What the Hell…?

(another victim of the wordpress gods. You’d think I’d learn: my foe is implacable and voracious, so I shall scatter my thoughts; alas no, they remain as vulnerable and delectable as ever.)

D&D has a history with fiends. In the bad old days, Patricia Pulling pointed the Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons group squarely at the hobby, and the then-publisher TSR reacted. They pulled satanic, diabolic, demonic, daemonic, fiendish, abyssal, and other dark mentions from the hobby. There were no devils; there were the horned and fiery Baatezu; there were no demons; there were the multifarious Tanar’ri. With no satanic names (fiend, demon, devil), surely it was safe to get back in the water? Probably, but that’s not my point.

Why did they need to dodge the words demon and devil separately? Surely a single then-nonce word like Abyssal would have done, and they could have then continued happily? Well, as a parable for the self-destroying nature of evil and as an exercise in filling in the blanks left by the ninefold alignment system and seventeenfold great wheel, D&D’s big fiends are divided.

In the corner of tyranny, soul-contracts and (political) corruption, we have the Devils (Baatezu, then back to devils; inhabitants of Baator, the Nine Hells; adjective form “infernal” or “diabolic”). They’ve always been lawful evil, but I believe their focus on tyranny exclusively to be a gradual development as we needed to distinguish them from…

… the partisans of destruction, the unwashed hordes and bringers of plagues, the Demons (Tanar’ri, then back to demons; inhabitants of the Abyss; adjective form “abyssal” or “demonic”). They’ve always been chaotic, but they’re the ones with Demon Lords, so I think they’ve been searching for a definition for a while. 4e tried to make them the more elemental enemies, but 5 walked that back. They’re just the Other Flavor of Fiend, except for…

… all the other flavors of fiend! There’s lots: the daemonic yugoloth, the rakshasa, the night hag, and these days the succubus. The fact that so many escape this particular dichotomy tells me that the old hierarchies aren’t needed much, and I can maybe blend what we’ve got into a more pleasing mixtuure for myself.

I think our fiends have lost their organizational principle. The Moorcockian battle of Law versus Chaos is undercut by D&D’s celestials, since we’re clearly trying to watch the lesser of two evils bat it out. Neither side does a good job of developing its thesis; the lawful evil devils seek to conquer and subjugate, but there are several not completely dysfunctional settlements within their grasp, and they’re not, like, Borg-themed. They don’t stamp out individuality, they don’t geas everyone down to the smallest peasant, they don’t have the signs of their tyranny writ upon them: the PG nature of the game prevents them from reaching their Bad End capabilities. The demons, too, are destructive, but measure them against even the PCs: no diseases, no curses, no taint.

I need new and better factions. First, let’s look at what we’ve got.

Note that all demons can summon additional demons as an action. It’s pretty much a faction ability (“I call my same-typed guards. Guards! Guards!”) and while I don’t oppose it, it doesn’t enter into my evaluations of the types below. They stand or fall on their own, since if i put a fire elemental on that summoning table, it wouldn’t make that monster’s type feel all that different.

The Demons
I got on this topic while examining this type first; I was trying to figure out how to use my demons collectively as a force in my campaign, and came up empty. There are a few common core traits which are shorthand for Demon: a resistance to cold, lightning, and fire; an immunity to poison; truesight and telepathy; and for the higher level types, magic resistance, mundane weaponry resistance, and teleportation as an action. Of those, the truesight, telepathy, and teleportation read most as magical (I’ll call them the default panoply below); the others are tack-on abilities for many high level foes.

Balor: This isn’t a demon; I don’t see anything here for a paladin to smite. Ignoring the default panoply, this is basically a dragon: it’s elementally typed, it does a ton of damage and withstands a ton of damage, it can fly. There’s nothing wrong with a high level foe of this sort, but it has no moral weight, and since I assume the PCs are going to meet it head on, it’s just a straight beater foe. It’s an expy for the Lord of the Ring’s Balrog, and it falls down there for me, too; where’s its cloud of smoke and shadow; where’s its connection to the maia? If I were to strip the telepathy and tell you it was a Cinderstorm Elemental, would you doubt me?

The one cool thing about the Balor is that that’s actually supposed to be some guy’s name. Balor, Errtu, Chare’en, Wendonai, Baalbisan, Axithar, Badrazel: you can just enumerate the number of instances of this time. Cool idea. Works better for the more-explicitly finite Pit Fiend, though. Sorry Balor. Sucks to be you.

Barlgura: I think this used to be spelled hyphenated, Bar-lgura — except the font was such that I couldn’t tell if that was an L or an I. Much better as one word in smallcaps. Is it a fiend? Without a doubt: it can cast illusions, it can disguise itself; this is a creature that can infiltrate and sow some chaos. I can easily see an order of clerics declaring them anathema for the damage they do the social fabric, kidnapping children and dragging them down to hell. But are they demons? I don’t know: if we call them Ape-Demons I guess I’m okay with it, though.

Chasme: I’m a little split, honestly. The Chasme (“Mosquito demon”) is definitely a disease vector with its health-weakening probiscis, and it can do the exorcist “crawling-on-the-ceiling” thing. So yeah, no cleric is going to be a fan of these; they’re fiends. But they’re so close to something like a locust demon — spawn of Apollyon — that I’m having a hard time not slotting them under devil, which is where I want to put most of the monsters that feel connected to the Christian tradition. Maybe it’s the diabolic focus on subjugation that pulls that in?

Dretch: Everyone’s gotta have a weak workhorse monster, and this is one whose only superpower is to fart. I don’t have a problem with them as such, but I also think you could drop them and use the advice “the abyss is filled with zombies and ghouls and ghasts” in their place and nobody would blink. So sure, they can stay, but their niche is just stupidly small and I can’t see myself using their stats except as a shortcut.

Glabrezu: I have no idea what these guys are actually for at a table, but they’re okay in my book. They’re grabby, their spell list is all about dictating engagement (darkness, dispel magic, confusion?); they only really fall down because they’ve got a “tempt with power and wealth” story hook, but no ability to deliver on it. And really, who would trust them to do so? They need to be able to cast Nystul’s magic aura so that they can sell fake magical items; I still don’t know what I want to do with their body plan but I don’t love it. D&D doesn’t need more spider demons, but in some ways that body plan might work well as a tempter/corruptor; alternatively, I just suck it up and deal.

Goristro: This is demon-aligned because the demon team needed a big siege monster minotaur thing for Baphomet. There’s nothing demonic in its stat block — it doesn’t even have the telepathy or teleport that I placed in the high-level standard panoply. It’s just a monstrosity aligned with the abyss; no cleric is going to declare this thing anathema any more than they’ll declare the tarrasque the same.

Hezrou: How long has the slaad been eating this toad-demon’s lunch? My problem with it is that if I told you it was an Abyssal Ghoul, you’d have no way to argue with me save its type. Does have telepathy. Not enough to save it. But curiously, by saying “Abyssal Ghoul”, I’ve basically underscored demon, since Abyssal is their adjective. But in a game that didn’t have that split, it’d be undead under that rubric, so… meh?

Manes: Didn’t we already see this with Dretch? Substitute with a zombie without loss of generality. Perfectly fine, but pointless, except inasmuch as D&D’s type system forces fiend or undead, manes or zombie. Drop it, and fill the lower planes with the souls of the damned as nature intended.

Marilith: I love the marilith as a monster. Tough, six-armed, snaky lords (ladies?) of war. The only real problem is my ongoing complaint: this could be a monstrosity like the medusa and you’d never know. If I said that yuan-ti, medusae, naga, and marilths formed a faction, it would make more sense than their current placement. And in fact, I might do that.

Nalfeshnee: These are so nearly not even a fiend to me. The only thing that saves them is their horror nimbus and that they’re the first to get the truesight/teleport panoply. On that nimbus: I’m not sure why it’s explicitly a visual aura, but it’s just oddball enough to keep them in the running as something a paladin might smite. Challenge 13 also has the ultroloth: stiff competition, and they don’t measure up.

Quasit: Another victim of the fiendish completion fetish, the quasit is the chaotic imp. I like the way they fit as familiars, I like that they don’t do sleep poison, I like that they can turn invisible; the scare is gravy atop that. A+, would smite again.

Shadow Demon: It’s a quasi humanoid quasi shadow that does damage based on fear (since it’s psychic, not necrotic). A very welcome addition to the stable; A+, would smite again, definitely a demon.

Vrock: Nothing at all says it in their stat block, but I’ve always imagined these to be spirits of disease (to be fair, they are described as unclean). It’s the vulture heads and the spores ability. As editions have gone by, these guys have gotten whittled down; as the canonical type I demon (“earliest we’d usually encounter discounting the quasit, manes, and dretch, who are kind of trash”) they used to be the go-to to slap adventure specific abilities on, and so had a bunch of other things like the dance of ruin. Happy to see them go, frankly. A great demon.

Yochlol: A demon because Lolth is the demon-queen-of-spiders so surely she needs demonic handmaidens? A great demon, though: shapechanges, reads thoughts, turns into toxic mist; I actually should go back and retrofit my Belker to use the same phrasing as the yochlol’s mist form, because it’s just better. Anyway, though the path this took to demonhood is silly, it’s certainly a fiend.

Quick Recap: Glabrezu, Quasit, Shadow Demon, Vrock, and Yochlol can stay. Barlgura, Chasme, Nalfeshnee, I’ve got my eye on you. Balor, Dretch, Goristro, Hezrou, Manes, Marilith; go find a real job (… in some other type that works better for your skills). As a humorous aside, the shadow demon and yochlol aren’t even open source; neither are the barlgura nor the chasme. So if you were to stick to purely open source stuff in publication, you’d only have 4 demons left.

The Devils
Devils, partisans of conformity and law, right? Wrong. They come in so many flavors as a type, and while they’ve got a hierarchy, to my eyes it looks looser than the demonic equivalent. The promotion/demotion mechansim is supposed to force fealty which underscores their corrupt nature, but to my eyes just looks like a sensible mechanic, no judgement. One of my favorite devils is the spined devil; it is also the only one not to be open sourced. Infinite pain.

Every devil has devil’s sight (super darkvision, but weakened truesight); resist cold and unsilvered mundane weaponry, immunity to fire and poison, and magic resistance (of course). But as a type, they tend to do well at having story-placement abilities, to whit:

Barbed devil: Made out of knives, and can throw fire. I don’t ask for much, this feels fiendish to me.

Bearded devil: It’s probably just my damage, but I don’t like this monster. Their “foul beard” thing doesn’t do it, I don’t like their art, there’s no good reason their glaive should cause bleeding or their beard should stent healing. They fit just fine as devils, they work, but I never use them for story reasons. A “legion devil” would be a much better fit for their story role, to me.

Bone devil: A little too straightforward to my taste, the bone devil feels like it should have been a demon: it’s all about id and destruction. Why does it still get to be a fiend at all? Optics. It’s harrd to slot that picture into any other type.

Chain devil: A+ would smite again. Faces of the dead, animate chains? Pathfinder turned this into a whole monster race of hellraiser-type cenobites, and it’s easy for me to see why.

Erinyes: I’m unsold. They’re the hellknights and the closest thing we have to fallen angels, but they’re getting by soleley on their optics. They can’t be “lawful evil celestials” because the book says that type is fixed by where you’re from, but it’s pretty tautological. I love the slot they fill, I just don’t think they have the tools currently to fill it well.

Horned Devil: It’s got a pitchfork! Horns! Wings! Tail! Throws fire! Canonical devil.

Ice Devil: This guy’s a bug for some reason. It can wall of ice because it’s an ice bug. It has a spear that chills, sometimes. I just don’t see why this creature is a devil. It could just as easily be our missing winter elemental, it could be some fey prince of frost; I know it’s a little unfair to step back from the stats like this, but I just don’t see what this guy is for. The description makes it hail from Stygia and Cania — it’s a fiend because it’s from a lower plane, and it’s cold typed because it’s from a cold place, but all in all it’s another monster that (like the demonic balor) feels like it could have been a dragon without hurting much of anything.

Imp: The canonical little fiendish jerk. Shapechange, a damaging (not condition-inflicting) sting, invisibility, serves as a familiar. Straightforward and fine. Even has some skills.

Lemure: I feel like we went through this with the dretch and the manes. It’s a low level trash monster. This one’s so bad that it’s actually challenge 0. You’re only going to use them in mobs, and in the mobs where you use them they’re basically scenery.

Pit fiend: A fear aura, innate spellcasting which is fire-based, a poisonous bite, fiery weapons. It doesn’t have teleportation, it doesn’t have manipulation: it’s just a hitter. Earlier I made fun of the palette-swapped balor for basically being the same thing, but here I’m less bothered; while it doesn’t have enough spells to truly feel like a commander of hell’s powers, it’s got something.

Spined devil: Another one that gets by because of its story role. It has wings and spikes and carries a tiny polearm and flings spikes at people. It’s the world’s smallest manticore. But it’s a sort of fleshy gargoyle, and I respect that.

Quick Recap: I only really put the gelugon, erinyes and lemure on notice. The pit fiend is weak but okay, and I don’t like the bearded devil myself. 
Next: How I’ll run my fiends.

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About lackhand

I was born in 1984 and am still playing games, programming computers, and living in New York City. View all posts by lackhand

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