Last Updated on January 22, 2023
From the world of Oaert (Greyhawk) to the depths of the Domains of Dread, there are few who dare mention the true name of “The Whispered One,” the Master of the Spider Throne, the Undying King, the Chained God, the Arch-Lich himself, the Lord of the Rotten Tower, the author of the Book of Vile Darkness, the ancient evil with more names than this article’s word count will allow: VECNA.
Welcome to our guide to one of D&D’s most iconic villains, a powerful wizard turned lich, turned god.
In this article, we’re going to give you a quick introduction to Vecna and his appearances throughout the history of the game and some advice on how you can run Vecna in your own D&D 5e game.
And of course we’ll take a closer look at the two magic items he created that might actually be more iconic than Vecna himself – his hand and eye.
If you’re ready, we can begin.
Who Is Vecna?
Vecna, widely regarded as D&D’s most powerful and evil lich, has grown and changed several times throughout the history of the game.
(As an interesting aside, Vecna is an anagram of Vance – as in Jack Vance, author of the Dying Earth novels, which were hugely influential on the tone and mechanics of early D&D. Magic in particular, in early D&D, was ripped straight out of the Dying Earth books – known now as Vancian magic – and was the foundation for the concept of spell slots. Anyway…)
Vecna was actually a pair of magic items before he was actually a fully fleshed-out (I mean, he’s a lich; is he ever fully fleshed out?) character.
He is first referenced in OD&D’s third supplement, Eldritch Wizardry, which contains entries for the Eye of Vecna and the Hand of Vecna.
The Hand of Vecna appears to be a dried, shriveled and blackened hand, such as could have been caused by having been burned. The hand (and it is also rumored in dark passageways, an eye) is the sole remains of an ancient lich who was so powerful that he was able to imbue his hand with wondrous/horrible powers and to enable it to survive even after his long-undead body had ceased to exist.Eldritch Wizardry (1976), Gary Gygax & Brian Blume
Both the hand and eye were – it was later established – severed from Vecna in an epic battle with his traitorous lieutenant Kas the Bloody Handed, which saw them both banished from the world of Greyhawk, imprisoned and bound to do battle for all time in the Domains of Dread.
But more on that in a minute.
Vecna was born a human (or perhaps a half-elf) in the world of Oerth.
After a fairly traumatic upbringing (see my article on D&D’s other infamous lich, Acererak, for more examples of dead mothers, rampaging mobs, and dark wizards swearing revenge), Vecna grew in power to a point where he’s regarded as being among the foremost archmages in D&D history, alongside Bigby, Tasha, and Gary Gygax’s own self-insert Mordenkainen.
Yet, as powerful as Vecna grew, he struggled with the inescapable fact of his own mortality.
Desperate, he left his trusty right-hand-man Kas in charge of his empire and turned evermore toward seeking a cure for his own eventual death.
During this time, he is credited as having been a major contributor to two of the multiverse’s most taboo grimoires: Ordinary Necromancy and was the first scholar to compile a bound copy of the Book of Vile Darkness.
(As another aside, the Book of Vile Darkness managed to become taboo both in and out of the world of D&D. A printed version, written by Monte Cook and Robert J. Schwalb, was released as a supplement for 3e in 2002. I wouldn’t bother reading it; it’s pretty gross, and not in a good way).
How and exactly when Vecna became a lich is hard to pin down. Some say he studied under the direct tutelage of Mok’slyk, the Serpent, said to be the personification of magic itself, and later retconned to have been Orcus – demon prince of undeath – the whole time.
Some say he invented a spell so powerful it allowed him to confront his own death, force it to take physical form, and then imprison it in a pocket dimension – only to be released at a time of his own choosing.
Some say he just read, like, a bunch of cursed books.
Speaking of cursed books, the story of Vecna was eventually laid out in 2e D&D (honestly my favorite edition for adventure writing; Vecna-related content aside, go check out Night Below by Carl Sargent. It’s amazing), where the arch-lich, Lord of the Eye, was the focus of three of the edition’s best adventures: Vecna Lives!, Vecna Reborn, and Die Vecna Die!
Published in 1990, Vecna Lives! is an adventure written by David “Zeb” Cook – one of the all-time great game designers for D&D, who contributed to several editions of the game rules, and wrote other amazing adventures like The Isle of Dread and also authored the Planescape setting – and set in the world of Greyhawk.
The background of this book lays out the story we told before: Vecna was born, became the world’s most powerful wizard tyrant, cheated death, became Greyhawk’s most powerful evil wizard, and turned his sights towards attaining godhood.
While Vecna continued his pursuit of godhood, he hired, and was subsequently betrayed by, his most trusted servant Kas.
(Yet another aside: during his time as a lich on Oerth, Vecna was responsible for taking a young half-demon under his wing and teaching him dark magics. That youth would later go on to save Vecna’s life in a battle against Pholtus, the god of light, and become a powerful lich himself. His name? Acererak.)
In the wreckage of his black tower, neither Vecna nor Kas were anywhere to be found, but the evil magic sword Vecna forged for Kas (called, somewhat unimaginatively “The Sword of Kas”) as well as the Hand and Eye of Vecna were discovered among the rubble.
Vecna himself was presumed dead, but he (along with Kas) actually ended up in the Domains of Dread – a series of pocket dimensions within the Ethereal Plane, also home to Barovia, the domain of the vampire lord Strahd Von Zarovich.
No matter where Vecna crops up, his appearance is pretty consistent throughout the editions.
He is often depicted as a withered corpse wearing wizard’s robes, with a glittering gem in place of one of his eyes.
Also, his hand is either missing completely or replaced with a ghostly appendage made of light (once he absorbs the life force of the demigod Iuz in Die Vecna Die!).
Also, once Vecna does manage to attain greater godhood, his form changes to that of a dark-haired, handsome man with an ageless face. Basically, he reveals that he was Keanu Reeves the whole time.
Matt Colville also characterizes Vecna as having six fingers, which I think does a great job of tipping off players in the know, but official 5e content – not to mention Vecna’s appearance as the big bad in one of the seasons of Critical Role – usually portrays him as having the usual five.
In the wake of Vecna’s (greatly exaggerated) death, his hand and eye cropped up numerous times throughout the multiverse, always sowing death and misery in their wake. Before long, they began to attract worshippers.
The rise of The Cult of Vecna led to his followers seeking his return to the material plane. After many centuries, they succeeded.
Vecna returned to the world of Greyhawk as a minor deity. Unsatisfied, Vecna sought ascension to become not just a major god but the only god in the world of Oerth.
To make this happen, he needed worshippers and so set his cult to work scattering relics throughout the world which, when used in conjunction with his lost eye and hand, would cut off Greyhawk from the other gods, leaving him as the only god game in town.
The plot of Vecna Lives! centers on the efforts of a high-level party (aided by Mordenkainen, who’s in full-on Gandalf mode in this adventure) to stop Vecna’s ritual and banish him once again to the Domains of Dread using his hand and eye.
Assuming the heroes succeed (something the adventure doesn’t do; it contains a whole, super-bleak alternate ending, detailing the sorry state of the world should Vecna rise again), the adventure ends here.
Following his defeat at the end of Vecna Lives!, the Arch-Lich’s story picks up again in Vecna Reborn, a 2e adventure by Book of Vile Darkness author Monte Cook released in 1998.
This adventure sees Vecna transported from Greyhawk into the Domains of Dread.
Along with Strahd the vampire lord and his one-time-ally Kas the Bloody Handed, Vecna is imprisoned by the mists of Ravenloft within his own personal nightmare domain – a realm of desert sands surrounding a vast citadel in the shape of a human skull.
Here, Vecna’s prison domain, Cavitius, lies collided with Kas’ own realm, Tovag. Here, the two wage a bloody, eternal war against one another – ruling kingdoms of terrified subjects.
Trapped within his own domain, Vecna and his servants plot his escape. Members of the Cult of Vecna within the city of Tor Gorak in Tovag plan to resurrect their lich god outside of his own domain, thus breaking the curse that holds him in the Domains of Dread.
This, you might have guessed, is pretty bad news for the rest of creation.
If the PCs succeed in preventing Vecna’s return to the multiverse, he remains trapped within the Domains of Dread – but no prison can hold a being of godlike power forever.
When Vecna escapes (and he will), his diabolical plans form the plot of the third and final 2e Vecna adventure: Die Vecna Die!
Die Vecna Die!
The final installment in the Vecna saga, Die Vecna Die! was published in 2000 and was one of the last adventures ever published for 2e D&D.
Written by Steve Miller and Bruce Cordell, the adventure tackles what happens when Vecna finally escapes his prison in the Domains of Dread.
Before becoming trapped in the Domains of Dread by the mists of Ravenloft, Vecna created two stone tablets.
Engraved with a 10th-level spell written in the language primeval (supposedly taught to Vecna by The Serpent, who seems to have put a lot of effort into helping Vecna over the centuries), the tablets were concealed in an ancient tomb where Vecna assumed (correctly) it would only be a matter of time before some nosey adventurers came along, dug them up, and let them fall into the hands of a demigod being powerful enough to use them without understanding what they did.
Well, Vecna was right on the money.
The tablets were unearthed, and the bait was firmly taken by the demigod Iuz (who’s actually the son of Tasha from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, who I’m beginning to realize might be a lot more powerful than I gave her credit for), falling for the ruse and getting absorbed into Vecna’s own body after his attempt to slay Vecna within his own citadel of Cavitius (the location of most of the middle act of this adventure) fails miserably.
The resultant surge of power allowed Vecna to escape the Domains of Dread and ascend to full godhood.
Free from his internment at last, Vecna sets about his plan to finally attain not only true godhood but also to become the only god in the multiverse – possibly destroying all of creation in the process.
THE GODLINGS WHO PLAYED AT RULERSHIP HERE WILL TROUBLE ME NO MORE. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN MY DESTINY TO BE THE MASTER OF ALL THAT IS, WAS, OR WILL BE.Vecna, Die Vecna Die! (1998)
He then opens up a portal to the very heart of the multiverse and lays siege of Sigil – the city of doors ruled by the Lady of Pain and off limits to most gods, goddesses and other divine beings.
Once inside Sigil, Vecna’s transformation into a deity is complete, allowing him to be the first true god to walk the city’s streets.
This is especially bad because, as the hub around which the planes of the multiverse revolve, a being of godlike power here could alter, rearrange, or destroy one or even all of the planes of reality at once.
By laying waste to any plane with a god living on it, Vecna could secure himself as the greatest (read: only) god in the multiverse.
Assuming you’re not sitting under a giant post that reads “I LOVE VECNA, SUPREME RULER OF THE UNIVERSE” right now, the adventurers stop him, slaying him at last with the Sword of Kas. Vecna is, finally, gone.
Or is he…
How To Put Vecna in Your Campaign
I hope it’s clear by now why Vecna is one of D&D’s all time greatest bad guys. A conniving, evil lich-god with designs to rule all of creation? Yes please.
Vecna is everything I love about a cartoonishly evil, mustache-twirling bad guy. He wants power. All the power. And he has a plan to get it.
If that sounds like the kind of good stuff you want to put in your next campaign, I’m afraid you’re going to need to do a little legwork.
While the hand and eye of Vecna are both present in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide and pretty much every edition is riddled with references to him (3rd edition even lists him as a minor deity you can worship), there’s no 5e conversion for any of the classic Vecna adventures that you can run out of the box today.
While the recent Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft setting expands Ravenloft beyond Barovia and into the other Domains of Dread, Cavitius is sadly absent. Looks like 5e Vecna escaped his prison as well.
However, if you’re willing to do a little conversion and game design on your own, you can either update the 2e Vecna adventures to suit 5e or just steal bits of them piecemeal to stick into your own campaign.
Tip One: By the Power of Greysku- I mean Cavitius!
Personally, I think the Citadel Cavitius might be the best example of pulp horror in all of D&D, and I definitely plan on including it in my ongoing campaign.
A vast, skull-shaped citadel, home to 10,000 Vecna-worshipping cultists, vampires, and other horrors, locked in the heart of a vast desert that slows down magical healing and turns all necromantic spellcasting up to 11?! Yes please.
The mists of Ravenloft are also a great plot teleporter, capable of pulling players from anywhere for just about any reason. Maybe Vecna himself has need of their services – unable as he is to return to the material world.
This brings me to my second tip for running Vecna in your game.
Tip Two: Don’t Fight Vecna
As easy as it is to set Vecna up as the ultimate BBEG for your campaign, I’d suggest resisting that impulse.
There are no stats for Vecna in 5e, but even your average lich is a CR 21 monster and a 9th level spellcaster. Vecna is not an average lich.
In fact, if we put him on a power level akin to an aspect of Tiamat – the queen of evil dragons and also a minor deity (also, an aspect isn’t even meant to represent the full extent of her powers) he would have a CR of 30.
Basically, fighting him head on isn’t going to be fun for anyone.
While I’d never advise it, if you do end up in a situation where your players are trying to fight Vecna, here’s how I’d do it.
Vecna is a god. When D&D starts getting into god-fighting territory, the rules get a bit wooly.
Deities don’t have to play by the rules of the game. They’re gods.
Consider them immune to everything but plot (complicated rituals, other gods, the heat death of the universe, etc.), and taking one down is less a matter of rolling dice then it is coming up with a very, very cunning plan.
Maybe crossing the streams will work, but I doubt it.
If your players try to fight Vecna, even in his demigod form, just have him raise a legion of 1,000 skeletons to beat the PCs until they drop below 100hp; when Vecna casts five instances of Power Word – Kill at once.
Or, if you want to be more insulting, Vecna laughs at them, teleports them all into the Negative plane, and goes back to reading his book.
This may seem cruel, but the abiding lessing your players should take away from trying to fight a god is that they shouldn’t.
It’s much better to do what the three Vecna adventures from 2e did (even Die Vecna Die! Weakened him considerably for the final confrontation in the City of Doors), and make it clear to the players that a head-on approach is suicide.
Being sneaky, charming, and smart will get you closer to victory against Vecna than charging in swords swinging.
Vecna also makes a great looming threat to bubble away in the background. He could even plausibly make a powerful patron of quest giver for a less scrupulous party of adventurers.
Maybe he’s not even the main villain and they need to visit Cavitius for other reasons; just having the Lord of All Liches wander through the background of one of my games would be exciting enough.
Tip Three: Use the Cult
The Vecna adventure trilogy does a great job of keeping Vecna on the sidelines for most of the story. Most of the time, you’re fighting the people who worship Vecna rather than the lich-god himself.
If you want to raise the stakes for any low-level adventure, the threat that cultists might attract the attention of the biggest, baddest lich in the multiverse is sure to crank up the tension.
The Hand and Eye of Vecna
It wouldn’t be a guide to Vecna if we didn’t also talk about his two most iconic magic items.
The Hand and Eye of Vecna were separated from his physical form in his battle with Kas and are said to contain a fragment of his malevolent energy.
They’re relics of great significance to evil sorcerers and cultists throughout the multiverse, and infuse those who attune to them with incredible powers – at a terrible price, of course.
In both OD&D and 5e, the properties of the Hand and Eye of Vecna are different in every game you play – reflecting the chaotic evil nature of their creator.
(Yeah, Vecna’s alignment has also been Neutral and Lawful Evil at different points throughout various editions, but come on! He tried to burn down the multiverse! *Seinfeld voice* He’s chaotic evil, people!).
The Eye of Vecna and the Hand of Vecna each have the following random properties:
1 minor beneficial property
1 major beneficial property
1 minor detrimental property
To determine these properties, roll on the corresponding tables from the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Minor Beneficial Properties
01–20 While attuned to the artifact, you gain proficiency in one skill of the DM’s choice.
21–30 While attuned to the artifact, you are immune to disease.
31–40 While attuned to the artifact, you can’t be charmed or frightened.
41–50 While attuned to the artifact, you have resistance against one damage type of the DM’s choice.
51–60 While attuned to the artifact, you can use an action to cast one cantrip (chosen by the DM) from it.
61–70 While attuned to the artifact, you can use an action to cast one 1st-level spell (chosen by the DM) from it. After you cast the spell, roll a d6. On a roll of 1–5, you can’t cast it again until the next dawn.
71–80 As 61–70 above, except the spell is 2nd level.
81–90 As 61–70 above, except the spell is 3rd level.
91–00 While attuned to the artifact, you gain a +1 bonus to Armor Class.
Major Beneficial Properties
01–20 While attuned to the artifact, one of your ability scores (DM’s choice) increases by 2, to a maximum of 24.
21–30 While attuned to the artifact, you regain 1d6 hit points at the start of your turn if you have at least 1 hit point.
31–40 When you hit with a weapon attack while attuned to the artifact, the target takes an extra 1d6 damage of the weapon’s type.
41–50 While attuned to the artifact, your walking speed increases by 10 feet.
51–60 While attuned to the artifact, you can use an action to cast one 4th-level spell (chosen by the DM) from it. After you cast the spell, roll a d6. On a roll of 1–5, you can’t cast it again until the next dawn.
61–70 As 51–60 above, except the spell is 5th level.
71–80 As 51–60 above, except the spell is 6th level.
81–90 As 51–60 above, except the spell is 7th level.
91–00 While attuned to the artifact, you can’t be blinded, deafened, petrified, or stunned.
Minor Detrimental Properties
01–05 While attuned to the artifact, you have disadvantage on saving throws against spells.
06–10 The first time you touch a gem or piece of jewelry while attuned to this artifact, the value of the gem or jewelry is reduced by half.
11–15 While attuned to the artifact, you are blinded when you are more than 10 feet away from it.
16–20 While attuned to the artifact, you have disadvantage on saving throws against poison.
21–30 While attuned to the artifact, you emit a sour stench noticeable from up to 10 feet away.
31–35 While attuned to the artifact, all holy water within 10 feet of you is destroyed.
36–40 While attuned to the artifact, you are physically ill and have disadvantage on any ability check or saving throw that uses Strength or Constitution.
41–45 While attuned to the artifact, your weight increases by 1d4 × 10 pounds.
46–50 While attuned to the artifact, your appearance changes as the DM decides.
51–55 While attuned to the artifact, you are deafened when you are more than 10 feet away from it.
56–60 While attuned to the artifact, your weight drops by 1d4 × 5 pounds.
61–65 While attuned to the artifact, you can’t smell.
66–70 While attuned to the artifact, nonmagical flames are extinguished within 30 feet of you.
71–80 While you are attuned to the artifact, other creatures can’t take short or long rests while within 300 feet of you.
81–85 While attuned to the artifact, you deal 1d6 necrotic damage to any plant you touch that isn’t a creature.
86–90 While you are attuned to the artifact, animals within 30 feet of you are hostile toward you.
91–95 While attuned to the artifact, you must eat and drink six times the normal amount each day.
96–00 While you are attuned to the artifact, your flaw is amplified in a way determined by the DM.
Properties of the Eye
When you attune to the Eye of Vecna, your alignment changes to neutral evil, and you gain the following benefits in addition to the ones randomly assigned above.
- You have truesight.
- You can use an action to see as if you were wearing a ring of X-ray vision. You can end this effect as a bonus action.
- The eye has 8 charges. You can use an action and expend 1 or more charges to cast one of the following spells (save DC 18) from it: clairvoyance (2 charges), crown of madness (1 charge), disintegrate (4 charges), dominate monster (5 charges), or eyebite (4 charges). The eye regains 1d4 + 4 expended charges daily at dawn. Each time you cast a spell from the eye, there is a 5% chance that Vecna tears your soul from your body, devours it, and then takes control of the body like a puppet. If that happens, you become an NPC under the DM’s control.
Properties of the Hand
When you attune to the Eye of Vecna, your alignment changes to neutral evil, and you gain the following benefits in addition to the ones randomly assigned above.
- Your Strength score becomes 20, unless it is already 20 or higher.
- Any melee-spell attack you make with the hand, and any melee weapon attack made with a weapon held by it, deals an extra 2d8 cold damage on a hit.
- The hand has 8 charges. You can use an action and expend 1 or more charges to cast one of the following spells (save DC 18) from it: finger of death (5 charges), sleep (1 charge), slow (2 charges), or teleport (3 charges). The hand regains 1d4 + 4 expended charges daily at dawn. Each time you cast a spell from the hand, it casts the suggestion spell on you (save DC 18), demanding that you commit an evil act. The hand might have a specific act in mind or leave it up to you.
Properties of the Eye and Hand
If you are attuned to both the hand and eye, you gain the following additional benefits:
- You are immune to disease and poison.
- Using the eye’s X-ray vision never causes you to suffer exhaustion.
- You experience premonitions of danger and, unless you are incapacitated, can’t be surprised.
- If you start your turn with at least 1 hit point, you regain 1d10 hit points.
- If a creature has a skeleton, you can attempt to turn its bones to jelly with a touch of the Hand of Vecna. You can do so by using an action to make a melee attack against a creature you can reach, using your choice of your melee-attack bonus for weapons or spells. On a hit, the target must succeed on a DC 18 Constitution saving throw or drop to 0 hit points.
- You can use an action to cast wish. This property can’t be used again until 30 days have passed.
Destroying the Hand and Eye requires both items to be attuned to the same creature. That creature must then be slain with the Sword of Kas, which causes the items to burst into flame and be undone forever.
Speaking of undone forever, that’s the end of this guide to Vecna.
Hopefully it’s inspired you to run one of the classic 2e Vecna modules, include an insidious cult to a six-fingered lich in your next game, or start planning a trip to Cavitius, citadel of skulls.
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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.