First of all, I am not claiming to have all the answers. As phoenix_singing pointed out: " I don't think you could go through what the death knights did - death, raised by necromancy, forced into the Lich King's service, released, now dealing with the memories of what they did under his rule - and come out completely unchanged. With traumatic events, there are always reminders, there are always memories, and there are always scars on your soul that never quite go away, and a freed death knight would have more to work through than most. It takes time and effort to really come back to yourself, and that process, I think, is where death knights can really shine in RP."
This is so, so true. However, I would add that in any situation where our characters go through traumatic events like this, every person's character will react a little differently simply because we all imagine how *we* would respond to such a situation. Chances are no one has died, been raised as a death knight and broken free from an icy dictator in real life, so we can only imagine. Still, it's a start. Me? I'm a philosopher. So, for example, anyone who reads through Kelidara's DK Diary will find a death knight who is considerably more contemplative than your average death knight. And maybe it's the philosopher in me, but I don't think it's a bad idea to look at your roleplay character, whether it's a death knight or any other character, and ask yourself what traits they have taken from you. The answer could be enlightening!
Part I: Life before Undeath
As I glanced once again at the portal, I realized the source of my hesitation. I was afraid. Through that portal would be the gates of Stormwind. I could not remember who I might have been once, but I seemed to have retained all of the knowledge of my life. I could picture the glittering walls of the bright human city. I could feel the breeze of the wind through the trees of Ellwyn forest just outside of the city walls. I could hear the chirping of the birds in the trees, and the pitter-patter of feet as children ran through the alleyways. I remembered these things, and my heart shook again. Not with hate, but with fear. Those memories frightened me. Terrified me. Here I stood, tall, foreboding. Armored in black metal armor from head to toe. My glowing eyes glittered cold, dead, and emotionless. My only companions were a death charger with white fire licking at his hooves, black armor barding and glowing eyes that matched my own, and a gimpy ghoul named Bonestalker. The stalker of bones. I wasn't sure if the name was supposed to be terrifying or just creepy. Either way, I knew that Bonestalker would be as unwelcome in the glorious city of Stormwind as my death charger and I would be. That may have been my home once, but it was no longer. - Kelidara's DK Diary
When thinking about your death knight, the first question to ask is who were they before they died? Knowing where your character came from is an important part of determining who they are now. Here are some things to keep in mind, though:
1. The most popular belief about death knights is that they come from souls with strong beliefs. This is likely why death knights are most commonly ex-paladins in lore (Darion Mograine, for example), but it's not a criteria for PC death knights. What about gnome or tauren death knights, for example? Neither of those races can become paladins, but they can be raised as death knights. Priests may also be a good candidate for a death knight, or a warrior with a strong belief system, but really any class can become a death knight in death if the soul is strong enough.
2. Most death knights do not remember their past, at least at first. In the DK starting zone, there is a quest where a prisoner recognizes the PC and demands that they remember who they were and what they once stood for. The implication is that the PC does not recognize the prisoner. How quickly the death knight begins to regain their memories (if at all) can vary after this point, but chances are it will take time.
3. If your death knight does begin to regain his or her memories, think about how they might feel when they start to remember their past. Do they even have emotions? Are they curious? Do they care? What memories do they remember first? People? Emotions? Sensations? A nagging sense of a long-lost purpose?
4. If your death knight does not begin to regain his or her memories, how do they feel about that? Is there a nagging sense of guilt? Curiosity? Worry? Do they even care?
Part II: Loyalty
Over time, as the battle for New Avalon continued, something in me changed. It was a subtle change, one that I did not recognize at the time and that would have led to a swift destruction had the Lich King realized it. I never once questioned my obedience to the Lich King, but Darion had earned from me something else. Loyalty. I obeyed the Lich King, but I was loyal to Highlord Mograine. I followed the Lich King's orders, as did we all. We knew nothing else. But my identity was that of a knight of the Ebon Blade. I was one of Darion's death knights. - Kelidara's DK Diary
Most everyone knows the story of how the Knights of the Ebon Blade broke free of the Lich King at the Battle of Light's Hope. But why? Why did the Knights rebel? The truth is in the Lich King's own words:
"You were right, Fordring," The Lich King hissed, "I did send them in to die. Their lives are meaningless, but yours..."
Up until this point, neither Darion nor any of his fellow death knights had stopped to question the Lich King. Even among those few who did remember their past, their will was never their own. The Lich King did not even need to coerce his puppets - they did as he willed. And that was that. It isn't until the Lich King sacrificed the Ebon Blade in order to lure Tirion Fordring out of hiding that the spell was broken. Did he sacrifice Darion and his death knights because they were becoming too willful? It's possible the Lich King saw the potential for rebellion in the spirits of the Ebon Blade Knights, but that's all it was - potential. Even Darion, who still remembered his life before becoming a death knight, had never considered refusing the Lich King's orders... until the Lich King refused Darion's service. At that point, all bets were off. The only thing that could have broken the service of the Ebon Knights to the Lich King was his betrayal of that service. When he betrayed his death knights, they swore to betray him.
Keep this in mind while considering the early life of your death knight. To claim that your death knight never followed the Lich King at all is a good way to turn them into a Mary Sue. In addition, it will severely gimp the role playing potential of your death knight. There's a lot of growth to be had in a character who has to work through as much emotional and moral baggage as the death knights come with.
The question of loyalty doesn't end there, however. Once the death knight breaks free of the Lich King... where do they stand? In the words of Bob Dylan: "It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody...." So, who does your death knight serve?
The great majority of the Acherus death knights (that is, death knights that were freed at Light's Hope Chapel) follow Darion Mograine. Darion stands with the death knights. He is the one who formally breaks their chains. He understands what each death knight is going through. He makes sure that Acherus is available as the only home left to the death knights. And he takes the lead in giving the death knights a purpose and a place back in the world of the living, all the while recognizing that the death knights don't really have a place there any more. The death knights are a unit and they need a leader. That leader is Darion.
That's not to say that every death knight is loyal to Darion. Especially following the shattering, there are likely cases of death knights who have found a new home. That home might be the guild that they defeated the Lich King with. Or it might be their faction - both Thessarian and Koltira are seen at the battle for Andorhal, each serving their respective factions. However, even in this case, Thessarian and Koltira recognize each other as colleagues and fellow death knights. Death knights still train together at Acherus, no matter their faction. And most will still respect Darion Mograine as the leader of the death knights, even if their current service is under a different leader. The question of where a death knight's primary loyalty lies may change over the course of their life time, but it inevitably will be up to each individual death knight.
Part III: Philosophy
"I am a knight of the Ebon Blade," I replied. "Does that sound bright and cheery to you? If you want light and holiness, go sign up with the Order of the Silver Hand, or the Argent Dawn. Light... let me tell you something about the light." I turned to look at Mikelle, and my cold eyes flashed. "The light... causes the shadows. Darkness is nothing more than that corner of the world that the light has shunned." I pointed down to where our mounts made long, narrow shadows down the ridge, with the setting sun at our backs. "There, you have a shadow. Whose fault is it that the land is dark? The land's? For being dark? Or the sun's for not deigning to grant the land its light?"
Mikelle didn't reply immediately, then she said, "I would say it is our fault. For standing between the sun and the land."
I glanced up at my companion and quirked an eyebrow. It was, I do not doubt, the most open expression I'd yet given to anyone. Her response had surprised me, and made me think. But I was not yet through. "So, are we to sacrifice ourselves, then, deprive ourselves of the sunlight so that the land may have it? The only way to not leave a shadow, after all, is to not stand in the sunlight."
Mikelle nodded slowly. "Then it must be the sun's fault, for not giving off enough light for everything and everyone."
"Indeed." I paused, smirked, then looked back towards the dark portal. "I have been shunned by the light. I stand in shadow. All of the Ebon knights do. We are the shadow. But..." I closed my eyes, then opened them again. "But we are the shadows that prove that the light exists. Without us... there would be no night, no day. No life." - Kelidara's DK Diary
So, what do the Ebon Knights believe?
This is a good question. The truth is that it will vary between death knights, just as it varies between individuals in any other situation. But here are some good rules of thumb to go by:
1. Death knights will usually believe that a higher power (The Light) does exist. This goes back to the strong belief system they had in life that lead them to be raised as death knights in the first place.
2. While death knights will usually believe that The Light exists, you won't find them worshiping it. There are a couple of reasons for this, but it comes down to the fact that the death knights have been cast from The Light. This may be due to fate or as punishment for the sins they committed while serving the Lich King. How each death knight grapples with this will be different. Some might turn their back on The Light, others might carry the guilt of their crimes and devote their lives to earning repentance. Still other death knights will take their new role stoically, accepting that they must live in darkness so that others might be blessed by The Light.
Part IV: Code of Ethics
The Ebon Watcher says: Look upon the field, Highlord. The Lich King has halted your advice completely and won the upper hand!
The Ebon Watcher says: The breach you created was sealed with Nerubian webbing almost as quickly as it was opened.
The Ebon Watcher says: Your soldiers are being used as living shields to stave off artillery fire in the Valley of Echoes, allowing the forces of the Lich King to assault your base without impediment.
The Ebon Watcher says: The Lich King knows your boundaries, Highlord. He knows that you will not fire on your own men. Do you not understand? He has no boundaries. No rules to abide.
Highlord Tirion Fordring says: We will do this with honor Darion. We will not sing to the levels of the Scourge to be victorious. To do so would make us no better than the monster that we fight to destroy!
The Ebon Watcher says: Then you have lost, Highlord.
-Conversation between Tirion and Darion at the Alliance Vangard in Ice Crown
Okay, so we death knights believe in the Light, but we've been cast out of it. How does that affect our moral judgment and our code of ethics?
Again, a good question. And the answer is shadowy. Some death knights will subject themselves to strict codes in order to try and atone for their crimes. A good example of such a death knight is Ormus the Patient, who hands out the Ashen Verdict rings to any who raise their reputation with the faction:
I was once a paladin,
I will aid my allies as best I can, but never again will I wield the powers of darkness.
Ormus, what happened to your eyes?
A self-inflicted wound, friend. I could not bear to look upon a world where I'd committed so many horrors under the Lich King's grasp.
It was my first step towards redemption, and if my sins are unforgivable, then I will attempt to atone for them for the rest of my life.
-Ormus the Patient, Ice Crown Citadel
Other death knights may view their place in the shadows as a chance to do what needs to be done to make the world a better place without the weight of their own moral code. They are already damned, after all, so why worry? These death knights become vigilantes of sorts, who may kill a public enemy rather than allow them to go through the justice system and perhaps escape or be released. Sometimes these death knights may pity the living who still follow a moral code that "shackles" them, but others may be jealous of those who can still hold to that which the death knight only vaguely remembers. He or she may do what they feel they must do so that others do not have to.
How each death knight handles their own personal code of ethics will likely depend upon what their morals were in life combined with how they have reacted to being shunned by the Light that they once worshiped.
Part V: Personality
You've figured out who your death knight was in life, who they are loyal to, what they believe and what ethical codes they follow on a daily basis. Right?
Okay, so, maybe you haven't. Maybe you just have an idea, but you aren't sure how your death knight will develop as you play her. That's not only okay, that's good! Our characters will grow and change they are leveled and played. They will be affected by the characters they meet, the quests they complete, the world events they experience and the opportunities that open up for them. A great role play character is one who comes alive and speaks to you. You may discover later that they had some pivotal even happen in their lives before they became a death knight that you didn't realize. Chances are, they didn’t' realize it either! Their loyalties and believes will very likely change as well. So, while these are good concepts to build on, always ALWAYS remember to give your characters room to grow and expand, and that's doubly true for the death knight.
"That's all well and good, Kel, but how do I role play my death knight now?" To answer that, you need a personality. Like so many other aspects of death knights, a lot will very by individual, but here are some other key points to consider.
1. Most death knight npcs that you meet are jaded. Their sense of humor (if they have any) is dark and sardonic. They are pessimistic and negative
2. Death knights are also determined and hard core. They will fight to the death for a lost cause, because they have nothing to lose. They don't pout and they don't bemoan their fate, but might put all their energy into a productive activity simply to avoid thinking about what they have lost.
3. Death knights can be cold and unemotional. This shouldn't be confused with cruelty, though people looking for comfort might find them uncaring. This can vary from death knight to death knight, but for most, this is simply a matter of no longer having emotions. However, this isn't a hard and fast rule. A lot of the more complex emotions - loyalty, determination, even the love and affection for family - will show up for most death knights. They aren't automatons. But the surface-level emotions like mirth (laughter), joy, sadness and romantic love can often allude a death knight. Whether this is because they have buried it under their burdens or if they remember what it was like to feel these emotions at all is up to you.
4. Death knights are not above (or below) following a cause. They may find themselves beyond a basic moral code, but they are very good at seeing the big picture. They would likely be much less concerned with the deaths of a few individuals than the destruction of the entire world.
5. With the death of the Lich King, most death knights have found themselves without the cause that united them - vengeance. Where do they go from here? What is their purpose? What should they be fighting for? These questions can not be emphasized enough as you roleplay your death knight in this post-shattering era. Don’t assume that your death knight was able to shrug and move on with his or her life. After all, would you be able to?