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.
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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 be packing enough magic to annihilate a small army. And those people would be right… if his current loadout didn’t include high-level damage spells like disintegrate and circle of death. He frequently travels the planes exploring dangerous locales, 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 per-round average damage 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 a coven of night 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? A 10th-level party that fights Orcus or Dispater is going to be soundly trounced, and that’s precisely what the party should be expecting from this fight.
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 grants 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. And don’t forget that greater invisibility allows Acererak to cast spells without fear of being countered by someone who doesn’t have truesight, as counterspell requires that you are able to see the target. Pair that with shield and you have a lich who a fighter with Strength 20 and a +1 weapon can only hit one third of the time on average.
Yet, as equipped as he is for battle, Acererak 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. If you really want to load Acererak up with more battle spells, comprehend languages and detect magic are both rituals and could be swapped out for something that hits harder; we felt it was appropriate that he would spare the extra 10-minute casting time and use one of his unlimited 1st-level spell slots to cast them as needed.
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 the ruins of Bakluni on Oerth (Greyhawk) 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 or a 5th-level banishment 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)
Optional Bonus Features
Now, changing out the spells is well and good, but it may not be enough to make sure that Big A gets to shine. You see, he has several significant weaknesses which might still make him too easy for a party that can focus its efforts, especially if many of them possess magic weapons or can counterspell. The following optional features offer a way to ensure that Big A doesn’t fall victim to the action economy if facing a larger party.
New Action: Empowered Spell (Recharge 4—6). Acererak casts a spell from his list of prepared spells, choosing one of the following additional effects:
- Acererak gains 5 temporary hit points per level of the spell.
- Any attempt to negate the spell using counterspell or similar magic requires a successful spellcasting ability check, regardless of the spell slot used negate the spell.
- If the spell deals damage, Acererak can deal an additional 20 necrotic damage to one target affected by the spell.
This is the simplest method to cover Acererak’s biggest weaknesses as a single spellcaster. Fifty percent of the time, Acererak can use his action on his turn to supercharge a spell, either gaining temporary hit points, dealing extra damage, or making it extremely difficult to counter. Note that this is a specific action, so it doesn’t work when Acererak uses his At-Will Spell legendary action. To inflict maximum terror on the party, use the third option when casting finger of death on a cursed target to deal an average of 163 damage, which might actually be enough to trigger the instant death rules and successfully transform the character into a zombie under Acererak’s control.
Insuperable Magic. Spellcasting ability checks made as part of attempts to negate Acererak’s magic (as with counterspell) are resolved against Acererak’s spell save DC.
This is a huge change. Acererak can spam 1st- through 3rd-level spells, which have a DC of 11 to 13 to negate with counterspell. Therefore, a spellcaster with a spellcasting ability score of 18 (+4) will negate his spells at least 55% of the time. By changing this to a flat DC 23, you remove the biggest obstacle to Acererak actually being able to use his abilities. You should really only use this one if your players are so optimized that Big A can’t afford even one round of losing his spells to counterspell, by which point your party should have burned through any remaining spell slots they had of 3rd level or higher.
Potent Magic. Any spell slot Acererak expends to cast a wizard spell counts as a spell slot of one level higher.
This option comes with an important reminder that Acererak doesn’t have spell slots of 3rd level or lower; those spells are at will for him, and therefore wouldn’t benefit from this effect. All of his spells of 4th-level or higher, however, would deal more damage and be harder to counter.
Regeneration. Acererak regains 10 hit points at the start of his turn if he has at least 1 hit point.
If your party is on the heavy side of damage dealing (say, able to maintain an average damage output of at least 60), this will probably extend the fight by another round or so.
Superior Health. Acererak has the maximum number of hit points for his Hit Dice.
Much more potent than Regeneration, this change will be something to consider if your party is disproportionately heavy in straight damage dealers who either deal magic damage or have magic weapons that bypass Acererak’s damage immunity. Warlocks, barbarians, fighters, and the like can all sustain a pretty significant damage output that can burn through Acererak’s hit points like a hot blade through goblin. Along with the changes to his spell list, this is another option available to Adventurers League Dungeon Masters, whose parties are more likely to be at the adventure’s intended level cap (level 11). Just remember that if your party doesn’t have magic weapons, their physical attacks aren’t just resisted, they’re ignored.
Reaction: Spell Reflection. If Acererak makes a successful saving throw against a spell, or a spell attack misses, he can choose another creature (including the spellcaster) he can see within 30 feet of him. The spell targets the chosen creature instead of Acererak. If the spell forced a saving throw, the chosen creature makes its own save. If the spell was an attack, the attack is rerolled against the chosen creature.
What could make an archmage capable of blasting a cavalry charge to bits even more deadly? Turning their enemies’ own spells against them. Remember the short range (30 feet) of this feature. In all probability, it will be against a melee-oriented character who has got all up in Acererak’s face instead of the original spellcaster.
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. A DM who pulls their punches with him 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.
If you enjoyed this article, we highly recommend that you check out Sly Flourish’s take on Acererak’s spells.