by Mike Shea on 21 November 2016
Few creatures in the world of Dungeons & Dragons are as feared as the lich. A wizard of countless ages, a being beyond the morality of good and evil, the lich brings a threat greater than most to our characters in the D&D universe. Running a lich can be a daunting task for a dungeon master and yet we should give the lich as much attention as we can. A poorly run lich hurts the reputation of the monster in the eyes of our players. A lich deserves better.
In today's article, we're going to dive deep into the power of the lich with a focus on understanding how best to run it at the table, not just so it retains its deadly reputation but so it's also a fun foe to fight.
The following is a quick tactical summary on running the lich to its full potential.
As designed in the 5th edition Dungeon & Dragons Monster Manual, the lich is a powerful foe. Legendary resistance gives it near immunity to typical save-or-suck effects. It's ability to counterspell, dispel magic, and disintegrate lets it avoid most environmental incapacitation.
As powerful as they are, though, a lich can still be defeated. Sometimes a lich can be defeated easily. Though it has a towering challenge rating of 21 (22 in its lair), the lich has one big vulnrability, low hit points—135. A strong group of PCs can hammer out that much damage in under a round if they plan it right. If initiative goes against the lich, this could be a real problem.
There are many ways to account for this weak point and, given the actual power of the characters facing it, we can choose one or more of these to help reinforce the lich's defenses.
Shield Guardians: A lich might have one or more shield guardians in its lair. Not only will a shield guardian increase the threat against characters with their attacks but they also absorb half the damage that would normally go to the lich. Normally a wizard would only have one such guardian but lichs are really powerful. Not only might they have more than one shield guardian but they might even have more powerful shield guardians, like, say, iron golems.
There's a fun strategy involved in removing these guardians from the field so one can start hitting the lich itself. Actual shield guardians have a lower AC than the lich so smart characters will focus their attacks on the guardians to remove the lich's defenses.
Shield Runes: If we want something slightly different, we might put up two or more runed pillars that place a protective shield around the lich, maybe even a prismatic sphere. Only when the pillars are destroyed does the sphere drop. These pillars might have a number of hit points or crumble under a number of athletics or arcana checks.
Protective Spells: In its default state, the lich has access to mirror image and shield. These two spells can help the lich significantly. A good lich likely has some sort of contingency in place to automatically cast mirror image when hostile creatures enter. It shouldn't have to burn an action on mirror image unless its dispelled and he should likely try to counter any attempt to dispel his protections.
Potions of Invulnerability: A lich might have some sort of concoction similar to a potion of invulnerability that gives it the same effect. Like mirror image, the lich will likely use this before a battle is about to begin. It isn't quite as thematic as shield guardians or environmental shield runes, but it gives the same advantage.
Cloudkill: Cloudkill isn't really a protective spell but it will eat the lunch of melee attackers who get close to it. Since the lich is immune to poison, it can cast cloudkill on itself. Like other protective spells, the lich might cast this ahead of time. If paired with iron golems, the lich's immunity to poison can be even more effective. Thanks to Chris Sims for this little evil nugget.
Magic Items: Lich's have had centuries to amass powerful magic items and there's no reason the lich won't use these in combat. Some good magic items include a staff of power which gives the lich +2 to AC, saves, and spell attacks and black robes of the archmagi which gives the lich an AC to 18 and another +2 bonus to saves. There's really no way anyone will land a spell on him now and his armor class with these two items is a flat 20 before shield. If you want to be a real ass, a ring, bracers, or an ioun stone of protection can knock it up another 1. Really that's all the magic items the lich will need or be able to use in a fight.
Bonus Tip: Write this shit down. When you apply a bunch of magic items to a lich, a lot of stuff changes. Write down the lich's new stats on a sticky note and stick it onto the page with his stats so you don't forget. It is super easy to forget all of this stuff when you're in the thick of combat. Do yourself a favor and review it before the fight and keep it in front of you during the fight.
Increase Hit Points: If you want to make things easier to manage but still reinforce the lich's vulnerability, remember that the listed hit points are just the average. You can increase the lich's hit points up to 198 and still be within range of its hit dice. You probably want to increase the lich's hit points like this if you have more than four characters fighting it. Another 34 hit points per character above four on top of its base hit points 135 isn't unreasonable.
Now that we've reinforced the lich's defenses, we can focus on its tactics during an actual encounter. Keep in mind that our goal is a fun encounter, not just the complete destruction of the characters, although that is a possible, even likely, outcome when facing a lich.
First, keep in mind that a lich is a very complicated monster to run. Between its legendary actions, lair actions, reactions, and high number of spells; it has a whole lot of options in combat. It's easy to forget things like lair actions but these actions have a big impact on the fight. Keep a checklist of the lich's actions in front of you during the fight to remind you which you've used and which you haven't.
Focusing on the Characters' Weaknesses. Lich's are no dummies. They can judge which of their spells will be most effective against the characters just by looking at them. It won't drop a spell or ability that forces a constitution saving throw on a big hulking armored melee character. Nor will it focus a wisdom saving throw on a cleric. The lich will always choose the right ability against the target weakest against that ability. Constitution saves hit those thin of arm and thick of head. Wisdom saves hit those thick of arm and thin of head.
Choosing Legendary Actions. The lich is likely to get two legendary actions for every action it takes so its worth choosing the right ones for the right circumstances. If it has a good chance at hitting someone with a paralyzing touch, that's not a bad option. The lich will know to focus its paralyzing touch on a low AC character with a low constitution save. It won't bother trying to hit a highly armored warrior with paralyzing touch. Frightening Gaze works much better against big armored brutes. Ray of Frost as a cantrip is quite effective as an additional legendary action. It's +14 to hit with the staff of power and does 18 cold damage on a hit. It's a good way to keep the threat on characters who aren't taking the bulk of the lich's wrath. The lich likely won't bother with disrupt life. It just doesn't do that much damage and eats up all three legendary actions. If it did twice as much damage it would be worth it but it isn't worth it as written.
Choosing Lair Actions. It's important not to forget lair actions for the lich and it's easy to do so. Most of the time the characters will face a lich in its lair. The most effective lair effect is the third one in which the lich raises apperations that inflict 52 necrotic damage to a single creature or half if it makes a constitution save. That's a whole lot of damage for any creature to take outside of its turn.
The next most useful effect is the crackling cord that sends half the lich's damage to the target. It's a straight success or fail so it should be aimed at a character with a weaker constitution like a rogue or a wizard. If the lich has another way to distribute damage, we can rule that the damage first gets distributed to the target of this spell before the rest is split among pillars or golems or whatever.
It's highly unlikely the lich is going to run out of spells so the spell recovery lair action isn't likely to be very beneficial compared to the other two options.
Choosing Reactions. The lich has two likely reactions in any given round: counterspell and shield. Because a lich has legendary resistance it doesn't need to counterspell typical spells that require a saving throw. If it's armed with robes of the archmagi it gets advantage on these saves anyway and if it fails, it can choose to succeed instead. Most players will just stop wasting spell slots if they know that they won't land a spell anyway and focus on other things. The lich can save counterspells to counter counterspells coming at it from the characters. This seems like a weird tactic but it becomes common with smart players and powerful characters. Spells that will block the line of sight of the lich or otherwise alter the environment heavily against the lich are also good targets for counterspell.
Shield, then, is a more likely choice but a risky one. If the lich has the option of dropping a shield early on in a round to get that +5 bonus to AC for a long time, it will likely want to take it. This means losing the chance to counter a character's spell that might end up being trouble. Players will learn to game this system, which is a fun tactical choice they make so don't screw them too much. The bluff of spells versus attacks is a fun mini-game in itself.
Choosing Actions. Now we come to the big choice, what to do with the lich's action. The lich has a huge list of spells, many of which are complete battle changers. We have spells like power word kill, power word stun, disintegrate, and finger of death. If we're going for the full-on kill, that's not a bad order for casting those spells. If the lich has a chance to cast it ahead of time, cloud kill or wall of force from the staff of power can set up some nasty environmental traps. That's probably not worth burning actions on during combat, however.
Making a spell like power word kill fun is as tricky as managing the tactics of the lich itself. First of all, it's nice if the characters and the players are aware that this is in the lich's arsenal. The lich's use of the spell might come up in a secret or clue before the characters ever face the villain. The lich itself, if it has a chance, might simply ask which one of the characters wishes to die first. Which one will save the rest from its deadly magic?
If characters have more than 100 hit points, the lich is likely to know it and focus it on characters with fewer hit points like mages or rogues.
If the characters are grouped up, nothing grabs their attention like a cone of cold or fireball from the staff of power but that's not likely to be nearly as devastating as the top four spells mentioned above.
All of the above actions are designed to make the lich as dangerous as possible. Against an experienced group of players running powerful characters, this might be perfectly acceptable. You'll have to gauge the power of the characters and the experience and desires of the players before you decide to wipe them all out with a super-smart lich. If you're running the lich against less experienced players, fireball, lightning bolt, and cone of cold might be better options than power word kill and disintegrate. Just because a lich can wipe the party out doesn't mean it should. Fighting a lich should push any group of players right to the edge.
No matter how you run the lich, always have a fail forward option planned for a total-party kill. Maybe the lich twists the characters into beings of its own devise. Maybe the characters awaken in the lich's charnel pit just before they are descended upon by piles of hungry ghouls. Maybe the characters find themselves tearing free of a mass grave, resurrected after one hundred years to right the wrongs they failed to face in life.
It's important to note that these changes to the lich very likely knock up it's challenge rating. As we've discussed in our guidelines to encounter building and our thoughts on the Unearthed Arcana encounter building guidelines, the challenge rating component of D&D 5e can be highly inaccurate and isn't a rigid guideline for how any battle will go. In this article, we're making the assumption that the lich needs to be improved or a powerful group of characters ran by skilled players will cut it down quickly. We won't attempt to judge what challenge rating this lich would be but it would be significantly higher than the stated when given a slew of magic items and powerful environmental protections. If you're not sure how well your characters will do against a lich, consider testing them out with a similar spellcasting monster.
We DMs face a strong tactical disadvantage. We have but one brain and, when we're running a significant challenge in our adventures, we face four to six other brains. It's hard for us to manage running the game, facilitating the story, keeping the spotlight moving and focused, ensuring everyone's having a good time, and run a creature like a lich. Here we dug deep into the tactics of the lich so that, before you need to run one at your own table, you've thought through all of the tricks you'll need to know to run this most deadly villain.
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