Welcome back to the Zurn blog! Today we're looking at a subclass intended to be used as an NPC for the players to face, but could be used by your players if they are cool with being more evil-aligned. With a potent mix of spells and powers that will challenge your players on many fronts, the Death Knight pursues its titular goal through a combination of strong offensive abilities and weakening/negation powers, allowing it to deal heavy damage that is hard to remove or avoid.
As always, we will start by looking at the themes and inspiration for this subclass before looking at its mechanics (and a slight tangent into strategy at regular points so you can optimize the use of this NPC against your players).
I. Death Knight: Theme and Inspiration
Drawn from stories like the Headless Horseman and other phantasmal destructive warriors, the Death Knight, much like the Oathbreaker, draws on darker themes for its inspiration. Unlike the Oathbreaker, though, there are no necromancer aspects to the subclass: this is a true paladin who still does paladin things, only with more support and hexing abilities, as we see in the stories.
Second, while the Death Knight does have frightening-related features, it differs from the Oathbreaker in that it offers far more than that. While fear effects are nice, they are expected by players and they come prepared to deal with them because they are relatively common. So the Death Knight has those for flavor, but it doesn't rely on those. We want to incorporate more status effects and conditions, making it a bit more unique and interesting to encounter a Death Knight.
In addition, I love how when these warriors appear you feel more than just a sense of dread: there's typically something else that comes with it. Perhaps you feel weak in the knees, unable to run away, or you feel sickly and pale as if the grave itself has you in its clutches. That's something else I'd love to see in a subclass like this: more than just a, "Pass a Wisdom Saving Throw or Be Afraid" effect: I want something that changes the tactical play of the combat, making you feel as if you are powerless in the presence of this harbinger of doom.
And of course, while a lot of paladins deal radiant damage (which is excellent), I felt like this kind of subclass would be more heavily drawn toward necrotic damage, giving the paladin's smites and spells a different, darker feel. Technically does this make the subclass weaker (as an Animate Dead spell can summon creatures that are resistant if not immune to necrotic damage)? Sure. Does it feel right? Yes.
And so with that, let's take a look at the Death Knight.
II. Death Knight: Mechanics
You can find the details of the subclass here, easily printable for your game master to consider if desired thanks to the team at Homebrewery. Starting at 3rd level when this oath is taken, you gain several new abilities. First, you get some new oath spells that are always prepared for you, including a melee damage spell and a homebrew Zurn spell called "Cursed Blood" which reduces the healing of the target (so Healing Word may not do anything when used) for 1 hour.
This means that if you batter someone down there is a good chance that a healing potion is only giving them 1-2 hit points, Goodberries are giving them nothing, and even hit die are poor sources of healing. And all of that lasts for 1 hour with no concentration. So batter the enemy down and then disengage, and let them lick their wounds and find that their wounds are still bleeding.
You also gain your Channel Divinity which has two options. You can select a creature to perform a Wisdom saving throw, and if it fails it is Stunned for 1 minute (giving all of your allies advantage to attack the target, it automatically fails Strength and Dexterity saving throws, and it's incapacitated - so devastating), or you can target a group of people near you and have them perform a Constitution saving throw or suffer some damage and the Poisoned effect (so disadvantage on attacks and ability checks) for 1 minute.
One makes it far easier to kill a single target, while the other makes it far harder for the targets to injure you or your allies. In both cases, killing them and embracing the Death Knight persona becomes far easier and vivid than just a, "you're frightened of me" effect.
You also gain 10ft of movement on turns when no enemies start within 10ft of you, which is something of a ribbon feature but very useful to insure that you can reach your intended target (or any target, for that matter).
By 7th level you're not only deep into your 2nd level spells, you also make it harder for you to suffer necrotic damage, gaining resistance to necrotic damage (and giving that to allies within 10ft) and also gaining advantage on saving throws to avoid taking necrotic damage. So whole swaths of hindering spells are less effective now, and those pesky Toll the Dead attacks are less potent if not completely impotent.
At 15th level you gain a small feature that has a big impact: you always have the Divine Favor spell effect active on yourself, except that it cannot be dispelled, isn't using your concentration, and deals necrotic damage instead of radiant damage. This becomes even more useful with your capstone feature, but for now all you need to know is that your damage has actually gone up quite a bit since every attack all day every day is now doing this extra damage at no cost (and you can technically cast the spell on yourself as you are gaining the effect but not the spell, so you could have an additional 2d4 Necrotic on every attack you do while the spell is active). So while it looks small don't worry - there's a reason why it's how it is, and there's a reason you don't get this until 15th level.
And finally at 20th level you get your capstone feature, and it's a doozy. For 1 minute you gain three very simple bonuses that all make you extremely deadly on the battlefield. First, you add 1d8 necrotic damage to all of your attacks. Note that this applies to all attacks, including spell attacks. Second, targets that you damage cannot benefit from healing for that minute from spells. So if someone wants to heal someone else they either need to have medicinal training to use healing kits to heal the target, or they need to have some sort of supernatural healing (like the Celestial Warlock) to get the target back up.
And if these two weren't enough (as more damage all around and locking down most healing in the game will already bring characters to their knees quickly), the paladin also heals himself/herself a number of hit points equal to the necrotic damage he/she deals. During this minute you're already getting 2-12 points of Necrotic damage just off of your 15th and 20th level abilities (for 4-24HP each turn just off of two attacks), and then you add on additional features that might deal more necrotic damage like divine smites, spells that deal necrotic damage, and other abilities, and wow - any damage that the party does to you on their turns could be wiped out in a single turn of two attacks. While still managing your allies in the combat.
This subclass is designed to kill, but it doesn't just do it by piling on the damage: it does it in a subtle and scarier way by limiting your options and shutting down your abilities all while piling on decent damage on you. And that is dangerous, as it feels debilitating while it is killing you - which is exactly what we want.
If you like this, run a Death Knight against your players. If you are cool with your players doing these things to your NPCs, consider allowing them to play as a Death Knight.
Until next time,