Tomb of Annihilation is a deadly campaign in which few PCs make it through to the end. Such a campaign deserves an equally deadly final boss. And yet, we are constantly seeing DMs lament that the final fight with Acererak in Tomb of Annihilation was disappointing. As such, we’ve written this article to help DMs to run this encounter to its fullest potential.
This article is part 2 of the Tomb of Annihilation series. You can read part 1, “Improving Acererak”, here.
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The Importance of Preparation
Invariably, an investigation into why people were disappointed with this fight comes down to the simple fact that they did little to no planning beforehand to learn the lich’s strengths, weaknesses, and possible strategies. A high-level spellcaster isn’t like a regular enemy who has a few abilities easily written into the stat block and read an hour before they appear; you have to consider their spells, how they combine, and what are the situations in which they might use them.
The fact that you are reading this article is already a step in the right direction. Below you will find the strategies we have devised for making Acererak the deadly threat he should be.
The issue of what spells Acererak has prepared is covered in the first article of this series: “Tomb of Annihilation: Improving Acererak”. In it, we address the oft-cited concern that Acererak’s spell list leaves a lot to be desired, and we provide our own revised spell list for him. We suggest that you read that article in order to understand the strategies we lay out below.
Before we lay out the strategy that Acererak might follow, let’s first examine some of the tactics that are in his toolbox which you can drop in to the fight as needed.
Sphere of Annihilation
The situational applications of this make it more of a flavour item for Acererak. For all the fear surrounding this item, it really isn’t all that impressive in comparison with Acererak’s other abilities. It takes two legendary actions for him to use it, it can only move in one direction each time, it has a very low save DC that relies on a stat which many people invest in (Dexterity), and it deals only 22 (4d10) damage. Given the changes that we’ve made to Acererak’s spell list, it simply isn’t worth the effort to use it outside of special circumstances. Consider using it when you can hit three or more targets who will automatically fail their saving throw (such as if they are unconscious) and whom Acererak can’t all hit with an area spell like fireball.
Staff of the Forgotten One
Another item with situational use. When paired with a spell like finger of death, it can be absolutely devastating. However, that combination takes the action on two of Acererak’s turns, which is a heavy investment even when he has three legendary actions with which to cast other spells. He may save this combination for characters that are possessed by a spirit of one of the trickster gods (and therefore get 50 temporary hit points at the start of each of their turns, which challenges even Acererak’s damage output).
There are two ways that Acererak can use his counterspell: offensively or defensively.
Offensive use of his counterspell involves ensuring that his own spells go off by counterspelling an enemy’s counterspell. If Acererak really needs a spell to go off and he is facing multiple enemy spellcasters, he will counter a counterspell using a spell slot above 3rd, thereby forcing any attempts to counter his own counterspell to rely on a spellcasting ability check. If the atropal has done its job in the previous encounter, characters will have disadvantage on ability checks from exhaustion, so even making a DC 14 check might prove difficult.
Defensive use of his counterspell involves negating the spells of enemy spellcasters. As long as he has legendary resistances remaining, Acererak is content to cast this kind of counterspell at a normal (3rd) level, as even if his counterspell is countered by the spellcaster, it cost that caster a spell slot of at least 3rd level while it only cost him a reaction and maybe one of his legendary resistances if he fails the save.
A word of caution about using counterspell. If your party doesn’t have counterspell or only has one spellcaster, it can really suck the fun out of the fight for Acererak to constantly negate their action. Instead of using counterspell every round, you may want to have Acererak instead use his reaction to cast shield, as even against AC 26 there is still a chance that a weapon attack can hit him, as opposed to a spellcaster whose entire action has been negated. That is not to say that Acererak would decide not to counter a very important spell just because he did the same thing last round, only that you want this fight to be exciting, not tedious.
One important addition to Acererak’s spell list is fly. The ceiling in the Death God’s Nursery is 30 feet above the platform on which the Soulmonger stands (or stood). This means that Acererak can safely float above the battlefield, out of reach of melee fighters.
Like with counterspell (see above), this can drain the excitement from the fight, so be careful about using this spell. It is perfectly acceptable to roleplay Acererak as so deluded by his own hubris that he foregoes this option entirely.
The importance of his At-Will Spell option can’t be understated. Acererak can cast spells of up to 3rd level at will, so this means he could feasibly drop three fireballs in a single turn, dispel three effects, hit three melee characters with ray of sickness, keep three creatures from being able to recover hit points with chill touch, or some combination thereof. Now that we’ve given Acererak a real spell list, all other legendary action options pale in comparison to casting a spell.
The only other option that is really viable is Disrupt Life, and only if he is stuck in the midst of more than three creatures where he couldn’t simply cast fireball without hitting himself.
Now that we have revised Acererak’s spell list and considered his tactics, we should consider how best to leverage his abilities in combat. Fair warning: the emphasis in this section will be on how to guarantee destruction of his enemies (read: overkill).
Round 1: Rolling Out The Hurt
Acererak leads a very busy unlife and he’s plane shifted all this way because some upstarts have destroyed the atropal, one of his deadliest pet projects. What’s more, the various traps and deceits of his tomb have been foiled. He needs to re-establish his supremacy, and the best way to do that is with a show of power.
And yet, he has no idea of the capabilities of these adventurers. Do they have magical protections? Are they especially tenacious against certain attacks? How weakened are they? These are questions that Acererak wants answered so he can devise a means to destroy the party. And so, being the scientist that he is (wizards are pretty much scientists of magic, right?), he’s going to run a diagnostic.
Safely located on the south balcony, a 15-foot leap away from either of the other two balconies (over a pool of lava, for good measure), Acererak feels unassailable by conventional attacks and opens up the fight with chain lightning, dealing 45 (10d8) lightning damage to up to four targets all within 30 feet of each other (pretty much guaranteed within the nursery). He prioritizes ranged opponents or melee characters within striking range of the Soulmonger. A typical 10th-level fighter might have anywhere between 70 and 100 hit points, while a typical wizard will have between 45 and 65 hit points. Depending on how much damage they’ve suffered in the fight leading up to Acererak’s appearance, and if they haven’t had a turn yet for the temporary hit points from any Trickster God possessing them to kick in, this one spell might knock a few of them out immediately.
Alternatively, if there are several melee characters who are all attempting to destroy Acererak’s other major project, the Soulmonger, he will prioritize defending it by using banishment (upcasting it as high as 6th level) to temporarily remove the brutish adventurers from the fight so he can deal with them later (they are deposited in area 57 of the Tomb, the Oubliette, as per the Modified Spells table on page 128).
Throughout this round, Acererak should use his legendary actions to drop fireballs on clusters of characters that are still alive or chill touch on unconscious characters to prevent them from being brought back to consciousness. Remember that Acererak is a 20th-level wizard, and so his cantrips deal four damage dice (4d8 for chill touch). On the off-chance that he critically hits an unconscious character (at disadvantage because he’s at range vs. a prone target) with a cantrip, there is a possibility that he can outright kill them then and there by dealing their hit point maximum in damage while they’re unconscious. If the characters somehow have managed to maintain their own concentration effects through this (such as Bigby’s hand or spiritual guardians), he might use his legendary actions to get rid of them using dispel magic.
Round 2: The Tides Turn
If the characters survived the initial round, you ought to congratulate them. This is where tides begin to turn in their favour, though they’re still in for a hard fight.
By this point, any character possessed by a spirit of the Nine Trickster Gods will have started benefiting from the 50 temporary hit points per round, which is a solid buffer against Acererak’s spells. When we ran this fight, these hit points really made a huge difference. If the party is large enough or is bolstered by a sufficient number of NPCs (such as those from the mirror of life trapping), Acererak could be severely outclassed in terms of the action economy and might realistically face defeat if he doesn’t play it smart.
In the last round, he would have carefully considered the strengths of the party. If there are a number of spellcasters, he will be careful about his positioning to limit his exposure to counterspells as he focuses targets with bigger spells (or he could try to bait out a counterspell so that he can cast spells using legendary actions with impunity, having traded an action for one of the spellcaster’s dwindling spell slots). If there are multiple melee opponents who can reach him (either because they were teleported, could fly, or made the jump to his balcony), then he might save his reaction for shield.
If the Soulmonger hasn’t been destroyed, Acererak will prioritize protecting it. Even with the atropal dead, the device is still a powerful necromantic artifact that can be used to fuel his own phylactery. Even for someone like Acererak, the Soulmonger represents a significant investment of time and resources, and the loss would be a setback. If he didn’t banish creatures before, he will probably do so now. Alternatively, he can use telekinesis to attempt to move a character away from the Soulmonger (and promptly drop them in the lava, which should be at least 90 feet below; see our article “Falling Into Lava” for more). If Acererak is concentrating on a spell or there are no melee characters still up, he should start his Invoke Curse + finger of death combination to dispatch tenacious characters (such as the healer).
If the Soulmonger has been destroyed, Acererak should blow his nova combination—time stop and delayed blast fireball—to utterly destroy the characters. Remember that he would keep his reaction ready if he uses his nova, as he would want to counter any attempt to counterspell his 9th-level spell.
Round 3: Pulling All the Stops
By this point, anyone who doesn’t have one of the Nine Trickster Gods in them is probably dead, and even those who are hosts to one of the spirits are probably on the ropes. They’ve gone toe to toe with one the multiverse’s most powerful archmages and will likely bear the scars of it.
Acererak is the kind of individual who enjoys toying with his enemies, and feel free to start conveying his delight at the challenge the adventurers are posing. Though the adventurers have upset plans years in the making, they’ve given him more sport than he expected, and maybe more than he’s had in a lifetime. He’s not about to spare them, however.
If he hasn’t used his time stop and delayed blast fireball combination yet, he might try it now if he can limit the chance of the spell being countered. If he has already used it, or if the party has advantageous positioning on him, he will go for the more cunning combination: greater invisibility with shield. This pairing raises his AC to 26 and gives disadvantage on rolls to hit him, not to mention ensuring that his spells can’t be countered (because counterspell relies on sight). Feel free to cackle deviously for added effect as the horror of their predicament dawns on the players.
Any rounds that follow after this are likely to go one of two ways: either the players have decidedly gained the upper hand (whether because Acererak’s spell damage rolls have been awful or the party’s rolls have been clutch), in which case Acererak will continue his invisibility shenanigans to wear them down; or the players will be mostly dead and easy pickings to his spells.
Special Consideration: Wish
Remember that Acererak has wish prepared and he isn’t afraid to use it. As a very old and powerful lich with time on his hands, he probably won’t risk using wish in such a way that causes him to suffer strain that might prevent him from ever using it again when he would suffer no setbacks if he didn’t. However, he can use wish to protect the Soulmonger by availing himself of the “basic use” of the spell to duplicate a wall of force spell as a hemispherical dome. Should this occur, characters will have to break his concentration in order to damage the Soulmonger again—or find some way to navigate beneath the Soulmonger to strike at it from below (the Soulmonger is too tall to enclose in a full sphere). If your party is higher than 10th level and has access to more potent spells, consider using this option.
If the adventurers destroyed the Soulmonger first before the atropal, Acererak might keep wish ready for situational spells he does not have prepared, such as feeblemind (for neutralizing a spellcaster) or reverse gravity (to really mess the party up).
Putting It All Together
As we mentioned in the first article, you should give up trying to run this encounter in a way that will allow the party to survive. You wouldn’t nerf Orcus or Vecna such that the players could defeat them easily, so don’t do it with Acererak. If you don’t deliver the party an arcane ass-whooping, you are really doing them a disservice. We have outlined just some possible strategies to use with him here, but there are many others that you may devise based on your party’s composition. Remember, just because your Intelligence isn’t 27 doesn’t mean you should run Acererak like his is anything less. Besides, if they manage to destroy the Soulmonger, they can be resurrected in Baldur’s Gate.
2019/02/06: Tactics and strategy were separated into two different headings to make for easier digestion.
Don’t forget to check out part 1 of this series, Tomb of Annihilation: Improving Acererak.
And don’t miss out on Sly Flourish’s take on this iconic villain!