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What is the most powerful permanent undead follower you can get?

Any class/race/spell/level combo is fine. Is it as simple as a necromancy wizard controlling a mummy lord, or is there something better we can do with other options?

Constraints/criteria:
Exclude wish.
Magic items are ok - as rare as you like, but not including homebrew items.
Making yourself undead doesn’t count.
"Most powerful" is definee most powerful by challenge rating; but ...
... if you come up with some ridiculous DPR combo, list that too.

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CR 23

Specifically, you can permanently enslave Acererak, the demilich, in his Tomb of Horrors. No undead has a higher CR so you can't really do better than that1.

To enslave Acererak, one ought first to Feeblemind him and apply several high-level copies of Bestow Curse2. This is not easy, as Acererak has a +11 bonus on Int saves, a +9 bonus on Wis saves, and 3 free saves per day from legendary resistance. Still, it is possible, and not even terribly difficult for a 20th level wizard with access to Bestow Curse, Glyph of Warding, Feeblemind, and Gate (though it will be quite expensive).3

Once Acererak is reduced to 1 intelligence and charisma, given disadvantage on Charisma and Wisdom saves, and made to make a Wisdom save on each turn or lose its action, you should have allied casters with access to bane (e.g. a drider or Koa-Toa whip created via true polymorph and controlled via dominate person via glyph of warding to bypass concentration) cast bane on the demilich till it sticks. This gives Acererak a charisma save of 1d20+1-1d4 with disadvantage. As a 20th level wizard with 30 intelligence4, your save dc should be 24. With a Robe of the Archmagi, your DC goes to 26. This means that even with a 20 Acererack is unable to resist your Command Undead class feature, and becomes your slave.

Since a feebleminded demilich is much less useful than a functional one, we next need to deal with that. Greater Restoration (accessed via true polymorph on an object into a Coautl, combined with dominate monster via glyph of warding if necessary) eliminates the Feeblemind without hurting the rest of the debilitating effects.5

Immediately after restoring the demilich's mind, order it to use its teleporting randomly within a 300 mile radius and lowering a stat by two permanently ability on itself choosing intelligence until its intelligence score is 10 or 11. This must be achieved within 1 hour. Once the lich's int score dips below 12, he stops being entitled to hourly saves and instead serves you without any further saves forever (or, at least, until control is actively lost). If a save is incurred during or as a result of this transition period, it is 1d20 +11-1d4 without advantage versus DC 26. That's about a 17.5% (a little less than 1 in 5) chance of us failing, which we can mitigate by forcing a reroll with a Luck Blade for a total of 3.06% (a little less than 1 in 30) chance of losing the demilich permanently per roll. 6

Note that, in practical terms, regular liches make better servants that Acererak does since they can move and cast spells and Acererak can't really. Acererak has a higher in-lair CR, though.


  1. Okay, actually ancient red or gold dracoliches are CR 24. But 1) Acererak is way famouser, and 2) the same technique (except lowering via other methods, unless you have an Acererak sitting around) would work on a dracolich in the same way, it's just easier because Acererak has a +11 intelligence save instead of a measly +4. In fact, dracoliches can be easily taken down with just a horde of intellect devourers, which is sad. Reminiscent of earlier editions, but still sad.

    To capture a dracolich variant spellcaster, have a horde of intellect devourers you control set its intelligence to 0 and leave it permastunned as soon as you release the lich from Feeblemind, which you do after Polymorphing it into a swarm of rats or similar. Since the rats are immune to stunning, the Dracolich will have 0 int without the penalty of being stunned. Undoing the polymorph doesn't remove the effect setting Int to zero, but it also doesn't cause the lich to be stunned. Dracoliches, like all dragons, use Charisma as their spellcasting attribute, so 0 int isn't a big deal. Alternatively, you can use a scroll of Power Word Heal, if you happen across one.

  2. Bestow Curse may stack weird in some games, see this Q+A If it does, you'll need to cycle through curse effects to make this work. You can probably do that just by redefining what curse effect is 'more powerful' repeatedly, but worst comes to worst you can spend the months of time and tons of gold to make the necessary Remove Curse and Bestow Curse cycles operate via Glyph of Warding.

  3. You do this by casting Glyph of Warding a bunch of times with Feeblemind in it, obviously. You also have some Glyphs with Bestow Curse and maybe some other debuff-y spells too if you want. You can't put Bane in here, cause you don't know it cause it's not a wizard spell. You then take a long rest, and cast Gate on the last round of said long rest so that you immediately regain all your spell slots and can cast a 9th level spell again right away. This works because it takes an hour of interruption to stop a long rest from completing. Since you need to be sure the lich fails the save four times, you need a lot of Feebleminds. Specifically, you need 15 Glyph of Wardings with Feebleminds to have a 99.99% chance of success. That costs 3000 gp to create and takes 15 days to create for a 20th level wizard. You also want the curses to stick which means, to be safe, spending another 11400 gp but no additional days to the contruction time.

  4. If you have a Tome of Clear Thought, you and anyone you want have 30 Intelligence, assuming you're willing to pass time for the book to recharge, for example by putting the book on a plane where time moves faster or by going to a plane where time moves slower or both, or by entering temporal stasis, or by finding a way to magically age the book or whatnot. Regardless, if you have 5 Tome of Clear Thoughts, you have 30 int.

    If you, for some reason, didn't or couldn't track down a Tome of Clear Thought by level 20 as a wizard, your intellect will probably be limited to a mere 20, which puts your save DC as a mere 19 or 21 with a Robe of the Archmagi. Don't do this to yourself.

  5. We can't use glyphs for True Polymorph, because the spell is 9th level and we only have 1 9th level spell slot, unless we also have a Tome of the Still Tongue. That's why we may need to, instead, create creatures on prior days and cage them, then use Glyphs to Dominate them on the last day. We probably shouldn't need to do this, because we probably have 30 Charisma and no reason to treat our servants badly and they have no reason not to obey us, but maybe we do or we're super evil or something. Setting this up adds weeks of time and tens of thousands or gold pieces in expenses if you decide to do it the Dominate-y way.

    We need the Coautls (or similar) because Greater Restoration is not on the Wizard list, and that spell or Heal are needed to remove the Feeblemind without removing other things we want to keep.

    Admittedly, the only benefit Acererak derives as a servant from not being Feebleminded is that he can communicate intelligibly and has a +5ish bonus on Int and Cha saves. Nonetheless, in the case of a proper lich Intelligence is a very important stat so understanding how to undo the Feeblemind without losing control is important in general.

  6. The intelligence is lost when the curse is removed, which you can do by casting Remove Curse. You'll need to track down or gate to you or otherwise undo the random teleport's separation 5 times within an hour to avoid letting the lich get a save.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As you state, Intelligence is a very important skill for liches. You could always let them wear a Headband of Intellect they are attuned to into combat situations so their spells are almost as powerful (just make sure it isn't near that hour mark). Then have them take it off afterwards so they don't get the save. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Aug 24 '18 at 5:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you sure that Acererak can use his teleport curse power on himself? It states "pronounce a curse upon the remaining characters [that opposed]". He is clear not opposing himself. You could probably use Acererak to reduce another undead's Intelligence (say a particularly strong draconic lich), but I doubt you can use it on Acererak himself \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Aug 24 '18 at 7:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can throw Robe of the Archmagi to the top of that to increase DC further to 26. \$\endgroup\$ – AntiDrondert Aug 24 '18 at 10:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ How does being a 20th level Wizard imply that you should have a 30 INT and a 30 CHA? I get that with a very kind DM and a lot of creativity you could possibly make it work, but it is highly dependent on the DM giving you items and allowing the craziness. I think making a 30 ability score the default assumption here just makes the answer more confusing (and probably a lot less applicable to normal characters). \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Aug 24 '18 at 14:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose Items are allowed for this question, and see footnote 4. In general, I expect that players seek out items that are beneficial to them and thus, by the time they are 20th level, presumably have them. Tomes benefit everyone in the party immensely; they are the best items in the game. Therefore I assume that a 20th level party ought to have several such tomes, and a 20th level wizard ought to have at least a Tome of Clear Thought. These are only Very Rare items, not even legendary. Our difference in estimation of what players can accomplish, however, is outside the q's scope. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Aug 24 '18 at 18:21
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The Necromancer Wizard's Command Undead has an unbounded capacity in terms of CR, provided the target's intelligence is no higher than 11 and it's at least theoretically capable of failing the save, so using that on a Mummy Lord is probably your best bet given the current monster list, yes.

Technically, you can feeblemind any undead to make them capturable, and since it gives them a -5 ability score modifier for all the future saves against feeblemind (and natural 20s on saves aren't always successful in 5e), that can make the effect de facto permanent -- that is to say, for example, if you reduce the target to rolling Int saves at -2 and your save difficulty is at least 19, they can never succeed and are permanently at Int 1 unless the feeblemind is removed by an external effect. That can open up virtually any undead as a potential target, as long as you don't mind them being really stupid, unable to use spells, and potentially uncontrollable. (Command Undead says the creature 'obeys your commands', but feeblemind says the target 'can't understand language', so it's questionable whether the target has to understand your commands in order to follow them.) The spell is probably better used as a way to weaken the pokemon would-be servitor before capture, particularly to remove the advantage on saves due to an 8+ Intelligence score and set their Charisma mod to -5.

Some artifacts can impact your target's Int in a permanent or quasi-permanent way; one of the major detrimentals drains one of the attuned character's ability scores at random, and the Book of Vile Darkness lets you choose to boost one ability at the cost of another, so if you can gain temporary (but multi-day) control and have one of those, you might be able to use such effects to get a target's intelligence below the threshold of 12 so your control becomes permanent (so long as that effect isn't removed, dispelled, or otherwise countered).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that a 20th level wizard's feeblemind effect is permanent. No one can beat the save once they have failed, because it is an int save and they now have int 1 (-5 modifier) and a maximum proficiency bonus of +6 and a DC of 24 (as the wizard should have 30 int because tomes). \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Aug 23 '18 at 23:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you could do better than a Mummy Lord. Apply the Dracolich template (MM 83) to either a Gold or Red Ancient Dragon to get a CR 24 undead. \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Aug 24 '18 at 2:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer I updated my answer to address that point. You're correct, and that does open up a lot more powerful undead, but it's questionable whether they can still be ordered around once they don't understand any languages. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Aug 24 '18 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JoelHarmon The dracolich template doesn't change the target's Int score. The mummy lord is the strongest undead with an inherent Int of 11 or lower, thus able to be permanently controlled by a necromancer. Everything stronger requires some method of lowering Int to get them into a state where the necromancer's control is permanent. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Aug 24 '18 at 14:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym re: inherent undead: Nightwalker from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes has Int 6. Also is CR 20. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Aug 24 '18 at 18:14
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Niv-Mizzet, as a Dracolich: CR 26

First, can Niv-Mizzet be a Dracolich?

The only requirements to become a dracolich is to be:

an ancient or adult true dragon

... and Niv-Mizzet is described as (p. 240 of Guildmaster's Gude to Ravnica):

the ancient dragon who founded and continues to control the Izzet League.

Then all you need is for Niv-Mizzet to:

allow [himself] to be transformed by necromantic energy and ancient rituals into [a] powerful undead [dracolich]...

If Niv-Mizzet recognizes that he may be killed soon (possibly by the massive party and army you have been amassing to defeat the him and the Izzet League), it would certainly be in his character to undergo such a transformation. The Monster Manual states...

Only the most narcissistic dragons choose this path, knowing that by doing so, they sever all ties to their kin and the dragon gods.

... and Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica says that Niv-Mizzet is:

Possessed of arrogance and vanity that matches his vast intellect and tremendous power

How to turn an undead Niv-Mizzet into a permanent undead follower

This procedure hinges around the Intellect Devourer's Body Thief ability. Essentially we need to land a true polymorph on Niv-Mizzet to turn him into a humanoid and then steal his body with the Intellect Devourer. Then once we end true polymorph, the Intellect Devourer will control Niv-Mizzet in all his undead glory.

The Character

The best character to pull this off is a bard 18/warlock 1/paladin 1 with the following spells...

  • true polymorph
  • polymorph
  • bestow curse
  • feather fall
  • sleep
  • enhance ability

(alternatively, you could learn find greater steed as a Magical Secret and not require a level of paladin leaving space to be a bard 17/sorcerer 3 for Heightened Spell Metamagic)

... the following magic items...

  • robe of the archmagi
  • two spell scrolls of find greater steed
  • wand of polymorph
  • eight tomes of clear thought
  • ring of spell storing

(a headband of intellect is a suitable, and more reasonable replacement to the tomes of clear thought)

... and a large enough party to keep Niv-Mizzet busy (including sufficient spellcasters to have ample counterspells and be able to get through a prismatic wall if Niv-Mizzet decides to enclose himself in one)

The Setup

The first step is to get yourself a loyal Intellect Devourer. This is actually extremely easy.

  1. Use the first spell scroll of find greater steed
  2. Cast true polymorph turning the steed into an Intellect Devourer
  3. Wait until true polymorph becomes permanent.

Then you need to make your intellect devourer a genius.

  1. Allow your intellect devourer to occupy a host that has the capacity to study a tome of clear thought
  2. Have your intellect devourer study until its Intelligence is 30 (you should also apply as many tomes of leadership and influence and of understanding as you have in order to bolster its mental ability scores)
  3. Have your intellect devourer leave that host body, so it is ready to infiltrate Niv-Mizzet.

Finally, cast sleep, feather fall, and enhance ability into your ring of spell storing so you can use it later even if you run out of spell slots during the fight.

The Fight

The fight will take quite some time until Niv-Mizzet will succumb to our strategy. As such, every party member will need to be able to chase Niv-Mizzet when he catches on to the strategy (and he most certainly will as one of the foremost geniuses in the D&D multiverse), and you will need ample clerics to keep you alive as you will become the target. The gist of the strategy is to land a polymorph on Niv-Mizzet to make the rest of the procedure easier.

  1. Cast bestow curse (disadvantage on wisdom saving throws)
    • You should also have your party attempt this too where possible, including the bane spell. This is especially helpful since your party members have space for sorcerer levels for the Heightened Spell Metamagic.
  2. Cast polymorph until it works
    • This could take a while, but your party can also help. Once Niv-Mizzet recognizes your strategy, he will be trying to counterspell these castings when possible (something he can theoretically do indefinitely because of his Dracogenius Legendary Action).
    • Eventually you will get through his Legendary Resistances and Magic Resistance to turn him into a Giant Centipede (the CR 1/4 beast of lowest Wisdom)
    • Have feather fall at the ready in case Niv-Mizzet decides to try to end polymorph via the bludgeoning damage from falling.
  3. Have a party member cast their own polymorph and end yours (if one of your party members wasn't the one that was successful in the first place)
    • This opens your concentration for true polymorph
  4. Cast true polymorph on the Giant Centipede, turning it into a Bullywug (the CR 1/4 humanoid of lowest Intelligence)
    • your party member can now end his Concentration on polymorph
  5. Put the bullywug to sleep
  6. Use your second spell scroll of find greater steed to resummon your intellect devourer
  7. Cast enhance ability (Fox's Cunning) and use Bardic Inspiration on your intellect devourer
    • have one of your party members cast guidance as well
  8. Have your intellect devourer use Body Thief on the bullywug
    • The will succeed 99.9% of the time (as shown in this anydice function)
    • Your intellect devourer now carries Niv-Mizzet's statistics (as a dracolich), albeit in a true polymorphed state.
  9. Finally, simply end your Concentration on true polymorph and you now have your permanent undead follower: Niv-Mizzet the Dracolich
  10. Because your intellect devourer now has counterspell and 9th level spell slots, you can just ensure that you counterspell any attempt to cast wish to restore Niv-Mizzet's brain and attempts to cast protection from good and evil to remove your intellect devourer.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, it would put it on your spell list, anyway, which means that you can read it off of a spell regardless... and you can save the first spell scroll by summoning and polymorphing on a previous day. Also worth noting that once you have the dragon largely incapacitated, the intellect devourer can keep making control attempts until one of them sticks. You don't need to burn so many exceedingly rare tomes on this one. Sure, buffing the minion is great, but you could also use those on yourself, if you had them lying around to spare. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden May 23 at 19:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ for that matter, once you have him permanently polymorphed into a bullywug, you can probably wait until the next day to finish the job, which opens up a fair bit of design space... to the point where the only spell that you need to be able to cast yourself (rather than having a friend do it) is Find Greater Steed, which you can have a paladin friend cast into the ring for you. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden May 23 at 19:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron May 23 at 19:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Genius. Sheer Genius. \$\endgroup\$ – Q Paul May 23 at 21:34

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