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 here.
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.
Now that we have revised Acererak’s spell list, we should consider how best to leverage his spellcasting abilities for the fight. The emphasis in this section will be on how to guarantee destruction of his enemies (read: overkill).
Round 1: Possibly the Only Round
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, chances are that this single spell will take several of them out of the fight right away, if not the entire party.
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.
Note that Acererak keeps his reaction available to cast counterspell. He has unlimited 3rd-level spell slots, so he will happily counterspell each and every round if he can, saving his legendary resistances for when it really matters. He will be on the lookout for spells that would allow the characters to reach him on the south balcony, such as dimension door. However, remember that the Soulmonger is quite large and in order to counterspell a creature’s spell, Acererak has to be able to see the creature. In other words, if they hide behind the Soulmonger as they attempt to destroy it with spells, they will be beyond his ability to counter.
Round 2: Clean Up
In all likelihood, this will be the last chance the characters have to destroy the Soulmonger (if they haven’t already). On Acererak’s turn, if he is not maintaining concentration on a spell (such as banishment), he will use telekinesis to attempt to move a melee 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 why the distance is important and why this should be instant death for the character and not a paltry 55 damage per round). If Acererak is concentrating on a spell or there are no melee characters still up, he should use disintegrate to deal with the most tenacious surviving character (ideally the healer).
If there are several characters still alive, Acererak will instead either use chain lightning again or, if it can be done without destroying the Soulmonger, blow his nova combination—time stop and delayed blast fireball (see part 1 of this series)—to utterly destroy them.
Round 3: Pulling All the Stops
If the characters have made it here, you ought to congratulate them for lasting this long. By this point, they are probably an aggressive glance away from total defeat. While normally Acererak would probably toy with his enemies here, the adventurers have upset plans years in the making and stirred wrath in the ancient lich unlike anything he has felt for centuries. The characters now have the dubious privilege of witnessing one of the multiverse’s most powerful wizards in a full on spell rampage. Choose your preferred manner for the party’s destruction and revel in their horror as they are incinerated, blown up, melted, frozen, or whatever else.
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 might prevent him from ever using it again (he can always make another Soulmonger). 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. He’s fought tougher and braver enemies than your players, this fight should be a cakewalk for him.
Don’t forget to check out part 1 of this series, Tomb of Annihilation: Improving Acererak.