Liches are one of the fundamental big bad boogeymen of fantasy. We can find them all over the place. Voldemort in Harry Potter, Kel’thuzad in Warcraft, Rasputin in Anastasia. Dungeons & Dragons, of course, has more than its fair share, including the infamous Acererak. They’re a perfect artifice for many of the core conceits of fantasy fiction – the nature of humanity, the nature of magic, the corruptive influences of absolute power, the pursuit of immortality. Most importantly of all, at least for our purposes, they’re bad as heck and powerful and scare the hell out of players. So, what makes a good lich?
A lich as a game element is like giving yourself permission to disguise a free quest (or several quests) inside of one overt quest, from a DM’s perspective. If a lich has to die – and don’t they always? – then a quest to locate and acquire the ancient phylactery must be undertaken by the player characters. They’re going to have to learn about the lich, and therefore the world, in order to find the lair of the lich and much more importantly the location of its phylactery. They’re going to need to delve somewhere dangerous and secretive on this plane or another in order to find that phylactery. They’re almost certainly going to need to overcome astonishing magics and traps in the doing and may possibly face one of the most dangerous sorcerers in all of Dungeons and Dragons in combat before the deed is done. That’s a lot of sessions of adventure, a lot of quality time on a noble journey of good vanquishing evil. The necessity of dealing with a phylactery makes the quest to rid the nearby superdungeon of its lich overlord a very dense game element where story (if that is your style) can come out through play extensively, or where devious and high stakes adventure (if that is your style) is inherently driven by concrete goals. For many old school players, the lich is secondary to the lich’s treasure, but the characteristics of the lich will likely make the treasure very difficult to obtain without successfully rescuing the townsfolk from their magical oppressor – even if that’s just a side effect.
A monster is only as effective as you make it. Sometimes, things are pedestrian. You describe a pig-faced humanoid, your players know what they’re fighting, and they are only concerned about it from a mathematical standpoint; that is, do they have enough spears and hit points to kill them or enough stealth and luck to evade them. This is because the player knows what a pig-faced humanoid is, so in-character and out-of-character, they are not concerned about the unexpected. Sometimes, though, you describe a skeletal creature in a magic-user’s robes with a crown of thorns and it’s not remotely pedestrian. Here again, the players know what that is, but the unpredictability of the spellcasting undead super-wizard and its extremely narrow weak point become much more than a math equation of dice rolls and hit dice attrition.
Beyond the mechanical factor of a dangerous foe, there is the simple horror of a well-described lich. Vivid detail when they finally gaze upon its countenance should evoke revulsion and get the excitement rising just the same as the lurid description of a dragon’s rippling copper scales and brimstone breath. Moreover, the foreshadowing of the lich, done well, must bring the players and their characters down the path of the lich. When and why did the lich turn to corruptive magical immortality? What erased its final shreds of humanity? These clues, found in the world as the player characters seek tactical advantages over the lich (such as the location of its phylactery, or the layout of its lair and guardians) will naturally inspire the players to understand and fear the lich. Learning of its inhumanity, its cruelty and amorality organically in their travels through the world brings home to the player characters the danger of the lich.
What spells does an immortal sorcerer lack? What magic accoutrements are beyond the reach of the magician who has all the time in the world? This is a creature who gave up its soul and humanity to pursue magic with the single-minded purpose of an apex predator. Something like this is not taken by surprise easily, nor does it find itself unarmed. The lich is an opportunity to challenge even the best-equipped player characters. Your random treasures may have given the party so many wands they no longer fear orcs and ogres, but that means precisely jack and squat to the lich. The party wizard may have reached the tenth level and become a walking siege engine herself, but the lich is an altogether more potent magic-user; spells and strategies the wizard can employ against certain powerful foes are weakened or completely useless against the lich. The lich, like the beholder and other highly magical monsters, finds its footing in its sheer versatility. The lich is capable of countering so much that the players are used to relying upon. As a DM, you are empowered to directly counter their strengths and force them to make new tactics, to operate outside of their normal behaviors and boundaries. They must play smarter to win, which is satisfying for everyone involved.
A wizard as powerful as a lich, with as much time and resources and cunning, does not fight alone. The lich has, through bargaining or wit or subjugation, stocked his dungeon and surrounds with the sort of horrors and aberrations that drain resources from or outright repel all who seek to undo the lich. Liches are terrifying enough to bring legions of savage gnolls to heel to guard the hillsides. Liches are of such means as to convince clans of giants to do their bidding in the mountains. Their towers on the stormy peaks above are filled with such terrifying beasts as to threaten the countryside with their ferocity should they be unleashed. The most vile and dangerous monsters are attracted to the evil sorcery of the lich. The lich poses a geographical threat if it so chooses, and can force the players to pay attention. With the armies of forces the lich can marshall, it can harry the countryside as they crawl through hexes even if they consciously wish to avoid a confrontation at first.
As the DM, this gives you tremendous possibilities. The dungeon of the lich can be an immensely challenging place full of monsters the PCs have never encountered. The wilderness encounter tables you employ or write can include many monsters in the lich’s employ, and in turn, can bear clues in their behavior and treasure that mark their origin and give the players a sense of villainy and make the lich their nemesis organically – after all, even if they aren’t planning on raiding the lich’s lair right now, sooner or later they’re going to tire of the constant harassment as they go about their other business, especially when the lich’s soldiers pick off favored hirelings and steal valuable treasure. The lich’s magical background justifies all manner of beasts from all manner of places and planes to inhabit his turf, meaning players are sure to find sufficient challenge and reward.
The lair of the lich is an extremely varied thing. Because of the lich’s capacity to operate inside and outside of the normal material world, its lair may or may not be directly accessible from the plane the party is used to operating on. The lair could be simple, such as an ancient tomb or profane ziggurat. Maybe there’s an added layer of complexity, and the lich’s ziggurat is located in the underdark. Maybe there’s an even greater degree of obfuscation and difficulty, and the ziggurat exists in a pocket dimension teeming with fiends and outsiders, only accessible by the lich and those who can brave a multiplanar dungeon descent that begins in the underdark and ends somewhere altogether alien. The lair could make no sense at all, specifically designed by the powerful sorcerer to confound invaders and protect its valuable magical secrets and phylactery. Maybe the dungeon is completely inhospitable to normal life – after all, what does a lich care for oxygen?
As a DM, you’re given a potential field day here, where no roll on a mountain of random tables, no matter how bizarre, is impossible to incorporate as you generate the dungeon. The sense of discovery is as tangible for you as for your players. If you wish to repurpose extant maps, you can go absolutely crazy, combining parts of one and parts of another without devoting mental exercise to silly questions of logic. Additionally, if you’re a fan of 5E style lair effects (or the same idea by any other name), a lich’s lair is the perfect place to have a hideous number of ongoing and potentially even randomized hazards – it’s as magical a place as you’re likely to come across, steeped in sorcery and designed to protect the most powerful wizard around. It has every right to be dangerous, nonsensical, malevolent. It should be impeding players. As a player, there is no chance of being bored by another simple flagstone hallway. In dealing with a wildly powerful wizard, all of your wits will be tested. You may die horrifically, quickly, as Acererak could attest. You may make it all the way to the lich at the end, and truly earn a story worth boasting about.
A lich is a potent foe. More than that, it is a powerful foe who is much more than a powerful beast or ancient godling, both of which have little use for material things. Sure, a massive horror lizard in a cursed swamp temple will undoubtedly have piles of offerings from supplicants, or maybe the lost artifacts of the dead civilization whose ruins it now inhabits. But a lich is an intellectually brilliant creature with access to the riches of entire planes and the means to seize them, and every logical reason to maintain thousands of indescribably valuable magical reagents and enchanted items of every shape, size, and design imaginable. Beyond this, the lich has an eternity to collect these riches, and an immense multitude of means by which to defend it from interlopers. The lich is certain to have unimaginable wealth, and its many monster guardians may have oodles of gold and treasure of their own. This means the lich’s lair is an attractive target for greedy adventurers to plunder, and as they grow in power level over time, it will become more and more feasible and even necessary to seek this immense wealth for players to continue advancing in levels. This means there is a built-in motivation even for murderhobos otherwise unconcerned with the well-being of the imperiled countryside full of terrified and oppressed citizenry. The lich is a valuable entity to the players.
If you’re leaving a lot of the answers to the dice, even the DM can end up stunned by the revelations of the lich. Roll tables for phylactery type, lich desires and history, lair, and more can provide the DM with as much excitement and sense of discovery as the players. Seeding the world with clues and expert NPCs and tidbits of horror gives the DM every opportunity to allow for the players to make the best of their agency in the world. The elements of the lich come together to give an opportunity to share a story together. As the player seeks information on how to destroy the lich, they will invariably learn more about what motivated the lich, what the lich sacrificed to shed its humanity and become an undying sorcerer. By seeking advantages, the players learn weaknesses, which in turn divulge powerful elements of character- and world-building which are being produced through shared interest rather than exposition and boxed text. The natural result of the emergent gameplay generated by the lich – lich poses threat, players decide they must kill lich, players wish to find how to kill lich, players must find phylactery, players defeat lich – generates a story with many threads which cannot help but bring to light the grim tale of the lich’s beginnings. It is interactive with every element above – why and how the lich exists is an emblematic example of the horror. The lich’s origin can explain why the lair is the way it is, it can explain the lich’s motivations, it justifies the the treasure hoard it keeps. It explains the reasons for its selection of monster guardians and its selection of spells to pursue and employ. The origin of the lich becomes central to the game in small ways which independently reinforce each other, improving immersion and involvement.
The lich is a fundamental baddie of the D&D world. Using one in your game can be great fun for players and the DM alike, and a thorough understanding of how the elements of a lich interact enables truly memorable gaming. The lich offers huge risk and reward to the players, and creates tons of opportunities for the DM to enjoy the sense of discovery and the fun of storytelling and worldbuilding without being a railroad fiesta or straying from the fun of randomization and emergent gameplay.
If you have a memorable lich, thoughts on what to incorporate for a truly excellent lich, or just want to talk about undead sorcerers because they’re cool, hit me up on Twitter @dungeonspossums or here in the comments and let me know what’s on your mind!