Monster Spotlight: Liches

The dreaded lich (rhymes with “witch”) is among the most iconic of D&D’s foes, with a history going all the way back to ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Very powerful (and usually very old) spellcasters, liches care little for that which does not advance their studies and expand their power. This makes them ideal villains for entire adventures, or even campaigns.

To become a lich requires the completion of rituals of such manifest profanity that these entities are doubtless beyond all care for the moral implications of their actions. We’re talking very messed up stuff; if liches in your world follow the ritual from Second Edition (AD&D), they would have gained their powers through, among other horrible acts, murdering a unicorn yearling with wyvern venom and then drinking its blood. Even more disturbing, the ritual is believed to tether the soul of the spellcaster to Orcus, the Demon Prince of Undeath, who first devised the process, thus making liches servants (however indirectly) of one of the greatest demon lords in the multiverse.1

To put this all in other words, you could be a bona fide saint petting a puppy and holding the cure for cancer, and a lich would still happily throw a fireball at your feet if it felt you were intruding or posed a threat.

So how do you play such an inhuman foe whose quest for power can span the planes themselves? In this article, we’ll examine the key things to keep in mind.

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Evil Masterminds

This is a point that is impossible by laws both physical and magical to overstate: liches operate from behind the scenes. They use agents and grunts to do the work while they focus on the big picture. Think of them as the great masterminds of a story, and treat them as such. Ernst Blofeld assembled the international criminal enterprise SPECTRE to carry out his globe-spanning plans for world domination. Emperor Palpatine sent trusted lieutenants to handle projects like the Death Star and fighting the Rebellion. Baron Strucker first assembled Hydra to plunder libraries in search of magical secrets.

Just as these villains built empires (criminal and otherwise) to serve their needs, so too would a lich use servants to advance their agenda, taking to the field only when necessary. You wouldn’t simply catch a lich leading the charge in the first act of the story, and you certainly wouldn’t catch one alone and unprepared for a fight, such that the characters can simply overwhelm them in a round or two.

Plans Within Plans Within Plans

A lich’s aims are often obscured by multiple layers of misdirection, and it likely keeps a full picture of its goals from all but its most trusted servants. A random cultist captured in the first episode of the adventure will most likely not be privy to the entirety of the lich’s schemes, and may not even know the nature of their master. The party might spend several levels thwarting the lich’s followers before learning even a hint about their ultimate foe.

Of course, cultists and minor undead would only form the rank and file of a lich’s following. Flesh golems, wights, ghouls, fiends, spectres, mummies, and other creatures would also surround a lich, as well as other, more exotic foes. A lich might command a slaad through its control gem, have an ooze it animated in some strange experiment, keep a bone naga it turned undead a century or two ago out of spite, and maybe even a corrupted paladin turned death knight.

A Villain’s Base

One important manifestation of a lich’s brilliance that no DM should overlook is the planning of its lair. A lich’s lair isn’t merely a place to store its books and treasures, it is its sanctum sanctorum, unassailable save for by exploiting whatever weaknesses the lich has been unable to eliminate—which would be precious few, indeed. Wards against scrying and teleportation would be de rigueur, and it would be located somewhere inaccessible or inhospitable to regular habitation, such as in a frozen waste or a burning desert—if indeed it is even in a traditional plane at all and not tucked in some extradimensional pocket in some far-flung corner of the multiverse. Likely, foul magic has seeped into the very foundations of the place, transforming it into desecrated ground (see chapter 5, “Adventure Environments”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). As to its size, a lich’s lair likely comprises dozens of chambers and passages, all of which are filled with defences designed to waste the power that intruders would need to prevail in the inevitable battle. Wherever it would go in its base of operations, a lich should have access to all of its powers.

From the nigh-invulnerable safety of its lair, a lich would pull strings stretching across the multiverse, all the while delving into the deepest mysteries of the arcane.

Spellcasters Nonpareil

It bears worth the emphasis that liches are among the most exceptional spellcasters in the multiverse. In Fifth Edition, the only known source for the ritual of transformation makes the knowledge available only to those capable of casting 9th-level spells! (It may be argued that this is merely an isolated restriction; the ritual required only being able to cast 6th-level spells in previous editions, and there is a 14th-level lich in the Fifth Edition Dreams of the Red Wizards storyline—though that is still exceptionally strong by comparison to regular folk.) The magic involved in this process is advanced to the point that only a brilliant mind can comprehend it, and many who seek for lichdom go mad in the process, or by failing in the process.

Magic isn’t just a tool to a lich, it’s their all-encompassing obsession, and their skills should reflect this. Watching a lich weave a spell is not just any old show. Van Gogh didn’t just brush some paint on a canvas. Michaelangelo didn’t just hack away at marble. Donatello didn’t just mold clay. The spells of a lich are more than words in a stat block, they’re testament to an arcane brilliance so great that it has successfully untangled itself from the mortal coil.

Given their exceptional mastery of the arcane, a lich would certainly know that a party’s spellcaster has the potential to be their most significant rival. Fortunately, the lich has a fair chance of neutralizing the threat either with power word stun, which targets a saving throw in which spellcasters are generally weaker, or through the spell-neutralizing globe of invulnerability. If multiple opponents present themselves, the lich favours the latter, relying on mirror image to keep it safe from nonmagical attacks. A lich might even maintain mirror image on itself through the contingency spell, set to activate if the lich is physically attacked, since the doesn’t require concentration and therefore wouldn’t potentially disrupt another effect the lich is maintaining at the time.

Particularly troublesome martial foes, especially paladins, the lich would keep at bay through various measures. While the most effective is merely keeping a distance (potentially through dimension door), a lich would happily hurl a persistent individual away with thunderwave (ideally forcing them into a hazard). If not concentrating on another spell, a lich might opt to use dominate monster on a weak-willed attacker, such as a barbarian, who stands a good chance to fail their saving throw even with the advantage they would have as active combatants against the lich. A lich would sooner save its reaction for counterspell than shield, only using the latter when its efforts to find advantageous positioning are insufficient and it is exposed to multiple physical attacks.

It is important to remember that the lich doesn’t fear the destruction of its body, since it is certain to return near its well-hidden phylactery. Rather, it would prefer to avoid the loss of the equipment it carries and the period of inactivity it is forced into while it regenerates (up to 10 days), which might cause disruption in its plans.

Cruel Combatants

Like all spellcasters, a lich’s spells can all be changed at the whim of the Dungeon Master. That said, the standard list is already fairly strong and has many of the wonderful staples of any necromancer’s repertoire—terrible weapons the lich doesn’t hesitate to use.

With finger of death, a lich can gain a new permanent servant out of any creature it kills with the spell (that is, any creature who is instantly slain by the spell reducing them to 0 hit points and the remaining damage equalling or exceeding their hit point maximum). With disintegrate, a lich can just simply destroy any foe reduced to 0 hit points by the whopping 75 (10d6 + 40) force damage. A surrounded lich can drop cloudkill at its own feet for the heavy obscurement and proceed to paralyze foes in the caustic fog that doesn’t bother it in the least. Especially troublesome foes can be dispatched with the brutal, no-saving-throw power word kill

Customizing Spells

If you really want to switch up the lich’s spells, we recommend swapping out scrying for chain lightning (the lich most likely has a crystal ball tucked away somewhere anyway), Melf’s acid arrow for fly, and detect thoughts for hold person. The lich should also get chill touch and shocking grasp, bringing it up to the full complement of cantrips an 18th-level spellcaster should have, and may even swap out ray of frost for toll the dead (Xanathar’s).

Legendary Actions

As far as its legendary actions go, liches usually get the most out of spamming their cantrips. Because it is an 18th-level spellcaster, its cantrips are at the maximum number of dice (4d8 for ray of frost), meaning that a lich would have to catch three targets with its Disrupt Life legendary action in order for it to be worth using. If the lich has toll the dead, the damage output of its cantrips is even better, and Disrupt Life is only worth using if it can catch five targets. The lich’s other legendary actions, Paralyzing Touch and Frightening Gaze, are more situational; the former works better to support one of the lich’s allies attacks against the target, while the latter keeps pesky martial foes from getting close.

Lair Actions

The lich’s lair actions are the real deal and worth writing yourself a note to remember. The lich tethering itself to one of the spellcasters—especially an arcane spellcaster with fewer hit points—and sending half the damage of the paladin’s 3rd-level Divine Smite their way is sure to scare the party, and a character hit by the desperate apparitions of the lich’s past victims will not only be horrified by the experience, but may even be wounded enough to be dispatched by a single disintegrate. Additionally, the ability to replenish expended spell slots of up to 8th level not only means the lich will always be starting combat with its full complement of spell slots, but it will also happily expend its higher-level spell slots to throw around its biggest spells. Why cast blight for only 8d8 when you can deal 12d8? If the lich took hold person, upcast it to paralyze a whole bunch of characters so they automatically fail their saving throw when you drop a fireball on them (and to allow the lich’s allies to attack with advantage). Failed with one disintegrate? That’s fine, spell slots are literally free!

This even opens up the option of the lich using the lesser-known “Begone, fool!” function of the plane shift spell to cast a bothersome target off to some distant part of the multiverse. Yes, yes, that requires that the target fail a saving throw, but it’s a Charisma saving throw so it’s more than likely their dump stat.

Weaknesses

If the lich has a weakness, it’s the action economy. A lich is slow, relying on the versatility of its magic to overcome its lack of manoeuvrability and dearth of bonus action options. Even with legendary actions, it can be easily overwhelmed by characters with multiple attacks. To make sure that your lich has the chance to shine, make sure that it has allies on hand to take some of the pressure off.

Magic Item Collectors

Not every creature that the party encounters would—or should—have a magic item. Not only would that be a tremendous burden on the DM to manage, it would also rapidly diminish the value of such things. There are only so many magic swords the party can find before they’re just chucking them in a pile to be sold when they return to town.

But if there’s one creature that absolutely should have a magic item, it’s a lich.

As with any art, the study of magic is not limited to purely academic applications, and any lich will inevitably reach a point in their studies when experimentation is required. This means that crafting magic items is a natural development of the lich’s Art, which inevitably results in the lich accumulating hoards of items ranging from baubles to mighty weapons. Items that may represent a masterpiece for a mortal spellcaster might be found discarded in a corner of the lich’s treasury, and others would be wielded by a trusted lieutenant (or the lich themselves).

When coming up with a lich and its followers, you might want to consult the directions in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for generating a high-level hoard to serve as the lich’s war chest. You needn’t restrict yourself to the rolls you make, of course—feel free to swap out items for things your party would use. Imagine what the lich would want for themselves (such as a staff of power) and what it might focus on with its research (a helm of brilliance is always fun and would certainly offer an opportunity to test various types of enchantments). Its servants would be unlikely to have items specifically made for them, though perhaps a right-hand agent would merit a reward for their ongoing, loyal service. Good help is so hard to find, after all.

Motivations

This section includes spoilers from Critical Role’s first campaign and the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover.

Every great villain requires a great purpose. Sauron wanted to dominate all life on Middle-earth and bring things to order. Magneto wanted to help mutants to overcome the kind of prejudice that had already taken his family during the Holocaust. Injustice Superman abandoned the wholesome values he believed were the reason he failed to protect everyone and sets about righting the world with an iron fist.

Unfortunately, all the things that make liches unique also makes them difficult to write for compared to other villains. As antagonists suited to fourth-tier play, their goals are invariably larger in scale than anything the party has ever faced, and much larger than any regular heroes could hope to thwart. They threaten entire kingdoms, and perhaps even entire worlds.

A prime example of using a lich properly can be found in the first campaign of the highly successful D&D stream Critical Role, with the appearance of the ancient evil wizard Vecna. While Matthew Mercer had to adjust Vecna’s stats beyond a lich’s usual stat block in order to make him challenging for the adventuring party, which was very large (seven players) and well-equipped with artifact weapons and items, his slow introduction involving cultists and powerful lieutenants (including a vampire and a high-level necromancer) and his aspirations of godhood made the lich a believable and terrifying enemy who posed an appropriate threat for someone of his power. Another plot worthy of a lich makes for the premise of the Tomb of Annihilation campaign, where the archlich Acererak has enacted a plan to steal the souls of the dying to fuel the rebirth of a stillborn god to serve his goals.

Putting It All Together

Few parties will ever encounter a lich, and fewer will survive the fight if the foe’s abilities are used well. However, to run a lich properly takes preparation; one can’t simply glance over the stat block and be properly prepared to use the full breadth of the lich’s powers, even if you don’t customize its spell list and run it exactly as it appears in the Monster Manual. A lich has likely had centuries to plan out its strategies and learn the intricate details of its magical repertoire, so you should dedicate at least enough time to know how all its spells work.

You should also carefully consider what allies a lich will keep on hand to ensure that it has an opportunity to use its abilities. As with all high-level battles, balancing is difficult, with even the guidelines presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide being somewhat imprecise. Your best bet is to ensure the journey to reach the lich depletes a significant number of spell slots and other resources (the combat with the lich should not be the first battle of the day!) and to include at least as many other monsters of moderate threat in the battle on the side of the lich as there are adventurers attacking it. If you’re using the encounter building section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, don’t be afraid to go as much as double the cumulative adjusted XP as forms the baseline for a Deadly encounter, or to make the combat already of Medium difficulty without the lich itself. It may seem excessive, but you’ll be thankful your players at least felt challenged when the fighter who saved their action surge finally gets into melee and throws six attacks at the lich, hitting four times and taking out a third of its hit points in one turn.

And finally, don’t forget to use all the arrogant taunts you can come up with. The lich has probably thought up a thousand or more since the last time it had to put down some foolish mortals—it will take the opportunity to enjoy its foes’ frustration.


(Editor’s note, with spoilers for the Curse of Strahd hardcover: It is worth mentioning that details on how to achieve lichdom in Fifth Edition are deliberately sparse, with the most explicit information on the process forming two vague bullet points in the Curse of Strahd adventure. This means that the methods of becoming a lich are ultimately up to the Dungeon Master. DMs are also well within their rights to keep this information beyond the knowledge of the PCs, and may even take control of PCs who become liches, as happens automatically in the Curse of Strahd adventure.)


Have thoughts about running liches? We’d love to hear in the comments below!

  1. For information about becoming a lich in Fifth Edition, see the editor’s note at the bottom of this article.

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