I stumbled across a post on Reddit a while back. It was a simple, one-sentence question, somewhere along the lines of:
Can anyone become a lich?
Pretty innocuous question, but it got me thinking. And thinking. And thinking so much I decided to write a whole damn book about it, which is being publishing today: Larloch’s Lexicon of Lichdom. It’s a 35+ page document dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons’ most iconic villain, the awesome lich. It contains the following:
- New rules, advice and suggestions for handling a player character becoming a lich.
- Statistics for 14 new liches, including less powerful liches, non-wizard liches and legendary liches from the Forgotten Realms.
- 9 new magic items for liches and would-be-lich-killers!
- Everything you need to know to run an awesome lich villain!
You can pick up Larloch’s Lexicon of Lichdom on the DMs Guild here.
Not convinced yet? No worries. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting excerpts from Larloch’s Lexicon of Lichdom. In today’s post we will be diving into the lich’s mythology as we ask the questions: what is a lich, what can a lich do, and how is a lich made?
About the Lich
(This is an excerpt from ‘Chapter 1: About the Lich’ in Larloch’s Lexicon of Lichdom)
The lich has been around since the very early days of Dungeons & Dragons and has grown to become one of the hobby’s most archetypical villains. Any spellcaster worth their salt who is truly dedicated to their craft has at least entertained the idea of one day becoming a lich.
Below we delve into lore about liches in Dungeons & Dragons to gain a better understanding of what the lich is, what it does, and how one becomes one. Woefully little is written about the lich in fifth edition, which means we will have to scour the records and travel decades back to the lich’s inception to get the full picture.
What is a Lich?
The broadest and most base definition of a lich can be summarized in a single sentence: a powerful spellcaster who willingly embraces undeath to preserve themselves beyond the confines of their mortal vessels.
The lich is not a common zombie or skeleton who has been raised from the grave by some fell happenstance so it can wander around aimlessly, eating brains or being bashed to bits by brave adventurers. No, the lich’s existence is much more deliberate and sinister than that.
In the decades since the lich was given its first statistics, the lich has been described in many different ways and has had many different traits and abilities. There are some core features, however, that have remained mostly constant throughout, giving us the following basic concept of what a lich is:
- The lich is a powerful spellcaster that has willingly become undeath through powerful necromancy.
- The lich retains all the memories, personality traits, and abilities it possessed in life.
- The lich’s soul is bound to a phylactery, an object that also allows the lich to reform anew when destroyed.
A Wizard’s Racket?
Some sources – including the fifth edition Monster Manual – maintains that only wizards can become liches, but this hasn’t always been the case. In fourth edition, lichdom was available to all arcane spellcasters, while any spellcaster could become a lich in third edition. Even when the lich was first presented way back in the days of Gary Gygax – D&D’s creator – the norm was that while most liches were wizards, clerics could attain lichdom too.
To Be, or Not to Be, Evil
Whether or not liches have to be evil is another contentious point.
In the fifth edition Monster Manual, the lich’s default alignment is evil, and in the few places we find mention of the requirements for becoming a lich in fifth edition, an evil alignment is one of them.
In earlier editions, however, an evil alignment hasn’t been a consistent requirement for lichdom, and there are plenty of examples of good-aligned liches (called ‘archliches’ or, in the case of elves, ‘baelnorns’). Even in fifth edition itself, there seems to be exceptions to the rule that a lich must be evil: the lich Renwick Caradoon in the official campaign Princes of the Apocalypse doesn’t appear to be evil neither before or after attaining lichdom. Thus, it appears that there’s at least some flexibility to this rule.
Becoming a lich has traditionally also required the sacrifice of a sentient creature, which one could argue means a lich would have to be evil to even become one. This point is emphasized in fifth edition, where it is stated that “a lich must periodically feed souls to its phylactery to sustain the magic preserving its body and consciousness” (something we will explore further in our next post on the subject).
However, because these soul sacrifices can be made from either willing or evil creatures, the lich has some moral wiggle room. A non-evil lich might be the head of an ancient household, who’s great-great-grandchildren willingly sacrifice themselves upon their deathbed to prolong the life of the house’s undead matron. Or, a good-aligned lich might tour the multiverse looking for evil creatures and foul beasts to slay so that it can rid the world of evil while also feeding its phylactery.
What Can a Lich Do?
Having discussed what the lich is – the core characteristics that defines it – we’ll now take a look what the lich is capable of.
As mentioned previously, the lich’s traits and abilities have varied throughout the editions. To find the latest rendition of the lich’s abilities, we need look no further than the lich’s statistics in the fifth edition Monster Manual. Stripping away the lich statblock’s general features, proficiencies, lair actions and legendary features, we are left with these traits:
- It is undead but is resistant to being turned.
- It has truesight out to 120 ft.
- It is resistant to cold, lightning and necrotic damage.
- It is immune to poison damage and physical damage from nonmagical weapons.
- It can’t be charmed, exhausted, frightened, paralyzed, or poisoned.
- It is restored to a new body 1d10 days after destruction if it has a phylactery.
- Its touch is paralyzing.
- Its gaze is frightening.
- It can deal necrotic damage to creatures around it.
- It is an 18th level spellcaster.
Most of these traits are consistent with earlier editions. The lich has always had either resistance or immunity to cold, lightning, necrotic, poison damage, and nonmagical weapons, as well as mind-affecting magic. The lich has also more often than not had the ability to paralyze targets with its touch, frighten its enemies (although this has often come in the form of a aura and not a gaze-action), and deal necrotic damage to creatures around it.
The most contentious traits of the fifth edition lich is its truesight, which is an entirely new feature, as well as its status as an 18th level spellcaster, something that hasn’t been the default since AD&D 2E.
How is a Lich Made?
Just like there has been many different interpretations of what a lich is, there has also been many different takes on how one goes about becoming a lich.
In fifth edition
In the fifth edition Monster Manual, the path to lichdom is described as follows:
A lich is created by an arcane ritual that traps the wizard’s soul within a phylactery. Doing so binds the soul to the mortal world, preventing it from traveling to the Outer Planes after death. […] With its phylactery prepared, the future lich drinks a potion of transformation — a vile concoction of poison mixed with the blood of a sentient creature whose soul is sacrificed to the phylactery. The wizard falls dead, then rises as a lich as its soul is drawn into the phylactery, where it forever remains.
The specifics of the arcane ritual required to create a phylactery, or the exact recipe for the potion of transformation that will kill the lich, aren’t described here. The Monster Manual only mentions “the process of becoming a lich is a well-guarded secret” and that those who “seek lichdom must make bargains with fiends, evil gods, or other foul entities”.
We find another mention of this ritual of lichdom in the description of the Book of Vile Darkness, an artifact found in fifth edition’s Dungeon Master’s Guide. Here it is mentioned that the book may contain a ritual that allows a character to become a lich but doesn’t say anything about the specifics of this ritual.
The best description of the process of becoming a lich is found in the official campaign book Curse of Strahd. In the Amber Temple’s vault, an evil humanoid creature with the ability to cast 9th-level wizard spells can learn how to craft a phylactery and concoct the potion of transformation. Again, the specifics of the process are left out, but we learn that crafting a phylactery takes 10 days and concocting the potion takes 3 days – and that the two items can’t be crafted concurrently.
In Earlier editions
In the fourth edition ‘Monster Manual’, the transformation to a lich can only be done with the god Orcus’ blessing and requires that 10 days be spent crafting a phylactery before the subject kills itself during a 1-hour-ritual. Total cost? 100,000 gp!
In the third edition ‘Monster Manual’, the process of becoming a lich is centered about the creation of the phylactery, and states that only an 11th-level spellcaster can create a phylactery – and that the cost is 120,000 gp.
If we go all the way back to second edition, the ‘Monstrous Manual’ is a bit more specific. The phylactery costs 1,500 gp per level of the spellcaster and requires that the spells enchant an item, magic jar, permanency and reincarnation are cast during the crafting process. Here we also find a description of the potion of transformation, which requires the subject to cast the spells wraithform, permanency, cone of cold, feign death and animate dead. The potion must then be ingested at the next full moon, upon which the wizard dies and becomes a lich – assuming that the phylactery is ready and the ritual doesn’t somehow go awry.
Going even further back, we find the article ‘Blueprint for a Lich’ in ‘Dragon Magazine issue 26’ from 1979. Here the spell requirements are magic jar, trap the soul and enchant an item. The process of crafting a phylactery is taxing, costing the subject a character level and up to a week of rest after completion – but the phylactery itself needs only have a value of at least 2,000 gp. In addition, we also get a full recipe for the potion of transformation, which includes various poisons, blood from innocent creatures and vampires, a virgin’s heart and – for some reason – the reproductive glands of giant moths. The potion must be mixed under the light of a full moon.
If we combine the descriptions from earlier editions with the little information given to us in fifth edition, we can piece together a path to lichdom that has been fairly consistent throughout the decades:
- Learn the secret to becoming a lich.
- Craft a phylactery, which takes 10 days and requires powerful spellcasting and costs 2,000–120,000 gp.
- Brew a potion of transformation, which takes 3 days and contains vile poison and blood from a sentient creature sacrificed to fuel the ritual.
- Ingest the potion under the light of a full moon, upon which the subject dies and returns to life as a lich.
Stay tuned for our next post featuring an excerpt from Larloch’s Lexicon of Lichdom, where we’ll showcase some of the advice for running lich villains, cool new rules, lich enemies and magic items that can be found in Larloch’s Lexicon of Lichdom.
J. A. Valeur