by Mike Shea on 20 November 2017
Note: This article contains spoilers for the D&D adventure Tomb of Annihilation.
The hardback adventure Tomb of Annihilation gives us one of the most powerful D&D villains we've ever seen, Acererak, the arch-lich that's haunted the dreams of players since the ancient doors opened into the Tomb of Horrors back in 1978.
Acererak's stat block builds him out into a terrifying villain, particularly considering the context of his arrival in the adventure. As a boss monster, Acererak has some amazing abilities. In particular, Acererak has the ability to cast 1st through 3rd level spells at will and can cast any of these at-will spells with a single legendary action. Imagine Acererak casting three fireballs in a round outside of his actual turn!
Except Acererak doesn't have fireball prepared...
Instead, here are the spells he has prepared at 1st through 3rd level:
Really? Arcane lock and knock? What the hell is he going to do with those?
One can argue, and many did on various Twitter conversations on the topic, that Acererak isn't necessarily coming in like an AC-130 gunship firing lightning bolts and fireballs three times a round before dropping in his power word kill or disintegrate. He wouldn't likely have a full lineup of spells prepared just to make the lives of a band of adventurers miserable. But what spells would he have prepared?
In order for us to know what spells he should have prepared, we have to think from the eyes of our villain.
Instead of asking what spells Acererak has prepared for this battle, we can instead ask what spells he would prepare on a typical day. This means we need to think about what a typical day looks like for the most powerful lich to ever wander the cosmos.
What does Acererak do every day? Well, he seeks knowledge above all else. He wants power. Not in conquering empires but raw power. Artifacts and magic items. He wants ancient lore buried in the vaults of dead planets. He wants to strip ancient lore out of the minds of the oldest pit fiends to walk the lowest layers of hell. He wants to find the hidden sanctuaries of fellow lichs now long dead and raid their caches of magic items.
Like our own adventurers, each day Acererak likely engages in exploration, interaction, and combat. And thus, he will prepare spells that aid him in all of these pursuits.
Like any powerful wizard who doesn't know how their day is going to go, Acererak is likely to pick spells that offer more general utility than those that are specific. For example, knock. Does he really need knock if he has disintegrate and telekinesis? He can melt his way through just about anything, why does he need to bust open a door? Arcane lock? Why not just put up a wall of force?
There's also one spell more useful than any other that isn't on his spell list: wish. If any villain has wish prepared, it's Acererak.
Now Acererak is a lich, not just a general wizard, so he's likely to hang onto necromatic spells more than other general spells. We'll give him a bigger focus on those spells than enchantment or illusion spells. He doesn't try to trick people to get what he wants. He just kills them.
So in thinking through the eyes of Acererak, what spells would we choose on a typical day? Let's have a look:
These spells give him quite a bit of utility. He can explore places and study things with improved invisibility, plane shift, teleport, legend lore, dispel magic, disintegrate, telekinesis, detect magic, identify, and comprehend languages. He can get information from other entities with detect thoughts, comprehend languages and through his general intimidation. He's not very subtle. Throwing someone into a force cage and threatening them with his other spells is likely to get him the information he needs.
Even though it isn't his only function, Acererak can certainly expect to get into fights. He's probably going to some of the most dangerous places in the multiverse to get the knowledge and items he seeks. Someone might not know who he is and start some shit and he'll be prepared for it with the rest of his spells.
His lightweight spells would be legendary action castings of lightning bolt, blindness, and magic missile. In this case, he would look a bit like an AC-130 gunship.
His defensive spells will include greater invisibility, a great way to ensure he doesn't get hit so often and protects him from counterspells. Dispel magic and disintegrate also gets him out of a lot of jams.
His heavyweight spells for dealing with powerful foes include power word stun, power word kill, circle of death, blight, cloud kill, disintegrate, finger of death, dominate monster, and plane shift.
His real powerhouse, however—his nuclear option—is the timestop / delayed blast fireball combination. He fires up timestop and for one of the turns drops a delayed blast fireball that goes off when timestop breaks. He can then break the time stop with a circle of death. That will kill a whole lot of things.
There's an easier way to handle something like this if we don't want to comb through the Player's Handbook looking for the right set of spells for our villains. Instead, choose what spells feel right for the occasion. Does Acererak have lightning bolt or fireball memorized? Who cares? Just let him cast fireball if it makes sense that he would have it. No one will question whether he happened to prepare one over the other. He's Acererak. We could potentially argue that a creature of his power has access to whatever spells he wants whenever he wants and few would argue with us.
We can take this approach for other spell casters as well. Instead of spending a lot of time figuring out which spells they prepared, we just focus on the slots they have available and give them the spells that fit the situation. As long as these spells aren't really specialized for the specific situation in the battle; we can get away with it. It makes spellcasting NPCs more dangerous and makes our lives easier at the same time.
Instead of thinking how our bosses are going to screw up the days of the characters, an exercise like this helps us think about the villain themselves. How do they think? What do they do? What are their goals? What are they up to right now? Even something as simple as choosing new spells for a villain can push our minds into a new way of thinking about our game. It's the sort of exercise that makes our world come alive.
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