I noticed that the liches from H. P. Lovecraft's works are different from D&D. For example, the Lovecraft version seems to lack a phylactery, and they keep their immortality by taking new bodies, as in the short stories The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Thing at the Doorstep, and not by prolonging their own longevity. So, how does a Lovecraftian lich work?

  • How one can became a lich? I believe that there may be a ritual of some sort, but which one?
  • How a lich can be destroyed? It requires a ritual? Which one?
  • What are the benefits and the drawbacks from being a lich?
  • How a lich moves to a new body?
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    What exactly are you looking for that you can't find by reading HPL's stories? – SevenSidedDie Mar 13 '14 at 20:11
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    @SevenSidedDie I'll edit my question to clarify that – Metalcoder Mar 13 '14 at 20:13
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    @BESW that would be fine by me. I have to re-ask that, or there is a way to migrate? – Metalcoder Mar 13 '14 at 20:14
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    Joeseph Curwen in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" wasn't taking new bodies. He was just happened to be identical to Charles, no possession or body stealing was done. Curwen just replaced and killed Charles. – sevvack Mar 14 '14 at 4:43
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    I have delved into these hideous works of unspeakable lore, reading blasphemous truths by the light of a flickering candle as unnatural creatures scraped at the casements of my study. I recollect that Mr Lovecraft was wont to omit details of the ghastly rituals of creation which spawned the undead, out of a fervent wish to spare the reader's sanity, instead only referring in tones of dread to the secret and abominable Necronomicon. But I have perused that awful tome, and now can report --- NO! NO! THE THING AT THE WINDOW! AIEEEEEE!!! – Royal Canadian Bandit Mar 14 '14 at 8:45

It seems to be a mixture of black magic and body transference

From The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, we see Joeseph Curwen was almost certainly a necromancer:

In many cases, diarists have recorded with some awe, Curwen shewed almost the power of a wizard in unearthing family secrets for questionable use. During the final five years of his life it seemed as though only direct talks with the long-dead could possibly have furnished some of the data which he had so glibly at his tongue’s end.

Whereas in The Thing On The Doorstep, Asenath Derby is ... just freaking evil?

“Asenath has gone, Dan. We had a long talk last night while the servants were out, and I made her promise to stop preying on me. Of course I had certain—certain occult defences I never told you about. She had to give in, but got frightfully angry."

But clearly she is an occultist of the Arkham variety. In both cases we see physical metamorphoses:

In Charles Ward, it is a bit more subtle. He's an ancestor and already looks a bit like Curwen - but...

For above the young man’s right eye was something which he had never previously noticed—a small scar or pit precisely like that in the crumbled painting of old Joseph Curwen, and perhaps attesting some hideous ritualistic inoculation to which both had submitted at a certain stage of their occult careers.

In poor Edward Derby's case, the transformation is a bit more severe:

The face beside me was twisted almost unrecognisably for a moment, while through the whole body there passed a shivering motion—as if all the bones, organs, muscles, nerves, and glands were readjusting themselves to a radically different posture, set of stresses, and general personality.

And he's not shy about saying that Asenath is controlling his body, and the technique can be used to gain immortality:

Dan, Dan, don’t you remember him—the wild eyes and the unkempt beard that never turned white? He glared at me once, and I never forgot it. Now she glares that way. And I know why! He found it in the Necronomicon—the formula. I don’t dare tell you the page yet, but when I do you can read and understand. Then you will know what has engulfed me. On, on, on, on—body to body to body—he means never to die.

So basically dark magic, mind transference, mind transference, body transformation and voila - you're a lich. There are some indications this is an ability held and given by Old Ones known as Yithians. Asenath may have even been a hybrid.

To answer your questions specifically:

How one can became a lich? I believe that there may be a ritual of some sort, but which one?

There are references to the Necronomicon and lots of indications it requires some kind of strong occultist magic. It doesn't so much seem a single ritual as a repeated assault on another's body. Curwen could apparently do this even with the slight inconvenience of being dead. Well, mostly incorporeal at least. Asenath does the same trick towards the end of her tale.

How a lich can be destroyed? It requires a ritual? Which one?

Willet defeats the now corporeal Curwen with magic:

An eye for an eye—magic for magic—let the outcome shew how well the lesson of the abyss had been learned! So in a clear voice Marinus Bicknell Willett began the second of that pair of formulae whose first had raised the writer of those minuscules—the cryptic invocation whose heading was the Dragon’s Tail, sign of the descending node—


At the very first word from Willett’s mouth the previously commenced formula of the patient stopped short. Unable to speak, the monster made wild motions with his arms until they too were arrested. When the awful name of Yog-Sothoth was uttered, the hideous change began. It was not merely a dissolution, but rather a transformation or recapitulation; and Willett shut his eyes lest he faint before the rest of the incantation could be pronounced.

Asenath is defeated through pure physical means, with Upton in prison for having killed her while she inhabited Edward's body. However, if she is doing a trick similar to Curwen's, then it could be that she could resurrect herself.

What are the benefits and the drawbacks from being a lich?

Benefits: immortality and body swapping.

Downside: You're probably going mad reading that Necronomicon thing and your neighbors have a tendency to try and murder you (and possibly burn down your house).

How a lich moves to a new body?

In Charles Ward's case it seems that Curwen can do this because they are related. This is even referenced in the opening quote:

a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.

Although it should be noted he does plenty of criminal Necromancy in the process. Asenath seems to just do it to her husband by pure magic and spite.

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    I think you've misinterpreted some of Charles Dexter Ward. Curwen doesn't move into Ward's body at all - it's his own body conjured back up from its essential salts. The 'small scar' that appears on Ward is actually an indication that this is simply Curwen impersonating Ward (who is elsewhere at this point in the story). – Jon B Jan 11 '17 at 3:00

"Lich" is a very old word meaning "body" or "corpse". It originates from Middle English sometime before 900 AD: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/lich

It is no longer in normal English usage, but survives as part of compound words such as lich-gate, meaning the entrance to a churchyard.

As you may have noticed, HP Lovecraft was fond of obscure old words. It has been a while since I read the stories in question, but as far as I recall he used "lich" as a generic word for "corpse" or "undead". The word "lich" can refer to different types of creature in different HPL stories.

HPL died in 1926. More than 50 years later, in 1978, Gary Gygax used the word "lich" for a very specific type of undead in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The "AD&D lich" concept was later borrowed by various other games and books (because everyone loves a terrifying undead sorcerer).

There is no reason to expect an AD&D lich to have anything in common with HPL's walking corpses, apart from the general condition of being undead. Gygax was probably familiar with HPL's stories but doesn't seem to have based his lich on any particular creature from them.

Finally, as I mentioned in my comment above, HPL was writing horror stories, not a roleplaying system. More often than not, he left details unexplained to heighten the sense of mystery and terror. So you are unlikely to find definitive answers to your questions in HPL's stories.

  • I'd like to vote this answer more than once, as it's perfect. – Bardo Mar 14 '14 at 11:24
  • @Bardo: Thanks! :-) – Royal Canadian Bandit Mar 14 '14 at 11:48

Edit: This answer was written on rpg.SE from where it got moved here. :)

I know this Q might soon be migrated off-site (and not for a bad reason.)

Before it goes, though, let me offer an elusive answer for your consideration:

A lich of/in the Cthulhu Mythos works as you, the Keeper wants it to work.

Make up your ritual, make up your own version of the legends, design your own lich. Keep the players guessing, keep the lich mysterious and horrifying, and almost unbeatable. Unless you have a longer campaign in mind, avoid bringing up the very same mechanics in separate stories.

This is especially fitting in and important for a homebrew campaign. Surprise your players. Surprise yourself. If an unforeseen and unplanned, but appropriate and improvised plot twist requires altering what you've designed, go for it. Mythos creatures aren't suited for stat blocks or descriptions set in stone.

The Mythos, at its core, is ever changing, maddeningly chaotic (to the human mind, at least), and practically unknowable. You may learn fragments. Relying on them too much will be your undoing, though.

  • The OP appears to be asking about Lovecraft's stories while your answer seems to only cover gaming. – Meat Trademark Mar 13 '14 at 21:34
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    @MeatTrademark Note the "edit" section at the top of my answer. This was primarily gaming advice indeed, on rpg.SE, from where it got moved here, along with the Q. It's rather off-topic for the general audience round here, but OP might find it useful as a gamer, so I'm not (yet) deleting it (but may do that later.) – OpaCitiZen Mar 13 '14 at 21:56

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