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Life’s a Lich and Then You Never Die
While the dragon still sits as the defacto big bad guy of D&D, the lich makes a convincing grab for #2. The undead necromancer leading forth his undead legions is downright iconic, and liches have been lurking at the end of campaigns since the very first edition of D&D. So how should you run them in your adventures? And for that matter, what should you do when your DM throws one at you? Keep your phylacteries safe and summon a few zombie chums to come along as we go through everything you need to know.
Liches are spellcasters (usually wizards but sometimes clerics, sorcerers, or other casters) that have used dark powers to stop themselves from dying. Instead of descending into whatever hell awaits them, liches have bound their souls to powerful artifacts called “phylacteries”. Think Voldemort and his horcruxes, it’s a similar arrangement. With their souls safely locked away, liches can functionally live forever with their personality, intelligence, and power intact, though they have to deal with the whole “undead” part. As long as they keep their phylactery from being destroyed, they can always reform a new body, ready to take revenge on whoever struck them down.
There are also a slew of other flavors of lich, from the withered skull demiliches to the horrifying dracoliches, but for now let’s just talk about your standard garden variety lich.
Because of the rituals and sacrifices needed to achieve lichdom, liches are universally evil (there’s some weird lore exceptions to this, but they’re exceptions that prove the rule). And an immortal evil high-level caster with essentially infinite time is a disaster waiting to happen. Liches are often used as the ultimate enemies that drive the plot forward, their plots and schemes are often decades or even centuries in the making, and usually have dire consequences for entire continents or worlds. Undead armies, unleashing evil gods, plagues, disasters, assassinations, anything and everything can be part of a lich’s plan, which all makes them perfect for including in your adventures.
While liches are often quite variable and DMs tend to add or change things to make their ultimate big bad guy more unique, the standard statistics and abilities of a normal lich are no less formidable.
Medium undead, any evil alignment
Armor Class 17 (natural armor)
Hit Points 135 (18d8+54)
Speed 30 ft.
STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA
11 (+0) 16 (+3) 16 (+3) 20 (+5)14 (+2)16 (+3)
Saving Throws Con +10, Int +12, Wis +9
Skills Arcana +19, History +12, Insight +9, Perception +9
Damage Resistances cold, lightning, necrotic
Damage Immunities poison; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, frightened, paralyzed, poisoned
Senses truesight 120 ft., passive Perception 19
Languages Common, plus up to 5 other languages
Challenge 21 (33,000 XP)
Legendary Resistance (3/Day). If the lich fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.
Rejuvenation. If it has a phylactery, a destroyed lich gains a new body in 1d10 days, regaining all its hit points and becoming active again. The new body appears within 5 feet of the phylactery.
Spellcasting. The lich is an 18th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Intelligence (spell save DC 20, +12 to hit with spell attacks). The lich has the following wizard spells prepared:
- Cantrips (at will): mage hand, prestidigitation, ray of frost
- 1st level (4 slots): detect magic, magic missile, shield, thunderwave
- 2nd level (3 slots): acid arrow, detect thoughts, invisibility, mirror image
- 3rd level (3 slots): animate dead, counterspell, dispel magic, fireball
- 4th level (3 slots): blight, dimension door
- 5th level (3 slots): cloudkill, scrying
- 6th level (1 slot): disintegrate, globe of invulnerability
- 7th level (1 slot): finger of death, plane shift
- 8th level (1 slot): dominate monster, power word stun
- 9th level (1 slot): power word kill
Turn Resistance. The lich has advantage on saving throws against any effect that turns undead.
Paralyzing Touch. Melee Spell Attack: +12 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 10 (3d6) cold damage. The target must succeed on a DC 18 Constitution saving throw or be paralyzed for 1 minute. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.
The lich can take 3 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature's turn. The lich regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.
- Cantrip. The lich casts a cantrip.
- Paralyzing Touch (Costs 2 Actions). The lich uses its Paralyzing Touch.
- Frightening Gaze (Costs 2 Actions). The lich fixes its gaze on one creature it can see within 10 feet of it. The target must succeed on a DC 18 Wisdom saving throw against this magic or become frightened for 1 minute. The frightened target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a target's saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the target is immune to the lich's gaze for the next 24 hours.
- Disrupt Life (Costs 3 Actions). Each non-undead creature within 20 feet of the lich must make a DC 18 Constitution saving throw against this magic, taking 21 (6d6) necrotic damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
A Lich’s Lair
A lich often haunts the abode it favored in life, such as a lonely tower, a haunted ruin, or an academy of black magic. Alternatively, some liches construct secret tombs filled with powerful guardians and traps.
Everything about a lich’s lair reflects its keen mind and wicked cunning, including the magic and mundane traps that secure it. Undead, constructs, and bound demons lurk in shadowy recesses, emerging to destroy those who dare to disturb the lich’s work.
A lich encountered in its lair has a challenge rating of 22 (41,000 XP).
On initiative count 20 (losing initiative ties), the lich can take a lair action to cause one of the following magical effects; the lich can’t use the same effect two rounds in a row:
- The lich rolls a d8 and regains a spell slot of that level or lower. If it has no spent spell slots of that level or lower, nothing happens.
- The lich targets one creature it can see within 30 feet of it. A crackling cord of negative energy tethers the lich to the target. Whenever the lich takes damage, the target must make a DC 18 Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, the lich takes half the damage (rounded down), and the target takes the remaining damage. This tether lasts until initiative count 20 on the next round or until the lich or the target is no longer in the lich’s lair.
- The lich calls forth the spirits of creatures that died in its lair. These apparitions materialize and attack one creature that the lich can see within 60 feet of it. The target must succeed on a DC 18 Constitution saving throw, taking 52 (15d6) necrotic damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a success. The apparitions then disappear.
Using a Lich as a DM
First off let’s be clear, liches are powerful enemies that should only be used as the “big bad evil guy” (or BBEG). They’re at such a high CR for a reason and you really shouldn’t throw them at any party lower than level 14 at the absolute lowest and they’re best suited as a final end boss at levels 16 to 17.
However, liches can easily be used as a driving evil force at earlier levels. Evil agents sent forth to fulfil their master’s plans can make for excellent lesser villains all the way up to the final encounter with the big bad lich himself. There’s also no end to the shenanigans and games you can play locating the lich’s phylactery. You can spend an entire campaign simply trying to track the thing down, fighting against the countless false leads, traps, and pitfalls set out by the lich to deter such interlopers.
In actual combat, try to remember that this isn’t a mindless monster that’s just going to rush into battle. Liches are ancient, extremely intelligent, often have vast resources, and really don’t want to die. Unless the PCs manage to really outmaneuver the lich, they’re unlikely to fight him alone. I particularly like using a pair of beholder zombies for this role as they add an interesting random element to the fight while acting as flavorful remains of fallen evil rivals.
Getting beyond all that, a lich fights much like any other powerful caster enemy, they cast powerful spells to damage and slow the enemy down, while trying hard to stay out of the direct line of fire. What sets them apart and really makes them a threat is their access to power word kill, and their lair actions.
Liches have a single casting of power word kill under their belt, and for those who haven’t been graced by it’s icy sting this spell is brutal. Try to cast this at a dramatic moment, (and maybe provide some easy access to resurrection afterwards cause man it hurts to be on the receiving end of this), but it’s the most powerful thing in the lich’s arsenal and it should definitely get deployed at some point.
Liches gain access to Lair actions while in their “lair”, these are in addition to the lich’s already formidable legendary actions and are downright nasty. Generally, you’ll want to keep the negative energy tether on a PC caster for the majority of the fight. It adds a particularly difficult layer to an already challenging encounter.
Fighting a Lich
For the most part, a fight against a lich is like any other powerful spellcaster. The lich doesn’t actually have many hit points or a high AC, you just need to pin the bag of bones down and start pumping damage into them.
The more turns the lich remains alive the more likely they will be to gain the upper hand. Don’t spend time fighting ads if you can help it, focus fire this caster down and try to minimize the number of spells he gets to cast.
If he manages to tag one of you with his negative energy tether, I recommend simply fighting through it. You’ll be tempted to wait until it dissipates but that will give the lich a whole round of not getting pummeled into dust. Keep whatever healing capacity close to whomever is tethered and power through just by healing over it.
Finally, you need to have a plan for dealing with the most powerful tool in the lich’s arsenal, power word kill. He’ll only get one of these, but once he drops a PC below 100 hit points, he can simply smack them dead using this spell.
If your party has a lot of healing punch, simply try to keep all the players topped off or at least over 100.
Secondly, you can simply push past it if you have access to a resurrection spell. Being 1 player down for the second half of the fight isn’t a guaranteed loss and ignoring the healing in trade for fast damage may be enough to seal the deal.
Finally, if you have a high-level arcane caster you can simply counterspell the power word, it’ll be a very high check, but a maxed out wizard still has a decent chance of just swatting the spell down.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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