This is the second half of the death knight article. This is how to use a death knight if you want him to be the main villain of a campaign.
At the Head of an Army: Combat Encounter 2&3 (difficulty 23)
The most common way for a death knight to appear, at least when you want to use him as the head villain, is leading an army across the land on a war of conquest.
This actually gives way to two different possible climaxes, the one where they stop his army and end up agreeing to a duel to break a stalemate, and one where they fight their way through his army and have to bring him down as the climax. While I’m not going to give these scenarios quite as through a treatment as I did the last scenario, they do deserve to be discussed.
First, however, as part of a campaign, there should be multiple quests before they reach the main event. Some of the obvious quest hooks will be:
Making Alliances: In order to have troops to wage war with, they’ll have to convince various kings, generals, etc.’ to join up with them. This can require ridding them of other, lesser threats in order to free up their armies to march, obtaining items or such that they badly want and will be willing to join the war in order to receive, or performing lesser favors [quests] for people close to the leaders in order to gain influence in the inner circle. (Political bargaining would also be a distinct possibility, especially once they’ve made one or two alliances and have what to bargain with. Many players don’t like such things, however.)
Finding the Death Knight’s Weakness: The death knight can be brought back from the dead by his dark gods. While in the first, main combat scenario I preferred to ignore this (the text says that they can, not that they will. It makes sense that they would do something like that sparingly, as dark gods aren’t known for their generosity.) Over here, where the death knight is your campaign’s big bad, there’s no reason not to use it. (Besides, if they were ever going to resurrect anybody, it would be the champion that’s threatening the entire civilized world.)
Alternatively, they could need to find the weakness to his armies, or his strength. Perhaps he’s been raising the dead more than should be possible, or creating some nearly invincible type of undead, and they need to find a way to weaken his armies so they can be destroyed. Perhaps he has a different weapon or ability that they need to find a way to overcome. There are many possibilities.
Foiling the Death Knight’s Moves: Perhaps the death knight is after an item that will make him virtually invincible if he can get it, and they have to seize it before him. Perhaps he’s hoping to recruit a nearby kingdom by vanquishing a powerful monster for them, and the players can try to do it first. Very possibly the death knight will send assassins after some of the leaders that they recruited, and they find out about it somehow and have to race to stop them. (Or they could happen to be by these leaders when the assassins arrive, in which case it’s not a quest so much as an encounter.)
Slowing the Death Knight’s Advance: This can be seizing or destroying an important bridge or fortress, possibly before he has a chance to take it, possibly by overcoming the guards he left to protect it. This can also be finding an escape passage for an army that he has surrounded before they can be destroyed [or providing a diversion to enable their escape.] Or grabbing an item from the lands he’s just conquered before he can get his hands on it. (A cornucopia seems great for this. It can provide food for an army, making it vitally important, and it’s not something that will make the players overpowered if they want to keep it.)
This last category of quests is often used for very short quests at the beginning of the campaign, [so that the players can feel involved with the death knight right away,] and perhaps in between longer quests involving the first three categories [so that the story doesn’t seem to be moving completely away from the death knight.]
With this last category of quests, and sometimes with the other categories, you might find it necessary to give them soldiers to help them. Mass combat is, unfortunately, a vast subject that I cannot possibly cover here. I will note that with some fights, you can give the players the role of elite commandoes, sending them to lead the assault while the other soldiers are responsible for protecting the flanks and holding the ground after the players capture it.
This might or might not work in every situation, but when it does it gives you a normal sized battle that can be run like a standard D&D battle without forcing you to create extra rules and/or slow the combat down considerably due to having large number of combatants. You will want to throw in descriptions showing brief scenes from the other fighting occasionally, to help keep up the feeling that they’re part of something larger.
Ending the Death Knight Campaign: The Boss Fight
This campaign can be brought to an end in several ways, two of which stand out to me as the most probable. The duel and the battle.
In this scenario, the players and their allies have met the death knight’s armies in battle. They’ve forced them to a standstill, but the death knight’s armies are still considerable, and taking them down would mean months of extended fighting. In order to break the stalemate, one side or another will propose a duel. (This strikes me as an idea likely to come from the death knight, but you can do it either way.)
Unlike in the duel described earlier, over here the death knight is not in charge and cannot set the terms. This means that if he’s going to cheat, it will have to be more flagrantly. (You don’t have to have him cheat, but the fight will be a bit anti-climactic if he plays fair. I’m assuming that the players are strong enough to beat him in a fair fight, of course.)
First, the actual duel rules. The players are all going to want to fight him, and unlike above he doesn’t have the authority to refuse them. He will be able to insist that he should have a number of fighters on his side equal to the players’ number.
For the other fighters, I would suggest a vampire mage to counteract the players’ mages. Then the rest can be revenants. I might give them elemental weapons, though, both to look more impressive and to boost their CR a bit. (Even if the elemental weapon spell is cast from a level five spell slot, which I would suggest, it shouldn’t boost their CR by more than one number, if that.) The spelled weapons are either magic weapons, or cast by allies that aren’t in the battle. The death knight can’t afford the give up his concentration for this.
Forms of Cheating: Among the ways the death knight can cheat are if he has a spellcaster hidden nearby to buff his side of the fight. Abjuration spells cast on one’s own side are very hard to detect. You can have the spellcaster reach his position using an invisibility spell, but once he starts to interfere, he’ll have to be hidden. (You’ll describe the terrain around the area briefly before the battle.) I wouldn’t let him cast while invisible using greater invisibility as that will be almost impossible for the players to detect and thereby counter.
You might also want to make a show of both sides casting dispel magic on each other before the battle, so that they know that the death knight’s side doesn’t have these spells on them from before the battle.
(The death knight keeps a very deliberate blindness about this cheating. As in, he very carefully doesn’t know that this minion of his cheats to help him out. Sometimes he rewards him for ‘no reason’ and remarks to him about important battles or duels that are about to take place, but that’s just out of ‘friendship’.)
The other cheat that the death knight might use is as follows: It’s heard of for duelers to bring some people with them, to stand near them and be ready to interfere if anyone breaks the rules. Like in the first duel, the death knight might interpret the rules of the duel as he sees fit, and his people are ready to charge in as soon as he calls on them. (They’re used to the other side not following the rules. This happens a lot, especially seeing as how flexible to rules are.)
(The players will have an equal number of people, but they won’t be as ready and won’t join in until a round after. This can make quite a difference.)
You can also set rules about what the capabilities of these people are allowed to be, and the death knight adjusts these rules as suits him. For example, if could be agreed that spellcasters can’t be allowed to be among these people, out of concern that they’ll interfere in the duel secretly, and the death knight will privately decide that half-casters don’t count without telling the players. Or he can rely on a magic object that prevents spellcasting that one of his people is wearing to make that person not a spell caster. Then, that minion will remove it immediately, but that’s okay because the players cheated first.
Cutting Off the Army’s Head: The other way to end a death knight campaign is to have the allies the players gathered be not quite enough to defeat the death knight’s forces (especially given that he can reinforce his units with animating the corpses of the fallen and with demon/devil summonings.)
Instead, possibly after one or two battles (necessary to stop him from capturing key points, but mostly necessary because the players will want to use the army they gathered) they come to a combat where their allies are going to cut off the death knight from the rest of his army and give the players a brief window to finish him off (and in doing so defeat his army.)
The final battle will involve the players, and possibly a handful of NPC soldiers, against the death knight and his guards. It seems reasonable that the death knight won’t have gotten completely separated from his minions, and will have at least a handful around him. This is also important because Destructive Wave is primarily useful when there are other fighters ready to rush in and take advantage of the enemy being knocked prone. I would probably lead with this spell, to get the most milage out of it when he still has most of his troops left.
I already suggested in my aaracockra article that when you have multiple friendly NPCs, you roll all at once to see how many of them hit and then just distribute the damage out however seems best. Also, that you use average damage instead of rolling for damage on their attacks, and that these rules apply to attacks made against them as well.
Because the death knight is so dependent on minions, you might want to homebrew a way for him to summon minions [once only] during this battle, just in case he loses his original minions too quickly. This is also necessary because once he loses his minions, the fight will go from epic and suspenseful to one where he’s lost and the players just have to actualize it. The summoning can be accomplished via a magic item, if you don’t want to adjust the death knight’s abilities.
Summoning the minions should probably be accomplished with a bonus action, as if he uses up a turn to summon them it might backfire against him.
If you want an epic finale, here are two endings to choose from:
- When the death knight is down to 50-60 HP, he throws his hellfire orb at the soldiers keeping the rest of his army at bay. This tears enough of a break in their ranks that a whole bunch of the death knight’s minions break through, and gathering them around him, the death knight starts to retreat. The players have to throw caution to the winds and push forward to inflict the final amount of damage on the death knight before he can complete his retreat. (This climax works best with a DM who is willing to be flexible with the rules and adjust them a little, as necessary.)
- Based on what I suggested earlier, that a special way needs to be found to kill the death knight so that he won’t just resurrect. The death knight, when he sees he’s about to die, summons his hellfire orb and holds it aloft. It is going to explode at the beginning of his next turn. The players have to make a concerted effort to finish the death knight off before that can happen, as the hellfire orb will kill the death knight, and he will later be revived from such a death. This climax requires that the death knight have some minions left, through summoning if necessary, or there won’t be much challenge to this fight.