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—few creatures in the multiverse are as dangerous and feared as the lich.
Running a lich can be a daunting task for a dungeon master. We are simply not as smart as they are. Thus, we must give some attention to the lich before we run it. 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 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, this could be a real problem.
There are many ways to account for these low hit points 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.
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.
Potions 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. This will reduce the damage it takes to half.
Shield Guardians: Instead, 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 own 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 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 help the lich significantly. A good lich likely has some sort of contingency in place to cast these spells ahead of time. It shouldn't have to use its standard action to put up such protections. 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 improved invisibility which makes the lich harder to hit and impossible to target but doesn't stop all spells outright.
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, 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. 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.
Now that we've reinforced the lich's defenses, we can focus on its offensive 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. Read the stat block ahead of the battle and prepare your strategy before combat begins. 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.
Ray of Frost as a cantrip is quite effective. 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. This is our go-to legendary action.
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 as long as they're not immune to fear (and many are).
The lich likely won't bother with disrupt life. It 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. If the lich is about to take a whole lot of damage on its first round, it might start with this on a low constitution character, like a spellcaster.
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. A lich armed with globe of invulnerability doesn't need to worry about counterspell unless it loses its concentration. Otherwise it will focus on shield to increase its AC to 25 when it is about to be hit.
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 but we can simplify it a bit. We can simplify its action lineup to the following: finger of death, disintegrate, power word kill, and then fall back to blights when it is out of high level spell slots.
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.
Below is a combat cheat sheet that simplifies the lich stat block into one slightly more managable. This version has a staff of power, a ring of protection, and has ingested a potion of invulnerability. It also prepared protection spells ahead of time. Use it if it helps you distill the lich down to just the things you need to run it effectively in combat:
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.