Combat rating 23
1 Demilich (CR 18)
1 Behir (CR 11)
3 Dao (CR 11)
Combat rating 24
1 Demilich [in-lair] (CR 20)
2 Vampires (CR 13)
1 Vampire [Warrior/spellcaster] (CR 15)
Combat rating 26
1 Demilich [Acerek or discipline of](CR 21)
4 Purple worms (CR 15)
Combat rating 27
1 Demilich [Acerek or discipline of]
[in-lair] (CR 23)
2 Clay golems (CR 9)
3 Iron golems (CR 16)
How to Use
The demilich is one of the more unique monsters in the Monster Manual. Before we can try to build scenarios for him, we need to first understand how he functions, and how he should and should not be used.
Let us start with an examination of the demilich’s strengths and weaknesses, both offensive and defensive.
Defense: Strengths – The Demilich is resistant to a boatload of different types of damage. In particular, he’s resistant to bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage from even magical weapons. In addition, one of his attacks can heal him 51 HP a turn, on average, assuming there’s enough valid targets nearby. Finally, a lot of his attacks prevent his enemies from unleashing the full power of their own attacks on the demilich, whether because they have disadvantage (cloud of dust, curse) because they’re unconscious and can’t attack (howl) or because they can no longer cast spells (anti-magic).
Weaknesses – these are no less considerable. The main one is that he only has 80 HP. Even if all the attacks against him do half damage due to resistance, that only gives him the equivalent of 160 HP, which is not so much at this level. Add in the fact that he isn’t resistant to most forms of spell damage, and it’s not hard to see how he could be in a lot of trouble pretty fast if you’re not careful. And if your players have Power Word Kill, don’t even bother to use a demilich in the first place.
Offensive: Strengths – Howl, capable of knocking out half the party in one round. Couple it with life drain, and you can force them to take negative death saves (although targeting unconscious PCs won’t heal the demilich, so you’ll have to think twice when using this strategy.) The demilich’s legendary actions and lair actions, while not really suited for doing damage, add devastating conditions, and Acerek and his disciplines have the trap soul action which is absolutely devastating. (I’ll get back to that one later.)
Weaknesses – The problem with the demilich’s howl and trap soul action is that it won’t necessarily get a chance to use it. If the demilich rolls low initiative, it can easily take enough damage that it needs to use life drain just to stay alive. This leads to a vicious spiral, where the demilich can’t afford to do anything but life drain until it gets killed a round or two later.
Summary – the demilich is an extremely tricky monster to use right. Give the players a chance to get the upper hand, and the demilich is finished without even feeling like a real fight [it will give the sensation of blasting through a low CR minion.] Give the demilich a few rounds to gain the upper hand, and the players might be done for. The outcome is that while most monsters can just be thrown at the players without my ideas (I wrote in the About This Blog page that my encounters are for when you want an encounter to be special, epic,) the demilich needs careful setup with any use.
[To some extant vulnerability is a feature of many bosses. The difference is that the demilich’s HP is much lower than that of any other bosses (adjusting for its level), and that its main attacks need to be made up close. Also, the strength of its attacks means that dealing with the vulnerability by adding minions is tricky, as the players can easily end up overwhelmed. Other bosses mainly inflict damage, and status effect that are temporary (often because of concentration.) There is no other boss that I know of that can knock a PC down to 0 HP in one turn, let along multiple PCs.]
I’m going to give three different sections of encounters for the demilich. The fast fight, the long fight, and another one for Acerek and his disciplines.
The Fast Fight (difficulty 20. In Lair, difficulty 22)
In the fast fight, the players have to rush to defeat the demilich before its powers overwhelm them. I’m giving five different types of scenarios, all of them aimed at allowing the demilich to use its howl at least once, and at the same time also making sure to keep all the other obstacles to a minimum, so that the demilich is unlikely to have time to power up and overwhelm the players.
If it does gain the upper hand, probably because the dice rolls favored the demilich too much, the players will probably manage a retreat [the demilich isn’t designed to stop fleeing players, especially since closing a door on it should prevent it following,] and you can use a different fast fight for their next try so as not to have the boss fight be a repeat.
[I would note that the fact that the fight is going to be fast doesn’t disqualify it from being a good boss fight. Yes, it will be other in 2-3 rounds, but those rounds will consist of furious attacks aimed at taking it down before it recharges its howl or inflicts too many bestow curses. Add in a few complex traps which the players have to get through before they reach the demilich (some ideas are included in the next article), and you have the making of quite a nasty dungeon. This is the idea behind Tomb of Horrors. *]
* Incidentally, a plot idea I’ve considered. What if Acerek somehow configured the tomb of horrors to act as a soul collecting device. As in, any time someone dies inside the tomb, instead of leaving this world and traveling up or down the soul is caught and held, ready for Acerek to use should he want to take corpal form. The dungeon starts with a riddle challenging people to solve the tomb, and this seems like a good explanation.
(The simple explanation is that Acerek is showing off his cleverness, but this seemed an interesting alternative. Add in that Acerek prefers to use the souls of the especially brave and/or clever, perhaps out of vanity or perhaps because they make him slightly more powerful, and you have an interesting possible idea.)
The five fast fight scenarios:
Fast Scenario 1&2. Allies: With a fast fight (the default demilich fight scenario) you don’t want too many allies. Really, the demilich shouldn’t have more than two allies, at absolute max [one is the better option] and those allies can’t be too powerful. It’s important to note that there are really two kinds of monsters as far as a demilich encounter is concerned, and each of them will result in a very different scenario. The two types are – monsters that can impose powerful negative conditions, and monsters that impose damage.
Fast Scenario 1. Allies Type 1: Monsters that impose negative conditions. You want a single monster, and it should probably be pretty weak, as the players will have to take it down before they can finish the demilich. [Two sets of negative conditions almost certainly being too much.] A single mind flayer crosses my mind as being a good option.
Fast Scenario 1. Allies Type 2: Monsters that do damage. The players best option in this scenario is to ignore the monster, take the damage, and concentrate on taking the demilich out first. [Assuming they know the demilich’s abilities and weaknesses. If they don’t, they’ll figure it out after the first round, once it uses howl.] To make this a bit harder, you’ll want to put the other monster in the doorway, blocking access to the demilich, where it will take them a bit of maneuvering to get past it.
[I know that putting the tank monster in front is elementary, but here you’ll need to do a bit more, and throw in a narrow passageway. This is because the demilich’s lethality is such that it makes sense to take an attack of opportunity or two in order to concentrate better on the demilich.]
Fast Scenario 3. Trapped passageway: See the list of trapped hallways in the next article. You’ll want to use a single one of them [or something like them, if you have your own idea,] and have the demilich waiting for them, ready to pounce of them in the middle. They have the challenge of figuring out how to get all of their party across fast, or of having half the party stuck fighting the demilich on their own while they wait for the other half to catch up.
Fast Scenario 4. Ambush: The demilich, who is tiny, is hiding somewhere. You can let the players know that they’re almost up to the demilich (Tomb of Horrors starts with a riddle, which guides the players throughout, and tells them where Acerek can be found); you could have them sense it somehow, but they don’t know exactly where; or you could have them be caught entirely by surprise. What this gains is that the demilich has a surprise round in which it goes first and gets to use howl. Once that happens, the players are left at a disadvantage, which about half their number down.
Fast Scenario 5. Warehouse Fight: The final fight takes place in a warehouse, a library, or somewhere else with shelves running down the middle. The demilich, being tiny, can slip through the shelves, while the players have to knock them down or go around. I would caution you not to use more than one or two rows of shelves running down the middle, as to large a space will favor the demilich too much.
You’ll also want to decide if the items on the shelves are flammable, and how much of an obstruction they’ll pose when a spell knocks them down and scatters them. Lastly, I would advise the contents being all the same, or mostly so. Too many different types of items will be hard to keep track of.
The Long Fight (difficulty 22. In lair, difficulty 25)
With the long fight, the demilich has either a number of enemies or a number of traps. To deal with a long fight, you’re going to have to give the players a number of powerful healing items [possibly of limited use, if you plan to continue this campaign after the demilich fight. Another option is that the players only have them on loan.]
They will also need one or two uses of Greater Restoration, so that they can remove at least some of the demilich’s bestow curse legendary option. [No more than one or two uses. You want the players to be careful with how they use them. If they just use them any time they’re cursed, you’ve robbed the demilich of one of his legendary actions, plus the actions he uses casting bestow curse.]
If you’re using allies, you’ll need a careful mix of damage causing enemies and condition causing enemies. Only damage, and the players’ first order of business will be to take out the demilich. Only conditions, or too many conditions, and the players have no chance. [This is true of any fight, with or without a demilich.] The fights in the minions/allies section have been optimized for a long fight.
With traps, I would suggest an obstacle-course type arrangement where they pursue the demilich until they finally manage to corner him. This means they have to get through the traps while being harried by the demilich. Two such trap set-ups will be provided in the next article. You might want to provide one or two strength-based NPCs to come along and act as porters, as the PCs knocked out by the demilich’s howl will be a real problem in any scenario where it’s important to keep moving. [By strength based, I obviously meant that they should be a strength-based fighting class. They have to be able to fight, as the demilich will attack them too.]
The story in the trap idea will probably be this is one of the traps the demilich set up to guard his phylactery back when he planned to be a normal lich. Once he became a demilich he took to wandering his dungeon/tomb, and this is where the players encountered him. He probably didn’t originally intend to meet the PCs here unless he intended to become a demilich, Acerek style.
Acerek and his Disciplines (difficulty below)
If you’re running a lich with the trap soul option, I would use NPCs to boost your party number all the way up to seven. Trap soul means that one or two PCs will be lost, and you need the party to be big enough to fight the demilich even despite this fact.
[The Monster Manual raises the CR by three. Adding party members will be instead of this. The problem with raising the CR is that high level mages can kill the demilich in one turn, and if you only have one or two melee classes left, it’s a toss of the dice as to whether they’ll manage even at level twenty. Also, having NPCs means that players who lose their character can keep playing, and don’t have to wait for the combat to finish. This is especially important if you’re running a long-scenario style trap as the demilich fight.]
You have two ways to go about creating a fight against this demilich. The first will be one of the long fight scenarios (difficulty 24. In Lair, difficulty 26). The other is to combine two of my fast-fight scenario ideas [not the first two, which both use allies, although you can combine either of those with one of the last three.] (difficulty 23. In lair, difficulty 25)
Before finishing, I just want to note a few other things about the demilich.
- Although the demilich is listed as CR 18, you don’t want players higher than level 16 to fight it. This is partially to prevent them from using Power Word Kill, but there are also several other level nine spells that can one-shot the demilich. Nor does the demilich have legendary saves.
- In general, spellcasters are the demiliches greatest concern. This might be obvious, but they’re the ones it’s going to target the most, and anti-magic field is most likely going to be its default lair action.
- Energy drain seems like an almost useless legendary action. If you want to use, put a lot of other monsters that drain maximum HP into the dungeon so that by the time they reach the demilich they are already low on maximum HP. That said, this will give you a very brutal fight, as players tend to really not want their character to die, and I don’t think it’s worth it. Monsters that reduce maximum HP are chasme demons, clay golems, specters, and wraiths.