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I'm currently designing an encounter with a lich for my 13th-level party. They've cruised through more level-appropriate combat encounters, and they like to come up with creative ways around difficult fights, so I'm fairly comfortable throwing this at them. HOWEVER, there is one feature of the Lich that gives me pause: the ability to cast Power Word Kill.

Right now, both the Cleric and the Wizard have max HP below 100. The lich is unlikely to target the Wizard for plot reasons, but the Cleric is fair game. And while I think it would be dramatically cool for the Cleric to suddenly drop dead, and everyone would totally freak out, nuking the one person in the party who can cast "Resurrection" without even allowing a saving throw seems like a recipe for a TPK, or at least a lot of hurt feelings resulting from sudden permanent character death.

I know I could just have the Lich not know/cast Power Word Kill to make things easier on my underleveled players. But I'm also wondering if there's ever a situation where Power Word Kill feels fun and fair when used by the DM. I mean, there isn't even any guesswork about when to cast the spell. I know everyone's HP!

So here's what I'm asking: Based on times you've used Power Word Kill as a DM, or had it used on you as a player, how have you made the spell feel fun and fair in context?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @CGCampbell I would expect a lich to have a very good grasp on how to tell what hp a target has. This spell NEEDS meta knowledge, but frankly I expect that from a DM in order to actually pretend they are as intelligent as a lich which few people are. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Dec 27, 2023 at 13:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder to everyone that answers, partial answers, suggestions on where to find an answer, frame challenges, and general advice to the asker do not belong in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Dec 28, 2023 at 5:35

4 Answers 4

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The one time I've fought a lich as a player, we spammed Counterspell/Silence at him

In one campaign I play in, we recently fought a lich at level 10 (we're still working on his soul jar). However, this was a pretty atypical encounter: in addition to the 4 PCs, we brought 13(!) NPC allies of roughly similar levels with us, and the lich had numerous reinforcements and several powerful tricks up his sleeve to make this an even fight despite the number of opponents.

Almost none of us nor our allies had greater than 100 HP, which meant that most of us were potential targets for Power Word Kill (not to mention the several other spells that could potentially one-shot someone in this HP range), and we considered all 13 NPC allies to be precious and not expendable. That is to say, we didn't bring all these reinforcements as cannon fodder. Our explicit goal was zero casualties. Even without specific in-character knowledge of every deadly spell in the lich's spellbook, we were very aware that this was a risky fight despite our numbers advantage, and we decided to take that risk.1

I play an abjuration wizard, and at 10th level I had recently gained the Improved Abjuration feature, a.k.a. "Counterspell proficiency". So, in this fight against a clearly higher level spellcaster with many potential one-shot kill spells, I made it my sole business each turn to do whatever it took to be within 60 feet of the lich, so I could cast Counterspell every time he even thought about casting a spell. This meant that most of my turns were some variation on using my movement to walk toward the lich and using my action to push him closer to me with my Arcane Hand. The were a few rounds where I couldn't get in range, but fortunately our bard had us covered with Silence to bridge those gaps in Counterspell coverage. (Note: the lich never countered my Counterspell. I'm not sure if the DM was being nice, or if the lich was simply saving his reaction for something else.2)

Of course, I had no idea what spells I was countering, but between me and the bard, we prevented the lich from casting a single leveled spell for the entire first phase of the battle.3 The DM told us afterward that I had countered almost all of his big spell slots, including Power Word Kill, so I guess my strategy worked.

Preparation is key

So, is there a general lesson to be learned from this highly unusual lich encounter? In our case, we had a good idea of what we were up against, and we prepared extensively for it (which was how we ended up with 13 NPC allies, among other things). That preparation paid off, and we were able to go into the fight knowing the risks and ultimately emerge victorious (and we never had to use our emergency time reversal ability during the fight). Because we knew the risks going into it and we were the ones picking the fight, it never felt unfair that the lich had access to such powerful spells. In fact, the question of "fairness" never even came up. If we didn't feel confident that we could handle it, we would have avoided the fight and looked for another solution.

Of course, in my case my abjurer happened to be well-suited for this fight, but there are other ways to counter Power Word Kill besides actual Counterspell. For example, given that your cleric seems to be the juiciest target as well as the only one who can't easily be revived if they die, it would probably be prudent for the cleric to cast Death Ward on themself before the battle, and be ready to recast it if the lich manages to pop it via Power Word Kill or any other means. It's very unlikely the lich would be able to "double tap" them before they have the chance to recast it, and at 13th level they have plenty of 4th level spell slots to keep the ward up. With this preparation and strategy, the cleric can reasonably guarantee that they won't be taken down, and if anyone else goes down, the cleric is the one who can get them back up, so this greatly mitigates the risks associated with instant death spells. (In fact, perhaps Disintegrate is the scarier spell, since a mere Revivify isn't going to fix it.)

As a DM, if you want to make this a less deadly encounter, your job is to give the players a chance to make the appropriate preparations by somehow letting them know what to expect. In addition to encouraging strategic play to make the encounter objectively less deadly, this also makes the encounter feel subjectively more fair, since the instant kill isn't a surprise. There are any number of ways to do this depending on the circumstances and the story. As one example, perhaps the lich has used their powerful spells to make an example of people who defied them in the past, so news of their ability to make someone drop dead where they stand with a mere word or disintegrate them into dust has spread far and wide.


1 Admittedly, for plot reasons, the PCs have access to a time reversal ability, so that made the risk... somewhat less, though it still didn't remove the risk completely, since the lich had previously demonstrated the ability to interfere with this power. We didn't go into the fight expecting the time reversal to be a universal "get out of death free" card.

2 I asked the DM later, and she told me that thanks to unrelenting pressure from the melee attackers of the group, the lich was using his reaction each turn on a short-range teleport escape ability. I believe this was a homebrew ability not in the standard lich stat block.

3 The "first phase" ended when I accidentally sent the lich and several allies plummeting down a hole several miles deep, and the rest of us had to jump in after them. The fight was effectively put on hold for a few minutes while we fell and then resumed once we landed at the bottom. If you want to read my in-character summary of the encounter, you can find it here.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Liches are raid bosses. Even if some people frown at the metagaming, if both players and DM are for it, let them do a tabletop MMO for an epic boss fight. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 27, 2023 at 16:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MindwinRememberMonica Haha, we asked the DM if she was sure she wanted to run 13 NPC allies in a dungeon raid in addition to enough enemies to balance the encounters, and she assured us it was fine. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 27, 2023 at 16:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ On the subject of metagaming: I would say that in character, we didn't have specific knowledge of the lich's exact spell list, but we were well aware that he had numerous deadly high-level spells at his disposal. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 27, 2023 at 22:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I wish I could accept all the answers to this question, they're all excellent. I chose this one because of the specificity of the scenario described. It's not the same as my exact situation, but it clearly illustrates the importance of foreknowledge and preparation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Dec 29, 2023 at 15:49
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Give them a costly way out

We have had Power Word Kill used against the party in various contexts. Here are a few ways you can handle it:

  • Use Red Shirts. (That is, expendable NPC characters that bite the dust for the PCs). We had one encounter with a lich during a multi-party wizard test, and the lich killed one of the other party's guys. The plus is that this approach serves well to drive home the terrible power, but leaves the party intact if they flee. We pulled out all the stops to run and get to safety.

  • Player Countermeasures. PWK is not the end-all, be-all of kill spells. There are multiple ways to counteract it if you know what you are doing, and you know you will be facing a lich, even as a lower-level party. The simplest ones are counterspell, or staying out of range. Knowing that you will face the lich in advance can help the party prepare, as can be knowing about its powers, so foreshadowing via stories of how it killed others with a single word can help both build tension and make the fight more survivable.

  • Raise Dead. Even if for story reasons you kill the cleric, there are other ways to get your dead raised. For example, clerics at the temple in town can provide resurrection, either for coin or for the promise of adventuring services (which can help drive the action forward). If your players like tactical combat that overtaxes them, don't pull the blows or you cheapen the victory. However, I'd be careful to have some story based out so this does not just turn into a TPK; the lich may let them get away when it has them on the ropes in exchange for something it wants. See the next point.

  • Don't make it a fight to the death encounter. This of course depends on how you want to use the lich in your adventure, but I think it the best solution. If you confront a party with a lich long before they have a good chance to defeat it, a full-on confrontation where only one side gets out alive (or undead) may not be the best approach. Instead, encounters with opponents that are too strong for a straight fight can be an interesting opportunity for roleplay, and for other resolutions than violence.1 The most boring monster is one that always fights to the death. What does the lich want? If the players can help it with that, it may be willing to let them live in exchange.


1 As a little side anecdote, one of the more memorable adventures we had with a lich was when the group ran into one in the underdark: the lich killed the party fighter with PWK (the party was able to raise him again), but the party was able to buy a truce. The lich demanded unusual magic items as payment, but then acted as an uneasy ally of sorts, who traveled with the group for a short time, and helped smoke out a Lolth temple with cloudkill, stuffed the corpses into a demiplane to remove any traces, and secured some more unusual magic for its collection before taking off.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 very good points. Once a sadistic DM killed my character by making it impossible for me to escape and told me my character had no spirit and therefore could not be resurrected. I felt quite angry, especially because he gave most others the possibility of coming back from the dead. It was not fun, especially for me as I like to role-play a back story and in practice I did nothing "dumb" in the game to merit death beyond saving. It was just on a whim. He was like that. It happened to one other player too. I cut my loses and left. So, yeah, a way out indeed! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Dec 27, 2023 at 9:26
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Use Foreshadowing

When players don't feel blindsided by a monster's ability to immediately kill a PC, they are much more likely to find the experience fun even when a character dies.

Make sure the players know about the spell before their encounter with the lich. Then, make sure the players know they're soon to face a monster with access to the spell. Then, once the fight starts, make sure the players know this is that encounter.

This heavy amount of foreshadowing gives players the opportunity to choose not to face the monster if they're not comfortable with that amount of risk. It also allows them to prepare countermeasures if they'd like to reduce the risk while still taking it. And finally, it allows them to walk in without changing any of their tactics, knowing fully the risk they're about to take.

While I haven't done this specifically with a lich using Power Word: Kill, I have done this with a party of level one adventureres fighting a necromancer with a level 6 Magic Missile (which has no attack roll, no saving throw, and deals enough damage to bring many level 1 characters from full health to zero with enough remaining damage for instant death). The players chose to listen to the foreshadowing, avoid the encounter until they could mitigate some of the risk, and then fought the necromancer with those measures in place. A bit more foreshadowing led to a moment where the players had a choice to retreat or likely one of the players would die to the spell, and the players made the choice to stay. The necromancer died, but so did one of the player characters. After the session the players said the experience was still fun, rewarding, and didn't feel unfair.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a pretty good take. “Surprise your dead” is probably the least fun and engaging way to die. I’ve always said the best way for a character to die is as a consequence of their own actions. For something like this, death is the consequences of being ill-prepared when they had a chance not to be. +1. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 27, 2023 at 12:59
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Death Ward the Cleric

If the spell is still in effect when the target is subjected to an effect that would kill it instantaneously without dealing damage, that effect is instead negated against the target, and the spell ends.

It’s a Cleric 4 spell so the cleric can prepare it and cast it in advance since it lasts 8 hours. If they also prepare Revivify, for the cost of an action and 300gp worth of diamonds, they can deal with the lich targeting something else.

If your players go into combat with a lich without doing this, then they deserve what they get.

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