Die Vecna Die!

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 69: Die Vecna Die!




In honor of the fourth season of Stranger Things‘ conclusion, we’re going to take a small jump ahead in our chronology to look at Die Vecna Die!, the module that ended not just the Planescape setting, but the entire second edition of AD&D. It also remains one of the most controversial releases ever officially published for any version of Dungeons & Dragons due to the way it breaks multiple of the big metaphysical rules of the game’s cosmology. That being said, haters, as they say, are going to hate, and Die Vecna Die! is for the most part a wonderful, epic conclusion to the setting/edition that’s well worth a read through today. This is in fact where Vecna truly becomes the big bad of the D&D universe, and it seems like a good bet that the Duffer Brothers read it (or at least read a Wikipedia summary) in preparation for the series. 

First, some—ok quite a bit—of backstory about Vecna. The character was first created by Brian Blume, who co-authored 1976’s OD&D (original D&D, the edition so old you’ve likely never seen a copy) supplement Eldritch Wizardry with E. Gary Gygax; it’s the one with the naked woman on the cover, because that’s what, umm, eldritch wizardry is all about, apparently. He was the third member of the original TSR, and many years later the sale of his and his brother’s shares of the company would result in in the cascading series of disasters that led to Gygax being removed from TSR and the tumultuous Lorraine Williams reign of the company… but all of that is in the future. It’s generally assumed that Vecna’s name is an anagram (barely) of Vance, in honor of the author Jack Vance, whose spellcasting system Gygax and David Arenson decided to use for their game. Toward the back of the book, Blume and Gygax included a list of “Artifacts and Relics of tremendous power” that might be used as treasures in a D&D campaign. This included The Hand of Vecna, The Eye of Vecna, and The Sword of Kas, the relevant parts of which I’ve included below.


The Hand:

The Hand of Vecna appears to be a dried, shriveled and blackened hand, such as could have been caused by having been burned. The hand (and it is also rumored in dark passageways, an eye) is the sole remains of an ancient lich who was so powerful that he was able to imbue his hand with wondrous/horrible powers and to enable it to survive even after his long-undead body had ceased to exist.

If the hand is pressed against the stump of an arm, the “wearer” is able to use its various powers, although he must determine them by trial and error. The hand causes the user to become totally evil, but even a “detect evil” spell will not reveal this. Once the hand is pressed to the stump of an arm, it affixes itself to the arm, and can only be removed under certain conditions

The Eye:

It is also said, but not in the hearing of strangers, that when the mighty lich, Vecna, finally met his doom, that one of his eyes survived along with his hand. The eye may or may not have originally belonged to Vecna, as it is said to glitter much in the same manner as the eye of a feline. If the eye is pressed in the empty socket of a human’s head, it grafts itself to the head of the user and gives him remarkable powers! 

Once placed, the eye cannot be removed, and it turns the user unalterably chaotic.

The Sword (which is weirdly listed first, making for a confusing read):

Another item connected with the legend of the lich Vecna is the Sword of Kas, his onetime [sic.] bodyguard. This sword is said to have a thin, grey blade of some metallic substance. Its powers are only dimly hinted at by legend, but Kas was said to be the mightiest swordsman of his age.

That’s largely all we know about their origination. According to Shannon Appelcline, the encyclopedic and generically correct historian of the game:

Gary Gygax later said about the artifacts, “nary a detail of those items did [Blume] ever reveal to me.” Others have suggested that they were based on the Hand of Kwll and the Eye of Rhynn from Michael Moorcock’s Corum Swords Trilogy (1971), and it’s widely accepted that Vecna is a purposeful anagram of Vance—the author of The Dying Earth (1950), whose spells influenced D&D.

The artifacts reappeared in the Dungeon Master Guides for first (1979) and second (1989) edition AD&D. The second edition book suggested that Vecna’s spirit still remained within the hand. However, only in Vecna Lives! is it revealed that the ancient lich has become a demigod since his death.

The hand. The eye. The Stonehenge knock-off. This is what Vecna’s all about.

Vecna Lives! (1991) by David “Zeb” Cook (also known as the original designer of Planescape) was the first book in the informally titled Vecna trilogy, and aside from its detailing of this “new” nemesis, who has now ascended to demigod status, it’s a fairly traditional AD&D adventure module, though also quite a good one. In it, a warlord gains possessions of Vecna’s relics, which quickly turn him evil and cause him to kill a whole bunch of important folks. Soon afterwards, an Avatar of Vecna destroys this warlord, takes back the relics, and continues a plot to bring his ancient followers to the present day in order to evil it up some more.

As far as this series on the planes is concerned, I at one time considered covering it in full, considering that part of this adventure takes place in Vecna’s Citadel Cavitus, located on the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash. At some point in time, it was inhabited by the Doomguard, who lost control of it to Vecna and created their Crumbling Citadel as a replacement. However, this part of the adventure is only about a page and a half long, and actual interaction with the plane is minimal-to-nonexistent. Here, players find Kas of Sword of Kas fame, before heading back to Vecna. 

As far as Vecna’s history is concerned, the most important part of the adventure is that at its conclusion Vecna and Iuz, a demigod who hates Vecna for being, I don’t know, marginally more evil than he is, are forced through a portal and into “a random plane.” This solves the problem of Vecna trying to take over the world of Greyhawk where this adventure is set, at least for a little while. 

Probably the most obscure of these adventures, Vecna Reborn can be skipped in favor of just playing through the first and third of these stories, though it’s fine enough on its own.

Six years later, Vecna popped up again in Domains of Dread,  a Ravenloft book detailing new realms in the Demiplane of Dread, including ones ruled by Vecna and Kas, which are paired together as the Burning Peaks Cluster. Monte Cook of Planescape fame picked up on this, and a year later came Vecna Reborn, a full-on Ravenloft adventure (sadly with no exclamation point in the title this time out). This focuses on Vecna trying a Rosemary’s Baby-ish plot, in which he uses a pregnant woman’s child to become born (well, reborn, thus the name) back into the world, essentially using this as a loophole to get him out of Ravenloft’s hellscape. It is a rather bleak adventure, and you can see how this came from the same mind as the Book of Vile Darkness considering how much it focuses on child soldiers being sent to die in an endless war and mass ritual sacrifices. Canonically, the players succeed and the demigod remains stuck in the Demiplane of Dread at the end, so aside from updating us on what Vecna’s been up to lately, not much actually moves forward in his story.

Which finally takes us to the module we’re focused on, Die Vecna Die!, the name of which constantly makes me think of Sideshow Bob explaining that it means “the Vecna the!” Given that it focuses on ending the entire 2nd Edition line of AD&D, it’s not a huge surprise that this adventure goes from Greyhawk’s Oerth to Ravenloft’s Demiplane of Dread to finally Planescape’s Sigil. The overall storyline involves Vecna using a plot he hatched before becoming trapped in Ravenloft, seeded to him by The Serpent, a primordial being of magic who may or may not actually exist. It’s all kind of… wonky, and does some weird stuff to the history of the planes, but the Serpent is rarely mentioned aside from when Vecna’s about, and the reasoning behind all of this is a bit half-assed. Vecna’s back and ready to become a true god again because that’s how comic book stories work, so deal with it.

All three thirds of this are quite epic, and in contradiction to what I said previously about a previous book being the last thing I ran for Planescape, well, I have in fact run much of Die Vecna Die! and can well say that the material I cannibalised was fantastic. Oddly, it’s not the Planescape part that I used, though, but rather a heavily (heavily!) adapted version of the first third, which nominally takes place in the Greyhawk universe. 

Tovag Baragu looks quite epic here, though less so in the book’s maps.

I say nominally here because the part of this universe it uses is Tovag Baragu (previously seen in Vecna Lives!). Also known as the Stone Circles, Tovag Baragu is kind of like Stonehenge but far more extensive. Ever since Vecna’s first disturbance here, the area has been rife with portals, but more recently they’ve finally been consistent enough for the non-insane to want to use them. What happens now is that Tovag Baragu acts as a series of gateways to other versions of… Tovag Baragu, parallel planes that are like nothing we’ve seen previously in D&D, the cause of which is in fact some of the later actions in this adventure. Most importantly from a cosmological standpoint, “Tovag Baragu accesses dozens of dimensionally separated, parallel versions of itself. These parallels are fractures in reality, though each location is set in its own half-world. These half-worlds are not small demiplanes that share metaphysical real estate with the Ethereal Plane. They are distinct planes, but they remain unfinished, or at least not completely realized.”

This is the part of the adventure that I really dug, as parallel dimensions are rarely explored in high fantasy, plus this is a reasonably easy thing to manage on Roll20. You just copy and paste the same place but change things up a bit each time. Which isn’t to say that I’m a super lazy DM, but, well… ok, sometimes I am. Anyhow, each of the three sections of this book is going to violate planar rules, and this is the first occurrence, but also perhaps the most interesting one included. Bruce Cordell, the book’s co-author, always seemed to push harder than anyone against the constraints of the Great Wheel cosmology, and here we see him trying once again to create an adventure style that just doesn’t work when strictly adhering to its rules.


Eventually, players find their way to the version of reality that contains a “series of chambers” (i.e. a dungeon) known as the Adytum. The Adytum is a well-designed, entertaining dungeon that’s most importantly filled to the brim with relics of Vecna. What’s that, you thought it was just his hand and eye that were special? Well Die Vecna Die! introduces us to a whole bevy of new Vecnan bodyparts that you can use to replace your own, with the explanation being that they were castoffs from way before he was a demipower, so they went largely ignored until more recently. These are particularly important for the adventure, as only people enhanced by these relics can actually hurt Vecna in any way. And just for fun before we move on, let’s list all these new relics, because they’re pretty damn goofy:

The First Digit (right thumb), Second Digit (right index finger), Third Digit (right middle finger), Last Digit (right pinky finger), Incisors, Molar, Scalp, Skin, Heart, Foot (his left), and Right Eye. 

That’s right, you can scalp your friend, stick Vecna’s onto him, and watch him gain super powers as a result. The Heart of Vecna in particular is a difficult one to use, but can in fact work given the magic and healing rules for AD&D. If I remember correctly, I had a player end up with the Index Finger and become quite overpowered very fast, though the reason why I was so entertained with this dungeon was because it also contained the Head of Vecna, which is definitely not a magical relic. Shannon Appelcline explains:

This references a long-standing internet joke, dating back to a December 6, 1996, posting to Steve Jackson Games’ Daily Illuminator. Mark Steuer is attributed as the originator of the story, which tells of a group creating a fake head of Vecna in order to trick their foes into cutting their heads off.

I don’t think my party fell for this, much to my disappointment (there’s no way I would’ve forgotten it if they did), but it was still worth the effort. Now I want to try running this with another group just to see how they react….

Anyhow, along the way the players wind up dealing with Iuz again (he’s just kind of there, *shrug*) and follow him into a portal, which leads to the version of Citadel Cavitus that exists in Ravenloft. That’s one world down, two to go.

Sam Wood was one of three cartographers for the project, and his work here is my favorite from the book.

Once in Citadel Cavitus, players can wander around if they’d like, though there isn’t much point to this. It’s a dreary place, and other than resting up, it’s time to get back to work chopping up Vecna, who fortunately has his palace just down the road. So it’s now time for another dungeon crawl, this time going up in towers instead of down into the ground. Along the way, the players should get themselves that handy Sword of Kas, but really I have little to say about this third of the adventure. If you like killing skeletons and death knights, then it’s probably fun for you, but it’s also the most traditional section of the adventure and doesn’t distinguish itself much from other undead-infested dungeon crawls. Whatever. Eventually, players find Vecna in the midst of yet another battle with Iuz. This time, Vecna allows Iuz to feel like he wins (because evil, I guess), and then drains away Iuz’s power, using it to transform into a true god. He uses this power to free himself from the Demiplane of Dread’s Dark Powers and heads straight to Sigil. Fortunately for the players, this is also where they randomly wind up, though less fortunately it’s now 3d4 days1 after Vecna arrived, and the whole place has gone to shit.

“But wait,” you say. “Vecna can’t get into Sigil if he’s a God, and the only way to get out of Ravenloft is to be a God. That doesn’t make any sense!”


Fortunately for you, Bruce Cordell and Steve Miller thought about this, and have an answer to explain this turn of events. Kind of. Sort of. If you squint, and don’t think too hard about it.

Vecna can’t go to Sigil. Sigil is warded against the entry of gods. But Vecna, incarnating as a true Power, is in Sigil—what gives? It comes down to a confluence of unique circumstances engineered and nurtured by Vecna. His plan (see Adventure Background) took an age to formulate, and another to execute. Informed by the very force of magic itself, Vecna wove a tapestry of detail, arcane props, and raw power that deposited him in the City of Doors, despite its age-long ward enforced by the enigmatic Lady of Pain. In a sense, Vecna cheated.

Though he stole the power of another god, luz, to catalyze his own full ascension, Vecna’s power waxed over a period of time—at the moment he stepped into Sigil, he wasn’t strictly a demigod or a god. Moreover, Vecna didn’t use a portal created by Sigil’s protector, the Lady of Pain, to enter the city. Instead, he used his unique position as a waxing power in the Demiplane of Dread. Taking advantage of its unique properties, Vecna warped, twisted, and forced the entire plane into a wholly new configuration. That temporary contortion was the funnel that punched a doorway for Vecna into the Sigil. After all, as a student of the Serpent knows, Sigil is the founding stone of the multiverse, upon which the current planar structure is built and buttressed.

To summarize: Vecna got into Sigil because we said he could, so shut up and stop asking questions.

Kevin McCann’s version of Sigil. His art is excellent throughout the adventure.

When the players arrive in Sigil the city is in the midst of disaster. Vecna’s presence is causing all sorts of odd, terrible phenomena (earthquakes, green hail, wind made out of fire, the usual), and if players wait too long in dealing with Vecna the whole place falls apart. Fortunately for them, “the heroes have a fairly clear lead, in the form of the swath of destruction and the pillar of smoke and fire, allowing them the luxury of bypassing timely and probably confusing research.” The result of this is that while this final chapter is set in Sigil, players probably won’t interact a whole ton with the location or its inhabitants. Aside from stocking up on provisions, there’s not a lot that players will want to do here. Most likely, everyone takes a quick rest and then heads straight over to the Armory, where Vecna has made his new lair. 

You might remember the Armory from… the very most recent Planescape adventure, Faction War. This is where the Doomguard and their allies face off against the Harmonium and the Sensates, ultimately losing when their secret stash of spheres of annihilation get unleashed and proceed to, well, annihilate everything nearby. However, keeping everyone in the city from running at Vecna and attacking him is an instant-death forcefield he enacted around the place. Only people with one of Vecna’s relics infused into their bodies (and, uhh, the occasional person who sneaks in with them due to a Looney Tunes-esque loophole…)2 may enter this forcefield. Things are so disastrously bad that the Lady of Pain even deigns to address the PCs directly.

There are two other noteworthy Sigilians who players may end up interacting with here. One is new, a sage named Ronnasic who’s also a stand-in for Bruce Cordell himself, to the point that he’s the in-universe author of Guide to the Ethereal Plane. This is rather neat, and frankly I like the meta-textual part of Planescape, as it feels in kind with the type of fantasy the setting enjoys playing with. The other individual is Autochon the Bellringer, a featured NPC from The Factol’s Manifesto who hadn’t made an appearance elsewhere until now. He offers to help, up until the point when Vecna gives him a bribe, at which point he betrays everyone and attacks them like the opportunist he is. It’s not a wonderful encounter or the deepest use of Planescape lore, but at least it gives us a little bit more Sigilian flavor.

The Armory besieged by most of Sigil. At the center, you can just barely spot the Lady of Pain and a few dabus.

Once through the “Perimeter of Death,” players then need to make it past four spheres of annihilation Vecna has put on patrol just in case something like this happened. Past this trap (which feels like one of the primary reasons the designers sent Vecna to the Armory), the players arrive at a surprisingly reconstructed version of the demolished fortress. While hanging around in Sigil, Vecna added a roof on top, fixed some other holes in the walls, and built a strange chapel in its basement. 


For anyone who has played through Faction War, you’ll find the changes to the Armory fascinating. This includes the invasion of a rogue group of slaadi, for instance, and a possible tour of those many weapon stashes the faction used to store here. However, this module isn’t at all meant to tie-in with an actual Planescape campaign (it starts on the Prime Material Plane, for instance), so really it mostly serves as easter eggs for the designers and the small minority of Planescape fans who read through both scenarios. I appreciate that all of this means that there is a lot of logic to the layout of the Armory and how it functions as the adventure’s third and final dungeon, but the vast majority of people are never going to care or even notice what’s going on. I suspect that most people who played this adventure found the entire final third kind of confusing, at least in its lore.

Vecna’s newly formed chapel is yet one more gauntlet of traps and a few combat encounters, the highlight being the reappearance of one of the main NPCs from Faction War, Ely Cromlich (I assume Vecna likes anyone with “lich” in their name). He was the Doomguard member who survived the great battle there and decided to unleash demons and devils in Sigil as revenge. He also died during the adventure, but that’s never stopped Vecna before, so here he’s reanimated and ready to attack you or, if you’re not yet noticed, proselytize about Vecna’s greatness in a “Stalinesque” manner. There’s also some retconning here, with the adventure explaining that he was always a cultist of Vecna, but all of that is both irrelevant and probably never comes into play. 

These slaads may look evil, but really they’re just hungry. Unfortunately, their favorite food is “people.”

Actually defeating Vecna at the end of the adventure is… probably not going to happen. He’s the avatar of a god, and as such a 30th level cleric, 30th level fighter, 36th level mage, and tenth level thief. He’s surrounded by minions he can resurrect as many times as he wishes. But canonically he does lose (perhaps because it’s at this point that the Lady of Pain allows into Sigil “a sortie of four to five demigods” to deal with this menace), meaning that he only goes on to become a lesser deity rather than a greater+ deity, so let’s take a look at what this means for the multiverse:

Even with Vecna’s removal, his time in the crux effected change in superspace. Though the Lady of Pain attempts to heal the damage, the turmoil spawned by Vecna’s time in Sigil cannot be entirely erased.

Some Outer Planes drift off and are forever lost, others collide and merge, while at least one Inner Plane runs “aground” on a distant world of the Prime. Moreover, the very nature of the Prime Material Plane itself is altered. Half-worlds like those attached to Tovag Baragu multiply a millionfold, taking on parallel realism in what was before a unified Prime Material Plane. The concept of alternate dimensions rears its metaphorical head, but doesn’t yet solidify, and perhaps it never will. New realms, both near and far, are revealed, and realms never previously imagined make themselves known. Entities long thought lost emerge once more, while other creatures, both great and small, are inexplicably eradicated. Some common spells begin to work differently. The changes do not occur immediately, but instead are revealed during the subsequent months. However, one thing remains clear: Nothing will ever be the same again.

This is the in-game explanation for why the cosmology of D&D‘s multiverse changed so radically between the second and third editions… if it did. At the point that this was written, at least, it seems clear that the authors didn’t know exactly what the hell was going to happen with the cosmology, so they made some guesses, but had to leave things vague. Ultimately, no outer planes would be lost or merge, but the quasi- and para-elemental planes would be removed. The Ethereal Plane would be radically altered, while the Demiplane of Shadow became a full-fledged transitive plane. The parallel worlds never really took off, but the new realms “both near and far,” i.e. Bruce Cordell’s creation The Far Realm, would become a much bigger player. 

Vecna is thirty feet tall, and he has servitors with heads made of just an eye and hand. He may try for creepy, but mostly he’s just campy.

And so Planescape ended. Sort of. Aspects of it would stay part of D&D all the way through to today. Many articles in Dragon or Dungeon would be based around its concepts, and one adventure toward the end of third edition is pretty much a Planescape adventure in all but name. However, the Planescape branding would be retired aside from the occasional retrospective article, and we’re yet to see an actual game supplement try to carry on its legacy. In this, it remains one very few campaign settings created by TSR that’s faded away so completely, given that even Spelljammer will be seeing a return later this year.

Vecna himself would, as noted above, become a lesser deity, and with this part of the game’s standard issue generic pantheon of gods. For a long time, this was more or less his full existence, with no new stories being written about him. However, in Matt Mercer’s Exandria setting for Critical Role he became one of the main big bads, thus returning him to prominence (in fact, given the series’ popularity, he’s probably more well-known from that than he ever was for his trilogy of adventures). This is likely why the Duffer Brothers were reminded of him, as post-Die Vecna Die! he was more of a historical oddity than an ongoing and active part of the D&D multiverse.  Without Mercer’s series, I doubt most players today would have any idea who Vecna is.

Speaking of which, this leads to one final side note about Stranger Things. While Vecna serves as the primary villain for Eddie Munson’s campaign, this is more than a bit ahistorical given that the show is set in 1987. Or rather, it shows that Munson’s campaign is ahead of its time. All of Vecna’s lore aside from the information about his artifacts would only come much later than the series is set, and so the kids’ version of him is really Munson’s, not D&D‘s. None of which is an issue, as I’m sure he cropped up in many, many homebrewed campaigns well before the 90s (most D&D is homebrewed, and playing through published adventures is more of an anomaly)—all this really does is underscore how fun it would be to join in on Munson’s campaign. Seriously, it looks like a blast. In honor of the show, Hasbro recently released what they called the Vecna Dossier as a free, official update of Vecna’s original lich incarnation for fifth edition. With this newfound support, it’ll be interesting to see whether interest in the show drives more full-on Vecna-centered adventures in the future. And if they need someone to write Goddammit Vecna Just Stay Dead Already! to turn the Vecna trilogy into a tetralogy, my inbox is ready and waiting.

1. Why is this a roll? Why not just say how long it’s been? Sometimes D&D is just far too interested in rolling dice for no reason

2. “It’s just possible that if two PCs with relics joined their hands to form a small circle, they might usher one person within their arms through the perimeter, and so protect the individual from the death field.” This is almost as funny as the Head of Vecna gag from earlier. The lich may be a dick, but he appreciates a hilarious scheme when he sees one.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest Exposition Break articles sent to your inbox.