Unless otherwise noted, showcase builds use 28 point-buy, and have their snapshots evaluated using fractional base attack / saves (because it simplifies the math). None of them actually rely on fractional to be built, though. The format I use showcases their progression at key levels rather than just presenting the build and showing off a few tricks at level 20; most of these are capable of being played 1-20 if you so choose.
With that out of the way, let's get started. Last week, I offered three builds, but it wound up in a three-way tie, so I cast the tiebreaker. This week, we're showcasing a villain build intended for DMs as a BBEG. (Hey, we're not all players here - sometimes DMs need some love.) I spearheaded this, but just about everyone had some input on it in some way, shape, or form. (That's why I voted for it, plus it's better if we don't have similar builds immediately following each other.
It's also perhaps the most involved build I'll ever showcase, just because writing all this up took forever.
DREAD LORD OF THE DEAD
Let the reaping begin!
Required Books: Five Nations, Player’s Guide to Faerun, Complete Warrior, Heroes of Horror, Libris Mortis, Complete Champion, Complete Divine, Complete Arcane, Player’s Handbook 2, Spell Compendium, Fiend Folio.
Note that the flaws and traits presented below include a few taken from Dragon Magazine; the trait is amazing, but the flaw can be swapped around.
Unearthed Arcana used: Gestalt, Cloistered Cleric, Prestige Paladin, Paladin variants, Traits, Flaws (all required). It also assumes – reasonably, but not explicitly written – that the paladin variants can be applied to the prestige paladin. Since the build is intended for an NPC, this isn’t too far of a bending. (This is also why all the other variants are used: to use them as a player, your entire team has to have access to them. To challenge a team of players, though, a villain can use them without such restrictions. A gestalt villain can oppose normal heroes, for instance.)
Background: Several months ago, I answered a request from a newish player to help with a specific build for a game that involved prestige//prestige gestalt. The result had two aspects along the two “sides” of the build (yes, I know, gestalt doesn’t have “sides”; it’s shorthand), one being based around fear, and the other being based around undead leadership and synergy. I liked the result so much that I decided to tune it to be regular-gestalt compatible, focusing on the undead leadership side, and the result was this build. It also happened to turn out impossibly iconic for villainous leaders of undead armies – and let’s face it, most DMs usually have one or two of those lurking in the far corners of the world, with a reputation but no detailed story or statistics. This is plug-and-play ready for that archetype.
At the low levels it operates like a fear engine, a harbinger of terror and a reaper of death in melee. At the higher levels, when the PCs have more ability to resist or become immune to fear, it’s a downright wall of minions between you and the target, along with an impressive array of death magic – a one-man zombie apocalypse.
Since this build is intended for CHALLENGING NPC VILLAINS, it uses a lot of variants (including 32-point buy, flaws, gestalt, and two setting books) to accomplish its goal. However, the bump in power these imply tends to put this build roughly on par with an even-leveled team, or perhaps a team only one level lower depending on how many of his minions are present. Have fun letting this one loose against your players and watch them tremble in fear.
There’s even a rough narrative arc suggested by the levels, and since he’s your NPC, this story could very well be the inspiration for taking those levels. I’ve left notes in the various bubbles, but the basic idea is that you’re a priest of (insert good good) who found dark, forbidden lore, becoming corrupted as you channel necromantic energies and dabbling in other dark arcane powers. As you seed terror among the populace, dark powers accept you as their champion, and you go forth to embody death itself. At the high levels, you retire, study the arcane and the divine, age to the point of decrepification, and then become a lich.
- Race: Human. As usual with human builds, other bonus-feat races work but aren’t necessarily the best choice.
- Ability Scores: 12/10/8/12/14/18 to start – this uses 32 point buy because it’s intended to be a powerful villain for the PCs to overcome; lower point-buy drops the physical scores even more (10 Strength, 8 Dexterity for 28 PB) and really only changes how it plays in the early levels. Charisma is boosted at every opportunity; the build also assumes a +2 Wisdom tome and a +5 Charisma tome, so grab those when they’re available (typically post-14). Finally, both for story and for optimization reasons, the character starts out in his prime but ages to old age at the late levels (with a commensurate change in class to reflect a pseudo-“retirement”, so it isn’t quite as insane as it sounds).
- Alignment: Lawful Evil. THE classic evil overlord alignment, and it’s the only one that works with the build exactly as written. Appropriate deities include Wee Jas, the Keeper, and the Blood of Vol, or even just unspecified “dark powers” (used in the writeup below).
- Traits: Unnatural Aura, Slow. Unnatural Aura (Dragon 356) is a perfect thematic fit, as it boosts the DCs on your fear effects by an incredible +2 and makes animals a little uncomfortable around you. Slow works because most of the time you’ll be mounted and you’ll need the HP boost; thematically it’s a reflection on your poor physical shape (which doesn’t necessarily transfer over to your hit points – which reflect things other than toughness for you). These two seem to be at cross-purposes with each other, but there’s ways around that. (If you don't want Dragon material, it's optional; this trait is just too good to NOT mention here and since we're using traits for Slow anyway...)
- Flaws: Any two, the choice is widely up to you; pick ones that set him apart and encourage specific strategies in the PCs without actually crippling him. Basically, anything that doesn’t mess with your ability scores is fine. Vulnerable fits the “hide behind walls of minions” thing later on but is dangerous if you’re using him at low levels. Murky-Eyed is another good choice which reflects his early-game descriptions (nearsighted from all that reading).
Skill Notes: Keep Concentration and Spellcraft high (Spellcraft helps a lot more when the villain can identify the PC’s spells, and it helps set the stage if you want to advance this guy to Epic, which you might if the PCs are sufficiently high level). Don’t be afraid to pull a few points out of them to keep up with the other skills, though – you need 6 ranks in Ride, 6 ranks in Craft: Armor, 4 points in Intimidate (at least), and a decent array of Knowledge skills, especially Religion, to meet all your requirements. Knowledges matter most if you get them early on. If you can pull 6 ranks into Craft: Weaponsmithing, you get an extra bonus, but this may not be feasible for you. If you want skill tricks, the only one worth considering here is really Collector of Stories, assuming it even works with Knowledge Devotion.
Basic Equipment: Early on, you probably want to stick to a bow and a good simple weapon like a spear, along with the best light armor you can find. (You get a charnel touch ability to cover the closer range than the spear.) Once the hexblade levels kick in, you should wield something menacing – a scythe is thematically appropriate and will prove useful as a secondary weapon in the middle levels, i.e. 7th onwards until you have better things to do with your hands. Other than that, your basic equipment needs are minor (spell component pouch, unholy symbol, etc). However, your armor is replaced when you enter Bone Knight, so pick a good set of MEDIUM armor as your base at any time after level 6.
Magical Gear Goals: Boost Charisma and Wisdom at every opportunity, up to and including tomes. Early on look for durability gear, particularly +Con items – permanent investments in your worldly health are trivial, but a good amulet of health is a wise investment. Along the way, picking up Nightsticks is a passable use for money – you get plenty of turn attempts, but more is always better. (Note that this build uses TWO separate types of turn attempts; if you aren’t able to get this “doubling up” – see level 1 – you’d best hunt for Nightsticks instead.)
Specific gear for undead mastery is a good call as your levels go up – I’ve included a few basic goals (the Phylactery of Undead Turning and the Rod of Undead Mastery) in the levels below at appropriate levels to aid in DMs budgeting to use this guy at any level. There’s a lot of other good undead-master gear out there, but they tend to compete for space in your hands; these are the two standouts. If you need more item suggestions, try caster gear – a metamagic rod of Fell Drain is a fun thing to add to the mix.
Build Stub: Dread Necromancer 20 // Cloistered Cleric 1 / Hexblade 4 / Prestige Paladin of Tyranny 3 / Bone Knight 10 / Divine Oracle 2
NOTE: Due to Dread Necro being omnipresent, I don’t list its class level at each level up – its class level is equal to your character level.
NOTE: The Deathbound domain received errata which substantially changed how it worked – in the book it is a passive increase to your undead control cap, but in the errata it boosts how many undead can be affected with a single Animate Dead casting. The latter is used below.
NOTE: You should probably keep the Revised Necromancer Handbook open at most times past level 8 or so.
1 – Dread Necro // Cloistered Cleric –(Charnel Touch, Turn Undead, Rebuke Undead, Deathbound domain, Planning domain, Lore) (Tomb-Tainted Soul, Dreadful Wrath, Fell Animate, Divine Metamagic (Fell Animate), Extend Spell, Knowledge Devotion)
I consider both sets of turning to be separate from each other because they’re keyed off of different class levels, but if that isn’t enough for you, there IS a cheap way to make it legal. Start of as a Lawful NEUTRAL cleric who channels positive energy, and you get two separate class features: Turn Undead and Rebuke Undead, each with their own pool of uses. When you go evil later –and with this build, that’s only a matter of time – you’ll switch over to Rebuke, but Gestalt only cares about when you learn the abilities, not what happens to them afterwards.
Besides, it fits the general lore – in this case, it’s a scribe who basically stumbles across the Necronomicon or similar not-so-nice piece of ancient lore and seeks to understand it – for purely academic reasons, at least at first – before becoming corrupted by the dark powers who have latched on to his soul through the lore. He’s already irrevocably set out on the path towards evil if he isn’t evil already, and his powers reflect that. The Turn Undead in the LN entry above is a vestige of his dying faith in his former god.
At level 1, you’re already capable of raising undead – Divine Metamagic (Fell Animate) applied to an Inflict spell will do the trick if the target’s weak enough to be killed. You can augment the damage it deals by delivering it alongside a Charnel Touch – learn how this ability works, it’s an alarmingly useful boost. (And, with the mandatory Tomb-Tainted Soul feat, you’ve got access to infinite self-healing out of combat, big surprise there.) Interestingly, as it’s a touch spell, it looks like your Knowledge Devotion ability gives you a damage boost – as well as a creepy effect of explaining just what that knowledge represents in a character like this (hint: Autopsies). (Outside of this trick, Knowledge Devotion is a cheap way of getting an extra edge out in melee to compensate for your lowish Strength.) You’ve got 14 turn attempts to spend this way (it costs 4 per pop on Fell Animate), but are limited to a small undead army (4 total HD, two whole zombies) due to your caster level.
The real strength here, though, is that you’re a pretty decent fear engine. Every time you attack, charge, or cast a spell, targets within 20 feet have to make a DC 16 Will save or be shaken, similar to Frightful Presence. For real fun, that spell you cast can be Bane (as a dread necromancer), which inherits a +2 DC from Unnatural Aura and lowers enemy saves even more before Dreadful Wrath kicks in. DC 17 for a 50' burst save-debuffer is amazing, but having it trigger a separate DC 16 20' fear effect (which is also a save-debuffer) is downright crippling.
2 – Dread Necro // Hexblade 1 – (Lich Body 2, Hexblade’s Curse)
And now, your descent into darkness has been answered – the dark Powers from beyond have granted you a boon, and promise more if you bring more darkness and evil into the world.
At this point, the increase in HP and DR increase your melee presence, and the ability to curse your foes is a nice surprise, particularly after you’ve already blasted them into one of the lower fear conditions. The DC is really low and it’s only 1/day, but it’s a free action, so if you’ve managed to scare a vital target, curse them.
3 – Dread Necro // Hexblade 2– (Negative Energy Burst 1, Arcane Resistance) (Mounted Combat)
Mounted Combat is a prerequisite. To make use of it here, animate a small horse to use as a steed. (A live one won’t really like you much.) This also compensates for your Slow flaw. If the PCs manage to Turn it on you, it leads to a nice set of poetic justice later on (level 11).
Arcane Resistance, by the way, is one of the three reasons I picked hexblade here. That godly Charisma, which has so far been fueling only your dread necro spells and your spontaneous Fell Animates (which, I should note, only work on cleric spells, not dread necro spells)? Now it boosts all your saves vs spells, which improves your survivability something fierce.
4 – Dread Necro // Hexblade 3 – (Advanced Learning: Kelgore’s Grave Mist, Mental Bastion 2, Mettle)
Kelgore’s is a natural fit with the Dread Necro casting you’ve got going. Later on it also makes a wonderful combination with Fell Animate if you cast it in a populated area – puts the heroes in a pickle, that does.
Speaking of spellcasting, you have Spectral Hand now. Like most dread necros, if you get a buff round, this is probably your spell of choice.
5 – Dread Necro // Hexblade 4 – (Fear Aura, Dark Companion)
6 – Dread Necro // Prestige Paladin of Tyranny 1 – (Scabrous Touch 1, Detect/Smite Good, Rebuke Undead ) (Battlecaster)
Yeah, prestige paladin + paladin of tyranny isn’t expressly printed in Unearthed Arcana, but it’s a perfect match and an easy ruleset to apply. You’re getting a solid boost to your cleric casting at this level – including adding paladin-only spells to the list. It’s a good thing we’re working on that, too, as we’ve dawdled long enough on the melee/fear thing – those accursed PCs are starting to get really good Will saves and ways of making themselves immune to fear, so it’s probably for the wisest that we begin praying for more power to wield against them.
Oh, and one last thing: if you’re able to quickly get one of the “one level lighter” enhancements on your armor – Featherweight, for instance – you can replace Battlecaster with Practiced Spellcaster (Cleric). This is actually a much better feat, but Battlecaster is needed to continue to cast Dread Necro spells while wearing medium armor. We’re going to have to start wearing medium armor soon, so some method of circumventing this is required. If all else fails, you can take steps to minimize its arcane spell failure – if you can get it down to 0, you can retrain this feat to Practiced Spellcaster without a blink.
7 – Dread Necro // Prestige Paladin 2 – (Lich Body 4, Familiar: Ghostly Visage, Divine Grace, Deadly Touch, Special Mount)
Your Special Mount is likely to hate you due to your Unnatural Aura, but it could also have simply had its will broken by your dark patrons before they gift it to you. (This is the only area that’s really badly defined by “Prestige Paladin of Tyranny”; the mount probably rests in the fiendish realms when not summoned.) But you do have it, and it’s not a bad beast. Interestingly, several auras are defined as “within X feet of you”, and if you’re on a Large mount, you take up a Large space, so this actually inflates how many squares you can influence with some of your tricks.
The real winner here is your Ghostly Visage familiar: it actually renders YOU immune to mind-affecting abilities when you “wear” it as a face. Furthermore, it continues to deliver a gaze attack that paralyzes the targets who meet its gaze, and since the familiar’s effective HD are equal to your Dread Necromancer level, the DC continues to progress as you go up in level. It’s a mere 16 now, but that’s a 16 boosted by your Dark Companion, DC 19 Dreadful Wrath, DC 19 Fear Aura, and plentiful other debuff spells. Paralyzed is a MEAN condition, so feel free to bring the pain directly.
8 – Dread Necro // Prestige Paladin 3 – (Advanced Learning, Negative Energy Burst 2, Undead Mastery, Aura of Despair, Divine Health)
And now, you also have Animate Dead, which along with Undead Mastery on a full dread necromancer with heavy Charisma is freaking INSANE. Animate Dead + Undead Mastery + Deathbound = animate up to (3+CHA)*CL HD per casting: even though this is higher than the limit of spell-made undead you can control, the spell keeps them under your control (read it carefully). You’d lose control over previously spell-animated undead, but that's what Rebuke is for.
It isn’t impossible to be able to hold nearly about 100 hit dice of undead under your control at this level (with some pretty powerful single-target undead at that), particularly because you have several separate “pools” of HD to use to control them in different ways. You have Rebuke Undead as a dread necromancer, Rebuke Undead as a cleric, your arcane Animate spells, your divine Animate spells (i.e. Divine Meta: Fell Animate at this level; you get Animate Dead itself shortly); all of these reference different properties to figure out how many they can control, and none of them reference “all undead you control” (for an example of that, read the Ghoul Gauntlet spell – and never cast it.)
This is also around the time you can probably obtain and command a Slaymate (-1 metamagic cost). If fear effects aren't being useful, you can consider retraining Dreadful Wrath at this point, but I still like it due to its huge reach. If it goes, Practical Metamagic can drop Fell Animate’s metamagic costs, making it much more useful with the Dread Necromancer side of your magic (which has to spend slots to cast Fell Animate spells), so you might be able to raise some more useful minions without paying for a truckload of onyx.
This is also the level you want +2 stat boosters on Con, Cha, and Wis if you can swing it.
9 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 1 – (Negative Energy Resistance, Bonecraft Armor, Rebuke Undead, Paladin Conversion) (Corpsecrafter)
And now your own research breaks through – you’ve developed a way to become the undead alive, in glorious tribute to your dark patron and the causes of evil. Donning a skeletal breastplate to emulate your ideal form, you master the art of creating more powerful undead than ever before.
The timing on Bone Armor + Negative Energy Resistance is coincidental, but the thematic link certainly is appreciated. Sadly, however, Paladin Conversion is more of a bane to you than a boon – it does nothing for you as a paladin of tyranny except, possibly, give Deadly Touch the ability to heal living creatures as well (funny enough) and cause your special mount to shun you. Your stronger undead can provide a temporary mount for you at this stage without a real fuss. You’ve begun your switch to full spellslinger, and you’re doing it while advancing one of the best defensive cleric PrCs out there, and a perfect thematic match to your other abilities.
10 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 2 – (Light Fortification, Bone March, Skeletal Steed)
The Skeletal Steed gives you your buddy back. The real reason you do this is because sometimes, it helps having a persistent undead you can Spellstitch or add other bonuses to – who isn’t in danger of being destroyed when you aren’t looking, because he exists on another realm. The bonus to your Special Mount level from using prestige paladin is appreciated as well.
The Bone March ability is interesting – it’s a separate pool of undead HD you can control using means completely separate from rebuking or animating. Absolutely nothing prevents you from Animating some minions and shifting control from yourself to yourself with this ability, tucking them away under Bone March while leaving the valuable Animate HD open for stronger undead. By my quick estimations, this amounts to something like nearly 150 total HD of undead under your control, with a strongest individual undead (from Animate Dead as a necromancer) at 30 HD.
Finally, the real niceness: Desecrate is online, which gives MORE HD-related benefits to animated undead AND doubles the HD strength of Animate Dead (which means one animation spell can affect up to (6+2*CHA)*CL HD, all of which remain under your control). This is VERY beastly.
11 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 3 – (Lich Body 6, Scabrous Touch 2, Master of the White Banner)
12 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 4 – (Advanced Learning, Enervating Touch, Improved Bonecraft Armor) (Persistent Spell)
Advanced Learning choice is up to you; possible choices are Aura of Terror or Imperious Glare, depending on whether Dreadful Wrath counts as Frightful Presence or not. These emphasize your fear side a bit more, so you might prefer an undead-mastery spell at this level instead.
Persistent Spell was taken because of Reasons, but I bet you can guess what they are. This level gives you a lot of spellcasting options and minion control, so a feat that you won’t be able to use for a while is fine.
This is the level you can easily afford a Rod of Undead Mastery. This rod, when held, doubles the number of HD of undead you can control. It is not specific as to type – it seems to apply to all five of your control methods at once (cleric rebuke, necro rebuke, cleric animation, necro animation, and Bone March). You can hit nearly 400 HD of undead at this point if you do this.
13 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 5 – (Negative Energy Burst 3, Fill the Ranks)
This is also a good level to get your Con and Cha boosters to +4, and buy a Phylactery of Undead Turning. The reason you want this particular item is because unlike the other items that work like it, this one is slotted instead of held –which lets you use something like the Rod of Undead Mastery in one hand and keep the other hand free for spellcasting.
14 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 6 – (Mental Bastion 4, Bonecraft Weapon)
At this level, upgrade your Wisdom booster to +4 if you haven’t already.
15 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 7 – (Lich Body 8, Improved Bonecraft Armor) (Divine Metamagic: Persistent Spell)
The feat choice was a natural one – you probably saw it coming. All those juicy cleric buffs are now Persistable, thanks to over 30 total rebuke attempts from your two separate classes. The best, by far, is Consumptive Field. Let me express it this way.
1: Divine Persist Consumptive Field.
2: Slaughter livestock or villagers. Your CL rises by 50%. (Combine with Desecrate and animation spells.)
3: Divine Persist any other buffs, sharing the spells with your mount.
4: Animate any of the corpses that can fit inside your new increased HD cap.
This is a good level to upgrade your Con an Cha boosters to +6; you can do this and still have enough money left over for the first of your Wisdom tomes. This is needed to keep up with your spellcasting. (5th level cleric spells just came online, and I don’t like having to use +Wis items to hit your max spell level.)
16 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 8 – (Advanced Learning, Scabrous Touch 3, Exoskeleton of Undeath)
Unlike other levels, at this point I’m going to suggest a few Advanced Learnings.
First, let’s talk General of Undeath. This adds your caster level to your undead control cap (I’m not sure if it's rebuke or animate; it may be worded loosely enough to ALSO apply to Bone March. However, since it’s temporary, I assume here that it only refers to your rebuke caps.). Combining this with the Rod of Undead Mastery and Persistent Consumptive Field is insane: use the boosted CL to fuel a persistent version of General of Undeath, and you’re basically commanding an army of zombie dragons if you do it right. (You can use that spell to boost your Rebuke capacity, and fill that up with fodder and infantry while using your more precious animate capacity for stronger creatures, and with Bone March holding a few in reserve.)
If this doesn’t appeal to you and you need a single-target slayer, use Greater Bestow Curse. That, plus Spectral Hand, gives you an amazing hoser - Cha-based save at this point has a mod of +9, on top of your continued debuff auras (and paralyzing gaze attack – it’s unlikely anyone’s seen your real face for several levels) and anything failing the save has a 1 in their critical ability score. Bye-bye wizard.
Gear-wise, get your Wisdom booster up to +6 here, and buy the first of your Charisma tomes.
17 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 9 – (Enervating Touch 2, Death Strike)
Gear-wise, this level sees your final Wisdom tome, and another Charisma tome.
18 – Dread Necro // Bone Knight 10 – (Negative Energy Burst 4, Improved Bonecraft Armor) (Skill Focus: Knowledge (Religion))
9th level Dread Necro spells are online, with a Charisma modifier of +10 if you’ve been keeping up. It’s not as deadly as 9th level wizard spells of course, but you’ve still got a LOT of slots to burn through.
Why Skill Focus? Prerequisite. And the enlightenment and study of the divine profane patrons that have been supporting you during your long crusade is a suitable source of insight.
(Storywise, this is a good point for the character to “retire” from active adventuring and seek the usual Evil Overlord position as the head of whatever lands he’s conquered by now. You could have him appear at this level Middle-Aged if you want; at next level he’ll be Old Age. If you need him around for the next few years in-game, simply have him hop to a place with faster-than-usual time for the following sections, or sacrifice his earthly youth and vitality as part of a DM-specified dark ritual. We employ aging to get a bigger Wisdom/Charisma boost, naturally; you don’t age after you go Lich.)
Gear-wise, another Charisma tome is appreciated.
19 – Dread Necro // Divine Oracle 1 – (Scry Bonus, Luck domain) (Craft Wondrous Item)
Complete Champion lets the Oracle domain swap for Luck Devotion, which combines well with blast spells if you want – but also restricts you from picking it if it doesn’t strongly fit the theme of your divine patron; here, Luck doesn’t jive too well with Knowledge or death. Besides, the luck reroll is very useful.
Over the past several years, you’ve been ruling your nation, or have been lurking in an underground lair trying to learn all you can about the PCs’ world, depending on how successful they’ve been against you. Either way, this explains the Divine Oracle levels (advancing your cleric magic, naturally) and the sudden Craft Wondrous Item, which you may be using for more than its intended purpose during the intervening years.
This is actually a very fragile time for you – the old age penalties, even with your +Con item, drop you to a mere 5 base Constitution, with 122 HP. Be cautious and act through minions, biding your time while you complete your work.
Gear-wise, another Charisma tome is appreciated.
20 – Dread Necro // Divine Oracle 2 – (Advanced Learning: Astral Projection, Lichdom, Divine Prescience, Trap Sense +1) (Retrain Tomb-Tainted Soul for Improved Toughness)
At this level, so much comes online that it’s downright disturbing. You get the third and final Evasion effect (Evasion itself, except usable in any armor), DR 15/Bludgeoning+Magic, the full suite of undead abilities (including immunity to Fortitude save effects that aren’t also object effects),and immunity to cold, electricity, and involuntary polymorph, plus some turn resistance (which is further augmented by your Master of the White Banner ability, adding your now +14 Charisma to your turn resistance.) You also have Astral Projection, which is downright abusive and allows you a second “escape hatch” if the PCs actually kill you in battle. (The “first” is your phylactery.)
If you can find some method, ANY method, of grabbing the Unholy Toughness ability (it’s on several MM3 monsters; currently the only way known to get it through level-ups is to use Walker in the Waste, but the authors of LM hinted once that it was planned to be available to undead PCs otherwise), do it. I don’t care what the cost is, do it. You go from 176 expected HP to a whopping 456 expected HP if you can pull this off.
Gear-wise, your final Charisma tome is added here. Sell the +Con item (it’s worthless to you) and replace it with a +6 Dex item.
Snapshot: This build changes forms quite a bit over its progression – you start out in melee and finish as a decisive caster. I’ll focus on the latter since we’ve got enough meleeists in the Showcase already.
Armed with +6 Wis/Cha boosters, a +2 Wis tome and a +5 Cha tome, plus the Phylactery of Undead Turning and the Rod of Undead Mastery – this isn’t that expensive for you, actually, leaving you with over half your gold left to spend on other gear – and assuming no active spell effects (Consumptive Field, Desecrate, General of Undeath etc) we get the following:
HP 176 (or 456 if you found a way to get Unholy Toughness) with Base Attack +18 (you’re only going to be attacking with rays, at +17, which is pretty decent against touch ACs). Positively stunning saves of +30/+18/+41 (or +44/+32/+55 vs spells), with Mettle and Evasion to negate any partial effect on a successful save (and with THOSE saves? You’re succeeding.) Its lists of resistances and immunities are strictly speaking stacked: Full undead immunities plus separate immunities (i.e. not able to be removed if you roll a 1 on your save against Spark of Life) to Negative Energy, Mind-Affecting, Disease, Stunning, Nonlethal Damage, “diehard”, Poison, Sleep, Paralysis, Death Effects, Fatigue, Exhaustion, Physical Ability Damage, Ability Drain, Energy Drain, Massive Damage, Critical Hits, Cold, Electricity and Involuntary Polymorph. You also have resistances, with evasion on all three saves, and DR 15 / Bludgeoning+Magic. (The resistances list is bigger early on, but by level 20 most of your resistances have grown into full-blown immunities.)
In terms of other special effects, you have the full-power Charnel Touch (1d8+5 damage at will or added to another touch effect, can be used to inflict disease or negative levels at DC 34), a DC 36 Dreadful Wrath, one hexblade curse at DC 26, 4 20d4 Dark Energy Burst drain attacks at DC 34, an 84-point Deadly Touch (evil Lay on Hands) at DC 25, a DC 36 5’ fear aura, a DC 34 Death Strike, a DC 23 paralyzing gaze attack, along with the no-save saving throw hosers in the Dark Companion and Aura of Despair. As a lich, you have a DC 34 paralyzing touch (which can be augmented by your Charnel Touch, it seems; note that this version is permanent paralysis) and a DC 36 lich fear aura (60’ but limited to creatures with under 5 HD.)
Although your only mounted feat is Mounted Combat (a decent one if you’ve pumped Ride at all), you have a pretty respectable special mount – as a 16th level paladin with the Skeletal template applied. (If you allow paladins to forge bonds with other creatures naturally other than warhorses, consider it here too – Cauchemar nightmares are stylish, haven’t you heard? - but we just assume an average warhorse for this snapshot.) Assuming your Corpsecrafter modifications apply to it, you’re looking at an unturnable 12HD mount with 126 HP, AC 23, speed 50, Strength 32, Intelligence 9, a melee attack bonus of +17, saves of +16/+9/+20, and SR 21 along with undead immunities and the full suite of Paladin special abilities, most notably Share Spells with your Persistent cleric spells.
Spellwise, you cast spells as a 20th level Dread Necromancer and as a 14th level cleric (although if you managed to get the ASF down on your armor, your cleric CL could rise to 18 through swapping Battlecaster for Practiced Spellcaster), and you can spontaneously apply Fell Animate and Persistent Spell using Divine Metamagic with 34 Rebuke attempts. With your ability scores, these translate into DCs of 24+spell level for the necromancer and 18+spell level for the cleric (with +2 for Fear effects), with spell slots of --/10/10/9/9/9/9/8/8/7 and 6/7/7/6/6/4/4/3 (not including domain spells – the Deathbound domain actually has a lot of unique options on it when investing in mighty undead minions).
Speaking of your undead minions, let’s go through your methods of control. You rebuke with a +16 check as a 24th level necromancer and an 18th level cleric. You animate as a 20th level necromancer with Undead Mastery and a 14th level cleric; both benefit from the Deathbound domain. You also have Bone March, which operates off of your 10 Bone Knight levels. Put it all together and you get, using the format of Total HD (most powerful single undead), you get necromancer rebuke 24 (12), necromancer magic 360 (60), cleric rebuke 18(9), cleric magic 56 (42), and Bone March 40 (10), for a grand total of 498 total HD under your control at once. Oh, and that’s without the Rod of Undead Mastery, which doesn’t care how you brought them under your control – this raises it up to 996 HD of undead at once, with some of them up to 60 HD if you try right (Naturally, you'll use your Deathbound spells on the highest HD undead you've got.) It’ll get expensive in terms of onyx though. (Hint: If you wind up zombifying a peasant to send a message to the others, don’t release the zombie – giving it basic orders of “Bring me onyx!” might not be a bad call. Your intelligent Karrnathi undead, if you choose to make them instead of just shunting other undead to Bone March, can also Aid with Craft or Profession checks 24/7 to start raking in cash for more onyx – though you probably want to set them up *behind* the factory’s closed doors to avoid scaring the customers.)
Overall Strengths: You mean, besides the fact that it’s a caster//caster gestalt (the lengths you have to go to challenge PCs these days...) with an *amazing* undead army size (and can animate from level 1!)? The Dread Lord of the Dead is abusively resilient (immune to nearly every status condition and has Evasion on all three saves!), and isn't actually undead until level 20. Hilarious Charisma synergy gives you almost single-ability focus (Dread Necro casting, two sets of Rebuke, All Saves, Saves vs Spells, Lay on Hands, and the DC of every aura and special ability you get), but there’s a need for Wisdom as well. Gets 9th level Dread Necro spells and 7th level cleric spells, plus has ways of boosting those CLs, along with Persistent Spell (and two sets of rebuke to fuel it) and multiple effects that hose saving throws, both with and without fear.
As a recurring villain, it’s able to be used at many, many levels without truly getting stale because its “tricks” evolve over time at a natural rate (with a serious boost as soon as the necromancer side gets Animate Dead; thanks to the hexblade level delay (for increased melee presence early on and increased magic synergy later) you don’t start animating as a cleric until later, when melee is getting stale). Early on you act as a fear engine and melee warrior, not terribly sturdy but able to scare low-level minions into submitting without too much trouble (so go and conquer some orc or goblin tribes to serve as minions; you’ll animate the incompetent as a message to the others). Midway through your magic is taking over, as your debuff effects lead to surprisingly effective offense both through sword and spell, though your fragility and the increased might of PCs at these levels forces you to rely more on magic and your special abilities (i.e. your save hosers + your Paralysis gaze + Coup de Grace, backed up by spells). At the high levels you’re all about the magic, bringing many of the Cleric buffs (both to yourself and your undead minions – seriously, read the Deathbound domain someday, it can make your high-HD undead into legendary soldiers) and the full suite of Dread Necromancer spells to the table, supported by your persistent save-debuffing effects and your utterly ridiculous legions of obedient undead.
Overall Weaknesses: You’re squishy in the HP department except in the middle levels. (If you use the level 1 version, pick a bow as your Dread Necro weapon and hang back, using Fell Animated zombies as your melee presence (remember that you can animate mid-battle if you have civilian corpses around, so those zombies are expendable). Later on as hexblade kicks in and you get DR, you can risk melee, but I’d still suggest a reach weapon to play keep-away). You’re also fragile again at level 19 due to aging effects, but by now you probably have a huge, possibly extraplanar fortress full of the undead to keep the PCs at bay. At 20th, you lack any good ways of boosting your HP (and that’s WITH the Improved Toughness and Slow trait worked in there), unless you find a way to fit in Unholy Toughness (you might have to resort to fiat, but we tried to avoid that here). The build is also lacking skill points, particularly if you make the diversion for Craft: Weaponsmithing – you won’t be able to max out Concentration, Spellcraft, Ride, and even a single Knowledge (in a build with Knowledge Devotion) this way. Oh, and most annoyingly, it relies on a LOT of Unearthed Arcana, making it best suited for DMs looking for a challenge for their players rather than for the players that make up most of this audience.
Variants: I tried to capture all the necessary feels for a classic BBEG – from might-makes-right / fear-me-and-obey at the low levels, to the unleash-the-army and I-wield-the-power-of-the-gods at the higher levels. There’s a lot to play with in this build alone, primarily in the Advanced Learning selections. (The ones listed in the headers are more or less “fixed” as the clear winners at those levels, but the others are open.) However, the build structure itself is rather… starved, and interconnected, so it’s kind of hard to do serious remodeling on this without gutting something you’d rather not remove. My one regret is not being able to work in Destructive Retribution somehow – generally you want undead that are mighty on their own, but occasionally you just have a need to suddenly raise a lot of zombies for a suicidal rush, and it's a nasty surprise if your melee players wade in to fight them. If Dreadful Wrath is retrained after level 8 or so (for whatever reason – say, a party of mind-immune PCs at that point), you could use its slot for Practiced Spellcaster (Cleric), use Battlecaster’s slot for Corpsecrafter, and use Corpsecrafter’s slot for Destructive Retribution. (Or Nimble Bones, which is much better with big, slow undead, but with this many HD under your control, I think you want the booms.) An alternative to this (assuming you’re retraining Dreadful Wrath at a point where the PCs are all fear-immune) is to swap it out for Death Devotion – at that point you’ve got enough attacks per round to pull it off, enough turn attempts to keep it almost always on, and enough Charisma to make that saving throw fearsome (34, IIRC). You won't get much use of this at the late levels (since you're rarely attacking), but it can make your touch absolutely devastating (many negative levels, paralysis, disease, and the effects of one of your touch spells all in one go?).
This build is also built to be ready for epic at a moment’s notice (despite the lack of an official Dread Necromancer epic progression), in case you need him at epic levels for a high-level PC challenge. His epic levels are naturally all Dread Necro//Bone Knight, and at 21st it’s probably Epic Spellcasting, assuming you maxed out Spellcraft and Knowledge: Religion. If you didn’t, there’s a lot of fun thematic feats to match: Undead Mastery / Zone of Animation, Improved / Widen Aura of Despair (yes, there are epic feats for that! The Paladin of Tyranny gets the same feature as the blackguard, so we luck out in epic), or even Negative Energy Burst (which works in an interesting fashion) all fit the theme at different levels of power.
I’ll see about digging up my old notes – since this build descended from a prestige//prestige gestalt project with two separate focuses, and I simplified it by aiming towards one focus, it might have a “cousin” build that aimed at the other focus (for those who were interested, the second focus was “fear”. Yes, this is the version that emphasized the elements other than fear.) Alternatively, you could strip away the gestalt and single-track it if you wanted – in fact, I do have another build available to showcase for that, this build’s “son” of a sort, weaker and non-gestalt but MUCH more appropriate for PCs, named the Lord of the Fallen. He’ll show up later, when his father isn’t so fresh in your mind.
There you have it. You’re an immortal embodiment of Lawful Evil, with an almost legendary ability to endure any assault, encased in a permanent, skeletal shell of armor Darth Vader style, accompanied by darkness and death and endless legions of the undead, wielding an awesome array of fell magic and projecting a fearful presence that all but orders the weak-minded nearby to cower and submit at the mere sight of you, backed up with a diabolical laugh that only a 32+6 final Charisma can deliver.
In short, if you want an Evil Overlord at just about any level, this is what you’re looking for.
Next week, we're probably going to do the Heavy Crusader (an Andarious build, far simpler than beasts like this) and then, afterwards, Gun Fu (another touch of stylish theoretical work), unless you'd rather they come the other way around. I'm working on other writeups; once these two are exhausted a new list of choices will show up.
Since I'm still working on writeups, you can let me know in the thread what sort of broad archetypes you'd like to see. More melee, more casters, more social/support, more offense, more defense, characters using incarnum... I'll use the feedback to know which builds to focus on.