He went thattaway ...

During this weekend’s gaming session, we killed a lich. Good job! おつかれさま!Unfortunately, we didn’t know where our victim’s phylactery was, so we couldn’t actually eliminate the lich – we needed to find the phylactery, but the only way to do that was to let the lich reanimate its body and then follow him to his lair, kill him again and this time destroy his phylactery. All in a day’s work, etc. We had his body and disembodied head (gagged, of course) and we’d stuffed the head in a sack, then stuffed the sack in a barrel of water, then put a lid on the barrel, so we could make plans without fear of being overheard. So we hatched a scheme to follow the lich, but there was unfortunately a small hitch – we knew that this lich had the power to dissolve his body into a swarm of cockroaches and scuttle away to his dark and stinky home. We were in a city, where following a swarm of cockroaches is impossible. So, we designed a lich compass. This is how our plan worked:

  1. Carve a chunk of flesh from the lich’s body, near one of its injuries where it is unlikely to notice the piece is missing
  2. Put this chunk of flesh in a jar large enough for a cockroach to move around
  3. Take the body and the head to a park, build a fire large enough to make a lich think we’re trying to destroy its body, but not large enough to completely incinerate the body
  4. Chuck the lich on (and its head, of course)
  5. After about 10 minutes of watching, tell each other that the job is surely done, and walk away
  6. Hide
  7. Once the fire has died down, the lich body will slowly reanimate, and the lich will collect his head and go shambling, smokily, to his lair
  8. Follow him
  9. The big risk is that he will turn into a swarm of cockroaches. This is pretty likely, since his clothes will have been destroyed and he’s covered in burns – he probably wants to go home in a slightly less conspicuous form
  10. When he turns into cockroaches, pull out the jar
  11. All the cockroaches will be heading in the same direction – this means that the cockroaches in the jar will be trying to push through whatever side of the jar is closest to the lich’s path
  12. Follow the compass!

Obviously this plan has a large number of flaws – I count 11 (anyone can follow a compass![1]). Our compass was based on two big assumptions:

  1. The lich doesn’t have a detailed knowledge of the location of every piece of his body, but the pieces are somehow spiritually connected
  2. When the lich casts a spell on himself, all parts of his body are affected

Obviously some GMs would take issue with these assumptions, but I don’t think they’re unreasonable. If the GM accepts this particular approach to Lich corporeality, then I think our compass should work. Also, perhaps, it would work on Vampires.

Unfortunately, we never got to test our assumptions because a crazy wizard teleported in, stole the lich’s head, and teleported out again. The GM then revealed that the lich can disconnect his soul from his body, leaving the body to rot, so all we ended up with was a jar full of rotting flesh. But I think if the wizard hadn’t appeared, we would have been good to go – he disconnected his body because he’d been teleported out, not because he knew we were hiding there.

Incidentally, when we killed the lich it made me aware of a problem that GMs face with these undying types of creatures, which is that the nature of their invulnerability is really hard to describe. Sure, we all know that you can’t kill a lich permanently, but of course if the players don’t have the phylactery they’ll do a damn good job of making the lich essentially eternally dead. Cut it into tiny pieces and feed them to fish in 7 oceans, burn the body and scatter it to the winds, etc. We were on a city that was on the back of a massive, slow-moving tortoise, and I recommended trying to find a way to feed the body into the tortoise – it wouldn’t be  dead but a thousand years of digestion would surely make the matter irrelevant. At this point the GM has to figure out a way to make the creature’s return plausible. Obviously it can be done but, particularly for things like trolls and the like that aren’t undead spirits in a temporary physical shell, it’s damn hard to explain. And in the case of liches, the Monster Manual seems to imply quite strongly that it’s their original body they’re in (the demi-lich is still tied to its body’s dust and skull) – so how exactly does it work for a lich?

This is further proof that as one advances in levels in D&D, it’s important to put points into your various lore skills. If one hasn’t read Mordenkainen’s seminal texts on undead corporeality, how will one know the best way to build a lich-compass?

fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure that there would be systems and/or GMs where a skill check would be required …