The lich (rhymes with “itch,” not “ick” or German ich) stands out not only as the alpha undead creature going all the way back to the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but also as the only type of undead creature that’s undead because it wanted to be. It’s what you get when a wizard decides he or she wants to be immortal, reads the fine print on the contract, and says, “Yeah, I’m down with that.” To become a lich to begin with, a wizard must necessarily be monomaniacal, as well as malicious, sadistic and/or vengeful, and the transformation of undeath intensifies these traits. A wizard who becomes a lich must also necessarily be a genius and a world-class spellcaster, and the lich retains these traits as well.
Although it’s only as strong as an average humanoid, all of a lich’s other ability scores are exceptional, most of all its Intelligence. It gets sizable bonuses to Constitution, Intelligence and Wisdom saving throws (notice that two of the “big three” are in that bunch); resists cold, lightning and necrotic damage; and is immune to poison damage and to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It can’t be charmed, frightened, paralyzed or poisoned, and it never suffers from exhaustion. It has truesight—the ability to see in darkness, into the ether, and through illusions, transmutations and invisibility—out to a range of 120 feet, along with a passive Perception of 19. And it’s proficient in both Perception and Insight, so not only does it notice you’re there, it knows what you want.
A lich receives additional, powerful lair actions when it’s encountered in its lair. Why, then, would it ever leave? Good question. It won’t, if it can help it. No lich will ever leave its lair unless it must, in order to do something that it can’t get an agent to do for it. Follow-up question: Who on earth would sign up to be an agent of a lich? Well, who on earth would sign up to be an agent of Adolf Hitler? The answer is, someone of like mind—in the case of a lich, another evil wizard hoping to gain access to its voluminous reservoir of arcane knowledge. Or someone who considers the lich’s long-term goals to be aligned with his or her own. Or someone who fears the lich’s power and hopes that he or she can earn privileged treatment by showing sufficient loyalty and obedience. (Spoiler: Not likely.) Or, barring all that, someone whom the lich has magically dominated. Agents of a lich must be powerful enough for it to consider them useful, and they’ll generally be ambitious enough for service to a lich to seem like a reasonable arrangement.
Aside from its spells, what powerful features does a lich possess?
- Legendary Resistance, which lets it reroll a failed saving throw. Like a vampire, a lich fails saving throws so rarely that it will invoke Legendary Resistance anytime this happens, without worrying about conserving its three daily uses.
- Turn Resistance, which gives it advantage on its Wisdom saving throws against the Turn Undead feature . . . which it has +9 on to begin with. “‘Begone, unholy abomination’? Oh, that’s so cute.”
- Rejuvenation, which means that “destroying” it is only a temporary setback unless its phylactery (read: horcrux) is also destroyed.
- Legendary actions that include Frightening Gaze, Disrupt Life, an additional use of its basic Paralyzing Touch attack and lobbing a cantrip (probably ray of frost, since its other two cantrips lack direct combat applications).
- Lair actions that include summoning a spirit to inflict a whopping 15d6 of necrotic damage; “grounding” itself to a PC, so that the PC takes half the damage that the lich would have taken; and regenerating a spell slot.
What we have here is a picture of a creature that has no reason to fear anyone or anything. No reason that it knows of, anyway.
Does a lich think you may become a threat someday? Then it will destroy you before you get that strong.
Does a lich have a use for you? Then it will use you, up until you’re no longer useful. Also, you may be more useful dead. Or undead.
Does a lich have no use for you? Then it will kill you without a second thought, if killing you advances its goals in some way. Otherwise, you’re not relevant to its interests.
Does a lich like you? No. A lich doesn’t like anybody.
OK, spells. For such a powerful spellcaster, the lich has an odd dearth of spell slots at 6th level and above—just one of each level between 6th and 9th. It won’t be using any of these slots to boost lower-level spells. It needs to reserve them for spells of those levels.
- Power word kill is the lich’s nuclear option. It gets to cast it only once. How does it choose a target? Fun fact: This spell automatically affects any target with 100 hp or fewer—and automatically fails otherwise. At the levels where PCs will feel confident taking on a lich, who’s still going to have 100 hp or fewer? Squishy spellcasters, that’s who, at least until the battle has been going on for a while. And whom will a lich see as its most credible rivals? Other spellcasters, especially other wizards. So the top priority target for this spell is the highest-level wizard in the party, followed by the highest-level warlock or draconic sorcerer, then the either the highest-level cleric or druid or the second-highest-level wizard or warlock, whichever seems at that point to pose the greatest threat while still having 100 hp or fewer. Why not a wild magic sorcerer? Because to a lich, a wild magic sorcerer isn’t a “real” mage, just a punk! It has nothing but disdain for wild magic sorcerers and refuses to consider them worthy of killing with a single word. Only if it has wiped out the “real” spellcasters in the party already, or there weren’t any to start with, will a lich consider casting power word kill on a PC who’s a non-spellcaster, a half-caster or a wild magic sorcerer.
- Dominate monster affects any visible creature within range, not just any “monster.” Since there’s unlikely to be any monster in a lich’s lair that it doesn’t already control, it will cast this spell on a PC that it considers—well, let’s not put too fine a point on it, a “nobody.” But a strong nobody, with average or below-average Wisdom, so that he or she is more susceptible to domination, as well as capable enough to be useful to the lich. Rival wizards are for killing; attacking fighters are for dominating and turning against their own companions. (Liches are intelligent enough to know that a raging berserker barbarian can’t be charmed; they won’t make the mistake of trying.)
- Power word stun is a temporary measure that affects any target with 150 hp or fewer and automatically fails otherwise, and it requires a Constitution saving throw to resist, so it’s not going to be much good against a high-level melee fighter. If there’s a glass cannon in the PCs’ party, he or she is the prime target of this spell.
- Finger of death is another potential glass cannon smasher, but it’s also useful against tougher targets that have taken a lot of damage, because it inflicts an average 30 hp of damage even on a successful saving throw. (Against a failed save, it does an average 61 hp of damage.) Plus, if a character is killed outright by this spell—meaning the overspill damage, beyond what’s necessary to reduce a character to 0 hp, must equal or exceed that character’s maximum hit points—his or her corpse is raised as a zombie, adding insult to catastrophic injury. Probably, then, the lich will wait to use this spell until it can finish someone off with it.
- Plane shift is an unnecessary escape hatch, since the lich also has the lower-level dimension door and more 4th-level spell slots than 7th-level. More likely, if a lich uses this spell, it will be to banish an enemy to another plane. It requires a Charisma saving throw, and we all know how often Charisma is chosen as a dump stat . . .
- Disintegrate delivers an average 75 hp of direct damage on a failed saving throw—but nothing on a successful save. Consequently, a lich won’t waste this spell on a PC who’s likely to make his or her Dexterity save. Instead, it will reserve this spell for obviously clumsy targets or inanimate obstacles, or to knock down magically generated force fields.
- Globe of invulnerability is the lich’s way of showing weaker spellcasters how pathetic they are. It requires concentration to sustain, making it incompatible with the lich’s other sustained spells, cloudkill and scrying. Consequently, it will use this spell situationally, not as a default defense.
- Cloudkill is a sustained spell, requiring concentration, that lobs a rolling cloud of poisonous gas, 40 feet in diameter, that does an average of 22 hp of poison damage to creatures that fail their Constitution saving throws and half that to those that succeed. It can cast it up to three times, but it’s also incompatible with globe of invulnerability.
- Scrying is a funny one. It seems at first not to be combat-relevant, until you realize that it can be used to shoot spells around corners. It does require concentration, making it incompatible with globe of invulnerability.
- Blight does an average of 36 hp of direct necrotic damage to creatures that fail their Con saves, half that on a success. But it’s strictly short-range, good only within 30 feet of the caster. Is it better than the lich’s Paralyzing Touch attack, which gets +12 to hit, does an average 10 hp of cold damage on a hit and has a strong chance of paralyzing the target for one or more rounds? I think it is, considering that paralysis is also subject to a Con save.
- Dimension door is the lich’s escape hatch, in case invisibility doesn’t do the trick. It will always keep one 4th-level spell slot in reserve for this spell. Sure, it can survive being reduced to 0 hp, but it’s such an inconvenience.
- Animate dead is only good if you’re standing right over a corpse. Meh. Of course, if you’ve just created one . . .
- Counterspell is one of three spells competing hard for the use of the lich’s three 3rd-level spell slots. If the lich is sustaining a globe of invulnerability, counterspell is redundant—low-level spells can’t get through the globe But if not, counterspell is necessary to slap them away.
- Dispel magic is another competitor for those 3rd-level slots. If the PCs are buffed by a continuous spell of 3rd level or lower, shut it down. Even with a +5 Intelligence modifier, the lich’s chances of dispelling a 4th-level or higher spell aren’t that great—around 50/50—and the lich will hesitate to spend a slot on a spell without at least a two-thirds chance of success. But the higher-level spell slots to boost this spell just aren’t plentiful enough.
- Fireball—there’s the Dex-save direct damage we were waiting for! Combine a few PCs incapacitated by Paralyzing Touch with a power word stun, then drop a fireball on the lot, and presto—adventurer barbecue. The lich has no better attack combo than this. Is it worth it to boost the fireball by spending a 4th- or 5th-level spell slot to cast it? In my opinion, not really: each extra spell level adds only 2 or 3 hp of expected damage per target caught in the blast, and each higher-level spell slot spent is one less chance to cast cloudkill, scrying or blight. But it depends on the party makeup. Fireball works better against a high-Con, low-Dex party. Against a low-Con, high-Dex party, cloudkill and blight are more effective. If the party is balanced, the lich will err toward taking out the “real” threats: the spellcasters.
- Detect thoughts has no combat application.
- Invisibility is the kind of spell the lich needs to cast only when things have already gone unfathomably wrong. It will consider casting this spell only when it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 54 hp or fewer) and isn’t ready to give up the fight entirely yet. (If it thinks it really does need to bug out—most likely because the PCs are able to detect invisible beings—it casts dimension door.) Nevertheless, it keeps a 2nd-level spell slot reserved for it, just in case.
- Melf’s acid arrow is a lame spell, and it’s out of character for the lich to have it prepared.
- Mirror image, as far as the lich is concerned, is a cheap parlor trick. But if the party manages to inflict at least moderate damage (41 hp or more) on it in a single round, it will get over its prejudice right quick.
- Detect magic—seriously?
- Magic missile—If a lich is reduced to casting magic missile, this battle has already gone on as hilariously long as the brawl between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live. No reason at all to cast at a higher level.
- Shield, on the other hand, is as automatic for a wizard as yanking your foot back when you drop a pair of scissors. It will cast this as a reaction whenever an attacker rolls between 17 and 21 (modified) to hit or casts magic missile.
- Thunderwave I can imagine casting at some absurdly high level—say, 4th or 5th—to deter melee attackers from getting close. But let’s get real: It requires a Constitution saving throw to resist. Obviously, melee attackers are going to have high Cons. Even at 4th or 5th level, thunderwave isn’t going to impress anybody—not with expected damage of 14 to 18 hp. Compare this to the lich’s Disrupt Life legendary action, which does about the same amount of necrotic damage to everyone within 20 feet, and it’s comical that this spell was included in the lich’s list at all.
- Mage hand and prestidigitation—only if the lich is so utterly unimpressed by the PCs that it wants to waste an action on tapping their shoulders to say, “Hey, look behind you!”
- Ray of frost, on the other hand, is a realio-trulio combat spell when projected by an 18th-level spellcaster, doing 4d8 cold damage and reducing its movement speed by 10 feet. For a cantrip that doesn’t expend a single spell slot, that’s a heck of a deal.
Notice something missing here? Bonus actions. A lich gets legendary actions, and it can cast shield or counterspell as a reaction, but on its own turn, it only ever gets to do one thing, and that one thing can be Paralyzing Touch, or it can be casting a spell. If it wants to do both, it has to cast the spell on its turn, then spend two legendary actions on the Paralyzing Touch. If a lich has any weakness, here it is: It’s slow, and it has almost too many options considering how few opportunities it gets to act.
Actually, a lich has one other weakness, and that’s its arrogance. When the PCs first encounter it, unless things have already happened along the way to prove to the lich that they’re a force to be reckoned with, it won’t believe at first that they pose any threat to it, so it won’t break out immediately with its 6th- through 9th-level spells (each of which, remember, it only gets one use of).
So what’s the first thing a lich does when combat breaks out? That depends on how many PCs it’s facing and where they are, but a likely opening play is to cast cloudkill. The cloud of gas is 40 feet in diameter, and the lich itself is immune to poison damage, so it casts this spell at ground zero, thereby maximizing the amount of time the PCs—in particularly, any PCs who might try to engage the lich in melee—have to spend in it. How the PCs react to this spell will tell the lich certain things about what they’re capable of. Are certain PCs obviously less affected by the spell than others? They’re probably ones not to target with future Con-based spells. Is there a spellcaster who counters cloudkill with counterspell, dispel magic or gust of wind? That one’s clever and should probably be eliminated quickly.
This assumes that the lich gets to act before any of the PCs does. If a PC goes first, the lich will answer a ranged weapon attack from 60 feet away or closer with a ray of frost cantrip (one legendary action) and a melee attack with a Frightening Gaze (two legendary actions), since anyone attacking a lich in melee is likely to have more Constitution than Wisdom. A second melee attack will leave the lich without enough legendary actions to use Frightening Gaze again, so it will wait until its turn to strike back, by casting blight. A third melee attack means stronger measures than blight are called for, so the lich will cast cloudkill on its turn, followed by the Disrupt Life legendary action at the end of the next PC’s turn if it still has three or more melee attackers surrounding it, or four or more of any kind of foe within 20 feet.
Its actions on subsequent rounds will depend in part on the opposition it faces. Specifically, how does it decide which spell to spend its 6th-, 7th- or 8th-level slot on?
- Who’s causing the lich more trouble, a high-Wisdom, low-Constitution spellcaster or a low-Wisdom, high-Constitution brute? If the former, take it out with power word stun. If the latter, take control of it with dominate monster. (When in doubt, lean toward dominate monster—then send the brute after the spellcaster.)
- Who’s causing the lich more trouble, a high–hit point, low-Charisma fighter, barbarian or ranger, or a low-Constitution, high-damage character who’s already taken a hit or two? If the former, use plane shift to banish him or her to Thanatos (or, if the lich has a wicked sense of humor, to whatever plane represents the polar opposite of the PC’s alignment—see page 58 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide). If the latter, finger of death should erase that problem. (When in doubt, lean toward finger of death. The only answer to a glass cannon is to smash it.)
- Which is causing the lich more trouble, a group of persistent casters plinking it with low-level spells, a barrier of magical force, or a slow, ungainly brute? If the first, and cloudkill has already run its course, toss up a globe of invulnerability. If one of the latter two, zot that nuisance with disintegrate. (When in doubt, lean toward globe of invulnerability, since its effect can be sustained.)
If none of these things poses a particular problem to the lich at the moment, it uses its action to cast a suitable lower-level spell. Fireball is the go-to if two or more of the lich’s opponents are already paralyzed, especially if can catch at least four PCs total in the blast; blight against a high-priority target that’s less than 30 feet away but not within melee reach; dispel magic to remove low-level buffs from the PCs; mirror image if the PCs hit for at least moderate damage (41 hp or more) in any given round.
And if none of these situations applies? Then the lich goes after the target it considers the biggest threat—that is, the PC with the highest Intelligence, reduced by −2 for half-casters and −4 for non-spellcasters (and wild magic sorcerers). If it’s already engaged in melee with this target PC, it Attacks (action) with Paralyzing Touch. If it’s not engaged in melee with its priority target but is engaged in melee with other PCs, it Disengages (action) and moves up to its full movement speed toward its priority target, closing to melee reach if it can. If it’s not engaged in melee at all, it moves up to its full movement speed toward that target, then Attacks (action) with Paralyzing Touch if it can reach its target; if it can’t, but it’s within 30 feet, it casts blight; and it it’s between 30 and 60 feet away, it casts ray of frost. If it doesn’t have to Disengage, and the target is more than 30 feet away, it uses its action to Dash. The lich is willing to forgo attacking on its own turn because its legendary actions will allow it to attack on others’ turns.
As for the legendary actions, as previously mentioned, it uses the Disrupt Life legendary action at the first opportunity if it has three or more melee attackers surrounding it, or four or more of any kind of foe within 20 feet. If not, but a low-Wisdom PC ends his or her turn within 10 feet of the lich, it uses Frightening Gaze against him or her (if hasn’t already failed against that PC previously). If neither of those things happens, but a PC ends his or her turn within melee reach of the lich, it uses Paralyzing Touch against him or her. And if none of those things happens, and the number of PCs with turns left is equal to or less than the number of legendary actions the lich can still take, it casts the ray of frost cantrip at a target of opportunity.
Finally, there are its lair actions: each round, it gets to choose one to use on initiative count 20, never using the same one two rounds in a row. It uses the “roll a d8, regain a spell slot” lair action after each spell of 6th, 7th or 8th level it casts. Otherwise, it alternates between the other two actions, using them against whichever enemy it considers its top priority, favoring the “grounding tether” lair action if it’s within melee reach of any PC and the “necrotic apparitions” lair action if it’s not.
The lich always keeps one 2nd-level spell slot and one 4th-level spell slot in reserve: the former for invisibility, if it’s reduced to 54 hp or fewer and considering retreat, and the latter for dimension door, in case invisibility isn’t enough.
Every encounter with a lich on its own terms should be frustrating and unsatisfying and end with the lich’s escape. You want to destroy a lich? Forget about fighting it and go after its phylactery instead. When the PCs get near it, the lich will show up and unleash every power it has in order to defend it. Then, if the PCs are equal to the task, they’ll have it over a barrel: it can’t flee knowing if it does, there will be nothing to stop them from destroying its phylactery. It will have to fight until it’s destroyed, and with the destruction of the phylactery, it will finally be no more.