“Well, you split your soul, you see, and hide part of it in an object outside the body. Then, even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged.”
– Horace Slughorn, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2005)
We have heard about Dark Magic since he have heard about Magic. Given that it’s still March and RPG Blog Carnival theme for this month is “Things in the Dark” I decided to finish a draft I’ve had in my blog for months: Phylacteries. I know, it’s a stretch, but I needed something to get me finish writing this.
A little lore
Every lich has a phylactery that stores its life force. Creating one is extraordinarily expensive in terms of materials (gp), personal energy (XP cost) and time. When you destroy a lich’s phylactery, it suffers no harm, but cannot make a new one. If you manage to destroy a lich which phylactery is no more, the lich itself is forever destroyed. The most usual form for this artifacts (drawn from jewish mythology) is that of a sealed metal box containing strips of parchment bearing magical sigils.
Published for 3.5e in 2004, Libris Mortis gives us a few rules for phylacteries. It establishes they can exist in other forms as well, though one must either contain or bear arcane inscriptions and it can’t be part of another magic item, nor additional magical properties can be built into it. 4e changed this a little, enabling liches to rebuild a phylactery in 10 days with a cost of 50,000 gp. It also detailed the ritual “Lich Transformation” in which the caster calls upon Orcus, Demon Prince of the Undead (featured in the same book), to become “undead and immortal”, binding his life force within a specially prepared receptacle. It adds that such a receptacle measures 6 inches on a side and has 40 hit points and resist 20 to all damage. Other kinds of phylacteries include rings and amulets, which are just as durable. More recently, the 5e Monster Manual pictures a phylactery as an amulet in the shape of a small box, but it can take the form of any item possessing an interior space into which arcane sigils of naming, binding, immortality, and dark magic are scribed in silver. Taken all these references as canon, let’s build some phylacteries.
A Quest for Death
Destroying a lich’s phylactery should not be an easy task, not just because it often requires a special ritual, item, or weapon, but also because its owner has plotted as best as he can to keep it safe. Every lich is unique, and so should be their phylacteries. As stated also in the 5e Monster Manual, “discovering the key to its destruction can be a quest in and of itself”. The thing is not making it impossible to destroy or to find: making the phylactery a gold ingot kept among thousands of gold ingots in a very well guarded vault makes it very hard (and boring) to find from a game perspective. So what we’re gonna do is to create very particular and exotic phylacteries, soome that talk about their creators in such a way that heroes feel accompished by destroying after figuring out all its obscure details. But before showing you mine, I’ll share the ones I liked the most from the bunch we saw in the D&D Facebook page on March 9th
My two favorite entries can be categorized as living phylacteries. Asmor, from the Kobold Fight Club
introduces the Lich’s bloodline: When the lich is destroyed, his consciousness takes over one of his descendants. The only way to prevent the lich from coming back is to wipe out every man, woman, and child who shares his blood. Across the pond, John Chappell proposed the boldest idea I read in there: allowing a bard lich to embed his phylactery within the fabric of a now-popular story.
I grouped some of the other entries as relevant because they are intrinsecally bound to the lich personality and his reason to achieve immortality. Florian Menzel mentions the roots of the oldest tree in the garden the lich considers himself commited to tend and protect, while Rick Barbee makes it a spellbook that whispers its spells to the wizard who uses it. Logan Walsh makes it the cornerstone of the lich’s castle. Two particular entries take a step further into the legacy of what we can call an artistic lich: Mike Rovner opts for the portrait of the lich while he was living, and Eric Vaughan puts it inside a willing servant, just to turn him into stone afterwards.
I selected John Shepard’s entry on its own because it’s unique to Eberron, turning whoever tried to destroy a warforged lich’s phylactery into a warforged himself.
My Very Own Eberronian Twist
Eberron gives us right from the beginning a perfect material to make a phylactery: Khyber dragonshards. Generally dark blue or black, they can be found beneath the surface of Eberron in deep underground caverns. Khyber dragonshards have an affinity for binding, and are most notable for their use in crafting bound-elemental items, such as the Lightning Rail, but fit perfectly as “cores” of a phylactery.
The most famous lich in the setting is Vol, a tragic figure thousands of years old. Erandis Vol was turned into a lich by her mother in order to protect her from those who sought to destroy the line of Vol, bearers of the Mark of Death. In the mind of Keith Baker, creator of the Eberron setting, Vol’s phylactery is hidden even from herself.
“Normally, this would be impossible; a lich regenerates close to its phylactery. But we’re talking about some of the most accomplished necromancers the world has known, and a mother determined to protect her child. As such, I’m running it that when Vol reconstitutes, she appears at a randomly determined location – thus giving her a chance to rebuild her strength before her enemies can strike again. The secret of her phylactery can’t even be plucked from her mind, because SHE doesn’t know where or what it is.”
Among the ideas in the forum thread that came from, there was a particular idea that turned Vol’s phylactery in her own bloodline, just as in Asmor’s idea above.
The only campaign I used a lich in was “Codex Anathema, vol. VI: Sede Vacante”, set just at the start of the Final War. Belyarus, who was the King’s High Advisor, started to research the ritual to become immortal just to protect the kingdom from the bonfire of vanities that the Wynarn family had become, and as an ultimate insult, he chose the King’s Crown as his phylactery, the same which was blessed to give its bearer always a male son in order to preserve the royal sucession. The heroes of the campaign, after finding this out, had to decide if destroying the Crown and risking the royal family bloodline was a price they would pay in order to destroy Belyarus.
And that would be the advice of this very long entry: when introducing a lich to your campaign, keep in mind a memorable detail for his phylactery, so destroying it becomes even more satisfying for your players. Make it personally attached to its creator, and you’ll have a jewel in your Library of DM Creations.