Death Knight Tactics


When a corrupted paladin dies without making amends for his or her misdeeds, he or she may be raised as a death knight, an undead warrior that retains a tenuous connection to its former divine link. Like all undead, death knights are motivated by compulsion rather than survival.

What kind of compulsion might drive a former paladin, particularly one who strayed from the path of good? One leaps out at me as so obvious that it hardly seems worth considering any other: the desire to punish. Punish whom, for what? Does it matter?

The death knight is a brute, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution and a large reservoir of hit points, but not an unthinking one: all its mental ability scores are above average, and its Charisma in particular is exceptional. It has proficiency on Dexterity and Wisdom saving throws, two of the “big three,” plus advantage on spells saves in general from Magic Resistance. It’s immune to necrotic and poison damage and can’t be poisoned, exhausted or frightened. It doesn’t possess any resistance or immunity to physical damage from normal weapons, however.

The death knight’s formidability lies primarily in three things: its longsword Multiattack, which deals substantial necrotic damage on top of the slashing damage from the blade itself; its spellcasting ability; and its Marshal Undead feature.

Let’s look at that last one first. As features go, it’s not unusually powerful: it extends protection against being turned to other undead creatures within 60 feet of it. The formidability of this feature lies less in the mechanic itself than in what it says about the death knight. This monster isn’t just undead, it’s a leader of undead.

If you look at the “Targets in Area of Effect” table on page 249 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a circular effect with a 60-foot radius can reasonably be expected to affect a dozen creatures. Here, we have a feature that affects allies in a 60-foot radius. What I draw from this is that the typical death knight is accompanied by a dozen undead followers.

What kind of undead followers depends on the difficulty of the encounter you want to create, but I’d say that ghouls, ghasts, mummies, wights and wraiths stand out as particularly suitable choices. Undead that are bosses in their own right, like vampires and liches, not so much; ditto undead that are too low-level to pose a meaningful threat to intermediate- and high-level adventurers, such as skeletons and zombies.

A death knight’s power is going to vary according to the number of undead followers it has, up to a dozen (less so according to the strength of those followers, since the higher their challenge ratings, the more resistance to being turned they’ll already have), and I’d go so far as to say that a death knight encountered alone, with no followers, is hardly a whole death knight, because it’s not even using a valuable part of its kit. By the same token, although the Monster Manual flavor text says death knights are sometimes followed by fiends, Marshal Undead does nothing for them; it’s the undead followers that really matter.

Especially at low level, paladins often struggle against a shortage of spell slots, but the death knight is a 19th-level spellcaster, so it doesn’t suffer from this problem. Moreover, it possesses two smite spells, staggering smite and searing smite, both of which are bonus actions that enhance its action economy. Unfortunately, they’re not the best two smites in the paladins’ repertoire. However, the death knight also has banishment and hold person, which are outstanding, and its spell list is crowned with the epic destructive wave, which it has two 5th-level spell slots for and nothing else to use those slots on.

In addition, there’s Hellfire Orb, which I include among the death knight’s spells because it’s effectively a spell for which the death knight has exactly one “5th-and-a-half-level” slot that it can’t use for anything else. It’s a double-strength boosted fireball that does half fire damage and half necrotic damage. If it has any drawback at all, it’s the 20-foot radius, which means (again referring to “Targets in Area of Effect”) it’s not likely to affect more than four creatures. If the death knight’s enemies are clustered up enough that it can strike more than four of them, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

Since Hellfire Orb is technically not a spell, it can be used in the same turn as a smite spell. There wouldn’t be much point in doing that, though, since a smite spell is wasted if the caster doesn’t attack with a melee weapon in the same turn. (Yeah, you can sustain it and attack with your weapon on your next turn, but in the meantime, you’re risking having your concentration disrupted. It’s always better to cast a smite spell at the beginning of your turn, then attack.)

So what about the other spells in the death knight’s repertoire?

  • Dispel magic is important to keep on hand at least until the death knight can size up how great a threat any spellcaster among its enemies poses. “Threat,” in this case, essentially means the ability to cast spells that require Constitution saves, can mow down one’s undead minions or offer defenses against the death knight’s own spells. Spells other than these, the death knight can safely ignore.
  • Elemental weapon is nice, but it requires concentration, which makes it incompatible with banishment and hold person, as well as the smites; and it’s also an action, which means the death knight has to forgo its Multiattack. Together, these constraints make it almost too situational to bother with.
  • Magic weapon is just an inferior elemental weapon—although it is a bonus action, so the death knight can use it opportunistically when it’s not slinging any other magic. Even so, hold person is a better use of a 2nd-level spell slot.
  • Command is most likely to be useful against targets being swarmed by the death knight’s minions.
  • Compelled duel is tactically sound, but let’s be honest: The death knight is going to use this one primarily for dramatic purposes. Because chances are, there’s one player character in the party who has to be the one to face the death knight one-on-one, right? In case it’s not already obvious, the death knight will make it obvious. If it so happens that there’s not one obvious designated adversary, then the death knight probably won’t bother with this spell—unless there’s one front-line PC who’s threatening to make short work of its undead minions, in which case it may cast compelled duel to pull that PC off that job.

My rule of thumb for spellcasters is that spell slots are used according to their scarcity, which usually means that 1st-level spells are cast only with 1st-level spell slots, top-level slots are reserved for top-level spells, and the spell slots in between are fungible. In the case of the death knight, this means that it will cast command, compelled duel or searing smite only with a 1st-level slot (compelled duel can’t be boosted anyway), and it will use its 5th-level slots only for destructive wave, but it may use its 3rd- and 4th-level slots to boost lower-level spells. In particular, it will use those slots to cast hold person against a second or third target in order to paralyze any and all melee opponents who engage with it, unless one of them is the target of compelled duel.

OK, so here’s our overall strategy for the death knight: First of all, in all probability, there’s one PC who’s the target of the death knight, and this PC is the focus of its attacks. Or, alternatively, one or more party members, or the entire party, run afoul of the death knight by transgressing in some way that it feels compelled to punish. The death knight marches right up to any such transgressor(s) and gets right to punishing.

Being a brute, the death knight takes position on the front line of the battle. Depending on the makeup of the two sides, it may be the front line. Its undead minions will fan out across the battlefield and engage any non-front-line PCs according to their usual modi operandi, the only difference being that the death knight’s commands override their usual target selection heuristics. (But not completely: if the death knight’s minions comprise different types of undead creatures which choose their targets differently, they’ll divide the labor according to their normal preferences. As the dungeon master, you’ll want to figure this out before your session, because it may be confusing to figure out on the fly.)

For the most part, the death knight’s top priority is to destroy those it feels compelled to punish. As long as they’re obliging enough to engage in melee with it, it will use hold person to paralyze them, then hack and slash at them, one by one, with its longsword, which will do an average of 28 hp per round if all its hits land. If they prove resistant to this, and if at least three of them are obligingly arrayed within a 30-foot semicircle in front of it, it will bowl them over with destructive wave.

Banishment is reserved for use against a single opponent other than the target(s) of the death knight’s ire who insists on interfering with its agenda. As long as banishment is sustained, all the death knight’s other concentration-required spells are off the table—but destructive wave, dispel magic and command are still available, as is Hellfire Orb. The death knight is savvy enough not to try banishment against a bard or paladin, but it doesn’t necessarily know enough about arcane magic to be able to tell the difference between a wizard (good target) and a sorcerer or warlock (bad target). However, it’s most likely using its undead minions to deal with problematic spellslingers, anyway. A more likely target for banishment is a high-level cleric or a problematic skirmisher or shock attacker, such as a rogue or monk.

Dispel magic is an expensive use of a turn, since it does no damage—with its three-swing Multiattack, the death knight needs a compelling reason to use its action on anything else. So, as mentioned above, the death knight will cast this spell only to negate a sustained spell that requires a Constitution save to avoid damage, does direct damage to undead, or offers protection from fire and/or necrotic damage, primarily the latter. The list of spells that fit these criteria is short: enlarge/reduce, moonbeam, ray of enfeeblement, elemental bane, sickening radiance, dawn, insect plague, holy weapon, wall of light, flesh to stone, sunbeam, holy aura, storm of vengeance, protection from energy, dispel evil and good, globe of invulnerability, primordial ward and invulnerability. Moreover, the death knight’s chances of dispelling any of these spells cast at 5th level or higher aren’t very good—less than 50 percent—and it will bother to try only if it has a chance of either shutting down a spell that’s affecting multiple targets or dispelling all magic on a creature that’s affected by multiple spells.

The death knight casts compelled duel only when its chief antagonist insists on avoiding the single combat for which it’s obviously destined. It casts staggering smite only when it’s clearly not going to need to cast banishment or hold person at any time for the remainder of the encounter, in which case it’s a why-not? enhancement of its next successful melee attack. It casts command as a poor man’s substitute for compelled duel when it’s concentrating on another spell that’s equally important, ordering its enemy to “Approach!” Otherwise, it uses command only when it has no need to make a melee attack and can use the spell to make an enemy more vulnerable to its minions’ attacks, such as shouting “Submit!” (equivalent to “grovel”) to make that enemy fall prone. It doesn’t bother with searing smite or magic weapon unless it’s used up every other trick in its bag, and it doesn’t bother with elemental weapon at all.

As for Hellfire Orb, the death knight is judicious in its use of this action, since it really is extravagant overkill. For the death knight to use its Hellfire Orb, two conditions must apply: First, at least four enemies must be close enough to one another to fall within the 20-foot-radius area of effect. Second, at least two of those enemies must have infuriated it in some way—by casting one of the spells that makes a death knight consider using dispel magic, by singlehandedly inflicting 54 or more points of damage against it, by inflicting any amount of radiant damage, by calling it by its onetime name (death knights hate being reminded of their former lives as fallen paladins) or through simple cheeky defiance. Hellfire Orb is punishment on top of the punishment that the death knight’s victims have already earned.

Finally, the death knight has the Parry reaction, which it uses when it’s struck by a melee attack roll of 20 to 25. But it has to be judicious with this as well if it’s facing multiple non-incapacitated melee opponents. If one of them has a weapon that does extra damage against undead, or with some kind of elemental effect other than necrotic or poison, it takes its licks from any other weapon and saves its reaction to Parry this one.

A death knight with a warhorse skeleton or nightmare mount follows the same strategy as a death knight on foot; there’s no reason for it to fight any other way. And it probably goes without saying that a death knight never retreats. It may stand down once it’s killed everyone it perceives as a transgressor (in which case, it’s the lucky survivors who must retreat), but as long as one such reprobate remains alive, the death knight fights until it’s destroyed.

Next: vege—cripes, I don’t want to even say the word.

But I must.


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14 responses to “Death Knight Tactics”

  1. Joey Avatar

    I’ve been noticing it for a while, but this article really brought to my attention an error in the “Targets in Area of Effect” table on page 249 of the DMG. Both the square and circle areas use a /5 approximation, but for squares it is based on the edge length where as for circles it is based on the radius. This means that circular areas of effect should be assumed to apply to more than three times the creatures as a square area of effect. A better value to use would be radius/1.5, meaning that a death knight could be expected to have around 40 undead minions with it, a veritable army. Also, its hellfire orb should expect to hit 13 targets, so it might not want to use it unless it can target practically the entire party.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      That’s one to take up with the designers. 🙂

  2. Mark Avatar

    My DM threw a Death Knight at a group that averaged out to level 5, intending to use it as a Pyramid Head type horror that we had to run away form in a darkened labrynth. We escaped and came back with reinforcements, intending on destroying it. We trapped it in a Magic Circle for one whole turn but we didn’t know it could just Dispel Magic, but at least the turn allowed us to throw as much radiant damage as we could at it and knock it down temporarily, but when we realized that it was actually a former paladin under a curse, we actually started piling BUFFS on it (Protection from Evil, Owl’s Wisdom) and my bard rolled a 31 Persuasion to try and wake Sir Bryce from his curse. In the end we had to complete his quest in order to fully redeem him. We earned a Boon from Lathander for that one. Didn’t realize til afterward what CR it was. It did almost wipe us, and now I realize my DM was probably being nice, too.

  3. TheyNeverLookUp Avatar

    Love your work, buying your books. Minor correction on paragraph 17, where you wrote 28 damage if all attacks hit. It’s 28 damage per hit if swinging the weapon in two hands, for 84 damage.

  4. Matthew Vienneau Avatar
    Matthew Vienneau

    …“Threat,” in this case, essentially means the ability to cast spells that require Constitution saves,…

    I think you mean Dexterity saves (+0), not Constitution (+5)?

    1. Matthew Vienneau Avatar
      Matthew Vienneau

      …apologies, just realized that Dexterity save is +6, thought not because of its 11 Dexterity.

      So CON is the worst at +5, but only barely. Really, INT is the vulnerability – target the person casting Maze spells!

  5. Rob Avatar

    Love this website. It’s been so useful for my campaigns so far. Quick question on the Death Knight’s Hold Person tactic.

    You write: “As long as they’re obliging enough to engage in melee with it, it will use hold person to paralyze them, then hack and slash at them, one by one, with its longsword, which will do an average of 28 hp per round if all its hits land.”

    But if the Death Knight successfully paralyzes the PC, then wouldn’t they be subject to the paralyzed condition which states “any Attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature.”

    Assuming the Death Knight hits and does average damage, the automatic crit doubles their damage to 20 (2d10+5) slashing and 36 (8d8) necrotic or a total of 56 damage. And that’s just on one attack!

    Since the Death Knight makes three attacks and has a +11 to hit, it’s entirely feasible they could paralyze a creature and hit them THREE times on the next turn for a 168 damage? Most PCs at a high enough level to fight a Death Knight are going to go down after the second attack and then could die outright if it continued attacking during their death saves.

    I know this assumes the PC fails their wisdom save twice and that the Death Knight is concentrating on one PC alone, but am I correct in how I’m interpreting the damage potential of this creature?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      The total damage is slightly off, but the essence of your comment is 100 percent correct. This issue is corrected in The Monsters Know, the book.

      1. Rob Avatar

        Thanks! I see now where I miscalculated on the necrotic damage. Nonetheless, that’s a massive amount of damage potential and a real threat for an unlucky party.

  6. Derek Avatar

    I have a very important question. Does the death knight have Spell Slots above 5th level? My DM is making the argument that he has them because he’s a 19th level caster. however, the Death knight doesn’t have them listed and it follows the Paladin spell progression. So what is the case on this?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      For spellcasting purposes, death knights are paladins. Paladins are half-casters. Half-casters’ spell slots top out at 5th level.

  7. Nicholas Francalangia Avatar
    Nicholas Francalangia

    Love the site and your work, it rules. I am curious: Do you think monsters know what people roll against them? How my table has been running thing like enemy mages with Shield is that they don’t, and they’ll attempt it against any sufficiently threatening stroke (even if we the humans know it was a crit or something). Keeps things feeling relatively fair and balanced, and is dramatic as hell when the litchs raises an eldrich wall of runes only for the paladin to cleave clean through anyway.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      The thing is, if there’s one thing wizards tend to have in common, it’s that they’re smart, and an important aspect of smartness is quick calculation. Even in the heat of the moment, I think a wizard can tell the difference between an incoming attack that shield will stop and an incoming attack that’s so unavoidable that it isn’t worth the spell slot to try to block. So while they may not know the precise likelihood of a hit down to the multiple of 5 percent, they’re fully capable of making a snap judgment in (what would be for them) descriptive terms.

  8. Fireslayer Avatar

    Interesting note: Death knights are the highest-level casters in the Monster Manual.

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