How To Run Vecna Like A Terrifying Undead King

I had a couple of ideas for a blog post this week ­– and then I watched Stranger Things 4. I had to write something about Vecna.

I’ve been thinking for a while about a series of articles on the 5e hardback campaign-adventures and their final boss fights: Strahd, Zariel, Halaster Blackcloak, and so on. Vecna doesn’t appear in any of these adventures, but he absolutely fits the bill. At CR 26, he should absolutely destroy any party of Tier 3 or below, and even characters of 17th level or higher could get their asses whooped.  

In this article, I’m attempting to follow the methods of the awesome Keith Ammann, who you might know from his Ennie Award–winning blog, The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. Ammann’s blog starts from this principle:

Any creature that has evolved to survive in a given environment instinctively knows how to make the best use of its particular adaptations.

However, I am deviating somewhat from Ammann in that he deliberately steers clear of giving tactical advice for final boss fights and explains his reasoning for doing so here. I respect his reasoning. In fact, I don’t fundamentally disagree with him. Normally, going through the abilities of a unique boss monster would be a big spoiler, and there’s a lot to be said for taking the time to digest the monster’s stat block on your own. In this instance, though, Vecna is free content on D&D Beyond, and . . . well, I just thought it was fun. Let me know in the comments if you think posts like this are a spoiler too far – or whether you want more of them!

Let’s get going. The full stats for Vecna the Archlich can be found here on D&D Beyond. However, a big question we need to ask first is, does he have the book of vile darkness?

The Book of Vile Darkness

The core properties of this artifact do little to change the complexity of the encounter. The two main abilities Vecna would gain are command evil (he already has dominate monster) and dark speech (which I can’t see him using, personally: 3d6 psychic damage on a 15-ft radius is paltry).

Much more complicated are the random properties of the artifact. You would need to roll six minor properties (three beneficial, three detrimental) and three major properties (one beneficial, two detrimental). Vecna could end up with new spells, new resistances, regeneration, or new vulnerabilities. I won’t even begin to analyse the various permutations that are possible.

Personally, while the book of vile darkness is fun, I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth to incorporate into a boss fight. I see it more as a reward (if you can call it that) for once Vecna has been vanquished.

A better alternative, in my opinion, is the lair actions provided in ‘Don’t Say Vecna’, a free 20th-level adventure published on D&D Beyond. I’m a big fan of lair actions in general, and I think these are not just easier to run but also much more interesting than anything the artifact gives you.

Encounter overview

No boss fight takes place in a vacuum. Even a legendary being like Vecna can benefit from some minions and terrain. How you choose to run Vecna is up to you, but ‘Don’t Say Vecna’ has some delicious ideas for upping the ante, including zombie walls, green flames, and a pulse of necrotic energy that dispels all spells of 6th level or lower. Nasty stuff. I love it.

OK, let’s give the rest of this stat block the attention it deserves.

Vecna’s defences

Firstly, his survivability. 272 hit points really isn’t very high at all for a creature of CR 26. There are plenty of creatures with lower CRs and more hit points, including the four elemental princes, most ancient dragons, and every demon lord except Orcus and Demogorgon. There’s nothing to stop you maximizing Vecna’s hit points to 384, though. Keep your hand on the dial, just in case. (Note that Vecna can regain 80 hit points relatively easily with his vile teleport ability. To do so, he needs to teleport to within 15 ft of a creature that takes damage from the attack. Note the word creature – it doesn’t have to be an enemy!)

Secondly, his saves, resistances, and immunities. Vecna has three surprisingly poor saves (for a CR 26 creature): Strength (+2), Dexterity (+3), and Charisma (+3). His AC is unimpressive, too: in fact, no creature of Vecna’s CR or higher has such a low AC. He does, however, have five (five!) uses of legendary resistance, immunity to poison and non-magical weapons, six condition immunities, and resistance to cold, lightning, and necrotic damage. I’m surprised he’s not immune to the latter, frankly.

More powerful than all of these defences are Vecna’s reactions. Notably, Vecna can take up to three (three!) reactions per round – but only one per turn. Let’s look at these reactions closely:

  • Dread counterspell is considerably more powerful than the 3rd-level abjuration spell (which, as I’ve written about here, is not as powerful as you might think). No maximum range, no spell slots expended, 10 psychic damage, an automatic success on any spell of 4th level or lower, and unlike counterspell, it can’t be counterspelled! Whether Vecna knows the spell he is counterspelling is up to you; rules as intended, he probably doesn’t. Regardless, I’m sure your party spellcasters will find this very, very annoying.  
  • Fell rebuke is essentially misty step with attitude. Note the wording, however: Vecna gets away, but the attack still hits. Whether or not you use this depends considerably on the enemy’s ability to deliver a second attack. Rogues, for example, tend to only dish out one sneak attack per round, so it’s probably a waste of Vecna’s reaction to relocate, but a paladin can use divine smite and a 20th-level fighter can make eight attacks with action surge. Monks and barbarians are so fast at Tier 4 that 30 ft of movement isn’t enough to deter them.

Three reactions per round might sound like a lot, but assuming a party of four adventurers, at least one character will get to complete their turn without Vecna’s reactions coming into play. Have a look at the composition of the party and decide who this might be. The ideal candidate would be a ranged marksman like a ranger or a rogue, or a highly mobile melee character like a monk or a barbarian (since fell rebuke doesn’t provide enough movement to get away). If there isn’t a character that fits either category then a bard or a sorcerer would be a good choice because so many of their spells require Constitution, Intelligence, or Wisdom saves, and if he fails those, he has five uses of legendary resistance to cover the gaps.

This is how Vecna reacts on the players’ turns. What does he do on his own turn?

Vecna’s actions  

Vecna has a number of options here, so let’s go through them one at a time.

  • Let’s start with afterthought since Vecna gets to use this one every turn – which is perhaps an incentive not to use fell rebuke too often. If Vecna hits with both attacks, he deals 32 damage, plus 9 damage per turn from ‘entropic magic’, and the target can’t regain hit points without succeeding on a DC 20 Con save. A 17th-level character probably has somewhere in the region of 120 hp (on average), so afterthought has the potential to reduce their hit points by a third. If a PC is already close to unconsciousness, this stops them getting back up again.
  • Flight of the damned recharges roughly once every three rounds. Usually that’s a sign that it’s a powerful ability. 22 is a high DC even at Tier 4, and a 120-foot cone is a vast area. Barbarians, fighters, monks, paladins, and sorcerers have a good chance to pass; everyone else is likely to take the full effect. (And it’s not easy to remove the frightened condition. Suppress emotions is the only spell I’m aware of which would work here.)
  • Rotten fate is potentially even nastier. 96 damage on a failed Con save, 48 on a successful one. Combine that with afterthought on a fragile character, and you might be able to take out one of the party in the first round.
  • What about spellcasting? There are quite a few options here, many of them utility.
    • We’re not told what level Vecna is casting these spells at. As such, I’m really not sure what the point of animate dead is. Have I missed something?
    • Detect magic, mage hand, prestidigitation, and scrying seem like out-of-combat options to me. I suppose scrying is a nice way of justifying Vecna’s in-game foreknowledge of the characters and their abilities.
    • Fly is concentration, and does Vecna need it? He has two means of teleporting every round and multiple ranged attack options. I guess it’s there in the back pocket.
    • Lightning bolt is 28 damage on average, and you might get three targets if you’re lucky. I’m not sure this is a great use of the action economy by Tier 4.
    • Dimension door seems superfluous, no? Vecna already has two means of teleportation, and if he wants to, he can teleport to another plane of existence. I suppose it gives him options.
    • Invisibility ends as soon as the target attacks or casts a spell – two things Vecna is likely to do almost every turn. I suppose several of his abilities are not technically spells or attacks, so he can get more mileage out of invisibility than most characters, but as soon as he attacks with afterthought, the spell ends.
    • Dominate monster is definitely worth concentrating on. As RPGBot says, it’s arguably the best save-or-suck spell in the game. Your best target for this is a low-Wisdom character without save proficiency: probably a fighter or a rogue.
    • Globe of invulnerability: another concentration spell, but perhaps not as useful with Vecna because a) it doesn’t move with him (and he has multiple teleportation options), and b) it’s made somewhat redundant by dread counterspell. I’m not sure I would keep this going.
    • Finally, plane shift: sadly only useful as an escape route, as the stat block explicitly states that this cannot be used offensively. Make sure you’ve got at least one use of dread counterspell left before you cast this spell.

One interesting omission from this stat block is legendary actions! This seems to be a deliberate decision in how Wizards of the Coast design monsters, the focus now being reactions, as with Vecna. It certainly makes him easier to play.

Putting it all together

This post is already more than 1,800 words, so let’s wrap this up. How should we run Vecna?

  • Before combat starts, review the party’s abilities. There will probably be at least one party member against whom you won’t be able to use a reaction. For reasons explained above, choose a barbarian, monk, ranger, or rogue.
  • Ignore the abilities of the book of vile darkness.
  • Consider upping Vecna’s hit points to 384 (his maximum).
  • Unless Vecna rolled very well on his initiative, he will get lair actions first. Start with mournful dead: aim to get at least four targets in the area, and if you can’t get the whole party, prioritize characters who are more likely to fail their save (ie, not clerics, druids, monks, paladins, or rangers).
  • In subsequent rounds, alternate between mournful dead and drain life. Use the latter on low-Dex opponents: avoid bards, monks, paladins, rangers, and rogues.
  • In round 1, use flight of the damned, ideally on every visible enemy. However, take party composition into account. If the party has more than one of the following – barbarians, fighters, monks, paladins, and sorcerers – skip this step.
  • Try to use afterthought on every turn. Remember to use vile teleport if you need the movement speed; combined with your 30 ft movement speed, you should be able to target most enemies.
  • On subsequent rounds, the aim is to remove as many player characters from play as possible. Who is the party member you identified in the step one? Focus on them first. If their Wisdom sucks and they’re useful to you as a pawn, use dominate monster. Otherwise, destroy them with rotten fate and afterthought (if their Con save is bad). If they have good Constitution and Wisdom saves . . . focus on taking out another character instead. Prioritize whoever is causing Vecna the most problems – probably big damage dealers (paladins, rogues) or troublesome spellcasters (clerics, wizards).
  • Use dread counterspell as much as you can against enemy spellcasters, and use fell rebuke against a melee attacker if they have a chance of doing more damage with a follow-up attack.
  • Don’t worry too much about conserving legendary resistance. Five uses should be enough to last the battle.       
  • I’m not sure if Vecna should fight to the death (well, zero hit points – you know what I mean). He’s technically immortal and clearly has a bit of a god complex, but death is still a major inconvenience for him, and he’s intelligent enough to know it. I would use plane shift or dimension door to get out of there once it’s clear that the adventurers have bested him, but it depends how desperate you want him to seem. So long as he has 100 hp or more, I would keep him in the fight.

That’s my Halloween sorted! How would you run Vecna differently? Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments below.

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