The latest D&D Movie, Honor Among Thieves, gave many of us our first introduction to Szass Tam. This lich has been a part of D&D lore since the first edition and has also been a common feature of D&D fiction.
Standard guidance for including Szass Tam in your adventure would probably be to use a lich stat block. After perusing a few sources though, I think we can do a little better, and create a villain that better fits the lore of this ancient villain.
In my opinion, all of the 5e creatures that create undead don’t work very well. The undead they have access to are so weak that they don’t pose a threat to the PCs. I want Szass to be able to call reinforcements that will put a party on their heels.
Changes to the Lich Stat Block
Here’s the spell list for the lich:
Mage hand and prestidigitation are wastes of space, especially considering liches can use cantrips as legendary actions. We’ll replace those with chill touch to keep your foes from healing, and sapping sting because making players go prone is funny. Next, we can drop detect magic and replace it with expeditious retreat; a fast lich is scarier than a slow one. Moving on to second level spells: detect thoughts is pretty limited in its utility, so maybe Tasha’s mind whip instead. Let’s drop invisibility too and pick up greater invisibility as a 4th level.
Animate dead at level 3 is a problem. You can create skeletons or zombies with this spell. A single lich is a deadly encounter for a party of four level 15 PCs. Skeletons and zombies are nothing to players at this level. Casting this spell isn’t worth the action or the spell slot to the lich. Here’s where the build gets nasty. I’m putting in life transference. Life transference deals necrotic damage to the caster in order to deliver healing to the target. The damage cannot be reduced, but I’m sure a wizard as skilled as Szass can find a way around this…
Other than the previous addition of greater invisibility, level 4 is good. Level 5 has cloudkill which is fun for the lich as it is immune to poison damage. I’d skip globe of invulnarability at level 6 though. It locks the lich in once place and doesn’t do anything to protect it from melee attackers. I’ll substitute create undead which still summons only CR 3 undead, but it’s what we have to work with. 7th level looks good as well; finger of death is a must. At level 8, substitute feeblemind for power word stun. I’d swap out power word kill at level 9, but a lich has gotta have power word kill, even if it isn’t the most useful spell.
Traits for Szass Tam
Next we’ll touch up Szass’ abilities a bit. He has turn resistance, but let’s make that turn immunity. Next, he needs something to toughen up his undead allies:
Negative Energy Field. Szass overflows with the power of the Plane of Negative Energy. Undead within 300 ft of Szass do not die when reduced to 0 hit points unless they have taken radiant damage. Undead creatures in this area are also under the effect of the haste spell.
Necrotic Absorption. Whenever Szass is subjected to necrotic damage, he takes no damage and instead regains a number of hit points equal to the necrotic damage dealt.
These two traits will bolster Tam’s allies, and let him heal them with life transference without being harmed. Keep in mind that create undead has to be recast every 24 hours to keep those undead allies, so Szass Tam will likely start combat without his 9th level spell slot.
I’ll be testing this stat block out in the arena, and let you know if it needs any revisions. In the meantime, check out our magic item pricings.