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Background info for this question: I’m working on a (mostly) homebrew campaign in Forgotten Realms, where the party finds a box/terrarium thing next to a skeleton in a dungeon, that they won’t be able to identify. The idea is that they’ll start to encounter more and more undead (minions of the lich who’s phylactery they have) on their quest to find out what it is, and then their quest to find out how to destroy it after they find out what it is.

My idea was that the phylactery glows when a soul is put into it, but then that sparked the question of how often does the lich have to put a soul in their phylactery, and can they do it remotely?
For example, can the lich put a soul into their phylactery while the phylactery is hundreds of miles away?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this a homebrew campaign in an established world? If yes, which one? If not, and world is also homebrew, why would you need answers instead of going with what works well in your world? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Jul 27, 2023 at 12:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot It’s a homebrew campaign set in the Forgotten Realms \$\endgroup\$
    – DMofDoom
    Jul 27, 2023 at 13:28

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The frequency is up to your narrative purposes

The lich entry reads:

Soul Sacrifices. A lich must periodically feed souls to its phylactery to sustain the magic preserving its body and consciousness (...)
A creature imprisoned in the phylactery for 24 hours is consumed and destroyed utterly, whereupon nothing short of divine intervention can restore it to life.
A lich that fails or forgets to maintain its body with sacrificed souls begins to physically fall apart, and might eventually become a demilich.

The lich entry does not further specify what the frequency of periodically is. Because it takes 24 hours to consume the soul and it can only hold one soul at a time, and also because the imprisonment spell that liches use for this purpose is a 9th level spell, which a lich typically only has one of per day, it should be no more often than once every 24 hours, but other than that it really is left up to you as the DM and your narrative purposes -- it could be a lot more infrequently.

The lich only needs to be on the same plane as the phylactery to add souls, it does not have to be nearby, but could be hundreds of miles away:

It does this using the imprisonment spell. Instead of choosing one of the normal options of the spell, the lich uses the spell to magically trap the target's body and soul inside its phylactery. The phylactery must be on the same plane as the lich for the spell to work. A lich's phylactery can hold only one creature at a time

A lich does not have to put souls into its phylactery

As a side note, the lich does not have to put souls into the phylactery, only if it does not want to turn into a demilich. Most liches try to avoid this fate as long as they can, and it is totally legitimate if yours does too, but some liches try to become demiliches on purpose (inset on p. 49, MM, "Acererak and His Disciples")

The transformation into a demilich isn't a bitter end for all liches that experience it. Made as a conscious choice, the path of the demilich becomes the next step in a dark evolution.

And a last note: you should consider how you can ensure the characters develop an interest in that box. If it is just a random box that cannot be identified, there is a risk they will sell it it or abandon it if they cannot find any use for it. The players have no idea that your plan for the campaign revolves around unraveling its mystery, to them just one more mystery among the many they run into. As DaleM suggests, making it magically provide a benefit to the bearer should do the trick.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I agree that having a featureless box be the key to unraveling the BBEG is tricky as characters may sell/ignore it, I kind of like the concept of the PCs having an "Oh crap!" moment and need to revisit old places to try and collect/buy-back the horcruxes. "You want that stupid box back? I donated it to the orphanage to replace the step at the front door. All those kids walk on it every day and still it doesn't bust open." \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Jul 27, 2023 at 15:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MivaScott, yes that is definitely a cool moment, the issue is just that for the lich to send undead minions after the PCs to get the box back, as the OP envisions, they need to keep the box. Maybe one way to incentivize them is to give them a bag of holding. It is incredible what kind of old and forgotten gadgets get carried around once you have the space. (Although that may make it harder for the lich to locate it, given its on a different dimension and all that). \$\endgroup\$ Jul 27, 2023 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, the idea with the box was that it would be something with carvings, arcane symbols, etc, that looks like some sort of magic thing that they shouldn’t be getting at that early a level, to try to get the PCs interested in it. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMofDoom
    Jul 27, 2023 at 19:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Give the box a benefit to whoever possesses it. A leak of the lichens power that does something neat so that the party will keep it even if they don’t think about it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Jul 27, 2023 at 20:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DMofDoom It may look (and behave) like an otherwise useful magical object...at least initially. After a while it can become a bit erratic, sometimes exhibiting more power than the by-the-book original. Like an Alchemy Jug that will occasionally pour more powerful acids and poisons than it normally would. So it's intriguing, maybe scary but also...quite useful. But in general, a story arc that depends on players keeping an object for the entire duration, without knowing its importance, is always going to be precarious. \$\endgroup\$
    – biziclop
    Jul 28, 2023 at 13:44

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