This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Forty Nine on 10th October, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Liches, ironically, have been around for a very long time in D&D. It’s ironic because that’s the whole point; liches are very powerful magic users who are usually after immortality. But they don’t want to sell their soul to anyone except themselves to get that never ending existence. They also tend to cause trouble for everyone else around as a side effect of that ambition.
When we they’ve been around for a very long time, we’re not kidding; there are few creatures that have been written down in the rules longer. The first lich creature was described in the Greyhawk supplement for Original D&D, put out in 1975. They were only described as “the skeletal monsters are of magical origin, each Lich formerly being a very powerful Magic-User or Magic-User/Cleric in life, and now alive only by means of great spells and will, because of being in some way disturbed.” Note that “Magic-User” was the actual class back then.
In first edition, along with many other monsters, the lich got a little more backstory. A very little. Basically they expanded on the fact that the lich was alive due to a lot of spells and the will of the lich itself. However the 1st edition description is notable because it’s where the idea of the phylactery is introduced, although details, again, are a bit lacking.
A lot more lore came about thanks to Dragon magazine edition 29, where one Len Lakofka wrote out a full page description of the ritual required to create a lich. In short, you need a spellcaster of 11th level or higher, a jar worth at least 2,000 gold, the spells magic jar, trap the soul, and enchant an item, and then a little over a week for the spell to work and the lich to recover.
It goes on to describe how when the lich dies, its soul travels back to the jar, and then reincarnates into the closest dead body of a creature. Any creature. If you wondered why a lich might employ a janitorial staff; that’s why; if a spider happens to drop dead near the jar, guess what the lich gets to inhabit next go around? Also, every time the lich dies, they lose a level, and if they ever drop below level 11, that’s it; they can’t be a lich anymore and die for real. Note that the Dragon magazine description never used the word “phylactery,” even though the mainstream book was doing so by then.
By the way, for those with stupid amounts of brainpower spent on this history stuff, Basic D&D had liches too, but they didn’t have phylacteries. Yay for them.
Second edition expanded the lore again, in line with how it handled all the other creatures, though most of it is just what we know today; magic users get obsessed with something, seek eternal life to accomplish it, and then end up as a trumped-up zombie. It did redesign the ritual for “lichification” though. You still need the same three spells, and it took 500 gold off the cost of the jar, but now the magic user has to know 5 additional spells and wait for a full moon before a life of drudgery and watching your skin fall off can truly be theirs. Second edition also started introducing subtypes of liches, but we’ll talk about them later because I’m getting a headache.
The second edition description became the standard for liches going forward, and few changes were made since then. 4th edition did make it so the ritual to become a lich was directly linked to the demon lord Orcus, and it removed the requirement for knowing all the spells, but it did up the price to 100,000 gold. Also, by fourth edition, having another body around the phylactery was no longer a requirement; the body the lich had just re-forms by the phylactery.
By 5th edition, the only changes are that there is no longer an official method or mechanics for how a lich is created. It also doesn’t have to be done by Orcus. He’s still an option, but the lore hints there are a few different beings that can do it. The other change is that the lich has to “power” their phylactery by feeding it souls on a regular basis.
As creatures, liches actually have very few things in common. All of them have skeletal bodies, but some are actual skeletons and others have skin stretched over bones, looking mummified. They usually wear expensive or noble clothes they’ve either stolen from victims or possibly bought with gold from the same source. They also have a “cold” theme to them; every lich up to the ones from 5th edition had a lot of attacks focusing on cold. The 5th edition lich’s focus is more on paralyzing targets, which is something older liches did as well, but it was attributed to cold. They all also have a fear aura; the older liches caused any creature below 5th level to automatically fail, whereas the current lich just has a single target legendary action with a high DC.
Beyond that, it’s hard to describe or predict a lich’s behavior. Each lich has their own reasons for seeking out lichdom, and that reason often turns into an obsession that dominates their life. What that obsession is dictates how they behave and can result in very different scenarios. Two of the most famous liches, Acererak and Vecna, could not be more opposite in their behavior. Acererak stays hidden in his tomb, sending out minions and designing spells to further his power without leaving his lair. Vecna, meanwhile, personally leads armies and directly challenges gods and demigods in his own quest for godhood.
Those two are also the only ones who kept their names, as far as most people can tell. Except for the brand new ones, liches tend to forget what their name was and instead give themselves some sort of massively pretentious title like “The Black Hand” or “the Hidden King.” I mean, may as well go with “I forgot torches were fire” and “I’m basically a five year old with a paper crown.”
Now Ryu does a nice job taking care of her body, something I appreciate whenever I have to borrow it. Liches actually have to do the same thing or it starts to crumble away. As time goes on more and more magic and concentration is required, or the body deteriorates and you end up with what’s called a demilich. There’s two reasons you could end up with a demilich. In one instance the lich isn’t doing proper maintenance and lets their body fall apart. In another, they’ve accomplished everything they need to with a physical body and just decide they don’t need it anymore. Either way they’re still not fun to drop in on, because they’re only slightly easier to fight than a full lich. Also, you have to take out whatever spectral body they decide to manifest, then you have to find whatever pieces are left of their body and destroy them, *then* you have to find the phylactery to make them actually dead. Who has the time for that?
There are also, supposedly, liches who are motivated by mostly good goals and motives. These are called archliches. They don’t have anything that sets them apart from the regular kind, nor are they more powerful. It’s just that their obsession is probably something like “find a cure for this disease,” rather than “find a way to infect everyone with the disease.”
Now, any sapient being that can use magic has the potential to become a lich, at least in theory. Usually, whatever the being is just gets classed as a lich. Dragons are the exception, because of course they are.
Dracoliches are what happens when a dragon decides that their insanely long lifespans just aren’t enough and they need that extra millennia or two to really get their hoard sorted. When the ritual’s details have been published, it differs from the process for creating a regular lich.
At the end of it, you have a dragon, except in addition to everything it could do before, it’s now undead, can’t be killed unless the phylactery is destroyed, and doesn’t have to eat. Also it’s immune to a lot more things than it was before. Have fun!
We want to note, by the way, that Eberron has liches, and it’s very possible a bunch of them are sort of in control of the main society of elves.
A lich doesn’t really fit into a campaign as anything other than a final combatant, or at the very least a very high-level secondary antagonist. Tomb of Annihilation was built on that premise, obviously. The basic lich is a CR 21 creature, and even though I don’t put a lot of stock in CR at a certain point it doesn’t matter; if you try to fight one at anything below 18th level you’re just going to die, and it’s not. It has multiple spells that do north of 50 damage at minimum, its basic attack has paralysis as a side effect, and it can use power word kill, which just outright eliminates a creature with less than 100 hit points. With no save possible.
Whatever their pet project is determines how much of a pain they are. Back in the day you could have liches hiding in tombs for centuries without anyone knowing. If they decided the ultimate key to enlightenment was figuring out the perfect recipe for a pumpkin spice latte, they wouldn’t need to bother anyone. I mean, they probably captured a lot of trendy urban Instagram influencers as test subjects and no one ever saw them again, but really who’s going to complain about that?
5th edition forced the issue a bit by saying the lich has to feed their phylactery with souls on the regular, but then you just find some remote tribe that’s still enamored by fire, set yourself up as the local god, and demand sacrifices. Just make sure they aren’t virgin sacrifices because it’s a lot better for morale that way, trust me.
The real problems are the liches that need to involve other people, or spread some sort of disease, or both. They will come around and mess up a lot of people’s day, and you kill them, but then they come back and keep talking about how amazing their plan is and how powerful they are, and then you kill them again, and you have to melt their vizier because they won’t tell you where the phylactery is…