Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Liches: Superbia

Closing out the season of sinful undead, we awake from Samhain revels to find the biggest undead, liches, and the biggest sin of all - the original sin of Adam, Eve and Satan - pride. "Ye shall be as gods."

"Lich" is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning "corpse," and the transition to a gaming creature seems to have been through the writings of Clark Ashton Smith and other pulp scriveners who resurrected the hoary term to describe the sorcerous, shriveled walking dead.

As Von noted way back when I started this series, liches fit the bill of the free-willed undead best, because they are the only ones to explicitly and always choose their condition. Their aspiration to immortality and godlike power itself have earned them the sin of superbia, pride. One might imagine that because they have reached their undead state through arcane sorceries, they have found a way to transfer their consciousness beyond the theological soul. They are therefore an unparalleled threat to divine justice; when destroyed, they merely cease to exist, and their sins will go unpunished.

How does the lich get that way?  Following the idea of the lich as magical cyborg, it endures a seven-step ritual of replacing the parts of its spirit and soul with sorcery. It's possible to meet with a wizard at one stage or another of this transformation, a true fractional lich (as opposed to the curiously named demilich, actually more powerful than a full lich). These horrible rituals include self-mutilation, trepanation, and worse...

1. The wizard gives up the eyes, the windows of the soul, replacing them with icy burning sockets having full-spectrum vision to 120'.
2. The wizard gives up the breath, the door of the soul, replacing it with a magical voice that causes fear as a full-blown lich does.
3. The wizard gives up the brain lobe of Memory, the treasury of the soul, replacing it with a gem containing an intangible and infinitesimally compact library of lore. This ensures that the lich will retain super-genius intelligence and spell knowledge without the need to consult books.
4. The wizard gives up the brain lobe of Reason, the throne of the soul, replacing it with another gem containing a distillation of the wizard's own methods and rationality. This gives absolute self-control and resistance to enfeeblement, polymorph, and insanity.
5. The wizard gives up the brain lobe of Instinct, the foundation of the soul, sacrificing it utterly. This gives resistance to charm and sleep, and indeed freedom from all desires save those for knowledge, power, and the suffering of others.
6.The wizard gives up his or her soul, replacing positive energy with chill negative, and gaining the paralyzing touch ability, death magic immunity, or possibly even more dreadful powers of the Negative Planes.
7. Finally, the wizard surrenders his or her life, and the body begins to decay, replacing magic-user levels, hit points, and other stats with monster hit dice and stats, and acquiring the remaining resistances.

A contradiction in the lich-as-written may also contain the key to turning it. How does the lich's pride and vanity square with its appearance as a moldy old skeleton clad in rags? Surely if it is motivated by pride, the lich will find some way to keep up appearances. For example:

1. The lich casts a continual illusion, appearing as an attractive ideal of the being it was (or never was) in life.
2. The lich wears an iron mask, armor of fearsome construction, and mailed gauntlets to hide its skeletal state.
3. The lich has embalmed its bones in a waxen compound, creating an eerily lifeless similitude of dead-eyed face and cold hands.
4. The lich has opted for skeletal glory, studding its bones with rich metals, enamels and gems.
5. The lich appears as a skeletal horror, but has cast an illusion on itself, so that it sees itself as fair and youthful, its dank surroundings as a pleasure garden.
6. The lich has simply subjected itself to permanent invisibility.

Turning the lich consists, first of piercing or dispelling the illusion, then presenting the sacred symbol while subjecting it to mockery, to dethrone its sin of pride. Difficult, yes, but you didn't think you'd get away with just a d20 roll to fend off the king of the undead?


  1. Reminds me very much of how Warhammer undead were eventually revealed to work in the Liber Necris - they're taxonomised according to which of the seven bits of their souls they still have left.

    What I like about your physical version is the potential for lich artefacts that can be worn or physically attached to oneself to gain a fraction of the lich's powers, and for 'beginner' liches masquerading as blind sages. What's under that bandage, and why does he never speak above a whisper? Spooky stuff.

  2. I like this very much, in fact I made up an NPC lich called Sivith the Jewelled Corpse that would fit right in. As a fan of liches I would like to allow for other motivations too, though. For example the fear of death, which I guess the sin would be a lack of faith? Or even love, trying to remain around to protect a family or village.

  3. This is my favorite post of your undead by sin series.

    Particularly this:

    One might imagine that because they have reached their undead state through arcane sorceries, they have found a way to transfer their consciousness beyond the theological soul. They are therefore an unparalleled threat to divine justice; when destroyed, they merely cease to exist, and their sins will go unpunished.

    Does that have any literary antecedent?

  4. Thanks all! @Brendan: No precedent that I know of, just working through the concept and trying to come up with the ultimate blasphemy.

  5. This is brilliant! It just oozes with flavor of awesome.

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