Undead Tactics: Demiliches

A couple of months ago, a reader noted that I’d analyzed liches but not “their degraded selves,” demiliches. I have to confess, I’ve been putting it off, because analyzing liches was a lot of work. Fortunately, demiliches don’t have such a large repertoire of spells to analyze, so that reduces the complexity.

Demiliches have the same compulsion—the will to power and immortality—as liches, but unless they’ve shed their bodies willingly, there’s an additional element to their character: frustration. They’ve forgotten to feed their phylacteries, or they’ve been prevented somehow from doing so. As a result, the immortality they worked so hard to attain has cheapened. They’ve lost their sense of purpose and their ability to cast spells. They may even have forgotten that they can regain their physicality by feeding new souls to their phylacteries. If reminded of this fact, they’ll forget every other concern and fixate on restoring themselves to lichdom. (Strangely, neither the demilich’s stat block nor its flavor text explains how a soul is fed to its phylactery. Seems like kind of an important omission.) As long as this memory is lost to them, however, they’ll act with malice, tinged with the occasional random miscalculation that stress produces.

Aside from the lack of spellcasting, a demilich differs from a lich in the following ways:

  • Lacking a body, it has no Strength and reduced Constitution. Weirdly, its Wisdom and Charisma are higher. I guess the experience of failure does teach us things, and there is something mesmerizing about a floating skull that one still attached to a withered body lacks.
  • It has proficiency in Charisma saving throws, making it harder to banish.
  • Although it now possesses the normal susceptibility to cold and lightning damage, it’s now immune to necrotic and psychic damage, and it resists physical damage even from magical weapons.
  • In addition to the lich’s condition immunities, it can’t be deafened, petrified, knocked prone or stunned.
  • It no longer has proficiency in any skills, and its passive Perception is correspondingly lower.
  • Its Turn Resistance is turned up to Turn Immunity, and the Avoidance feature lets it dodge some or all damage from effects that require saving throws.
  • Since it can’t touch anything any longer, its Paralyzing Touch is replaced by a terrifying, potentially heart-stopping Howl and a hit point–hoovering Life Drain. Like Paralyzing Touch, both of these features target Constitution.
  • Its legendary and lair actions are completely different.

Although it’s missing from the stat block, a demilich does possess the lich’s Rejuvenation feature, except that its skull re-forms minus a body (this is specified in the flavor text, in the paragraph titled “Enduring Existence”).

The upshot of these changes, behaviorally? Well, the main takeaway is that demiliches are even more fearless than liches. Although their raw damage output may be lower thanks to their lack of spellcasting, they’re so impervious to so many ways in which one might try to harm them that any attempt to do so is nothing more than a nuisance. But a demilich, which has a hard enough time just unliving with itself, rids itself of nuisances by annihilating them. The name of the game is overreaction. Thus, no matter what the provocation, a demilich will react with the most extreme and violent means available to it.

OK, time to get specific.

Legendary Resistance is the “Get Out of Saving Throw Free” card. But since the demilich is proficient in four out of six saving throws, and two out of the “big three,” it’ll use this specifically to undo failed Dexterity saves—every time. (It could use them to undo Strength saves, but why bother? Failed Strength saves rarely do anything other than move you from one place to another.)

Howl is on recharge, so we can conclude that this action is always the demilich’s first choice. Since it affects targets within a 30-foot radius, it will always precede this action by moving to a point where as many of its foes as possible fall within this circle. If it has to choose between two or more points, the tiebreaker is whichever point includes the opponent(s) who can bypass its resistances and immunities—i.e., those that can do acid, cold, force, lightning, radiant and/or thunder damage. Usually, this means spellcasters. Remember, despite its madness, the demilich is still a supra-genius. Its primary consideration is identifying the worst things its opponents can do to it, then preempting them.

Life Drain is what the Demilich does when it can’t howl. First, it uses its movement to bring itself within 10 feet of three enemies if possible, two if it can’t reach three, and one if it can’t reach two, using the same target selection criteria as it does for Howl. Then it lets loose with the life-leeching.

After the first Life Drain attempt, if the demilich has realized it should be trying to get its phylactery back on line, at least one of its targets will always be someone that it’s successfully Life Drained already—but if it didn’t successfully Life Drain anyone on its first attempt, it will move on to an entirely new set of targets, hoping for better results. Once an opponent is reduced to 0 hp by Life Drain, let’s say that using Life Drain on it one more time absorbs the opponent’s soul, and from there the demilich speeds off in the direction of its phylactery to make a deposit. (If the demilich doesn’t recall that feeding its phylactery can restore its corporeal form, it continues with the default target selection criteria.)

Legendary actions take place on other creatures’ turns, and the demilich gets three between each of its turns. The demilich uses Flight either to get out of range of an enemy who does one or more of the damage types listed above or to speed its departure toward its phylactery. Cloud of Dust blinds all creatures within a 10-foot radius; there’s no reason ever to use this on just a single target. Energy Drain costs two actions and has a 30-foot radius, so as with Howl, the demilich wants to be in range of as many opponents as possible—at least six, or if it’s facing fewer than six opponents, all of them. Otherwise, the cost isn’t worth it.

Vile Curse is a tricky one, because the curse imposes disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws. This means it’s of no use against opponents who attack using spells or other effects that require saving throws, i.e., most spellcasters. It costs three actions, which is huge, so the demilich has to be absolutely positive that it’s choosing the right target. It uses Vile Curse only to shut down an enemy who (a) relies mostly or exclusively on weapon or spell attacks that (b) do acid, cold, force, lightning, radiant or thunder damage, and who (c) is the only one of the demilich’s enemies who poses any real threat to it.

Then again, the demilich is insane with anger and frustration, so maybe, just maybe, it uses Vile Curse as a reflex action against an enemy who hits it with a weapon or spell attack that does one of those types of damage, wasting its other legendary actions on an act of reckless, irrational fury. You can’t rule these things out.

Demiliches are unusual among legendary monsters in that they get to use their lair actions only half the time, on average. They’re subject to the common restraint of being unable to use the same lair action two rounds in a row. The antimagic field is the most broadly useful of the three, completely shutting down a key enemy spellcaster for a full round. The healing suppression option is a good second choice if the demilich’s opponents include a cleric, druid, paladin or bard. The trembling ground is only good for messing up front-line melee fighters and skirmishers who rely on direct engagement.

At this point in its unlife, a demilich is beyond fleeing. If you don’t destroy its phylactery, it’s just going to come back anyway. And if you do have the power to destroy both its phylactery and its floating bony head, it may as well let you, because what’s left? You’re still going to have to work for it, though.

Next: Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes hits the streets Friday. Let’s see what it has to offer!

6 thoughts on “Undead Tactics: Demiliches

  1. A demilich has a way to regain its soul as shown in the sidebar disiples of acererak. Those Demiliches whom are Disiples of Acererak are CR 21 outside their lair and CR 23 inside their Lair and have Gems for Eyes. These have the ability to cause a target to make a DC 19 Charisma Save. On a Fail they are sucked into the Gem and on a successful save they take 7D6 necrotic damage and if that reduces a creature to zero curses them into the gem. Their souls are devoured 24 hours later unless the Demilich is destroyed. Also becoming a Disciple of Acererak is a choice Liches can make so that might affect their behavior.

    Also you seem to have missed one of the major combos the demilich has at its disposal. What happens when you hit zero hit points. When the demilich uses the howl feature and reduces its enemies to zero hit poitns it can then use energy drain to make them have a constitution saving throw. If energy drain reduces a creature to zero hit points they die. So the Demilich can preform a two hit party kill. It could also use its lair action if available to prevent a creature healing and to any creature at zero that means they are out of the fight and can’t be brought up by the party no matter what. Also if the Demilich is a Disiple of Acererak then targeting a creature at Zero hit points automatically absorbs the creature. Also the Affect of the Demiliches howl means that even if a creature succeeds they are frightened and if the demilich moves in the centre of the group then howls then no PC is going to be able to move closer to feed a party member a healing potion. The Demilich should also use cloud of blindness on as many spell casters as possible using a legendary action to move closer if they are out of range. This is because so many spells such as disintegrate and healing word require sight to be used. If the PC wizard can’t see they can’t hit you and if the Cleric can’t see they can’t heal their friends. Also Do not understate the value of the healing of drain life. If you get close to zero heal. Target the people on the ground if you have to. Even if you don’t get to prevent healing forcing everyone to take a death save is nasty pressure especially since the people who failed the first con save are more likely to fail the second con save. Demiliches may have low health but they are fast and they are above all … Deadly.

    1. I took the eye gems thing as being specific to Acererak and not necessarily applying to demiliches in general. Also, to kill a creature, Energy Drain must reduce its hit point maximum to 0, not just its hit points. Howl reduces targets’ hit points, but it doesn’t reduce their hit point maximum; only Energy Drain does that.

      And yes, Cloud of Dust is useful for blinding spellcasters, but the point I’m making is that because of its area of effect, it’s not worth using on just one spellcaster—the demilich should make sure to use it against at least two.

      1. The sidebar says Acererak and his disciples. It could apply to others, or not (DM discretion).

  2. Long time reader. I love these as a new DM I can come and look at not only what they can do but how the act. Keep it up. It’s a wealth of knowledge.

  3. I always imagined that liches use Imprisonment to lock souls into their phylactery where they get “digested” over time to prolong a liche’s life.
    Demiliches who have basically lost their ability to cast spells, need to find a roundabout way to do so, I thought. Hire/entice another spellcaster capable of casting Imprisonment, locate an artifact (maybe it is easier to transfer a soul that has been stored in a different container?), set up some type of ritual trap using ambient magic anomalies, break into some afterlife-plane using a natural portal, etc.

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