by Mike Shea on 21 November 2016
Few creatures in the world of Dungeons & Dragons are as feared as the lich — or as hard to run. As legendary monsters, lichs are intended to effectively fight a group of characters; already a daunting task. They're wide range of spells and reliance on particular abilities to survive means they're much harder to run than other legendary monsters like dragons.
Running a poor lich encounter can be a real heartbreak. We're not likely to do it often so when we do it and it doesn't run well, we feel the missed opportunity.
A lich deserves better.
In today's article, we're going to dive deep into the 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 checklist on running the lich in combat to its full potential as written.
If you want to power up your deadly lich, consider the following modifications:
As powerful as they are, a lich can still be defeated, sometimes easily, if it faces a lot of damage all at once. Though it has a towering challenge rating of 21 (22 in its lair), the lich's 135 hit points might disappear within one turn of a fighter using action surge or a paladin throwing out a pile of smites. If initiative goes against the lich, the lich could fall before ever getting an action.
There are many ways to shore up this weakness. Here are a few:
Increase hit points. The easiest way to help our lich survive is to increase its hit points to the maximum of 198. This is still within range of the lich's hit dice pool.
Potion of invulnerability. If your characters are able to dish out tremendous damage, the lich might drink a concoction similar to a potion of invulnerability before the battle begins, letting it resist all damage.
Damage tether lair action. One of the three lair actions of the lich lets it bond with an enemy and share the damage it takes with that enemy. It relies on a constitution saving throw to pass that damage so best to cast it on low constitution classes such as spellcasters or light weapon wielders.
Shield Guardians: A lich might have one or more shield guardian bodyguards and use their bound ability to share damage with this guardian. 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 actually 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.
Protective Spells: In its default state, the lich has access to mirror image and globe of invulnerability. These two spells can protect the lichsignificantly. A good lich likely has some sort of contingency in place to cast these spells before the battle begins. Keep in mind that globe of invulnerability can be a drag for spellcasting characters who aren't likely to be able to land any spell on it. Use with care. Globe of invulnerability also has the big advantage of preventing counterspell. We might, however, replace it with greater invisibility which makes the lich harder to hit and impossible to target but doesn't stop all spells outright.
Permanent Flight. You might also consider giving the lich a permanent use of fly. This can help the lich stay out of range of powerful melee attackers who would otherwise make short work of the lich.
Magic Items: Lich's have had centuries to amass powerful magic items and there's no reason the lich won't use them in combat. Some good magic items include a staff of power which gives the lich +2 to AC, saving throws, and spell attacks and black robes of the archmagi which gives the lich an AC to 18, +2 to DCs and spell attacks, and advantage on saving throws. 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.
Write These Changes Down!: Write down these new abilities and stat changes on a sticky note and stick it onto the page with his stats so you don't forget. It's easy to forget all of this stuff when you're in the thick of combat. Review it before the fight and keep it in front of you during the fight.
Lich's have tons of options but only a few actions in which to use them. We need to be careful how we spend those actions. A lich's actions breaks down into five categories: legendary actions, lair actions, reactions, and main actions. The lich doesn't have any bonus actions to consider.
With so many options and action types, it helps if we keep a general checklist in mind when the lich is in combat. Here's one such checklist:
If you want a true deadly lich, an easy way to do it is to maximize their damage output. Now they do 32 damage with a ray of frost, 100 damage with a disintegrate, 86 damage with a finger of death, 60 damage on a prismatic spray, 80 damage with a chain lightning, 90 damage with the attacking apperations, and so on. That will get the attention of just about any party of adventurers.
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.
In general it's more fun for players if they take damage than if their characters are either killed outright or taken out of the fight with spells like force cage, feeblemind, maze, or the like.
The changes we've made to the lich in this article may very well increase its challenge rating. Challenge ratings are hard to gauge at high levels anyway, however, so it's not something we should spend much time worrying about. Instead, test your lich by throwing similar creatures at the characters to see how easily they handle them. The lich may use the simulacrum of itself to test the characters before they face the true lich. Of course, the lich's philactery makes it particularly difficult to kill. It's possible, even likely, that the chararacters will have to face the lich multiple times before defeating it. The lich will certainly learn from the experience.
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 all at the same time. Spend time studying your boss monsters so when you run them they will bring a fun challenge to the group.
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