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According to the D&D 5e Monster Manual, regarding destroying a phylactery, it says:

Destroying a lich's phylactery is no easy task and often requires a special ritual, item, or weapon. Every phylactery is unique, and discovering the key to its destruction is a quest in and of itself.

-- p. 203, Death and Restoration

However, no further information is given on how this is typically done, or what is involved specifically.

I get that this is meant as a plot hook for the DM, and that the DM is meant to fill in the blanks as befits their story/campaign, and that the intention here is that different lich's phylacteries must be destroyed in different ways, rather than a one-size-fits-all method for destroying any phylactery.

However, it would be easier for me to come up with something if I had some examples to work with from existing adventures or additional lore on liches not included in the D&D 5e Monster Manual. Is there anything published in any edition of D&D that describes how to destroy a (specific) lich's phylactery?

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Yes, several.

Most sourcebooks prior to D&D 5th edition make no mention of the invulnerability property of a phylactery, implying that they can be destroyed normally. Most lich phylacteries in D&D 3rd edition for example are merely extremely tough, and can be destroyed with sufficient force.

However, special methods for destroying a lich's phylactery in various editions of D&D include:

  • According to Van Richten's Guide to the Lich, p. 53, you must reverse the permanency spell affecting a lich's phylactery, then cast dispel magic, to make it temporarily vulnerable to damage. Thereafter you must deal 25 points of damage to crush the amulet.
    • Alternatively, according to the same sourcebook, a bludgeoning weapon of +3 or better can harm the phylactery.
  • The spell Laeral's Crowning Touch can destroy a lich along with its phylactery. It's a 9th level spell and can only be learned by one of the Chosen of Mystra, meaning that only a few individuals can cast it.
  • Tan Chin's phylactery could only be permanently destroyed if the four Ebony Artifacts of the Imaskari were first thrown into the Bottomless Pool of Fire; otherwise it could re-form within 24 hours.
  • D&D 4e's Dungeon Master's Guide, p.135, suggests that destroying phylactery could require its own quest, could require a specific ritual, or could require melting it down in the force where it was originally created.
  • In the 4e Tomb of Horrors, Acererak's phylactery can only be destroyed by completing the skill challenge, disrupting the flow of energy when it is connected to the Astral Engine, which will cause the Engine to explode and destroy the phylactery
  • Exethanter's phylactery (Curse of Strahd p.189) can be destroyed merely by taking 20 radiant damage from a single source.
  • In Dead in Thay, reprinted for 5e in Tales of the Yawning Portal, p.163, the phylacteries can only be destroyed by first disrupting the arcane energy of the sepulchers in which they are held.
  • In Tomb of Annihilation, each phylactery has its own unique method of destruction, with a 10% chance that each one can be destroyed by throwing it into lava.
  • The dracolich Dragotha's phylactery (Dungeon Magazine #133 p.82) can be destroyed merely by dealing the correct sort of damage, as it has only defences against specific elements and types of damage, and immunity to fire. Simply dealing enough damage in one hit can damage it.
  • Various liches have phylacteries that are merely physically difficult to destroy: they are hard, such as a large gem or existing artifact; huge, such as a solid gold throne or epic monolith; or immovable, such as a cavern or archway.

Additionally, you may find it useful to research the method of destruction of artifacts, which have historically required unique methods of destruction. See the 5e Dungeon Master's Guide, p. 221, for examples.

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There are several examples from 5th Edition, most of which are from the Waterdeep Campaign Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Beware: Spoilers abound

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Level 20, Runestone Caverns. The Lich Ezzat's phylactery can only be destroyed if it is struck by 8 simultaneous Disintegrate spells. The spell Legend Lore reveals a hint towards this.

2

Level 14, Arcturiadoom. The Lich Arcturia's phylactery can only be destroyed by being digested in the stomach of a Mimic for 3 days. Again, Legend Lore gives a hint towards this.

3

Level 22, Shadowdusk Hold. The Dracolich residing in this floor's phylactery must be exposed to the fire breath of an Ancient Gold or Red Dragon to be destroyed. As before, Legend Lore should give a hint about this.

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Another, somewhat simpler example, is found in Curse of Strahd

This phylactery, found in the Amber Temple can only be destroyed if it takes 20 or more Radiant Damage from a single source.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Both of these answers are great (ignoring mine), but I've decided to accept the other because, at time of writing, yours has double the upvotes, so by accepting the other, I'm trying to "split the difference". Yours still has my upvote, of course. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jan 23 at 8:39
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Apparently, one can be destroyed merely by damaging it

This is a rather lackluster example, and I hope anyone can come up with a better example than this, but technically, there is an example in the D&D 5e adventure Curse of Strahd:

The scaly arm is merely a carved pedestal. The bone box is Exethanter's phylactery. If it takes 20 or more radiant damage from a single source, the phylactery is destroyed.

-- p. 189, X28. Hidden Phylactery

However, this seems to be thrown in as an afterthought, and doesn't really go along with the premise of a "quest in and of itself" as the Monster Manual implies.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your header is a bit more disappointing than the quote - this specific phylactery needed to be damaged with a specific, rare damage type, and this damage needed to be from a single source. And characters need to find out what it is first. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Jan 21 at 16:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot Given that the adventure gives you the Sunsword, it's not that rare in the context of CoS, although fair enough about having to find it out first, since that information is not available to the PCs anywhere as far as I know. The disappointed tone of my header comes from the fact that this doesn't seem to align with the Monster Manual quote, which makes it seems like it would require a "special ritual, item or weapon", rather than just a bit of (albeit somewhat rare) damage. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jan 21 at 16:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's somewhat rare damage, that needs to be capable of dealing 20 or more radiant damage in a single blow (the single source restriction means that it cannot be cumulative radiant damage, as otherwise multiple sources would do). The fact that there happens to be a special item (the Sunsword) capable of doing that in the campaign is by design...otherwise you are asking all DMs to come up with a Maguffin capable of destroying the phylactery. Finding out that is destroyable via radiant damage, when the Lich will reform beside it within 10 days, is a task in and of itself. \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Jan 22 at 9:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've had a look at all of the spells that deal radiant damage. The vast majority of them either target creatures or force saving throws from creatures (no use on an object!), only 2 don't. The 5th level Holy Weapon spell adds 2d8 radiance damage to a weapon attack roll for an hour. The 1st level spell Divine Favor adds 1d4 radiant damage to your weapon attacks for a minute. The Sunsword deals 1d10 slashing damage. So to get 20 radiant damage in a single hit, you either need to crit and roll max damage in a single hit, or imbue the Sunsword with the Holy Weapon spell and roll quite high! \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Jan 22 at 9:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @illustro "The Sunsword deals 1d10 slashing damage." huh? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jan 22 at 9:54

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