The Unspeakable Cults

For the next series here on Power Word Kill, I’m going to get stuck in to what was undoubtably one of the most fascinating aspects of the game once I got my hands on the Monster Manual – the Demons and Devils. They were the most ‘fantasy’ element of the game and from their entries in the MM as well as some others one could piece together images from the planar cosmology of the D&D’s ‘implied setting’. The early books, by way of these monsters, fleshed out the lower plans and the fate of the damned in D&D considerably more than the upper or neutral planes.

demons

1E AD&D’s treatment of demons and devils is one of the stand-out things about the edition that keeps me coming back to it. The rules and lore surrounding their amulets, their hierarchies and dwelling places all give the game great flavour, and a mysterious, ‘authentic’ feel. Their old simple B&W illustrations are reminiscent of medieval images of demons in art and even their descriptions echo what one would find in an Ars Goetia style occult text. This kind of dark evocative detail delighted my nerdy-goth-metal-punk teenage mind. The whole ‘satanic panic’ reaction against D&D was before my time, but funnily enough, I borrowed some occult books from my DM as a teen, which caused a minor spat with my mother when discovered. Good thing the DM was a family friend. Anyway, the religious fundamentalist reaction against D&D led to the purging of demons and devils (not to mention my beloved half-orcs) from the game in its revision for 2nd Edition, and I think they haven’t really recovered since. Sure, Planescape did nice work with the lower planes and brought back the fiends without using the ‘d-words’, but they lost some of their mystery and dread by becoming powerful races of monsters with magic powers in a setting filled with such. Post-AD&D versions of the game seem to have a depressing trend of presenting demons and related fiends as simply powerful monsters for battles, a far cry from the 1E MM where the descriptions go on at length on ways to bind or treat with these beings via amulets, circles, etc. James M over at grognardia┬ánails this shift in his analysis of the visual history of Orcus.

I want my demons and devils to be more than just combat encounters, I want them to have a presence in the world. Even at low level play, the Demon Lords and Arch-Devils’ influence should be felt. A leering visage on a cracked church fresco, their many names written with a trembling hand in ancient chronicles or tomes of forgotten lore. In curses, fetishes, cultural taboos and weird superstitions. In the ravings of the wide-eyed apocalyptic fanatic on the street corner and the macabre rhymes sung by children to frighten each other. This way when PCs encounter a demon or devil in the ‘flesh’ they’ll know they’re face to face with a whole other level of danger.

paladin-in-hell1

To this end, I’m preparing a new blog series ‘Unspeakable Cults’ to develop these demons and devils in 1E along these lines. As well as some additional lore, there’ll be game material about legends, cults, rituals, superstitions, locations and items associated with each fiend or type thereof. I’ll be tackling each demon and devil in order of appearance from the 1E MM, FF and MM2, and if I can keep steam going take on some of the other similar beings in the books (Daemons, Slaad, Elemental Princes etc), even I think as the number of these monsters increase, they become somewhat less inspired or inspiring and more fiend-by-numbers, there should be a few choice ones here and there. This should hopefully provide some useful fodder for your old school games, despite your divine set-up or metaphysical cosmology. There may be no universal pantheon of gods across D&D worlds, but given their deep roots in the game, Demogorgon and Asmodeus probably have a hand in more game worlds than Ra, Vishnu or Odin taken together. Coming up first are the demons, (two-) headed by the big D himself.

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