In today's Plane Above
excerpt, we explore one of the divine dominions. Perhaps no dominion is better known, or more feared by mortals, than the Nine Hells. And between Asmodeus’s schemes and the depredations of its residents, this infamy is well earned.
Welcome to Hell
A shimmering veil of red smoke parts, leaving your ship far above a barren, fire-blackened wasteland. Instantly, you are falling, much like the rebellious angels fell, and a lake of fire rushes toward you trailing smoke. This is the descent into the Nine Hells—a descent from which few return, let alone repeat—and your torments are only just beginning.
Planar adventurers who fall to this blasted surface can except a harsh, brutal ruin far beyond anything they know—and this is merely Avernus, the first of the Nine Hells. The deeper layers are deadlier.
A campaign to destroy devils and free the souls trapped in hell is the most straightforward path to lead characters into the Nine Hells, but such a goal is not at all easy to accomplish. The devils are entrenched, organized, and very numerous. Even though they indulge in jealousies and rivalries, they mobilize quickly to counter a common threat (such as a group of intrusive adventurers). For all but the most powerful adventurers, the key to surviving the Hells is to keep a low profile and muster through the schemes of the damned.
Asmodeus’s Fall and the Foundation of Hell
Long ago, Asmodeus was a great general in the army of a deity of law and good who ruled the dominion of Baator. By rights, this myth should start with the name of this master, the god who had originally elevated Asmodeus as an exarch. But the god’s name is lost; Asmodeus used his magic and influence to make sure that the original god of Baator is remembered only as “He Who Was,” an awkward name for an awkward god.
Asmodeus was the most powerful warrior exarch in service to his god, but over time Asmodeus’s methods became increasingly brutal. After another massacre in which innocents had fallen alongside enemies, there was a falling-out between Asmodeus and He Who Was. Asmodeus warned that relieving him of his duties would prove his master’s undoing, but the god of Baator was resolute: Asmodeus was thrown from his master’s palace along with all those who had followed in his brutal wake. At one stroke, the realm’s greatest warrior and his army were exiled. Because the god of Baator was soft and merciful, Asmodeus did not perish; instead, he suffered, stripped of his beauty, broken in mind and body, on the fields of Avernus. Perhaps He Who Was believed that Asmodeus would come to regret his pride and disobedience.
Asmodeus’s pride was greater than his guilt, however, and he and his followers grew into their new and broken forms. As Asmodeus suffered, he planned revenge against He Who Was and the other gods who had stood by and forgotten about his sacrifices during the Dawn War. Asmodeus waited until a grim time in the Dawn War when the gods appeared to be losing. He Who Was was partly to blame—he had no stomach for war, had exiled his most powerful general and army, and though he was a powerful god, he could not handle the brutal work of war.
Choosing his moment, Asmodeus rose up and slew his master. The god couldn’t save himself, but his dying curse trapped Asmodeus and all of Asmodeus’s followers in Baator. Those followers, who eventually would become devils, blamed Asmodeus for botching the job, but the situation turned to his advantage soon enough. Most of the gods cursed Asmodeus as a traitor, but many understood that he had cunningly rid the gods of a failed leader whose efforts seemed destined to lead to the ruin of all. Thus, while they overtly shunned the rebel exarch, some gods bargained secretly with Asmodeus, soliciting his aid in the war with the primordials, while other evil gods treated with him out of gratitude for slaying a self-righteous god who was just in the way.
For decades, the gods did not trust Asmodeus enough to release him from the Hells, which would allow him to claim the full divine power that had been released when he slew his overlord. Asmodeus claimed that he, and only he, could use that power to win the Dawn War for the gods. But the gods’ mistrust was warranted: Asmodeus was making overtures to the other side as well. He plotted with titans and giants in service to the primordials, striking bargains that would favor him if their side won the Dawn War.
The deities must have made the better offer, though they didn’t realize it at the time. The gods forged a pact of alliance with Asmodeus, granting him his former master’s divine power temporarily “until the primordials were vanquished.” Asmodeus assured them that he and his forces would annihilate the primordials quickly, and he would then give up his borrowed power. (He also inserted language into the contract that would provide for the preservation of Baator through the use of souls—and did not mention that those clauses were effective in perpetuity.)
Distracted by their fury at the primordials and their desperation to finish the war, the gods did not all muddle through the implications of the wording in Asmodeus’s pact. Some fell prey to his honeyed assurances.
Asmodeus has, of course, ruled the Nine Hells ever since.
Avernus, the Burning Wastes
Consisting of the entire blasted surface of Baator, the first layer of the Nine Hells is the largest and the first place most visitors ever see—and sometimes the last. Many have mistaken the surface realm for the softest of the Nine, but it is the most dangerous in many ways.
Much of the surface layer of the Hells is watched by vast camps of legion devil armies under the strict control of Bel and the Dark Eight. No invasion of hell by demons or angels has ever made it past Avernus, though vast stretches of badlands are drenched in the blood and gore of thousands of years of near-constant conflict. The Blood War (Manual of the Planes, p.89) between devils and demons might have ended or gone dormant, but the forces of Avernus haven’t relaxed.
The soul harvesters do excellent work in Avernus, since those souls condemned to the Nine Hells most often materialize on the top layer. The damned souls fall into the Lake of Despond (Manual of the Planes, p.99) or streak flaming out of the sky to break craters in the blackened ground. The “crater makers” are the fortunate ones. If their bodies are not found by the bearded devils and spinagons who hunt constantly for errant souls, they might return to life through the magic of the dominion before they can be captured and taken below to spend the rest of their lives and deaths in torment. Escape is unlikely, but a few last moments of painful freedom are beyond value.
Bel, Master of Avernus
The master of Avernus didn’t reach his position through carelessness or luck—he holds Avernus tightly considering the realm’s size, and his imp and spinagon spies are everywhere. Bel’s circle of pit fiend advisors, the Dark Eight, are extremely loyal to him and have been for centuries. Given that they would probably turn upon him at the first sign of serious weakness, Bel’s control remains absolute.
With such forces at his command, Bel could probably march against any of the other eight archdevils with some success, but unlike the other Lords of the Nine, he strangely has no further ambition or desire to displace one of the other lords. He likes his appointed task and wants nothing more than to remain in his position as sentry to the Hells and first general of its armies for all time. He is loyal first to Asmodeus, second to the Nine Hells in general, and third to himself.
Using Bel in the Game: Bel is a consummate general—cunning, calculating, and impossible to surprise. He is also a shrewd negotiator—one who keeps his promises to the letter and cares more about the letter than the spirit of the law. He is evil but not necessarily malevolent, enjoying inflicting pain but preferring to do his duty first and foremost. Nothing the characters do is likely to catch Bel off guard; if he has one weakness, however, it is his mistrust of and contempt for magic. Bel prefers the way of the sword and spear.
Devilish Motives and Adventures
The devils of the Nine Hells are motivated by several general forces, and these influences drive most adventures in the Hells. Discussed in Chapter 2 of Plane Above are the key components of what it means to be a devil, each followed by suggestions for related adventures for characters of all tiers.
Vengeance and Retribution (Hell Hath No Fury)
Devils are big on revenge—grudges are in their nature. Since Asmodeus first turned upon his forgotten master, the Nine Hells have been the realm of traitors and mutineers. Devils avenge slights made against them by gods, mortals, and (especially) their fellow devils—whether from offended pride or out of mere spite. Planar adventurers can be easily caught up in such feuds, or even be the target of such enmity themselves, whether immediately or at a future time.
Devils have a strong sense of fairness and measured response—an eye for an eye—but their understanding is far different from that of humans: They prefer to inflict as much retribution as they can in the name of grievances that are sometimes difficult to measure.
For instance, a mortal who banished a devil back to the Hells in a battle might be held responsible for physical damages, mental duress, and the insult to the devil’s pride, image, and self-confidence. Time, however, is not a good method of escape from infernal vengeance, because devils have notoriously long memories.
Adventures related to this theme could include:
Sins of the Fathers (heroic): A devil banished to the Hells a century ago by the ancestors of one or more of the characters has returned looking for revenge, either against its foes or the living family of those foes—the characters or their loved ones.
A Dish Served Cold (paragon): A devil nursing a grudge against the characters transports them to Cania for a confrontation, wounds them, and leaves them to freeze to death. The characters must regroup, figure out a way to escape the frozen realm, and find the culprit.
A Woman Scorned (epic): Glasya, the recently appointed ruler of Malbolge, has been making advances to one of her fellow Lords of the Nine—advances that have been rejected. Bristling with indignation, she has employed the characters to wreak her vengeance.