This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Fourteen on 15th June 2022.
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.
Vecna is one of the big names in D&D, along with Mordenkainen, Ellminster, and Strahd von Zarovich. However, the actual history of the legend is not what most people would think if they only have a passing knowledge of D&D.
How long Vecna has been part of D&D lore is a matter of perspective. The history and definition of Vecna as an individual was actually very sparse until 2nd edition. That said, the very prominent Hand and Eye of Vecna artifacts have been present since original D&D.
The artifacts first appeared in the third supplement for original D&D, entitled “Eldritch Wizardry”. However, the only lore around them stated they were powerful, enchanted body parts of a long-dead lich who had a bodyguard named Kas.
Continuing the pattern of lore and details introduced to the game at that juncture, the concepts were not wholly original. The idea of body parts as artifacts was borrowed from novels penned by British author Michael Moorcock, whose Eternal Champions series includes many concepts that seem to have influenced facets of Dungeons and Dragons.
The name “Vecna” appears to be another example of lackadaisical or hurried practices in nomenclature conception common to the designers of the time. Vecna is a simple anagram of “Vance”, the last name of the author from whom Dungeons and Dragons’ magic system was borrowed. The presupposition being “Ecnav” was either deemed too esoteric or insufficiently sinister.
The artifacts existed in a vacuum through the original and first editions of D&D, with no further details or embellishment of Vecna’s identity provided.
But second edition was all about expanding lore and providing more details about everything. Also TSR really needed some prominent villains because if they focused too much on the devils and demons little Timmy’s mommy was going to get her televangelist pastor to say mean things about D&D.
In 2nd edition Greyhawk was the place to be so they started there.
Okay because I can feel her indignation helping with the saves I’ll mention Dragonlance was *actually* the place to be but TSR was still pushing Greyhawk as the primary setting. They needed things to happen there to keep it interesting, though, so Vecna became their big bad.
The lich’s background and story got a little bit of a boost when the lore behind the hand and eye were expanded for the 2nd edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. But things really took off in 1990.
That year, TSR published The City of Greyhawk boxed set, and within it was the adventure “Vecna Lives!” That module garnered a lot of praise from players and reviewers and gave D&D another iconic villain. Unlike Strahd von Zarovich, who was complicated and very personal in his motives and confined to Barovia, Vecna represented a more universal threat in the vein of Sauron or Thanos; a very powerful being bent on world-altering acquisition of power.
Vecna remained the main “boogeyman” of Greyhawk until TSR started up the Greyhawk wars adventures. With Greyhawk tied up with their version of a world war, TSR took Vecna multiversal. Vecna Reborn was the next module, this one set in Ravenloft. The canonical “good ending” of the “Vecna Lives!” adventure provided a way for Vecna to be banished to that realm, where he fashioned his own domain of dread while working to escape.
When Wizards of the Coast took over D&D from TSR, they were looking to publish 3rd edition but wanted to trim what they saw as too much fat on D&D’s brand. Vecna was their scapegoat. In much the same way they used the Spellplague in 4th edition, the actions of Vecna in an adventure called “Die, Vecna, Die! were cited as the reason for all the lore changes that shifted D&D from 2nd edition to 3rd.
Despite maintaining a focus on the Greyhawk setting during the third and subsequent edition of the game, Wizards of the Coast’s tenure did not focus on any adventures with world-altering or paradigm shifting consequences. Thus, Vecna was relegated to the status of an amorphous, evil demigod. There would be cultists, artifacts, and minor machinations centered around the ultimate goals and ambitions of Vecna, but no other modules directly involved the entity’s manifestation.
By 4th and 5th editions, Vecna was again relegated to the status of myth or legend. Although acknowledged as an extant being, rather than mere unconfirmed rumor as in the original incarnations, no effort was made to create adventures focusing on manifestations or direct intervention. The artifacts associated with Vecna are the most direct interaction any character has in an official module.
It should be noted that the entertainment production Critical Role heavily featured a conflict with an entity known as Vecna. However while the name and some facets of the being are similar to the original Greyhawk conception, the production tied their version of Vecna heavily into the lore of Exandria and posited his origin there, rather than transplanting the Greyhawk entity into the setting.
Yes, yes, in short, Mercer copied D&D’s work and rewrote enough sentences so he wouldn’t get an “F” for plagiarizing.
Anyway, on to the man himself. In Greyhawk lore Vecna’s birth occurred roughly 2300 years before whatever their present day was, putting it before the formation of any current country or people group on Oerth. He was part of the untouchable caste of whatever society was around then. You know if a caste is called “untouchable” they’re either at the absolute top or complete bottom. One guess which end Vecna was on.
So his mother apparently tried to help him get a leg up by teaching him magic, which worked just fine until she was executed for practicing witchcraft. The death of his mother really kicked off his drive to be the best at whatever he set his mind to. In his case, what he set his mind to was wholesale psychopathic slaughter and conquering anything he possibly could.
In a matter of a few years Vecna became the most powerful and accomplished magic user on Oerth and set about establishing an empire. His atrocities were numerous and horrific; burying entire cities under collapsing mountains was one of the nicer ways he would kill people.
Eyes on the words, mister. And for the record I don’t use mountains. My rocks are responsibly sourced from strip mining ventures.
A few decades went by and Vecna began to get on in years, which is when he decided the whole “dying” thing wasn’t really for him. How he achieved lichdom is debatable, but everyone agrees he didn’t go the standard route like Acererack. Vecna, as far as anyone is aware, never had a phylactery. Rumors about how he managed that vary. Some say he made a deal with a forgotten archdevil or demon and then killed the one he made the deal with. Others say he actually waited until his foreseen death and then defeated or weakened the god of death enough that they agreed not to take his soul, though his body would physically die.
However he managed it, he managed to live on in undeath, increasing both his temporal and magical powers. Eventually everyone living in or near his empire was too scared to say his name, fearing he would somehow be aware of it. He became “The Whispered One” to all of his followers.
The other significant figure in Vecna’s life was Kas. Kas began as a military lieutenant, but gradually established his identity as a confidant of the ruling lich. As Vecna’s body deteriorated and physical mobility was no longer unlimited, Kas became a scion of the ruler more frequently. In order to reinforce Kas’s authority, Vecna forged a sword for him. Sources debate whether the sword is of mundane or exotic make physically, but all agree that massive amounts of negative energy and evil power were imbued in the weapon. It is also suggested by some that part of Vecna’s personality actually manifested within the blade.
Regardless of the cause, the sword gained limited sentience and began mentally influencing its wielder. Approximately one thousand years after Vecna’s birth, he was physically present for the attack on a city named Fleeth. During the battle, a large number of divine spellcasters were able to channel divine energy directly at Vecna, damaging the left side of his body and leaving him weakened. The city was subsequently taken, but Kas, having been influenced by the personality of his sword, decided to attempt elimination of his superior.
Following Vecna into the lich’s primary lair, Kas attacked him. No details of the resulting conflict are known, however the result was the wholesale destruction of Vecna’s tower and throne, the apparent permanent death of Kas, and the discorporation of Vecna. Only the sword, Vecna’s left hand, and Vecna’s left eye were retrievable.
But as any southpaw pirate can tell you, you can do quite a lot with a left hand and one eye. Especially when idiot mortals keep trying to use them as magic toys. Because the artifacts eventually corrupt and destroy the minds of anyone who uses them, Vecna was able to slowly spread his influence across Oerth long after his death.
After 1300 years the number of people following and worshiping him allowed him to reemerge as a demigod, but like all good megalomaniacs, he wanted more. He devised a way to achieve full godhood, but it was kind of unpleasant and involved killing a lot of people, including possibly a few gods. He knew the circle of eight would be kind of annoyed by that, so his opening move was to kill all of them. With a very depressed Mordenkainen the only one left alive, he set his plan in motion, however his actions caught the attention of Iuz.
For those who don’t remember, Iuz was another demigod of Oerth, the result of my girl Tasha deciding that when she means tall, dark, and handsome, she wants as much dark as she can get. Hooking up with the demon lord Grazz’t gets Iuz in the picture, and Iuz is not on board with Vecna becoming a full god, mostly because it’s going to ruin a lot of Iuz’s own plans on Oerth.
The end result of that struggle was Vecna getting tossed through an interdimensional portal he was originally using to try to become a full god. Being forcibly tossed through that portal got him trapped in Ravenloft in his own Domain of Dread. And his next door neighbor was his old friend Kas! While Vecna established a dread domain wholly devoted to creating soldiers that mindlessly fight Kas’s forces and feed his own power, he worked on a way to free himself.
His first plan of manifesting himself in the body of a specially prepared newborn in the domain of dread didn’t end up working.
His second plan almost ruined everything, though. Being a master of advanced planning, Vecna hid a bunch of tablets on Oerth. The tablets each had a part of a primordial ritual, powerful enough to boost a demigod to full godhood. Coincidentally, and to Vecna’s delight, Iuz was the one who took an interest in and started gathering all these tablets for himself.
The ritual on the tablets was fundamentally misleading. Rather than providing power to boost the demigod to godhood, the ritual instead trapped and drained Iuz’s power into the Eye of Vecna artifact, thus funneling it to Vecna. The stolen energy was sufficient to provide Vecna with deity-level potency and escape Ravenloft. He made his way to Sigil, the city that sits at a crossroads of all major planes in the multiverse. From there, his intent was to gather increasing amounts of energy and sublimate all other deities, setting himself in the position of supreme god of the multiverse.
Vecna’s machinations and activities gradually caused chaos throughout the multiverse as he started using Sigil as the base of operations. His potency was such that not even the Lady of Pain, usually the undisputed master of the location, was able to curtail his efforts except to slow the progress overall.
Eventually heroes were able to locate the Sword of Kas in Ravenloft. So equipped, they employed the sword and various other means to defeat Vecna and unravel his rituals and processes. The unraveling resulted in the general destabilization of the multiverse, but intervention by the Lady of Pain prevented total catastrophe, though remnants of disruption remain. The events also rendered both Iuz and Vecna to their original status as demigods of Oerth.
Vecna himself is a bit single-minded so he’s not really someone you want to deal with as a mortal. Or at all, really; his own best friend tried to kill him, so he can’t be great company.
Anyway, the primary influence Vecna tends to have is through his trinkets. The Eye of Vecna, Hand of Vecna, and the Sword of Kas are legendary relics that have been around D&D forever and they are the classic example of a devil’s bargain. In fifth edition the hand and eye are very powerful artifacts and if one being is attuned to both of them, apart from definite issues with winning beauty contests, they can do a lot of things up to and including casting a free wish spell every month. I mean, assuming you can remain sane long enough and resist the incessant compulsion to worship Vecna.
The sword is no slouch either, doing a ridiculous amount of damage, especially if you’re hunting undead. It does have that annoying thing of slowly driving you insane too, but really how big a price is that to pay for a 19-20 crit range?
Now some of the other resources had other body parts of the old guy hanging around as other magic artifacts but most sources limit it to the eye and the hand.