Van Richten’s Guide to the Lich (1993)

Whenever I bring up Ravenloft, you can be guaranteed 3 things. 1) I’m gonna mention how Ravenloft is a weird mix of D&D power fantasy and the vulnerability of horror.  2) I’m gonna babble a lot about how great Stephen Fabian’s art is. 3) Despite my reservations about the setting as a whole, I’m gonna find a lot to love in individual products in isolation. I’m putting this out here now so I can mostly skip 1 and 3 the rest of the week. Ain’t nothing gonna stop me from praising Stephen Fabian.

This is Van Richten’s Guide to the Lich (1993), the third volume in the Van Richten’s Guide series, which is the highest concentration of goodness across multiple products to be found in the Ravenloft. They’re all splatbooks (you know, I’ve really come to hate that term), each focusing on one particular class of horrific monster.

The Lich is a powerful magic user who has embraced the de facto immortality of undeath, probably exemplified in literature by Robert E. Howard’s Thusla Doom, but given greater depth and variety through constant iteration in Dungeons & Dragons. Quite a bit of that is established in this book (there are two lich variants here – mentalist and priestly – with a big pile of varietals popping up in future Ravenloft Monstrous Compendiums). You get a run down of how liches are made, how they think, their standard powers and strategies for hunting and defeating them – Dragon Magazine ecology style. A selection of unique powers, called salient abilities, are also included, to give your NPC lich a unique flavor. These haven’t shown up much elsewhere, which is a shame.

Ravenloft happens to have one of the coolest liches in D&D: Azalin, who, despite Strahd getting all the love, is the true central character of the setting. His characterization gets away from the cloaked skeleton on the cover, thanks in large part to Stephen Fabian. His illustrations imbue the Ravenloft liches with a malign intelligence and a sense of unique history. They have personality, in other words, which is good, because liches should always feel singular. Also dig the glowing red eyes.

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