Honestly, what other image would do?
Okay, the lich isn't exactly obscure, nor is it a B/X monster. It does appear in the Rules Cyclopedia and the Advanced Edition Companion though, so close enough. It is also certainly an uncommon occurrence in most adventures, as they are one of the nastiest pieces of work out there.
Rather than a typical RMA where I go down through the stats and description (though I'll do some of that too), I'd like to look a bit more closely at what role the lich fulfills in a game.
Now, in terms of raw stats, the lich is quite respectable. That's not what a lich is all about, really. Let's get the numbers out of the way though, so we have them for ready reference.
Lich (from AEC)
No. Enc.: 1 (1)
Alignment: Neutral (evil)
Movement: 60' (20')
Armor Class: 0
Hit Dice: 12+
Attacks: 1 (cold touch)
Damage: 1d10 cold damage
Hoard Class: XXII
OK, so good AC & HD, nasty cold damage, undead abilities, crazy saves, etc. etc. But that's not what makes the lich so terrible. Reading on into the description:
A lich is an undead magic-user of at least 18th level (and possibly multi-classed) who has used its magical powers and a phylactery to unnaturally extend its life.
A minimum 18th-level spell caster where the GM can take time to plan their spells. That's scary! Still, read on:
Liches are only vulnerable to attack by creatures of 6 HD or more (or creatures of a magical nature), magical attack forms, and they are unaffected by non-magical weapons.So only magic or big monsters can physically hurt them. Also scary, but not really the point. What else?
In addition to having undead immunity to charm and sleep, liches are immune to the following spells or forms of damage: cold-based and electrical- based attacks, death spells, enfeeblement, polymorph, and any effects that cause insanity.Lots of immunities. Sounds like demons and devils. This thing is looking harder and harder to kill. But wait! There's more!
A lich may attack by spell, or with a cold touch attack that deals 1d10 hp damage. Victims must also save versus paralyze or become paralyzed permanently, unless magically cured. Finally, all beings with 4 or fewer HD that see a lich will be affected with fear, and no saving throw is permitted.Yup. Permanent paralysis and a no-save fear effect. All this and a few other odds and ends (depending upon which version you are using) adds up to a formidable, but not unstoppable, opponent. So why so scary? Well, a few things.
First of all, the lich –like dragons or senior demons– are not random encounter fodder. Not only should they be planned encounters, they are often the keystone of entire campaigns! To quote the Rules Cyclopedia entry:
Liches are master villains, coordinating armies and spy-networks made up the undead. Each one has its own goal: One may want to achieve true Immortality, one may serve an evil Immortal of Entropy, one may wish to transform the entire world into a horrid playground for the undead. Each lich in a campaign should have its own name, style, and motivation.
In other words, think about it a bit before placing one of these things in your world. What does it want? What steps has it taken thus far? What precautions has it taken?
Precaution-wise, liches are likely to have whole legions of minions –undead or otherwise. Not to mention fortifications, hidden lairs, magical wards, etc. Plus, while it's not actually stated overtly in the rules, the implication is that the phylactery is necessary to keep existing in its undead state and if it were destroyed, the lich would die too. If the phylactery endures, the lich may return even if it's body is "killed."
Certainly this is how I've seen it played out or referred to in later gaming texts. Of course, locating the phylactery is often the point of major quests. Much like getting the One Ring to Mt. Doom, the horcru– I mean phylactery!– must be found and destroyed to end the lich's schemes.
The lich's plans may have been centuries in the making. GMs' default assumptions should be that the lich would have thought of something as a precaution against nearly any plan the PCs might cook up. Their lairs will be fortified, guarded, and probably trapped. Not to mention the lich may be willing to play a longer game; even lose a fight to fool the PCs into thinking they've won!
Liches' master plans should be epic in scope, like the examples above; taking over the world, becoming a god, etc. A lich isn't going to stoop to hanging around some dungeon guarding a chest of coins.
PCs should have plenty of chances to learn of the lich's existence before getting anywhere near it. That said, if they do barge ahead and bash in the gates without truly preparing for the fight, then they shouldn't be surprised when they find themselves rolling up new characters for the following session!