Thursday, June 27, 2024

Voldemort is the best lich and I am NOT kidding

Voldemort is the best depiction of a lich in popular fantasy media. There, I said it. Let's talk about liches for a bit.

The Fantasy Lich & Their Problems
The concept of a Lich is an undead spellcaster, usually still retaining their intelligence and full magical power as when they were alive, often used as a method to cheat death or become immortal. They are usually high powered enemies in D&D fiction; being capable of being the primary antagonists of entire campaigns. If we consider the spectrum of dangerous, bestial monsters starting at wolves with dragons being the peak, then we could consider a spectrum of undead creatures to go from a skeleton to a lich at the peak. Not only having powerful spells, they also can't be killed, and keep coming back unless their special phylactery holding their soul is destroyed. The Lich as an archetype is extremely evocative, with robed skeletons commanding armies of the undead and mastering many magics.

But in context of the greater fantasy universe at play... don't you think Liches are kind of weird?

Consider the following; most people are afraid of death, and want to live longer, or forever. This is a common trope. Magic can be used to do many things, but the magic of immortality is often considered a very high or nigh-impossible goal to reach with magic. Ancient emperors and archmages wasting their limited time to try and find a way to live forever is a trope as old as time, and even happened in the real world on multiple occasions too; it's a sensible high concept goal similar to making life, turning lead into gold, visiting other dimensions, etc. often found as the motivations of high level spellcasters or mystics. Now consider that in the majority of fantasy settings with Lichs, the masterclass goal of these magic users is to become... a skeleton.

Doing this with good or neutral magic, like the arcane arts or healing magic if it exists, is often either impossible or a losing battle against entropy, casting a "reverse aging" spell or greater restoration every once in a while is the best you can get, and almost never can they bring themselves back from the dead with this magic, even if they can resurrect others. Dark magic, necromancy, or perhaps sorcery in general in some settings is considered a shortcut to power. As such, it stands to reason that becoming a lich is a "shortcut" to being truly immortal and alive with magic, which would help explain it. But remember, most people don't want to be an undead creature. Being undead sucks. If magic could do literally anything in a fantasy setting with no drawbacks, then no magic user would create the "become a lich" spell if it makes you into a skeleton like that; they'd just make the spell give you eternal youth, let you regrow limbs, reform your body after death, etc.

Similar to the above, there is a common thought I've seen on online discussions that a high level magic user should venture to become a master/true vampire instead of being a Lich; given that vampires have more powers and abilities and can retain their human appearance, though gaining a few weaknesses that Liches usually don't have, like sunlight. While I dislike this "fantasy catalogism"- as if people in the fantasy world know of every possible way to become immortal or powerful and can pick and choose as opposed to being limited by their knowledge and resources- it's still a valid criticism of lichdom.

Secondly, when most people want immortality either as the result of a wish or magical project, rarely do people want true immortality. As in, they don't want to literally never die ever. The idea of being truly immortal and being trapped somewhere forever, or being trapped out in space after the Earth explodes unable to do anything or talk to anything and having no way to end your suffering is a common existential nightmare, a "fate worse then death". The problem is a Lich and their phylactery are often written in such a way that implies that this could easily happen to them. Like if a lich puts their soul into a specific object and is then thrown into the ocean, every time they reform they will just reappear at the bottom of the sea, being crushed to death over and over until something finally discovers them. I think even considering the arrogance and short-sightedness of a dark wizard type they would be way more careful for their future eternal fate then wanting to put themselves in that kind of a situation.

The Phylactery and reformation process of a lich is also part of the issue I have with them. Part of this is just down to players and modern minds poking holes in fantasy literature; like yeah obviously the lich can't just decide "oh I'm going to make the moon my phylactery" or "oh I'll be a single unbreakable grain of sand that will be my vessel", it's a dumb subversion of the fantasy trope, but there is a certain nugget of truth to it. The whole "reform in 24 hours once destroyed" lacks any kind of gravitas or ability to "counter" the Lich's ability to reform from the dead, and feels overly video gamey. Even worse, the "turn into a lich" spell or ritual is often described or implied to be a sort of "raise undead but YOURSELF as the undead" being raised, thus you aren't under anyone else's control. I don't really like this, even though this could just be a "me" thing, as it literally feels like someone just took a look at the raise undead spell and thought of a clever way to use it on themselves to become a Lich, which once again goes against that immersive quality of fantasy worlds.

The other issue with the D&D Lich? It lacks a certain tragic quality. Truthfully, Liches are kinda supposed to be morally bankrupt, if not downright evil. Necromancy being used for good or neutral purposes if a subversion of the trope you see occasionally, which I personally don't mind if it's done in a smart way, but the issue with the fantasy lich is that it rarely ever seems like they're really suffering for their choice. They receive a major power up and have essentially sacrificed their humanity or mortality, to an extent they should be seen as tragic, cowardly, or in some ways pathetic. Of course, the character archetype of the "Lich doesn't actually have some evil plan and just wants to do research or have his pet project" is a fun trope too, but I feel like antagonistic liches are kind of core to their identity as big bads.

While there is a whole other can of worms to talk about how immortality or life-extending magic is rightfully (or wrongly?) cast as being morally wrong or how death-acceptance could be seen as a coping mechanism for death and not actually a "good" thing, in the fantasy world where morality tends to be a bit more objective, fate and karma are real forces, the Gods and souls have ultimate destinations and a higher purpose, etc. the concept of a Lich just being this sort of magic spell creation feels a bit thematically weak. This is then artificially justified with little things; like forcing a lich to do dark rituals involving sacrifice to create their phylactery or making undead inherently evil regardless of their intentions- but these feel like patch jobs. If you were going to die anyway, becoming a Lich wouldn't be a downside at all, and with they being undead who retain their free will, it takes away some of the punch of them being these flawed, scary, magically powerful monsters and more like a fantasy insurance plan to an otherwise powerful Wizard character.

But what about Voldemort?

Art @Shen Yi

Voldemort is cool as fuck
If we look at the above qualifications of being a fantasy Lich, Voldemort checks almost all of the boxes. He's immortal and cannot be killed without destroying his soul-vessels, in this case Horcruxes. He is a powerful dark magic user. He is creepy, evil, and the main antagonist of the work he is located in. But did you notice the subtle difference? Voldemort spends most of the Harry Potter series trying to come back to life.

This is a bit of a misnomer, but think about it. Other liches reform quickly, Voldemort has to otherwise scheme and squirm to find a way back into a normal body. Multiple times he is thwarted from returning to life, and his full power, by the heroes of the books and films. This to me defines him as the best Lich; he doesn't just come back ala D&D rules, stopping him from coming back is how you fight him. It works better as a recurring antagonist, as while you could theoretically fight a D&D lich multiple times, they tend to be extremely strong "boss fights", meaning multiple encounters of them are too deadly to be done consistently. Instead, trying to stop the dark wizard from coming back to his full strength is the repeating tension and part of the campaign. It's similar in nature to the "cultists serving a dark god" plotline you see in fantasy fiction roleplaying so much, allowing players to more reasonably and realistically take on this otherwise overwhelming and impossible foe in a way that is less immersion breaking. You could even define and scale a campaign around it, with defeating the weakest "shadows" of the lich for low level characters, fighting more powerful versions at higher levels, and the final fully incarnate version as a challenge for even the most veteran parties. This also secondarily means that it isn't quite as dangerous to travel with or keep a phylactery around. Just imagine an evil Wizard making their greatest staff or enchanted item their phylactery; knowing its safe from destruction from the greed of mankind. Yes, technically this thing is evil and means that the dark undead wizard is still yet to be banished from the world, but it's a really strong magic item. Or maybe it summons skeletons every midnight and constantly attacks us with dark magic and we don't know how to destroy it, so let's just bury it somewhere. It creates a more believable world that helps explain why these threats and undead beings aren't just banished immediately OR don't take over everything with their limitless power. It could even create this sense of temptation among the players, not wanting to give up a great treasure or magic item or perhaps even a high level soul-binding spell that means that as long as YOU live, the necromancer still has a foothold in the mortal world. Maybe even Sauron is a lich... But we aren't ready for that conversation.

Now of course I should mention that you don't have to really scale an entire campaign around just defeating one Lich. It's an option, but you could still just have the scary encounter in the deep dungeon with some newly generated NPC Lich as a high level encounter, a threat but not world-shaking, to get use out of their fantasy idea space and as a capstone for a undead themed dungeon delve. Liches can still scale in power- but the main point is that they aren't just these undead spellcasters, but instead a sort of broad spectrum of dark mages or undying beings. Perhaps they require stolen life force to fully manifest, or slowly reform their bodies by draining the blood or organs from other beings, ala Imhotep from The Mummy. Regardless of the reason, Liches have both a incentive and need to go out into the world and do things, not just "study arcane secrets" in the depths of the dusty tomb. This does give them a soft overlap with vampires, but I feel like that's fair. If anything, a Lich could be a vampire, a terrifying combination of supernatural forces. Their body is powerful, immortal, and fed with blood. But upon staking them in the heart, the Lich is not truly defeated, and returns as a ghost now scheming for a new way to return to the world of the living.

Secondly? The Horcruxs. The Horcruxes allow Voldy to not have one but multiple backups and phylacteries, once again leading to a campaign in and of itself, as well as having each being a powerful magic item and challenge in its own right. However, I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand, having an extremely powerful reforming Necromancer who also gets multiple backups and requires this much clever work to take down seems a bit too much, and the thematic importance and character-building of having this one special item that is this Lich's one weakness is really cool. But at the same time, I love the idea of multiple horcruxes and the character designs and concepts- imagine a Pharaoh Lich of an ancient Kingdom with the Crook and Flail being their two phylacteries, crossed over their arms and separated by a foolish graverobber. The possible fun of having to bring them all together again; maybe the normal lich rules of reforming into their full undead form apply but only if they're all together again- giving an incentive to not hide them all in each corner of the world but also a possible way to bring them out again for one final battle? There's a similar concept in Castlevania and The Elder Scrolls, with finding the pieces of Dracula or Lorgren Benirus in the basement of the haunted house you can buy in Oblivion.

For this one, I'd say your "average" Lich only has one phylactery, but an extra powerful one could have several. Not every one of them is a continent-spanning adventure, but you do have to hurry back to the local church to have this thing consecrated, else the Lich is plotting his return. But this entire time, I've been saving the real reason Voldemort is my favorite Lich. 

Voldemort is Pathetic
Harry Potter as a series has its problems, the writing has its flaws and cliches, the worldbuilding is nonsensical, and now it's impossible to discuss honestly due to the stink with its author (who I have been very careful to not bring up until now). The thing I really like about Harry Potter is the insistence on emotion, the spiritual, and "human scale" magic. It just feels like the most grounded and "lived in" style of high fantasy sparkly woosh magic "Magic" you can get, which is a huge plus for me. Typically fantasy settings get defined by how overt, powerful, or flashy their magic and magic systems are. You get the spectrum from folklore and real-world occultism with next to no overt effects all the way to high fantasy glowing runes floating in the air summoning big explosions from nowhere. But Harry Potter really straddles that middle ground I like so much; where magic is strong but not level 20 D&D Wizard types of busted overpowered.

Voldemort in the context of all fantasy media is a bit of a jobber. He wouldn't be as powerful as, say, Vecna or Koshchei, but in the context of his universe? He's pretty scary. He's a powerful dark Wizard with a cult of other dark Wizards, tons of magic items, multiple layers of defense with his Horcruxes, the Elder wand, and more. He can just straight up kill people, but he can't snap his fingers and obliterate an army, or move mountains, or do these other acts of high magic that are seen by the most epic and end-game sort of fantasy shenanigans that a high level D&D Lich could get up to.

Every few years I go back and read this blogpost about Dragons. It's one of my favorites, as something about it really resonated with me. The idea of dragons being these apocalyptic, unstoppable demigod beasts seemed to become so ingrained with popular fantasy culture that it's refreshing to take them down a few pegs, to make them threatening without it being overpowering. Dialing back the power scale and enjoying something more grounded. Voldemort is like that, but for Liches and the stereotypical "Evil Wizard" antagonist you see in tabletop games.

Voldemort is scary, and he is strong, but notice how he is strong. Most of his strength comes from his Death Eaters, the dark wizards who act as his agents and followers, caring for him and bringing him back each time he is defeated. Much of his power comes from his reputation, his magic items, and his years of preparation and planning- he doesn't have this insane CR meant to challenge demigod adventurers. Look at this clip to see what I mean. His spells are strong, but not unmatchable, Dumbledore was still able to drive him back at the Ministry of Magic long enough for help to arrive. Notice that he flees when the authorities arrive; he doesn't march in and take over the world with his undead army, at least not yet, he has to operate in the shadows. In a more generic fantasy world, I'd imagine a Lich to be about as strong as the above- capable of beating the shit out of lesser wizards and mundanes alike, but still being restrained and limited with their own weaknesses.

And secondly? Voldemort is a tragic, somewhat pathetic figure. He can come back from life when killed, yes, but it's always a false life. In the first film and book, Voldemort is a literal parasite living on someone else. Then, he's a memory. Finally when his body is fully reformed, he is mutated and twisted, looking unnaturally pale. Remember, nobody wants to become a lifeless, cold skeleton as a condition of their immortality. But imagine in your hubris and arrogance you can come back to life, but you can only do it in a hunched, pale, weakened body of an old man or twisted half alive creature, dependent on the blood or life force of other beings. It's being alive but at a cost, you are "alive" but pathetic. This to me is far more appealing as an end state of a "Lich" then simply being the undead skeleton with burning glowing eyes. Even in the metaphysics of the Potterverse, you will end up as worse off, "lesser", for creating a Horcrux. It will make you immortal, but you irreparably sever pieces of your soul to do it. You will get what you want, but at a price, and it's that perfect type of price that isn't obvious enough to the foolish or arrogant exactly what they are losing, but in the grand scheme, you know why they are doomed.

I write a lot of stuff about the nature of karma or inserting morality in fantasy. I don't do this because I have an axe to grind, moreso, it rubs against that nebulous "vibe" that classic fantasy, literature, and mythology have that I feel is so central to creating meaningful and immersive fantasy worlds and campaigns. Tabletop games are games, first and foremost, and cannot be approach the same way a planned piece of literature is. You can't foreshadow the fall of a character based on their choices and reactions to things, to make them pay the price for their actions, that's the players job and can only be interpreted after the fact. Unless you're playing a pure story or "railroaded" adventure, you can't guarantee the players will be able to break the final phylactery and banish the Lich's black soul for the final time when they fight them; they might just lose and the Lich will succeed their evil plan. But inherent in the media is room for these sort of things; the idea of someone being so afraid of death and so arrogant that they willingly give up the pleasures and joy of life to live forever, to make a mockery of life to continue on in fear of death or judgement or being forgotten, is something you can add into the game. You can give that thematic weight to a boss monster by how they are written or how they act, especially if it's inherent in what they are. And to me, that is what a Lich is. They aren't like a living person who can relax and unwind and sleep and heal from an injury or stressful time in their life, looking at their children playing in the bright green fields and think "life will go on"; they are instead constantly skulking, feeding, hiding away their secret items of power and shying away from life. It's not a necromancer who found "one simple trick" to become immortal using their own magic spell, it's someone who is trapped in a state of half-life, unable to move on or escape on their own power, terrifying and a threat to their foes, but in a way pathetic and even pitiable, trapped by their own choices and ultimately, cosmically wrong.

Just like Voldemort.


  1. Thank you for this post. It has given me a lot of food for thought. I have written my own blog post about liches but not with the same depth of thought you have demonstrated.

  2. Voldemort truly stands out as the best depiction of a lich. He is not only a powerful dark wizard but also achieves immortality through his Horcruxes. Unlike traditional D&D liches who reform quickly, Voldemort's struggle to regain his full strength adds layers of complexity to his character. Each time he is thwarted and tries to come back, it heightens the tension and showcases his relentless pursuit of immortality. Voldemort is not just a villain; he is a tragic and multifaceted character, making him one of the most memorable liches in popular fantasy.