Content of the article: "Lichdom is for everybody! (yeah, even the silly bard…)"
I read a question on this very forum a while ago. I can't for the life of me find it, but it went something like this:
"Can anyone become a lich?"
That question got me thinking. And reading. And reading some more. And then writing, and coming up with intricate rituals, lich feats, new liches and magic items for liches, and before I knew it, I had written a whole damned book about liches.
The book, Larloch's Lexicon of Lichdom, was published on the DMs Guild today. But more about that at the bottom. This post isn't meant to be (just) an ad – I actually want to give my answer to that question. And if the title of this post wasn't hint enough, I can give you another one: there'll be a statblock for a Lich Bard somewhere below.
What is a lich?
Before we can figure out WHO can become a lich, we need to first understand WHAT a lich is.
The broadest and most base definition of a lich can be summarized in a single sentence: a powerful spellcaster who willingly embraces undeath to preserve themselves beyond the confines of their mortal vessels.
The lich is not a common zombie or skeleton who has been raised from the grave by some fell happenstance so it can wander around aimlessly, eating brains or being bashed to bits by brave adventurers. No, the lich’s existence is much more deliberate and sinister than that.
In the decades since the lich was given its first statistics, the lich has been described in many different ways and has had many different traits and abilities. There are some core features, however, that have remained mostly constant throughout, giving us the following basic concept of what a lich is:
- The lich is a powerful spellcaster that has willingly become undeath through powerful necromancy.
- The lich retains all the memories, personality traits, and abilities it possessed in life.
- The lich’s soul is bound to a phylactery, an object that also allows the lich to reform anew when destroyed.
A Wizard’s Racket?
Some sources – including the fifth edition Monster Manual – seems to maintain that all liches are wizards, but this hasn’t always been the case. In fourth edition, lichdom was available to all arcane spellcasters, while any spellcaster could become a lich in third edition. Even when the lich was first presented way back in the days of Gary Gygax – D&D’s creator – the norm was that while most liches were wizards, clerics could attain lichdom too.
Because the subject is contentious, and because it allows us to create more cool liches, this tome follows the traditional school of thought: while wizard liches are by far the most prevalent, any spellcaster can become a lich, as long as they are powerful enough.
To Be, or Not to Be, Evil
Whether or not liches have to be evil is another contentious point.
In the fifth edition Monster Manual, the lich’s default alignment is evil, and in the few places we find mention of the requirements for becoming a lich in fifth edition, an evil alignment is one of them.
In earlier editions, however, an evil alignment hasn’t been a consistent requirement for lichdom, and there are plenty of examples of good-aligned liches (called ‘archliches’ or, in the case of elves, ‘baelnorns’). Even in fifth edition itself, there seems to be exceptions to the rule that a lich must be evil: the lich Renwick Caradoon in the official campaign Princes of the Apocalypse doesn’t appear to be evil neither before or after attaining lichdom. Thus, it appears that there’s at least some flexibility to this rule.
Becoming a lich has traditionally also required the sacrifice of a sentient creature, which one could argue means a lich would have to be evil to even become one. This point is emphasized in fifth edition, where it is stated that “a lich must periodically feed souls to its phylactery to sustain the magic preserving its body and consciousness” (something we explore quite a bit further in the book).
However, because these soul sacrifices can be made from either willing or evil creatures, the lich has some moral wiggle room. A non-evil lich might be the head of an ancient household, who’s great-great-grandchildren willingly sacrifice themselves upon their deathbed to prolong the life of the house’s undead matron. Or, a good-aligned lich might tour the multiverse looking for evil creatures and foul beasts to slay so that it can rid the world of evil while also feeding its phylactery.
How Do You Become a Lich?
Alright, let's say you buy my reasons why any spellcaster – even non-evil non-wizards – can become a lich. How do they do it, then?
Just like there has been many different interpretations of what a lich is, there has also been many different takes on how one goes about becoming a lich.
In fifth edition
In the fifth edition Monster Manual, the path to lichdom is described as follows:
A lich is created by an arcane ritual that traps the wizard’s soul within a phylactery. Doing so binds the soul to the mortal world, preventing it from traveling to the Outer Planes after death. <…> With its phylactery prepared, the future lich drinks a potion of transformation — a vile concoction of poison mixed with the blood of a sentient creature whose soul is sacrificed to the phylactery. The wizard falls dead, then rises as a lich as its soul is drawn into the phylactery, where it forever remains.
The specifics of the arcane ritual required to create a phylactery, or the exact recipe for the potion of transformation that will kill the lich, aren’t described here. The Monster Manual only mentions “the process of becoming a lich is a well-guarded secret” and that those who “seek lichdom must make bargains with fiends, evil gods, or other foul entities”.
We find another mention of this ritual of lichdom in the description of the Book of Vile Darkness, an artifact found in fifth edition’s Dungeon Master’s Guide. Here it is mentioned that the book may contain a ritual that allows a character to become a lich but doesn’t say anything about the specifics of this ritual.
The best description of the process of becoming a lich is found in the official campaign book Curse of Strahd. In the Amber Temple’s vault, an evil humanoid creature with the ability to cast 9th-level wizard spells can learn how to craft a phylactery and concoct the potion of transformation. Again, the specifics of the process are left out, but we learn that crafting a phylactery takes 10 days and concocting the potion takes 3 days – and that the two items can’t be crafted concurrently.
In Earlier editions
In the fourth edition ‘Monster Manual’, the transformation to a lich can only be done with the god Orcus’ blessing and requires that 10 days be spent crafting a phylactery before the subject kills itself during a 1-hour-ritual. Total cost? 100,000 gp!
In the third edition ‘Monster Manual’, the process of becoming a lich is centered about the creation of the phylactery, and states that only an 11th-level spellcaster can create a phylactery – and that the cost is 120,000 gp.
If we go all the way back to second edition, the ‘Monstrous Manual’ is a bit more specific. The phylactery costs 1,500 gp per level of the spellcaster and requires that the spells enchant an item, magic jar, permanency and reincarnation are cast during the crafting process. Here we also find a description of the potion of transformation, which requires the subject to cast the spells wraithform, permanency, cone of cold, feign death and animate dead. The potion must then be ingested at the next full moon, upon which the wizard dies and becomes a lich – assuming that the phylactery is ready and the ritual doesn’t somehow go awry.
Going even further back, we find the article ‘Blueprint for a Lich’ in ‘Dragon Magazine issue 26’ from 1979. Here the spell requirements are magic jar, trap the soul and enchant an item. The process of crafting a phylactery is taxing, costing the subject a character level and up to a week of rest after completion – but the phylactery itself needs only have a value of at least 2,000 gp. In addition, we also get a full recipe for the potion of transformation, which includes various poisons, blood from innocent creatures and vampires, a virgin’s heart and – for some reason – the reproductive glands of giant moths. The potion must be mixed under the light of a full moon.
If we combine the descriptions from earlier editions with the little information given to us in fifth edition, we can piece together a path to lichdom that has been fairly consistent throughout the decades:
- Learn the secret to becoming a lich.
- Craft a phylactery, which takes 10 days and requires powerful spellcasting and costs 2,000–120,000 gp.
- Brew a potion of transformation, which takes 3 days and contains vile poison and blood from a sentient creature sacrificed to fuel the ritual.
- Ingest the potion under the light of a full moon, upon which the subject dies and returns to life as a lich.
So Where's the Lich Bard?
Alright, alright, I get it, you want to see a Lich Bard. I did too – so here's what we came up with.
As an arcane spellcaster, the bard has some similarities to the wizard, but will often feel quite different. Viewed as stereotypes, wizards are generally more studious, solitary and socially awkward researchers who seek knowledge that will unlock their arcane potential, while bards are outgoing socialites who strive for more stories to tell and songs to sing. If we play along with the above stereotypes – which you certainly don’t have to – a bard may become a lich to have more time to perfect its performances, or because it loves life too much to let go.
The bard may have attained lichdom only to discover that it can no longer produce the breath needed to play flute, that its skeletal fingers are ill-suited to create beautiful tunes on the lute, and that it no longer finds joy in drinking, feasting and other worldly pleasures. Perhaps this causes the bard to become envious and resentful of the living and it now dedicates its immortality to rob other people of the pleasures it can no longer indulge in.
The lich bard could also be a lover of music and stories, who collects art – and even artists – without regard for those it hurts along the way. The characters may be hired to investigate the disappearance of prominent musicians, knowledgeable sages, or the theft of various magic instruments, which the lich bard has taken to its lair.
Got Any More Cool Stuff Like That?
Yup – it's all in the book. Yeah, I told you I would get back to that damned book eventually. Don't worry, I hate ads as much as you do, so I'll make it quick. Larloch's Lexicon of Lichdom is our love-letter to the magnificent lich that contains:
- Lich Lore. Everything the DM needs to know to run a memorable lich villain in their game!
- Become a Lich. Advice, rules and Lich Feats that will allow player characters to become liches.
- 14 New Liches. Challenge the party with lesser liches, non-wizard liches and some of Faerûn's most legendary liches!
- 9 New Magic Items. Inspire your game with 9 new powerful magic items for liches and would-be-lich-killers.
Apparently there's a sale on the DM's Guild today, so instead of the already very reasonably price of $4.95 (of course, we would say that, wouldn't we…) you can get Larloch's Lexicon of Lichdom right now for just $3.71. That's less than 10 cents per page. Oh yeah, and if we sell a lot of copies, the product will be updated with fully furnished and evocatively described lich lairs!
Anyway, that's all for me. Remember – live, lich, remain.
J. A. Valeur
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