Posted by: allhailthoon | April 26, 2010

To Hell with It: What’s a guy got to do to get some decent damnation around here?

To be completely honest, the more time I’ve spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, the less I find myself liking the portrayal of Hell (Nine Hells, the Abyss, whatever). Somewhere along the way, in their effort to create balance and symmetry between law, chaos, good, and evil, Hell lost its magic.

Maybe it’s just a religious education talking, but isn’t it supposed to be all about eternal punishment for sinners? Sure you get the occasional mention of larval souls as currency, but other than that, Book of Vile Darkness and the Fiendish Codices read more like a celebrity tour of an evil Hollywood rather than someplace where you should worry about being trapped for all eternity. I understand that one of the points of the game is that eventually you should at least be able to entertain the idea of killing absolutely everything in existence, but sometimes that really takes the poetry out of a concept.

Moreover, it really takes some of the air out of the whole idea of actions having consequences. If you get to a high enough level, who is going to stop you from doing whatever you want? Sure, there are gods, but even they can be defeated in theory (and have been in the past).

The most satisfying rendition of an afterlife I’ve ever personally had the pleasure of playing through in a game was in a short lived level 15 campaign run by my bro for life Opinicus. The world itself was a fairly simple homebrew but then handling was so elegantly classical that the game and the journey of the living characters into the underworld felt legitimately epic. And I don’t mean epic in the D&D killing-gods-and-laser-shooting-dragons way, I mean in the Homeric way.

In his rendition of the underworld, there was no clear heaven or hell. The dead were locked in endless monotony, playing through scenes that constantly parodied their lives. Like in the Odyssey, when Odysseus journeys into Hades to speak to the seer, even the most honored dead seemed as though they would rather be living.

On the other hand, the lower planes as published in the D&D rule books don’t have any sense of death or finality. The natives have their own things to do, lives to live, and wars to wage.  Dealing with the dead is just a single facet.  Souls in D&D hell are like corn in America. It’s an important industry and without it, the country would take a crippling hit, but it’s not the only thing going on and it’s not the first thing on everyone’s minds.



  1. I think there are still some interesting afterlifes in D&D 3.5 – the Grey Fugue in Forgotten Realms is quite centered on souls’ punishment, where they spend an eternity building a wall out of bones. Though given that it’s the afterlife reserved for atheists in a world where the gods are involved in every aspect of life certainly detracts from its verisimilitude.

    I do have fond (albeit fuzzy) memories of the one time I played in a “let’s storm the underworld!” game. We were in Living City, 2E, and playing about 6 above our EL, so level 5 characters fighting level 13 creatures (we did it because we really wanted the certificates at the end, it had full plate of etherealness at EL 13).

    Because we were so low level, even a random encounter would completely stomp us. So we all snuck around, terrified that we’d be caught by the various hideous outsiders roaming around. We ended up traveling to the Celestial Bureaucracy, the hell of Asian people, where souls spend infinity waiting in line. *Shudders* We sweet-talked and sneaked our way to the main boss, who we quickly hit with Hold Person or something, nabbed the soul we were there for, and hightailed it out of there. It felt pretty epic to me =)

  2. The concept of Hell in the classical sense is one of the details of religious lore that never really clicked with me. Having a realm run by evil beings for punishing evildoers makes less sense then a big freaking CE kegger in the abyss.

    Also I find the distinction between Devils and Demons interesting, particularly the potential for them to be at odds with one another.

    • I think it really depends on what you want to do with hell and how you want your players to react to the idea. Hell in the classical sense is inevitable and always horrible. You can be a level 0 peasant the most powerful man in existence, but if you lead a bad life or offend the powers that be, you will be laid low in the most awful ways possible for all time.

      You’re supposed to fear it, not adventure in it.

      Once you start giving demons and devils lives, interests, and hobbies, they become too human. They have the same issues we have, just in a red and black color scheme. That’s not scary.

      If you keep hell classic, there’s always the idea that even though you killed or exorcised a demon, if you screw up too badly, they’ll be waiting for you to torture you for all eternity. There should be nothing they want more. You shouldn’t be able to relate to them because if you can relate and understand, they lose their edge over you.

      • Ultimately it’s a difference between what role you want the afterlife to play in your campaign. As an adventuring setting, I think the Great Wheel kinda kicks ass as a concept, and serves as a rare justification of the D&D alignment system (though I’ve never actually had a chance to go there in a game). Me, since I tend to go the Kojima or “All Quiet on the Western Front” angle with many of my games (which often feature warfare as a backdrop or adventure hook), I like to make death permanent and the afterlife of course isn’t a roleplaying venue. Ultimately this serves the same end as Hades or Hell, in that some characters will fear death and others will not.

  3. In regards to Scoundrel’s message, I agree on some levels with the “Death is Final” approach. Why bother hiring an assassin to kill a king when people can just spend 5-10k and raise him back. Think about it, how bullcrap would you feel if you just spend a long, arduous adventure fighting through a castle. You get to the boss, kill him and call it a day. Not even a week later, he’s back because you forgot to find and kill his cleric henchman that had like 10lb of diamonds on him.

    On the other hand, though, let’s say you have a great game, you and your players love the characters. Suddenly, you roll a 1 on your save vs death, or there was that lucky 2-3 crits in a row. Now your character is dead. I remember my first character death I was teary eyed over it, then I was like 14… wait, no, that was my 2nd, my first left me pissed due to an asshole GM that cheated and killed the party. I’ll write about that later, Akal knows what I’m talking about. Either way, you’d want to be able to reset your character. I’ve had too many games die due to switching characters and I just wasn’t feeling the new guy. Though, I usually make the rez more costly, just to make sure the party won’t think death was nothing.

  4. I guess I’m really not that bothered by the idea of immortality through resurrection in D&D. I mean, if you went through the castle and killed all his minions except that cleric, you’ve pretty much ended the big bad guy’s career already. Oddly enough, despite losing to the PCs about a dozen times and having like a thousand cleric followers, I don’t think Verminaard’s ever died in my campaign world.

    And I feel like there’s a fuzzy metagame knowledge within the world about resurrection – enough that a high level assassin would be smart enough to know a way to prevent raise dead or resurrection, so that only a true rezz would work. 25,000g is enough that I can see such methods only working for regents or extremely powerful characters.

    You could also go the 2E route and make resurrection knock the cleric out for about 2 weeks and cost him half a level of experience, so that even if he COULD raise you, most clerics won’t unless you were his freaking BRO.

    • Personally, I like the idea of resurrection as one of those hazy, legendary things that there’s not necessarily a strict rule or spell for. Anyone should be able to stand playing a temporary character for a few adventures, so why not make bringing someone back from the dead an entire story arc?

      I like the whole idea of witches in the woods, deals with dark gods that have strange conditions, and having to do all kinds of tasks like seeking the tears of the Star Princess that never weeps and catching them in the Holy Grail.

      Making resurrections relatively common just leads to things like the “Why don’t we just burn the party mage but resurrect the drider?” Incident.

      • You mean like why I sent you guys into the underworld in the first place in that 15th lv game you mentioned. You needed to get the souls of the dead heros, then you needed to create their bodies from scratch with a long grocery list of esoteric items, like hair of an elf maid, eyes of a stalwart warrior, and weirder stuff like the last breath of an honest man.

        Of course I just made that list because I like magic item creation to require them, not just gp and xp.

  5. Exactly! Only we never got to that and someone stopped running the game. . . No. . . I’m not bitter. Screw you.

  6. See, my problem with the whole “going into the underworld” is that it makes dying a huge hassle, and cuts away from the normal storyline of the game.

    If I’m trying to run my goddamn Tomb of Horrors module, I don’t really want my PCs traveling the River Styx so they can get their freaking rogue back – especially if death is relatively common, or the PCs are low level. I want Ching to go visit his god, drink some mead for a week, then come back after Joe took a three-day detour to Villsfar and donated 25K to the church of Tempus.

    • I think it really depends on the type of game you want to run. If the game revolved strongly around a clear storyline then yeah, if you’re going to allow resurrection you may as well make it relatively simple. On the other hand though, if your game is more of a sandbox with the PCs moving from one adventure to another without much connection, or if the central plot in an on-again-off-again deal, then there shouldn’t be too big of a problem with quest-based resurrection.

      Besides, if you’re low level, character death is relatively common, or the PCs just don’t care, there’s no reason why you can’t just leave the character dead.

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