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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to the Lich


by William O'Connor
Today we're going to take a look at one of the most iconic D&D monsters: the lich. We'll check out the lich from each edition, discuss the transformation process and phylacteries, and then we'll go through the many lich variants from D&D books from the past.

Essential Information
  • High level spellcasters become liches (undead spellcasters) to achieve a type of immortality.
  • The process to become a lich involves a ritual, the creation of a potion, and a phylactery.
  • In 2nd edition, failing the ritual results in the caster becoming a firelich.
  • Sometimes during the ritual, an entity of the Far Realm will posses the caster, turning them into a void lich.
  • The lich has a phylactery. If reduced to 0 hit points, the lich reforms near the phylactery.
  • To kill a lich for good, you need to destroy the phylactery.
  • A lich must feed souls to their phylactery. Failing to do so results in them becoming a demilich.
  • Some liches have used dozens of other lich phylacteries to attempt to achieve godhood.
AD&D 1st Edition Monster Manual

by Dave Trampier

A human becomes a lich through sheer "force of will," and maintains this state through the use of magic and a phylactery.
  • Their body has the armor class equivalent of someone wearing +1 armor and a +1 shield.
  • All liches were spellcasters of at least 18th level in life.
  • Their cold touch can paralyze.
  • The mere sight of a lich forces creatures under 5th level to flee (no saving throw).
  • Their eyesockets are "...mere black holes with glowing points of light."
  • Short and sweet!
AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium

by Jeff Butler
The 2e lich is quite an expansion of the 1e version. We learn quite a bit:
  • Liches are usually solitary creatures.
  • A lich can animate a force of undead troops.
  • A lich has "...no understanding of good and evil as we understand it." According to the stat block, a lich can have "any" alignment.
  • It feels that the living are of little importance.
  • Being obsessed with power, they forget their old names.
  • This entry outlines the process of becoming a lich. It uses material from the article in Dragon Magazine #26, which we'll get into below.
D&D 3rd Edition Monster Manual

by Wayne Reynolds

A few more details in 3rd edition:
  • Eyes: "...bright pinpoints of crimson light burn on in the empty eyesockets."
  • It can cast up to 6th level spells (disintegrate is its 6th level spell).
  • In 2e, a phylactery cost 1,500 gp. In 3e, it costs 120,000 gp and you need to "donate" 4,800 XP to it!
  • It says that the most common phylactery is a sealed metal box containing strips of parchment on which magical phrases have been transcribed.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Monster Manual

In 4e, a "lich" is a monster template to apply to NPCs. In this edition, bad guys didn't cast spells from the Player's Handbook, they just had a few "powers" in their stat block that they used. It is different and weird, but as a DM, I can tell you it was much, much easier to run.

The book has two example statblocks: a Lich (human wizard) and a Lich (Eladrin Wizard). Powers and info:
  • Shadow Ray: Ranged attack that does necrotic damage.
  • Necrotic Orb: Ranged attack that stuns and does necrotic damage.
  • Entropic Pulse: A magic explosion that does necrotic dmg to all in a large area.
  • Lich Transformation Ritual: The book actually includes the 4e-style ritual to become a lich. "You call upon Orcus, Demon Prince of the Undead, to transform your body into a skeletal thing, undead and immortal..."
  • Components for the ritual cost 100,000 gp.
  • "Destroying a lich and its phylactery does not guarantee that the lich is gone forever. Powerful beings associated with undeath, including Orcus and Vecna, can reform a destroyed lich, turning it into a lich vestige."
There's also a monster called a"lich vestige", which is the "...arcane remnant of a destroyed lich. It dies not have a phylactery, and crumbles to dust when damage." It was a "minion", a monster type in 4e that has only 1 hit point.

D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual


How do you become a lich?
  1. Make a bargain with a Power (demon lord, evil god, etc).
  2. Swear fealty to that Power.
  3. Go through an arcane ritual that traps the wizard's soul in a phylactery.
  4. Drink a potion of transformation (poison mixed with the blood of a sentient creature)
  5. The potion kills the wizard and they rise as a lich.
Soul Maintenance: Liches must periodically feed souls to their phylactery through the use of an imprisonment spell.
  • A phylactery can only hold one soul at a time
  • The soul is consumed and destroyed utterly in 24 hours.
  • If a lich is reduced to 0 hit points, a new body reforms next to the phylactery within days.
Liches are spellcasters with legendary actions. They can actually cast up to 9th level spells, with power word kill being their 9th level spell.

Their touch can paralyze you. They have a gaze that frightens, and they can "disrupt life," causing non-undead within 20 feet to take necrotic damage.

I wasn't really aware of the whole "feed souls to the phylactery" thing! Now let's look at a really old article about becoming a lich.

Dragon Magazine #26 "Blueprint for a Lich"

This is from the early days of D&D, and describes the process in which a creature becomes a lich. It goes like this:
  1. Make a Phylactery: This must be an item worth at least 2,000 gp. Can't be made of wood.
  2. Make and drink a special potion (see below).
  3. Cast Enchant an item, trap the soul , and magic jar on the phylactery.
  4. Magic jar will force the caster to enter the phylactery.
  5. Leave the Jar: You'll have lost a level and can't cast your high level spells until you rest for d6+1 days.
  6. The next time you die, you will go into the phylactery, no matter how far away from it you are.
  7. To get out of the phylactery again, you'll need someone to bring a recently dead body within 90 feet of the phylactery (the body can be any kind of creature).
  8. Once in the creature's body, the lich must seek out their own body and bring it to the phylactery. Then... you must EAT your original body, and your form will metamorph into a humanoid body similar to your original form. 
You no longer need to memorize/pray for your spells, you just get them back after a long rest.

There's a potion of transformation that must be quaffed in order to become a lich. Here are the ingredients!
  • 2 pinches of pure arsenic.
  • 1  pinch  of  belladonna.
  • 1  measure  of  fresh  phase  spider  venom  (under  30  days  old).
  • 1  measure  of  fresh  wyvern  venom  (under  60  days  old).
  • The blood of a dead humanoid infant killed by a phase spider.
  • The blood of a dead humanoid infant killed by a mixture of arsenic and belladonna.
  • The  heart  of  a  virgin  humanoid  killed  by wyvern venom.
  • 1 quart of blood from a vampire or a person infected with vampirism.
  • The ground reproductive glands of 7 giant moths (head for less than 60 days).
The items are mixed in the order given by the light of a full moon. When you drink the potion (all of it) roll a d100:
  • 1-10 No effect whatsoever other than all body hair falling out. Start over!
  • 11-40 Coma for 2-7 days — the potion works!
  • 41-70 Feebleminded until dispelled by Dispel Magic. Each attempt to remove the feeblemind has a 10% chance to kill you instead if it fails. The potion works!
  • 71-90 Paralyzed for 4-14 days. 30% chance that permanent loss of 1-6 dexterity points will result. The potion works!
  • 91-96 Permanently deaf, mute or blind. Only a full wish can regain the sense. The potion works!
  • 97-00 DEAD — start over, if you can be resurrected.
A few D&D products discuss phylacteries in one way or another. Here are the ones I could find.

Dungeon Magazine #99 - Quadripartite

by Tom Baxa

This adventure involves a lich named Kel Virond.

The Phylactery of Darkness: This item is a 1-inch cube of blackest adamantite inscribed with prayers to Nerull.
  • It is fused to Kel Virond's forehead, hidden under his helmet.
  • Touching the phylactery causes you to "gain 1 negative level" (you're energy drained/lose a level).
  • "The phylactery of darkness acts a Virond's lich phylactery. Removing it from his head destroys him permanently as surely as destroying a lich's phylactery would."
Van Richten's Guide to the Lich

by Jeff Easley

Destroying a Phylactery: In Van Richten's Guide to the Lich, the topic of actually destroying a phylactery is discussed.
  • It can't be destroyed by common, physical means.
  • The "permanency" spell must be reversed from it (maybe with an anti-magic sphere?)
  • Once the permanence is gone, cast dispel magic on the phylactery. This gives you 1d4 rounds to do actual damage to the phylactery.
  • You must do 25 points of damage to it before the dispel magic wears off.
It also suggests that magic weapons of +3 or higher can directly damage a phylactery, but the phylactery can't actually be destroyed this way.

Libris Mortis

by Steve Prescott
This book gives some general information about phylacteries.
  • A lich can construct only a single phylactery.
  • A lich whose phylactery is destroyed suffers no harm, but cannot construct a new one.
  • A phylactery in an antimagic field cannot recreate a destroyed lich, though the lich returns to life 1d10 days after the phylactery is removed from the area.
  • Most liches keep their phylacteries well-hidden, disguised with magic that blocks scrying and detection.
  • An identify spell or a high arcana check can identify an item as a phylactery.
  • A phylactery cannot be part of another magic item, nor may additional magical properties be built into it.
Tales From the Yawning Portal: Dead in Thay

by Tyler Jacobson

This adventure involves a lich called Szass Tam, who has built a "Doomvault" that houses the phylacteries of his many high-ranking lich servants.

Szass plans to feed the souls of many Chosen (divine agents of the gods) into his phylactery, which could give him the power to become a god.

The Doomvault is in a demiplane. The phylacteries are kept in sepulchers: "The sepulcher walls hum with arcane power. On stone shelves are leather cases, amulets, daggers, scroll tubes, unholy symbols, and other ornate objects. These are the phylacteries of Szass Tam's lich servants."

The magic of the sepulcher protects the phylacteries from harm.

The idea here is to "disrupt the flow of energy," which will stop Szass from draining the essence of the Chosen.

Tomb of Annihilation

by Ben Oliver

In the very final room of the dungeon in Tomb of Annihilation, there is a room full of phylacteries. "Two facing balconies halfway along the room are littered by ornate glass bottles, fluted silver urns, ivory caskets, and other vessels - all of them inscribed with baleful sigils."

Acererak (the lich villain of this adventure) has disciples scattered all throughout the multiverse, including many liches that seek to become as powerful as him. He keeps their phylacteries here.

"Destroying a phylactery is no simple task and often requires a special ritual, item, or weapon."

The phylacteries here are unique, and discovering the key to each one's destruction will require time and expensive research.

There is a 10% chance that any one of these phylacteries would be destroyed by hurling it into the lava.

Now let's take a look at the many different types of liches that have appeared in D&D history.

Alhoon (Volo's Guide to Monsters)
by Wayne Reynolds

Illithids are supposed to stick with psionics, but some secretly study magic.

Normally when a mind flayer dies, it joins with the Elder Brain. But spellcasters aren't accepted, so they pursue lichdom as a way of gaining eternal life.

9 mind flayers worked together to figure out how to achieve lichdom. They were known as the Alhoon. All subsequent mind flayer liches are also known as Alhoon.

Becoming an Alhoon:
  • 3 mind flayers create a periapt of mind trapping.
  • They sacrifice three creatures and perform a three-day long ritual.
  • All three mindflayers become Alhhon.
  • When slain, their mind enters the periapt but their body is not remade.
  • Periapts only last as long as the age of a sacrificed soul. So.. if a 200-year-old elf is sacrificed, then the periapt lasts 200 years.
  • Destroying a periapt destroys the Alhoons linked to it.
Alhoons can cast up to 6th level spells (including disintegrate). They still have their mind blast power, which stuns all in a 60 foot cone.

Archlich (Lost Ships)
by Dell Barras
Sometimes, a good-aligned wizard becomes a lich. They generally don't use phylacteries like an evil lich - they place their life force in a magic item.

If you speak the name of an archlich and you're on the same plane as it is, it can hear it.
Water walk at will.

Becoming an archlich:
  • Create a magic item, often a miniature spellbook into which they put 9 spells to carry forever in undeath.
  • Create a potion enchanted with a number of spells.
  • Anoint the magic item with a drop of the wizard's blood.
  • Drink the potion while touching the magic item.
  • Cast a single, secret spell. There is a 7% chance the wizard dies. They slumber for a few hours, then rise up as an archlich.
If an archlich is destroyed, its remains teleport to the magic item. The body slowly reforms, gaining 1 hit point per day. If the magic item is destroyed, the archlich is obliterated.

Traits:
  • They are immune to turning.
  • Aura of Power: Causes creatures to be frightened.
  • Paralyzing touch.
  • Can repel undead.
  • Can animate dead by touch.
  • They have 9 spells that they can cast once per day.
Baelnorn (Monstrous Compendium Annual)

by Wayne Reynolds

Sometimes, lawful good elves seek undeath. They become liches known as a baelnorn so that they can continue working on a task such as guarding a people or location.
  • They do not have phylacteries.
  • They have clones that activate if they are destroyed.
  • The process to become a baelnorn is a secret.
Projections: 3 times per day they can project a wraith-like version of themselves up to a mile away. The baelnorn can see, speak, and cast spells through them. The projections are intangible but can be reduced to 0 hit points.

If the lich leaves the host body, it combusts. The lich must possess a new body within an hour, or it is destroyed. 

Defiler Lich (Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium III)

by Tom Baxa
These creatures start in the Dark Sun setting but I guess they get sucked into the demiplane of Ravenloft.

Their touch draws magical essence from others.

When they cast spells, they drain life from the environment around them. Plants turn to ash and cause pain to the living (giving them penalties to initiative rolls).

Demilich (D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual)

by Michael Berube
If a lich fails to feed souls to its phylactery, its body crumbles and only the skull remains. This "demi-lich" retains only a fragment of its former life force. It mostly lies dormant, but if you poke it with a stick, it animates and you're going to die.
  • If slain, the skull (only) reforms by the phylactery.
  • If it can feed one soul to its phylactery, it can once again become a lich.
  • Can't cast spells, but has some powers.
  • Howl: Save or drop to 0 hit points!!
  • Life Drain: Up to 3 creatures take necrotic
  • Cloud of Dust: Blinds you
  • Vile Curse: Disadvantage on attack rtolls
Dracolich (D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual)
by Ralph Horsley
Dragons transform themselves into dracoliches via necromantic energy and ancient rituals.
They are driven to rule over all. Becoming a dracolich:
  • A group of mages usually help the dragon with the ritual.
  • The dragon consumes a toxic brew that kills it instantly.
  • The spellcasters transfer the dragon's spirit to a gemstone that functions like a phylactery.
  • If the gem/phylactery touches another dragon's corpse, the dracolich can take possession of it!
  • If the dracolich dies and the gem is on another plane, the dracolich dies for good.
Dragon Magazine #344 - The Ecology of the Dracolich

by Peter Bergting

Let's see what we learn from this thing.
  • The earliest known dracolich is Dragotha, who I wrote about here.
  • Dracolich Brew (aka The Damnable Libation): A mix of poison and elixir that brings about the cold existence of undeath.
  • The Hades Praxis: The phylactery of the dracolich demigod Falazure. It is "...hidden somewhere under the shadowed plains of the gray Waste and said to hold the accumulated knowledge of all dead dragons."
  • Dracoliches go to great lengths to hide their phylacteries.
  • If their phylactery is destroyed, the dracolich suffers no physical harm but is unable to create a new one. Thus, if it is slain, death is permanent.
Example Dracoliches:
  • The Breather of Locusts: This is "...an evolved great wyrm green dracolich capable of vomiting from its rotting stomach huge plagues of bloodfiend locusts."
  • Sin Feaster: A black dragon dracolich that is allied with followers of Lolth, claims to be a consort of the Spider Queen.
  • Aurgloroasa: A shadow dragon dracolich (?) that lives in Thunderhome, a dwarven city that she destroyed. She is obsessed with collecting every scale she ever lost.
Ways to become a dracolich:
  • The Well of Dragons: A stagnant lake/dragon graveyard, once was Tiamat's brooding pit. Most dragons who drink the water die and becomes zombie dragons, though a chosen few become dracoliches. Welp, I'm totally using this.
  • Spiritgorgers: Some dracoliches end up trapped in their phylacteries. You can make a pact with one and become a lich, but you share minds with the dracolich.
  • Soul Substitution: If the skeletal remains of a dragon are in proximity of the essence of some powerful being such as an entrapped fiend, it can spontaneously arise as a dracolich.
Drow Lich (Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium III)

by Tom Baxa
This entry also includes drider liches. Drow liches tend to use powerful magic items, such as a staff of power or a wand of fireballs. They frequently "..maintain nests of hairy spiders.."

Dry Lich (Sandstorm)

People known as "walkers of the waste" travel the desert, using magic to spread the desert and drain the moisture from things. The can shape sand, and belong to an organization known as the Dusty Conclave, whose goal is to turn the entire world into desert. When a walker becomes powerful enough, it transforms into an undead dry lich.
  • A dry lich "...spends its unnatural existence continuing to spread the waste and preserve whatever it encounters as dry, mummified monuments."
  • Can cast up to 6th level spells.
  • Body Lamp: Can make its skin glow.
  • Creates sand golems and salt mummies.
  • Dessicating Touch: Drains moisture from living creatures.
  • Pillar of Salt: Can turn flesh to salt once per day.
  • Greater Drought: Can produce extreme desert conditions in a 100 foot radius.
  • Sandswim: Can burrow through sand.
  • The Wasting: Can transform a handful of sand into a disease, blowing it into the face of a creature - giving them a supernatural affliction that gradually mummifies them.
  • Vulnerability to Water: Water hurts them.
Elemental Lich (Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium III)

by Tom Baxa
  "Elemental liches are diabolical wizards who studied and mastered the use of Ravenloft's strange elements before or during their undeath."

"Where most liches control hordes of undead minions, elementalists control the very spirits of the elements themselves."
  • They must bury their phylactery in a grave, and ignite a fire of burning bones on that spot. Blood is poured on the ashes, and then the mists roll in and obscure the site from prying eyes.
  • Touch of the Grave: If this lich touches you, you must make a saving throw or die.
  • Touch of the Pyre: Your clothing/armor bursts into flame!
  • Touch of Blood: Blood oozes from your every pore! You lose d4 hit points per round. For every 12, you lose one level!
  • Conjure Elemental: This lich can conjure up to 4 special Ravenloft elementals per day: Grave, pyre, blood, or mist elementals.
Firelich (Spelljammer Monstrous Compendium Appendix I)

by Tom Baxa
Mages who try to become liches and fail become fireliches!
  • They become living fireballs of undeath and race through wildspace, screaming in eternal pain.
  • Fireliches look to collide with something to end their torment.
  • Can collide with ships and explodes like a fireball. This does not destroy the firelich.
  • Sometimes it creates a wall of fire on a deck of a ship.
  • They can't cast spells.
Lichfiend (Libris Mortis)

A lichfiend is a fiend (usually a demon or devil) who achieves lichdom. Could be a balor, glabrezu, marilith, nalfeshnee, succubus, bone devil, horned devil, ice devil, or a pit fiend.

Lich's Blood (Dragon Magazine 238)

by Tom Baxa
Created by a necromancer who was trying to figure out how to become a lich, this is a pool of animated blood that seeks out magic items and wizards.
  • The blood can coat a magic item and feed off of its energy.
  • Lich's blood prefers to feast on spellcasters, sliding down their throat and draining their spells.
  • Each round that the wizard is coated, they lose d4 memorized spells, starting with the highest level spells memorized.
  • Immune to all weapon-based attacks!
  • Spells cast at it are absorbed harmlessly.
  • To kill it: Use acid, fire, or deprive it of magic.
  • Dispel magic does d6 damage per level to it.
  • Anti-Magic shell destroys it.
Lich Claw (Open Grave)

Lich claws are similar to crawling claws.
  • They do necrotic damage and work together to immobilize foes.
  • "Liches that want to humiliate and dominate their rivals seek out other liches to acquire pieces to make lich claws. Many lich claws occur spontaneously, due to the saturation of necrotic energy in the chambers of defeated liches."
Lich Familiar (Van Richten's Guide to the Lich)

Sometimes a lich has a familiar! The familiar's essence might also be in the lich's phylactery. Here's how it works:
  • The familiar must drink from the potion of transformation.
  • The familiar can't be destroyed until the phylactery is.
  • If the familiar's body is destroyed, the lich must find a new body for it to inhabit.
  • The lich cannot cast spells if its familiar does not have a physical body.
Lich Vestige (D&D 4th Edition Monster Manual)

Husks of lesser liches drained of their essence to power the research of Irfelujhar, an ancient lich who once served Vecna but now serves Tiamat.
  • "A frail, skeletal creature whose body disappears into wisps of shadow stands before you. It wears tattered robes sporting faded mystical symbols."
  • Death's Touch: Necrotic damage
  • Shadow Ray: Ranged necrotic attack
  • Orb of Obliteration: 2-4 vestiges can act together to hurl a single orb of black fire that detonates on impact, doing both fire and necrotic damage.
Master Lich (Legend of the Spelljammer)

by Tom Baxa
 A master lich is basically just a lightly more powerful lich. Their flesh is not rotted. The skin is pulled back like leather over the skull and bones.
  • "At the apex of undead society." Commands all types of weaker undead.
  • Made a pact with a dark power so that it is very difficult to slay.
  • Two ways for it to Suffer True Death: A dark power shows up to collect the lich's spirit in payment. or the lich is dragged to a power's home plane.
  • The master lich fears the dark powers.
  • Regenerates one hit point per round, even if its body is destroyed and separated.
Psionic Lich (Van Richten's Guide to Liches)

Users of psionic powers sometimes twist the powers of their minds to extend their existence beyond the bounds of mortal life. They often regret becoming liches.
  • Creating a phylactery costs 100,000 gp. It might be a ring or crown.
  • The phylactery must be empowered with every psionic power the creator possesses. These powers are permanently transferred - the creator loses them forever.
  • Aura of Mind Strike: All within 50 yards have penalties to attack rolls and damage.
  • If the phylactery is destroyed, so is the psionic lich.
Suel Lich (Dragon Magazine #339)
by Steve Ellis
The Suel empire existed in the Greyhawk setting long ago.  Suel lich is a cross between a lich and a malevolent ghost.
  • Made of negative energy, must possess a living creature's body. They burn out host bodies quickly and must switch to a new host often.
  • They can cast up to 8th level spells.
  • Fear Aura: Save or DIE from fright. Succeed = paralyzed!
  • Malevolence: Possess a creature similar to a magic jar spell.
  • A possessed body ages at three times the normal rate.
Thicket Dryad Lich (Open Grave)

"Sometimes a dryad's desire to protect its woodland twists into dark obsession. In rare instances, one of these fey creatures crosses the threshold into undeath and becomes a thicket dryad lich. The dryad transforms a favorite tree into a phylactery. The corruption in the dryad's soul then causes the tree to become warped and rotted. Over time, this blight can spread out over the surrounding forest."
  • Controls necrocreeper vines that can restrain or move foes around.
  • Deceptive Veil: They can appear as a humanoid, often an elf or eladrin.
  • Necrotic Treestride: Can teleport from tree to tree.
  • Thorny Body: When grabbed, deals damage due to body spikes.
  • When slain, it dissipates into a spray of dead leaves. It reappears within 5 feet of its phylactery tree, unless the phylactery tree is also found and destroyed.
Vassalich (Van Richten's Guide to the Lich)

A vassalich comes about when a living wizard makes a pact with a lich in order to become a lich themself.
  • Pledges eternal servitude to the lich, though they retain free will.
  • The wizard must hand over a phylactery to the lich, who uses it as leverage over the vassalich.
  • Over time, a vassalich gains power and in 40-100 years, grows into a full-fledged lich on its own.
Void Lich (Open Grave)

"A void lich is an antediluvian horror from the Far Realm that seizes control of the body and phylactery of someone performing a lich transformation ritual. Lured into the world by the eldritch power unleashed during the ritual, this aberrant entity shunts the ritual performer's soul off to the Far Realm and possesses the host body as its own. A void lich is cloaked in darkness, a remnant of the dark, churning corridors of its origin plane."
  • Shroud of Night: The lich's aura dims lights
  • Life Tap: The touch of Void lich deals necrotic damage and heals the void lich.
  • Void Tendrils: Does necrotic damage, knocks prone.
  • Fade to Dusk: Becomes invisible until it attacks.
  • Phase Step: Teleports short distances
  • When reduced to 0 hit points, its body and possessions dissipate into wisps of darkness, but the void lich is not destroyed. It reappears in 1d10 days within 5 feet of its phylactery.
Famous Liches

Some of D&D's most infamous villains are liches. Here are a few of the more prominent ones:

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