How to Play a Lich Like a Dark Overlord
“At last, the foolish heroes have finally arrived,” the lich said. She sneered the word heroes as if it were a curse. “All your trials, all your pain, all your heartache, has led to this fateful encounter. We have no more use for words.”
The lich rose from her throne and smirked. No matter what might these adventurers possessed, they were no match for her arcane power.
The paladin charged first, his longsword empowered by an elemental weapon spell. The spell of haste cast upon him by the party’s wizard before they entered the room allowed him to reach the other side of the room with lightning speed, and he delivered a barrage of sword strokes upon the lich. A burst of flame and radiant light exploded upon the lich with each strike, filling the dusty sepulcher with a magical glow and the thick scent of ozone.
Only one character had attacked, but those three attacks had already reduced the lich to a fraction of her maximum hit points. She used a legendary action to grip the paladin with her Paralyzing Touch, temporarily removing him from the fight, but there were still three other powerful adventurers staring her down. And the cleric was about to cast a spell.
It wasn't supposed to go like this.
You were supposed to crush your enemies with the might of ten thousand wizards. You were supposed to overwhelm them with a legion of the undead! Your magic should make you invincible!
A lich played properly should feel invincible, both to you and your players. A lich played like a dark overlord, a figure of mythic power like Sauron, Voldemort, or Szass Tam, deserves tactics and spells worthy of its foul title. And there is no better way to play a lich than as a dark tyrant, overflowing with evil monologues and supported by a brilliant mind worthy of your 20 Intelligence. If you want to play your lich like a dark overlord, read on.
A Lich Craves Power
Why would anyone commit the foul acts required to ascend to lichdom? Immortality is nice, but there are other methods; the dark wizard Manshoon of the Forgotten Realms famously used clones as a method to infinitely extend his life, for instance. No. A lich does not simply want immortality. What a lich craves is power. A lawful evil lich craves the power to dominate others. A chaotic evil lich craves the power to destroy. A neutral evil lich may want one or the other, or both.
Domination is the purview of a dark overlord, and is a perfect desire for a campaign-ending lich. The entire time you’re preparing your lich’s backstory, choosing its spells, and designing its tactics, you should be thinking about its motivation. Does this choice fit with its desire to dominate others? This choice doesn’t have to make sense to other people; all that matters is that your lich’s actions are consistent and make sense to you.
Consistency in a villain, especially a lawful evil one like a dark overlord, is the one major boon you give to both yourself and to your players. It’s one thing to think tactically yourself, but it’s another to train your players to think tactically, too. It’s only fair. A lich may be incredibly intelligent, but it’s also a creature of habit—you can’t teach a 10,000 year old dog new tricks. In video games like Dark Souls, part of the fun of the game is figuring out how to overcome bosses that are ridiculously stronger than you. That method tends to involve dying and resetting over and over again, which isn’t really possible in Dungeons & Dragons.
A lich with an incredibly organized mind has spent centuries learning how to efficiently slaughter the living. It has perfected a spellcasting routine that will annihilate adventuring parties. Show them that it always starts a fight by casting greater invisibility to hide from the party, then casts cloudkill before the party can spread out, then casts dispel magic on the melee fighter… and so forth. Find ways to show this routine to the party before their final showdown—perhaps by showing them NPCs being slaughtered by the lich’s magic. A more gutsy method is to have the lich hunt down the party long before they’re prepared to face it, and then brutally TPK them.
Only to be resurrected by an allied priest after the lich has teleported away, of course. Now that the characters have witnessed the lich’s awesome power firsthand, they can be better prepared for when they face it again later—equipped not just with new magic items, but with knowledge from their previous encounter.
Having a specific spellcasting routine for at least the first few rounds of combat is a major blessing to you as a Dungeon Master, too. Running spellcasters is hard! Especially when you’re also managing players, answering rules questions, and running the lich’s minions. Knowing exactly what you’re doing on the first few rounds of combat helps you start the fight strong while leaving some brainpower free to focus on other things.
Fighting like a Lich
Your lich encounter is going to be the climax of your session, perhaps even your campaign. For that reason, the encounter should definitely be a Deadly one. And depending on how tactical your players are and how well-geared their characters are, you can build an encounter that’s worth up to twice the XP of the Deadly threshold. Use as many vile undead as you can muster; beholder zombies, bodaks, even a death knight. By the time you get to facing a CR 21 lich, you should have some idea of your party’s relative power level, but as a rule of thumb, I would suggest only making a “Twice-Deadly” boss encounter if your characters each have at least a very rare-quality magic item.
A Lich’s Traits
A dark overlord is both champion and chessmaster, possessing more strength and cunning than any who serve under them. If you don’t have an Intelligence score of 20 in real life, this guide will help you choose the most devastating attack to deploy on any given round of combat.
Defenses. A lich’s pathetic defenses are its greatest weakness. It has subpar armor class and pathetic hit points for its level, and only has two defensive spells. Shield is probably the most effective 1st-level spell the lich possesses, and should be used whenever necessary. Globe of invulnerability is an excellent spell, and all liches should cast this spell immediately before combat begins, if possible.
The lich’s damage resistances are passable and while its immunity to poison and physical damage seems impressive, it’s hard to imagine that any character facing a CR 21 monster wouldn’t possess at least one magic weapon. It’s equally hard to imagine any character at this stage of the game trying to use poison damage against undead.
Legendary Resistance is a powerhouse defensive tool that should be reserved for ignoring the characters’ most devastating spells. These are spells like maze and psychic scream. Unless a character is using their highest-level or second-highest level spell slots, it’s not worth using Legendary Resistance to ignore it unless not doing so will cause the lich to die.
Finally, a lich’s Turn Resistance is a very specific feature useful only against clerics, but it keeps a single cleric from trivializing the fight, which is a major plus.
Movement. No lich should ever be caught on the ground, where it can get caught in melee and torn to shreds. And yet, the lich only possesses a walking speed of 30 feet and doesn’t even have fly prepared! The lich’s movement as presented in the Monster Manual is a huge weakness.
Senses and Immunities. Like most undead, liches are immune to many conditions. Keep a close eye on its immunity to the charmed and frightened conditions, since these conditions can easily take it out of the fight long enough for the party to recover.
Spellcasting. The lich’s greatest asset is its spellcasting, but it’s also the hardest for most Dungeon Masters to handle in the heat of the moment. More on this later; there’s a whole section of this article dedicated to spells.
Paralyzing Touch. A lich should never enter melee combat intentionally, as it has few ways of escaping from dangerous melee fighters (dimension door is the only spell it has prepared that can help it escape lockdown situations). Its Paralyzing Touch action might allow it to incapacitate a single combatant—but this should only be used as a defensive option, not as a proactive attack. The attack may seem powerful, but it’s unreliable. Not only does the lich have to be in melee combat, but it must first hit with the attack and then the target has to fail a Constitution saving throw before it’s paralyzed. Frustratingly, the lich wants to use this attack against dangerous melee combatants, who tend to be proficient in Constitution saving throws, making the paralyzing effect even less reliable.
Legendary Actions. As a legendary creature, the lich can act “out of turn” by using legendary actions at the end of other creatures’ turns. Its four legendary action options are Cantrip, Paralyzing Touch, Frightening Gaze, and Disrupt Life. Casting a cantrip out of turn may seem like small potatoes, but casting ray of frost three times each round increases the lich's damage per round by an impressive 12d8 cold damage.
Using a cantrip to deal extra damage each round may be its most useful action, as its three other legendary action options all require other creatures to be in close quarters; Paralyzing Touch has a 5 foot reach, Frightening Gaze can frighten a single creature within 10 feet, and even the powerful Disrupt Life action only affects creatures within a 20-foot radius. These other legendary actions seem powerful, but are all very situational, and should be used with discretion.
Lair Actions. A lich gains access to powerful magic while in its lair. (Powerful enough to increase its CR from 21 to 22!) This edges into the realm of encounter design rather than combat tactics, but the final fight with a lich should always be in its lair, no matter the party’s level. Look at its stat block. Its second lair action, which allows it to share damage with an enemy, is incredibly powerful because it helps bolster the lich’s mediocre defenses. Recovering a spell slot (possibly an 8th level spell slot), is incredibly powerful, but inconsistent. Generally, the 2nd and 3rd lair options are the most consistently powerful, but all three are so useful that your strategy here is a matter of personal preference.
A Lich’s Spells
Manners make the man, but spells make the caster—and there is no greater spellcaster than a lich. The lich presented in the Monster Manual has an impressive spell selection, and you should know how to use it to its fullest potential. Or, more importantly, customize it to fit the needs of your unique lich.
These spells are a good mix of offense, defense, and utility, but it’s possible to make the out-of-the-box lich an even more terrifying opponent by improving its prepared spells. While the Monster Manual suggests that changing a monster’s spells can adjust its challenge rating, it’s totally reasonable to be ruthless and even a little unfair to your players and their characters by beefing up your campaign-ending villain’s spells. Remember when customizing your lich’s spells that you can also change the class of your lich, replacing its wizard spells with cleric or druid spells to represent a different kind of malign spellcaster.
Adjusting the lich's spells in the way listed below raises its CR from 21 to 22 (23 in its lair); but it does overload the lich with concentration spells, so there are some drawbacks. At this point, these minor differences in challenge rating will hardly matter to a party capable of handling a lich in the first place.
Cantrips. You have utility cantrips with mage hand and prestidigitation, and one combat spell with ray of frost. These weak spells are actually incredibly important because of your Cantrip legendary action.
To increase this spell list’s power, replace prestidigitation with another combat ranged cantrip like fire bolt or chill touch. The latter is incredibly powerful because it prevents the target from regaining hit points. If you use your Cantrip legendary action three times in a round, you can potentially prevent three different characters from healing that round.
1st level. Your 1st-level spells are a good mix of offense and defense. While detect magic has only niche uses in combat, magic missile has surprising use as a way to guarantee damage against enemies that are close to death, especially when cast in a higher-level spell slot. Since each missile counts as a separate hit, this is a cruel way to instantly cause a dying character to fail all their death saving throws. Shield is a vital spell, as it shores up your mediocre Armor Class in dicey situations. Finally, thunderwave can be used to force nearby aggressors away in a pinch.
To increase this spell list’s power, replace thunderwave with Tasha’s hideous laughter, which can proactively disrupt enemy tactics by taking a major threat out of the fight for a round or two.
2nd level. Your 2nd-level spells are some of your least exciting options. It’s safe to ignore most of these spells, except mirror image, which is an excellent spell to cast right before combat.
To increase this spell list’s power, do not prepare invisibility (to free up space for another spell later), and replace Melf’s acid arrow with mind spike. Acid arrow is an unimpressive spell, while mind spike mixes damage with utility, especially against rogues that want to hide from you.
3rd level. Your 3rd-level spells include the always-powerful fireball spell, but you lack a few vital options. Animate dead is an interesting spell not because it raises a trivially weak undead creature, but because you can cast it on a dead player character to prevent them from being resurrected by resurrection or similar magic. It’s a dick move, but that’s just the way liches be. Counterspell is a vital spell to have in your repertoire, because it allows you to nullify enemy spellcasters’ most powerful magic; dispel magic is a similarly powerful spell because you can dispel many of the powerful buff spells cast on the party before combat.
To increase this spell list’s power, replace animate dead with fly. The added maneuverability fly grants you is much more useful than potentially screwing over a resurrection, especially since animate dead's 1 minute casting time prevents you from easily using it in combat.
4th level. You only have two 4th-level spells, blight and dimension door. The former is disappointing, dealing only 8d8 necrotic damage to a single target, as opposed to fireball’s 8d6 fire to multiple targets at 3rd level. Dimension door, however, is vital. You can use it to escape deadly lockdown situations where you can’t escape one or more melee combatants.
To increase this spell list’s power, unprepare invisibility (at 2nd level) and prepare greater invisibility(at 4th level) instead. Being able to cast spells while invisible is absolutely unfair, especially if you cast it before combat begins. Consider also swapping out blight for freedom of movement, just for a little extra mobility.
To increase this spell list’s power, replace scrying with wall of force. This spell will prevent any physical force from assailing you, while still allowing you to cast spells from within it. Any lich worth their salt should own a crystal ball anyway.
6th level. This is where your spells start to become devastating, but you only have a single spell slot of each level from here on out. If you time it right, your disintegrate spell can permanently kill a character unless the party cleric or wizard has held on to their 9th-level spell slot to cast true resurrection or wish. Or, you can use globe of invulnerability to become immune to all but the most powerful magic. Casting globe with your 8th-level spell slot is a serious defensive force, making you immune to all spells of 7th level or lower. Note that you can’t combine this spell with wall of force, since both require your concentration.
This is already a powerful part of your spell list, with no strictly superior replacement spells.
7th level. Since your 7th-level spells are fairly situational, you may want to consider using this spell slot to up-cast a lower-level spell like counterspell. Plane shift, however, is a useful “panic button” if you aren’t willing to go down fighting.
To increase this spell list’s power, replace finger of death with prismatic spray, allowing you to replace a spell that is essentially a worse version of disintegrate with a spell that can throw an entire adventuring party into chaos.
8th level. Your 8th-level spell slot can be used to devastating effect. Dominate monster has the chance to not just remove a character from the fight for a few rounds, but to turn them to your side for that time. Similarly, power word stun can lock down a low-hit point character like a wizard from the beginning of a fight.
To increase this spell list’s power, replace dominate monster with feeblemind to hard counter spellcasters, or with maze to reliably remove any one character from the fight, especially martial classes.
9th level. Power word kill is epic; killing a creature with no saving throw just feels incredible.
However, there are better options. Power word kill needs to be saved until midway through the fight when one of your enemies has 100 hit points or fewer, which is a long time to hang on to your most powerful spell. To increase this spell list’s power, replace power word kill with psychic scream to keep the party from overwhelming you at the start of the fight. Or, to increase your survivability, use shapechange to fight as an adult red dragon for a few rounds. Or, mass polymorph to turn the entire enemy party into frogs, so you can kill each character at your own pace.
A Lich’s Tactics
With so many spells at your disposal, it’s important to have a plan of how to use them. As mentioned earlier, most liches have been destroying powerful adventurers for so many centuries that they have developed an almost mechanical spellcasting routine for the vital first rounds of combat. You can develop your own routine that matches the personality of your lich, but here’s a sample spell routine.
Begin combat at a range of 75 feet from the enemy. Cast globe of invulnerability to defend against spellcasters.
Alternatively, start combat at a range of 60 feet and cast psychic scream (if you chose it as your 9th-level spell instead of power word kill, as mentioned above) to throw the party into disarray.
As the enemy approaches, cast dominate monster to take control of a charging warrior and turn them against their allies.
Alternatively, cast cloudkill to swamp characters stunned by psychic scream in poisonous gas.
Alternatively, if the party is still organized, cast prismatic spray (if you chose it as your 7th level instead of finger of death, as mentioned above).
Round Four and Onward
Focus on eliminating single characters quickly, especially clerics that can revive their allies and turn any undead minions you may have with you. Power word kill can put a swift end to most spellcasters and rogues if they’ve taken even a small amount of damage. Disintegrate is less reliable and slightly less powerful, but still gets the job done.
Don’t be afraid to stop attacking for a round to use a defensive spell like mirror image or wall of force (if you swapped out scrying, as mentioned above). Don’t let the enemy lock you down, or you’ll face a swift second death.
Having Fun as an Overlord
It should go without saying that the goal of this guide is to help you have fun playing a lich as an arrogant tyrant. If the fun of planning becomes a chore for you or your players, consider backing off and approaching this character from another angle. Playing a lich to the hilt requires enough planning so as to seem omniscient and omnipotent—an understandably difficult task!
I find the fun of playing an arrogant, all-powerful villain by making a detailed plan and sticking to it (as described above), just to make my life easier. Then, I lean hard into every villainous cliché I can think of. I monologue, taunt, and cackle madly at the players. Any mistakes you make in playing this megalomaniacal villain will be smoothed over by the performance, and if they somehow beat your mastermind villain too quickly… well, congratulations to them! If you play the villain hatefully and open with your powerful 9th-level (then 8th, then 7th, etc.) spells first and the players still overcome that power, they’ll feel great about their victory, quick or not.
And this isn't even getting into the business of where to put your phylactery. Remember, a lich isn't dead until its phylactery is located and destroyed... but that's a topic for another day.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He ended his first ever full D&D campaign with a fight against Vecna, and the fight honestly sucked. He's had a lot of time to think about how that fight could've been better. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his nine-lived minions, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.