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Open Grave
D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll & Steve Winter

Ancient Burial Places; Ancient Tombs; Sorcerous Kings; Challenges, Surpassing (Certain Death); Soul Eaters; Treasure, Great…

Sound familiar? So begin the rumors and legends surrounding the (arguably) most famous dungeon of all, the Tomb of Horrors. I’m a huge fan of the original module; I even drive around with a “I Survived the Tomb of Horrors” bumper sticker on my car. To me, the non-stop death march through Acererak’s dungeon corridors epitomizes something of the true, albeit sadistic and at times outright arbitrary, spirit of 1st Edition gameplay. This is the module after all, with the following placed in the final treasure vault: “all items from characters teleported nude.”

Not everyone thinks so highly of the module, of course. Recently, I lost the Battle of Seattle against editor-in-chief Chris Youngs, debating which adventure module folks would most want to see in 4th Edition. Final result? Against the Giants won, 43% to 37% (“other” took the remaining 20%). Although, I contend that if all the giants from the G-series attempted to navigate their way through the Tomb of Horrors, they too would be subject to multiple TPKs -- thus, a moral victory of sorts.

All that said, Open Grave releases this month and so D&D Alumni turns its attention to the subject of undeath. Specifically, we look back at a certain lich and demilich that appear in Open Grave in order to better explain how these individuals -- Acererak and Vecna -- came to be included in the Undead Hall of Infamy.

I would argue that liches hold the position of the game’s most exalted undead; this, despite competition from animate skeletons, zombies, mummies, and vampires (as well as other horror staples such as golems and lycanthropes). The concept of the lich -- a powerful magic-user looking to cheat death through magic -- is so very emblematic of the game’s sword and sorcery/pulp fiction roots. The lich also makes use of another literary device, that of hiding its “soul” somewhere away from its corporeal body; in myths and stories, including the horcruxes in the Harry Potter series, these hiding places can be inside a pinecone, a fish, or, as with Russia’s Koschei, inside a needle, which is inside an egg, which is inside a duck, which is inside a rabbit, which is inside an iron chest, which is buried under a tree on island… thus, quite a process to uncover. D&D codified these storage devices as a lich’s phylactery, for whatever reason seeking the mystical or religious connotations of a traditional Jewish device, at least in name … and adventurers have been searching for them ever since.


Seldom is the name of Vecna spoken except in hushed voice, and never within hearing of strangers, for legends say that the phantom of this once supreme lich still rooms the Material Plane. It is certain that when Vecna finally met his doom, one eye and one hand survived. The arch-lich Vecna supposedly imbued both his hand (left) and his eye with wondrous and horrible powers enabling them to persist long after his other remains moldered away into dust.

While Vecna's first iteration was solely through his eye and hand (all that remained of him after being destroyed in battle), he progressed throughout the editions from arch-lich all the way to god of undeath. But why, it must be asked, did his eye and hand remain? Something of his story, no doubt, owes to the game’s literary influences (not to mention his very name, anagram of Jack Vance).

The Eye and Hand of Vecna owe much of their inspiration to Michael Moorcock's first trilogy of short novels on the eternal hero Corum: The Knight of the Swords, The Queen of the Swords, and The King of the Swords. Corum is the last survivor of his race, a vaguely elf/sidhe-like people who were hunted down and butchered by the humans. Corum himself is captured by humans, whose idea of fun is gouging out his left eye and chopping off his left hand. Corum escapes before they can finish him off and survives with the help of a different (and much kinder) group of humans.

Sidebar: Artifact Powers

1st Edition artifacts were quite the collection of overpowered items; as evidence to this claim, following is the table of prime powers from the 1st Edition DMG, provided to the Hand (two such powers) and Eye (one power)… in addition to also having minor and major benign powers! That said, these powers did come with a price (beyond the relentless campaign for evil): Minor and major malevolent effects as well as extremely unfortunate side effects (including lycanthropy, a Charisma score of 3, or the inability to touch or be touched by any metal object).

Table V: Prime Powers

A. All of possessor's ability totals permanently raised 2 points each upon pronouncement of a command word (18 maximum)
B. All of possessor's ability totals raised to 18 each upon pronouncement of a command word
C. Bones/exoskeleton/cartilage of opponent turned to jelly - 1 time/day
D. Cacodemon-like power summons a demon lord, arch-devil, or nycadaemon - 1 time/month
E. Creeping doom callable- 1 time/day
F. Death ray equal to a finger of death with no saving throw - 1 time/day
G. Death spell power of 110%-200% effectiveness with respect to number of levels affected - 1 time/day
H. Gate spell power, 100% effective - 1 time/day
I. Imprisonment spell power - 1 time/week
J. Magical resistance of 50%-75% for possessor upon command word - 1 time/day
K. Major attribute permanently raised to 19 upon command word
L. Meteorswarm - 1 time/day
M. Monster summoning Vlll - 2 times/day
N. Plane shift - 1 time/day
O. Polymorph any object - 1 time/day
P. Power word blind/kill/stun - 1 time/day
Q. Premonition of death or serious harm to possessor
R. Prismatic spray - 1 time/day
S. Restoration - 1 time/day
T. Resurrection - 7 times/week
U. Shades - 2 times/day
V. Shape change - 2 times/day
W. Spell absorption, 19-24 levels - 1 time/week
X. Summon 1 of each type of elemental, 16 hit dice each, no need for control - 1 time/week
Y. Summon diinn or efreet lord (8 h.p./die, f 2 "to hit" and +4 damage) for 1 day of service - 1 time/week
Z. Super sleep spell affects double the number of creatures plus up to 2 5th or 6th and 1 7th or 8th level creature
AA. Temporal stasis, no saving throw, upon touch - 1 time/month
BB. The item enables the possessor to legend lore, commune, or contact higher plane (7th-10th) - 1 time/week
CC.Time stop of twice normal duration - 1 time/week
DD. Total fire/heat resistance for all creatures within 20' of the item
EE. Total immunity from all forms of mental and psionic attacks
FF. Total immunity from all forms of cold
GG. Trap the soul with 90% effectiveness - 1 time/month
HH. User can cast combination spells (if a spell caster) as follows (d4):

1) 1st and 2nd level spells simultaneously
2) 2nd and 3rd level spells simultaneously
3) 3rd and 4th level spells simultaneously
4) 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level spells simultaneously

II. Vanish - 2 times/day
JJ. Vision - 1 time/day
KK. Wish - 1 time/day
LL. Youth restored to creature touched - 1 time/month

Before long, Corum meets a sorcerer who gives him two gifts: the Hand of Kwll and the Eye of Rhynn. These two artifacts didn't come from a single, mad lich, but from a pair of brother gods. Kwll and Rhynn themselves aren't good or evil, lawful or chaotic -- they exist beyond the notions of petty, human morality. The eye expands Corum's senses and lets him see into other planes. The hand has great strength and stamina, but more importantly, it allows Corum to summon creatures from the planes that the eye sees into. Those creatures come to Corum's aid, which generally means killing whatever threatens him at the moment. Those creatures are then released from bondage and the souls of whatever they just killed are placed at Corum's service and must answer the summons the next time he needs aid.

Much of the time, these two artifacts work in Corum's best interest… but not always. They aren't entirely under Corum's control. The eye shows him things he'd rather not see, the hand attacks people he'd rather not fight, and the summoned creatures kill people he'd rather weren't dead. They never turn Corum to evil, but they cause him to do many evil things, and those sins torture his conscience. From his perspective, they're both a blessing and a curse, with the curse-half constantly gaining traction over the blessing-half.

Eventually, he meets the god Kwll, who is imprisoned until he can be reunited with his hand. Corum offers the hand to Kwll and the eye to Rhynn in exchange for their aid against the most powerful of the chaos gods. Kwll agrees, but once the hand is returned and Kwll is freed, he declares that gods are not bound by agreements with mortals. In the end, he and his brother help Corum anyway, but because they chose to, not because Corum forced a bargain from them. The world is freed from the clutches of the warring gods of law and chaos and Corum is rid of the eye and hand, which he considers a triple win.

With that background, here's how the Eye and Hand of Vecna were described in their original appearance:

Eye of Vecna: The Eye of Vecna is said to glow in the same manner as that of a feral creature. It appears to be an agate until it is placed in an empty eye socket of a living character. Once pressed in, it instantly and irrevocably grafts itself to the head, and it cannot be removed or harmed without slaying the character.

The Hand of Vecna: Tales say that the Hand appears to be a mummified extremity, a blackened and shriveled hand, possibly from a burned body. If the wrist portion is pressed against the stump of a forearm, it will instantly graft itself to the limb and become a functioning member with 18/00 strength in its grip (no "to hit" or damage bonuses). The Hand will eventually turn the alignment of the host character to neutral evil.

To use any power, the fingers of the Hand must be extended, curled, or whatever in different combinations. Devise the combinations of finger/hand positions you have assigned to each power and record them, i.e. fist = ( ), thumb down = ( ), pointing little finger = ( ), etc. Keep this chart handy and make the host character use the positions to use a power of the Hand.

Note: From his artifacts to the arch-lich himself, Vecna later appeared in such game material as 2nd Edition’s Vecna Lives!, Vecna Reborn, and—in the appendix to Die Vecna Die!—statted out as “The Maimed God” (or demigod, to be precise). This version of the Eye of Vecna still appeared as a black, uncut gem, and the Hand possessed a new, more specified suite of powers made in conjunction with its gestures, including:

  • Point index finger: light, at will; to Point five fingers: disintegrate, 1/day
  • Palm out: time stop, 1/day
  • Snap fingers: monster summoning IV, 3/day

The host character may use any minor power without fear, but as soon as a major power of the Hand is used, he or she awakes a spirit of great evil. (You, the DM, should then begin an insidious campaign of suggestion and urging towards evil on that character's part.) When a primary power is used, the host will instantly become neutral evil -- very evil. The Hand can be severed from the host at any time before its powers are used with 100% certainty, but each major power use subtracts 1% from the probability, and each use of a primary power makes success 10% less likely. Whenever 100% subtraction has occurred there is no possibility of removing the Hand, and the character will know this.


Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. It is filled with rich treasures both precious and magical, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, there is said to be a demi-lich who still wards his final haunt. (Be warned that tales told have it that this being possesses powers which make him nearly undefeatable!) Accounts relate that it is quite unlikely that any adventurers will ever find the chamber where the demilich Acererak lingers, for the passages and rooms of the Tomb are fraught with terrible traps, poison gases, and magical protections. Furthermore, the demi-lich has so well hidden his lair, that even those who avoid the pitfalls will not be likely to locate their true goal. So only large and well-prepared parties of the bravest and strongest should even consider the attempt, and if they do locate the Tomb, they must be prepared to fail. Any expedition must be composed of characters of high level and varied class. They must have magical protections and weapons, and equip themselves with every sort of device possible to insure their survival.

Next, we look back at the game’s most famous demilich. Acererak had connections to Vecna as well, rumored to have served and even saved his lich master before becoming a lich himself. And from lich, Acererak went on, not to godhood, but to become the game’s first demilich—in many ways, a far more dangerous creature, the final vestige of a once all-powerful lich.

Like Vecna, one can find the inspirations for Acererak in early swords-and-sorcery fiction. Probably the most influential in this regard was Clark Ashton Smith, a contemporary of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Smith's story The Death of Malygris relates the tale of an "archimage" whose power terrifies a kingdom even though the necromancer hasn't stirred in decades:

"I have seen Malygris," he said, turning to the conclave. "Many times I have watched him thus, thinking to learn some secret of his close-hidden magic, I have spied upon him at noon, at evenfall, and through the drear, lampless vigils of midnight. And I have beheld him in the ashen dawn and the dawn of quickening fire. But always he sits in the great ivory chair, in the high hall of his tower, frowning as if with meditation. And his hands clutch always the basilisk-carven arms of the chair, and his eyes turn evermore, unshutting, unblinking, toward the orient window and the heavens beyond where only high-risen stars and clouds go by.

"Thus have I beheld him for the space of a whole year and a month. And each day I have seen his monsters bring before him vessels filled with rare meat and drink: and later they have taken away the vessels untouched. And never have I discerned the least movement of his lips, nor any turning or tremor of his body.

"For these reasons, I deem that Malygris is dead; but by virtue of his supremacy in evil and in art magical, he sits defying the worm, still undecayed and incorrupt. And his monsters and his familiars attend him still, deceived by the lying appearance of life; and his power, though now an empty fraud, is still dark and awful upon Poseidonis."

Needless to say, when humans enter Malygris's tower to steal his secrets and loot his treasures, they're met by a doom that surpasses horror.

Who better, we thought, to ask about Acererak than Bruce Cordell, creator of the Return to the Tomb of Horrors as well as the 3.5 revision to the original adventure—starting with, what led to his interest in Acererak? And so we did…

Ages past, a human magic-user/cleric of surpassing evil took the steps necessary to preserve his life force beyond the centuries he had already lived, and this creature became the lich, Acererak. Over the scores of years which followed, the lich dwelled with hordes of ghastly servants in the gloomy stone halls of the very hill where the Tomb is. Eventually even the undead life force of Acererak began to wane, so for the next eight decades, the lich’s servants labored to create the Tomb of Horrors. Then Acererak destroyed all of his slaves and servitors, magically hid the entrance to his halls, and went to his final haunt, while his soul roamed strange planes unknown to even the wisest of sages.

Bruce: The first time I played Tomb of Horrors (DMed by Monte Cook when we were 13) was so fun (and odd, and actually scary at one point) that it made a big impression. It also had a "show the player this picture" section which greatly added to the ambience--one of the first, if not the first, modules to do so. I later DMed it for various different groups myself, enjoying it immensely each time. It's a dungeon of traps, but it doesn't go on so long that adventuring through it becomes frustrating.

For those that might not remember the bizarre end-game against Acererak, he could be harmed in only the following ways:

  • A forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking away a soul.
  • Each shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage.
  • A power word, kill pronounced from an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
  • Only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness, +5, or vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage upon the skull.
  • An exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does.
  • A dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage.
  • A holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage.
  • A thief slinging one of the large gems found in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,000 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5, o r 10 h.p. damage, but the gem is thereby shattered and even misses must be saved for versus a crushing blow or the gem is shattered from hitting a crypt wall.

The original Acererak was almost more of a hazard than a monster; any thoughts on the bizarre ways to damage him in the past vs. the current mechanics of the game?

Bruce: That's funny because when I first played, then DMed this module, I didn't think of it as bizarre--I just accepted it. Probably because I was 13 and what wasn't bizarre to me then? I could guess because I don't know how these particular ways to harm the skull in the original Tomb of Horrors came to be, but perhaps these are what the players in Gary's game first did, trying anything to hurt this monster he put at the end of his dungeon, and afterward he hardcoded what they had done into the module. But, as I said, that's a guess.

How did you develop the concept of a demilich over time?

Bruce: Many people helped develop it over time. In Return to the Tomb of Horrors (a 2nd Edition product) I postulated the original skull was actually a construct that an actual (more powerful) demilich created to serve as the keystone of his horrific tomb. That distinction was lost in the Epic Level Handbook (a 3rd Edition product) or at least not touched on. However, in Open Grave (yes, a 4th Edition D&D product), I propose a similar set of creatures--construct and actual demilich.

When creating Return to the Tomb of Horrors, what did you develop about Acererak from his original appearance in Tomb of Horrors and why?

Bruce: I developed an entire backstory for Acererak that wasn't included the original Tomb of Horrors by Gary Gygax for two reasons. One, Return to the Tomb of Horrors was a boxed set and I had room to do so, and two, because discovering Acererak's backstory and future plans set the stage for all that occurred in RtToH. I developed his origins as a persecuted tiefling child to his development as a wizard and priest of Orcus, to his creation of his tomb that was actually a test to winnow souls, to his final Fortress of Conclusion. The wording in the original Tomb, "(...) his soul roamed strange planes unknown to even the wisest of sages," is what gave me leeway to create the City of Moil and his Fortress of Conclusion where he hoped to... well, see below.

Those “strange planes” then became the Negative Energy Plane. What was Acererak’s connection to this plane altered over time?

Bruce: Acererak was performing a years long ritual whose components included a critical number of reaped souls. When the ritual was complete, he would become one with the Negative Energy Plane and gain a connection with undead everywhere. Now, with the updated cosmology of 4th Edition D&D, I imagine the Fortress of Conclusion might well sit somewhere in the Shadowfell, as Moil does.

In 3rd Edition, Acererak did not exactly make a triumphant reappearance. A construct version existed in the Tomb of Horrors revision, while other references to him (such as the Prison of Castle Perilous adventure) in fact stated that his tomb had, in effect, been solved and Acererak defeated. In Tome of Magic, he appears merely as a vestige….

Bruce: I suppose it was in homage to Acererak, with the feeling that he hadn't succeeded in what he had attempted in RtToH. In 4th Edition, he's not a vestige.

So Acererak has returned?

Bruce: Acererak will appear in Open Grave, and Moil is described in Manual of the Planes.

The False Demilich Trap

As a final tribute to Acererak and the spirit (no pun intended) of the original Tomb of Horrors, we offer the following new trap. The original Acererak could only be defeated through a bizarre hodgepodge of ways; and so in the following trap, a false demilich can be employed to guard over a treasure vault against players who perhaps enjoy a riddle or puzzle as much as a combat encounter and are no strangers to finding success through experimentation. Are the countermeasures obscure? Most certainly. Are they fair? Well, Tomb of Horrors seemed never intended to be fair… at least, so far as its survivors have commonly judged.

As a DM, feel free to add your own countermeasures (an ethereal or astral magic-user casting power word kill can not exactly be recreated at present time) to the list below. As for the players puzzling them out, you might warn them in advance about rumors of the demilich, with a Consult Mystic Sages or Consult Oracle ritual, or sufficiently high skill check, revealing one known countermeasure per success ahead of time. You might also place appropriate magic items to help along the way or in the vault itself; the original version conveniently had three sufficiently valued gems in the vault for a cunning (or desperate) thief to sling. Alternatively, as Bruce points out above, which came first—player experimentation or the preset means of defeating Acererak? Instead of predetermining the countermeasures, you might also allow for partial success based on the creativity of your players’ attempts (not that this doesn’t make good advice in most circumstances).

False Demilich
Level 26 Solo Blaster
XP 45,000
A pile of dust and bones rises into the air, shaping into a roughly humanoid form; a skull atop the form—set with rubies for eyes and pointed diamonds for teeth—slowly scans all those before it.
Trap: This jewel-studded skull is often placed within the center of a treasure vault, disguised as part of its riches. When a creature steps within 5 squares of the false demilich, it rises into the air and starts draining souls into its soul gems.
DC 25: The character spots the jewel-studded skull.
Additional Skill: Religion
DC 31: The character knows of demiliches: an animated skull festooned with costly gems, which gleam wickedly with the light of trapped souls. Despite the implication of its name, a demilich is more deadly than a normal lich.
Additional Skills: Arcana, Thievery
DC 34: The character recognizes the skull as a false demilich, understanding that it make use of a demilich’s soul gems.
Initiative +13
When a creature moves within 5 squares of the false demilich, it rolls initiative and attacks.
Standard Action
Target: One creature, preferentially targeting an arcane, primal, martial, or divine character (in that order), or any character that last caused it damage.
Attack: +25 vs. Fortitude
Hit: The target is dazed and restrained (save ends both). First Failed Saving Throw: The target is instead stunned and restrained (save ends both). Second Failed Saving Throw: The target dies, their physical body collapses in a mass of corruption and molders away, and its soul is trapped in one of the false demilich’s soul gems until the false demilich is destroyed; see also the “Fate of Drained Souls” sidebar (Open Grave pg. 201).
Special: The false demilich’s six soul gems can each hold the soul of one of its victims. When the false demilich is destroyed, each soul gem must succeed on a saving throw or be destroyed as well (along with the soul it contains). Crushing a surviving soul gem after the false demilich is destroyed releases the soul to a material body within 2 squares, if one is available to receive it (a simulacrum, a clone, or a soulless body of some sort), or else the soul is released into the Shadowfell. Surviving gems can be recovered: the two jewels set into the eye sockets (5,000 gp rubies), and its soul gems, 6 pointed (marquis cut) diamonds set as teeth in the jaw (each diamond worth 500 gp).
A character might attack the false demilich (AC 33, other defenses 32; hp 50), but only certain specific actions will affect it, as follows:
A martial character using a vorpal weapon or a sword drawn from a sapphire scabbard, a paladin using a +4 or better magic weapon, or any character using a holy avenger can attack the false demilich and inflict damage as normal on a successful hit.
A rogue using a gem (including astral diamonds) as a sling stone inflicts 1 damage per 10,000 gp value of the stone on a successful hit. On a hit, the gem shatters. On a miss, the gem must succeed on a saving throw, also shattering on failure.
Successful use of the following items or powers do not cause damage as normal but instead inflict 5 damage to the false demilich: warlock’s eyebite, cleric’s sacred word, an item or power with the thunder keyword, or an item or power with both the divine and radiant keywords.
Successful use of a cleric’s command or purify, a wizard’s confusion, or a ring of forgetful touch will cause the false demilich to sink down without attacking. It can still be triggered again as normal.

About the Authors

Bart Carroll is loathsome beyond description and has no redeeming features. His body resembles that of a huge, bloated buffalo and gives off an offensive odor. The author's neck is long and thin, and perched atop it is a big head uglier than that of a warthog. His legs are thick and stumpy, much like a hippopotamus. The author's tail is strong and snakey, however, and moves with amazing swiftness to strike enemies.

Steve Winter is a writer, game designer, and web producer living in the Seattle area. He's been involved with publishing D&D in one form or another since 1981. Tiny people and monsters made of plastic and lead are among his favorite obsessions.

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