Tomb of Annihilation gives us one of the most powerful and iconic villains in the history of Dungeons & Dragons: the archlich Acererak. This centuries-old, planeswalking master wizard was once a cambion (half-fiend) from the world of Greyhawk (Oerth), the son of an Orcus-worshipping balor and for a time the apprentice of the infamous Vecna (before the latter ascended to godhood). Acererak’s real claim to fame, however, is his penchant for constructing elaborate death traps to harvest the souls of powerful adventurers. It is this legacy that endures in the eponymous dungeon of Tomb of Annihilation.
This article is part 1 of the Tomb of Annihilation series. You can read part 2 here.
Since his first appearance in the original Tomb of Horrors (1978), Acererak (ah-SAIR-ak) has taken many forms, including that of a lich, demilich, and a vestige (a kind of super-ghost invented to give a purpose to the Binder class in Third Edition). In the Fifth Edition Monster Manual, Acererak was mentioned in the context of the demilich entry, possibly indicating that he was originally intended to take that form again. However, demiliches are no longer the advanced form of a lich as they were in the past, and so Chris Perkins et. al. at Wizards of the Coast opted to restore him to full lichdom in Tomb of Annihilation. Not only that, they gave him an advanced stat line that put him on the same level as some demon lords. Seriously, he’s nuts.
Most remarkable about Acererak’s Fifth Edition stats are his spellcasting abilities, which are well beyond even the mightiest mortal archmage. Able to cast 1st- through 3rd-level spells at will—including outside his turn as legendary actions!—as well as having more spell slots of higher levels (two 9th-level spell slots!), he is in a completely different league than any PC could become. Reading through his abilities, it is impossible to not have visions of arcing bolts of lightning and roaring eruptions of flame. Dropping three fireballs just as legendary actions?
Except… no, that can’t be right. He doesn’t even have fireball prepared? What?
Closely perusing Acererak’s spell list has led many people to scratch their head in wonder at the way his stat block was designed. How does he expect to prevail against interloping adventurers without fireball? How can he have not availed himself of the opportunity to throw one of the best spells in the game around four times in a single round? He’s got 27 Intelligence, this is a no-brainer!
Worst spell list ever.
Now, many have argued that Acererak isn’t expecting to have to rush to the tomb that day in order to smite some upstart adventurers, and therefore that he’s not necessarily going to have prepared spells that day to carry more firepower than an Apache Attack Helicopter. And those people would be right… if he didn’t have a full loadout of high-level damage spells like disintegrate and circle of death. Clearly, he’s prepared for a fight, which makes sense given that he frequently travels the planes exploring dangerous locales. He has enemies across the multiverse and regularly deals with dangerous situations. He is always going to be ready for a fight.
In actuality, there is a more (and also less) logical reason for him to eschew the most damaging spells that he can spam: so that he doesn’t wipe the entire party within a few rounds. Adding three fireballs to the average damage of each turn raises Acererak’s 3-round damage average considerably. We say that this is more and also less logical because there is already zero chance that the PCs should be able to defeat him; they should have depleted most of their resources crawling through six levels of Faerûn’s deadliest dungeon and then fighting hags as well as an aborted godling. By this point, Acererak could show up with nothing more than a pointed stick and be able to destroy the 10th-level (max!) party.
In other words, sparing the players fireballs as Acererak’s legendary actions in hopes that it makes the encounter at all survivable is an exercise in futility. No 2nd-tier party should prevail against Acererak the Devourer. In fact, we would go so far as to say that you’re doing your players a disservice if you don’t wipe the floor with them in this fight. You wouldn’t make Demogorgon a pushover, would you?
Of course, those who argue that Acererak, while he should be ready for deadly situations, shouldn’t be outfitted ready to singlehandedly wipe out a small army have a very good point. But it is a point that raises issue with his basic spell list, too. For someone supposedly not prepared for war, there is a notable lack of utility in Acererak’s spell list. It’s as though he was halfway through swapping out his spells from a day he expected combat to a day he thought he’d just bum around opening magically locked doors and then just… got bored and stopped. It really doesn’t make sense.
So what should he have prepared? To figure that out, let’s look into a day in the (un)life of one of the most powerful wizards in the multiverse.
What does a mighty archwizard who has need of neither air nor food nor sleep do in a typical day? Aside from overseeing the construction of deadly tombs on far-flung worlds, Acererak primarily “wanders the cosmos in search of souls to harvest” (TOA 94). In his odyssey across the planes, he comes into conflict with powerful spirits (such as the Nine Trickster Gods of Omu) and rivals in his search to plumb the secrets of creation. His adventures, then, are fraught with peril, and even though he will always reform when destroyed (so long as his phylactery survives), he is sure to resent delays in his adventuring and so would ensure that he possesses the means to defeat his foes.
What about Acererak’s style? As a necromancer, he probably doesn’t put too much stock in the illusion school, so while phantasmal killer would certainly be fitting for an evil wizard who enjoys terrorizing his foes (or underlings), it probably doesn’t belong on Acererak’s list. Likewise, he is too economical to run a high-level spell like maze, which does what a low-level spell (banishment) does better. A creature that Acererak doesn’t have time to deal with but also doesn’t want to destroy (perhaps because he wants to interrogate it later) is better banished indefinitely for later recovery using the demiplane spell. The only illusion spell he’d take would probably by greater invisibility, as it allows him to cast spells without fear of being counterspelled (since he cannot be seen and therefore cannot be targeted).
When you take into account Acererak’s particular brand of villainy and consider his daily activities, you can draw a few conclusions. He would have to have spells that can move him from place to place, damaging spells that can deal with various types of foes, spells to protect himself against those damage types to which he is not already immune, and spells to help him to defeat ancient magical protections. Let’s take a look at what this would look like:
Now this is a spell list you could expect from someone who means business. He has a spammable spell that grant disadvantage to someone trying to attack him (ray of sickness). He also has spells which deal lightning, cold, and fire damage, a well-rounded arsenal able to overcome most any foe. He can fly wherever he wants at will, allowing him superior manoeuvrability, and if he really needs an escape he can teleport 30 feet away as a bonus action with misty step. He can singlehandedly wipe all but high-level parties with a single use of chain lightning followed with some legendary action fireballs, but if he really gets angry he can cast time stop followed by delayed blast fireball, dealing 13d6 damage to any creatures caught inside the conflagration. He can also dispel a pesky persistent effect like Bigby’s hand if he missed negating it with counterspell.
Yet, as equipped as he is for battle, he also has the right utility spells for adventuring. Comprehend languages, detect magic, knock, speak with dead, and telekinesis are all the kind of spells that an adventuring wizard would rely on to explore long-lost locales or ancient libraries, and some spells like disintegrate have out-of-combat applications if Acererak runs out of less drastic options. He also packs utility cantrips (of which this list gives him the full five that a 20th-level wizard is entitled to), including light if he needs to look at something in colour (darkvision is greyscale) and mending.
Finally, he also has the most important spell in a wizard’s arsenal: wish. Because if anyone in the multiverse should have this prepared, it’s Acererak.
Remaining Spell Slots
Now that we’ve figured out what spells Acererak should have prepared, we should guess at how many spell slots he has remaining when he arrives. Let’s assume that he casts mind blank on himself every day, so that takes him down to a single open 8th-level slot. Now, let’s assume that he’s been exploring some ancient ruin on another plane—maybe Tovag Baragu in the ruins of Bakluni (Greyhawk Adventures hardcover, p. 98) or the Mournland on Eberron. We can expect he generally relies on his at-will utilities like dispel magic and mage hand to do most tasks, but perhaps he had to use telekinesis at one point. Then he had to plane shift to Toril in order to confront the upstarts wrecking his experiment.
Let’s consider what his spell slots would look like, then:
Cantrips: at will
1st level: at will
2nd level: at will
3rd level: at will
4th level:3 slots
5th level: 2 slots
6th level: 3 slots
7th level: 2 slots
8th level: 1 slot
9th level: 2 slots
New Challenge Rating
Of course, changing out Acererak’s spells also changes his damage potential, which has an impact on his challenge rating. Note that DMs playing Adventurers League can ignore this section; Acererak’s challenge rating will remain unchanged even if you decide he has no spells prepared.
The process of calculating a monster’s challenge rating is laid out in chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It involves a long series of calculations based on AC, hit points, damage, and attack bonuses or save DCs (whichever the monster uses more). To spare you the boring steps, here’s how we re-calculate Acererak’s challenge rating:
Defensive CR: 25
Offensive CR: 28
Final CR: 26 (90,000 XP)
Putting It All Together
Acererak is a legendary archmage who has lived for centuries and defeated all manner of terrifying enemies, including would-be gods. The question is not whether he can defeat a party of exhausted second-tier adventurers, but how long they can survive against him. A DM who pulls their punches with Acererak is doing his players a disservice by cheating them out of the experience. Your players knew going in to Tomb of Annihilation that their characters would probably not make it out alive, and that’s exactly what should happen here.
While he isn’t likely to have prepared spells for the day expecting to destroy adventurers, Acererak frequently journeys through the most dangerous locales of the multiverse in search of powerful souls to harvest and therefore would have a suite of damaging spells prepared as part of his regular repertoire. Unfortunately, the prepared spells suggested by the adventure do not reflect his experience in leveraging his magical abilities. Thus, a revision is absolutely necessary to truly deliver the real “Acererak experience”. The improvements presented here will ensure that this battle is one of the most memorable of your players’ gaming careers.
Don’t forget to check out part 2 of this series, Tomb of Annihilation: Playing Acererak.