Hell Hounds: Fish or Fowl?

So OD&D didn’t have a whole lot of (what would later be come to be called variously) Outsiders, Celestials or Fiends.

When they did get added, it was tentative at first — hell hounds and separately things like succubi, and then six types of mystical and powerful entities. There’s a clear implication that the hell hounds are quasi-terrestrial; they pal around with fire giants.

So why did D&D make the hell hounds outsiders? I guess it’s the “hell” in the name, but it’s not like death dogs are undead, nor are “all hags fey”. I would guess something to do with summoning hell hounds, but then anything that leveraged that would also give access to the nightmare — that’s a potent trans-planar beastie; I wouldn’t want one spell to give access to both!

If you look at what they do, hell hounds are a lot like gargoyles. They’re a semi-mythological beast with a very visual behvior. The could very easily have been elementals, if it weren’t for their catchy and stupid name. It’s not like we’re hurting for fire-type elementals, but they’re somewhat more similar to azer and salamanders than they are horned devils and pit fiends.

One could even make them monstrosities (like their cousins, the Winter Wolf). That would also be a sensible change.

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Mordenkainen’s: Dwarves & Duergar, Gith, and the rest of the book

So, to start with: I don’t need two psychic dwarves, but D&D has two psychic dwarves, so I know I’m going to have problems.

I love dero as mind-flayer-twisted-abominations. But I really, really wish that Duergar could be sort of redcaps or nordic selfish dwarves or something — asshole dwarves because they’re just asshole dwarves. Exposure to the underdark, whatever. And I feel like this book struggles with that same problem; that the dwarves aren’t a very psychic chassis. The story plays with it a little, but it’s committed; duergar are bound up with mind flayers.

There’s some good themes here around “Dwarves see their works of art as their children — like, literally, they are closer to them than their flesh and blood, and also they’re pretty close to their flesh and blood”.

The rest of the book didn’t really impress me more than this (up to the monsters, which I don’t feel like reviewing but were good).

The gith had some good stuff; I don’t know lore well enough, but it states that the githzerai revolted against Gith claiming she was evil. Is that new? It also proposes a gith unification body, but I’m a little unclear how that could work, given the unified political nature of the githyanki. I love the Melnibonean character of that latter, and can see myself using Tu’narath (though christ it’s hard to say Tuna Wrath at the table…).

The halflings and gnomes are as easy to overlook as they’ve ever been. Nice roleplaying fluff, maybe?


Mordenkainen’s: Elves

As widely reported, the Corellon origin story is… well, it’s not capital-G Good. Chaotic Neutral, say. And Lolth, true to form, argues for structure and a coherent action to the benefit of all elves — Neutralish or even Lawfulish, albeit probably Evil. I can’t say I care much for their origin strife — it’s got a lot of moving parts and doesn’t interest me very much.

Elves are serially reincarnated and, as children, can remember their past lives. They use the Minbari defense as a reason why the elves don’t outbreed the humans, but (unlike Babylon 5), their stance on half-elves is distinctly wishy-washy. They do present “half-elves have human souls” as an option, but omit “half-elves have a fragment of an elven soul”. Kind of dark, but given the long-term views of elves, anything less and there’s no reason to get worked up about it.

I don’t much care for the elven whobegats — I’m sure it’s interesting that they have their own religion, but I won’t use most of it. Or, uh, read it. Skimming, ho!

I don’t have room in one campaign for both high elves and for eladrin. But during 4e I learned that I just do not like teleporting elves. But this presentation makes them less “mundane”, which does make the teleporting trick easier to swallow. Actually, I’m not even sure I have room in the same campaign for the high elf and half-elf. Given the hyper-magical eladrin, aren’t high elves just half-eladrin? Sure, they might not have literal human genetics, but like archetypically, they’re just fey with the mundane dial turned up? I would have liked a PHB that put “elf” front and center, and particularly the “half-elf” (flavor targeting wizard, to get in touch with their roots and meld native magic with mortal effort); it would relegate all the other flavor of fey to the extended section of the PHB, and frankly that would be fine by me, since by definition half-elves focus on the extra skills and languages longevity gives them.

Bleh. Wood elves are fine, great. A wood elf druid does everything I need. But high elves are in a weird place, and weirder now (I haven’t even gotten to their brainspace competition with gith!).

Arborea remains a cognitive collision with Faerie (which gets a namecheck) or “The Feywild” — as does Evermeet. I love the fading/journey west that it gives the elves, but we definitely have the same thing represented in multiple ways. All in all, this whole caught in a strange and self-contradictory place. It wants to have elves be “fey” (capricious, strange), but is stuck with them being the ~second most popular player race, with contradictory and poorly thought through fluff. And couldn’t the Demonweb Pits be in the Feydark, instead of the Abyss? It feels like such an accident that it would be located there; even Hades would make more sense (silent darkened halls roped in spiderwebs…).

As I see it, this whole thing could have been salvaged if the wars of the elven deities had happened in the other order.

First there is Corellon, who makes the eladrin on purpose. They’re somewhat fixed in form, because that’s what lets them be something other than the orgiastic torrent of creation that is Corellon, but they’re hyper-magical and not *very* fixed in form; seasons, dreamings, etc.

Then some of the proto-seldarine fall to warring amongst themselves. Lolth started it, further refining her cadre into the drow and fixing their forms. They’re all exiled when they lose.

Then-then, the battle between Corellon and Gruumsh, where Gruumsh wounds Corellon. The droplets of blood that fell on eladrin fix their forms into the elves, and Corellon is very sorry but he couldn’t fix that without destroying them. So he doesn’t.

Everyone does the things they needed to do, and in particular, the right people are guilty of the right things. Lolth is a traitor and invented something new, Corellon isn’t a giant abusive jackass, Eladrin are *actually* the first-born (as opposed to yet another adaptation leaving yet another ancient elf type out there!), etc.

And yet there’s still room for high-CR fey like LeShay and ancient hags; not all eladrin have to be immortal or the same age, and I am fine with the first ten generations being crazy powerful. Or whatever.

Okay, but: the section the raven queen and the shadar kai is amazing and I have no further critique. I’m using that directly.


Mordenkainen’s: Blood War

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is out now (D&D beyond!) and offline-tab-saving being what it is, I’m reading it on my flight from Zurich to Frankfurt (what even is my life?!).

I got through the Blood War chapter — surprisingly dry in my opinion, though a few little lore upsets.

I mostly enjoy them. Big changes I spotted included: Dispater is Ironman. Fierna and Belial’s order isn’t specified, so they can be creepy child + mommy instead of daddy/little incest triggers. There’s doubt over Glasya’s genetic lineage and Bensozia is explicitly dropped, so the only reference to the revolt in Hell occurs in Baalzebul’s entry. Baalzebul’s back in humanoid form, and has a pretty interesting “tell no lies/make no deals” thing. Lots and lots of details on Zariel, who has previously been underspecified, and more detail on majordomos for some of the more reclusive individuals.

The biggest change is that Asmodeus’ Ruby Rod went from a tool and possibly seed of evil, into a Primus-inflicted suicide-collar watchdog device. Bad change.

As always, the Abyss get to have more fun. Demonic incursions are a thing, though as usual there’s no sense of scale (“A demon prince might rampage across a world for a few days or weeks… [but that] doesn’t qualify as an incursion… It can take a few years for weaker demons to warp their environment, while changes begin to occur around the location of a demon prince in about a month.” — okay, so four weeks is the cutoff point?). I’m not just nit picking, and it’s not like I need precise rules here, but it really matters. Tons of ancient dungeons contain a 10×10 room containing a demon, or a 60×60 room containing a bunch of demons and a setpiece encounter. For, like, centuries. Demon princes left to their own devices trigger an incursion instantly (are an incursion!), and lemures left to their own devices take longer than recorded history, and everyone else is somewhere in between, on the scale of months to years.

There’s a nod towards adventure, but not a big one, in getting around. Portalling into the Abyss requires plane shifting in, locating a portal, and performing a(n unspecified) ritual there. There’s some ritual to unlock the doors to leave again, but apparently planar travel magic substitutes.

I skimmed it, but I believe most of the demonic lore matches OotA’s take on the same. In an edition so dedicated to shaking things up, it might have been nice to let the Demon Queen of Spiders leave the Abyss (let her lair in the Feydark or whatever you call the Underdark in Faerie!), but alas, tradition…


OD&D Fiends

My research on “when the devil got added” has really kept me interested. In the same vein as Grognardia’s [O]D&D is always right principle (depending on cultural mileu, you might find the same practice applied to Star Wars makes more sense 🙂 ).

Oh god, I’ve become James Maliszewski (on a time delay, with lower quality).

OD&D: The White Box + Supplements

Anyway: reading through the white box + supplements, the early game is definitely still taking shape. Lots of undead and monstrosities, greek myth creatures, even elementals.

Book IV Greyhawk introduces the Hell Hound (alogside the blink dog, rust monster, stirge, and owl bear — it’s a greatest hits album!). It also introduces the “king of lawful dragons”, the platinum dragon, and the “queen of chaotic dragons”, the chromatic dragon. These are our first “outsiders” — still no archons, angels or otherwise.

Book V Blackmore adds a lot of dinosaurs and other giant beasts, but nothing of note.

And then: Book VI, Eldritch Wizardry. Now we’re coooking! Psionics! Druid characters! Demons, consisting of Succubi, types I through VI, Orcus and Demogorgon! Mind Flayers! It’s interesting to note here that all of the non-demon monsters have psychic powers, and sothis presentation looks like something of its time, airbrushed onto a van. That’s not an insult; we’re looking here at monsters of karma and spirit. Still no angels. All demons are presented with fixed attributes (they have such a form, with such attributes) but also not (yet) named. Curious. And yet, those are the demons that have stuck with us!

AD&D: The Devil’s Game

Here in the MM1 we get the greatest hits of the OD&D books, plus a few extras. Demons, Devils, Hell Hounds, Imps & Quasits, Night Hags, Nightmares.

Sorting some of them, we get:

Horned Devil 5+5HD (but: a greater devil, by the book!)

Succubus: 6HD (or Erinyes, 6+6)

Type I: 8HD Vrock (or Barbed Devil)

Type II: 9HD Hezrou (or Bone Devil)

Type III: 10HD Glabrezu (or Efreeti)

Type IV: 11HD Nalfeshnee (or Ice Devil)

Type V: 7+7 Marilith (?!)

Type VI: 8+8 Balor

Pit Fiend (13 HD)

I’m really curious about those rankings. We’d expect Type IV to have ~48hp, and Type V to have ~31hp. Type IV are not affected by non-magical weapons, so they share that trait. I guess the note that type V and above aren’t destroyed by being killed is the point here? Or to balance their relative offensive superiority with a lower attack bonus, since 1E uses hit dice to derive attack matrices? But it’s quite a strange inversion at the top level. The same thing happens around the horned devil (a greater devil, but an easy target, weaker than the barbed devil by HD anyway). Spells no doubt make up for some of the difference.

Still no angels, archons or other good-aligned spiritual entities except for the Couatl, Lammasu and Shedu.

It takes until the Monster Manual II in this edition to get devas (astral, monadic, and movanic), planetars, solars et al. This is also where we get a whole host of classic- and not-so-classic monsters of all types; modrons, spined devils, many more demon lords and archdevils, etc.


Which came first, the devil or the demon?

D&D’s fiends are defined in a completely self-referential way, with 40 years of legacy on top of them that doesn’t match a whole lot of real-world culture or even necessarily roles in the game. It makes everything harder for everyone.

You could populate lake-of-brimstone hell with hellhounds, efreeti, fire giants, and salamanders. We don’t; we need something more supernatural on top of that. Thus the fiends. But real-world cultures use “fiend” not so differently from the word “monster”. D&D has always treated each named thing as a separate entity, so that ghost and specter and wraith and apparition and so forth are each a separate stat block. Usually it’s charming, but with “demon” and “devil” it created entire universes opposed to each other with no linguistic or cultural hints at all.

Some of this is just early-on choices. A quick skim of BD&D shows only one creature we currently consider a fiend: the Hellhound. And OD&D is the same; Monsters & Treasure doesn’t even have the hell hound. We first get fiends in Eldritch Wizardry (alongside the druid and psionics), demons only. I don’t even object; they’re properly presented as templates there (“Type I demon” instead of “Vrock”), and the Demon Lords have always been more variable and exciting than the (more restricted) Archdevils. So the demon/devil split is 1e’s fault.

So what does 1e say?

On demons: Type I (Vrock) demons and Type II (Hezrou) demons will fight at the drop of a hat. Type VI demons are named individuals, and Balor is a specific one of them. So there’s nothing a-priori that says we can’t have all-demons fighting all-demons always, and that the balor represents a top-level unique demon strength.

Demons (and devils) have a laundry list of other planes they can visit — those alignment-associated with their home plane. The text says demons and devils resemble each other (… I should say so!).

Manes are the dead which go to the 666 layers of the demonic abyss. But the most evil are sent to Gehenna. So there’s some wiggle room.

Dispater & Erinyes live on the second plane.

Barbed devils populate the third and fourth planes.

Geryon & Bone Devils live on the fifth plane, and prefer cold to heat.

Malebranche live on the sixth and seventh plane, presumably serving Baalzebul.

Ice devils live on the “frigid eighth plane of hell”. Implying it is the only such frigid plane.

Pit fiends live in the “lowest” plane of hell.

This setup is a lot less… flabby… than it will later become. Alas!


Genies as Genius Loci

It’s pretty straightforward to use genies as the spirits of a place — they have a variety of magical powers, they have strong elemental affinities, and they have enough strange powers that it seems reasonable.

Many terrains work for the elemental genies we have now (see below), but a few don’t. They’ve got an asterisk. And a full workup.

  • Arctic: Cold Djinn (cold immunities instead of lightning, thunder)
  • Coastal: Marid, land-based genies
  • Desert: Efreet, Djinni
  • Forest: Forest Genie*
  • Grassland: Djinn, Urbane Genie
  • Hill: Dao
  • Mountain: Dao, Djinn, Efreet
  • Swamp: Swamp Genie*
  • Underdark: Dao
  • Underwater: Marid
  • Urban: Urbane Genie*

Forest/Swamp Genie

Secretive and meddling genies from the Feywild, the race’s true name is xana. In their natural form they are green of skin, tall of stature, and striking appearance. They prize objects which celebrate their deeds and weave them into their eclectic dress. When a xana flies, its lower body transforms into a column of flower petals.

Masters of Root and Branch. Xana rule twisted woods and fens from a bower of living trees, and claiming the surrounding area as their “garden”. Even the xana’s buildings are made from living wood and reflect their master’s mood. They have an eccentric sense of aesthetics towards their gardens and any visitors to them.

Meddlesome Loners. A visitor to a xana’s garden might be asked to play the part of a topiary or a songbird — captive but beloved — as easily as a flowing river or a migratory bird — a temporary guest. Trespassers in a xana’s garden can expect to be interrogated by the xana and to be punished with curses, transformations, kidnapping or a geas. Exceptional visitors can expect the granting of a boon, however.

Fickle Neighbors. A settlement with a neighboring xana will accrue strange taboos and rituals; avoiding the woods except to celebrate the birthday of a particular tree, giving gifts of cheese and clothing to migrating birds, or dressing children in particular colors and cuts of garments. They hope to placate the xana and draw its good fortune.

XANA

Large fey, neutral
Armor Class 15 (natural armor)
Hit Points 163 (13d10 + 91)
Speed 40 ft., fly 30 ft.

STR 18(+4)
DEX 12(+1)
CON 24(+7)
INT 16(+3)
WIS 15(+2)
CHA 16(+3)
Saving Throws Int +7, Wis +6, Cha +7

Damage Resistances cold, fire; bludgeoning, piercing
Senses darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 12
Languages Sylvan
Challenge 11 (7,200 XP)

Fey Ancestry. The xana has advantage on saving throws against being charmed. Magic cannot put the xana to sleep.

Fey Demise. If the xana dies, its body disintegrates in a shower of delicate flower petals, leaving behind only equipment the efreeti was wearing or carrying.

Innate Spellcasting. The xana’s innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 15, +7 to hit with spell attacks). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:
At will: detect magic, goodberry, speak with plants
3/day: bestow curse, blight, plant growth, tongues
1/day each: conjure elemental (shambling mound only), gaseous form, geas, invisibility, plane shift, polymorph

Natural Step. The xana and each creature it chooses within 30 feet has a +10 bonus to Dexterity (Stealth) checks, ignores difficult and hazardous terrain due to plants or stones, and cannot be tracked except by magical means. Such creatures leave behind no tracks or other traces of passage.

Actions

Multiattack. The xana makes 2 claw attacks.

Claw. Melee Weapon Attack: +8 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 11 (2d6 + 4) piercing damage plus 7 (2d6) poison damage. If the target is a Medium or smaller creature, it is grappled (escape DC 16). Until this grapple ends, the target is restrained and takes 7 (2d6) piercing damage and 7 (2d6) poison damage at the start of each of is turns. Until this grapple ends, the xana can’t use this claw (the xana has two claws).

Animate Plants. Up to four plants the xana can see within 60 feet of it magically sprout thorns and animate under the xana’s control. Each animated plant is an object with the xana’s statistics, no movement or actions, and 20 hit points. When the xana uses multiattack on its turn, it can use each animated plant to make one additional claw attack. An animated plant can grapple one creature of its own but can’t make attacks while grappling. An individual animated plant remains animate so long as it has hit points and the xana maintains concentration (as if concentrating on a spell).

Urbane Genie

The cosmopolitan and people-loving Houri genies appear wherever settlements enable a large enough leisure class. They go by many names; zeitgeist, lares compital, tutelary deity, and of course houri. They live in their cities traveling among the people, and their personalities fluctuate with those of their populace. They dress like a rockstar and when they fly, their lower bodies leave glitter in their wake. A houri isn’t happy unless it is the center of attention.

Vox Populi. The halls of a Houri are richly appointed and sumptuous. They expand trade and industrial networks across planes to seek out new marvels. Houri calculate their every move to enhance their status and their city’s status. They regard the individual citizens somewhat as a queen regards her worker bees; individually as extensions of their own will, but at the same time utterly dependent on their collective mood.

Egotistical Schemers. The power base of a houri quickly works itself into politics as a power player, but will rarely defeat all of its rivals: to whom would the houri brag of its accomplishments? To this end, a secure houri begins to foment rebellion against itself — and then count-rebellion, and counter-counter rebellion. Anyone who can pierce the veil to the center and discover the houri can at least earn its attention.

Fickle Aesthetes. The tastes of a houri are for novelty and quality, and regard mortals who are sources of these things positively. However, their streak of self-love and need for adoration can cause them to turn on an ally in an instant, making them extremely unreliable.

HOURI

Large fey, chaotic neutral
Armor Class 17 (natural armor)
Hit Points 147 (14d10 + 70)
Speed 30 ft., fly 60 ft.

STR 21(+5)
DEX 17(+3)
CON 20(+5)
INT 15(+2)
WIS 15(+2)
CHA 20(+5)
Saving Throws Int +6, Wis +6, Cha +9
Condition Immunities charmed, frightened

Senses darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 12
Languages Common, telepathy 120 ft.
Challenge 11 (7,200 XP)

Urban Demise. If the houri dies, its body disintegrates into street noise and litter, leaving behind only equipment the houri was wearing or carrying.

Innate Spellcasting. The houri’s innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 17, +9 to hit with spell attacks). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:
At will: alter self, detect magic, detect thoughts
3/day: fabricate, mirror image, tongues
1/day each: charm monster, gaseous form, invisibility, major image, plane shift

Actions

Multiattack. The houri makes 3 scimitar attacks. It can substitute blinding gaze of binding voice each for one attack.

Scimitar. Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 12 (2d6 + 5) slashing damage.

Blinding Gaze. The houri targets one creature it can see within 30 feet of it. If the target can see the houri, the target must succeed on a DC 17 Constitution saving throw against this magic or go blind until the end of its next short rest. A target who has not yet failed the saving throw by 5 or more may repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success. If the target’s saving throw is successful, or if the effect ends on it, the target is immune to the Blinding Gaze of all houri for 1 hour.

Binding Voice. The houri targets one creature it can see within 30 feet of it. The target must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or follow the Houri’s command on its next turn, as the spell.