Liches are common threats found in many types of RPG games. Unfortunately, it’s far too easy for the GM to roleplay them in a simplistic manner, as simple monsters to vanquish, giving them no backstory or interest, and an opportunity for world building is lost. But by making them unique, giving them unfamiliar and difficult to destroy phylacteries, giving them unique places to find them, giving them individual motivations and (fill in the blank) they can truly become the threats they should be.
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The word ‘Lich’ (rhymes with ‘witch’) seems to be derived from several Nordic words with the definition of ‘corpse.’ In RPGs, they are typically a type of evil undead magic user, often a sorcerer or sometimes priest who either discovers the formula or ritual to turn himself into such a creature or accidentally becomes one after his death from being so absorbed in his research. There are, however, a few rare instance of good liches. Many of them are masters of necromancy. Because of this, most times you won’t come across one without having an army of undead around them. Their physical appearance can range from near-normal, to zombie/corpse-like, to completely skeletal, usually depending on the lich’s age. Because of their skill at magic, liches tend to be among the most powerful and dangerous type of undead.
In order to complete the process, they need to store their soul in something known as a phylactery. This can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. In fact, the more complex, the more difficult to find, the more well-guarded it is, the better. For if the lich’s body is destroyed and the phylactery is not, it will simply reform. Sometimes getting not only getting the phylactery, but destroying it can be an adventure in and of itself. Depending on the game and system, they can evolve into something else: becoming more (or less) powerful and less physical.
D12 Unusual Liches
- Magical Girl liches, whose corruptible Soul Gem — the source of their power — acting as the phylactery, with the added weakness that if their bodies are separated from it, they lose consciousness.
- A lich with a mission: one who becomes a lich due to a desire for vengeance, or some other unfinished task and once the task is over, is destroyed (See motivations table, Below)
- A lich whose transcendence into something else causes his current state
- A lich created by the end of a life-cycle of a certain race (does not necessarily need to be evil). This idea may be complemented by the ghost of said race haunting its own body.
- Ringwraiths are bound to the earthly plane through the rings they wear
- Liches that take over other’s bodies instead of remaining in their own after death, simply transferring to a new body upon having it damaged beyond repair
- A person forced into lichdom by another to be their servant
- Racial Liches
- Alhoon: an illithid lich
- Drow/ Drider liches
- Suel Liches (Greyhawk)
- Demonlich – a demon who sells his soul in exchange for more power. If they turn on the one that holds its soul, the possessor can instantly end its existence.
- A lich-golem hybrid: a undead wizard in a weaponized coffin having tripodal legs, and four arms for locomotion and defense.
- Any non-standard race for a lich (including the dracolich)
- A man-shaped pile of maggots that ate the sorcerer’s body and has his power
- A lich that is indistinguishable from a “normal” skeleton, except for the fact that it has abandoned its sorcerer’s robes for inscribing its own skeleton with runes of protection
D20 Unfamiliar and Difficult-to-destroy Phylacteries & their locations
- A comb, carried by a little girl. In order to get the comb, you must kill the little girl.
- Random pieces of gold (or other valuable treasure) in a dragon’s hoard.
- Jewelry: rings, circlet/ crown, locket / necklace / holy symbol, bracelets/ anklets, Soul Gem
- In the treasury for a kingdom
- On a royal personage (king, queen, prince, princess)
- A shard of a mirror, amidst a plane filled with similar shards of silvered glass
- An irreplaceable work of art or antique.
- An entire race that the wizard created while he was alive or spread out among all the people within an entire community
- An entire planet or moon
- Their own familiar, a dragon or another sufficiently powerful creature that is nigh impossible to kill
- A powerful weapon needed to defeat another enemy
- A musical instrument
- In the roots of the world Tree
- A book in a collection of the largest library in the nation
- A suit of armor (something like a Death Knight type of a thing)
- A clock (or watch) in a craftsman’s shop filled with them
- His own heart, locked in chains, located in a maze, inside a wandering servitor at the heart of the maze.
- An entire necropolis or graveyard!
- Underneath a famous statue or within a national monument
- On a remote swampy island inside a mangroves under the water’s surface
- In an underwater cave, impossible to spot from the land
- In the egg of an immortal eagle’s nest, atop the highest mountain in the world
D10 Unique places to find a lich
- In a scientific laboratory making inventions
- As the shopkeeper of a magical shop filled with all sorts of knickknacks
- As the librarian to a multidimensional library
- As the eternal servant of a castle (the castle itself would serve as its phylactery, unbeknownst to the creature)
- Commanding an army of undead for some sinister purpose
- Influencing the court of the king as an advisor
- As a part of an entertainment troupe or disguised as a bard to get information about the world
- Running a restaurant, bar, or inn; someone dabbling in magic who simply forgot to die, and going about their daily tasks as there’s always something to do
- A forest where a druidic lich has sworn to protect for all eternity
- The leader of a community that accepts his presence as a part of their life
D12 Individual Lich motivations
- Knowledge of everything or of a certain topic
- Wanting to rule the land/ people
- Fame/ Infamy
- Fear of death / afterlife
- Greed / Wealth (and the lifetime to enjoy it)
- Power (physical, magical, or divine)
- Wanting to overthrow the gods themselves
- A love that’s beyond death
- To protect someone or something significant to them
- Outshine, outlast or outdo their rival
Given these unusual liches, difficult-to-find phylacteries and unique places to find them, and individual motivations, there’s never a need to present your players with a boring lich ever again.
The next article on the list will be hosted on Fantasy Roleplaying Planes.