Van Richten's Guide to the Lich
Author: Eric W. Haddock with David Wise
Summary of content:
Great book, but IMHO much less useful then the others. I mean, really, how many liches can you fit into a campaign ?
It is a well made expansion of the one sheet lich monster manual entry, but with few major variations from this entry. After the VRGttV and the VRGtG, I expected more creativity.
About the new ideas: salient powers are often interesting: vortex of evil for example. The mentalist lich left me cold (pun intended) and I don't see it's usefulness in a campaign. The priest lich was more interesting and I saw ideas for my campaign in it. However, IMHO, the demilich concept is a high fantasy, cheesy one (since it's first description in a 1st edition monster manual).
That critic said, the book is interesting read, and features many juicy adventuring anecdotes by Van Richten. However, those anecdotes are less credible considering the level of Van Richten and the probable low number of liches plaguing Ravenloft! Also, the dreaded page 7 is indeed strange, considering Azalin's usual care at keeping his nature hidden.
I liked the art in this book, especially the red dots in the liches eyes :)
Overall, 3 on 5.
When I first got my hands on this Guide back in 2000, I was a bit skeptical about it as I thought then that I already knew everything I needed to know about liches: undead wizards hungry for power. But there was one element in the Guide that made me want to develop liches even further and deeper for my games: the Diary of Mirinalithiar. Chapter by chapter, Van Richten takes us into the mind of this numinous entity, and (hopefully) one could even feel Van Richten's fears when he describes Ravenloft's only written account of the existence of demiliches, dancing across the multiverse with the gods. The impracticality of finding a large amount of liches in Ravenloft, however, limits the usefulness of this Guide, but overall it's a good read for anyone who wishes to use liches, regardless of the campaign.
Four out of five liches' phylacteries.
After the successes that were VanRichten’s Guide to Vampires and Ghosts it was decided to follow up with another guide on another Gothic and horror based monster of stories and legends, the Lich. Which is odd, because there is nothing at all classical about the lich, not much that is Gothic and the oldest tale involving one was probably pumped out by Gygax in the early 1980s. Liches are really an odd choice given the more likely and interesting subjects such asLycanthropes and Golems or even the Universal Horror standard of a mummy. This iseven more complicated with the high level nature of liches and their rarity. Ofcourse liches, being unusual monsters, might have deemed as needing more immediateattention than other creatures.
The introduction starts out on a different beat, instead of leaping into an introduction of the author it starts with a detailed description of the twisting of dark mages and their formula for immortality. It is done evocatively in a way that instantly catches the feel of what liches should be in Ravenloft and sets the mood immediately. All this before Rudolph Van states his past and profession, which is also in their followed by the controversial outing of Azalin from his closet. All and all pretty dramatic for just the introduction.
The first chapter is Necrology that –obviously- deals with the basics of liches and their undead nature. Presented here are the origins of Lichdom, the transformation itself in greater details and the (semi)introduction of the liches’ phylactery (having been brought up in From the Shadows and possibly earlier books). It also describes how liches maintain their body which brings up the odd idea that unlike every other kind of undead (vampires aside) they need to work to preserve their undead states. The chapter also goes into how VanRichten obtained the knowledge, a nice little bit of justification given the problems with interviewing rare undead wizards. This does lead into an almost continuing story throughout the Guide as tidbits are revealed on VanRichten’s friend and his captor’s eventual fate.
Powers is the topic of the second chapter. It begins with dealing with all the standard abilities of a lich from their eyesight, aura, weapon immunities, control over undead and even abilities carried over from life. The chapter continues with a small list of twenty salient powers, some interesting and some just odd. This combines what is normally two separate chapters, interestingly they do not do this elsewhere. Much of this only deals with typical liches and the salient powers seem almost tacked on at the end, the author assumes that the DM will do much of the work customizing liches through proficiencies and spell selection. There is precious little information here given on individualizing liches.
Psychology is the third chapter, a much needed look inside the mind of the lich. It is a sadly short chapter just touching on the mind and drives of these creatures. Given the importance of personality and background to the setting and running nigh-unstoppable foes that will be more dark forces lurking in the shadows than monsters to beat down one would have expected more attention paid to this. Presumably including demi-liches was higher on the to-do list.
Following is an equally small chapter on lairs, only this time it is appropriately small. It was a nice inclusion; immortal beings would take care to chose, build and plan their homes. It gives some good suggestions, most of which are common sense, but still worthwhile.
Lich magic is next although it does not describe many spells instead focusing on the new addition of Power Rituals. These are a nice goal for liches to have although the small size of Ravenloft means there are only five places one can be done, narrows down the list of hunting territory for liches. But again there are too few options, many of which seem shot-term and overly temporary for the risks the lich runs.
The sixth chapter deals with the keys to a successful hunt, as always most of these are common sense but there are some nice elements that work for both the players and the DM. Like all VanRichten-style hunts he encourages investigation and planning but there are also some nice sections on identification. It also does a nice job bringing up possible ramifications and follow-ups to such a climactic victory.
Given that liches are such powerful beings it is advised by the guide that they be rare, that long adventures or whole campaigns even devoted to destroying them, it is excellent that the book takes an entire chapter to focus on minions. Introduced here are quasimancers, undead raised by the lich and granted magical abilities, Vassaliches, servant wizards assisted into undeath, and undead familiars. The familiars are the least impressive and useful, but this is typical of the old rules where familiars were optional and of little practical use. There are some excellent ideas here and very nice additions, good to some optional lich-related villainy.
The next three chapters deal with variants of the lich starting with the psionic based mentalist lich and followed by priestly liches and the fantastic and overpowered demilich. It is nice that some attention was paid to these variants but they could have easily been combined into a single chapter that could also give advice on other variants and unique magical liches. The first of these chapters is also padded with psionics conversion rules and both the psionic and priestly lich chapters contain no additional information on the process of becoming a lich, presumably they cannot go about it the same way as a wizard.
The book ends with a large DM Appendix crammed with information on running and playing liches, some of this would have been nicely placed in the psychology section. Also included is a large section on altered spells, advice and new magic. There are both new items and a surprising collection of new spells. I would have liked more spells on the creation of more powerful minions and undead, but it seems like even the most powerful lich prefers sending hundreds of skeletons and the occasional wight against powerful foes rather than improve upon the spells.
On one hand VanRichten’s Guide to the Lich fails in its task, there is too little information provided to craft unique and interesting liches as villains with realistic personalities and psyches. Too much just assumes that all liches will be the same rough power level with the same traits and abilities. On the other hand the book does an excellent job making liches fit the setting and providing a mood for the use of a lich. It establishes the obsession and dark lust for power and ties it with a corruption against nature. While still not the easiest monsters to use liches have a superior role and are far more dangerous.
It has its good spots and its bad spots and for the most part it does what it is required to do, it just sticks to the level of satisfactory; unremarkable and not extraordinary. Just average.
Three severed digits out of five, rounded up.
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