Sunday, April 5, 2020

Liches and Mummies


I've written about liches before, so in this post I'll limit myself to implementation in this post.

How to Write a Lich

First, don't start with the image of a mystic skeleton-wizard in an underground laboratory.  That's the typical image and--while there's nothing wrong with it--if you start there, you'll be less creative in crafting your lich.

Start by thinking about a regular wizard, then turn them into a lich.

d8 Wizards Who Became Liches
  1. The wizard who was determined to build a ship large enough to carry 2 copies of every animal into space. 
  2. The wizard who was trying to build the perfect waifu.  
  3. The wizard who was trying to seal off hell in order to save our souls.  
  4. The wizard who wants to build a new, better sun.  
  5. The wizard who was building the perfect army in order to invade heaven.  
  6. The wizard who was way too into breeding horses.
  7. The wizard who is trying to turn his black ziggurat into a spaceship*.
  8. The wizard who was wealthy scared of death, and so he became a lich, but now that he's a lich he has no real goals besides entertainment, but even that is tough now that he has no penis so it is very tricky, let me tell you.
*Spaceship lich is my default lich, by the way.

Any one of these could be a good lich.  Some are epic, some are more trivial.  People tend to have multiple hobbies--so do liches.  Combine 2-3 for a better lich.  Give each background its own section of the dungeon, maybe.

The second thing is to reduce the death theme a little bit.

Yes, every lich is going to have some degree of necromancer in them.  And yes, I know liches persist in our imaginations for the same reason that zombies do--we're scared of death and skeleton faces are cool.  But if every lich lair is just a dank necropolis full of the shambling dead, you're limiting yourself before you have to.

Plus, it's always easy to add the death stuff back in later.  Let it be the frosting, not the cake.

from Final Fantasy 1
(the PS remake had the best sprites)

Honestly, the concept of "evil, immortal wizard" has a lot of space for you to write your own concepts.

We don't need them to be immortal, but it does make it easy to stick them at the bottom of a dungeon without any food or bathrooms.  And it helps if they are evil, because then we can kill them remorselessly.

d6 Alternative Source of Immortality for Evil Wizards
  1. An imprisoned kaiju, harvested for her eggs.
  2. Blackmailing Zulin, the Prince of the Upper Air.
  3. A giant furnace.  It burns a small forest every year.  The smokestack is his tower.
  4. Cloning + mind transferance.  Each clone carries a few more mutations than the prior.
  5. Possession of new hosts who must have certain traits, requiring the wizard to send people out to search for her next host.
  6. Has imprisoned his Death (a personalized Grim Reaper) beneath the earth. 
I'm avoiding any sort of soul stuff, because that's too close to phylacteries (and Voldemort) already.

So let's talk about phylacteries.  You got a few options, none of which are mutually exclusive.
  • McGuffin to drag the party to a new adventure locale.  Acceptable in moderation.
  • Ethical Dilemma, where you have to do something bad in order to kill the lich (a good thing).  Cheap, difficult to make satisfying.  (Even J. K. Rowling chickened out of this one.)
  • Some OSR-Style Challenge, either to find the damn thing or to destroy it.  These are preferred.
d4 Phylacteries Outside of the Dungeon
  1. Some innocent descendant who lives nearby.
  2. The king's crown.
  3. A random duck in a nearby pond.
  4. A glass heart in a permanent raincloud that is always overhead.
d4 Phylacteries Inside the Dungeon
  1. A really cool magic item (that the party was sent to retrieve?)
  2. A purple pearl inside a purple worm.
  3. Buried under 100' pile of rubble.  One solution is just to hire a construction crew, give them hazard pay, and protect them from monsters..
  4. The Hive Dead have it.  The easiest way to get it is just to purchase it with something precious.
The Disembodied Lich

I've only run a lich once, but after he died, he became a disembodied spirit that inhabited the whole floor of the dungeon.  He could open/shut doors, trigger traps, and talk mad shit.

It was fun for a bit, but maybe got a bit tedious.  Every door would slam shut on someone, so all the doors had to be destroyed.  Triggering all the traps was maybe a too much (or I didn't design the traps with the lich in mind).  I should have added the ability to control undead--it would have turned mindless undead encounters into tactical ones, which would have been a more appropriate change, I think.

Anyway, I'm convinced that the theory is sound.

How Do You Discover the Phylactery?

The one you want to avoid is just having the players cast locate object or something.  That takes all the fun out of it.  So here are some ideas.
  • Dungeon denizen will tell you, if you do a favor for them.
  • From the lich's girlfriend, who lives at the university and sends him frequent letters.
  • From the dead.  Conjure up some spirits from the essential salts and ask them.
  • From your knowledge of the lich.  (Although be careful with this type of puzzle, because it can be a dead-end for some groups.)  Maybe his dungeon is covered with Shakespeare quotes, and his phylactery is the fanciest Shakespeare book in the library.
  • A cleric tells you that only an innocent can identify the phylactery, and it is odious to them.  You have to bring a baby into the dungeon (or, a dude who has never seen any type of boob or genitals, including their own) and use the baby's crying to navigate.  More random encounters are expected.
Living Lich

Alternate implementation of lichdom: it's not necromancy as much as it is total control of your body.  Under this interpretation, you can have a living lich.

Living liches are just like regular liches, except that they trade the necromancy stuff for crazy regen.  Chop them into pieces and they'll attempt to reform, like a troll on steroids.  You can prevent them from reforming by dumping their corpse (every last piece) into a barrel full of lye.  As long as the lye is active, they won't reform.  This doesn't kill them, just stall them.

The trick to killing a living lich isn't the phylactery, it's finding a way to permanently kill the living lich while rolling a barrel all over creation and being very careful not to break it.
Lich Lieutenants

No lich lives entirely alone.  Humans are social creatures, and even introvert liches need bodyguards.  So here are some ideas.
  • Dire undead tortoise with a breath attack (necrotic damage + 1d4 zombies).  Zombies reach out through gaps in its shell.
  • Malformed clones with soulless eyes.  They are swordsmen, and they will fight until they drop dead of exhaustion.
  • Living spouse**.  A martial class would be a nice counterpoint, but a white mage would be a nice twist.  Or if you want to be gross about it: those double-ended leg things from silent hill, but in a dress.
  • Grim reaper trapped here on a technicality.  (In one room is an unfinished board game.)  Not allowed to kill people, but he can bring you to 1 HP and let the undead rats.
  • Visiting outsider, waiting to be killed by whoever kills the lich.
  • Terophidian, who stands to inherit the ziggurat once the lich finishes turning herself into an unliving spaceship.
  • Ancient eldrox, that is here to experience a human party, and believes that the dungeon is a typical example of a party.  Very evil and very friendly.
**I have a friend that sincerely wants to become an android.  I think this is dumb.  We're meat creatures motivated (and punished) by instincts and emotion.  When they singularity hits and we all become hyperintelligent transcendent machine-gods, I think we'll still watch porn and soap operas (just much faster).  Because what else would we do?  Same thing with liches.

I don't have much to say about mummies, because I did a big mummy post recently.  Also the Black Pyramid of Khalgorond has mummies in it.

So there's really only one thing left to write

The Best Mummies, Ranked
  1. Giant mummy
  2. Ape
  3. Crawling giant hands
  4. Cat
  5. Elephant
  6. Giant squid that swims through sand
The giant mummy is the best mummy by far, and although giant crawling hands could be considered to be part of the giant mummy, I think that they are distinct enough to be counted separately.

by Yintion J
click to embiggen
Bonus links:
  • Victorian-era uses for mummies!
  • Here's a poem about the mummies that were burnt as train fuel!  (Note: this probably didn't actually happen, though.)

This post is for Jeff Russell, who wanted more content on liches and mummies.  Thanks for supporting this blog!


  1. Martial liches are the way to go. Everyone heads into the Tomb of the Wizard King expecting evil magic, a crooked old skeleton with a tome, that sort of thing. They're always surprised by the seven foot tall god-king who spent that last 4,000 years doing prison workouts. The Babylonians had different standards for their sorcerers.

    1. One hundred pushups. One hundred sit-ups. 10 km run EVERY SINGLE DAY.

    2. "Get some calcium in you boy, I can barely see your ribs!"

    3. I just got this amazing idea of an Elf Wizard who hated the idea of her human lover dying, so she made him into a Lich.

      Also, "The Wizard King" was actually just a puppet when he was alive, whose only real skill was battlefield tactics and fighting. His courtiers handled everything else, while using illusions and the like to pretend that he was the one casting the spells. But when they made him into a Lich, that was a straw too far, so he assassinated them and bound their ghosts. Now his tomb is haunted not only by him, but also by the ghosts of his former advisors, who want him to leave and re-establish his (their) old empire. The King wants nothing to do with this, his only concern is exercising and living a peaceful life. But if the players mess with him enough, he will abandon his peaceful life and restart the wars that once plagued the continent. The ghosts, of course, suspect this and thus will try to engineer such a scenario.

  2. I had an idea I wrote about on my blog a while back for "mutant liches" (I think I gave them a fancier name than that). If a few soul particles get left behind when they extract their soul, a new one may eventually mutate. So some liches intentionally do this to try to cultivate multiple souls to extract them and make themselves more powerful or give themselves backups, but it can also change their personality and identity and they are vulnerable while cultivating a soul.

    1. Sounds like reverse horcruxes. There's a bunch of psuedo-Voldemorts running around and the real voldemort is just a demilich in a dungeon somewhere.

  3. Wow, this is great! Lots of food for thought. I have a couple of garden-variety liches in a dungeon and now they can be a lot more interesting!

  4. My favourite lich was Azulfraz the Frequently Dying. He is currently split into a head-less indestructible body that melts everything it touches, an insane radioactive murder skull with disintegration lasers, and his incredibly sassy ghost possessing the back of a players head like Voldy.