D&D Edition Synopsis: Monster Blocks

Recently, I made a daily agenda for myself. Each day of the week, I spend a good part of my “free” time working on something important to me, like maintaining my free software, reading my queue of books, or working on my D&D games. This has been really helpful, and on the D&D front, I’ve been getting a lot of thinking done about the changes that Dungeons and Dragons has gone through over the years. I’m not a hardcore fan of any particular edition. There are things I like about each of them. I’ve been thinking about trying to write a really comprehensive explanation of what I do and don’t like, but I don’t think that’s really going to happen.

Instead, I think I’ll just make some posts over the next few days or weeks about specific things that I like or don’t like – something that I began ages ago when talking about the Bard through the ages. Today, I want to talk about monster listings. I picked one of my favorites to use as an example: the lich.

This is what the Monster Manual entry for the Lich looked like in 1E:


FREQUENCY: Very rare
MOVE: 6”
% IN LAIR: 90%
SPECIAL DEFENSES: +1 or better weapon to hit
INTELLIGENCE: Supra-genius
ALIGNMENT: Neutral (evil)
Attack/Defense Modes: See below

A lich exists because of its own desires and the use of powerful and arcane magic. The lich passes from a state of humanity to a non-human, non-living existence through force of will. It retains this status by certain conjurations, enchantments, and a phylactery. A lich is most often encountered within its hidden chambers, this lair typically being in some wilderness area or vast underground labyrinth, and in any case both solidly constructed of stone and very dark. Through the power which changes this creature from human to lich, the armor class becomes the equivalent of +1 plate armor and +1 shield (armor class 0). Similarly, hit dice are 8-sided, and the lich can be affected only by magical attack forms or by monsters with magical properties or 6 or more hit dice.

Liches were formerly ultra powerful magic-users or magic-user/clerics of not less than 18th level of magic-use. Their touch is so cold as to cause 1-10 points of damage and paralyze opponents who fail to make their saving throw. The mere sight of a lich will cause any creature below 5th level (or 5 hit dice) to flee in panic from fear. All liches are able to use magic appropriate to the level they had attained prior to becoming non-human.

The following spells or attack forms have no effect on liches: charm, sleep, enfeeblement, polymorph, cold, electricity, insanity or death spells/symbols.

Description: A lich appears very much as does a wight or mummy, being of skeletal form, eyesockets mere black holes with glowing points of light, and garments most often rotting (but most rich).

That’s pretty good! I’ve got a stat block that gives me the armor class, hit dice, attack, and defense all at a glance. It’s nice that later editions give hit points, but that’s easy to fudge if you don’t want to roll: just figure hit dice times six or so. It’s got some flavor text that gives a good description of what the monster is and why it exists, and it covers its special abilities pretty succinctly.

Still, I think there are two major flaws. First, the special abilities are stuck inside the prose – you need to read the paragraph about the lich’s ecology to find out that most monsters can’t hurt them, for example. Second, and more frustratingly, the lich’s major threat is not listed: liches can cast spells as an 18th level magic-user! This gives them a huge selection of possible attacks. It’s easy to fudge this: the DM can pick random spells he things would be cool to cast. All in all, not bad, but the DM is going to be flipping through the spells listing to run this guy. If there are a number of other monsters in play with their own complex abilities, this can mean a lot of page-flipping.

The 3E form of the lich is much more explicit, listing specific spells and attacks. The entry below is actually from Pathfinder, but I promise that it’s very similar to 3E itself.


Once fine robes hang in tatters from this withered corpse’s frame. A pale blue light shines from where its eyes should be.

CR 12
XP 19,200
Human lich necromancer 11
NE Medium undead (augmented humanoid)
Init +2; Senses darkvision 60 ft., life sight*; Perception +24
Aura fear (60-ft. radius, DC 18)


AC 23, touch 14, flat-footed 21 (+4 armor, +2 deflection, +2 Dex, +5 natural)
hp 111 (11d6+55 plus 15 false life)
Fort +6, Ref +7, Will +11

Defensive Abilities: channel resistance +4; DR 15: bludgeoning and magic; Immune cold, electricity, undead traits


Speed 30 ft.

Melee touch +5 (1d8+5 plus paralyzing touch)

Special Attacks

grave touch* (9/day), paralyzing touch (DC 18), power over undead* (9/day, DC 18)

Spells Prepared (CL 11th)

6th - circle of death (DC 22), globe of invulnerability, maximized fireball (DC 19)

5th - cloudkill (DC 21), cone of cold (DC 21), quickened magic missile, waves of fatigue

4th - dimension door, enervation, fire shield, wall of ice (2)

3rd - dispel magic (2), fireball (DC 19), suggestion (DC 19), vampiric touch (2)

2nd - darkness, extended mage armor (already cast), false life (already cast), scorching ray (2), see invisibility, spectral hand

1st - magic missile (3), ray of enfeeblement (2), shield (2)

0 - bleed (DC 16), detect magic, ray of frost, read magic

Prohibited Schools: illusion, transmutation


Str 10, Dex 14, Con –, Int 22, Wis 14, Cha 16

Base Atk +5; CMB +5; CMD 25

Feats Craft Wondrous Item, Defensive Combat Training, Extend Spell, Improved Lightning Reflexes, Iron Will, Lightning Reflexes, Maximize Spell, Quicken Spell, Scribe Scroll, Toughness

Skills Craft (alchemy) +20, Intimidate +17, Knowledge (arcana) +20, Knowledge (planes) +20, Linguistics +20, Perception +24, Sense Motive +24, Spellcraft +20, Stealth +24; Racial Modifiers +8 Perception, +8 Sense Motive, +8 Stealth

Languages Abyssal, Aklo, Aquan, Celestial, Common, Draconic, Dwarven, Elven, Giant, Gnome, Goblin, Ignan, Infernal, Orc, Undercommon


Environment: any

Organization: solitary

Treasure NPC gear (boots of levitation, headband of vast intelligence +2 [Perception], ring of protection +2, potion of invisibility, scroll of dominate person, scroll of teleport)

*Necromancer power (Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook, pages 81-82)

Few creatures are more feared than the lich. The pinnacle of necromantic art, the lich is a spellcaster who has chosen to shed his life as a method to cheat death by becoming undead. While many who reach such heights of power stop at nothing to achieve immortality, the idea of becoming a lich is abhorrent to most creatures. The process involves the extraction of the spellcaster’s life-force and its imprisonment in a specially prepared phylactery – the spellcaster gives up life, but in trapping life he also traps his death, and as long as his phylactery remains intact he can continue on in his research and work without fear of the passage of time.

The quest to become a lich is a lengthy one. While construction of the magical phylactery to contain the spellcaster’s soul is a critical component, a prospective lich must also learn the secrets of transferring his soul into the receptacle and of preparing his body for the transformation into undeath, neither of which are simple tasks. Further complicating the ritual is the fact that no two bodies or souls are exactly alike – a ritual that works for one spellcaster might simply kill another or drive him insane. The exact methods for each spellcaster’s transformation are left to the GM’s discretion, but should involve expenditures of hundreds of thousands of gold pieces, numerous deadly adventures, and a large number of difficult skill checks over the course of months, years, or decades. The Lich’s Phylactery

An integral part of becoming a lich is the creation of the phylactery in which the character stores his soul. The only way to get rid of a lich for sure is to destroy its phylactery. Unless its phylactery is located and destroyed, a lich can rejuvenate after it is killed (see Creating a Lich, below).

Each lich must create its own phylactery by using the Craft Wondrous Item feat. The character must be able to cast spells and have a caster level of 11th or higher. The phylactery costs 120,000 gp to create and has a caster level equal to that of its creator at the time of creation.

The most common form of phylactery is a sealed metal box containing strips of parchment on which magical phrases have been transcribed. The box is Tiny and has 40 hit points, hardness 20, and a break DC of 40.

Other forms of phylacteries can exist, such as rings, amulets, or similar items.

Creating a Lich

“Lich” is an acquired template that can be added to any living creature (referred to hereafter as the base creature), provided it can create the required phylactery. A lich retains all the base creature’s statistics and special abilities except as noted here.

CR: Same as the base creature + 2.

Alignment: Any evil.

Type: The creature’s type changes to undead. Do not recalculate BAB, saves, or skill ranks.

Senses: A lich gains darkvision 60 ft.

Armor Class: A lich has a +5 natural armor bonus or the base creature’s natural armor bonus, whichever is better.

Hit Dice: Change all of the creature’s racial Hit Dice to d8s. All Hit Dice derived from class levels remain unchanged. As undead, liches use their Charisma modifiers to determine bonus hit points (instead of Constitution).

Defensive Abilities: A lich gains channel resistance +4, DR 15/bludgeoning and magic, and immunity to cold and electricity (in addition to those granted by its undead traits). The lich also gains the following defensive ability.

Rejuvenation (Su): When a lich is destroyed, its phylactery (which is generally hidden by the lich in a safe place far from where it chooses to dwell) immediately begins to rebuild the undead spellcaster’s body nearby. This process takes 1d10 days – if the body is destroyed before that time passes, the phylactery merely starts the process anew. After this time passes, the lich wakens fully healed (albeit without any gear it left behind on its old body), usually with a burning need for revenge against those who previously destroyed it.

Melee Attack: A lich has a touch attack that it can use once per round as a natural weapon. A lich fighting without weapons uses its natural weapons (if it has any) in addition to its touch attack (which is treated as a primary natural weapon that replaces one claw or slam attack, if the creature has any). A lich armed with a weapon uses its weapons normally, and can use its touch attack as a secondary natural weapon.

Damage: A lich’s touch attack uses negative energy to deal 1d8 points of damage to living creatures + 1 point of damage per 2 Hit Dice possessed by the lich. As negative energy, this damage can be used to heal undead creatures. A lich can take a full-round action to infuse itself with this energy, healing damage as if it had used its touch attack against itself.

Special Attacks: A lich gains the two special attacks described below. Save DCs are equal to 10 + 1/2 lich’s HD + lich’s Cha modifier unless otherwise noted.

Fear Aura (Su): Creatures of less than 5 HD in a 60-foot radius that look at the lich must succeed on a Will save or become frightened. Creatures with 5 HD or more must succeed at a Will save or be shaken for a number of rounds equal to the lich’s Hit Dice. A creature that successfully saves cannot be affected again by the same lich’s aura for 24 hours. This is a mind-affecting fear effect.

Paralyzing Touch (Su): Any living creature a lich hits with its touch attack must succeed on a Fortitude save or be permanently paralyzed. Remove paralysis or any spell that can remove a curse can free the victim (see the bestow curse spell description, with a DC equal to the lich’s save DC). The effect cannot be dispelled. Anyone paralyzed by a lich seems dead, though a DC 20 Perception check or a DC 15 Heal check reveals that the victim is still alive.

Abilities: Int +2, Wis +2, Cha +2. Being undead, a lich has no Constitution score.

Skills: Liches have a +8 racial bonus on Perception, Sense Motive, and Stealth checks. A lich always treats Climb, Disguise, Fly, Intimidate, Knowledge (arcana), Knowledge (religion), Perception, Sense Motive, Spellcraft, and Stealth as class skills. Otherwise, skills are the same as the base creature.


I was very tempted to pare this down – but I didn’t, because its enormity is the problem. First of all, the monster entry includes the rules on becoming a lich. That wouldn’t be so bad as an appendix, but it comes right in the middle, after the core stats but before the special attacks. You have to note the Fear Aura, which is only at the bottom, but be careful not to be confused by the Ability modifiers also at the bottom, which are more related to creating a lich than having one in combat. Stock liches have the stats from the start.

On top of all that, the monster listing lists out spells. This guy has a couple dozen spells that all have to be remembered or looked up in the Player’s Handbook. Oh, and you’ll probably want to make a list of them so, you can cross them off as they’re cast. He also has a bunch of feats, the random collection of ability-and-power-modifying bonuses your PCs all have. Unless you have them all memorized, you’ll need to look them up, too.

I know a lich is going to be more complex to run than an orc, but this is just nuts. This is like having to keep track of a custom-built 18th level wizard. You might get a handle on the lich, but what about other monsters? While the lich happens to be a bit worse than most 3E monster listings, it’s still a problem all over the place for monsters that have anything more than simple weapon attacks. For a random example, I picked the ogre mage and found it, too, to be pretty confusing: again, both spells and feats are present.

For my money, the clear winner for the DM’s convenience, here, is 4E:

Lich (Human Wizard)
Medium natural humanoid, human (undead)
Level 14 Elite Controller
XP 2000
Initiative: +8
Senses: Perception +8; darkvision
Necrotic Aura (Necrotic) aura 5; any living creature that enters or
starts its turn in the aura takes 5 necrotic damage.
HP 218; Bloodied 109
Regeneration 10 (if the lich takes radiant damage, regeneration doesn't
function on its next turn)
AC 28; Fortitude 24, Reflex 28, Will 26
Immune disease, poison; Resist 10 necrotic
Saving Throws +2
Speed 6
Action Points 1

Shadow Ray (standard, ranged, at-will) Necrotic

Ranged 20; +18 vs Reflex; 2d8+6 necrotic damage.

Frostburn (standard, burst, sustain minor, recharge 5 or 6) Cold, Necrotic, Zone

Area burst 2 within 20; +18 vs Fortitude; 3d8+6 cold and necrotic damage. The burst creates a zone that lasts until the end of the lich’s next turn. The zone is considered difficult terrain. Any creature that starts its turn within the zone takes 10 cold and necrotic damage. The lich can sustain or dismiss the zone as a minor action


When a lich is reduced to 0 hit points, its body and possessions crumble into dust, but it is not destroyed. It reappears (along with its possessions) in 1d10 days within 1 square of its phylactery, unless the phylactery is also found and destroyed.

Second Wind (standard; encounter) Healing

The lich spends a healing surge and heals 54 hit points. The lich gains a +2 bonus to all defenses until the start of its next turn.

Alignment: Evil
Languages: Abyssal, Common
Skills: Arcana +18, History +18, Insight +13
Str 11 (+7)
Dex 12 (+8)
Wis 13 (+8)
Con 14 (+9)
Int 22 (+13)
Cha 18 (+11)

Everything here is stats. There’s plenty of flavor text about what a lich is, but it’s in a different hunk of text, and you know you don’t need to look at it while running the combat because it isn’t green. If I was showing this as it’s always typeset, there would even be little icons calling out ranged attacks, melee attacks, and so on. There are no feats; any benefits that would have been in feats are just added in to the various stats already. The down side is that the lich now only has two attacks. This isn’t quite as boring as it might sound, because they can largely be reskinned over and over within one combat to be “ranged magic attack” and “burst magic attack.”

Still, it’s not great. Shouldn’t a serious wizard be able to teleport out of danger or something? Well, the 1E - 3E liches could just have that as a spell. Giving the 4E lich more spells threatens to unbalance it, and if there’s one thing 4E tries to do, it’s present pre-balanced game material. That doesn’t mean you can’t just give the lich new powers as you wish – it means that when you do so, you need to be extra-mindful about how you’ve changed game balance. Frankly, this doesn’t bother me: the worst case is that you reduce your automatically self-balanced 4E encounter to a has-to-be-balanced-by-the-DM (or alternately a “who cares about ‘balance’?”) 1E-style encounter. Balance is useful as a baseline, but once I’m designing, I don’t care much anymore.

The benefit is that if you add teleport, or any other sort of thing: a generic melee attack, another blast attack, or whatever, it can be expressed as a short, simple, easy-to-read hunk of text in the Big Green Block. That makes running the monster in combat really, really easy. Because the monsters are so easy to run, you can pick a bunch of different kind of monsters. The 4E lich, for example, no longer has his chill touch attack – but you can bring in a bunch of minions for him to do his close-quarters combat for him.

There are things I don’t like about 4E, and I’ll talk about them another time. The simple, easy-to-run monster blocks are great, though. I think Pathfinder would benefit enormously by converting its monsters (and character class features) into this kind of uniform, easy-to-glance-at description.

(Finally, you may note that I skipped 2E. In general, 2E monster descriptions are exactly like 1E, but with a bunch more text to read through. They’re better than 3E, and sometimes have nice flavor text, but mostly I prefer 1E or 4E.)

Written on April 1, 2011
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