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Ecology of the Death Knight


D&D 4th Edition (and Beyond)

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Andoran

Well...long as they're free, I'll read them, and I'll reserve a final judgment for some time in the future. I'll try to be fair and all.

Osirion

My favorite way to read Dragon and Dungeon magazine was too immediately go to Starbucks, buy a coffee more expensive than the magazine, and read it cover to cover ignoring the cell phone calls from my wife wondering where I am.

I do browse Messageboards, etc. but typically do that in 10 min. bursts. I may read an article here and there on the new Dragon and Dungeon...but I won't "read" the magazine if that makes sense.

RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

Ok, now I've read the article, rather than looked at the pretty pictures.

History: Wow, how stupid are elves if you can trick one into becoming a horrid undead creature? Orcus is still a Demon as of this writing.

Knowlege: Ok, this is pretty standard. Though I'd think these new death knighs are sunder bait, or is that going away in 4E?

Becoming a Death Knight: Ok, so they're now 'Liches for Blackguards?' A ritual and a willing member? So much for Soth, Feal-Thas, and all the other unwilling death knights. Demogorgon's completely excised from the picture. Must be part of the streamlining "We can't have two demons who have undead servants, I know, we'll make Orcus the Deathknight guy too!"

Soul Weapons: No Soulknight Monks I guess. and how do you handle a death knight soulknife?

The "We decided to get rid of the SLAs because it stomped on the Lich" bothers me too. Some of the most striking images for me come from Soth's SLAs. Killing Crysania by pointing and saying 'Die' The Lord Soth fireball/abyssal blast. The spectral hand/battering ram against Strahd's Castle. All these were imbedded in my memory. SLAs are not spells.

Miltiades was not by anyone's definition (except the writer's) a Death Knight.

Ok, done ranting, back on the clock


Matthew Morris wrote:

Ok, now I've read the article, rather than looked at the pretty pictures.

History: Wow, how stupid are elves if you can trick one into becoming a horrid undead creature? Orcus is still a Demon as of this writing.

Knowlege: Ok, this is pretty standard. Though I'd think these new death knighs are sunder bait, or is that going away in 4E?

Becoming a Death Knight: Ok, so they're now 'Liches for Blackguards?' A ritual and a willing member? So much for Soth, Feal-Thas, and all the other unwilling death knights. Demogorgon's completely excised from the picture. Must be part of the streamlining "We can't have two demons who have undead servants, I know, we'll make Orcus the Deathknight guy too!"

Soul Weapons: No Soulknight Monks I guess. and how do you handle a death knight soulknife?

The "We decided to get rid of the SLAs because it stomped on the Lich" bothers me too. Some of the most striking images for me come from Soth's SLAs. Killing Crysania by pointing and saying 'Die' The Lord Soth fireball/abyssal blast. The spectral hand/battering ram against Strahd's Castle. All these were imbedded in my memory. SLAs are not spells.

Miltiades was not by anyone's definition (except the writer's) a Death Knight.

Ok, done ranting, back on the clock

Just some quick notes:

I believe they have stated Orcus is demon in 4e, THE DEMON.

Sundering doesn't matter. They can reform their soul weapon immediately.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Maps, Modules, Roleplaying Game Subscriber

As far as the Orcus vs. Demogorgon point, I don't see that as an actual retcon — I see that as being respectful of the events in the Savage Tide adventure path...


Zaister wrote:
Heathansson wrote:
I also see that they SPOILERED the Savage Tide SPOILER; that was deftly done. I saw complaints earlier today.
That spoiler is harmless compared to the full synopsis spoiler Paizo themselves did in Dragon #359. I still find that sad. :(

Yeah, what was that all about?!?!? None of my group ever read Dugeon or Dragon, yet one of my friends said he was going to buy the last issue of Dragon for posterity sake. Didn't think much of it, 'till I got my copy in the mail. Holy Hannah! I had to explicitly tell him to not read "Savage Tidings"! I have designs on running that but if he goes ahead and reads it, that will put one heck of a damper on my game.

(And that's not even considering all the other "spoilers" in that issue, concerning Maure castle, Ruins of Greyhawk, and Age of Worms. Yeah, I'm a little behind, but I thought Dragon was for players and Dungeon was for DMs.)

Greg


Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Cards, Companion, Modules Subscriber

I think the article was weak.
It was in part another of these "playtesting" articles telling us how great 4e will be. The various legends about becoming a death knight were ok, but then presenting a ritual as "the" way to become one was contradictory. That soul weapon stuff is a nice idea. But I consider it optional for those death knights becoming one of their own will through this ritual. Lord Soth surely won´t have one in my game. So, if there would have been given the "divine curse" and the "black magic ritual" death knights both, that would have beem ok to me.
If Demogorgon is out of the picture, Orcus will indeed be next logical candidate for death knights.

What I expect from Dragon are articles with an (near-)immediate usability for the game - and this article failed in that regard.

Stefan


I think the chief difficulty I have with the article is that it isn't really an ecology article. It's essentially just another preview article, combining a retrospective of what Death Knights have been in the past with a teaser of what they will be when fourth edition rolls around.

I can't help but feel that, if I were to go back and re-read the article after the advent of 4th edition, a lot of its value would be diminished. Not so for any of the previous ecology articles, which are written for monsters which are already statted up and can actually include crunch. Despite the fact that said crunch is for 3rd edition, I don't see them being invalidated by 4th edition. Well, not unless the monster in question is retconned into something completely different, of course, which is a distinct possibility.

In the interests of fairness, and of articulating my feelings on the article beyond a vague unease, I ran down an old ecology article for a point-by-point comparison. And what better article than the Ecology of the Dracolich? Both are formidable, intelligent undead creatures with a long history in the game.

It's difficult to get an exact comparison in size terms. Since my magazine doesn't come with a word count feature, I'll assume the two articles are roughly similar in size.

History... I like the dwarven legend. The rest, not so much. They just seem generic. By contrast, the dracolich gets more of an overview, with Dragotha as an example of an early dracolich.

The knowledge sidebars are fairly standard. Moving on.

Becoming a Death Knight/Dracolich - A rather larger section for the dracolich, which actually goes beyond the standard method (presented earlier in the article). The death knight entry focuses more on different possible sources of the necessary ritual, while providing few details on the ritual itself. Fair enough, really, as each ritual is no doubt an individual thing, and most DMs will want to devise something of their own if the question arises.

Phylacteries/Soul Weapons - Very different kettles of fish here, and difficult to compare directly. I think a weakness of the soul weapon entry is that it spends time comparing it to a lich's phylactery, rather than entirely on its own merits. Still, such a comparison was probably inevitable.

Physiology/Psychology and Society both seem to be roughly comparable, and I don't think the Death Knight article suffers by comparison.

Monster Evolution - No real parallel for the dracolich, and while interesting, the section seems tacked on. I'd classify this kind of thing as sidebar material, and if the preview material were chopped off, it'd fit in one, too. As noted earlier, said preview material will not age well. The evolution of the death knight's appearance I didn't need at all.

Famous creatures - Let's face it, the only named dracolich I can think of is Dragotha, so the death knight article wins hands down in this department, with four knights, three of whom I've heard of.

Example creatures - Very different styles here. The dracolich article includes a statted up dracolich (crunch ahoy!), whilst the death knight version is more a slew of different literary sources from which you can draw inspiration for your own death knights. Obviously, stats weren't an option here, and I do find the list mildly interesting, if a trifle obvious in places. Still, I can do my own research into archetypal knights.

Death Knights in Eberron/Faerun - Would you believe that there are no sidebars noting how death knights can be fitted into either campaign setting? It seems a rather glaring oversight to me. After all, death knights aren't exactly generic creatures which can show up in practically any setting without difficulty. Or at least, they shouldn't be.

Overall conclusions:

I'd have to rate the dracolich article more highly. There's just nothing superfluous in it (content or artwork). Had I never heard of a dracolich before reading it, I would nevertheless have all the information I required to introduce one into my game (save for the template, which I could no doubt acquire in reasonably short order).

In truth, the death knight article is okay. But it doesn't inspire. This may have something to do with the fact that I can't actually use the death knight as presented here just yet. But then again, it also feels shorter. Chop out the preview stuff, the appearance waffle, and the 'sample' knights, and you go from 4,000 words to 3,000.

Have to say though, that dwarven death knight was damned interesting.


Stedd Grimwold wrote:

My favorite way to read Dragon and Dungeon magazine was too immediately go to Starbucks, buy a coffee more expensive than the magazine, and read it cover to cover ignoring the cell phone calls from my wife wondering where I am.

I do browse Messageboards, etc. but typically do that in 10 min. bursts. I may read an article here and there on the new Dragon and Dungeon...but I won't "read" the magazine if that makes sense.

You sir, were living the dream, so long as it lasted.

I had to read my Dragon and Dungeon in 2 or 3 minute bursts between changing diapers, feeding and playing with the kids or running to the bus stop.

All in a daddy's day work.

Cheliax

hazel monday wrote:

I was pretty underwhelmed. But , then again, I guess I was kinda biased going into it.

It definitely isn't an acceptable substitute for Dragon, as far as I'm concrned.

That's exactly the way I feel. They are doing retcons even in the new "Dragon". No mention of Demogorgon, even though he is supposed to have originated death knights. The quality wasn't there, and if I don't have it in my hands, it's not a real product.


The Last Rogue wrote:
I am positive the format for the actual version of 360 (PDF version at the end of the month) will be formatted and pretty and all that fun stuff.

I'm not.

I think WotC is handling the Dragon/Dungeon transition very clumsily, and I hold little hope for the future :/

Andoran

I've been thinking about this for a couple days.
I just want to say that the ecology article, though it didn't stink, nevertheless was a pretty feeble first effort. If you're going to do something, you have to hit hard from the damn get go. It was a love tap.
My feeling is that if this continues, I'll start thinking that doing articles for Dragon is a chore for them like cleaning out the raingutters. I'm starting to wish that my magazine didn't get yoinked from capable hands.

Cheliax Contributor

Zaister wrote:
That spoiler is harmless compared to the full synopsis spoiler Paizo themselves did in Dragon #359. I still find that sad. :(

Uh, you do realize that the point of Savage Tidings was to prepare players and characters for the adventure published in the same months' Dungeon, right? Every Savage Tiding has spoilers in it if you let your players read them before they get to the adventure they're designed for. Hence the little blurb in every single one telling you what adventure it's for.

GregH wrote:
but if he goes ahead and reads it, that will put one heck of a damper on my game.

If you can't trust him to not read ahead why run a game for him? If he really wanted to read spoilers he could just pick up the back issues of Dungeon.

GregH wrote:
(And that's not even considering all the other "spoilers" in that issue, concerning Maure castle, Ruins of Greyhawk, and Age of Worms. Yeah, I'm a little behind, but I thought Dragon was for players and Dungeon was for DMs.)

Yes, because new monsters, the Demonicon, and new rules for DMs are just what players need. A look through any issue of Dragon will show why that particular slip of tongue made nearly 4 years ago dogged us until the end of our run. It was a topic of extreme frustration for us, as you can probably tell from the tone of this particular paragraph.


What do I need to do to read this; where is the link? i have a player running a death knight in one of my games; would like to check its content...


Valegrim wrote:
What do I need to do to read this; where is the link? i have a player running a death knight in one of my games; would like to check its content...

Here is the link for the Death Knights Article. However, you will need to log in to D&D Insider.

The spoiler below contains the article for those who can't or don't want to login.

Spoiler:

Ecology of the Death Knight
by Matthew Sernett
Art by Steve Argyle

“From the dark into the light,
From the small unto the great,
From the valleys dark I ride
O’er the hills to conquer fate!”
— “Horseman Springing,” Lilla Cabot Perry

None can win the war with death, but losing the war does not mean the combatants have seen their last battle. Warriors who wish to fight beyond the limitations of flesh and blood can seek a forbidden way to steal their souls from fate. The cost of this immortality is death, but the fearless few who pay this price become death’s allies. Indeed, death bestows power upon them. Their fleshless bones clad in skins of armor, their brittle fingers clasping weapons with a grip of iron, these knights of death take command of their souls and their destinies. When they charge from the shadowy afterlife into the lands of the living, death knights ride to wage war upon life itself.
History

The origin of the death knight lies in a period so ancient that only legends can speak of it with authority. Each race has its own version of the story.

For elves, the first death knight was a tragic figure who was tricked into becoming a death knight in order to win his love from the clutches of a rapacious rival. In this version, lies lead the story’s hero to death. His rival is not a villain. His lady doesn’t truly love him. The wicked fey creature who offers the hero a path to power leads him instead to damnation. After killing his apparent foe and learning the truth of his supposed love, the death knight embraces the flame of darkness in his heart by slaying the lady and turning his grief and rage upon the rest of the world.

To dwarves, the first death knight was a greedy king who could not release his grip on the throne. The king sullied his clan, his kingdom, and the many honored dead who passed on before him by seeking unnatural means of extending his life. Seeing foes and rivals everywhere, he arranged for his children, his relatives, and those who refused his commands to die in battle or exile. With no heirs and no kin, he claimed his throne for eternity by becoming a death knight and transforming his loyal retainers into undead servitors. Dwarven legend says the death knight still sits on his throne and rules over a kingdom of undead, entombed behind miles of rock by those few dwarves who escaped his reign alive.

Humans relate several competing legends of the first death knight, but all bear a common theme: A man or woman wanted power and received it, and with that dark power, the newly made death knight accomplished its goals. The death knight might have been tricked or cursed, but in these tales the means are unimportant when compared to the ends. Sometimes tragic, sometimes triumphant, these stories teach that great power allows the wielder to achieve great things, even if the price is cursed immortality.

Halfling legend tells what might be the oldest story of the first death knight, and the story is so simple it might be closest to the truth. They say the first death knight arose in service to Orcus, Demon Prince of Undead. The tale's protagonist, a human warrior of considerable skill and renown, was plagued with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance. When denied a position of power he felt was his right, he sought revenge but was denied satisfaction. Bloodied and disgraced, he fled to fell lands inhabited by demons. There he proved his worth to Orcus first by defeating the Demon Prince’s minions and then by killing Orcus’s enemies. When cultists of Orcus offered the man the power to avenge the slights against him, he readily accepted and became the first death knight.
Knowledge of the Death Knight

The following table shows the results of a Religion check as it relates to death knights.
Religion DC Result
15 Death knights are skeletal warriors who retain the intelligence and combat skills they had in life. They often lead other undead soldiers in a war against the living.
20 Death knights are warriors who chose to become undead. Often they have a specific goal or vendetta that provoked their transformations, but some simply fear the afterlife so much that they instead choose an eternal living death.
25 A death knight carries its soul in its weapon. This weapon has the power to become ghostly and pierce armor as if it was not there. If you take a death knight’s weapon, you weaken the knight. A death knight can also surround itself in a burst of unholy fire that burns the living and wreathes undead in dangerous green and black flames.
30 A death knight’s soul weapon weakens anyone else who wields it as long as the death knight has not been destroyed. If you break a death knight’s weapon, the knight can restore it with a touch. Death knights bolster nearby undead allies, so it’s best to separate the knight from its minions.
Becoming a Death Knight

Those who desire the dark powers of a death knight in death must first perform the proper ritual. Discovering the right ritual to become a death knight can be extraordinarily hazardous. Good-intentioned individuals often destroy copies when they find them, and the most fanatical will kill those who seek its secrets rather than allow knowledge of the ritual to spread. False rituals abound—traps laid for the unwise and unwary by those who seek souls for other dark purposes.

Despite this, working versions of the ritual exist, each with its own peculiar requirements. One ritual might simply demand that the performer sacrifice a loved one, while another might stipulate that the caster must die in battle at the hands of a foe while in a graveyard or tomb. Frequently, the supplicant must have spilled the blood of innocents with the weapon that will become the soul weapon.

The rarity of the true ritual drives many to seek it from a surer source, such as the cultists of Orcus. These vile madmen despise the gods and bow only to Orcus, who they believe will one day make eternal undead of them all. As worshipers of destruction, demons, and undeath, cultists of Orcus can never be trusted . . . but they enjoy seeing destructive undead unleashed upon the world, and few undead can be as dangerous as a death knight. The demands made of supplicants are a mystery, but the rites are terrible enough that even most Orcus cultists avoid this particular fate. Perhaps they do not feel worthy, or maybe, like many, they simply fear death.

Fear of death is a luxury those seeking undead knighthood cannot afford. Instead, they must seek death out. They must hunger for it. They must embrace death to gain its power. Through death, they become death.
Soul Weapons

The ritual to become a death knight tears the ritual caster’s soul from his body and binds it to the weapon used in the ritual. The ritual caster dies as the living parts of the body are consumed in unholy green fire. From that conflagration rise the soulless bones of the living person, guided by an evil intelligence that no longer needs a brain for its vile thoughts and an endless hatred that no longer requires a heart to drive its dark passion.

A soul weapon is similar to a lich’s phylactery in that the death knight’s soul resides there instead of in its body. But in most other ways, the soul weapon is the opposite of a phylactery. For a lich its phylactery is a weakness that allows its permanent destruction, but the soul weapon is the death knight’s greatest strength. A death knight literally wields its soul as a weapon. The soul weapon's strikes burn with death, and at the death knight's command it can become immaterial, passing through armor and shields to strike at its foes' unprotected flesh.

A death knight need never fear its soul weapon’s destruction, for with a thought the knight can restore the weapon to wholeness and unwholesome power. If the weapon is taken, a death knight becomes weakened and distracted, distraught by the loss of its soul and consumed by the need to recover it. However, no other creature can wield a death knight’s soul weapon without feeling despair, so few can withhold a soul weapon from a death knight indefinitely.
Physiology

Death knights have no flesh and blood and thus lack the needs of a living body. They are tireless warriors who only desire vengeance, conquest, and other bloody evils. Despite lacking muscle and heart, death knights maintain the strength and vigor they had in life.

Like many of the living dead, death knights can be destroyed by damaging their bodies. Although they feel little pain, enough punishment can break their bones. Unlike a lich, a death knight cannot take refuge in a phylactery, and it does not reform from its soul weapon. When its earthly body is destroyed, a death knight’s soul leaves its weapon and travels to whatever dire fate awaits it in the afterlife. None can say with assurance what happens to the souls of death knights. Some death knights might believe they know the fate of their souls, and that knowledge spurs them to maintain their undead existence by any means. For the rest, the afterlife is an intangible and terrifying unknown. If no devil or vile deity seizes a death knight’s soul, the knight can expect no quarter when its soul is weighed by the gods.
Psychology and Society

Those who seek knighthood in death tend to be courageous and ambitious individuals. Either loners or leaders in life, in death they become both, leading lesser undead but isolated from mortal society. A group of death knights might form a cadre of dark riders, but even among such a collusion of evil, one death knight typically assumes leadership over the rest. The most ancient among them might even have been the one to corrupt the rest, creating a society of undeath.

Although on rare occasions a person has been transformed into a death knight through accident, deception, or outside force, most death knights hunted for their undead fate. They might have been motivated by fear of the afterlife, but those who seek to deny gods or devils their souls cannot be considered cowards. Rather, the desire for knighthood in death stems largely from a desire for power. Those who become death knights are often already powerful warriors, so the temptation of undeath must offer them something mortality cannot: power unmitigated by age.

Most who turn to death as a means of power are frustrated in life, thwarted in their efforts to achieve their ambitions. Defeat is less tolerable than death, and they are willing to trade flesh and life for the power to avenge themselves or to accomplish a goal. Upon achieving unholy knighthood, such individuals relentlessly pursue the cause of their rage. Continued failure results in greater frustration and anger and drives the death knight to marshal superior forces. Since time has little meaning to a death knight, it might return for revenge generations after those who wronged it are buried and gone. Success provides a death knight only fleeting happiness, for after achieving its goal, a death knight can only look forward to a cold eternity of endless struggle.

Whatever their personalities in life, death knights become brooding and wrathful in death. They carry their souls in their bony hands, a constant reminder of a bargain that cannot be undone. For power to accomplish a single goal, death knights forego all other joys. That choice weighs upon its every immortal moment.

Newly made death knights and those who regret their decision usually act alone, but with time most death knights accept their status among the undead and use it as a tool for power. Death knights can command lesser undead, and though they will work with dim-witted creatures such as zombies, most prefer minions that can accept and act upon complex commands. In particular, death knights prefer the services of undead that behave like warriors. Humanoid skeletons, battle wights, and sword wraiths serve them well as foot soldiers, captains, and bodyguards.

Of course, death knights are rarely welcome among the living, and as they gather forces about themselves, they must stay on the move or find refuge lest an army be brought to bear upon them before they are ready for battle. A death knight might take command of a ruined castle, or it might raid and claim a fortress from its inhabitants. If the death knight thirsts for conquest, such conquered territory might become the heart of a dark empire. If the death knight is still marshalling forces or nursing anger about a past defeat, the fortress might remain a haunted ruin, a source of dark rumors and whispered tales.

Although the majority of death knights work alone or as leaders, some become followers to greater forces. Death knights who became undead unwillingly or at the behest of others attach themselves to a superior who shows great purpose and initiative. Sometimes this is another death knight, but it might be a powerful undead such as a lich or vampire, or even a mortal who holds influence over the undead. Death knights might serve another for years or even centuries, but most eventually turn against their erstwhile masters, waiting until they are weak due to some loss. A death knight’s loyalty and sense of honor can last far longer than any living person’s, but with its soul in hand as eternity stretches out before it, a death knight finds few promises worth keeping and morality a farce.

If a death knight makes any long-term connection with a creature, it is most likely to be with a favored mount. Few horses can stand to carry such a horror, but evil beasts such as nightmares and undead mounts willingly carry a death knight into battle. The teamwork necessary for rider and mount to act as one is often a death knight’s only source of lasting pleasure.
Monster Evolution

The death knight has been making fearsome appearances in Dungeons & Dragons games for over 25 years. Since its creation, the concept of the death knight has appeared in novels, role-playing games, and computer games.
Mechanics

Until 3rd Edition, the death knight changed little from its original form as envisioned by Charles Stross (also the creator of the githyanki) for the original Fiend Folio, published in 1981. Stross designed the death knight as an armor-wearing lich with a sword. It could cast eleven different spells, including wall of ice at will, a 20d6 fireball, and gate to bring in demon allies. When the death knight reappeared in 2nd Edition, it lost the gate spell but retained virtually every other aspect of its mechanics. The death knight’s translation into a template for 3rd Edition gave the lich some space by removing nearly all the death knight’s spells, but it didn’t really define the death knight as something other then an undead with a fear aura and 20d6 fiery blast.

In designing the death knight for 4th Edition, we originally developed the concept without including any kind of fiery blast or spellcasting. We wanted the death knight to feel more like an undead knight, so we gave it special weapon and shield abilities, an ability that activates when foes flank it, a special mount power, and a melee-oriented fear ability. Development of the concept stripped away some of the complexity, because the NPC that becomes a death knight should have interesting melee powers just like the NPC turned into a lich should have interesting spellcasting powers. The second design also brought back 3rd Edition’s abyssal blast and added undead leadership powers. Yet that version of the monster still didn’t feel right. It didn’t emphasize melee, and it felt too much like a lich because the death knights employed phylacteries.

The final mechanics for the death knight template are easy to use and reinforce the death knight as a significant melee threat. The melee-oriented abilities augment any capabilities the NPC already has, rather than making a DM choose between using a death knight power or an NPC power. The death knight retains its supernatural nature without having abilities that feel like spells, and it can be a great leader of undead without necessitating undead minions. The new soul weapon concept gives the death knight its own space in mechanics and story, bringing new life to this decades-old undead.
Appearance

The death knight has always been an armored warrior with a fleshless head, changing little in basic appearance since its original Fiend Folio depiction. The most significant change came with 3rd Edition’s Monster Manual II. There the death knight clearly had green fleshy forearms and appeared to have similarly colored skin on its face. For 4th Edition’s depiction, we returned to the classic appearance of the most famous image of a death knight, Keith Parkinson’s Lord Soth’s Charge. You can see one result of that effort on the cover of this issue.
Famous Death Knights

The first named death knight was Saint Kargoth, introduced in a 1983 Dragon article, but the most famous by far is Lord Soth of the Dragonlance campaign setting. Here’s a primer on some of the death knights D&D has named over the years.

Saint Kargoth: First introduced in Dragon and then adopted by the Greyhawk campaign setting, Saint Kargoth was a noble human knight who, along with thirteen fellow knights, became a death knight after being corrupted by Demogorgon. Kargoth was jealous that another knight was chosen to lead the Great Kingdom’s knight protectors, and his fury and envy lead him to seek the power of undeath to pursue his revenge. He became a hero to the worshipers of Hextor, hence his appellation as a saint.

Lord Soth: Like Kargoth, Lord Soth was also a great knight, but Soth’s transformation into a death knight is a far more twisted tale. Soth’s wife gave birth to a monster that was a representation of Lord Soth’s soul. Thinking his wife had been unfaithful, Lord Soth murdered her and his child, even though Lord Soth was himself unfaithful to his wife. When his crime was discovered, Lord Soth was spirited away from his execution by knights loyal to him.

While besieged with his knights, Lord Soth was informed that he could save the world from a great cataclysm. He left to pursue the quest that would save the world, but he turned back when told lies about his new wife’s fidelity. Soth confronted his new wife and their child while the cataclysm occurred, refusing to save them from a fiery death. The fire that killed them engulfed the whole keep, killing Lord Soth and his allies, but the cursed Lord Soth arose as a death knight and his followers joined him in undeath.

Miltiades: Although not specifically referred to as a death knight, a skeletal undead paladin named Miltiades appears in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Cursed by Tyr, god of justice, after dishonorably slaying a foe, Miltiades sought to do good even after death. Tyr restored Miltiades to life after suitable heroics.

Savage Tide adventure path (Warning: spoilers below)

Vanthus Vanderboren: Vanthus featured as a villain in Dungeon magazine's "Savage Tide" adventure path. Appearing as a human foe throughout the first two adventures, he returns as a half-fiend after visiting the Abyss and being transformed by the Flesh Forge. Following his death at the hands of the PCs, Demogorgon turns him into a death knight, and he bedevils the PCs again only to meet a second death. Upon this second failure, he is transformed into a larva, and the PCs meet him in this lowly form during the last adventure.
Sample Death Knights

Death knights can be used in many ways in a D&D game, as minions of a greater foe or as a main villain. As NPCs with an applied template, death knights have any number of options. Below are a few ideas to inspire you when you create a death knight for your game.

King of Brigadoon: The death knight might be the lord of a roaming fortress that appears at certain times in particular places. The death knight and his minions can threaten the PCs wherever they are, and the haunted ruin of the castle can offer an unexpected opportunity for exploration and adventure. It might be like Brigadoon, appearing for a time and then vanishing for years, or perhaps it’s like the flying citadel of Dragonlance fame. The Ravenloft setting offers obvious possibilities, but if your players are familiar with Lord Soth’s time in that land, you might want to try something different.

Ring Wraiths: In its initial inception D&D borrowed a lot from J.R.R. Tolkien, so consider borrowing a bit more. The ring wraiths, or Nazgûl, were kings transformed into undead by the corrupting influence of the rings they wore and the One Ring. However they came about, you can arrive at the awesome image of a half-dozen death knight charging across the landscape. Your dark riders might be a legion of evil seeking to bring their brand of justice to the PCs, or they might be the servants of a more powerful master.

The Headless Horseman: The Headless Horseman from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow could very well have been a death knight. A dejected death knight might become the unseen menace of an area that the PCs frequent. Based on the PCs' actions in the area, the death knight might gain a purpose and abandon random murders in favor of a more strategic effort against the PCs.

King Haggard: Like King Haggard in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, a death knight could be the lord of a desolate kingdom that guards something the PCs need. The death knight might even have mortal servants who are not evil but serve out of a sense of loyalty to the former living knight. Dealing with this minion of evil without unduly harming his misguided followers could present an interesting challenge to players.

The Black Knight: A death knight ably fills the role of a stereotypical Black Knight. This works best if you disguise the death knight’s status as an undead warrior, and the death knight works as an ally of the PCs for a time. Like some of the black knights of literature and legend, the death knight might follow a strict code of honor despite his villainous nature.

Genghis Khan: If you really want the death knight to make an impact on your players, put it at the head of an undead army. Your death knight might be like Genghis Kahn, gathering warriors of the conquered nations into its army as it moves. These warriors might be the dead of the conquered, risen as undead warriors, or even living warriors who believe that serving the death knight offers a better chance of survival than opposing it.

Blackrazor: The adventure White Plume Mountain introduced Blackrazor, a magic sword that stole a character's soul and made him subject to its whims. In your game, you might use Blackrazor or invent a different magic weapon that steals its wielder’s soul and transforms the person into a death knight. The magic weapon might be the true villain, with the death knight as its hapless pawn.

Lancelot and Guinevere: Consider pairing your death knight with an evil partner. Perhaps your death knight is a version of Lancelot who has fallen for an evil Guinevere, or your Guinevere might the death knight and Lancelot an evil lord. One might be a vampire or demon who leeches off of the unrequited love of the other. In a dark turn on the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is secretly a vampire or succubus who preys upon the enthralled king while her dark knight Lancelot does her bidding, turning the shining kingdom into a growing blight of darkness and despair.


Paizo Charter Superscriber; Pathfinder Deluxe Comics Subscriber
Mike McArtor wrote:
Zaister wrote:
That spoiler is harmless compared to the full synopsis spoiler Paizo themselves did in Dragon #359. I still find that sad. :(
Uh, you do realize that the point of Savage Tidings was to prepare players and characters for the adventure published in the same months' Dungeon, right? Every Savage Tiding has spoilers in it if you let your players read them before they get to the adventure they're designed for. Hence the little blurb in every single one telling you what adventure it's for.

Yes, I do realize that. However, I don't think it is possible for a normal group to keep up with the speed the adventures are published. One chapter each month means about four sessions of weekly play. My group plays weekly, but we usually take 8-12 sessions per adventure, so at that speed you're bound to fall behind the printing schedule, even if you started right with the publication of chapter 1.

My group is currently playing Shackled City, we've been playing weekly since November 2005 and have just finished "Lords of Oblivion" there. I intend to play Savage Tide after that, and I can only hope that the players do not read that article, not even by accident.

I highly doubt that any significant percentage of Savage Tide campaigns had actually reached that point when Dragon #359 was first published. Or do you guys really play that fast?

Mike McArtor wrote:
If you can't trust him to not read ahead why run a game for him? If he really wanted to read spoilers he could just pick up the back issues of Dungeon.

I trust my players, several of them bought both magazines on a regular basis, and I trust them not to read the adventures. I myself am just starting as a player with Maure Castle in another campaign run by one of my players, and I know he trusts me not to peek, and I won't. I already know more than I should, and I never read a word from the adventure.

It's a bit more difficult, though, to avoid articles in Dragon. I don't mind the usual spoilery stuff in Savage Tidings, even though I'd be happier if the players would not see them just by leafing through the magazines, and getting a gist of how that campaign might flow even if they are avoiding the articles. The full synopsis seemed unnecessary to me though. It's too easy to catch things you don't want to know from that article, even if you don't read it.

Mike, regarding your comment on "the tone of this article", my previous comment, and this one too, aren't meant as an attack, just a comment.

Stefan.


Mike McArtor wrote:
GregH wrote:
but if he goes ahead and reads it, that will put one heck of a damper on my game.
If you can't trust him to not read ahead why run a game for him? If he really wanted to read spoilers he could just pick up the back issues of Dungeon.

He wasn't "reading ahead" because we haven't started Savage Tide yet, and in fact, my players don't know what the name "Savage Tide" refers to. To him it would have been an interesting article, he would have read on his own time, and then - bam - gone one potential campaign. As I think I said in my original post, he was buying the last issue for posterity's sake. Which was the same reason I bought it. Up till now, all the savage tide/age of worms support articles that I've read have not that bad for spoilage. If he had read that particular article, that would have been the end of the campaign before it ever started.

I enjoy your guy's work, really, but I just think putting a full article synopsis of a campaign, where I doubt too many people are keeping up with in real time was potentially damaging to a lot (including my) campaign.

Some of us don't run dungeon adventures until months/years after they are published.

Mike McArtor wrote:
Yes, because new monsters, the Demonicon, and new rules for DMs are just what players need. A look through any issue of Dragon will show why that particular slip of tongue made nearly 4 years ago dogged us until the end of our run. It was a topic of extreme frustration for us, as you can probably tell from the tone of this particular paragraph.

My apologies. The fact is, I've never seen anyone refute the statement that "Dungeon was for DMs and Dragon was for players". Guess I don't read the message boards enough. Sorry. I honestly believed this was your outlook on the books. I'll take back that last comment I made, then.

I still am a little chagrined over the full synopsis of the adventure path in the very last Dragon. Like I said, my player was buying it for posterity's sake. Had I not done the same, I would be out one full campaign.

Greg

Paizo Employee Creative Director

While we tried to avoid spoilers in the magazines while we were doing them... to a certain amount, we had to use them to generate interest in upcoming (or even current) adventures and articles. It's the same way movie trailers work, really. I mean, knowing that certain types of monsters are scheduled to appear in an adventure path can really help sell it to those DMs looking for something to run; it can even sell it via players who hear that monsters they enjoy are in adventures and then ask their DMs to run. I mean... we even put said death knight on the cover of one of our issues of Dungeon during the Savage Tide's run! It's a pretty delicate trick, of course, but I do certainly understand the frustration DMs have when players learn too much about an adventure path. But think of it this way: for those who had seen trailers for your most recent favorite movie, did knowing anything about those trailers and the content of the movie when you finally saw it lessen the impact of the movie? Or did the trailer enhance the entire thing by building excitement and anticipation?

As for the "Dragon is for players, Dungeon is for DMs" thing; that was the mantra at the time we relaunched both magazines about four years ago (at Dungeon #114 and Dragon #323). It turned out to be a bad, BAD move, and sales of Dragon began to drop while sales of Dungeon went up. Seemed obvious to us... on one level at least, readers who used to buy Dragon had now shifted to Dungeon.

There may be four to five as many players as there are DMs, but players don't spend nearly as much money as DMs, as it turns out. It's better, I think, to produce materials that are usable by DMs and players, really. Saying something's for "Players Only" may get a few more players to buy in, but the DMs (who are already spending a lot) will look for other areas to spend their often limited RPG allowance. By the time Erik Mona took over as editor in chief of Dragon, the "Dragon is for players" philosophy was thrown out. And looking at the 4 most popular articles IN Dragon (Demonomicon, Core Beliefs, cartoons, and monster ecologies), only one was really "for players" (Core Beliefs), and even that one was usable by DMs just as well. One of the biggest stumbling blocks the Dragon editors had to deal with for many years was winning back the DMs that jumped ship when they heard that old warning cry: "This magazine isn't for you; it's for your players!" So if we seem a little testy or touchy about that topic... that's why! :)

Qadira

Cory Stafford 29 wrote:
No mention of Demogorgon, even though he is supposed to have originated death knights.

I keep seeing this criticism, but is something wrong with me that I see the word "Demogorgon" in this excerpt?:

Dragon 360 wrote:
First introduced in Dragon and then adopted by the Greyhawk campaign setting, Saint Kargoth was a noble human knight who, along with thirteen fellow knights, became a death knight after being corrupted by Demogorgon.

Also, as is pointed out in this excerpt, death knights had nothing to do with Demogorgon when first presented. That was a later addition (around 2 years after appearing in the Fiend Folio), one which I'd never even heard about until Savage Tide.


The problem is James, they have systematically pissed on everything you did and seem to want to make it even worse. Sort of like taking the knife out of the surgeon's hands and giving it to the med-student

Paizo Employee Creative Director

I'm certainly looking forward to seeing how the Graz'zt article I wrote for them ends up looking... that's for sure!


Occam wrote:
Cory Stafford 29 wrote:
No mention of Demogorgon, even though he is supposed to have originated death knights.

I keep seeing this criticism, but is something wrong with me that I see the word "Demogorgon" in this excerpt?:

Dragon 360 wrote:
First introduced in Dragon and then adopted by the Greyhawk campaign setting, Saint Kargoth was a noble human knight who, along with thirteen fellow knights, became a death knight after being corrupted by Demogorgon.
Also, as is pointed out in this excerpt, death knights had nothing to do with Demogorgon when first presented. That was a later addition (around 2 years after appearing in the Fiend Folio), one which I'd never even heard about until Savage Tide.

I think the problem is that Demogorgon isn't credited with creating the first Death Knight, he is only associated with Saint Kargoth in the new ecology.

Also:

1st Edition Fiend Folio wrote:

The death knight . . . is a horrifying form of lich created by a demon prince (it is thought Demogorgon) from a fallen human paladin . . .

(The above can be found on page 23 of the original Fiend Folio)


Chris Banks wrote:
I think the chief difficulty I have with the article is that it isn't really an ecology article. It's essentially just another preview article, combining a retrospective of what Death Knights have been in the past with a teaser of what they will be when fourth edition rolls around.

I think you hit the nail on the head there. It just struck me as "here are some ideas that we thought might be cool for 4th edition death knights, but since we don't actually have a rules system in place for 4th edition yet, nor any idea really if we're going to keep these ideas, we'll just kind of give you a hint of what MIGHT happen, if things happen to turn out that way. Now excuse me while I go back to trying desperately to come up with... er, I mean, "playtest"... the new 4th edition.


Wolfgang Baur wrote:

Issue #2 is 45 pages long. Exactly, 3 of those 45 pages are the Wayne Reynolds interview.

So, I hate to say it but yeah, yer wrong. ;)

Also, Ecology of the Barghest beats the ichor out of that Death Knight.

I stand corrected. I'm really interested in subscribing now, especially if your trademark "planescapey" flavour leaks into the content. ;)


After reading this thread, I am still completely lost how you can have an "ecology" of something that is undead and not part of any ecology. "Ecology" implies that it is a creature that serves some purpose in its environment. A death knight would serve no purpose in any ecology that would remotely make sense to anyone not taking crack before gaming. Wizards seems to have gotten into this weird habit of just using words in ways they were never meant to be used, and then wondering why people are confused, underwhelmed, disinterested, or disoriented.

I fear that WoTC is resorting to metaplotting, because it seems we can't just have a critter any more without some massive 50 page dissertation on where it came from and its justification.


Bardsandsages wrote:

After reading this thread, I am still completely lost how you can have an "ecology" of something that is undead and not part of any ecology. "Ecology" implies that it is a creature that serves some purpose in its environment. A death knight would serve no purpose in any ecology that would remotely make sense to anyone not taking crack before gaming. Wizards seems to have gotten into this weird habit of just using words in ways they were never meant to be used, and then wondering why people are confused, underwhelmed, disinterested, or disoriented.

I fear that WoTC is resorting to metaplotting, because it seems we can't just have a critter any more without some massive 50 page dissertation on where it came from and its justification.

Actually, "ecology" is the study of a creature and its interactions with the environment. For the undead, that could include such things as how the base creature rises to unlife, how it functions, what it can do, and how it does things. In addition, interactions with other creatures (e.g. living human beings like some PCs) are part of "ecology". As undead don't need to meet basic requirements of life (mind you, Libris Mortis details the actual "needs" of the unliving), other interactions are of greater importance. That means how the undead interact with other living creatures. Mind you, I'm applying my real-world studies in ecology to our beloved game, but hey, why not?

All that said, this article was as best so-so for me. Since we are unable to obtain glimpses of the 4E game mechanics, this article seemed to only be partially-written. Without a few example creatures in the article, it's more of a historical article. Nothing wrong with that, but if they're going to put it into the "Ecology" series of articles, a few stat blocks would be welcome. The comments about the history of the deathknight are all fine well and good, but I've already seen enough revisions of canon so I don't need to see changes to a creature I have had the misfortune to fight a few times and remember fondly. Perhaps these articles would be better if we waited till 4E is out . . . .

Paizo Employee Creative Director

Bardsandsages wrote:

After reading this thread, I am still completely lost how you can have an "ecology" of something that is undead and not part of any ecology. "Ecology" implies that it is a creature that serves some purpose in its environment. A death knight would serve no purpose in any ecology that would remotely make sense to anyone not taking crack before gaming. Wizards seems to have gotten into this weird habit of just using words in ways they were never meant to be used, and then wondering why people are confused, underwhelmed, disinterested, or disoriented.

I fear that WoTC is resorting to metaplotting, because it seems we can't just have a critter any more without some massive 50 page dissertation on where it came from and its justification.

Actually, Dragon's used the Ecology series for all manner of non-natural monsters, undead, constructs, etc. in the past. It's not really meant to indicate that a death knight has any purpose in an ecology as much as it is simply one of the longest-running (and the most popular) articles in the magazine. The ecology articles are nothing new to the magazine, in other words.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Cards, Companion, Modules Subscriber

Yeah, don´t focus on the use of the word "ecology" here. In case of undead and constructs, it is more a description of the interdependencies these creatures have on their surrounding - but "The interdependency of..." would make for an awful feature title...

I guess that WotC tried to jump on the bandwagon of the popular feature, but managed only to get a very shaky handhold. What I would expect from Dragon articles at the present time is at least a small preview of the new rules, not to mention explanatory stuff like it was done from 1e to 2e and again from 2e to 3e. But then, that might cut into the anticipated sales of the preview books out in December. Very strange idea anyways, to publish books previewing the contents of books to come. It is like to have to pay for the trailer for an upcoming movie...

Stefan

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