A lich is an evil humanoid spellcaster who has become undead through the use of dark magic. Their iconic ability is to cheat death by hiding their soul in an object known as a phylactery.

Appearance[edit | edit source]

A lich is a decayed, gaunt, mostly skeletal humanoid. Points of light glow in its empty eye sockets. Liches typically care little for appearances, and wear the tattered and rotten remains of ancient, once fine clothing.[1]

Liches can be mistaken for other skeletal humanoids creatures, including wights, skeletons, and mummies.

Unusual liches of non-humanoid origin have been known to exist, including mind flayers and dragons.

Personality[edit | edit source]

Liches are highly intelligent, utterly insane by human standards, and almost universally evil. They are obsessed with the acquision of power and knowledge, and immortality grants the lich patience to see incredibly long-term plans come to fruition.[1]

Liches typically care little to involve themselves in the day-to-day affairs of mortal realms, preferring to sequester themselves in hidden lairs to conduct arcane research or formulate epic plans. Most liches forget their original names over time, and are known to most only by cryptic aliases or titles.[1] Examples include the Bronze Lich and the Whispered One.

Abilities and traits[edit | edit source]

Phylactery[edit | edit source]

A lich stores its soul inside a phylactery, an enruned box or other object which protects the lich's life force. Should the lich be killed, its body reforms next to the phylactery within days. The lich cannot be killed without also destroying the phylactery. Naturally, the lich goes to great lengths to protect its phylactery and ensure that it cannot be found or destroyed.[1]

Any object which has an internal surface upon which sigils can be inscribed can be used as a phylactery. Popular objects include amulets, metal boxes containing holy scriptures, and even gemstones. A phylactery is usually supernaturally tough for an object of its type and difficult to destroy.

A lich can survive the destruction of its phylactery, but whether they can create a new phylactery is hotly debated topic. Creating a phylactery is an extremely expensive and time-consuming process, and destroying one is likely to halt the lich's plans at least temporarily.

Defenses[edit | edit source]

As an undead, the lich is also immune to the weaknesses of living beings. It does not need to eat, sleep, or breathe air. It cannot be poisoned or become exhausted.[1] Nor can a lich die of old age.

Liches have made themselves resistant or immune to many forms of attack, whether innately through their undead state or by some other means. These can include mind-affecting spells which inflict charm or insanity, spells inflicting sleep, exhaustion, enfeeblement, polymorph, and death effects or those which weaken living things (for the lich is already dead), and the elements of cold or electricity.

A lich's body is also physically resistant to attacks, excepting those by magical weapons.

Attacks[edit | edit source]

Liches are powerful spellcasters, and in countless centuries many have learned countless forgotten spells and mastered the most powerful levels of magic. Powerful liches have the ability to imprison the souls of mortals in their phylacteries in order to supply the lich with energy.

The gaze of a lich terrifies those it looks upon. Its touch is freezing cold and paralyzes its victims, although a lich usually prefers to avoid unnecessary physical combat.

Other abilities[edit | edit source]

A lich possesses the ability to see in complete darkness, and by some accounts their vision can pierce even illusions.

Ecology[edit | edit source]

Environment[edit | edit source]

The lich typically spends its time hidden away from the world in some hidden and well-defended lair, elaborately protected by magic and monster guardians. Lairs used by liches have included ancient tombs and crypts, distant towers, or even academies of magic.[1]

A lich's lair often contains yellow mold, whose toxic spores are harmless to the undead lich.[2]

The long-term presence of a lich inflicts a lingering, evil aura upon any place, object or creature. Mortals who spend too much time around a lich are afflicted with nightmares and madness, objects they own become dark and warped, and the land around the lich's lair becomes cold, haunted and bereft of life.[3] Evil spirits and nameless dark powers inhabit the lair where a lich is almost always encountered.[1]

Life cycle[edit | edit source]

A lich invariably comes from an intelligent living creature, usually humanoid, who consciously and voluntarily seeks this form of undead transformation.

The method of attaining lichdom is a closely guarded secret, and can be undertaken only by those exceptionally well-versed in arcane lore. The ritual is dangerous, unspeakably evil, and exceptionally expensive, by most accounts costing at least 100,000 gold pieces.

It is generally understood that a lich must prepare their phylactery before death, an object engraved with sigils to receive the lich's soul, often taking the form of a sealed metal box engraved with parchment inscribed in blood.

It is also known that the ritual involves preparing and drinking a highly toxic potion, the ingredients of which include arsenic, belladonna, phase spider venom, and the blood of an innocent humanoid sacrificed for the ritual. A single error in the formula causes the ritual to fail with the caster's unceremonial death. By some accounts, the potion must be enchanted with spells and imbibed on the full moon, while by others the lich must possess a slain corpse as a ghoul and consume his own dead body.[4][1][5][6][7]

Most liches who attempt the ritual do not succeed. A failed lich who survives the attempt becomes a weaker creature known as an arch-shadow.[8] The three-headed skull lord is speculated to be the result of failed attempts at lichdom.[9]

As long as the phylactery is intact, if the lich is destroyed it automatically re-forms next to the phylactery over a period of days. If the phylactery is destroyed along with the physical form of the lich, the lich cannot re-form. Remnants of a destroyed lich may rise as a weak entity known as a lich vestige. Gods of undeath, including Orcus and Vecna, sometimes create vestiges from failed liches and bind them as minions.

If a lich still retains their unlife when their phylactery is destroyed, they can spend a considerable amount of time and resources to create a new phylactery.

Diet[edit | edit source]

A lich does not need to eat, sleep or breathe, but over its epic lifespan must eventually consume mortal souls to sustain the magic that protects its undead form. A lich who fails to maintain their body in this way degrades into a demilich, a form consisting of a single bone, usually a skull. Some liches intentionally accept this transformation in order to withdraw from the world.

Treasure[edit | edit source]

Liches commonly possess great collections of spellbooks, potions, scrolls, wands, staves, and other magic items.[1] They have lived long enough to acquire an exceptional amount of wealth, though they do not necessarily have any particular love of gold as dragons do.

Liches have been known to develop unique magic items for themselves and their undead allies, many of which are useless in the hands of living adventurers. These include the amulet of the undead, the twisted blackfire wand, the bonebriar amulet, brooch of turning resistance, gauntlets of aura suppression, memory globe, nightmare harness, the toxic potion of yellow mold distillate, and the horrific staff of the flesh.[2]

History[edit | edit source]

Origins[edit | edit source]

The identity of the first ever lich is lost to the mists of time. In most worlds, the oldest known liches were created at least several thousand years ago.

Ancient history[edit | edit source]

The wizard Vecna became a lich some time after acquiring the original Book of Vile Darkness, a scroll of unspeakable evil written by a Vasharan spellcaster. [10] Vecna rose to conquer the Empire of Vecna before being betrayed by his vampire lieutenant Kas, creating the Hand and Eye of Vecna and ultimately leading to Vecna's ascension to divinity.

Recent history[edit | edit source]

Numerous liches are currently active across the multiverse, although many have not been seen for years or centuries.

Society and culture[edit | edit source]

Relationships and family[edit | edit source]

Liches are isolationists by nature. Most have long outlived and forgotten the people they once knew in life, and now use people only as necessary to achive their secretive goals.

A lich in the early stages of immortality often suffers from crippling nostalgia over the loved ones and life he left behind. To cope, a lich may extract such thoughts from his mind and store them in a memory globe, a magical glass orb created by the lich which shows scenes from their past life.[2]

Organization[edit | edit source]

Most liches are solitary. A lich may join a consistory of around three to six liches in service of a demilich.[11]

Enemies[edit | edit source]

Liches are hunted by the maruts, a class of the planar constructs known as inevitables. Maruts hunt beings who use magic or other means to cheat death, and liches are one of their primary targets.

Liches also draw the attention of the most powerful clerics and paladins of the gods of good.

Allies and minions[edit | edit source]

Liches frequently create constructs and undead with arcane magic, and may enlist the service of fiends and other creatures. Liches are powerful and resourceful, and may have many minions numerous powerful creatures of various types.

Particular creatures used by liches as minions include boneclaws,[12] immoliths,[12] ghouls, stirges,[13] flameskulls, devourers, wraiths,[14] nightmares, [15] bonebats,[16] deathbringers,[17] shadesteel golems,[17] grisgol,[17] rot reavers,[17] snowflake ooze,[17] defacers, bodaks,[18] whisper demons, allips, derro,[19] iron golems,[18] corruptors of fate,[20] blackwings,[21] gulthirs,[22] graveyard sludges,[23] and slithering trackers.[24]

Extremely powerful liches may form temporary alliances with rare and powerful undead such as the winterwight[25] or atropal.[26]

Religion[edit | edit source]

Liches are rarely eager followers of gods. Clerics of non-evil deities will find themselves cast out by their gods for committing the unspeakably evil act of voluntarily becoming a lich, though evil deities welcome undead followers.

Spellcasters seeking the dark secret of lichdom have been known to beseech the power of evil gods, fiends or other evil beings. Such individuals find themselves pressed into the service of those beings as payment. Orcus is particularly supplicated.[1]

The lich Vecna arose to godhood himself, and some powerful undead are known to be followers of him.

Language[edit | edit source]

Liches are highly intelligent and well-read, and typically speak many languages. A long-lived lich is likely to understand ancient and forgotten languages.

Notable liches[edit | edit source]

For a full list of liches, see Category:Liches.

Related creatures[edit | edit source]

Variant liches[edit | edit source]

An ancient lich who abandons their cares the mortal world may become a demilich, typically degrading to a single skull. Occasionally, weak remnants of a destroyed lich may continue to haunt a place, a form known as a lich vestige. A spellcaster who fails their attempt to become a lich may instead become a cursed creature called an arch-shadow.[8]

Rarely, good-aligned or nonevil liches exist. An archlich is one such being, typically of human origin. The good elven baelnorn liches exist to protect elven interests and preserve knowledge.

Creatures other than humanoids are known to pursue forms of lichdom. A true dragon who enters lichdom becomes a dracolich, while a mind flayer lich is known as an alhoon.

Other variants of the lich include the psionic lich, the desert-dwelling dry lich, the clerical banelich of Faerûn, the Suel lich of Greyhawk, and various minor variations. Xaene of Oerth is a two-headed lich.

Publication history[edit | edit source]

Original D&D[edit | edit source]

The lich first appears in Greyhawk (Supplement 1) (1975), where they are high level arcane spellcasters of at least 12th level, and typically 18th:

"These skeletal monsters are of magical origin, each Lich formerly being a very powerful Magic-User or Magic-User/Cleric in life, and now alive only by means of great spells and will because of being in some way disturbed."

In their original edition, they are attributed the abilities of paralyzing touch with no saving throw, and the sight of a lich causes creatures below 5th level to flee in fear. Prior to the introduction of the Good/Evil alignment axis, they are listed as of either Neutral or Chaotic alignment.

AD&D 1st edition[edit | edit source]

The lich returns in the AD&D Monster Manual (1e) (1977), p.61. They cannot be harmed with less than a +1 weapon, and are immune to charm, sleep, enfeeblement, polymorph, cold, electricity, insanity and death spells and effects, as well as any magic by casters or creatures below 6th level or hit dice.

Their paralyzing touch now allows a saving throw and deals cold damage, and their magically enhanced bodies are as hard as a heavily-armored human. They are typically found in their lairs, and are described as appearing skeletal with empty black eyesockets that glow with points of light.

AD&D 2nd edition[edit | edit source]

The lich appears in the AD&D Monstrous Manual (1993), p.222-223, along with the demilich and rare non-evil archlich. They are described as at least 18th level, and possessing a phylactery which stores its life force. It is beyond any mortal sense of good and evil, and ancient liches typically abandon their old name in favor of a menacing pseudonym.

The psionic lich appears in Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume One (1994). The Greyhawk-based Suel lich appears in Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume Two (1995), and the banelich of the Forgotten Realms appears in Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume Three (1996).

D&D 3rd edition[edit | edit source]

The lich appears in the D&D Monster Manual (3.0) (2000) and Monster Manual (3.5) (2003), p.166-168.

They are described as spellcasters, usually aracne but occasionally a cleric, of at least 11th level. They possess versions most of the abilities attributed to them in earlier editions, including immunity to electricity, polymorph and mind-affecting attacks, a fear aura affecting creatures below five hit dice, damage reduction against nonmagical weapons, and a phylactery.

Lich can be applied as a template to an existing character, but no exact rules are provided to allow a player character to pursue lichdom. In 2003, Wizards of the Coast published a web article allowing a character to acquire the lich template one level at a time.[27]

Liches are described as unspeakably evil, although Monsters of Faerûn (2001) presents the rare good lich, a category which includes the human archlich and the elven baelnorn.

Sandstorm (2005), p.155-157 introduced the dry lich.

D&D 4th edition[edit | edit source]

The lich appears in the Monster Manual (4e) (2008), p.177-177, which presents both a 14th level human wizard lich and a 24th level eladrin wizard, both having the elite controller role. It also presents the 26th level lich vestige, a minion creature representing a weak arcane remnant of a destroyed lich. A 14th level ritual is provided to allow characters of to pursue lichdom.

The lich template appears in the Dungeon Master's Guide (4e) (2008), p.179. It can be applied to an intelligent creature of at least 11th level with an Intelligence score of 13 or higher regardless of arcane spellcasting ability, suggesting monsters such as the beholder, oni or mind flayer. The lich template grants regeneration and immunity to poison and disease.

Numerous other liches appear in this edition. Open Grave (2009), p.162-165 includes the eladrin baelnorn, thicket dryad lich, the abberant void lich, the mind flayer alhoon, and the demilich. Monster Vault (2010), p.182-185 includes the lich necromancer, the minion lich remnant, and the more powerful lich soulreaver.

D&D 5th edition[edit | edit source]

The lich appears in the Monster Manual (5e) (2014), p.202-203. The lich presented here is a powerful challenge rating 21 creature with the ability of an 18th-level arcane spellcaster. It retains its traditional cold paralyzing touch, immunity to nonmagical weapons, its frightening gaze which is no longer limited by level, and its phylactery. The Monster Manual also includes the demilich, naming Acererak as one such individual, and the dracolich.

The lich Acererak appears on the cover of the Dungeon Master's Guide (5e) (2014).

Creative origins[edit | edit source]

The word "lich" is an Old English word meaning a corpse, and survives in the term lychgate, meaning a rooved gateway to a churchyard. "Lich" later found use in 20th century fantasy fiction where it referred to a mummified body, and by extension an undead.

According to Playing at the World, D&D's undead lich is thought to have been inspired by a creature appearing in 1969 short story anthology Kothar by Gardner F. Fox, in reference an ancient crypt-dwelling undead magician with the ability to inflict paralysis.[28] In the story The Sword of the Sorcerer, the protagonist meets an undead sorcerer in a tomb:[29]

"The corpse turned its head so that it could look at Kothar out of its empty eye-sockets. The barbarian felt the touch of eyes, even though there were no eyes to see or be seen. He stiffened, his flesh crawled, his long fingers took a firmer grip on his sword-haft.
Even as he stared, the lich sat up."

Fox's Kothar is specifically cited in AD&D's Appendix N as an inspiration of Dungeons & Dragons.

A possible earlier inspiration appears in Clark Ashton Smith's the short story The Abominations of Yondo, originally published in 1926 and reprinted in 1960, referencing a mummy:[1]

"But on its heels ere the sunset faded, there came a second apparition, striding with incredible strides and halting when it loomed almost upon me in the red twilight - the monstrous mummy of some ancient king still crowned with untarnished gold but turning to my gaze a visage that more than time or the worm had wasted. Broken swathings flapped about the skeleton legs, and above the crown that was set with sapphires and orange rubies, a black something swayed and nodded horribly; but, for an instant, I did not dream what it was. Then, in its middle, two oblique and scarlet eyes opened and glowed like hellish coals, and two ophidian fangs glittered in an ape-like mouth. A squat, furless, shapeless head on a neck of disproportionate extent leaned unspeakably down and whispered in the mummy's ear. Then, with one stride, the titanic lich took half the distance between us, and from out the folds of the tattered sere-cloth a gaunt arm arose, and fleshless, taloned fingers laden with glowering gems, reached out and fumbled for my throat..."

In 2004, Gary Gygax admitted he could not recall exactly which works had or had not inspired the creature he created:[2]

"The AD&D lich was inspired by the stories of Robert E. Howard. There was no model for the monster to be found in the works of JRRT. I can't say what other sources I drew from when imagining and creating the lich, for I have read so much recalling odd bits that went into the creation is nigh unto impossible without spending a lot of time going back and checking on authored fiction and folklore sources I have--my collection of books in paperback and hardbound editions numbers many thousands and they are spread from basement to attic nowadays."

Influence[edit | edit source]

The lich in D&D has inspired similar creatures in pop culture, particularly works of fantasy. Examples of characters directly identified as liches include Adventure Time antagonist The Lich, KonoSuba character Wiz, and World of Warcraft's Lich King.

Creatures named "lich" make numerous appearances in the Final Fantasy series of games.

The Harry Potter antagonist Voldemort is sometimes identified by fans as a lich, as a powerful evil spellcaster who achieved immortality by placing his soul inside objects. However, he is not explicitly identified as a lich in the work, and whether the author was directly inspired by the Dungeons & Dragons creature is unclear.

Apocrypha[edit | edit source]

The third-party Kobold Quarterly issue 3 included an article titled Ecology of the Lich, which was reprinted in Kobold Ecologies.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Monster Manual (5e) (2014), p.202-203.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Bazaar of the Bizarre: Lich Magical Items, Dragon #234 (Oct 1996), p.79-82.
  3. Book of Vile Darkness (3e) (2002), p.35-36.
  4. Blueprint for a Lich, Dragon #26 (Jun 1979), p.36.
  5. Monster Manual (4e) (2008), p.177-177.
  6. Monster Manual (3.5) (2003), p.166-168.
  7. Monstrous Compendium Volume One (1989).
  8. 8.0 8.1 Monstrous Compendium Volume Two (1989), p.10-11.
  9. Monster Manual V (2007), p.155.
  10. Book of Vile Darkness (3e) (2002), p.14.
  11. Epic Level Handbook (2002), p.177.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Monster Manual (4e) (2008), p.37.
  13. Monster Manual (4e) (2008), p.119.
  14. Monster Manual (4e) (2008), p.177.
  15. Monster Manual (5e) (2014), p.235.
  16. Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume Three (1996), p.11.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Monster Manual II[Unknown book], p.55. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "" defined multiple times with different content
  18. 18.0 18.1 Monster Manual IV (2006), p.38.
  19. Monster Manual IV (2006), p.46.
  20. Monster Manual IV (2006), p.191.
  21. Monster Manual V (2007), p.12.
  22. Monster Manual V (2007), p.33.
  23. Monster Manual V (2007), p.73.
  24. Volo's Guide to Monsters (2016), p.191.
  25. Epic Level Handbook (2002), p.227.
  26. Monster Manual (4e) (2008), p.10.
  27. Savage Progressions: Lich and Weretiger Template Classes
  28. Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sword of the Sorcerer
  29. The First Kothar the Barbarian Megapack, p.28
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