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A bit about the story of my campaign- the party is an elite adventurers guild employed and funded by the emperor. When they complete the quests of delivering the items to the emperor, they discover that the emperor was building an army of the undead. Then, they should break into the cellar of the palace and find a tomb. Then, they will be fed clues bit by bit to discover that the emperor is a lich and that his soul jar is a book hidden in one of the other three kingdoms. We are using the milestone style of exp and leveling up. I would like some advice on how to pace the levels and the level that the party should be before facing the emperor. I am a first-time dm, so any advice will be very appreciated!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you planning an encounter of just the Lich solo against the party? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 21:48

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Per the rules, level 17

A standard lich from the Monster Manual is a CR 21 monster worth 33,000 XP, or 8,250 XP per character for a group of four.

If we consult the encounter building tables on page 82, DMG, the amount of XP for a deadly encounter (meaning it could be lethal for one or more player characters) per character is 7,200 for a group at level 16, and 8,800 for a group of level 17. That means, the lich would be slightly above the threshold for a group of level 16 characters, and the group should have an average level of 17.

If your group has a different number of characters, or if the lich has bodyguards, you can calculate it the same way. Look at the DMG for the full, detailed procedure.

That said, in my experience the official rules overestimate how well high-CR monsters hold up against high-level PCs. A group of level 15 or 16 characters might well stand a chance, especially if they use tactics against the lich's power word kill. Circumstances also can have a huge influence — like surprising the lich, or catching it outside its lair when it is traveling.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Haha, in my campaign our party of 4 just fought a lich at level 10... with the help of the 13 allies our DM allowed (encouraged?) us to bring along. I have no idea how she balanced that encounter. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ We fought one around level 12, but only to survive, not to defeat it. We were only 3, but thankfully, it burned the power word on a bystander wo was competing with us on the quest we were on. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 17:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but ...what about the lair, won't anyone think of the lair?! It would be nice if you could incorporate this into your answer - as a Lich in their lair or not in their is a whole different kettle of rotten fish! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 21:35
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By the time you reach the appropriate level you will probably have a feel for it

The answer from nobody has it right by the rules, but I am in a similar game where we know a lich is the bbeg (2 actually) and I am pretty sure the DM will run them as they are in the MM. As a result our level 13 party of 3 is dying to meet one of them, and I expect the lich to die in 2 rounds, even at our level. This might be a humble brag, but it is to show that there are large differences in what the books recommend and the reality in many situations.

Luckily by the time you get your party to level 13 you will hopefully have a feel for how well they are doing. If they are winning encounters well above their level then you know you need to adjust accordingly and as long as you up the difficulty bit by bit (and maybe in agreement with the players because you don't want to be adversarial). If they are struggling you can make the encounters easier etc.

Generally as you progress the campaign start off being a little on the easier side, then ramp it up and down until you find the sweet spot that is both challenging and fun for your players. Sticking purely to the books is something that I would never really recommend unless you are just running a one shot or short series of games. Use your learning time wisely, and if you run a second campaign remember that different players and different characters will progress differently, so just because campaign one you could ramp it up, don't default to that expectation in campaign 2.

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