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I am working on a D&D campaign where one of my PC’s long lost elf father has become a lich and must be destroyed.

Would the lich be able to remember the people they knew before becoming a lich?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome! I edited the question to include the question in the body. You can always edit or rollback the whole thing if you don't like a change. Good luck and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – Sdjz
    Jan 7, 2020 at 20:16

3 Answers 3

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I looked through several references relating to Lichs and most skipped the actual effects of becoming a Lich. However I did find this on the Lich Wikipedia page:

Unlike most other forms of undead creatures, the Lich retains all of the memories, personality, and abilities that it possessed in life

Unfortunately the page didn't have a citation for that tidbit.

The 3.5 SRD mentions:

Liches speak Common plus any other languages they knew in life.

and

A lich retains all class abilities it had in life.

Which implies knowledge from their previous life remains.

And I feel like this makes sense. Surely the reason to avoid death is to remain who you are? If becoming a Lich meant losing all aspects of yourself and becoming something else entirely most Mages wouldn't bother because you don't really gain anything.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not having it right now at hand. But I think the DnD5e MM had something in that regards written about the Lich. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zaibis
    Jan 8, 2020 at 9:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you have PotA, there is a lich in that campaign that seems to remember its past life (I"m trying not to spoil anything just in case). He would be a good example though. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8, 2020 at 14:40
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Liches can remember their past life, but may also forget it with time.

According to Dragon Magazine #234's Bazaar of the Bizarre: Lich Magical Items, liches in their early stages are often saddened or distracted by memories of their past lives, such as now-dead loved ones. Their solution is to use a memory globe, a magic item which intentionally removes selected memories, especially of people they knew in life.

This tells us that a lich can normally remember their prior life after transformation into a lich, at least for a substantial period of time.

According to the D&D 3.5 Monster Manual, p.116, liches at least speak the languages they knew in life. They also retain their spellcasting and other abilities. Various liches are described as using lichdom to continue the same activities they pursued in life, usually magical research. This concurs with the notion that liches can remember their past life.

However, although liches are usually highly intelligent, which would imply good memory (D&D 5e Player's Handbook, p.173), they do not have any specific power of perfect recall. It is therefore entirely feasible that a lich's memory is no better than an equally intelligent human, meaning that they can plausibly forget things over time.

This is confirmed by the D&D 5e Monster Manual, p. 49, under the demilich monster entry:

Hower, time can erode the lich's reason and memory, causing it to retreat into its ancient tomb and forget to feed on souls. The spells it once knew fade from its mind, and it no longer channels the arcane energy it wielded as a lich.

User anaximander notes a canonical 5e example of this occurring. In Curse of Strahd p.181, the lich Exethanter has become weak and forgetful, and no longer remembers his name or spells.

Some especially ancient undead of other types have lost memories. For example, the spectre Lalruun (Libris Mortis p.53) is so ancient that it cannot remember its past life. The illithid ghost Ss'viss'th (Libris Mortis p.148) has forgotten what brains taste like.

It's unclear how long it takes a lich's memory to fade. Acererak was born over 1,000 years ago, and although he did degrade to a demilich at one point, it is believed that he did this intentionally, rather than out of forgetfulness. Vecna may be similarly ancient and is sometimes stated to be a contemporary of Acererak, although according to the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer the exact time and place of Vecna's empire is unknown. The lich Larloch of the Forgotten Realms is around 2,000 years old, with no signs of mental degradation.

According to the D&D 5e Player's Handbook p.23, an elf can live to 750 years old. Even an elf who fathers a son at age 750 and becomes a lich immediately thereafter will only be 1,500 years old by the time his son dies of old age. If Larloch's mental acuity is anything to go by, a lich will still be able to remember his son at that point, if he has not intentionally blanked his family from his mind or suffered premature memory loss.

However, liches are evil and canonically tend to suffer from insanity, so whether the lich still has any kind of emotional connection to his son is difficult to predict. He may be wracked with guilt and overpowering nostalgia for his past, or he may discard his son as a meaningless relic like a pair of old shoes.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 3.5 had the philolichs as well I think (not sure if they were elsewhere)? Where the lich turned someone they knew and loved as a mortal into a sort of lich too. \$\endgroup\$
    – anon
    Jan 7, 2020 at 22:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @anon The philolich appears to be from the third-party 3e sourcebook The Complete Guide to Liches. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7, 2020 at 22:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ right my bad then! :) I never had 3e, I just saw them being mentioned in regards to it elsewhere and thought it was official. \$\endgroup\$
    – anon
    Jan 7, 2020 at 22:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @anon There is an official 3.5e feat Lich-Loved which is... unfortunately exactly what it says on the tin. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jan 8, 2020 at 4:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ To provide a 5e example for the memory loss: the lich Exethanter, from Curse of Strahd, has forgotten his spells, all his memories, and even his own name when the party first encounter him. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8, 2020 at 10:49
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In general, yes, they just don't care

The Monster Manual provides some information about liches. In particular it notes:

Liches are the remains of great wizards who embrace undeath as a means of preserving themselves.

A lich often haunts the abode it favored in life, such as a lonely tower, a haunted ruin, or an academy of black magic.

From time to time, a lich might be stirred from its single-minded pursuit of power to take an interest in the world around it, most often when some great event reminds it of the life it once led.

So, from the generic description of a lich, it certainly could remember someone it knew before becoming a lich. Mostly they don't seem to care though, being engaged in a "single-minded pursuit of power".

The GM can choose when and how much. There a lot of room for roleplay here. Perhaps seeing someone from their past, the lich might become enraged, a sort of you-couldn't-stop-me-then-and-you won't-stop-me-now sort of thing. Or it might cause a momentary flicker of almost human emotion to stir in the lich's cold lifeless heart.

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