Lore-Win: Acererak the Devourer
There are those who claim that a hero is made by their villain. There’s a certain logic to the claim, for sure. After all, a villain can provide a recurring challenge for a hero to confront time and time again. A walking, often talking, manifestation of the ideals the hero fights against, and through whom the hero can prove themselves and their worldview worthy.
After all, what would the Bhaalspawn be without Sarevok? Who would Tasha and Mordenkainen be without each other? And what would Krynn be without the timeless conflict between Paladine and Takhisis?
Except, you know, a much more peaceful place?
And what would Dungeons and Dragons be without one of the all-time greats? The creator of one of the most infamous dungeons of all time? The one, the only, Acerarak.
Welcome to Lore-Win, the Dungeons and Dragons lore series. I, as always, am your humble Loremaster, Sokar. Today we’ll be crawling through crypts and uncovering the undead as we look into one of D&D’s greatest villains, and one of the most powerful liches in the multiverse.
Welcome to Oerth
In the Forgotten Realms Acererak’s history is shrouded in mystery.
Which makes sense, because that world is not his home.
No, instead to uncover the history of the archlich we must travel from one world to another, leaving Faerun behind and travelling once more out to the world of Oerth. The world of Greyhawk.
Here the lich was once known as Acererak the Devourer. Long before he attained the powers that come with undeath, he was a cambion. Now, if the term “cambion” is unfamiliar to you, first off, I don’t blame you. Like tieflings, cambions are half-fiends—though the exact definition of what makes a cambion differs depending on who you ask.
I do dig the wings.
Source: Monster Manual (5e)
There are “true” cambions, who are believed to be the offspring of a planetouched woman and a tanar’ri. Or, as most know them, a demon. There were also “noble” cambions, the offspring of half-fiend women and a demon lord. Other cambions include the child of a mortal woman and one of the more lawful devils.
I should note that the child of a mortal man and a succubus are something else.
Acererak himself was the result of an ancient sorcerer summoning a demon far beyond his power to control. The end result was a dead sorcerer, and Acererak the cambion being born to a human woman. While she survived bringing Acererak into the world — a fate sadly not shared by the mothers of some cambions — she was later killed by a torch-wielding mob ten years later.
The tides of fate are cruel like that at times, and it is hard to say how many cambions would have turned evil had they not been persecuted against by their mortal kin. But in Acererak’s case, the one who took him in certainly didn’t help point him towards a better future.
The ten-year-old Acererak was taken in by none other than Vecna, the Whispered One himself. At the time, Vecna was a lich having not yet achieved godhood, and Acererak saw something in him. Acererak had already come to hate life, and longed to become undead like his saviour.
Vecna, holding his eye.
Source: Die Vecna Die! (2e)
Vecna also saw something in the cambion child he had taken enough. In fact, he saw enough in Acererak that when some of his advisors urged him to kill the child, he killed them instead.
His faith in Acererak would pay off years later. When Vecna laid siege to the city of Fleeth legend has it that the lich’s life was threatened. While commanding his army of spellcasters and undead, he came into conflict with clerics of Pholtus, god of light. The clerics unleashed a blast of light that struck Vecna and threatened to destroy him.
Thankfully for Vecna, and unfortunately for literally everyone else, Acererak stepped in. He saved the unlife of his master, and in return, Vecna promoted the cambion.
The Tomb of Horrors
But Vecna would soon be betrayed from within his own circle. The lich was attacked and killed by his lieutenant, a vampire named Kas the Bloody-Handed. Kas destroyed Vecna’s body, save for his hand and his eye.
Whether Acererak was there for the betrayal is unclear. What is clear is that he was now without a master, and would have to forge his own path.
Especially if he wanted to learn the secrets of undeath.
Acererak moved to a region known as the Great Swamp. There, still a mortal, he set about creating a lair for himself. He had an underground temple built in the name of “a now deceased power”, later described to be Orcus. But once the temple was complete, Acererak killed all that worked on it. From lowly workers and excavators, to the architect themself, none escaped and all were entombed within.
And he called it…
The Tomb of Horrors.
Acererak would seek out ways to extend his life within. His experiments would go on to become challenges for adventurers to encounter later. Then, as he transitioned to studying undeath and lichdom a community rose up around the tomb that he had been buried within.
And as he chased his undeath, a community of like-minded individuals rose up around his lair. The community, known as Skull City, was filled with necromancers seeking his knowledge. They built an academy into the hill above the Tomb of Horrors. There, aspiring necromancers engaged in weekly ceremonies, hoping to attract Acererak’s notice.
But they never did.
Acererak, for his part, achieved demilichdom. In this skull-like form, he travelled the planes while his Tomb of Horrors drew in would-be adventurers to syphon souls into his phylactery. And at some point, he gave a mirror of life trapping to Malcanthet, the Queen of the Succubi. She promised to fill it with souls and return it to his tomb.
Of course, even should adventurers manage to reach what appears to be Acererak, it's not really him. The real Acererak had already moved to the Negative Energy Plane in an attempt to merge his consciousness with the fabric of negative energy, leaving a number of decoys in his place to lure adventurers into his well-trapped stronghold. Of course, he was denied this accomplishment thanks to another band of adventurers. Yet neither were the adventurers truly able to destroy him...
A false Acererak construct awaiting hapless adventurers.
Source: Tomb of Horrors Revised (3.5)
Don't Get Annihilated!
After all, that which is dead may never die.
If there’s anything that Vecna’s demise should have taught us, it is that. Just because you kill a lich doesn’t mean you’ve killed a lich. So even with the effort of adventurers reaching beyond the material plane and attacking his stronghold in the Negative Energy Plane, Acererak walks the planes still.
After all, high-level wizards are notoriously infuriating to kill.
Whatever the case, Acererak made his way to Chult. This time, in the form of a lich. There he killed the nine trickster gods of Chult and enslaved the local Omuans to build him…
You guessed it.
More specifically, the Tomb of the Nine Gods, or as you may know it, the Tomb of Annihilation. And just like the Tomb of Horrors before it, when construction completed all those who worked on it found the tomb to be their new home. Acererak killed them all and buried them within.
On the plus side, no shortage of undead!
Source: Tomb of Annihilation
He also placed a certain artifact within. In the 1480s DR, Acererak built an artifact known as the Soulmonger within. This artifact trapped the souls of the dead within it. Well, not just the dead. Those who had been resurrected would also find their souls being pulled into it, and it also prevented resurrections from taking place. This created the death curse.
And in a world like Toril where many have been resurrected… this was a serious problem.
It’s no wonder that many wealthy and powerful individuals sought out adventurers to traverse the Tomb of Annihilation and put an end to the death curse. As for what lies within the Tomb of Annihilation, well that is not for me to say. Not yet, at least. Should your party be brave enough to delve within, I don’t want to ruin the experience by spoiling the surprises.
After all, that’s the greatest part of a dungeon delve, isn’t it?
As a character, Acererak may fall a little flat when compared to more modern adventures and mainstays like Tasha. he seeks power, and all his strongholds seem to reflect mostly that. Had he just had that, he may have fallen into the pit of being just another lich. But he appeared in one of the most famous (or infamous) modules of all time. His ties with Vecna are interesting, and he certainly has a flair for the dramatic. And some DMs may enjoy paying close attention to his past as a cambion.
Acererak, as seen in Tomb of Annihilation.
Source: Tomb of Annihilation
As a villain though, Acererak is a classic. A half-fiend mage turned powerful lich. What’s more Dungeons and Dragons than that? Except for, perhaps, a dragon. Acererak makes a great villain for undead-focused campaigns, and as an overarching villain for any grand dungeon dives. After all, he has a habit of building tombs. Who’s to say that he hasn’t built a few more while traveling the planes?
And, given that he can traverse the planes, there’s really no end to where he can travel.
But if you’d rather travel to Chult and put an end to Acererak’s plots in the Forgotten Realms, be sure to pick up a copy of Tomb of Annihilation at the Tower!
And until next time, may all your rolls be crits!