Last Updated on January 22, 2023
On the list of things adventurers dread running into on the bottom level of a dungeon, an ancient evil dragon and a lich — an incredibly powerful undead magic user who tore their own soul out in order to live forever — are probably close to the top.
The Dracolich combines those two fears into a cocktail of pure nightmare fuel that — in addition to making your next boss fight feel like cover for a heavy-metal concept album called something like The Sixteen Broken Catechisms of the Flaming Blood Queen or whatever… bunch of nerds — has spelled doom for many an adventuring party.
What Is a Dracolich?
A dracolich is an adult or ancient true dragon that has selfishly undergone the ritual to become a lich, encasing their spirit within a gem that serves as their phylactery and attaining immortality.
The dracolich retains all the statistics and abilities it had in life but now counts as an undead creature and gains corresponding resistances and abilities.
Becoming a dracolich is a profane and unnatural act for a dragon to undergo, and one who undergoes this transformation will be shunned by the rest of dragonkind and cut off from their gods forever.
Now, the fact that Bahamut, the platinum dragon, is opposed to this I understand, but the fact that even Tiamat — the queen of evil dragons — isn’t down with this process should tell you something about just how awful it is, although it’s possible she’s just mad that she doesn’t get to eat the dracolich’s soul or something.
Still, it’s a special kind of dragon that will go to such lengths to escape death.
Left to their own devices, dragons can live for centuries, even thousands of years.
For some dragons, a lifespan measured in millennia isn’t long enough. Only the most narcissistic dragons willingly undergo the process of becoming dracoliches.
Upon transforming, a dracolich’s skin and scales begin to drop away, revealing the creature’s skeleton beneath. Its eyes appear as points of light floating in shadowy eye sockets.
Though many dragons — especially the chromatic varieties — seek to destroy and dominate those life forms they see as being lesser than they are, dracoliches take this desire to rule to new levels.
These highly intelligent tyrants craft complex webs of foul schemes, attracting servants motivated by greed and a lust for power.
How To Make a Dracolich
The ritual to create a dracolich requires the participation of powerful sorcerers and acolytes who weave ancient necromantic magics around the living dragon.
At the climax of the ritual, the dragon drinks a toxic draught and dies, at which point its acolytes capture its spirit and transfer it into a gemstone, which functions like a lich’s phylactery.
If the dracolich’s physical form is destroyed, its soul returns to the gem as long as they’re on the same plane as one another.
If the gem ever touches the body or bones of another dead dragon, the dracolich’s spirit can possess them and return to a foul mimicry of life.
Interestingly, in older editions of D&D, a dracolich’s phylactery didn’t have to be a gem, and these undead creatures would choose to keep their soul in whichever piece of treasure in their hoard they prized the most.
As a result, there have been more than one campaign where an adventurer only found out their sword was home to a dracolich soul when it was too late.
History of the Dracolich
The existence of Dracoliches (originally known as Night Dragons or Undead Dragons) was first hinted at in the 1979 adventure White Plume Mountain.
At the top of the map depicting the area around the notorious fun house dungeon was a drawing of a skeletal dragon beside the words…
“Beyond to the lair of Dragotha, the undead dragon, where fabulous riches and hideous death await.”
I suppose if the world outside your door has dragons in it already, the “here be dragons” warnings at the edges of your maps have to go the extra mile to be taken seriously.
We wouldn’t get an adventure that actually featured a dracolich until 1986, when Dragon magazine’s June edition came out containing The Cult of the Dragon by Ed Greenwood.
Greenwood (creator of the Forgotten Realms setting) laid a lot of the groundwork in this early adventure for dracoliches and what they can do.
In the adventure, a bunch of chronically unhinged dragon worshippers (who also worshiped death) decided to combine their two major passions to create undead dragons that they would then use to rule the world as their new god emperors.
Like I said earlier: pure nightmare fuel.
Like the infamous shadow dragon, dracoliches aren’t born. They’re made.
Mechanically, this means that creating a dracolich stat block is a matter of passing an adult or ancient true dragon through the following template.
Other dragon-type creatures like wyverns, deep dragons, or pseudodragons are killed by this process — as are younger true dragons.
Dragons that have already had their nature changed or corrupted by magic or other effects — like the shadow dragon or the moonstone dragon — don’t have enough of their physical forms left to survive the transformation either.
When a dragon transforms into a dracolich, it retains all of its statistics except as described below. The dragon loses any trait, such as Amphibious, that assumes a living physiology.
The dracolich might retain or lose any or all of its lair actions or inherit new ones as the DM sees fit.
- Type: The dracolich’s type changes from dragon to undead, and it no longer requires air, food, drink, or sleep.
- Damage Resistance: The dracolich has resistance to necrotic damage.
- Damage Immunities: The dracolich has immunity to poison. It also retains any immunities it had prior to becoming a dracolich.
- Condition Immunities: The dracolich can’t be charmed, frightened, paralyzed, or poisoned. It also doesn’t suffer from exhaustion.
- Magic Resistance: The dracolich has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
Let’s see what that might look like.
Adult Blue Dracolich
Huge Undead, Lawful Evil
AC: 19 (natural armor)
HP: 225 (18d12 + 108)
Speed: 40 ft., burrow 30 ft., fly 80 ft.
STR 25 (+7), DEX 10 (+0), CON 23 (+6), INT 16 (+3), WIS 15 (+2), CHA 19 (+4)
Saving Throws: DEX +6, CON +12, WIS +8, CHA +10
Skills: Perception +14, Stealth +6
Damage Resistances: Necrotic
Damage Immunities: Lightning, Poison
Condition Immunities: Charmed, Exhaustion, Frightened, Paralyzed, Poisoned
Senses: Blindsight 60 ft., Darkvision 120 ft., Passive Perception 24
Languages: Common, Draconic
Challenge: 17 (18,000 XP)
Proficiency Bonus: +6
Legendary Resistance: (3/Day). If the dracolich fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.
Magic Resistance: The dracolich has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
Multiattack: The dracolich can use its Frightful Presence. It then makes three attacks: one with its bite and two with its claws.
Bite: Melee Weapon Attack: +13 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 18 (2d10 + 7) piercing damage plus 5 (1d10) lightning damage.
Claw: Melee Weapon Attack: +13 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 14 (2d6 + 7) slashing damage.
Tail: Melee Weapon Attack: +13 to hit, reach 15 ft., one target. Hit: 16 (2d8 + 7) bludgeoning damage.
Frightful Presence: Each creature of the dracolich’s choice that is within 120 feet of the dracolich and aware of it must succeed on a DC 18 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1 minute.
A creature can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.
If a creature’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the creature is immune to the dracolich’s Frightful Presence for the next 24 hours.
Lightning Breath (Recharge 5–6): The dracolich exhales lightning in a 90-foot line that is 5 feet wide.
Each creature in that line must make a DC 20 Dexterity saving throw, taking 66 (12d10) lightning damage on a failed save or half as much damage on a successful one.
The dracolich can take 3 legendary actions, choosing from the options below.
Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature’s turn. The dracolich regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.
Detect: The dracolich makes a Wisdom (Perception) check.
Tail Attack: The dracolich makes a tail attack.
Wing Attack (Costs 2 Actions): The dracolich beats its tattered wings. Each creature within 10 feet of the dracolich must succeed on a DC 21 Dexterity saving throw or take 14 (2d6 + 7) bludgeoning damage and be knocked prone.
After beating its wings this way, the dracolich can fly up to half its flying speed.
How To Run a Dracolich
Running a dracolich — much like running a shadow dragon — is all about putting a twist on something familiar. In this case, we’re adding a splash of undeath to the classic dragon format.
Also, the fact that dracoliches are consummate schemers — who wouldn’t be with all of eternity to kill? — is very fun.
A dracolich makes a great high-level boss to reveal as being behind all the party’s previous troubles (assuming you appropriately hinted at this beforehand).
For the most part, you should run an actual combat encounter with a dracolich just like you’d run one with a living dragon.
The dracolich flies over the party, staying out of range as much as possible if it thinks they’re a threat and attacking with its breath weapon before swooping in to finish off weakened enemies with its claws and teeth.
The most interesting thing about a dracolich is definitely its lair, which you can represent as an undead reflection of the effect the dragon had when it was alive. A red dracolich might have a lair full of flame skulls, for example.
While the Monster Manual says that dracoliches retain the lair actions of their living counterparts, they can also gain new ones. Therefore, we’ve come up with a few actions that reflect the dracolich’s undead nature.
Dracolich Lair Actions
On initiative count 20 (losing initiative ties), the dracolich takes a lair action to cause one of the following effects; the dracolich can’t use the same effect two rounds in a row:
- Specter of Death: The dracolich reanimates the corpse of 1d4 humanoids within its lair, raising each one as a Specter under its command.
- Necromantic Magic: The dracolich casts a spell of 2nd level or lower from the Necromancy spell list.
- Grip of the Grave: One creature that the dracolich can see that is missing more than half of its hit points must make a DC 18 Constitution saving throw or be unable to regain hit points magically or otherwise until the next dawn.
- Entropic Gaze: The dracolich causes an inanimate object — a door, a rope, a piece of wall, a tree — small enough to fit inside a 15×15 foot cube to rapidly age as it stares at it, reducing it to dust by the end of the round.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.