I’ve been excited to dig into the Eberron setting for a long time, and I’m kicking things off with the bone knight—not an undead, as one might guess from the name, but a humanoid non-player character who can be of any folk. Champions of the Order of the Emerald Claw, a group of fanatical lost-cause nationalists led by a lich, bone knights get their name from their practice of forging armor from the bones of fallen foes. (Judging from the illustration in Eberron: Rising From the Last War, I think they like to sneak a little Punisher imagery in there, too.)
The ability contour of the bone knight isn’t cut-and-dried, since their two outstanding ability scores are Strength and Charisma. Their Constitution edges out their Dexterity, but just barely, and neither is unusually high. What this reminds me of more than anything else is a paladin whose player didn’t get the third high die roll he was hoping for and decided to go all in on offense. I conclude that bone knights fight like brutes, cast self-buffing and control spells from the front line, and compensate for their slightly lackluster Constitution with their bonecraft armor, which gives them a formidable AC 20. They have the Intelligence to plan and adapt, and the Wisdom to choose their targets and their battles.
Their Charisma is high enough that an encounter will probably involve some measure of parley, and maybe only parley—they understand, after all, that it’s better to get what you want without fighting if you can—but their social skill proficiencies are in Intimidation and Deception, so we’re not talking about good-faith negotiation here. Instead, this combination suggests to me that they’re about trying to get their opponents to capitulate, through a combination of outright bullying and more subtle manipulation. Any rhetorical maneuver an abuser might use is right up the bone knight’s alley: direct and indirect threats; negative reinforcement; false accusations; gaslighting; DARVO; demonstrations of explosive anger and sudden, unpredictable violence; dividing enemies by singling out individuals among them for particular blame; and so on.
What about their Athletics skill? It doesn’t seem to have much use beyond grappling or shoving, and either of these special attacks consumes the bone knight’s full action (its Multiattack specifies the use of “one of its weapons”). However, grappling is a good tactic for seizing hostages, and depending on initiative order, shoving an opponent down in front of a drudge of skeletons or a vexation of zombies can allow them to make a lot of attack rolls with advantage—provided that they do so before the target gets back up.
Although they aren’t undead themselves, bone knights have power over creatures that are. A single bone knight can use Commander of Bones to command up to 12 skeletons and/or zombies at a time, which means, of course, that a typical bone knight encounter will include such an entourage. Twelve CR 1/4 creatures in combination with one CR 5 bone knight and one CR 1/2 warhorse or warhorse skeleton (see below) are a match for four level 7 or 8 player characters, and just a bit much for five level 5 or 6 PCs, so this is the sweet spot for introducing such an encounter. Once your PCs are level 11 and beyond, you can start throwing two or more bone knights at them at once.
Since zombies and skellies don’t have much in the way of free will anyway, Commander of Bones mainly gives you a basis for having them act more purposefully and with greater coordination, since they’re subject to the bone knight’s will. Master of the Pallid Banner keeps more of them on the field by giving them advantage against being turned—and, by extension, against being destroyed outright by Destroy Undead.
Which does a bone knight prefer, zombies or skellies? Skellies deal slightly more damage, can loose a fusillade of arrows when parley breaks down, and are harder to hit. Zombies, however, are tougher, and they have Undead Fortitude, making it even harder to clear them off the field; also, they’re not vulnerable to bludgeoning damage, as skellies are. I don’t think there’s a universal answer; it depends a lot on the range at which the bone knight expects to encounter its enemies, the terrain on which they’ll fight and how long it expects the fight to last. Zombies are better for close fighting and the long haul, skellies for a volley before a decisive charge.
The bone knight has two weapon attacks, Greatsword and Longbow; their Multiattack allows them to use either one twice. At least 80 percent of the time, the bone knight sticks to Greatsword: they’re a brute melee fighter, their attack bonus is better with Greatsword than with Longbow, and Greatsword deals more damage. Also, two of their spells—compelled duel and wrathful smite—specifically enhance their melee fighting.
As a level 8 half-caster, the bone knight has a generous number of spell slots. They could use a 2nd-level slot to boost command or hellish rebuke, but they don’t, instead reserving their 2nd-level slots for 2nd-level spells.
- Branding smite offers a good damage bonus along with a rider that’s not quite as good in melee as wrathful smite’s, unless the bone knight is hunting an invisible target. But it works on the bone knight’s bow, while wrathful smite doesn’t, so it’s a nice way to announce that the bone knight is done talking.
- Crown of madness is highly situational: it’s only worth casting on a target who’s standing within melee reach of one of their allies, who’s susceptible to being charmed (so no elves or raging Berserker barbarians) and who’s likely to fail a Wisdom saving throw (so no clerics, druids, monks or rangers), and even then, it’s not likely to hold up for more than a round. You should probably just pass this one over.
- Darkness is handy when the bone knight’s undead minions substantially outnumber their foes, because its nullification of advantage and disadvantage on attack rolls within its area of effect makes it harder to get a leg up on a horde of talentless mooks. On the other hand, it requires concentration, so no smiting, no compelled duel, no magic weapon. Therefore, cast it only when the bone knight expects their minions to do most of the work.
- Find steed means that the bone knight comes to the show with a warhorse, which doesn’t even leave them down a spell slot. Since the spell’s wording states, “Your GM might allow other animals to be summoned as steeds”—and that’s you!—feel free to swap in a warhorse skeleton for the warhorse if you like the vibe. Do note, though, that while warhorse skeletons have darkvision and are immune to exhaustion (good for chases), being poisoned and poison damage, they’re vulnerable to bludgeoning damage and, perhaps more important, lack the Trampling Charge trait. Because of the bond that find steed establishes, the bone knight’s steed can be treated as an independent mount and make attacks of its own.
- Magic weapon, like branding smite, makes the Longbow attack just a little bit better—but branding smite makes it better than magic weapon Granted, branding smite has to be cast once per hit, while magic weapon is persistent (with concentration), but branding smite increases the damage on a hit by an average of 7, at a cost of only a 5 percentage point difference in to-hit probability. I think branding smite is the way to go.
- Command has various tactical applications, but I like the idea of the bone knight’s using it simply to underline their abusive manipulations.
- Compelled duel is good for drawing off an opponent who might be too effective against the bone knight’s minions.
- Hellish rebuke is a gesture of defiance with a convenient deterrent effect. They only need to cast the spell once; after that, the threat may be stronger than the execution.
- Wrathful smite, like hellish rebuke, is an example of the sudden, unpredictable violence that the bone knight uses to emphasize their dominance. They should probably use at least two of their four 1st-level spell slots on this spell.
Bone knights are fanatics, but they have something of as much value to them as their cause: their elite status in the Order of the Emerald Claw. That’s not something to throw away. Therefore, they’ll retreat when seriously wounded (reduced to 33 hp or fewer), leaving their expendable undead minions behind to cover their retreat.
Next: Tarkanan assassins.