Creature Feature: Acererak – A Guide to DnD 5e’s Scariest Lich for Players & DMs

The Devourer, the Lord of Unlife, servant of Orcus the demon prince, creator of the Tomb of Horrors, and possibly the most powerful arch-lich in history –  Acererak of the Scarlet Robes has many names and titles earned throughout centuries spent as notorious necromancer, lich, demi-lich, minor god, and generally all-around bad dude. 

Welcome to our guide to Acererak, his place within Dungeons & Dragons canon, and how you can use him in your own games. 

Also, because this article is supposed to be for players as well, I’m going to put the full extent of my advice to any adventuring party thinking about fighting Acererak up front: just don’t. 

Ok, let’s jump right in. 

Who Is Acererak? 

Acererak is one of the most enduring villains in the history of Dungeons & Dragons. He first crops up as the final boss of the notoriously cruel, frustrating, (some say classic), and deadly adventure The Tomb of Horrors

Ages past, a human magic-user/cleric of surpassing evil took the steps necessary to preserve his life force beyond the centuries he had already lived, and this creature became the lich, Acererak.

Tomb of Horrors, Gary Gygax (1978)

The arch-lich’s infamously dangerous dungeon was designed from the ground up to confound, trick, trap, and (more often than not) forcibly teleport adventurers up to 600 miles away while simultaneously destroying all of their clothes and magic items. It’s a nightmare. 

Any adventuring party bold, lucky, or probably just stubborn enough to get all the way through the Tomb of Horrors would find themselves in THE CRYPT OF ACERERAK THE DEMI-LICH where his jewel-encrusted skull waited as a well-earned reward for any adventurer bold enough to claim it.

Just kidding.

Anyone who touches the skull gets their soul sucked out of their body and trapped in one of the gems.

Oh, and their body rots and withers away to nothing in a matter of seconds. Because screw you, that’s why. The Tomb of Horrors sucks. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Acererak’s earliest descriptions describe him as having been born a human.

His later appearances, however, have revealed that while his mother was indeed human, his father was a Balor – an especially powerful demon from the very depths of the abyss. 

His mother (who, like the mothers of many famous men, tends to be given very little attention by male writers before being unceremoniously shoved in a refrigerator) managed to keep Acererak’s parentage a secret until he was about 10.

At this point, a rampaging mob of fearful farmers burned down their house. Acererak was the only survivor, unharmed by the fire and now burning with hatred for all humankind. 

His rise, from necromancer to lich to demilich, took place over close to 1,000 years.

Acererak ended up pledging fealty to the demon prince of undeath, Orcus, and is even said to have apprenticed for some time under Vecna – possibly the only evil wizard-turned-lich (a natural career progression it would seem) more powerful than he. 

During his time as an influential figure in the cult of Orcus, Acererak commanded the cult’s followers to raise (or lower?) many huge, labyrinthine tombs, temples, and crypts throughout the evil parts of the world.

The Tomb of Horrors is just one. 

Aside from an inhuman thirst for power and knowledge, as well as a total, psychopathic disregard for human life (which could probably be considered useful skills when you work for the demon prince of death), Acererak’s only flaw is supposedly his arrogance. 

He delights in attracting powerful heroes to his dungeons with the promise of riches. He fills his dungeons with as many (vague and infuriating) clues as there are four-armed gargoyles and deadly traps.

He’s the closest thing we have to a Gary Gygax self-insert (Mordenkainen excepted, of course) in D&D is what I’m saying. 

What Does Acererak Want?

What Acererak wants is a slightly trickier thing to pin down, especially as it has changed throughout the editions. Revenge against humanity is one possibility, although the accumulation of power is another strong choice.

Furthering the designs of Orcus is another great option, although Acererak’s ties to his dark master are definitely a lot looser than, say, Vecna’s. 

In the Tomb of Horrors (both the AD&D and 5e versions), however, Acererak’s goals aren’t actually all that confrontational.

As he made the transition away from lich toward demi-lich (a floating skull; contrary to appearances, demi-liches aren’t half-liches but rather the next stage of lichdom as the lich in question leaves their mortal form even further behind – although other accounts suggest that demiliches are what you get when a lich forgets to feed fresh souls to their phylactery), Acererak’s goals shifted more toward the pursuit of knowledge. 

His skull (and maybe his phylactery) reside within the tomb, but his mind wanders far and wide throughout the multiverse, pursuing curiosities our puny mortal minds couldn’t begin to comprehend. 

Over the scores of years which followed, the lich dwelled with hordes of ghastly servants in the gloomy stone halls of the very hill where the Tomb is. Eventually even the undead life force of Acererak began to wane, so for the next 8 decades, the lich’s servants labored to create the Tomb of Horrors.

Then Acererak destroyed all of his slaves and servitors, magically hid the entrance to his halls, and went to his final haunt, while his soul roamed strange planes unknown to even the wisest of sages.

Tomb of Horrors, Gary Gygax (1978)

Though he canonically enjoys cruelly toying with adventurers who stumble into his realm, what Acererak actually wants – even more than entertainment – is to be left alone. 

Acererak’s Many Forms

Whether you want to present Acererak as a credible threat to a mid-level adventuring party, a world-ending menace, or just an ethereal demi-godlike being who just wants a bit of peace and quiet, there are a few different iterations of the iconic lich that could crop up in your game. 

Acererak the Lich 

His archetypical form, capable of laying waste to entire kingdoms and putting a party of 20th-level heroes on the back foot. 

Acererak

Medium undead, neutral evil

Armor Class 21 (natural armor)

Hit Points 285 (30d8+150)

Speed 30 feet

STR 13 (+1)     

DEX  16 (+3)     

CON 20 (+5)   

INT 27 (+8)   

WIS 21 (+5)  

CHA 20 (+5) 

Saving Throws. Con +12, Int +15, Wis +12

Skills. Arcana +22, History +22, Insight +12, Perception +12

Damage Resistances. Cold, lightning

Damage Immunities. Necrotic, poison; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks

Condition Immunities. Blinded, charmed, deafened, exhaustion, frightened, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, stunned

Senses. Truesight 120 feet, passive Perception 22

Languages. Abyssal, Common, Draconic, Dwarvish, Elvish, Giant, Infernal, Primordial, Undercommon

Challenge 23 (50,000 XP)

Special Equipment. Acererak carries the Staff of the Forgotten One. He wears a Talisman of the Sphere and has a Sphere of Annihilation under his control.

Legendary Resistance (3/Day). If Acererak fails a saving throw, he can choose to succeed instead.

Rejuvenation. Acererak’s body turns to dust when he drops to 0 hit points, and his equipment is left behind. Acererak gains a new body after 1d10 days, regaining all his hit points and becoming active again. The new body appears within 5 feet of Acererak’s phylactery, the location of which is hidden.

Spellcasting. Acererak is a 20th-level spellcaster. His spellcasting ability is Intelligence (spell save DC 23, +15 to hit with spell attacks). Acererak has the following wizard spells prepared:

Cantrips (at will): mage hand, ray of frost, shocking grasp

1st level (at will): ray of sickness, shield

2nd level (at will): arcane lock, knock

3rd level (at will): animate dead, counterspell

4th level (3 slots): blight, ice storm, phantasmal killer

5th level (3 slots): cloudkill, hold monster, wall of force

6th level (3 slots): chain lightning, circle of death, disintegrate

7th level (3 slots): finger of death, plane shift, teleport

8th level (2 slots): maze, mind blank

9th level (2 slots): power word kill, time stop

Turn Resistance. Acererak has advantage on saving throws against any effect that turns undead.

ACTIONS

Paralyzing Touch. Melee Spell Attack: +15 to hit, reach 5 feet, one creature. Hit: 10 (3d6) cold damage, and the target must succeed on a DC 20 Constitution saving throw or be paralyzed for 1 minute. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.

Staff (+3 Quarterstaff). Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 5 feet, one target. Hit: 7 (1d6 + 4) bludgeoning damage plus 10 (3d6) necrotic damage, or 8 (1d8 + 4) bludgeoning damage plus 10 (3d6) necrotic damage when used with two hands.

Invoke Curse. While holding the Staff of the Forgotten One, Acererak expends 1 charge from it and targets one creature he can see within 60 feet of him. The target must succeed on a DC 23 Constitution saving throw or be cursed. Until the curse is ended, the target can’t regain hit points and has vulnerability to necrotic damage. Greater restoration, remove curse, or similar magic ends the curse on the target.

LEGENDARY ACTIONS 

Acererak can take 3 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature’s turn. Acererak regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

At-Will Spell. Acererak casts one of his at-will spells.

Melee Attack. Acererak uses Paralyzing Touch or makes one melee attack with his staff.

Frightening Gaze (Costs 2 Actions). Acererak fixes his gaze on one creature he can see within 10 feet of him. The target must succeed on a DC 20 Wisdom saving throw against this magic or become frightened for 1 minute. The frightened target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a target’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the target is immune to Acererak’s gaze for the next 24 hours.

Talisman of the Sphere (Costs 2 Actions). Acererak uses his Talisman of the Sphere to move the Sphere of Annihilation under his control up to 90 feet.

Disrupt Life (Costs 3 Actions). Each creature within 20 feet of Acererak must make a DC 20 Constitution saving throw against this magic, taking 42 (12d6) necrotic damage on a failed save or half as much damage on a successful one.

Basically, take a lich, add a ton of hit points and legendary magic items, and you’ve got something close to Acererak’s power level.

He’s a terrifying spellcaster with a god-tier Intelligence score and a host of nasty abilities. He can also raise an undead army on a whim to keep any pesky heroes from getting too close.

Basically, he’s a walking nightmare. 

Acererak the Demilich 

If you want a slightly different flavor of Acererak, who perhaps isn’t totally invested in the complete destruction of the party and would rather just be left to his own unsavory devices, try running him as a demilich using our guide here

You could still give him a few legendary actions from his stats above, and maybe double the demilich’s HP to keep things nasty. 

Acererak the Necromancer

Want to put Acererak in your game but don’t want to completely destroy your players in a single turn of combat? How about taking a trip back in time to before he ascended to lichdom?

Powerful necromancers make for great bad guys, especially if they’re running around gathering up magical materials for the construction of some evil tomb way up in the hills. 

For this version of Acererak, try using the CR 9 Necromancer stats sound in Volo’s Guide to Monsters

How To Use Acererak in your Campaign 

Liches, evil magic users, and necromancers all make for classic BBEGs, and Acererak is perhaps the most iconic of them all. 

However, in much the same way that a campaign centered around fighting the evil dragon goddess Tiamat doesn’t necessarily have to end up with the players actually fighting her in person (that probably wouldn’t go well), setting up Acererak as the big bad for your campaign doesn’t have to end in a TPK in the final (or first, more likely) room of the Tomb of Horrors

Acererak is unbelievably powerful. And powerful, evil things attract other, less powerful but equally evil things.

A cult to Acererak, known as the Cult of the Devourer – named after a green-faced demon frieze on one of the walls of the Tomb of Horrors – already exists in D&D.

Setting up such a cult in your game could make for a great adventure or entire campaign. 

Maybe the cult is looking to tempt Acererak back into the material plane by making a sufficiently gory offering.

Maybe they want to reanimate him after the last time he was struck down by some adventurers.

Maybe they want to follow in his footsteps and seize lichdom for themselves. 

Again, for a lower-level party, setting a campaign far in the past when a still-mortal Acererak was in the process of building the Tomb of Horrors, could make for a really fun game, especially if the completion of the tomb is the thing that persuades Orcus to grant Acererak lichdom.

It’s not strictly faithful to the source material, but it’s your game, and I think it sounds pretty cool. 

Obviously, setting up Acererak as a far-off villain whose armies are beginning to sweep across the world is another option. Maybe he’s decided he’s bored with lichdom and wants to try godhood on for size. 

However you want to spin it, a great villain like Acererak can be the fulcrum around which a whole campaign pivots.

Just remember to play him as a self-professed genius, highly condescending, cruel, and with total disregard for human life. Your players will hate him. 

The Tomb of Horrors 

Look, no article about Acererak would be complete without a mention of the iconic (some say the most iconic dungeon in all of D&D) Tomb of Horrors.

This sprawling network of magically interconnected rooms, traps, doors to nowhere, and maddeningly oblique puzzles has been pissing off players and DMs since it came out. 

If you want a quick overview of what’s actually in the Tomb of Horrors, try this video by XP to Level 3, who ran a 5e game set there with disastrous results.

The original version of the Tomb of Horrors was first released for a gaming convention in 1975 and then in print for AD&D in 1978.

It was updated for 5e and released in the classic adventure collection Tales From the Yawning Portal – the book that also contains great classic adventures like The Sunless Citadel (one of the best low-level adventures of all time) and Against the Giants (another “classic” Gygaxian adventure that’s a lot of fun if you like trying to kill and then getting killed by giants), but the Tomb of Horrors is probably the most “iconic” scenario in there and… I don’t know why. 

This is a cripplingly obtuse, smug, deadly dungeon that I would never recommend you run without extensive conversion. Just, don’t do it.

There are about a million ways for characters to die, get permanently messed up, or just be teleported out of the dungeon again. 

The module even tries to trick the players into thinking they’ve killed Acererak (it’s actually just an insanely powerful mummy lord dressed up to look like him) so that they leave the dungeon.

The book then encourages the DM to gloat about this later. Ugh. There are some things I love about old school D&D, but this adversarial crap isn’t one of them. 

In short, the Tomb of Horrors is probably a lot of fun for Acererak, but it’s no fun for the players. 

Killing Acererak 

If you did decide to get all the way through the Tomb of Horrors or just put Acererak somewhere else in your campaign, killing him permanently presents your characters with yet another frustrating problem. 

All liches ascend into this ultimate form of undeath by separating their souls from their mortal bodies and storing them in something called a phylactery – basically a big jar that needs to be regularly fed more mortal souls or the lich withers and turns into a slightly more mindless demilich. 

Then, if the lich’s body is destroyed but their horcrux – I mean phylactery survives, they reanimate in short order and probably come looking for some revenge. 

Acererak is a lich, and so he has a phylactery, but it isn’t within the tomb.

In fact, the 2017 adventure Tomb of Annihilation notes that:

“The exact form and location of his phylactery is one of the greatest secrets in the multiverse, and unknown even to the gods, but it is believed to be kept hidden in some unknown secret demiplane.”

So, good luck I guess.

Although a campaign spent in pursuit of the location of the biggest, baddest lich of all time’s phylactery sounds like something I’d like to be a part of – especially if the goal isn’t something as boring as “killing the evil lich” but rather holding his soul for ransom and forcing him into servitude like a certain, tentacle-face fellow we all know and love. 

Anyway, that’s about it for Acererak the Devourer, the granddaddy of BBEGs and evil liches everywhere.

If you’re a DM, Acererak can make for a great addition to any campaign. If you’re a player and your DM forwarded you this article with the message “Wanna try the Tomb of Horrors this week?” I’m so, so sorry.