Deep Dive - History of Vecna
Vecna. The ultimate BBEG throughout the history of D&D. A wizard who became a lich, who became a demigod, then became a greater god, only to become a lesser god at the end of it all… pretty busy guy throughout the thousand plus years of his existence. Vecna has been studied, analyzed and written about by so many people, it’s hard to keep track.
Instead of just going over the history, we are going to talk about the people and places that Vecna was involved with. Sure, we’ll go through his background, but also take a deeper look at the people and places that shaped who he was and how it made him into the bad guy he is today.
Vecna’s Early Years
Vecna was born in the Flan City of Fleeth. He was an Ur-Flan, a race of humans who were renown for their mastery of magic, and was a member of the untouchable caste. Exact details of the Ur-Flannae are difficult to determine as they mostly vanished during the Great Migration, a massive migration of refugees. While there weren’t many of the Ur-Flannae left afterwards, those that remained were evil and known to be powerful wizards. The other Flan showed respect towards them, mainly out of fear of the great magic they were able to control. Finally, the Ur-Flan had a strong association with necromancy magic, many of whom aspired to and eventually did become undead, Vecna included.
Vecna was trained in the art of sorcery by his mother Mazzel, who was eventually executed by the government of Fleeth for practicing witchcraft. Vecna swore revenge upon all those who were responsible for her death and he then disappeared for a number of years, where he gained a mastery of the dark arts, achieved by no one before him and, as many say, haven’t since. Legend tell us that his great power was obtained through tutelage by Mok'slyk, the Serpent, believed to be the personification of arcane magic itself.
After searching the Greyhawk maps and reading through the geography, there is little information on were exactly Fleeth is located. Based on Vecna - Hand of the Revenant (2002):
“[Fleeth’s] White walls stood proudly upon the eastern plains as a stronghold of order in the wild lands.”
Most people assumed this put Fleeth in the Sheldomar Valley, somewhere near the Rushmores, but there is still a lot of debate about its exact location.
The people of Fleeth worshiped Pholtus, the god of light. Such a lawful god probably wouldn’t approve of sorcery and arcane magic, which is mostly likely the reason that Vecna’s mother was executed. The clerics of Pholtus are responsible for almost destroying Vecna on his first attempt to conquer Fleeth, but he escaped, only to rise again to conquer Fleeth at a later date.
Mok’slyk is an old Flan name for an entity known as the Serpent, an entity of godlike power. The Serpent is said to be a member of a group of unfathomably old entities known as the Ancient Brethren, of whom the Lady of Pain, Asmodeus and Jazirian were also members. These entities are not gods, and while similar in many ways and with great power, they never ascended to godhood.
Mok’slyk’s existence has often been questioned by scholars. He was never mentioned in D&D lore until Vecna, so many historians have questioned his existence. Because of this, it is thought that Vecna was lying about how he obtained his immense magical power. Vecna claimed that his knowledge of long forbidden magic was taught to him by Mok’slyk, and that through his teachings Vecna learned a vast amount of ancient secrets, those of which had never been shared with mortals before him. Considering that Mok’slyk is extremely old, this makes some sense. Which gives us two options: either Vecna was a very good liar, or he was telling the truth and Mok’slyk bestowed upon Vecna the power to harness ridiculously powerful magic.
Those that believe in Mok’slyk say that he either created magic or was the personification of arcane magic itself. So powerful is Mok’slyk, it is said that he imprisoned Bahamut, who was only freed though the use of a wish spell. So, if you’re Vecna, there isn’t a better source of magical wisdom than the source of all magic, old as the world itself and able to imprison one of the most powerful dragons/gods in D&D. We believe that Vecna did learn from Mok’slyk. How else would he have become one of the most powerful entities that has ever lived?
Lichdom and Venegance
After learning all he could from mortals and ancients alike, Vecna spent years researching and planning to become immortal. Once completed, Vecna took his life and was transformed into a Lich, though nothing specifies on how. Now immortal, Vecna returned to begin his siege on the world he previously abandoned. Conquering the lands in and around Sheldomar Valley, he amassed power and grew his army of undead to unfathomable numbers.
With his army, Vecna laid siege to the city of Fleeth, having never forgotten what they had done to his mother. Of course, Vecna was now over one thousand years old, so he was slaughtering their great great great great great great great great great grandchildren. Never let it be said that Vecna wasn’t one to hold a grudge.
Legend has it that Vecna was nearly slain in this battle by clerics channeling the power of Pholtus, the god of light. By channeling the power of their god, these clerics were able to strike down Vecna with a blast of radiant light. Almost dead, Vecna was rescued by Acererak, his apprentice and one of Vecna’s most trusted servants, though another trusted servant being Kas, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Retreating for the time being, Vecna nursed his wounds and plotted the destruction of Fleeth.
Once healed, Vecna and his army laid siege to the city of Fleeth once again. The following is one of the most famous stories in the history of Vecna.
On the verge of conquering Fleeth, the officials of the city came before him to beg for mercy. They offered up the entire city and her wealth if only Vecna would spare the lives of her citizens. When Vecna was not satisfied, the officials offered their own lives. Vecna gave one of their number, Artau, and his family, over to his lieutenant, Kas, who spent the entire day torturing and murdering them before the other officials. Still unsatisfied, Vecna slaughtered all within the city, and had their heads stacked before the officials, with those of their family members prominent. Vecna then granted his mercy, granting the officials leave to depart, and promising them his protection for the rest of their lives.
Vecna Lives!, 1990
Acererak the Devourer is described as a cambion, the result of an ancient conjurer summoning a demon, a balor named Tarnhem, far beyond his ability to control. Tarnhem devoured the conjurer and takes his human mother by force.
Acererak's mother survived her son's birth, as giving birth to a half demon is incredibly difficult and painful. Of course, several years later, she is killed by an angry mob, upset that she spawned a half demon to live among them. Acererak is then rescued by Vecna. Vecna is told by his advisers that he should kill the bastard half demon, but Vecna being Vecna instead kills all the advisers and makes Acererak his apprentice.
As Acererak studies under his tutelage, he becomes a trusted voice for Vecna. Acererak dreams of being able to become a lich like his master, as he sees the immense power that being a lich wields. He fights at Vecna’s side, helping his master destroy his enemies and lay waste to the lands Vecna conquers. As stated above, when Vecna is almost killed in the first siege of Fleeth, it is Acererak that saves him from almost certain death. Vecna rewards him by making him a general of his undead armies.
After Vecna is betrayed by Kas, it is said that Acererak moved to the Vast Swamp where he built his underground temple, the Tomb of Horrors. Eventually, Acererak obtains the ability to become the lich he has always wanted to be. He then secluded himself in an underground tomb, studying for hundred of years, after which he achieved demi-lichdom.
Acererak has since become a powerful and feared creature in D&D lore himself, and many may know him from the adventure Tomb of Annihilation (2017) or being featured on the front of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (2014) for 5e. If you are curious about a more in depth look at Acrerak’s life, we recommend checking out this video by DnD Beyond.
Rule and Betrayal
Vecna was now growing ever stronger and beginning his push towards godhood. His empire ranged from the northwestern shores of the Azure Sea to the Crystalmists mountains, including such territories as Ulek, Geoff and Grand March. Not much can be found of Vecna’s rule, other than it was cruel, evil, and he continued to march forward in a quest to conquer as many lands as he could. Though most of the lore skips straight to the betrayal of Kas, his most trusted lieutenant.
The following from Vecna Lives! (1990), an adventure module for 2e, is probably the most detailed information that is available on Vecna’s rule and the rise of Kas.
… Kas the Bloody-Handed rose to the fore among Vecna’s lieutenants. As the arch lich’s body weakened, Kas became his instrument of rule. Though still Supreme in his power, Vecna took less and less interest in the daily affairs of his kingdom. Kas pronounced Vecna’s judgments, presided over the Council in Vecna’s name, and heard the reports from Lord Vecna’s foul army.
Vecna Lives!, 1990
Not much, but it gives us a sense of how Kas rose in power and became Vecna’s right hand man. Vecna created the Sword of Kas for his lieutenant, a weapon of pure evil that Vecna fashioned himself. With this sword, Kas was unstoppable and no one could defeat him.
The sword, ironically enough, was the instrument of Vecna’s destruction. The sword whispered to Kas, telling Kas that he was the true ruler of the lands and that Kas was now more powerful than his ancient master. Over time, the sword seduced Kas, and he finally succumbed to it’s words.
At last, emboldened by the sword’s sweet voice, Kas struck at his lord. No man saw the battle, but with its end Vecna’s dark tower crumbled into dust, leaving only the sword and a pile of ash. The body of Kas was never found. Of Vecna, all that remained were his lifeless Hand and Eye.
Vecna Lives!, 1990
Kas the Betrayer
Kas is also known as The First Vampire, Kas The Bloody-Handed and simply The Betrayer. Some say that Kas was once a valiant knight, who’s love of battle was a thirst that could not be quenched. Legend says that Kas could enter into battle and would always be victorious, leaving the battlefield completely unscathed. It was this desire and strength in combat that drew Vecna's attention to him. Knowing that Vecna was marching through Flaness, laying waste to all that opposed him, Kas agreed to lead his armies of undead. As a sign of his importance to Vecna, the lich created for him the Sword of Kas.
After the battle with Vecna, Kas was flung across the multiverse, ending up in the negative energy plane, where he remained for hundreds of years. Because of his prolonged exposure to this plane, he became a vampire, though numerous sources argue over when and how Kas became a vampire, but this seems to be the most prevalent theory. In a strange twist of fate, Kas was freed from his imprisonment when Vecna failed in the attempt to rule Oerth, after which Kas fought an endless battle against Vecna in the Burning Peaks, a location set in the Ravenloft campaign setting. Vecna controlled the land known as Cavitius and Kas controlled the land known as Tovag.
4th edition has the most recent description of Kas:
Kas has a twisted sense of honor that compels him to offer the appearance of a fair fight to any creatures he considers equals. He quickly dispatches challengers of obvious inferiority. Kas usually strikes first and without warning, and he attempts to subdue an opponent rather than kill it. He has no reservations about attacking an unarmed opponent, but the creature must have access to a nearby weapon. If a combatant proves a good challenge, Kas transforms the creature into a vampire spawn under his control after he defeats it.
Kas is cunning, having learned much of his craft from Vecna. He prefers to fight opponents in areas of darkness, where he has no risk of losing his regeneration. Kas revels in combat and tries to engage as many opponents as possible. However, even while engaging multiple foes, he retains wisdom and cunning. Kas is confident of his abilities but makes strategic retreats if necessary.
Monster Manual, 2008
Demigod, Greater God and then Lesser God
This is where things get interesting. Before we get to Vecna being a big time god, we should note that both Vecna and Kas return in Vecna Reborn (1998). At this point Vecna returns as a demigod and Kas returns as a vampire. They ended up in the Ravenloft setting, controlling bordering lands and fighting until he returns to Greyhawk. How they return and how Vecna is now a demigod is never really explained. All the lore basically says that Vecna was too evil to truly die, which is typically how it goes.
Here’s where it goes off track; Vecna was an all powerful lich. To become a lich, there are many hoops that those who want to live an external life have to jump through. One of the biggest ones is creating a Phylactery and storing one’s soul in it. As long as your soul remains in the phylactery, then the lich cannot die. The body will reform over a period of days, sometimes years, to continue its eternal life. So why isn’t this given as the explanation for Vecna’s return? Sure, he was destroyed by the Sword of Kas, an artifact of great power. But again, as long as the sword hasn’t destroyed Vecna’s phylactery, he would return at some point.
Skipping the fact his return isn’t explained and how he came back as a demigod, Vecna tricked Iuz, the cambion son of Graz’zat, into appearing in Cavitius, Vecna’s Realm in Ravenloft, and absorbed him. By absorbing Iuz, Vecna became the Greater god he so desired to be. I guess that answers the question of what you get when you add 1 demigod + 1 demigod. Upon Vecna gaining this immense power, he was able to break free of the spirits that tied him to Ravenloft and he ejected himself out and then made his way to Sigil.
In Sigil, Vecna sought to rearrange the entire multiverse, shaping it to his whims. He may have succeeded if it weren’t for a mysterious party of adventurers that defeated him and ejected him from Sigil. Who were these mighty heroes? We don’t know as it is the plot of the Die Vecna Die (2000) adventure for 2e. But in the process of being cast out of Sigil, Iuz was freed and Vecna was was demoted to a lesser god. The good news was that he was now back in Oerth, where he is worshiped by evil cultists throughout the lands. There’s always a silver lining if you look hard enough.
We could write an entire article on Iuz, so we are going to pair it down a fair amount to understand mostly their relationship and how he was involved with Vecna. But before we start, let’s provide a little more background on the demigod of Deceit & Evil:
Iuz was born of a human mother, the necromancer Iggwilv, and a great tanar'ri lord, Graz'zt, ruler of several Abyssal planes. The young cambion tanar'ri soon used his powers to great effect. Realizing that his warriors could not hope to triumph by simple force, Iuz began to ally his men with other minor clan leaders to beat off stronger enemies. Of course, those allies always ended up suffering most of the casualties and their leaders died in battle with astonishing predictability. Slowly, the size of Iuz's warband increased. Celbit and Jebli orcs of the Vesve margins began to join. The human scum serving Iuz didn't like the orcs overmuch, but they soon saw how their enemies liked them even less. And of course, there was Iuz's magic. Many cambions wield magic, but that of Iuz, aided by his mother, was far more powerful than anything the competing hordes could muster. Iuz had control of the entire Land of Iuz in little over a decade.
Iuz the Evil, 1993
There are a couple theories that have been passed down about how Iuz become a demigod. Some say that exactly how it happened is unknown, but it could have been a result of the magical forces that were used by Zagyg when trapping Iuz in Castle Greyhawk. Iuz was trapped in Castle Greyhawk for quite some time, only to be freed by Robilar and the priest Riggby at Mordenkainen's urging, in an attempt to kill Iuz. It went poorly to say the least. Bigby and the rest of the Circle of Eight were almost able to destroy Iuz, but he managed to escape. For more information about this event, you can find out more here.
Some say that Iuz used his own formidable power as a cambion and his indomitable will to ascend to godhood. The most recent theory has him transforming himself into a deity by kidnapping powerful wizards or extra-planar beings and putting them beneath the Soul Husks Caverns in the Howling Hills. Iuz was able to drain them of their power, bonding it with himself. Through this, he was able to absorb enough magical power to become a god, which is a nice step above Iuz as he was only a demigod!
In Tovag Baragu, a location in Oerth that has great power, we have Iuz’s first major encounter with Vecna. Vecna was attempting to use the powers Tovag Baragu and portals to other planes to further his reach and control. It is also said that Vecna and his cultists were somehow trying to use the powers of Tovag Baragu to help Vecna ascend to greater god status. Iuz was successful in thwarting his plans, and in doing so, banished Vecna, and himself, to Ravenloft. Needless to say Iuz wasn’t very happy about this mistake, though he did escape back to Oerth about a year later, leaving a very pissed off Vecna. Vecna wasn’t able to return for quite some time, as he ran into his buddy Kas.
The second run in with Vecna went even worse for poor Iuz. Coming across some ancient tablets that Iuz thought could assist him in his quest to ascend to full godhood, he started the process of doing so based on the instructions on the tablets. The most important item needed to complete the ritual was a piece of another demigod's body that would transfer all of the other demigod's power to the reader of the tablets. Of course, we all know that Vecna’s hand and eye were floating around somewhere, so Iuz started his search for the artifacts. Finding both, he returned to his lair with the intent of using them to complete the ritual. Unfortunately, the tablets were a trick prepared by Vecna long before, and the magic actually did the opposite that Iuz intended. Iuz was brought before Vecna in Ravenloft and where he fought fruitlessly against Vecna before being absorbed, allowing his enemy to become a full god. Only when Vecna was defeated by a party of adventurers in Sigil was Iuz able to pull himself free of Vecna.
Sigil is known as the City of Doors and even the City of Secrets, so it is not surprising that Vecna might enjoy being in this city. Everything that can be known, can be found in the twisting city streets. Sigil itself is a fascinating place, even before thinking about Vecna making his home here. Sigil is a plane unto itself, existing outside of the other planes and many planes hold little to no influence on Sigil. The city is built on the inside of a hollow ring and there are doors to every conceivable plane of existence somewhere inside of it, you just have to know where to look or who to talk too.
The city is ruled by a mysterious figure known as the Lady of Pain who ensures that no outside influence can create rebellion inside the city, and prevents all deities from entering the city. Futhermore, no one can just planeshift or teleport into the city, all must pass through a portal to enter the city and if a god tried to enter a portal, they would not be allowed admittance.
But that begs the question, how did Vecna, a lesser god at the time, actually enter Sigil? According to Die Vecna Die! (2000) he cheated. When he absorbed the power of Iuz, his power was waxing, and with the help and knowledge granted to him by the Serpent, he was able to disguise his true power and punch a hole into Sigil without having to use a portal. Once Vecna escaped the Cavitius domain on Ravenloft, thanks to absorbing Iuz, he begins his final plans to conquer the planes by entering Sigil. As stated above, a group of adventurers put a stop to that and he was ejected out of Sigil. He then loses the absorbed powers of Iuz and once again returns to that of a lesser god.
Though, you may be confused as to why the Lady of Pain, if she is so powerful as to keep gods from entering Sigil, could not deal with Vecna. The Lady of Pain is said to be part of the Ancient Brethren whom the Serpent that has guided Vecna is also supposed to belong too. The Lady of Pain could attempt to stop Vecna, but worries that if she reveals her true form to stop Vecna or if she allows demigods/gods to enter into Sigil, the city itself, the multiverse would be torn asunder by the raw amount of energy and power. So she decides to bide her time for another solution.
Vocar the (Dis)Obedient
Now, let’s take a moment and look at one important figure that we haven’t yet mentioned, Vocar the Obedient… or as he will be known as, Vocar the Disobedient. In Vecna Reborn (1998) there is a cult leader known as Vocar the Obedient who whispers dark secrets to Vecna and is attempting to summon Vecna out of Cavitius with a dark ritual that can only be performed once, according to the Serpent. During this time, Vocar remains largely unknown to the adventurers except as the uncle to a young, pregnant girl they meet in their travels.
In fact, Vocar is wanting to use the future child of his niece to summon Vecna out of Cavitus and so that Vecna can get his revenge for Kas’ betrayal. Not much is revealed between the timeline of Vecna Reborn, but Vocar fails in his mission and goes into hiding. There is scant little information about what Vocar gets up to next, but eventually he winds up hidden in Sigil, safe from gods that might want the information and secrets he has carried for Vecna. Luckily, he is also safe in Sigil from Vecna’s direct power and only has to deal with assassins sent to silence him, for he has many dark secrets of Vecna that should be kept silent. Upon his betrayal of Vecna, he gained the moniker the Disobedient.
Artifacts of Vecna
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the major artifacts that are embedded in the lore of our buddy Vecna. We’ll take a quick look at each one again, focusing on the lore and not the stats. Each item provides the owner with incredible powers, but also has major drawbacks. If you want to know more details about each of these items, they are listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (2014).
Eye of Vecna
One of the two artifacts created by the destruction of Vecna at the hands of Kas the Betrayer. The eye of Vecna is a powerful orb that allows one even greater power than they would normally be able to obtain. To be able to use the eye, you must gouge out one of your own eyes and put Vecna’s in its place. Gross.
The Eye of Vecna has many magical properties that have varied and changed through the editions. that said, there are a few magical proprieties that have remained the same since Kas first struck Vecna down. The Eye grants its user superior sight, known as truesight in 5e, including the ability to see through illusions, see through solid objects, see in complete darkness. The curse that is placed on the possessor also hasn’t changed. Your alignment changes to Neutral Evil, in some editions automatically, others over time. Either way, it’s bad news for your lawful good paladin to try to use this artifact. Eventually, this eye will find its way out of you, typically by your death.
Hand of Vecna
The other remaining part of Vecna was his left hand. It is described as mummified extremity, a blackened and shriveled hand. Like the eye, you have to sacrifice a body part to use the hand. Not surprisingly, you must chop off you left hand and shove Vecna’s into the stump. Once again, gross.
The Hand grants superhuman incredible strength to its ’wearer’, and allows the user to cast a variety of deadly arcane spells. Like the Eye, the abilities and drawbacks that the hand provides has changed throughout the editions. The major curse remains the same, as the user turns neutral evil and then eventually dies.
Sword of Kas
Literally the most powerful sword you can get. As stated above, it was created by Vecna and given to Kas, his most trusted ally, only to have it used to destroy him. The sword has been described as a longsword, short sword and a two handed sword. It is now depicted as a solid black longsword of infinite evil.
Not only has the sword has changed in type over the editions, but like the artifacts above, some of it’s abilities have also changed. There are a few constants throughout the editions however. It’s a sentient artifact, and can speak to its wielder, usually lying or tempting them with dark desires. The sword hates Vecna and wants to destroy both the eye and the hand… talk about holding a grudge. Finally, the sword is totally, completely and 100% evil.
And now we come to what has happened to Vecna. Little is spoken about him in 4th edition or 5th edition, and has largely been shoved into the shadows so that Acrerak, Vecna’s apprentice, can get some of the limelight. Vecna now just appears in the pantheon for the world of Greyhawk and the Dawn War Deities. A few of his artifacts appear in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (2014) where it is revealed that it was actually Orcus, not the Serprent, that taught Vecna the way of undeath and lichdom. Furthermore, Vecna left behind a dark curse for all wizards who would seek undeath, rather than gaining lichdom many of them turn into Nothics that forget who they used to be but rather must gain dark secrets and knowledge, maybe in an attempt to reverse their condition… or maybe for Vecna, but that is just conjecture on our part.
That is the dark history of Vecna the people and places that made him… so evil and horrible. While he may have just started out as a few artifacts, he has been very fleshed out in 2e and has largely gone unmentioned in the later editions of D&D.