On June 9, 2022, WotC released new stats for the undead lich Vecna via DnDBeyond, capitalizing on the zeitgeist around the villain of Stranger Things season 4. Notably absent from this stat block is something that has long defined liches in Dungeons & Dragons: the phylactery.
What’s a Phylactery?
In modern D&D terms, a phylactery is an object where a lich stores their soul. When a lich’s body is slain, it reconstitutes from their phylactery (presumably stored faraway in a safe space). Here’s a brief description from the 5th Edition Monster Manual:
While many D&D monsters are functionally immortal (rakshasa) or regenerate (aboleth), the unique thing about liches is the way they do it. Trapping their soul in a foreign object creates an interesting puzzle for the adventuring party to solve, else they face the same villain over and over again.
Why Remove Phylacteries?
For the unaware, the term “phylactery” has come under fire for perpetuating the Magical Jew trope, especially with its evil context. The notion of minorities possessing mystical power is an old one, but was very prevalent for Jewish folks during the Renaissance.
In response, Jewish folks have pointed out that their prayer box is actually called a “tefillin” (a box containing religious texts on vellum, which is wrapped around the wearer while praying).
They suggest “phylactery” is a Greek mistranslation. The Greek term “phylactery” had a traditional meaning of a protective amulet or charm. It’s derived from the Greek terms phulakterion (amulet) and phulassein (to guard).
In fact, the word “phylactery” only appears once in the Bible, in the New Testament. You would never encounter this term studying the Torah. So, is it fair game for appropriation, as some argue?
Not so fast. While phylactery’s Greek roots may be true, you need to take a closer look at D&D’s implementation before letting it off the hook. Did TSR mean the Greek interpretation “protectant”? Or were they appropriating the tefillin under a different name?
History of Phylacteries in D&D
The first mention of phylacteries in D&D was in the lich’s stat block in the AD&D Monster Manual (Sept. 1977), though it was not immediately apparent what it was or how it worked:
Phylacteries were introduced in the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (May 1979), not in relation to the lich, but as a set of three magical (holy) items.
The 1e DMG clearly defines these objects similarly to the Jewish religious object, both generally (as an arm-wrapping container holding religious writings):
…and specifically (as a wrapping worn by a cleric):
The first notion that a lich could regenerate from an object came from Len Lakofka’s article Blueprint for a Lich (Dragon #26, pg. 36, June 1979). While this article created the concept of lich regeneration, it never actually references the term “phylactery,” instead using “jar”:
Somewhere along the way, this jar concept became the phylactery. Legend tells that the association was made specific in TSR’s Endless Quest book 27, Lair of the Lich.
While early lich stat blocks make passing reference to the lich’s phylactery, the fact that it’s still described as a “small box” in 5th Edition leaves little doubt that its associated origins still remain.
Assessing this history, the D&D phylactery has a clear ties to the Jewish religious object. Whether you consider this association to be anti-semitic is left to the reader. Where there is some risk of such an interpretation, there is a very strong argument for using a different word—one that avoids the risk altogether.
The Future of Phylacteries
Breaking from tradition, Vecna’s new stat block does away with the phylactery, instead gaining a trait that regenerates Vecna on his own:
Notably, D&D designers have commented that the Vecna Dossier features pre-god Vecna. So, the purpose of this regeneration is not divine, as you might expect from some gods. It’s just a special thing Vecna does. Will other liches (such as Acererak) follow the same fate?
Interviews with lead D&D team members surrounding the Vecna Dossier release seem to show that they’ve decided to kill the phylactery, at least as terminology.
D&D Executive Producer Ray Winninger reveals that phylacteries became the subject of discussion when designing Vecna. In a move that may be characterized as “kicking the can down the road,” they decided that Vecna is “beyond phylacteries” and removed it from Vecna’s stat block:
D&D Senior Story Designer Chris Perkins avoids the term “phylactery” in his Vecna interview, instead opting for the terms “essence” and “receptacle”:
This diction signals a clear shift away from phylacteries as terminology. It remains to be seen whether phylacteries are replaced by the new Vecna mechanic, or whether they will reanimate under another name, like the “jars” Lakofka originally defined them as. Pathfinder developer Paizo moved to the term “soul cage” in October 2021.
Assuming you want to preserve the narrative value of phylacteries, while moving away from implied or inferred associations, here’s some options:
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