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  • Writer's pictureKenny Webb

MAKING MONSTROUS: Designing the Lich

Hello! I’m Kenny, the designer behind MONSTROUS, and I’m back at it again to give you some insight into our take on the Lich and the process of designing it.

The First Monster

A lich wearing a crown and holding a solar system staff.

The Lich was the very first monster designed for MONSTROUS. There are a few reasons I chose the Lich as the test pilot for the book:

  1. Kyle had very recently released his video on Building Better Liches, so it was at the top of mind.

  2. Traditional depictions of Liches have some very strong anchor points; there’s an identity there to build from.

  3. However, most bestiaries don’t think through these anchor points, giving us an opportunity.

I started by laying out what we know about traditional Liches: they’re powerful magic users, they’re undead, and they’re quasi-immortal because they’ve conducted a profane ritual where they’ve bound their soul to an object. Although you’ll see in other monsters that we sometimes tinker with the basic assumptions (or toss them out altogether), these are all solid, and they tell us a lot about this monster. Furthermore, if you removed any of them, it wouldn’t really feel like a Lich anymore.

Filling in the Gaps

What are the gaps in these basic tenets? We know that the Lich has done some terrible things to achieve a perverse unlife, but we don’t know why (aside from some possible waving of the hands toward “madness” or a lust for power).

We answered that question with time. A Lich has unnaturally extended their life because they have some goal that will take ages and ages to achieve. This suggested a story about the folly of unbridled ambition, of the monster a person can become when they chase some seemingly laudable goal with no regard to the cost.

The other big gap is how the existence of the Lich affects the world. Here you have this immensely powerful agent who can in theory live forever, continually learning and increasing their influence. That’s got to have some major implications for the world and story. In our world, the Lich is old. Unbelievably, staggeringly old. So old that they are the originator of entire schools of magic and religions. They have access to spells no one else has dared dream of, and if you try to invoke the magic they invented at them, they’ll simply laugh. They are known by many names and worshiped in many lands, which is represented by a cult that acts on the Lich’s behalf.

Adding the Mustard

The Paradisium Lich with their pet unicorn pegasus.

Even in a monster where we’re sticking pretty close to the core concepts, as with the Lich, we always delighted in adding our own special brand of weirdness. It was Kyle’s suggestion that in James Bond villain / Ozymandias style, our Lich should have a pet. Now that we’ve added the Evil Pet to the Lich, I really can’t imagine it any other way. The Evil Pet offers such great roleplaying potential! It’s a real test of what the Lich is like. Are they actually still capable of emotion and attachment after all this time? Will they sacrifice their beloved companion? Will the PCs be torn if they have to destroy the Evil Pet?

We also added a wrinkle to the object the Lich has bound their soul to, the Tabella Defixionis. The Lich’s immortality again is a bit hand-wavey most of the time; the Lich simply comes back. Not so for us! Our Lich’s soul stretches out from the Tabella Defixionis, possessing whatever poor creature is closest to it, slowly recovering its memories and powers over time.

Again, I immediately see the incredible potential of this in game. Perhaps the cult has prepared a sacrificial offering of a beloved NPC to be the Lich’s next vessel. Perhaps a baby lamb has wandered too close at the wrong time.

Key Questions When Designing Monsters

Designing the Lich was extremely formative, and I took the following as key questions to ponder when creating monsters going forward:

  • What is it about this monster that makes it different from every other monster?

  • What does the monster want?

  • What would the monster’s presence do to the world?

  • What are the traditional traits of the monster? Which are vital? Which can shift? Which need to change?

  • What are the gaps left in our picture of the monster?

  • Where’s the mustard?

That’s all for now! Join me for a future Making Monstrous where I see how these questions stack up against my favorite challenge from the project: the otherworldly Outsiders.

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