Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ruminations on the Netherworld

Rebellion seemed like a good idea at the time ...
So – a hex crawl through Hell. What to expect.

The basic architecture of the Netherworld here will be from Dante’s Inferno, with some touches drawn from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The rest will be pulled out of my imagination, which is fueled by any of a thousand images I’ve seen or read over the years. One thing it will not do is sync well with the old Gygaxian cosmology of the alignment-planes. Hell here is about Chaos, and the idea that demons, devils, daemons and demodands are all something fundamentally different will be ignored.

Dante can only be used up to a point though. While some aspects of his cosmology are appropriate for NOD, given the fact that it uses a Medieval Christian architecture for the basis of its cosmology. Some aspects are not as appropriate. A “Limbo of virtuous pagans”, for example, doesn’t make much since in a world with a profusion of deific identities, even if they may not actually be “gods” in the sense that ancient peoples imagined them to be. So, the first circle has to be changed. I’m taking inspiration from Hades’ Fields of Asphodel and making it a ring of grasslands – long, gray-green blades of grass and a profusion of asphodels and deadly trees. Under an eternal twilight the grasses are grazed by stench kows, hellephants and other demonic beasts who are in turn hunted by various terrible things. Essentially, it’s Hell’s savannah, with caravans of shades on their way to the Palace of Minos to be judged and sentenced. Many lesser demonic lords have their fiefs in Asphodel, marshalling their hellish hosts in service to more powerful lords below.

A goodly portion of Dante’s Inferno is also designed to portray his political enemies in the bowels of Hell getting their just rewards – since 14th century Italian politics plays no major role in NOD, that stuff doesn’t quite work either.

From Dante we get the architecture, but the meat of NOD’s Hell will be owed more to Burroughs. Essentially, I’m taking a Sword & Planet tack with depicting Hell since, in my opinion, everything in a fantasy role-playing game should be geared towards running adventures for players. In other words – there will be “people” living in hell – tribes and nations among the demon lords – like the drow, duergar, sahitim and other “evil humanoid” communities from fantasy gaming. There will be dungeons to delve and treasures to find in this weird little pocket dimension locked in the center of NOD.

Light in Hell
One of the hallmarks of Hell in the Christian cosmology, and similarly in other beliefs about the Underworld, is the absence of light. In Christian cosmology, light represents more than just physical illumination – it is also about spiritual enlightenment and reason.

The uppermost layer of Hell is given illumination in Dante, since it isn’t so much a place of punishment as it is a place of no reward. As mentioned above, I’m giving it an eternal twilight. Lower rings of Hell, however, are without light. The regions of upper Hell are simply dark. Fire provides no illumination – it is as black as night – so adventurers must rely on magic (spells, magic swords) and their own inner light. This manifests as a dim, gray glow for chaotic characters, a warm twilight for neutrals and a brilliant daylight for lawful characters to a range determined by their wisdom score. This radius grows smaller as people go deeper.

The deeper portions of Hell are swathed in spiritual as well as physical darkness. Here, one’s faith and reason (i.e. intelligence and wisdom) are ever assaulted and chipped away at, and even magical light ceases to function without supreme effort (i.e. magic resistance toward light, divination and healing spells).

A Brief Tour

Limbo: Before one enters Hell, they enter Limbo, a sort of ante-Hell. These caverns lead to the rocky vault through which flows the Acheron, plied by Charon and his assistants. They can give one access to the gates of Hell, which are not easily penetrated. Hell is surrounded by a massive wall guarded by demons and the gates are guarded by Sin and Death. Shades can simply pass through the gates, but living petitioners have a harder time. The shore of Acheron is beset by stinging vapor wasps that torment the souls waiting for passage across the river. The walls of Hell can be seen beyond – massive, basalt walls with insets holding tormented angels that remained neutral in the War of Heaven, forced to hold up the battlements of Hell eternally.

Asphodel: Mentioned above, this is a hellish savannah plied by caravans of the damned. Easily the most dangerous safari you’ll ever go on. Perhaps this is Persephone’s garden – a gesture of growth and beauty twisted by the entropic energies of the Underworld. Designed for 10th level parties.

Eerebus: A bleak, stony plain constantly ravaged by hurricane-force winds and freezing rains. There are gullies and canyons and flash floods and mist-shrouded moors and worn, stone castles. Eerebus is a place of shadows and dreams. Its constant rain is the source of the lower rivers of Hell – they form streams that flow into the bog that is the third circle of Hell. I imagine it populated by frogs, water weirds, tempting undead (vampires, baobhan sith) and, of course, succubi and incubi. The transition between Erebus and Abbadon is the easiest to make, for one circle simply flows into the other. Designed for 11th level parties.

Abbadon: Abbadon is just miles and miles of bog (and I mean that in both the sense of a swamp and the slang term for a toilet). A drizzle of human waste falls from the sky, landing on the souls of gluttons too fat to move, and the circle of Abbadon is absolutely crawling with otyughs. Mushrooms of every shape and size (and some ambulatory) grow in the bog. Few demon lords dwell in Abbadon, Jubilex being one of the few. Cerberus guards the entrance to Gehenna.

Gehenna: Gehenna is a desert of gray sands and swirling winds. Gangs of tethered slaves drag massive blocks of stone about the desert, but never finish dragging them – there is no destination – nothing here is every completed. The remnants of great cathedrals and pyramids rise from the sands, staffed by corrupt clerics that have been turned into huecuvas.

Stygia: Beyond Gehenna there is a muddy swamp that is, in fact, the flood plain of the River Styx. This swamp is filled with the souls of the wrathful, biting and rending one another and anything else they can get their hands upon. Islands in the swamp hold the citadels of demon lords, their followers fishing for souls and other critters in the swamp. Phlegyas ferries souls across the river to the quays of Dis.

At this point, NOD 11 should contain the first half of these upper circles of Hell – the northern half, so to speak. NOD 12 will finish it with the second half. NOD 14 will cover the lower hells.

Dis: Dis is the great metropolis of Hell. It covers an entire circle of hell, and does for the souls imprisoned within what modern cities do to their inhabitants – the torture of a thousand daily frustrations. The city is a maze of dark alleys, burning plazas, tombs, sepulchers, catacombs, brazen towers and the great parliament of Hell, the Pandaemonium. I’m picturing Dis with a Persian/Byzantine feel. Many demon lords have “townhouses” within Dis.

Dis will probably occupy NOD 13 – an appropriate issue for it, I suppose.

Avernus: Avernus is the first of the lower Hells, and here Dante started regretting the whole nine circles of Hell thing, because he starts packing different geographies into each circle. The seventh circle has three geographies, which Dante presents as rings (and I do this on my initial map), but I’m now thinking of doing as bands instead. The first is a badland of jagged, maze-like canyons inhabited by minotaurs. The burning river of Phlegethon flows through these canyons. This boiling river is home to tyrants and warlords. As they attempt to escape the river, they are set upon by the centaurs that patrol the banks.

The Phlegethon then flows into a woodland of black, gnarled trees that are actually the souls of wastrels. The woods are haunted by hell hounds and harpies. Beyond the woodland is a desert of burning, black sands, where charred blasphemers are staked out on the sands to writhe and burn. Mulciber’s forge is located here, and sparks from this hammer fall from the sky like a rain of fire. The center of the ring is a great ravine of dark water – the River Eridanos – which flows over the side as a roaring waterfall. Here dwells Geryon, the only creature capable of carrying folk to Malebolge beyond.

Malebolge: Malebolge is a land of tall mountains and deep valleys, each valley being given over the a different punishment. The valleys are inhabited by the Malebranche devils, who do not permit folk to pass through unchallenged. Looking over the edge of Malebolge one sees the imprisoned titans chained to the miles high cliffs that lead down to the deepest hell, Cocytus.

Cocytus: Cocytus is a frozen land of icy mountains surrounding a great lake covered in ice of varying thickness. Great, gray afancs swim beneath the ice, sometimes breaking through to feast on intruders. At the center of Cocytus lies Lucifer, ruling his dark realm from chains.


  1. Oh man, I'm already shivering in fear and anticipation of this wondrous work! Great teaser ;)

  2. amazing! i'll stay tuned . . .

  3. Sorry to come across as a pedant after such an awesome post, but Dante wrote in the 13th and 14th Centuries, not the 17th. :)

  4. A degree in Medieval Studies has very few uses! :D

  5. Very cool stuff.

    I am doing something similar and collected all my older posts (And yours) into one spot.

    Looking forward to seeing what you do.

  6. I like the idea of a Burroughsian sort of approach.

  7. This sounds cool as hell!

    (Pun originally unintended, but I'm running with it.)

  8. Wow just came across this post! Very cool idea! Man I hate your brain has such awesome thoughts. How about super heroes in hell! Just another thought. Cheers to this awesome work! You seem to get better & better!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...