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I am in the process of world building for a new game. My ultimate antagonist is going to be a lich, but the bit of research I have done so far all refers to liches having to be wizards, due to the spell and phylactery creation requirement.

I am therefore wondering:

In D&D 5e, could a non-magic user become a lich, assuming he could convince a mage to perform the rites?

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In fifth edition, the description of liches does indeed suggest that they are specifically wizards. But... well... fifth edition has said a lot of really dumb things, in my opinion, on the subject of liches. Requiring a major artifact in The Book of Vile Darkness, forcing archdevils or demon princes to be involved in each individual lich is ridiculous, and the whole “must consume soul energy” thing kind of... defeats the entire point of the lich. So I would not recommend taking fifth edition especially seriously here. It’s kind of full of bad writing—in my mind, a lich is defined by its selfishness and its obsession with collecting all the magic possible. A lich often seeks undeath precisely to avoid having to deal with others, fiends included. (No small number are no doubt an attempt to avoid paying up in some previous infernal bargain.)

Which is more or less how liches have been since the origins of D&D. While wizards are somewhat traditional—after all, wizards tend to be the ones obsessed with hoarding knowledge, which is precisely what a lich is about—there have always been liches from all kinds of spellcasting traditions, even ones you might think are incompatible like druids.

But they have always been spellcasters, and not just any spellcaster but fairly powerful ones. Again, collecting and mastering “all the magic” is kind of a lich’s basic raison d’être. The ultimate form of a lich was known as a “demilich” because they’re “only half there,” as they transcend this physical reality in search of more magic from beyond the limits of our existence.

In short, yeah, liches kinda have to be spellcasters. Non-spellcasters tend to favor other forms of undeath—becoming vampires, mummies, death knights, etc. In fourth edition, one could become a lich with “just” Ritual Caster, and no other magic, but even “just” Ritual Caster is pretty significant, especially considering that it also requires a fairly high level (in most editions of D&D, the minimum level to become a lich is around the halfway mark to the system’s highest level).

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A lich is usually a wizard, but practically always a spellcaster.

Firstly, a DM can always invent or change elements in their own campaign. Perhaps a wizard's treacherous servant interrupted their lichdom ritual and stole the power for themselves.

However, a lich is defined as a wizard in the D&D 5e Monster Manual, and while the D&D 4e and 3.5 Monster Manual both define that other types of spellcaster can also become a lich, I can't find any instance of a lich who is not also a spellcaster of some sort. A lich is by definition an undead spellcaster.

Some characters canonically became a lich without undertaking the ritual themselves, so in theory a non-spellcaster could have someone else make them a lich. However, in practice, every example I could find was also a spellcaster:

  • Erandis d'Vol was made a lich by her mother. 5e-specific lore establishes that she died, and her mother brought her back as a lich. However, she is now a 20th-level spellcaster. (D&D 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting p.228; D&D 5e Eberron: Rising From the Last War p.296)
  • In an April 1st parody article, Nijel Turnbottom describes a low-level wizard who is accidentally transformed into a lich when he interrupts someone else's ritual.
  • Osterneth, the Bronze Lich, became a lich by replacing her heart with the Heart of Vecna. However, she was already a spellcaster when she did this, and had to enact some kind of ritual to do it. (D&D 4e Open Grave p.208)
  • Renwick Caradoon was made a lich when his brother fed him a lichdom potion. However, he was a powerful wizard and had already made all the other preparations for lichdom; someone else just helped him with the final step. (D&D 5e Princes of the Apocalypse p.66)
  • Dracoliches are dragons who become liches without necessarily being spellcasters themselves. (D&D 5e Monster Manual p.83)

According to the D&D 5e Monster Manual, a lich must absorb souls to survive, which requires the use of the 9th level imprisonment spell. This canonically makes it difficult to be a lich in 5e unless you're a wizard (or warlock) or have some other way to cast the spell.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Dragons are already heavily magical, even when they aren’t actually spellcasters (which they usually are). Good point about “doing it yourself,” which as I noted in comments, is something I consider absolutely necessary—Erandis d’Vol seems like the only exception, and there’s a whole lot of special exceptional things going on with her that almost seems to justify it. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 18 '20 at 13:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ In the 3.5 adventure red hand of doom there is a lich DRUID called the ghostlord who wipes out an entire town. \$\endgroup\$ – John Dec 19 '20 at 15:16
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There was an older book called Van Richten's Guide to the Lich that went into more detail then any other supplement I am aware of on Lichs. This is from 2e so it well predates 5e, but you tagged your question with "Lore" and "World Building". It included details on the creation of liches including variations. It had information on clerical liches as well as psionic liches.

It also included vassaliches. Essentially a vassalich was someone turned into a lich by someone else and the someone else would then normally retain the phylactery and use that as leverage to force the vassalich to serve them either permanently or temporarily. Normally a vassalich was also a high level spellcaster but not able to turn themselves into a lich. If you wanted to make a non-spellcaster into an undead servant there were other options that were often better for non-spellcasters. But nothing in the rules required them to be a spellcaster, much less a wizard.

In short, to the best of my knowledge, all official 5e rule books suggest that a lich must be a wizard. But if you want lore from earlier editions there is precedence for liches to be from any spellcasting or psionic class and the mechanical rules of the earlier editions provide methods for even non-spellcasters to become liches.

And of course if your goal is world building, the rules actively encourage a certain amount of homebrewing, especially when it is more on the "fluff" side then mechanical balance.

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You're world-building, so... yes?

For the first part, "Lich" is a label. It means what it means, and different worlds have different ideas of what exactly it is to be lich. If you're world-building, you get to answer those questions if you want. If you want a rogue or a warrior, or a paladin or a druid who is a lich, you can build a world where that fits and makes sense, and then put the appropriate character into it.

But why?

In general, "powerful spellcaster" is a big part of the core concept of a lich as a foe. They're a powerful spellcaster who's traded in their mortality and thus is also not particularly fragile, is hard to kill permanently, and has a vicious touch attack. So if you're imagining a lich who is not a spellcaster, then the real question is why? How is it useful that this character be a lich? Why do that rather than have them be a wight or a vampire or a necropolitan or a revenant or a deathknight or whatever? What does it even mean for them to be a lich, if they're not going to be a powerful spellcaster?

Practically Speaking

You're the DM, and you're trying to craft a game. That means that you'll have players, and they'll have expectations that you're working with, and those are going to matter. If you don't intend for them to find out that your ultimate antagonist is "a lich" then it almost doesn't matter what you call them. Just give them the features that you want and the backstory that fits it. If they are going to discover that they're facing "a lich" then they're going to have a set of expectations built around that, including things like a phylactery, undeadness, powerful spellcasting, and possibly soul-draining. If you're going to subvert one of those expectations in a big way, then you should have a reason for it - either because you actively want then to get the wrong idea just to mess with them (this sort of thing can work, but is really easy to do poorly) or because there's something particularly interesting and plot-relevant about "Why is this lich different from all other liches" that they can potentially investigate and get useful information out of. Even then, you'd have to have some reason why the information sources for the party concluded that this guy was a lich even without the spellcasting.

In conclusion

A "non-spellcasting lich" could be done, and it could be done well, but it should not be done casually. If your'e going to run with that, there should be some solid reasons behind it, and the fact that this particular foe does not cast spells in spite of being a lich should be a significant plot point that the PCs can discover, investigate, determine implications of, and gain advantage from. If you don't want "A non-spellcasting lich? How bizarre." to be a major plot point of your campaign, then you should either have your lich be a spellcaster (as normal) or you should call your non-spellcasting undead final antagonist something other than "lich". If what you really want is to have a non-spellcaster who has a phylactery (the only real defining point of a lich other than the spellcasting) then it might be worthwhile to toss something in there about how his apotheosis ritual was in some way derived from the standard lichdom rituals, but I still wouldn't call the result "a lich".

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The original 1E Lords of Darkness had a section titled Becoming a Lich (p. 73-75) that says, "To become a lich, a magic-user or magic-user/cleric must attain at least the 18th level of experience as a magic-user." So in 1E/2E Forgotten Realms both clerics and mages could become liches. Since Ed Greenwood wrote the Lich section of Lords of Darkness it stands that the original lore for Forgotten Realms included spell casters in general as Liches.

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