The process was nearly complete. After years and years of research, Rabian had finally managed to assemble his phylactery. The ghosts of the village wailed as they were sucked into the vessel. Rabian removed the last corpse from the torture device and sat in it’s place, his fingers white as they gripped the seat. Several hours later, Rabian was gone and the lich Vrak’duhl was all that remained.
Liches are among the most notorious and feared monsters in the history of Dungeons and Dragons. When an army of undead warriors rises from their graves and begins ravaging the countryside, there is little doubt that a Lich is behind the slaughter. Liches are depraved and terrifying creatures who don’t listen to reason because the mortal coil no longer keeps them in check. No other monster is as terrifying as the Lich because we all know that they used to be one of us.
The Mind of the Wicked
Most villains the players face have to contend with one universal truth: mortality. Liches are the only ones not bound by the mortal coil, and have much more freedom as a result. The laws of the land don’t apply to a lich when the kingdom will crumble in a blink of an eye. Add this onto the fact that creating a phylactery is a bloody affair that requires the lives of several souls and you have a very evil individual who isn’t affected by the consequences of their actions.
With immortal life, no consequences, and a very evil attitude what is a lich supposed to do with all that free time? For many, lichdom is not the final phase in their search for power. One of the primary reasons many wizards become liches is so that they may continue their study way beyond their death. What they are studying may change depending on who the lich is, but it all comes down to one thing. The search for power.
“You know what does equal power? Power. Power equals power.” Xykon, Oots 657.
Whether it is studying the secrets of the universe, or striving to become a god, Liches have unlimited time to achieve the impossible. This on it’s own, is not a bad thing. But when you factor in the way a Lich is made, the means that they use to accomplish their goals are less than ideal for the surrounding populace. Inciting a genocidal war to gather souls for a ritual, or destabilizing the belief system of the gods themselves are all well within the repertoire of the lich. The consequences for failure are so low, that they can do the things that others would consider impossible, and try again 500 years later.
Even if the plans they have been working on for years get interrupted they may not even care. It’ll be an annoyance for sure, and they may kill the players out of spite, but in the grand scheme of things they’ll probably get another chance. Now if the ritual they are attempting requires the deaths of thousands, the alignment of the planets, and other extremely finnicky things to line up they will be much angrier. But overall, liches only truly care about one thing, their Phylactery.
The lair of a lich is entirely focused around one goal. Protecting their phylactery. No other secret of the lich is as closely guarded, and there are many different ways to go about defending it. Whether it is mundane, magical, or psychological, a lich will take every measure possible to keep pernicious hands away from their treasure. Let’s discuss the various measures that one can take to protect their most important object.
Mundane measures include traps, monsters, and even giving the phylactery to loyal followers. Having a massive lair dedicated to protect the phylactery is great, but impractical when their plans are unfolding hundreds of miles away. Giving the phylactery to a loyal follower ensures that it will always be protected by someone powerful, but is liable to the death or even changing of sides by said follower.
Magical means involve enchantments and curses that will befuddle others trying to find it, and harm anyone with destructive intentions. If the protective enchantments aren’t dispelled, then it’ll be nigh impossible to destroy the phylactery. These enchantments may require more than a 9th level Dispel Magic as well, and could ask that the players give up what they love most. Curses could be as simple as killing those who touch the phylactery, or as deep as changing the heart of those who wear it and making them want to protect it.
Psychological protections involve deception that tricks the players into thinking the phylactery is something it is not. A lich could have a massive lair constructed, put a decoy phylactery in the center, and the real one will actually be a gold piece that the players will scoop up for later. The big lair could also serve as a decoy, and the real lair is in a completely different location. Legends of what the phylactery is could be circulated by the lich himself to confuse and deceive any who try to kill them.
A lich is more than just an undead humanoid who can never die. They are a mighty spellcaster and have a huge library of spells to choose from. Their lair can be defended by practically anything you find in the Player’s Handbook, and their loadout can change from day to day.
- The lich rolls a d8 and regains a spell slot of that level or lower.
This lair action doesn’t have a lot behind it, but it is still useful. This lair action is also only useful if the lich has already spent most of it’s spell slots. One way it can be used is if the lich retreats to their lair and the players make their way there, the lich will have already regained all of their spell slots by the time they encounter the party again even without a long rest. Since they are always getting a spell slot back for every 6 seconds they are in their lair, they will always be at maximum spell capacity when a fight breaks out. During the fight it is important to make sure that the lich is making the most of their spell economy, and using their reaction spells of Counterspell and Shield as much as possible.
- The lich targets a creature it can see within 30 feet. A crackling cord of negative energy connects the two, and whenever the lich takes damage the target must make a DC 18 Constitution save. On a failed save the lich takes half the damage, and the target takes the remaining damage. This lair actions lasts until initiative count 20 on the next round.
This is a juicy lair action and is very fitting for a boss monster. At only 135 hp, the lich is extremely squishy for being a CR 20 creature. Disintegrate takes out half of their health in one go, and with only one main enemy the party is incentivized to use their strongest spells. If the lich can pair itself with the enemy squishy, the prospects of hitting the lich as hard as they can is no longer as appealing. With spells like Disintegrate and Power Word Kill in the lich’s arsenal if anyone drops low, they could be going down for good.
- The lich summons the spirits of the creatures that have died in the lich’s lair. These apparitions attack a target of the lich’s choosing who must succeed on a DC 18 Constitution saving throw or take 52 (15d6) damage on a failed save or half on a success.
This lair action just goes to show how much of a glass cannon a lich is. They will focus on one enemy in the opposing party, drop them underneath 100 hit points, and get rid of them for good. As fast as the lich may go down, the party will go down even faster if they aren’t careful. And as long as the phylactery is intact, every encounter with the lich will be a flippant encounter and a nail biting experience for the party.
Liches are the epitome of a glass cannon. They will hit like a truck but collapse when too much damage is put in front of them. What makes them better than any other glass cannon in the game is that they can keep on coming back, to harass the party endlessly until they deal with the undead permanently. These lair actions encourage that play style, enabling a defensive and offensive gameplan at the same time.
Dealing damage fast is the name of the game for the lich. Many of their spells such as Disintegrate, Power Word Stun, and Power Word Kill all depend on the target being low to be as devastating as possible. Taking out one PC significantly weakens the power output of the party, and if others have to scramble to cast healing spells that’s even less damage coming towards the lich.
A lich is as much a spellcaster as they are a being of undeath, and this grants them far more power and versatility than something as simple as a Tarrasque has access to. Because a lich doesn’t have regional effects, I’d rather talk about the spells that a wizard has access to and how that can make them a terrifying foe for the party to face. Keep in mind that a Lich doesn’t have to be a Wizard. Substituting the lich for a Warlock, Sorcerer, or even a Cleric works as long as you level them up appropriately. I’ll be tackling this next section as if the lich were a wizard, however. I will also only be covering the spells that I think are interesting for a lich, as there are way too many spells to talk about otherwise.
With the lich’s lair naturally regenerating spells, it is very easy for them to assemble an army of zombies and maintain control over them. If they spent an hour each morning reasserting control over their horde, they could maintain 2,400 of them. This becomes impractical if the lich is away for an extended period of time or tries to bring an army out on the go, but this ensures a constant supply of minions to throw at the party while they are in the lair.
Dying may not matter much to the lich, but it’s still inconvenient and can cost them precious time. Dimension Door will allow them to teleport 500 feet away from the party behind a secret wall and run away before they have a chance to find him. Read a couple scrolls of undead healing and they’ll be good to scrap with the party again.
This is a juicy spell for liches. They are immune to poison damage, so if they know the party is coming (and they should, they have Scrying) they can fill the chamber with Cloudkill when they enter. Having passive damage just for daring to be in their presence will do wonders for the damage per round of the lich, and may force the players to reassess their strategy.
This spell is classic, and a great part of the lich’s arsenal. In a way, this is a mini Power Word Kill that has much more dire consequences if they drop below 0 HP. The average damage of this spell is about 70 damage and still gives them a chance to save, but if they fail there’s a good chance they are going down.
Globe of Invulnerability
Globe of Invulnerability gives the lich a lot more tankiness than they would get otherwise. Total immunity from 5th level spells and lower helps them keep their legendary resistances for anything the martial characters have up their sleeves. If the lich can keep them out of arm’s reach, then the only threat to their bubble would be 6th level or higher spells or a ranged martial character, which can be zeroed in on pretty quickly. While Cloudkill may be a good effect for early encounters with the lich, Globe of Invulnerability is the perfect spell for the final showdown.
Finger of Death
This is Animate Dead on steroids. Not having to maintain control of the creature at the beginning of each day saves them a lot of time, and with immortality they have plenty of time to assemble an army. This spell does significantly less damage then Disintegrate, and would be a better use of a spell slot, but the psychological damage of turning George into a zombie can’t be underestimated.
Lich’s excel in single target removal, and none get as good as this. Save or die effects are pretty uncommon in 5th edition, but this gets pretty close. Touch a creature, force them to make a charisma saving throw, and send them to the 9th layer of hell for daring to disrupt your day. Opening a fight on this and being successful with it could make or break the entire encounter. Having a distance of touch isn’t ideal, but if the incomprehensible barbarian gets up in your grill it’s easy to whisk them away where they won’t bother you.
The final concentration spell that a lich’s statblock gets access to, this spell can make a party member fight for you. Cast this as soon as they walk through the door and turn them against each other. This spell isn’t best used against the party, however, because they’ll have advantage on the saving throw and if you fail you blew an 8th level spell slot. A good use of this spell would instead be to control an actual factual monster, send it towards the party, and even if you lose concentration it’ll probably still want a snack. Then by the time the party makes it to you, you’ll have already regained the spell slot from your lair.
Power Word Stun
This, alongside Power Word Kill, are the coup de grâce that will allow a lich to turn the odds in their favor. This is why dealing damage fast and quickly is so important to a lich’s game plan because as soon as they are within range they can be taken out of commission for the important part of the fight. If they are able to regain consciousness in a round or two, hopefully by then the damage will have been done and the party will be in ruins. Everything I said here also applies to Power Word Kill.
If a lich is ever at the head of their army and see an opposing force coming out to meet them, this can end the conflict before the fight even begins. The 4 meteors can target different leaders of the enemy army, or any fortifications they may have, and neuter them immediately. With an average damage of 140 per meteor, only high level characters will stand a chance of not getting wiped out immediately.
Just because they are the bad guy, it doesn’t mean they don’t also get access to one of the most powerful spells of all time. A lich may spend their entire existence searching for the secrets of this mighty spell. Then after they get access to it, they aren’t going to use it willy-nilly. The next phase of their plan may come into effect, in which they engineer the perfect scenario for them to cast a Wish with the lowest chances of failure. This is where the centuries of plotting and scheming can come into play, and entire kingdoms/species may die just so a Lich can cast the Wish of their dreams.
Lair of the Vicious
A lich’s lair could really be anything they want. A castle from a forlorn empire, a landmark set in an extraplanar location, or even hidden deep in the ground far away from prying eyes. This really depends on your lich and the goals that they have in your campaign. Decoy lairs may also be a major feature of the lich in order to protect that which they love most. If they ever learn that someone has discovered the location of their phylactery, they will do everything in their power to relocate it and destroy those who know about it. The only thing that could stop them from doing so, is if the final stages of their plan for ultimate power are being put into place.
A lich is more than just a monster of the week. They are evil twisted beings who have dedicated their entire immortal lives towards the completion of one goal. With only the party standing in their way as they complete the final steps of their plan, it is going to be intense final countdown with the fate of the universe on the line. Finding and destroying the phylactery of the lich will be an important part of the process of defeating them, as everything rests on their shoulders between victory and defeat.
The demonic chanting swelled as the party rushed into the room. The lich Vrak’duhl was completing the final step of the ritual. The barbarian plowed through the army of zombies, and the wizard let loose a volley of spells that dissipated upon hitting the barrier surrounding the lich. Vrak’duhl looked up and saw that he had witnesses to his final triumph, and turned to them to say “I Wish to become a god!”