Death Knight (5e Optimized Character Build)
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- commonly misquoted saying.
The Death Knight is an attempt to combine the survivability of a martial class with the versatility of a spell caster. It is hard to hit (though if it does get hit it won't last all that long) and even harder to push into a situation where the build doesn't offer multiple options for surviving or even overcoming the odds entirely. It can hold the line during the early levels just like any other martial build, but also cast rituals and utility spells once it hits Tier 2, before progressing to nearly full spellcaster in Tier 3 & 4. In addition, once it hits level 9-11, it brings its own troops to battle, thus adding more meatshield or damage to the party as needed.
Overall the Death Knight is a build for those that value versatility and being reasonably good in multiple things over being excellent in very few things. However, anyone taking up the mantle of a Death Knight should better be able to think ahead, prepare well in advance while also being able to quickly adapt to quickly changing circumstances. It is not a "Hulk smash!" kind of build in any way, shape or form!
In essence, you are the parties backup in almost everything but leave the first try at things to them while focusing on helping them out, rather than doing stuff yourself. This, by its very nature, makes you the perfect character to become the party leader ...
During the first tier (level 1-4) the Death Knight plays pretty much like a standard Fighter.
During the second tier (level 5-10) the build gradually swaps from a tank that focuses on weapons to a tough cantrip-focused caster and versatile party support with loads of survivability.
Finally during the third tier (level 11-16) the build truly comes into its own, getting the ability to raise a squad of tough zombies or hard-hitting skeletons by level 12 at the latest, and thus finally truly deserving the name of Death Knight.
Should your campaign last long enough for you to reach the fourth tier (level 17-20) then you'll have become the equal of most casters while still being tougher than them and having more options for surviving battles - in addition to having a small army of minions at your beck and call that you can send out to do your bidding or support the party in battle ...
You will be very hard to hit (high AC) and have multiple ways of reducing the harm when you actually are hit (Heavy Armor Mastery, Absorb Elements, temporary HP) as well as having several options for recovering from whatever gets through (necromancer archetype feature, healing word, vampiric touch, and many more).
In addition, you are very versatile and have more sustainability in your base abilities than many other characters will bring to the table. Many of your class features recover on a Short Rest - including a 1st level spell slot thanks to the Warlock level - while the primary tool in your arsenal, cantrips, are infinite anyways.
Beyond the above, you also have a positive modifier in just about all attributes, granting you some competency with most skills right there. Add cantrips like Guidance (Cleric) and the various spells at your disposal and you can bring a lot of utility in both skills and other out-of-combat capacities to the table.
Overall you are highly versatile and very flexible while also having more endurance than one would expect. Your broad selection of abilities provides you ample means to adapt to just about any situation, and with some preparation, you can really shine when the rest of the party flounders.
That flexibility allows you to function very well as the leader of the party, letting others take point while supporting them from the back or stepping in if they fall short and giving the party a second shot at making it.
The endurance, on the other hand, lets you keep going long past where others would need their nth short or even long rest. You shine in campaigns that restrict resting and focus on hordes of enemies (rather than few strong ones).
While you are hard to harm in the first place and can recover reasonably well, your actual HPs are at most average. That easily suffices on the first tier (level 1-4), but on the higher tiers, you'll find them somewhat lacking, even with all the options you have to make them last longer. In addition, the majority of your defense is based on your high AC. Together that means that you'll want to avoid AoE abilities as well as hostile spell casters since your saves are rather low and a single big hit can ruin your day significantly more than a ton of small hits ever will.
Your attributes are also all over the place, thus making you lag behind more specialized characters when it comes to attribute modifiers. Getting an item like the Headband of Intellect to compensate for that is almost vital.
The wide spread of classes also reduces the number of spell slots and their level, which in turn makes it very important that you spend them carefully and only when truly needed. Even though you'll eventually be able to cast Fireball, Action Surge, cast a second Fireball in a single turn you'll probably just about never actually want to do that. I suggest you consider your spell slots emergency options and 'get out of jail free' cards and leave the regular spell spamming to characters more focused on spell casting than you are.
Lastly, this character build will lack in raw numbers and thus will have to compensate with good planning, ample preparations, good tactics, and quick thinking during actual encounters. It is certainly not something that a (mentally) lazy person would enjoy playing while also requiring a rather good grasp of the rules and all the various options they provide.
That means that while you can handle cannon-fodder and hordes easily enough, you struggle with your damage output vs fewer stronger enemies.
As a result of all the above you will spend most of your turns standing still, only occasionally moving to a new position, and casting Toll the Dead over and over with the intent of finishing off whichever enemies are most injured. Though you could do significantly more by spending some of your very limited spell slots, you are almost always waiting for an emergency before actually doing so, and thus, while things go well, don't actually spend any. This becomes even more so if you decide to go for an undead army as they lock out most of your higher spell slots in the process. That kind of playstyle can feel fairly boring.
In battle, you mostly focus on positioning to screen your squishies so that hostiles can't get to them, and to provide flanking for your party's melee DPS.
For offense, you will usually just throw a single cantrip at whichever enemy is closest to death, finishing the chaff off and thus letting the DPS focus on the high-HP enemies (thereby ensuring that they waste less damage through overkill when finishing enemies that are close to death already).
Beyond this, you don't really do much most of the time - that gives you ample mental capacity to keep an eye on the big picture and, with a few shouts (or telepathic equivalents) ensure that the entire party is positioned optimally and focused on the right targets. Just make sure you don't order them around out-of-character and don't take it personally if they ignore your orders and suggestions from time to time.
Fighter 4 / Eldritch Knight (Absorb Elements, Shield, two of Chill Touch, Toll the Dead or Mold Earth)
Cleric 1 / Death Domain (Mending, Healing Word, do not pick Toll the Dead or Chill Touch)
Warlock 1 / Hexblade (Blade Ward, Prestidigitation, Armor of Agathys, Hex)
Wizard 14 / Necromancer (whichever cantrip you didn't pick as a Fighter/Eldritch Knight, Haste, Vampiric Touch, Counterspell)
For attributes: 14/10/12/14/13/14 with intelligence being the most important.
For feats: get the Heavy Armor Mastery feat ASAP, at level 1 if possible, then the War Caster feat with the first ability score increase afterward.
Combat will primarily consist of casting Toll the Dead while being in a position where you can provide flanking to allies or pin down enemies through the threat of hitting them with opportunity attacks. The Cleric domain feature allows you to hit two adjacent targets with any necromancy cantrip you cast that targets one creature.
You keep a Healing Word handy for when an ally goes down and otherwise simply take your time to slowly grind the enemies down, leaving it to the rest of the party to waste their resources while you make sure you got enough to save the day if things go south.
The race you choose does not really matter, though if your campaign is going to be a short one then picking the Human (Variant) for that 1st level feat might be worth it. Otherwise, you can easily pick up a feat later on and take whatever race you fancy at first level.
Of course if you really do want to min-max this build then races that increase your HP or toughness even further are a good choice:
- Half Orc (immunity to instagibs)
- Hill Dwarf (more HP)
- Warforged (several immunities and even more AC - start at 20 AC)
Though for tiers two and three (levels 5-15) you might be better served with races that allow you to achieve a higher intelligence instead ...
My personal favorite race is the Kalashtar race from Eberron, primarily because their Telepathy works wonders for coordinating forces on a loud battlefield and without the enemy being able to overhear ones plans.
It really does not matter which one you take.
However, for RP reasons I tend to pick one that gives me the Arcana proficiency as being an almost pure caster without having that one feels weird to me.
Your main attribute is intelligence, followed by constitution.
However, you will need to meet certain thresholds for the multiple classes:
- Fighter: 13 STR (so you can multi-class 'out' of the Fighter)
- Wizard: 13 INT
- Warlock: 13 CHA
- Cleric: 13 WIS
In addition, your equipment also has certain thresholds:
- Chainmail: 13 STR
- Plate Mail: 15 STR (optional)
Alternatively, you can pick up a Scale Mail (AC 14) which, with at least 14 DEX, will get you to the same AC as a Chainmail at level 1. This, combined with a Finesse weapon like a Rapier, will allow you to neglect your STR to some degree and instead focus on DEX, which not only helps with initiative, but also with DEX Saving Throws, one of the, if not the, most common saves in the game. In addition, you can use armor with no stealth penalty. The downside is that your AC will never be quite as high as it could otherwise be, nor can you benefit from the Heavy Armor Mastery feat.
You'd cap out at Breastplate with AC 14 +2 DEX +2 Shield +1 Fighting Style = 19 AC vs Plate Armor with AC 18 +2 Shield +1 Fighting Style = 21 AC, that is before taking into account magic items or buffs since those apply to both options equally. That means the difference is a mere 2 AC. Every point of AC counts, but only until the enemy only hits on a nat 20 since AC above that is 'wasted' with nat 20s being guaranteed hits anyways. Hence how much this difference matters largely depends on the accuracy of your enemies and your access to ways to permanently increase your AC (+X to armor or shield; +AC items).
Anything beyond that is optional.
I suggest you get at least 14 Strength so that, with the +1 from the Heavy Armor Mastery Feat, you'll meet the 15 Strength required to wear plate mail without penalties. In addition, I suggest getting 14 Charisma so you get +3 temp HP per knockout from the Warlock class feature instead of +2 (it gives warlock level + charisma modifier temp HP).
Usually, that will leave you with something along the lines of 14/10/12/14/13/14 after racial bonuses.
It is worth reiterating that Intelligence is really the key attribute here as you will stop using a weapon at level 3 and instead rely on your cantrips, and the occasional spell, from there onward.
Heavy Armor Mastery
This feat reduces any non-magical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage you receive by 3 pts. That means that your average sword (1d8+2 = ~6-7) will basically do half damage to you.
Getting this feat early on is a major boon to your survivability and you'll definitely notice its presence for quite a while, at a guess I'd say until you hit Tier 3 (level 11-16) at the least and it'll probably still be noticeable even then, just no nearly as impactful.
Thus, this feat is something you'll want to get very early on to get the most out of it - the earlier the better.
Note: This feat has diminishing returns and is most effective when facing hordes of weaker enemies. It is absolutely brilliant in Tier 1 (level 1-4), and still rather good in Tier 2 (level 5-10), but it quickly falls of past that due to a combination of circumstances (it only works vs non-magical weapon damage, it's most effective at low damage per hit & high hit count both of which will be less and less the case at higher levels, and your AC will only get higher thus reducing hit count but making it more and more likely that if you do get hit, it's a crit).
Homebrew Recommendation: changing this feat from a fixed 3 pts to an amount equal to one's Proficiency Modifier as well as also letting it work vs magical weapon damage when wearing magical heavy armor makes this feat scale without making it OP - in my opinion that is.
This feat not only allows you to perform somatic components while holding a weapon or shield, and allows you to use single-target cantrips for Opportunity Attacks, but also grants Advantage on Concentration Checks caused by damage (though not Concentration Checks caused by other things).
Any one of these three effects would make the feat worthwhile but all three together make it essential to the build. As a result, this feat is a very close second choice behind Heavy Armor Mastery. It is so important that, if you haven't taken Heavy Armor Mastery at first level it might be a tie between that one and Warcaster when you get to your 4th level of Fighter and get that ability score increase and thus the option to pick a feat...
For your equipment, you'll want to pick the Chainmail (16 AC) and Shield (+2 AC), which, together with your defensive fighting style (+1 AC), will give you an AC of 19 at first level.
The rest of the gear doesn't really matter for the purpose of this build though I suggest you take a main weapon, a sidearm and at least one ranged weapon in addition to the usual adventuring, dungeoneering, and survival gear.
For the main weapon, I recommend a Warhammer. Its versatile property allows you two switch from one-handed + shield to two-handed fighting, thus increasing your damage output at the cost of some AC if so desired. In addition, a warhammer grants you bludgeoning damage, which is the weapon-based damage type that is least often resisted.
For the sidearm, I recommend either a dagger or a handaxe. For this one, I consider two aspects: on one hand damage type versatility, aka having the option to switch to another damage type if needed, and on the other hand general utility, especially outside of battle. I personally tend to take the handaxe as it helps with making camp and is a good and versatile tool that can be used for a lot of things outside of combat and most backgrounds already bring a small knife with them anyways, thus making a dagger somewhat redundant.
Finally for the ranged weapon you are free to pick whatever you like, though should you be short on cash then a sling is always a good option to the point where I take one to three slings on just about all my characters even if I got cantrips or a better-ranged weapon already - after all having a backup never hurts.
Of course, later on, you'll want to swap to the best armor and weapons you can get your hands on and with a full plate, even without any magical items, you'll already reach an astonishing AC of 21 before buffs.
- Headband of Intellect
You'll really want to get a Headband of Intellect as soon as you can. Due to the number of classes and feats, you'll be behind in stat progression basically from the moment the game starts at level 1. The Headband can really help you out with its fixed 19 intelligence - and, as an uncommon item, it should not be too hard to get a hold of either. In addition, you are likely able to craft it yourself, even if you can't manage to find or purchase it otherwise.
Note: Ask your DM if this is an item that is available and something you can manage to acquire at some point before or at the latest by level 8. If you can't get it, then I recommend skipping the Heavy Armor Mastery Feat and the Warlock level, getting Warcaster a bit earlier, and using the 'freed up' ability score increase to raise your intelligence. Ideally, you'll want an Intelligence Modifier of +4 by level 8.
Level 1-3: Fighter
You start with three levels of fighter, picking the Defensive Fighting Style (+1 AC) at first level and the Eldritch Knight at the third level.
As cantrips, you'll want to take Prestidigitation or Mold Earth and either Chill Touch or Toll the Dead.
Prestidigitation will grant you a variety of options. From changing the color of your armor, shield & weapon so it blends into the area, over changing scents and cleaning up after battle to creating small tools and "holographic" displays - this spell provides a lot of versatile utility if applied creatively.
Mold Earth will allow you to create some cover on the battlefield for your team members, including total cover if need be (make a 5ft cube hole underneath your party member and put the excavated 5ft cube directly adjacent and in the direction of the enemy - voila, you got a 10ft high wall covering your ally). It is also a neat option for creating a base or bypassing enemy guards and patrols in many caves. Its full usefulness largely depends on how creative you can get and on how much the GM lets you get away with and what kind of terrain you will usually be in - if there is no loose earth to manipulate then this spell might be a bad choice (please note that "gravel" and "sand" are technically not "loose earth", nor is "solid rock" - ask your GM before picking this cantrip what you can and can't do with it).
Chill Touch would give you a ranged option with unlimited ammunition though the key portion of that spell is not so much the damage, but the fact that it prevents the target from regaining HP. This locks down any form of regeneration, healing, health potions, etc on the target and should make a couple of otherwise very tough fights quite manageable.
Toll the Dead is the primary damage option for this build but it does not really matter when you pick it up. You can either pick it up at the 3rd level as Eldritch Knight or at the 7th level as Wizard. I recommend choosing to pick it up later unless your party is severely lacking in damage output or you know that you'll have to fight from melee for the first 7 levels. (Using ranged attacks - e.g. a ranged spell attack for casting Chill Touch - while in melee gives you disadvantage on that ranged attack. Toll the Dead does not involve an attack and can thus be used while in melee with no issues.)
For the Eldritch Knight spells you'll want to pick the Absorb Elements and Shield spells for your restricted spells and either Sleep, maybe Feather Fall, or possibly Tasha's Hideous Laughter for your unrestricted spell.
Keep in mind that any spell you learn as an Eldritch Knight is a spell you do not need to prepare and have always available for casting. Thus putting spells that you always want to have prepared into those slots - or one that may cause you to die if you do not have it prepared - is a good idea. Additionally, you'll want to pick spells that still work well even at higher levels since you'll never be able to change them but will have them available even at level 20...
Level 4-6: Fighter, Cleric, Warlock
For the next three levels, you will have to pick up the 4th level in Fighter which brings a Feat as well, as picking up a level of Cleric with the Death domain and a level of Warlock with the Fiend patron.
The order you pick these in does not matter for the build and should be based on the requirements of your campaign.
The Feat you pick for the ability score increase on fighter level 4 will be either Heavy Armor Mastery (reduce non-magical bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage from weapons by 3) or if you already have that one, War Caster (advantage on Concentration rolls due to damage, can use single-target spells in Opportunity Attacks).
Picking the Heavy Armor Mastery Feat will also increase your Strength by 1 and thus most likely bring you to the 15 strength required for plate armor.
Cleric 1 / Death Domain
The Death domain from the Cleric gives you access to the Reaper class feature. That one allows you to get a free necromancy cantrip and, more importantly, allows you to target two adjacent targets with any cast of a single target necromancy cantrip. From here on forward, bunched up enemies will be your ideal targets and horde type encounters your preference...
Note: Do NOT pick any damage-dealing cantrip for that free cantrip. The cantrip you pick here counts as cleric cantrip and you'll want all your combat cantrips to use intelligence as their casting attribute, not the cleric's wisdom. I suggest taking Spare the Dying so you can stabilize your allies if you need to without having to make a roll for it.
As for the cantrips and spells that you can learn and ready, for the most part, they do not really matter.
I suggest that you get the Mending cantrip so you can repair your clothes, armor, and weapons after each battle and don't have to walk around looking like a murder hobo all the time and maybe the Light cantrip if you are lacking Darkvision from your race. A stone with light can easily be sling-shot forward quite some distance and give you that vision at a range that might otherwise be lacking - even with darkvision (which is limited to 60ft and thus not really useful beyond short ranged combat).
For the spells only Healing Word is a key component of this build, the rest does not really matter all that much, though you might want to prepare Shield of Faith or Bless just in case, especially if you already have War Caster for that advantage on Concentration saving throws.
For the Warlock you basically have two options. You can either pick the Fiend Patron or the Hexblade.
The Fiend Patron will give you the Dark One's Blessing feature. With this feature, you'll get temporary HP whenever you knock someone down to 0 HP. The amount you get is equal to your charisma modifier plus your warlock class level which means you will usually get +3 temporary HP for each knockout.
While this does not stack with other temp HP - e.g. the ones from Armor of Agathys - it also doesn't require the use of a spell slot and thus is a great help if you have a DM that loves using hordes of lower-level enemies and battles of attrition.
Note: According to the Monster Manual monsters die or are destroyed when reaching 0 HP. Please double-check with your DM how they handle enemies (both NPCs and monsters) that reach 0 HP. There are a lot of aspects of this build that make the distinction between knocking an enemy out and killing them a rather important one.
Note: This is an option for those that don't want to be evil or desire a significant boost to the single-target damage dealing capacity of the build - for everyone else I suggest you don't take this option.
While the Hexblade doesn't have as much staying power as the Fiend Patron provides, it does grant the Wrathful Smite spell (which I recommend you ignore unless you have some way to boost your melee attack significantly) as well as the Hexblade Curse (once per short rest). The Hexblade curse really helps against strong single targets - like Bosses. The increased damage and crit range do apply to your spells, including to Magic Missile and Scorching Ray (in which case it applies to every missile or ray fired against the cursed target).
Whether that is worth the loss of 'free' sustainability is of cause up to you to decide. It does, however, allow you a less 'evil' character since you skip that 'pact with a demon' portion of things - something that might be required to make this build valid for certain player groups.
For cantrips I suggest Prestidigitation.
Prestidigitation allows you to not only clean up after a battle, thus once again reducing your murder hobo appearance level to 'civilized', but also allows you to color your gear, thus giving you the option of using (mono-color) camouflage by painting up to three items (armor, shield, weapon) in a color of your choice ...
Although those two uses of Prestidigitation are the ones I use the most often they are by no means the only ones and I strongly recommend that you spend a few minutes to google for one of the dozens of '100 uses of prestidigitation' lists that are out there on various boards and wikis.
As for spells Armor of Agathys and Hex are most likely your best choices, but neither is a required component of this build. I do suggest that you take spells that are not on the Wizard list though since you can usually copy wizard spells to your spellbook for a fee at the local library or mage college.
Level 7-11: Wizard
Finally, once you reach level 7, you pick the last class of this build - the Wizard.
With the wizard, you will pick either Chill Touch or Toll the Dead as one of the cantrips you get - whichever one you did not pick as an Eldritch Knight. The rest of the cantrips and spells are entirely up to you.
I strongly recommend that you focus on getting as many ritual spells as possible since you are lagging behind in terms of spell levels and spell slots by roughly 4 character levels compared to pure full caster builds. Focusing on ritual spells alleviates your reliance on spell slots while offering a lot of utility potential for your party outside of combat. In combat you'll be using your spell slots for Shield, Absorb Elements and Healing Word almost exclusively anyways so having a lot of combat spells to choose from doesn't really matter for this build.
The spells that this build needs that you do not have by this time are Counterspell, Haste and Vampiric Touch, though Counterspell has the lowest priority among these for most campaigns - usually one simply does not encounter magic users often enough to make it more worthwhile than the other two options.
Once you reach character level 8 - and wizard level 2 - and can pick your wizard archetype you'll have two choices. For this build, you can either pick the Abjuration Wizard and become even tougher while also becoming able to use your ward to tank for the party, or you can choose the Necromancer Wizard, which is what this build is named for.
[READER EDIT: War Magic is also an option, as arcane deflection complements the martial half of this build.]
[AUTHOR REPLY: Yep, but war magic seems to focus on an anti-magic role for most of its features. I prefer the more generalist nature of Necromancer and Abjurer.]
I will ignore the Abjuration Wizard option as that is not the one I named this build after, nor the one I personally consider the better one. However, there is one thing I'd like to point out: casting abjuration spells as ritual counts for the purpose of activating or recharging the ward. Alarm is an abjuration ritual spell.
It is, however, a valid alternative if you don't want to play something quite so dark.
That being done with, let us focus on the Necromancer.
As a necromancer, you'll immediately get the benefit of being able to heal yourself when you kill enemies with your non-cantrip spells. Keep in mind that this specifically states killing, thus knocking someone to 0 HP is not enough here.
In addition, you'll, later on, get free access to the Raise Dead spell and even improved undead minions.
Together this not only increases your survivability but also gives you cannon fodder and cheap labor to use as you desire.
At level 11 you'll get the next ability score increase. If you have not already picked up the War Caster feat then now is the time to get it.
A level later you also get access to Raise Dead via the wizard level 6 class feature (I advice against picking that spell as a wizard 5 level up spell - Haste, Vampiric Touch, and Counterspell have priority here if you haven't gotten them already by copying them from scrolls or other sources). In addition, any undead you do raise will get increased HP and damage, thus allowing you to easily have a meat-shield that hurts or an archery squad of doom, depending on your preferences.
From this point forward you are a true Death Knight.
Anything you kill or knock out will heal you and you can bring your enemies back as undead to fight for you. Death is something you control, not fear.
There are many spells to chose amongst and for the most part, you can freely choose whatever you please and still make this build work. There are however a few key spells that are vital to the build.
Note: You can only prepare 2, maybe 3 if you got really lucky with your stats, Cleric spells. One of these will usually be Healing Word, the other will usually be Aid.
The build relies on you using necromancy cantrips that deal damage as your 'baseline' damage source thanks to the Death Domain feature that allows your necromancy cantrip to hit two adjacent targets per cast. That basically means Toll the Dead for the most part, with Chill Touch adding a bit of extra range and utility where needed.
In addition, a couple of Cantrips allow you to affect either the battlefield in some noticeable way that makes it worth spending some actions on doing so:
- Mold Earth
- Still Image
While other Cantrips instead offer some utility that can be fairly beneficial to the entire party:
- Light (especially if one or more members of your party don't have Darkvision, note that once an object is glowing there is no range limit ... throw it, sling it, have a familiar drop it on the enemy, ...)
- Prestidigitation (cleaning away blood & dirt, coloring a single person's clothing & weapon in a single color of choice for camouflage, showing a hand-sized illusion to plan battles or relay scouting information from your familiar, ...)
Overall though, cantrips are what you are going to use the most. Hence, they are a large part of the image others get of the character you are playing. Which together means that you should not just pick them for mechanical benefits but also consider how they fit the character you are playing.
1st Level Spells
For your first level spells there are a couple of key choices:
- Shield and Absorb Elements from the Eldritch Knight restricted spell choices so those two are always available without taking up a prepared spell slot
- Healing Word for your Cleric to keep people from having to make Death Saving Throws
- Armor of Agathys for your Warlock since it scales really really well when up-cast with higher-level spell slots.
- Bless as a good spell to prepare for your Cleric preparation slots since it buffs most of the party in almost all their activities for an entire battle without you needing to roll a single die.
- Sleep as a choice for your unrestricted Eldritch Knight spell (but consider it a 'combat ender' rather than something you use at the start of a fight - it runs vs the current HP of all creatures in it's AoE, not their max HP, hence works nicely to 'finish off' enemies without killing them, e.g. for capture or interrogation)
- Feather Fall as a choice for your unrestricted Eldritch Knight spell (my preference)
- Find Familiar (Ritual) is highly recommended as a choice on your first Wizard level
- Alarm (Ritual)
- Detect Magic (Ritual) to detect magical traps as well as identify which pieces of loots are worth a more detailed look
- Comprehend Languages (Ritual)
- Identify (Ritual) is also quite nice if your DM doesn't allow you to basically get the same effect from a Short Rest or limits the information said Short Rest grants compared to what the use of Identify would provide.
- Silent Image
2nd Level Spells
Once you get access to 2nd level and higher spell slots you can prepare cleric spells of those levels. Other than those though, you only get Wizard spells for 2nd level and higher spell slots.
In addition, you can upcast certain 1st level spells to very good effect - primarily Armor of Agathys.
I recommend preparing Aid, and if you can prepare 3 cleric spells, maybe Lesser Restoration as well if you are likely to encounter status effects you can remove with it.
For your Wizard spells, having Mirror Image is almost a must-have, but I also recommend trying to get your hands on Darkvision if you don't already have that covered by your race, Flaming Sphere if you can get it early enough to be reasonably effective, and of course, Misty Step for that extra emergency mobility.
- Blur synergizes amazingly well with your high armor class, though the fact that it requires concentration limits its actual utility rather severely
- Detect Thoughts for that extra edge when trying to figure out what an enemy is planning, both in battle (knowing the plans of the BBEG for the current battle can be a rather nice boon) and during negotiations or other social interactions as well as for the obvious benefit when interrogating captured enemies
- Web for the battlefield control
- Nystul's Magic Aura since that one can potentially hide your alignment as well as your undead from most, if not all, detections - potentially permanently.
- Gentle Repose since that one lets you preserve corpses for later use, something that is especially useful if your DM lets you raise undead other than just 1:1 the ones mentioned in the various spells that create undead.
- Spiritual Weapon if you need more damage and can afford to spend the Concentration as well as Bonus Action for that on a regular basis.
- Flock of Familiars is a very solid option for scouting surprisingly large areas, you can share the senses of the 3+ familiars within a mile but nothing prevents them from ranging further, then reporting back in before the spell's 1-hour duration ends, in addition, you can simply dismiss a familiar at any time then use an action to have them reappear at a location you can see within 30ft of you, thus allowing them to skip the way back if so desired.
3rd Level Spells
Once you get access to third-level spells things start to become more interesting. Unfortunately, you'll be way higher in character level than single class casters would be by this point and thus damage focused spells of these spell levels are significantly less effective against the enemies you are facing.
For your cleric spells, I recommend getting Revivify prepared but otherwise sticking to the lower level spells except maybe to upcast Aid since that provides a rather nicely scaling buff to the party.
For your wizard spells, on the other hand, I recommend getting Animate Dead with your 6th wizard level for free unless of cause you can get your hands on that one earlier via copying it from somewhere - those undead minions can really change the way you and your entire party handles combats. I advise against 'wasting' a free spell-on-level-up choice on that one though. Aside from that one, Counterspell is a must-have as is Hypnotic Pattern. Both of these scale perfectly fine all the way up to level 20 and can have a major impact on the battle. Aside from them, Vampiric Touch is a solid choice, especially if your DM lets you 'finish off' defeated enemies with it for some rather incredible amounts of self-healing.
- Dispel Magic
- Glyph of Warding, especially if you got a base of sorts
- Leomund's Tiny Hut to ensure uninterrupted long rests wherever you want to take them
- Remove Curse
- Water Breathing.
4th Level Spells
Honorable mentions: Arcane Eye, Banishment, Dimension Door, Fire Shield, Fabricate, Polymorph
5th Level Spells
Honorable mentions: Animate Object (e.g. with a handful of silver coins), Dream, Greater Restoration (Cleric), Raise Dead (Cleric), Rary's Telepathic Bond, Scrying, Transmute Rock, Wall of Force, Wall of Stone (to build things quickly)
6th Level Spells
Honorable mentions: Contingency, Globe of Invulnerability, Mass Suggestion, Move Earth, Scatter
7th Level Spells
Finger of Death (basically infinite numbers of permanently controlled zombies if you can kill enough goblins or other humanoids),
Honorable mentions: Forcecage, Plane Shift, Simulacrum, Teleport
8th Level Spells
Honorable mentions: Clone, Demiplane
9th Level Spells
You can only reach 9th level spell slots by skipping the Warlock, and even then, you only get guaranteed access to your 9th level cleric spells and at level 20 at that. As such you will probably have reached the end of the character's lifetime before getting to this point and if not have a very good idea of which spells you'll want to get your hands on. Hence I'll skip providing suggestions for this spell level.
- [1st] Absorb Elements
- [1st] Shield
- [3rd] Counterspell
- [1st+] Armor of Agathys (provides [spell slot level] x 5 temp HP and anything hitting you in melee takes as much cold damage, lasts for 1 hour or until the temp HP are used up, best if used in conjunction with the Heavy Armor Mastery feat as that one reduces damage taken and thus temp HP & HP lost, thereby making this buff last significantly longer)
- [2nd+] Aid (grants spell [spell slot level -1] x 5 extra max HP for up to 3 creatures for 8 hours - these can be regained through healing and by spending HD during a Short Rest)
- [2nd] Mirror Image (very high priority, provides 3 illusionary duplicates of yourself for 1 minute to which you can shift attacks if you roll well enough on a d20)
- [4th] Fire Shield (rather low priority, lasts 10 minutes and grants resistance to cold or fire and as a minor bonus does the inverse damage type to those hitting you in melee)
Note: none of these spells require concentration, hence using them does not limit your ability to buff, debuff or control the battlefield in any way.
Your normal 'baseline' turns will consist of you moving to a good position and then either casting Chill Touch or Toll the Dead, based on the circumstances. You will use your Bonus Action primarily to cast Healing Word and rarely use your Reaction for anything other than opportunity attacks with Toll the Dead, or the rare Absorb Elements or Shield spell.
If the enemy regenerates, heals a lot, has plenty of healing potions, or otherwise keeps recovering their HP then you will need to use Chill Touch to prevent them from doing so for a turn.
However, if you are in melee then you'll have disadvantage on your ranged attacks, which includes the ranged spell attack chill touch requires. Hence you might want to get out of melee and even accept one or more enemy opportunity attacks in order to give your party the chance to focus on and burst down that HP recovering enemy quickly.
In all other situations, and especially if you are in melee, you'll want to use Toll the Dead though. Not only does it d12s instead of d8s when the target is missing at least 1 HP, but it is also not an attack and does thus not suffer from the disadvantage one gets on ranged attacks while in melee.
Thanks to the Reaper class feature from your Cleric's Death Domain any cast of a necromantic cantrip that targets one creature can instead target two creatures within 5 feet of each other. This means you'll be focusing your Chill Touch and Toll the Dead spells on any situation where the enemy clusters up. In those situations, you might even outperform the rest of the party in terms of baseline damage per round, especially when the enemies are already wounded and you are in range to use Toll the Dead.
Generally speaking though, you'll want to focus on finishing off enemies, thus leaving your higher DPS party members free to focus on the other enemies and spare them having to waste damage on an overkill just to ensure a target is out of the fight.
Note: Using Shoves (to knock enemies prone and thus not only grant all friendlies advantage for their melee attacks - and disadvantage for their ranged attacks - but also force them to spend half their movement to get back up again) and Grapples (which, if successful, reduces the target's speed to 0) in place of your Attacks, especially in place of Opportunity Attacks, can help you a lot with screening the squishies.
In addition to the above, your focus should be on ensuring that everyone in the party is in the best possible tactical position and, if necessary, shouting over a word or two to ensure they don't lose track of the rest of the battle while focusing on whatever they are doing - e.g. calling out priority targets, repositioning or even retreat for the entire party as the situation demands.
Beyond that, you can use your comparatively limited resources on battlefield control spells. Any effect that isn't spell-level dependent and affects either the battlefield or multiple targets is a good potential option here - especially ones that don't rely on your casting attribute (aka your spell save DC or spell attack modifier). Examples include spells that create difficult terrain or create (possibly illusionary) obstacles or distractions. Spells that allow you to split the enemy up and have them trickle in are particularly effective.
Bless can boost the performance of your heavy hitters for basically an entire battle, assuming you can maintain concentration.
Aid can give the entire party that little extra HP buffer to get them through the day (especially since the extra max HP from Aid can be recovered with Hit Dice spend on healing during a Short Rest as well as with any other source of HP recovery).
Spells like Web, Fog, Ice Sleet, or Walls of various kinds can prevent enemies from piling onto the party and make them trickle in instead, thus allowing the others to take them on one by one rather than all at once.
Teleports like Misty Step or an outright Scatter can allow you to reposition up to the entire party or move those in danger to safety (assuming, in the case of Misty Step, Thunder Step, or Dimension Door, that you are able to carry them).
Finally, I recommend getting several consumables, both non-magical and magical, to further give you options for affecting the battlefield or multiple enemies.
A smoke bomb should be fairly easy to get a hold off and a medieval Molotov cocktail can potentially give not just light but also something else to worry about for lower leveled enemies. Some traps like snares or ankle-pits designed to trap someone's foot with anchored spikes can further impede your enemies if you got the time to prepare (the Mold Earth cantrip excels in preparing an area quickly if you got even just a couple minutes to prepare). Add to that various potions and scrolls and you can fairly quickly become an utter menace without ever touching your limited resources.
All in all, you need to keep calm, think things through, and prepare for as many possibilities as you can.
Wargaming various theoretical situations with your party at the campfire each evening can definitely help there, as can going through any theoretical situation you can think of - starting with how you'd go about defeating the party and each of its members followed by preparing ways to prevent exactly that ...
You are short on spell slots. That is a direct consequence of multi-classing into so many different classes and can't be helped.
Hence you will have to think carefully about when to use your limited spell slots and what to use them for.
1st Level Spells
From the very beginning, your 1st level spell slots are your most sparse resource. Hence they are reserved for true emergencies and not to be wasted on trifles.
- Healing Word
Healing Word uses a Bonus Action to heal a creature within 60 ft for 1d4+WIS HP.
As a means for recovering HP it is awful and you should never use it for that.
Regaining even just a single HP when one is at 0 HP and unconscious, however, is enough to wake one up again and put one back into the fight. Hence your primary use for your first level spell slots is to cast a Healing Word on any ally that got knocked out, ideally before they even have to make their first death saving throw.
That ally then uses half their movement to get back on their feet and is right back in the battle as if nothing had happened, potentially not even losing a single action.
Any other use of your 1st level slots has to be at least as effective - otherwise, it is a wasted spell slot.
- Shield and Absorb Elements
Your two main damage negation spells are Shield and Absorb Elements.
However, unless you can convince your GM to play with the Spell Points optional/variant rule from the DMG, you will be lacking the sheer number of 1st level spell slots to truly make use of these two spells in anything other than an emergency.
Basically you will only cast either spell when doing so will do one of two things
- keep you alive/conscious when not casting the spell wouldn't or
- reduce the incoming damage by an amount equal to at least a third of your total HP
In just about every other situation you will want to hang on to those 1st level spell slots for Healing Words.
- Armor of Agathys
If you picked that single level of Warlock then the Armor of Agathys spell is a very good choice.
Not only will it scale really well when you up-cast it with higher-level spell slots, but it also makes you significantly more durable and discourages people from actually hitting you - or at least punishes them if they do manage to do so in melee. It also synergizes nicely with the Heavy Armor Mastery feat since the feat's damage reduction applies before the damage 'gets through' to one's temporary HP. I'd advise against using a 1st level spell slot for this one though, since Healing Word, Shield and Absorb Elements - as well as Feather Fall once you got that one - definitely have priority on the low-level spell slots.
Life Steal / Burst Healing
Usually, with this build you'll fight fairly stationary, throwing around your cantrips and piling up a bunch of KOed or killed enemies around you. Once you have hit half HP it becomes time to capitalize on the KOed ones though.
At that point, you'll cast Vampiric Touch - or simply use a melee attack - and start touching/hitting those KO-but-not-dead enemies all around you.
Any attack on an unconscious target has Advantage. Any attack on an unconscious target from 5ft or less range that hits is an automatic critical hit.
This not only doubles the damage you do with Vampiric Touch (and thus the amount you get healed by) but also causes the target to fail two death saves, thus probably killing them either from the damage or the failed death saves especially since they probably failed at least one since you knocked them out), hence triggering your necromancer archetype feature for an additional 9 HP regained (2x spell level HP, 3x if using a necromancy spell. Vampiric Touch is a 3rd level necromancy spell).
Together this means you can heal for an average of 18 HP (3-27 HP healed per target: 3d6 necrotic damage, x2 for crit, you heal half as much, +9 HP if you get a kill) per target that you touch - and if you spend an Action Surge you can touch an additional target. With Vampiric Touch lasting for up to a minute that gives you up to 11 targets or 198 HP (33-297 HP) healed if you manage to touch a target with each attack for the full duration - which you rarely will. That said, even just a few targets finished off can easily top you off again, thus letting you keep fighting for quite a while.
Note: According to the MM, p7 Monsters usually die or are destroyed when reaching 0 HP. Make sure you ask your DM how they handle 0 HP on NPCs (both monsters and humanoids) so you know whether or not you can 'finish off' KOed enemies for bonus HP recovery both with the Wizard (Necromancer) class feature and with Vampiric Touch.
You will gain access to a total of 3 spells that can give you permanent undead minions.
- Animate Dead
- Create Undead
- Finger of Death
This 3rd level spell will become available at character level 9, if you find a way to copy it into your spellbook from somewhere. Otherwise, you could pick it as a free 'on-level-up' choice on character level 11/wizard level 5 or get it for free from the wizard/necromancer level 6 class feature one level later.
In any case, each casting of the spell raises 1 (or 2 with the necromancer class feature) undead, either zombies or skeletons, which you then control for 24 hours. Once this time has passed you no longer control the undead created this way but they still remain - though they are now hostile to all living things (including you) and potentially no longer bound by your orders...
Casting the spell on an existing group of undead allows you to control up to 4 undead (zombies or skeletons only) for the next 24 hours.
It is thus a good idea to raise the undead you want to control, restrain them until you have the desired number raised, and henceforth maintain your control of them by re-casting Animate Dead every 24 hours.
Casting Animate Dead using a higher-level spell slot increases the number of undead you can raise/control per cast of the spell.
This 6th level spell works along the same basic principles as Animate Dead and becomes available 6 character levels later. The only difference is the type of undead you can create with it. Unlike Animate Dead, Create Undead allows you to create Ghouls - and when using higher spell slots, more of them or alternatively even more powerful undead like Ghasts, Mummies, and Wights.
Wights (requiring an 8th level slot) are one of the best options here if you want numbers since each of them can, under the right conditions, create up to a dozen (permanent) zombies under their own (permanent) control.
Finger Of Death
This 7th level spell becomes available 2 character levels after Create Undead and is the key spell to an infinite number of permanently controlled undead.
Each time you kill a humanoid with this spell you raise it as a (permanent) zombie, under your (permanent) control. There is no limit to the number of zombies that you can raise & control this way - which makes this the best use of all your 7th level spell slots if you want to raise an undead army.
Each casting of Animate Dead or Create Undead maintains control over the targeted undead for 24 hours. A long rest takes 8 hours. Hence you could prepare a large number of raised (but uncontrolled) undead, then take control over half of them before taking a long rest, then rest and afterward take control of the other half.
This potentially doubles the number of minions you can control.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run and may not be possible at all for the more intelligent undead. Wights and Mummies may rather violently object whenever they are given the chance (aka are not controlled). Thus, while this is a good way to go in order to raise a large army of cannon-fodder to throw at the enemy, it is fairly risky to extend that to the intelligent undead. Still, having twice the cannon-fodder from those two spells is quite the boon in any case.
Tips & Tricks
How to avoid getting hit.
You start with Chainmail (16 AC), a Shield (+2 AC) and the Defensive Fighting Style (+1 AC) for a base AC of 19 at the first level. At third level, you get the Shield Spell (Reaction: +5 AC for 1 round) and once you got the Cleric you also have Shield of Faith (Concentration: +2 AC basically for a fight).
That gives you 19 AC baseline, that you can boost to 21 AC baseline for a fight if you need to and a further boost to 26 AC for a single round. There is very little that will be able to hit you with anything other than a crit or something close to one when you don't want it to.
Replace Shield of Faith with Haste once you got access to that via your Wizard levels and add spells like Mirror Image or, better, Blur to make it even harder to hit you. Just keep in mind that spell slots are a valuable resource that can potentially save the lives of your party members. Don't waste them.
Combine that with cover from a cast of Mold Earth or through a Minor Illusion and very little will be able to threaten you with attacks even if you go easy on the spell slots.
But aside from using magic, one can always use mundane means too. Alchemy, shopping, or simply good RP can easily get you access to things like smoke bombs or flash powder to further obstruct any enemy attempt at striking you or your party members. Maybe the GM even allows you to use your sling to fire such items at your enemy from further away than you could reasonably throw them.
A warning though: while you can fairly easily avoid getting hit by attacks - including spell attacks - due to the high AC that does not make you immune to damage nor able to take damage once it manages to actually affect you. Area of Effect damage, be it from a fireball or a molotov cocktail, doesn't care about most of your defenses and neither do environmental or mental effects like illusions, suggestions or simply a sticky toxic swamp ...
By picking Scale Mail instead of Chain Mail and a Rapier instead of a Warhammer one can still start with 19 AC (14 Scale Mail + 2 Dex + 2 Shield +1 Fighting Style) if one swaps Strength and Dexterity. This will, however, lock you out of heavy armor for the most part since you are too weak to wear that and thus force you to skip the Heavy Armor Mastery feat as well. While this does significantly decrease your durability, it can be a solid alternative in parties that already got multiple front-line fighters.
This also allows you to potentially pick a level of Rogue instead of the Warlock level for more skill versatility and, optionally, a stealth focus. Adding the rogue's expertise and some additional proficiencies (on rogue skill + thieve's tools) to the build can help to make it even more versatile and might be a viable alternative to the more 'brute force' standard version of the Death Knight.
One of the interesting variants of this build is to simply skip the single level in Warlock - and thus forgo the continuously recovering temporary HP buffer - in favor of taking one more cleric or better wizard level, so you can reach those 9th level spell slots.
That, depending on how your GM interprets the multi-classing rules when it comes to the wizard spellbook, might be enough to allow you to copy 9th level spells to your spellbook, then cast them even without having learned them 'for free' on a wizard level up - so long as you find a scroll, spellbook or another source to copy those spells from in the first place.
Skipping the single level of Cleric in this build robs you of what basically amounts to 'double damage vs clustered enemies'. It also removes your healing spells. Hence this choice, on its own, is not something I can recommend.
However, if you pair it with swapping the Fiend Warlock to a Celestial Warlock (e.g. of an evil/death god) then suddenly you gain your healing options back and no longer even need to spend spell slots on them, though in turn, you have less total healing to offer ...
Note: By not picking the Death Domain Cleric you miss out on the Reaper class feature. This means you half your cantrip-based damage output. Without that class feature, this build is not able to keep up with other classes or builds in terms of damage per round, even before considering that other classes and builds have more resources to spend to boost their damage than this one does.
Another potential variant and one more appropriate for 'heroic good' parties are to take levels as Abjuration Wizard rather then Necromancer Wizard and take the Celestial Warlock instead of the Fiend Warlock which in turn potentially allows you to skip the level of cleric all together depending on what exactly you want in terms of available spells and options.
That will give you the Ward from the Abjuration Wizard. The ward not only improves your own toughness and recharges whenever you cast an abjuration spell, like Shield or Counterspell, but at Wizard level 6 it also allows you to let the ward take damage that would otherwise be dealt to your party members. In addition, the Celestial Warlock gives you 60ft range Bonus Action based healing that does not require a spell slot. Together with the Cleric spells this, in turn, will give you a huge amount of emergency healing all over the battlefield but also allows you to spend more spells on things other than healing. All in all, it turns you into something like a spell rather than a martial focused paladin...
Just be aware that any damage resistances and even the damage reduction from the Heavy Armor Mastery feat do NOT apply to any damage the ward takes.
Note: By not picking the Death Domain Cleric you miss out on the Reaper class feature. This means you half your cantrip-based damage output. Without that class feature, this build is not able to keep up with other classes or builds in terms of damage per round, even before considering that other classes and builds have more resources to spend to boost their damage than this one does.
Ask Your DM
The Death domain is from the DMG. It is specifically listed as a villainous class option. Make sure you ask your DM whether or not you may use that domain.
NPCs at 0 HP
According to the MM p7, monsters usually die or are destroyed when they reach 0 HP. The inverse of that means non-monsters, e.g. humanoids don't automatically die on 0 HP.
Knowing whether you need to knock out (0 HP) or kill (3 failed death saves) enemies for your Wizard (Necromancer) class feature to trigger is fairly important.
In addition, knowing whether or not you can use Vampiric Touch to finish off and regain extra HP (melee spell attack; attacks on incapacitated creatures are at advantage and on a hit from within 5ft are automatically critical hits - hence basically provide twice the HP) is also important to know so you can plan those long battles properly.
Make sure you ask your DM how they handle enemies that hit 0 HP.
The multiclassing rules are fairly clear on what spells you can learn 'for free', aka when leveling up. They are however somewhat fuzzy when it comes to knowing which spells you may or may not copy to your spellbook.
My standard assumptions are that a) you can copy any wizard spell you have a spell slot for into your spellbook and that b) you can prepare (and cast) any wizard spell that you both have a spell slot for and know, aka have written into your spellbook. I also assume that c) you get the opportunity to, on average, copy about 1-2 spells per character level - though not necessarily for free or without actively looking for it. This would mean that if you spend enough gold & time and the DM grants you access to spells to copy you can learn spells in advance of your wizard level.
Make sure you ask your DM how they handle multiclassed wizards and their spellbooks as well as how they intend to handle access to spells for the purpose of copying them in the game.