Death knight (Dungeons & Dragons)
Death knight, as shown in the original Fiend Folio.
The death knight is a fictional monster in Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games. Also known as a doom knight or demon knight, the death knight is a mighty warrior in knight armor that is animated as an undead creature by the gods of death, evil deities, demon lords, or other malevolent forces. In Dungeons & Dragons, the death knight eventually became a major feature in the Dragonlance and Ravenloft campaign settings.
- 1 Publication history
- 2 Description
- 3 Death knights in various campaign settings
- 4 Other publishers
- 5 Influences on other games
- 6 Reception
- 7 References
- 8 Additional reading
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition (1977-1988)
Charles Stross created the Death Knight for the 1981 AD&D supplement Fiend Folio. In a review in White Dwarf magazine, Jamie Thomson referred to the Death Knight as one of the more interesting additions in the book, "a kind of evil paladin".
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition (1989-1999)
By the time 2nd edition AD&D was introduced, the death knight had become an important figure in the Dragonlance campaign setting, with Lord Soth being a major villain for the setting. The death knight first appeared in this edition in the Monstrous Compendium Dragonlance Appendix (1990), and is reprinted in the Monstrous Manual (1993). The Tales of the Lance boxed set (1992) for the Dragonlance setting details the death knights of Krynn further, in the "World Book of Ansalon" booklet.
The death knight also plays a prominent role in the module The Apocalypse Stone (2000), one of the final products of 2nd edition.
Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 edition (2000-2002)
As with other monsters from the early days of the Dungeons & Dragons game, the Death Knight was updated first for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, and then 3.5 Edition by Necromancer Games in their Tome of Horrors. This publication preceded Wizards of the Coast's own publication of the Death Knight in Dragon #290 (December 2001) and #291 (January 2002), and subsequent printing in Monster Manual II (2002).
Upon the release of the d20 SRD other publishers began to write books on various topics. Death Knights, along with most undead, have been a favorite enemy of heroic characters. Details on how to fight these creatures were included as part of the Lich entry in the Slayer’s Guide to Undead. Green Ronin later expanded this treatment in their Secret College of Necromancy which features role-playing notes for the Death Knight giving him more and unique spells, discussing other classes and races that the Death Knight may come from, and detailing the creature's background.
Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition (2003-2007)
The death knight is detailed in "The Ecology of the Death Knight", in Dragon #360 (October 2007).
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition (2008-2014)
The Death Knight is one of the creatures announced by Wizards of the Coast for the new Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition game. It will gain a significantly increased backstory and has been featured in the new 4th Edition preview book Worlds and Monsters.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition (2015-)
The Death Knight is featured in the Monster Manual of the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
The original Dungeons and Dragons Fiend Folio indicates that death knights are "lich-like". A death knight's physical form is that of its decayed body. The face is a blackened skull with patches of rotting flesh with two pinpoints of orange light in the eye sockets. The voice of a death knight is chilling, seeming to echo from deep within. Death knights were powerful people in life, and so they often wear expensive or magic clothing and armor. They are fond of wearing flowing capes to mark them as figures of importance.
Death knights are usually created by demon lords or evil deities. These evil undead warriors are most commonly raised from the ranks of blackguards, fighters, rangers, and barbarians, but a paladin who falls from grace near the moment of death may also become a death knight. Death knights are (nearly) always evil.
In Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition (and Version 3.5), a death knight has an aura of fear that will rout groups of low-level enemies, can channel powerful negative energy with a touch, and the ability to project explosions of fire and unholy energy.
Though death knights rarely work with their own kind, they often have a variety of undead servants such as skeleton warriors, liches, and banshees. Death knights often ride nightmares into battle. Given the nature of their creation, they are also often in the service of some demon lord or a god of evil.
Death knights are rare but may be found in any environment. They often choose fortified lairs such as old castles and towers.
Death knights in various campaign settings
Death Knights in Dragonlance
The most famous of all death knights is Lord Soth, a disgraced Knight of Solamnia, from the Dragonlance and Ravenloft campaign settings. Loren Soth was cursed after he murdered his wife and child and failed to prevent the Cataclysm. He is attended by the skeleton warriors of his fallen troops and a cadre of ghostly banshees.
Soth is the most published Death Knight and is featured in all three editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game, the New York Times best selling Dragonlance Chronicles and Dragonlance Legends Trilogies, other novels of the Dragonlance mythos and outside of it, and various computer games.
Death Knights in the Forgotten Realms
A similar type of undead warrior was seen in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. A paladin by the name of Miltiades was condemned by Tyr to exist as an undead knight for using dishonorable assassination tactics to kill his enemy Zarl. Miltiades retained his sense of good and fought by the sides of good heroes, helping to defeat the forces of Bane. He was eventually restored to life by Tyr after helping the heroes destroy a pool of darkness and a pool of twilight.
While Miltiades possessed an enchanted sword and armor, he did not have the ability to cast the magical spells mentioned above. He did still retain his "normal" paladin abilities like curing and turning the undead.
Shan Nikkoleth, a Death Knight of otherworldly origin, used to reside in Hellgate Keep (The Savage Frontier, page 42) but was blasted when the keep was destroyed.
An unnamed death knight, dressed like a vampire, also resides in Zhengyi's citadel (the Witch King of Vaasa) as described in module H4 "The Throne of Bloodstone". In that same adventure, an additional twelve death knights are also stated as dwelling in a city of liches in Orcus' realm.
Death Knights in Greyhawk
The first death knight identified by name in a Dungeons & Dragons product was Saint Kargoth, "King of the Death Knights," who first appeared in Scott Bennie's Dragon article, "Setting Saintly Standards" in 1983.
Kargoth appears in the World of Greyhawk campaign setting. Thirteen of Kargoth's fellow and contemporary Knight Protectors of the Great Kingdom join him in becoming death knights: Lord Monduiz Dephaar, Lady Lorana Kath of Naelex, Prince Myrhal of Rax, Sir Maeril of Naelax, Sir Farian of Lirtham (destroyed 209 CY, but soul now powers the deathblade Astrosus), Lord Andromansis of Garasteth, Sir Oslan Knarren, Sir Rezinar of Haxx, Lord Thyrian of Naelax, Sir Minar Syrric of Darmen, Duke Urkar Grasz of Torquann, Sir Luren the Boar of Torquann, and Lord Khayven of Rax. All are transformed by the power of the demon prince Demogorgon.
Four other death knights of Oerth are known by name. The first is Saint Ferrante, a fallen paladin of Heironeous. The second is Sir Loran of Trollpyre Keep, a former knight of Sunndi. The third death knight's real name is unknown, but he calls himself, Kas the Bloody-Handed. Oerth's newest death knight is Vanthus Vanderboren, a former nobleman of Sasserine and servant of Demogorgon. Sainte Ferrante appears in Bastion of Faith, while Loran and "Kas" appear in Die Vecna Die! as servants of Vecna. Other death knights also appear in the later adventure but are not identified by name. Vanthus Vanderboren appears in the Dungeon magazine's Savage Tide adventure path, but he does not become a death knight until late in the campaign.
Influences on other games
The Death Knight, as it originally was stated in the Fiend Folio has made appearances in other RPGs. For example, the Death Knight appeared in the generic Role-Aids supplements from Mayfair Games. One named Death Knight, Theodros, appeared in the 1985 Lich Lords. Theodros plays a stereotypical role for a Death Knight, acting as a second in command to a more powerful Lich. Here his statistics and description are nearly identical to the entry in the 1st Ed. Fiend Folio.
The anime-inspired Big Eyes, Small Mouth RPG had a horror gaming supplement called Cold Hands, Dark Hearts in 2003. It also featured a skeleton warrior archetype that has the same background and powers of the Fiend Folio Death Knight. This creature was described as a fallen holy warrior in service to one of the many Demon Lords.
Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft franchise first included death knights in Warcraft II as a magic-casting unit for the Horde. They later became a Hero class in Warcraft III for the Undead faction. They became a playable character class in World of Warcraft with that game's second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.
The Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic game features the death knight as a medium-level cavalry unit for the Undead race. Death knights also appear as enemies in MMORPGs such as Ultima Online: Age of Shadows and Lineage II.
The death knight was ranked sixth among the ten best high-level monsters by the authors of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition For Dummies. They emphasized its status as an evil counterpart for paladin characters, and considered it an appropriate leader for groups of other undead enemies.
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