One of D&D’s most iconic villains returns — but just who is Vecna?
If you watched the most recent D&D Direct all the way to the very end, you would have seen a tantalizing hint in amongst the upcoming books for 2023 and 2024 — Jeremy Crawford and Chris Perkins couldn’t help but mention the return of Vecna, one of the D&D franchise’s most iconic villains. While his name may have recently obtained more fame due to Stranger Things, make no mistake — the archlich Vecna has been part of D&D since the 70s and is always a fearsome villain. His famously-associated treasures have likely tempted many a player to sell their characters’ souls for eldritch secrets and arcane power.
But just who is Vecna, and why will we be seeing a “world-hopping adventure” featuring him in 2024?
It started with an eye and a hand
In the third-ever supplement to the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry, author Brian Blume created two artifacts, supposedly the only remnants of a lich that had been destroyed long ago — the eye and hand of Vecna. There was not much else at the time about this lich other than the name of his former bodyguard, Kas. even the name Vecna was an anagram of Vance (as in Jack Vance, the fantasy author whose works inspired the magic system in D&D). These artifacts — requiring the sacrifice of a character’s actual eye or hand and its replacement with Vecna’s own — have been staples of the game across multiple editions. Until 1989 these were the only real appearance of Vecna, with a note in a 1979 book that a character using them could be threatened by Vecna.
It wasn’t until 1989’s 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide that we’d get a real history for Vecna. Originating on Oerth, the world of Greyhawk (one of D&D‘s oldest and most iconic settings, although not one that’s made its way to a current edition of the game), Vecna’s mother was exiled for a circle of wizards for practicing necromancy, and he himself was essentially enslaved by the wizards. He spent the better part of his childhood secretly educating himself in magic by stealing books from his masters, until one late evening a soothing voice began encouraging him to yield to the hatred in his heart. As a result, after learning all that he could from them, Vecna massacred the wizards who had exiled his mother; that very evening, he began to set down his thoughts in the form of another of D&D‘s long-running magical items, the Book of Vile Darkness.
After that, Vecna created a kingdom for himself, ruling in the manner you might expect of a cruel necromantic overlord, and became one of D&D‘s most iconic undead — a lich. The fallen paladin Kas, later named Kas the Bloody-Handed, became Vecna’s right-hand man, wielding his titular sword created for him by Vecna and doing his bidding. However, the sword whispered treachery to him, and Kas turned on his master, supposedly slaying him. In reality, Vecna did some plane-hopping for a while, eventually ascending even to demigod status. In D&D‘s 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook, Vecna is even listed as the neutral evil lesser deity of secrets, and he remained that way in 4th Edition. For a time Vecna was even lord of a Domain of Dread in Ravenloft, similar to Strahd, but it appears that even the Dark Powers can’t keep Vecna and his ambitions contained. Vecna even closed out an entire edition all by himself. The impressively-scaled Die Vecna Die! is an adventure that crosses three settings — Greyhawk, Ravenloft, and Planescape — and was both the last adventure published under the TSR trademark and the last adventure published for AD&D 2nd Edition.
Vecna’s presence in 5th Edition has been more scarce. He’s listed as part of the “Dawn War Pantheon” (essentially the 4th Edition’s default set of gods) as well as part of the gods of the Greyhawk campaign, in both cases as a deity of evil secrets. In later supplements he is mentioned as a suitable deity for an Arcana domain Cleric or as a patron for an Undying Warlock, but he himself has remained largely offscreen. However, he did show up in the first campaign of Critical Role, and his appearance there has even been made canonical by the inclusion of Arkhan the Cruel in published adventure Descent into Avernus. Last June, D&D Beyond also hinted at his return, adding a free promotional supplement — The Vecna Dossier — as well as a free adventure and advice on using Vecna as the “big bad” of your campaign.
But that was it — not a peep from the god of secrets after that.
So why is Vecna making his return now?
It’s easy to see that Vecna is an iconic villain — but why bring him back now? The most obvious guess would simply that he’s currently in the pop culture zeitgeist, thanks to Stranger Things. Lots of people know the name Vecna who may not have before, so why not give them the true evil archlich himself for which the otherworldly villain was named?
It could also be a pointer to a return of the Greyhawk setting to 5th Edition D&D — it’s Vecna’s origin, after all, but it’s only mentioned here and there in the game’s current materials; Greyhawk offers a fairly distinct swords-and-sorcery flavor compared to the standard high fantasy of the Forgotten Realms. Mentioning a “world-hopping adventure” involving Vecna immediately reminded me of the Vecna Trilogy (1990’s Vecna Lives, 1998’s Vecna Reborn, and especially 2000’s Die Vecna Die!), but even modernizing that chain of adventures for 5th Edition would be tricky without Greyhawk — we have Ravenloft in the modern game, and Planescape returns this year, but Greyhawk remains absent.
It’s also possible that this is part of Wizards of the Coast’s new focus on interconnectivity, something Jeremy and Mike pitched often in their short teaser video. Vecna returns in 2024, but apparently plans exist for him to continue showing up for the next five years, bringing back other iconic D&D villains along the way ranging from the Forgotten Realms’ Red Wizards of Thay to Venger, the antagonist from the 1980s D&D cartoon. Planescape, and its central setting Sigil, the City of Doors, are literally interconnected to everywhere in the D&D multiverse, and that book is confirmed to set the stage for Vecna’s return. Perhaps we’ll even find a connection with those shattered obelisks in the return to Phandelver slated for this year. This could even hint at a return to a style of D&D adventure-publishing we haven’t seen recently outside of collections like Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel and Keys from the Golden Vault, one where published adventures are shorter overall but meant to interlock and overlap, allowing room for crossovers along the way, to really shape your campaign your way even if you’re using published materials rather than potentially being locked into a single book for 14 levels.
Whatever the reason, it’s always exciting to see a new take on an old classic antagonist, and when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, they don’t get much more iconic or classic than Vecna. Hopefully his plane-hopping adventures will broaden the worlds available for the game even further, sparking the imaginations of even more players and DMs alike.
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