Monday, September 19, 2011

The Wages of Sin

About a copper a soul, actually.

In putting together a hex crawl of Hell, I decided to work off of a swords & planet model - rings of hell with weird-but-recognizable landscapes inhabited by strongholds, cities, dungeons, monster lairs, etc. Generally, I prefer to let D-n-D (or S-n-W) be what it is - a game about exploration with treasure as one of its primary objectives. Given that notion and the high power level one must find in Hell to make it a challenge for high level parties, it was a given that there was going to be a LOT of treasure in the Underworld.

In some ways, this makes sense. Gold, silver, gems, etc. are dug out of the ground, and the ancients sometimes combined their deities of the underworld and wealth for this reason. But on the other hand, it seems a bit silly. Why does Orcus need gold pieces? Or, more to the point, why does Orcus value gold pieces? Okay, maybe because money is power, but in the case of demon lords, hit dice and spell-like abilities are also power.

So, I wanted to set up an alternate economy for Hell based on souls and the value therein ... but I also wanted a Hell that could be navigated and enjoyed by treasure-hungry PCs. What to do? Well, I decided to combine the concepts.

The demon lords want souls, and since Nod's version of Hell is at least vaguely based on medieval notions of the architecture of Creation, I would assume that they would value different souls the way mortals value different autographs. In other words, the soul of Julius Caesar is worth more in Hell than the soul of Jack the Plowboy.

Inspired by the concept of souls paying a copper to Charon for passage into Hell, I decided that souls that pass into Nod's Hell also bring a coin of commensurate value to their position in society at death. This coin eventually finds its way into the hands of the various demon lords and their minions and serves as a means of trade within Hell. To some degree, if you own the coin, you own the soul, and collecting golds and coppers would be a major pursuit of demon lords.

Each coin in Hell is impressed with the image its linked soul possessed in life - thus, if a PC comes across a coin in Hell with his mother's portrait on it, he knows that her soul passed through this dark realm after death. In general, the coinage of Hell is linked to souls as follows:

Copper = Common souls like normal folk and men-at-arms
Silver = The most skilled, handsome or manipulative of common folk, including most chaotic PC's who fall short of "the end game" of fiefs and strongholds
Electrum = Commoners raised into the lesser nobility or minor clergy
Gold = Nobles and high functionaries of the clergy
Platinum = Royals, Emperors, Patriarchs and High Priests

At one point I had thought about renaming the coins, but finally decided against it just in terms of the annoyance of record keeping. A gold piece is a gold piece, after all, to a merchant in Nomo. On the other hand, these coins did need be a little different from normal coinage to be interesting. Thus ...

1. Hellcoins cannot be melted down by anything less than the breath of an ancient red dragon or the churning fires of a volcano. Once melted down, they are fit for forging into magic weapons, but always implant a secret curse in these items.

2. Hellcoins are unlucky to those who hold them. Quantity doesn't matter - any Hellcoin in one's pocket gives them a -1 penalty to saving throws and enhances by a small amount "wandering misfortunes" like having a commode emptied on them or having the target of one's insults and jests turn out to be standing behind them, etc.

3. The holder of a Hellcoin can use it as a focus for speaking with its linked soul per the speak with dead spell.

4. Finally, a Hellcoin can be placed in the body of its' soul's previous owner and animate that body as a loyal, though sentient, zombie.


Image from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. You don't say as much, but you might want to consider some sort of attraction between coin, soul, and body. As much as I like the idea of someone desperately seeking a particular coin, I would think that without such an attraction in place it would be somewhat impractical to make use of the power of a particular coin.

    "Here's a gold hellcoin... but it's up to you to find the soul that actually makes it valuable" doesn't sound like a lot of fun.

    I suppose it could be abstracted, such that merely having the coin lets you drawn on some element of power from the soul, but it might be more fun to have them actually more proximate.

  2. This is an intriguing idea and somehow related to the idea of "periapts" or "amulets" in which higher demons keep their own souls ...

  3. Of course, Referees can do as they like, but I didn't want hordes of coins gained in Hell to turn into thousands of little magic items to bedevil poor Referees who chose to run a party through the hex crawl. The properties of the Hellcoins are, thus, meant to be more for interest and maybe useful as seeds for future adventures. I wanted the gold coin you find in Hell to be more useful as a gold coin than as a magic item.

  4. Also - you could just use speak with dead to ask the soul where they were currently residing in Hell, if you needed to specifically find the soul for some reason.

  5. Like it. Brings a whole new horror to the old Gypsy fortuneteller request that the querier "cross my palm with silver".

    The Tome series of fanworks posited that souls had an exchange value based on their utility as mana fonts/item creation resources. IIRC the going rate for a soul was level/HD^2 x 100 gp.

  6. You need to read Wraith: the Oblivion.

  7. These are great! sort of reminds me of Wayne Barlowe's Inferno, in which devils, odd gods and other horrors shape souls into other things for their own amusement. Using them as currency is very sly.


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