the personality and appearance would seem to fit.

Combat encounter: An “Honorable” Duel (difficulty 21)

Death Knight Characteristics: There are two parts of the death knight’s personality that particularly strike me, and this article will be built around them. The first is that the death knight, being a fallen paladin, still retains some vestiges of his former honor. At the very least, he wants to believe that he is honorable, and be seen as honorable. This sets a sort of trap for the players, who may be misled by his posturing and not protect themselves against the death knight properly. This will be explored further in the continuation.

The other noteworthy feature of the death knight is that he is used to being proactive. He seeks out evil, or enemies. He doesn’t wait for them to come to him. This means that even now, turned into the enemy himself, he isn’t going to wait in some castle for the heroes to fight their way past his defenses. He’s going to go out to them.

He won’t necessarily go after them as soon as they arrive at his territory, as he doesn’t have the time to chase down every single fool who tries to challenge him. As they gain in power and fame, he will probably send one or two of his more powerful minions to hunt them down, and if and when that fails, he will go after them himself.

(Don’t want a head villain who isn’t staying in the back of a dungeon? You may have chosen the wrong monster to use as your head villain. I would suggest making him a lieutenant, perhaps the second in command, and choosing something else as the head villain.)

If you still want him as a head villain, there are two ways to stop him from coming after the PCs. The first is to put him at the head of a conquering army, in which case he’s too busy to be able to challenge his opponents directly. This will be discussed in the next article. Unfortunately, this scenario also doesn’t have him inside a dungeon.

If you are going to put him inside a dungeon, put something of such importance that he feels the need to stay guarding it supersedes anything else. This can be a very intricate magical ritual that will take time [possibly even months] to complete, this can be watching over the body of a mentor or loved one, or this can be blocking a portal to an evil that is even greater than the death knight himself.

First Moves. [When going after the PCs]:His first approach to them will be a messenger bringing them his challenge, calling on them to face him in a duel and settle the matter face to face. (I would use a wraith for the messenger. Of all the monsters in the Monster Manual, I think it gives has the best vibe for this.)

If they refuse, he’ll plant a rumor of a special dungeon, or something else he thinks they’ll go for. The dungeon will be real, and when they leave it, low on HP, spell slots, and everything else, he’ll be there with a large force of monsters to greet them. [I’m going to be using wights. They’re too weak, but I can’t find anything else in the Monster Manual that fits better.]

I would have him challenge them to a duel then and there, and when they protest that it’s not fair as they are currently low on HP and whatever else he’ll concede and let them postpone it, providing they stay by him so that he can be sure of them keeping their word. Alternatively, you could simply have him insist that they come with him, to be prepared to duel him at dawn tomorrow. Whichever you think will work better with your players, or whichever idea you like more.

Either way, the rooms are large, well furbished, the accommodations and food and everything else is truly excellent, and the entire area is surrounded by high walls, locked gates, and patrolling undead. I would suggest you map it out, because if your players are smart, they will flee before the time of the duel.

If they get caught fleeing, or if they decide to fight their way out, the death knight will probably get summoned by his minions and be there to cut them off. If the players try to prevent him attacking them by announcing that they agree to the duel after all, He might be willing, but he’ll insist on splitting them up until the duel. This will very possibly put an end to all escape attempts, especially as they only have so long until the duel and need to long rest, but you should probably have a map of the area ready anyhow. (If they do escape, I’ll have a description of how he comes after them below.)

The Duel, setting of: Choose a setting which you think is appropriate. I personally favor an open area at the side of a forest, with the place where the duel will take place being paved with wide flagstones and being right next to the forest. Crack of dawn or shortly before dusk, if you can manage it.

Death Knight’s strategy: As the host, the death knight will be setting the rules, the first of them being that he will be dueling one of them, the one that he identifies as the leader. [He’ll choose a fighter or paladin, with a barbarian or pact of the blade warlock being a backup choice if none of the players are fighters or paladins.] If [when] the players protest, he’ll remind them that a duel was stated from the start, and a duel is a one-on-one fight.

(This is the first trap, by the way. It’s extremely unlikely that even a level 20 character can beat a death knight on his own. If they didn’t manage to avoid the duel, their best chance is finding a subtle way to cheat.) If the players are low enough level that he can be certain of beating two at once, he might agree to fight two, but that’s it. Both of the ones he fights will be melee. [He might even suggest the idea of fighting two at once, if he’s certain of victory. This will be under the pretense of making it a fair fight.]

You can decide whether the casters are allowed to buff the combatants before the combat. Probably not, unless he’s sure of victory and therefore doesn’t mind. Likewise, whether or not they can take a round to cast buff spells on themselves will depend how useful it seems likely to be for them, and on whether you want to have the death knight use magic weapon or elemental weapon. [If you do, have him cast it two levels higher to give himself +2 to hit. The extra chance to hit is the only reason to use these spells. He does enough damage without spell aid, and his strike spells can add far more damage than these spells will add.]

If the players refuse to duel him, use command [“approach”] to force them to come.

During the duel he will have his wights spread out, so as not to make them vulnerable to an area-of-effect spell should the spell casters decide to intervene. A few of the wights will be posted between to dueling area and the other PCs, to stop anyone from joining and to stop the duelers from leaving. A few more wights will be assigned to the spellcasters, ready to attack them if they see them starting to cast a spell. You can decide whether the wights watch them properly, or whether they let themselves get distracted by the fight and the prospect of bloodshed.

The death knight’s actions: The death knight will attack the dueling player[s]. If he loses concentration on magic weapon / elemental weapon he’ll switch to using his strike spells, boosting them with higher spell slots as much as possible. I would have him keep one fifth-level and one third-level slot in reserve [for a boosted Banishment and a boosted Hold Person, respectively. See the continuation.] Except for that, don’t hold back.

He will be flexible with the rules as it suits him. If the dueler[s] cast a spell of a type which he feels is unfit for a duel [meaning, which he can state is different than the type of spells he uses] he’ll cast Hold Person, using a third level spell slot if fighting two opponents, and then step out of range before casting Dispel Magic to get rid of the PC’s spell. If he doesn’t have a spell slot to spare for dispel magic, he’ll simply continue to hold them until the spell expires.

Likewise, if he sees an advantage to slowing down the combat, perhaps to cause a dueling barbarian to lose his rage, for example, he’ll wait until he can find a valid excuse and then pause the fight with Hold Person in order to discuss it. He will take an attack of opportunity or two when doing this, but given that he can parry one attack a round this isn’t so costly. Also, it will give him an opportunity to tell them off for their lowly methods in attacking a retreating opponent.

When doing all this, it is important that you find justifiable reasons for what he’s doing. One of his biggest weapons is that the players not realize that he’s cheating, and are thus motivated to fight him fairly. Even if the players are already cheating, it will make them hesitate and be less sure of themselves.

If the other players interfere too much, he can always use Hold Person to step back and then cast Banishment on the interfering players. [Possibly casting it from a fifth-level slot, if he needs to target two PCs.] Since casting banishment will cause the hold person spell to end, he’ll wave two of his attending wights to step between him and the dueling PC[’s] while he does it. (They can’t attack the PCs, obviously, so they’ll take the dodge action just in case the PCs attack them.) I would also use the wight’s this way should the PCs make their initial save against Hold Person.

Players’ Defeat scenario: If the death knight wins the duel, he’ll turn to the other PCs. If they behaved themselves during the duel, he might agree to let them go, after they swear to him that they will never seek to go against him again. If so, they’ll be escorted out of his lands [his kingdom, not just his castle] and told that they are banished from the land, under pain of death should they ever return.

If they interfered during the duel, or if they refuse to swear, he’ll send his wights to seize them and throw them in the dungeon. If they fight back, or if they’re actively fighting at the time he wins the duel, he’ll join the fight himself, and he’ll start it by hurling his hellfire orb at them.

Strategy Outside a Duel: If they ran away from his duel, he will seek to hunt them down. He will spread out minions looking for them, and if and when he catches them, his tactics are simple.

First, throw the hellfire orb at them. This is excellent for getting them out of a building or other enclosed area, as it will set fire to the place and force them out. He’ll be at the front of his forces, and his Destructive Wave allows him to knock the players down and give his minions advantage on their attacks. (If he uses Magic Weapon or Elemental Weapon, it will be to give an already powerful minion a boost, as there’s no point in casting it on himself when the soonest that he’ll possibly make a melee attack is the third round of combat.)

After that, his best choice is to use his smites, and maybe Banishment to get rid of one or two PCs for a while (although Banishment is a powerful spell, so you’ll have to decide if you want to use it.) And finally, Hold Person can be used to stop them from fleeing, as they’ll turn back to help each other. On the other hand, if they’re fleeing they’re almost certainly defeated, so as a DM you might not want to do that.

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About Me

I have been a DM for several years, and I was designing home RPG games since my young childhood. I have been a fan of many different types of games (computer, board, RPG, and more) and have designed several for my own entertainment. This is my first attempt to produce game content for a wider audience.