© Wizards of the Coast by Daniel Zrom

How to Play a Demilich in D&D 5e for Players & DMs

From the moldering pile of bones and desiccated flesh, a skull rises into the air before you. Its eyes glow with unearthly fire, and the spectral shadow of a robe billows behind it.

The mouth opens wide, and from it issues a bone-shattering, earsplitting howl that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt is the sound of your own, imminent death.

Liches are some of the most powerful and iconic monsters in Dungeons & Dragons. The cover of the Monster Manual even features the arch lich Acererak as he raises an army of undead. 

While the name may suggest that a Demilich would be half as powerful as a full blown lich, the reality is that in many ways, these entities are just as dangerous as a true lich. 

This CR 18 legendary monster retains many of the characteristics that make a lich so dangerous.

And what the demilich lacks in spellcasting it makes up for with increased survivability and a devastating AoE attack. 

Demilich

Tiny undead , neutral evil

AC: 20 (Natural Armor)

HP: 80 (32d4)

Speed: 0 ft., fly 30 ft. (hover)

STR: 1 (-5)

DEX: 20 (+5)

CON: 10 (+0)

INT: 20 (+5)

WIS: 17 (+3)

CHA: 20 (+5)

Saving Throws: CON +6, INT +11, WIS +9, CHA +11

Damage Resistances: Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing from magical weapons. 

Damage Immunities: Necrotic, Poison, Psychic; Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing from Nonmagical Attacks

Condition Immunities: Charmed, Deafened, Exhaustion, Frightened, Paralyzed, Petrified, Poisoned, Prone, Stunned

Senses: Truesight 120 ft., Passive Perception 13

Languages: none

CR: 18 (20,000 XP)

Proficiency Bonus: +6

Avoidance: When the demilich makes a saving throw to avoid taking damage. If it would still take half damage on a successful save, it instead takes no damage. If it fails the saving throw, it only takes half damage. 

Legendary Resistances: Three times a day, if the demilich fails a saving throw, the DM can instead declare that it succeeds.  

Turn Immunity: The demilich is immune to effects that turn undead.

Actions

Howl (Recharge 5–6): With a blood-chilling, mind-shattering howl, the demilich emits a wave of death that forces every creature within 30ft to make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or immediately drop to 0 hit points. Any creature passes its saving throw is frightened of the demilich until the end of its next turn (and for good reason). 

Life Drain: The demilich steals the very life force from its enemies, imposing a DC 19 Constitution saving throw on three enemies it can see. Any creature that fails takes 21 (6d6) necrotic damage, and the demilich regains hit points equal to the total damage dealt to all targets.

Legendary Actions

The demilich can take 3 legendary actions per round at the end of another creature’s turn, although it can only take one legendary action at a time.  

Flight: The demilich flies up to half its flying speed (15ft unless otherwise affected).

Cloud of Dust: The demilich spews out a cloud of corpse dust from its remains, forcing each creature within 10ft of it to succeed on a DC 15 Constitution save or be blinded until the end of the demilich’s next turn, although if a creature passes they’re save, they become briefly immune to the effect. 

Energy Drain (Costs 2 Actions): The demilich forces each creature within 30 feet of it to make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw. Any creature that fails has its hit point maximum magically reduced by 3d6 – and can only be restored by something like the greater restoration spell. If a creature’s hit point maximum is reduced to 0 by this effect, it dies without making any death saving throws

Vile Curse (Costs 3 Actions): One creature that the demilich can see within 30 ft must succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or become cursed. Until the curse ends, the target has disadvantage on all its attack rolls and saving throws. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the curse on a success.

What is a Demilich? 

A lich is a powerful magic user who has cheated death itself, attaining immortality and power beyond mortal understanding at a terrible price. Attaining lichdom requires the prospective lich to sever their soul from their mortal body, encasing it within a vessel called a phylactery. 

As long as the phylactery remains intact, the lich can never truly die. When a lich’s body is broken, its will and consciousness is drained from the corpse, leaving only bones and necrotized flesh behind.

Within a matter of days, a new body reforms next to the lich’s phylactery, coalescing out of glowing smoke to resume its grim work. 

However, the process of retaining its power and mental faculties throughout this process requires constant upkeep. Liches must regularly feed new souls to their phylactery.

A lich that is unable, unwilling, or forgets to do so (some liches are many thousands of years old, an experience that does funny things to your memory) turns to dust, crumbling and decaying rapidly until only its bleached skull remains. This is a demilich. 

The legendary lich Acererak – principal villain of the classic adventure The Tomb of Horrors – even sought to become a demilich, believing it to be the next stage in his transcendence of mortality. 

While a demilich might not retain the knowledge of how to cast spells (or speak a language for that matter) that a lich has, that doesn’t mean their raw intellect has been lessened.

With a 20 in Intelligence and Charisma (which is weirdly higher than the Charisma of a regular lich; I guess floating skulls that can kill you by screaming just have more gravitas), the demilich is still one of the most mentally formidable opponents in all of D&D.

What it has lost, however, is its willpower and drive to power and immortality – the cornerstone of any lich. 

A demilich could outmaneuver, outplan, and outthink you if it wanted, but without a steady supply of souls, the energy that gives it drive and focus is gone. 

A demilich’s skull contains but a sliver of the lich’s malevolent life force — just enough so that if it is disturbed, these remains rise into the air to kill anything it encounters. 

If its phylactery remains intact, the demilich will regenerate after 1d10 days and, if it consumes even a single soul, it once again becomes a fully-fledged lich.

The rules as written don’t actually specify how the demilich can do this, however, implying that someone else (a cult of lich-worshippers or an overly curious and careless scholar perhaps) needs to do it. 

How to Fight a Demilich 

Facing a demilich in battle is a truly terrifying prospect – a fight only the most powerful, not to mention lucky, parties can hope to emerge from victorious. 

First, the demilich’s Howl ability doesn’t discriminate between a party of 10th level adventurers or a 20th level gang of demigods; if you fail that saving throw, you’re done.

The best thing you can do is to keep yourself at a distance or, if possible, take the demilich out before it has a chance to react.

It only has 80 hit points, meaning that a high level party should have no problem dishing out enough damage to put it out of commission for a while, hopefully giving you enough time to find its phylactery and finish the monster off permanently. 

However, inflicting 80 damage on a demilich in a single round is easier said than done. The demilich has one of the broadest range of immunities and resistances in the game, not to mention its avoidance ability and immunity to turn undead. 

If you have a high enough level spellcaster in the party, my personal recommendation would be to cast Power Word Kill, which instantly kills any creature with fewer than 100 hp.

If you don’t have access to this, then the demilich’s incredibly low Strength is the next best weakness to exploit as it’s an easy target for a grapple to prevent it from hovering out of melee range – although that does put at least one character within easy range of Howl and its other abilities. 

While a lich can be reasoned with, bargained with, or – if your party likes a long shot – begged for mercy, you’ll find no such opportunities when you come up against a demilich.

The only way you might be able to get through to one is by directly threatening its phylactery, which might spark some vestige of a half-forgotten desire to live. But honestly, if you’re holding a magic hammer over a demilich’s soul box, just smash the damn thing already. 

Running a Demilich 

Unlike a lich, a demilich has no plan, no drive to conquer or to obtain knowledge. It lies dormant at the centre of its lair, and mechanically attacks anything that gets close enough to disturb its eternal rest. 

In combat, lead with the demilich’s Howl ability, then use its flying speed to hover above the party, throwing out life drain and blinding its foes with Cloud of Dust. 

Kieth Ammann, author of the fantastic blog and book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, has some fantastic advice for running a demilich in combat against a party you wouldn’t mind killing. 

The Demilich’s Lair 

While a demilich won’t build a lair of its own, or bother to enslave any creatures willing to do so for it, they may still inhabit somewhere ancient and abandoned – perhaps the tower or castle where they lived while they were a lich. 

When you put a demilich in your game, think about its phylactery, and why the demilich no longer feeds it with souls. Perhaps the demilich has been imprisoned, cut off from its own soul and unable to feed it. Perhaps it has simply lost interest, or has no available source of souls.

The 5e entry for demiliches suggests that one would “hide its earthly remains and treasures in a labyrinthine tomb guarded by monsters and traps. At the heart of this labyrinth rests the demilich’s skull and the dust from its other bones.” 

Even lessened as it is, the raw power of a demilich saturates the surrounding area and produces one or more of the following effects: 

  • The first time a non-evil creature enters the tomb’s area, the creature takes 16 (3d10) necrotic damage.
  • Monsters in the tomb have advantage on saving throws against being charmed or frightened, and against features that turn undead.
  • The tomb is warded against the magical travel of creatures the demilich hasn’t authorized. Such creatures can’t teleport into or out of the tomb’s area or use planar travel to enter or leave it. Effects that allow teleportation or planar travel work within the tomb as long as they aren’t used to leave or enter the tomb’s area.

If the demilich is destroyed, these effects fade over the course of 10 days.

Lair Actions 

On initiative count 20 (losing initiative ties), the demilich rolls a d20. On a result of 11 or higher, the demilich takes a lair action to cause one of the following effects.

It can’t use the same effect two rounds in a row.

  • The tomb trembles violently for a moment. Each creature on the floor of the tomb must succeed on a DC 19 Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone.
  • The demilich targets one creature it can see within 60 feet of it. An antimagic field fills the space of the target, moving with it until initiative count 20 on the next round.
  • The demilich targets any number of creatures it can see within 30 feet of it. No target can regain hit points until initiative count 20 on the next round.