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3 Questions: Oublivae
Spotlight Interview
Bart Carroll

The Demonomicon represents Iggwilv the Witch Queen’s primary repository of demonic knowledge, drawn from a multitude of years spent plumbing the hidden depths of the Abyss and from her personal interactions with the demon lords themselves. Releasing this month, the Demonomicon offers a glimpse of this knowledge, detailing the game's most villainous creatures: demons of the Abyss, demons of the world (including such terrors as ixitxachitls, incubi, and wendigos), and—of course—demon lords.


Who She Is...

Wizards of the Coast: Oublivae emerges as a new demon lord—whose very names hints at oblivion and oubliettes (which also describe her realm). As Oublivae's creator, who is and how did her creation come about?

Steve Townsend: The opening sentences of the entry I submitted sum Oublivae up only in the most general terms: "She is called the Angel of the Everlasting Void, the Demon Monarch of the Barrens, and the Queen of Desolation. She stalks the empty wastelands, lurks amongst abandoned buildings and toppled ruins, and haunts the trackless seas and the starry void between planes and worlds."

That's a very broad overview. More specifically, Oublivae is a demonic entity of two defining, yet contrasting, aspects—a horrific monster and a majestic empress, a being shrouded in mystery. Every characteristic of Oublivae hints at a darker, more sinister origin, and the monster’s name suggests her mission: total oblivion. Perhaps it suggests her true origin as well.

The Monster: Oublivae is the monstrous demon of emptiness, the void, the wild ruined and lonely places where civilization holds no sway. Her (or its) desire is to divide all who stand together, isolate them, and savor their terror as they flee… only to die horrific deaths alone, helpless and without hope. Oublivae is a savage monster that decapitates her foes (snatching them and tearing their heads from their shoulders with perfect pointed white teeth) after hunting them down on all fours and/or impaling them through the middle with the spear-like end of her tail.

The Empress: However, Oublivae also bears the unblemished regal countenance of a fey queen who knows the secrets of a billion civilizations and relishes the telling of their ends. Often the huge demoness has been seen holding court amongst the ruins of some keep, lounging upon the broken gatehouse as if it were a throne, its two towers rests for her long-clawed hands. Those who treat with her, flatter her, and do her a service can gain considerable knowledge (and even live to pass it on).

The assignment: Oublivae came about when Mike (Mearls) needed a new demon lord for Demonomicon. I'd just finished working with Mike on Monster Manual 3, where I'd designed the banderhobb, catoblepas, kraken, mimic, nymph, and yeti entries for him. Perhaps it was something in that menagerie that caused him to assign this new demon lord to me, I'm not sure—all I could think at the time was how unworthy I felt to be given such an honor. His only direction was that it had to be female, and the rest was up to me.

The concept: With the weight of the entire D&D mythos hanging over my head, I went through every D&D demon resource I could find. The most useful was the list of demon lords included in Hordes of the Abyss. But alas, the list was as discouraging as it was helpful. I'd come up with a number of ideas for demon lords, but looking over the list I encountered a significant deal of overlap. And if I was going to do this thing—if I was going to create a major villain for D&D—it had to be as original as I could possibly make it. It couldn't overlap with other demon lords and it couldn't overlap with gods, devils, or primordials.

But after going through the whole list in search of some horrendous subject, influence, or domain to make my demon the lord over, I was a little distraught. The most blatantly wicked stuff seemed to have already been done, some had been taken multiple times (look up all the demon lords having to do with some aspect of poison, for example), and many seemed all too specific ("Nobody expects Asima the Unanticipated, Demon Lord of Ill Surprises! Its weapon is surprise! Surprise and fear! Its two weapons are surprise and fear...").

Just as it seemed inevitable I'd be creating Geoff the Demon Lord of Biscuits, I took a moment to delve into my own primal fears and tried to recall things that had at one time freaked me out or disturbed me. In college I had meditated long on such fears while dreaming up a Ravenloft campaign. After the first (exceptionally creepy) session, I was moving a table with Matt Buchanan (one of the players) when it slipped from Matt’s hands and fell to the floor. Lowell Kempf (another player) was dozing on the couch after the session. As soon as the table hit the floor, Lowell woke up suddenly, freaked out of his mind. He leapt to his feet, teeth gritted, eyes all bugged out, and he hurled a chair at us before we were able to get him to wake up! Back then, primal fear had proved a good place to start when conjuring this stuff from the depths of the subconscious. And primal fear turned out to be the key.

The primal fear that struck me was the fear of the abandoned, desolate, lonely places. It's a shade subtler than the wicked horrors some of the other demon lords represent, but in my estimation desolation can be exceptionally chilling, and it can stay with you. In fact, it’s practically a requirement for a horror movie: the characters are isolated in desolate wilderness, in deep space, underground, beneath the sea, high in the mountains, in the ruins of an abandoned house, ancient burial ground, etc, etc, etc.

The primal fear that inspired this concept came from a time I was lost in a nature preserve as a child. My sister and I were separated from our parents for a time and there was no one around to help us. We didn't know which way to go, and in all directions there seemed to be nothing but empty, desolate wilderness. As time went by, a gradual feeling of dread began to creep over me, and I remember the terror that set in when I began to believe we were lost for good, without hope of recovery. We called out, but there was no answer. We weren't sure whether to stay put or start searching and end up becoming more and more lost. At various times I've experienced this dread again—on Appalachian back roads late at night with the car running on empty, or in the middle of the desert—places where, if you get stuck or lost, you could wander for a long while before finding your way back or ever finding help. When you're suddenly lost and isolated in some desolate place without the magic of cell phones/GPS or any hope for help, every sound, movement, and shadow can take on new and threatening significance in the struggle for survival. Algernon Blackwood understood this feeling of primal terror in his short story, The Wendigo:

“The bleak splendours of these remote and lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with the sense of his own littleness. That stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless and terrible, rose out of these far blue woods swimming upon the horizon, and revealed itself. He understood the silent warning. He realized his own utter helplessness. Only Defago, as a symbol of a distant civilization where man was master, stood between him and a pitiless death by exhaustion and starvation.”

The primal fear I latched onto came from the quiet, empty desolation that exists outside the places we know—the places where, if we fell into a dark pit, there would be no one to hear our cries (screams), no one to come to our aid, no one to discover our bones or ever learn what became of us. Trackless wilderness, absence of civilization, emptiness, ruins, nothingness, oblivion... all of these could be summarized in one all-encompassing word: desolation.

From the very first e-mail to Mike Mearls explaining the concept:

The demoness I'm working on is:

--(name), Demon Queen of the Barrens,
and Angel of the Everlasting Void--

She is the demon lord of empty, barren places—not just deserts, trackless oceans, and endless plains—but also the places that have been abandoned.

Don't worry, "angel" is something of a misnomer. People who know the name have automatically justified her with a mythology; they say she was an angel who fell to the Abyss. This probably isn't true, but you know how people make assumptions when they hear something (side note: in my bulezau research, I discovered this link, which pretty much tells us that all associations with goat heads, pentacles, Baphomet, and all that has no basis in anything credible whatsoever; maybe you knew this, but I did not).

Anyway, "angel of the void" refers to the way she appears to travelers lost in the wilderness, at sea, in the astral sea, anywhere in the cosmos, etc. They think they have found a helping hand or some friendly part of civilization, but it turns out to be a mirage, an empty ruin, or one of her demons taunting them and leading them further into empty, barren places before killing them. That's what "angel" refers to. She doesn't have anything to do with devils as far as I know.

As I worked my way around the name of this Demon Queen of the Barrens, I stumbled a bit, and I owe endless thanks to the genius of Brian R. James for saving me from colossal embarrassment with the following exchange:

Steve Townshend: At any rate, I hope to have most of the demon lord entry tonight for "Oublive, Demon Queen of the Barrens..." unless Mike hates it.

Brian R. James: Why did a picture of a plump demonic olive pop into my head? :-)

Steve Townshend: Oops. Maybe I should rename her "Your PC is Dead." That might evoke the image I'm trying for in a stronger sense…

Seriously, maybe I should spell it "Oublivae" instead.

Thus came the name “Oublivae,” a name that suggests oblivion, oubliettes, obliteration, nothingness, the void, the forgotten.

Once I'd seized upon that “desolation” concept, I knew I'd found precisely what I was looking for and everything began to click together. Oublivae's habit of decapitating her foes brought to mind savage headhunter and cannibal tribes dwelling in remote areas far distant from civilization. Thinking further on that, I asked Mike if I could bring wendigo into the book, because to me wendigo signified everything about the bleak horrors of the empty wilds that could drive rational beings to cannibalism, and thus would be the absolute perfect trademark demon for Oublivae. I took some time to consider the implications of casting them as demons and did a lot of research and analysis. In the end, I found that that's pretty much exactly how they work in most wendigo lore—as possessing cannibal spirits (demons), so I felt justified in my choice and was satisfied with that decision (I also made them the first demons ever to appear on the primeval world, in order to retain that feeling of wendigo having existed since the beginning of time, when all was wilderness).

Looking back on all the potential overlap amongst the other demon lords, I was happy with Oublivae's role in the world; in D&D, adventurers typically spend a great deal of time exploring the desolate areas that make up her domain, from old ruins to bleak frontiers. Thus, a demon lord of desolation or its minions could conceivably make appearances in all of the places adventurers tended to frequent. This made me feel like the concept was viable, useful, applicable to virtually any adventuring environment, possibly even including desolate slums in cities where civilization has fallen apart. It came down to this: if I had the opportunity to create a demon lord, I wanted it to have a solid practical application and an abundance of excuses for its influence to manifest.

I think that’s a bit of a cheat in a way, because there are far more desolate areas in the universe than there are civilized ones, especially in a points of light setting (in my submission I even implied space and the open sea as part of her domain… imagining spacefarers—or Astral travelers—their ships beset by infiltrating demonic entities, and channeling those element of sci-fi or maritime horror). Yet, considering what Oublivae represents and what's implied about her origin and purpose (see below) a lord of desolation concept fits.

Finally, if Demonomicon only gets one new demon lord, I wanted it to be something people could use with regularity, and not "the Demon Lord of Rabid and/or Angry Perytons." Oublivae’s influence can be readily inserted into almost any adventure—stray too far from the points of light and the heroes enter the domain of the Demon Queen of Desolation; stay too long in one of the points of light, and Oublivae’s minions arrive to tear it down.


Her Realm…

Wizards of the Coast: As for her realms, the Barrens—with its dust clouds of mummy rot and Hiroshima-like shadows burned into the walls—what can you tell us of this clearly nightmarish place? How did Oublivae come to rule there, and what dangers await unwelcome (or unsuspecting) visitors? Why would anyone even visit the Barrens, and what might they hope to find (and why is Sigil the only civilization left alone here)?

As for the “true” nature of Oublivae and the Barrens, I’ll imply more than I define. I feel that when a writer explicitly states “this is how it works,” we lose some of the fancy, mystique, the thrill, the magic behind the story. Who or what is the bandherobbs’ dark master and what is their purpose? That’s up to you, and the answer you come up with will be cooler and more personal to your campaign than handing you the original villain from mine. It’s like reaching the end of a television series where all the answers are finally revealed and they don’t add up to the awesome ideas and explanations that lived in your head. With that in mind…

The Barrens hold the ruins of every civilization that will ever be, captured in the grim aftermath of its fall. Why is Sigil the exception? To understand why, one would first have to understand the nature of Sigil’s keeper, the Lady of Pain. But does anyone truly know her secret?

The Barrens are essentially infinite, and the layer's terrain does not necessarily remain in the same place, but rather it gradually expands and shifts at different rates, making long journeys through the layer extremely difficult to navigate with any hope of accuracy, and virtually impossible to map. Some believe that parts of the Barrens follow the spiraling patterns of the abyssal layers, the way they shift and turn around the Grand Abyss.

Regarding Oublivae’s ties to the Barrens, every culture has its own story of how Oublivae came to be. The setting and the details change, but each tale tells of a herald that comes bearing a message to a monarch. This dread harbinger arrives in any number of forms, but the message it bears is always the same: it publicly beheads the ruler and claims the head as its own, sending civilization hurtling into panic and chaos... In the Abyss, it's said that a black monster climbed from one of the desolate layer's bottomless oubliettes and bit the head off the previous demon lord, Ugoreth, casting his body down into the oubliettes. Then the landscape of the Barrens changed and the ruins of every grand civilization manifested upon its surface, and the monster Oublivae became the queen of that realm. Some believe that Oublivae was always in the Barrens, climbing for long years up the shafts of these bottomless oubliettes.

Near the beginning of the project, Mike had been musing on the possibility of an Astral dominion that had fallen into the Abyss. As the Barrens developed, I began to think it would make sense if they had been that Astral dominion, a limitless mirror world of horrors to reflect every apocalyptic possibility. As a result, the Barrens are extremely flexible. Depending on the kind of story he or she is weaving, the DM essentially purposes the Barrens for his or her use. I think it's a layer with vast possibilities. Here are a couple directions I was going:

An abyssal world: There is civilized life in the desolate Barrens—small holdfasts of mortals that build their own towns amongst the ruins and don't realize they live in the Abyss. It's a points of light setting inhabited largely by demons lurking amongst the ruins. Oublivae cultivates the small civilized places in the Barrens, growing them like crops for a number of years, sometimes answering their prayers in the guise of an angel or god. Once a civilization flourishes, Oublivae sets about bringing it to ruin. My intent here was to create a “points of light on acid” campaign setting within the Abyss where a DM could set up a demon-themed campaign, and even start the PCs at level one if desired. Similar in mood to the world in which Diablo was set.

Post-apocalyptic world: The DM could run a post apocalyptic version of his or her setting in the Barrens. This could be a short series of adventures or an entire campaign. The advantage to this is you get to say to your players, "This is what happens when the bad guys win" and then you proceed to ruin everything. If it's a short series of adventures in an ongoing campaign, the heroes can search the ruins to learn the key to their world's destruction, or (in a campaign) the DM can go dark with the world and show just how bad it can get.

Putting these adventures in the Barrens frees the DM to do terrible things to the world without "actually" destroying it... and yet it's not a dream, and doesn’t muck around with the problems of time travel—it's essentially a parallel dimension contained within the Abyss. Depending on the way you want to run the campaign, the Barrens might only reflect a warped reflection of your own campaign world, or the PCs might discover the ruins of other places there as well—it’s up to you. Want to see your world as a desolate zombie apocalypse a la 28 Days Later? Check out the Barrens. Nuclear wasteland? Barrens. Planet of the Apes? Barrens. 12 Monkeys? Barrens. New Ice Age? Barrens. Mid-World/Dark Tower flavor? Barrens. Magic gone awry and turning the world into a desert…? Get out your Dark Sun books and run it as written (perhaps with more demons), only it’s the Barrens. And so on. As a former Astral dominion, the Barrens behaves according to different rules than those of the Abyss.


Her Stories…

Wizards of the Coast: The Barrens are riddled with oubliettes; it's said that lord Ugoreth found her emerging from these pits, and she cast them down herself—is he still down there? What else might be? And are they truly eternal dungeons or in truth the only real exit from the Barrens (Touching the Void-style)? It's also said that the hardest escape may be calling on Oublivae herself; what else might she offer visitors with her vast and secret knowledge?

Ugoreth was my way of illustrating the way the Abyss works—that there have been thousands of demon lords that have risen to gain control of a layer only to be supplanted by another demon lord. "The monster Oublivae" crawled out of the oubliettes claiming to bear a message from the heart of the Abyss itself. Yet after convincing him to grant her an audience, Oublivae snatched Ugoreth and tore his head off with her teeth before hurling his body into the oubliettes. It’s possible he could have survived, and his headless body falls forever down the bottomless oubliettes—or perhaps he wanders one of the many adjoining passageways that open upon the endless shafts; DMs should feel free to elaborate on that if they wish. For me, he was slain the instant Oublivae beheaded him; his purpose in the story was to heighten her vicious savagery and echo the myths and tales of Oublivae from all other cultures.

About the oubliettes: At the nexus of Oublivae's realm is a place called the Fortress of the Forgotten, and within this fortress are the oubliettes, large black rectangular pits that pierce the layer, rising up into unknown darknesses and descending down perhaps into infinite bottomless emptiness, and it was from here the black monster crawled. Some believe the oubliettes lead to the heart of the Abyss itself, although to the best of all knowledge, everything cast into the oubliettes is obliterated and forgotten forever. So how Oublivae crawled up from them and where she originated, none can tell. The sides of each shaft are pocked with occasional passageways leading off into strange and secret places. Rumors persist that these mysterious corridors hold the "still-living memories" of all places, and that by wandering these corridors, one might find the means to travel to another time and place and "become one with the memory." That is to say, if the DM wished, the PCs could travel via the oubliettes to end up in another time and place before that place came to its ruin. They’re elevator shafts that lead through dark, silent passageways—passageways which eventually lead to various when’s and/or where’s. I imagine that the further one goes, the more a passage changes to reflect the time and place toward which one is heading—a dungeon themed with the flavor of that time and place—until eventually arriving there.

Getting out of the Barrens: Getting out is tough, but there are a few possibilities. There’s direct help from Oublivae (see below) if one can attract her attention and survive the encounter. Less likely is the prospect that some manner of transportation or barely-functioning portal can be found amongst the old ruins scattered throughout the Barrens. Some brave fool might try scaling the passages lining the oubliettes and escape to elsewhere (or “elsewhen”), although one could wander the oubliettes forever seeking the right when or where… and all of those passageways to “elsewhen/where” are one-way trips. And yet, while the oubliettes are bottomless, one can make the long climb upwards. There are stories of some creatures that have survived to reach the top only to emerge in the dungeon of an iron fortress inhabited by a balor on the Plane of a Thousand Portals. I have a mental image of a post-apocalyptic campaign where the PCs encounter all the horrors of a broken world and a number of strange terrain features like the oubliettes throughout the heroic tier—and at the end of the heroic tier they scale the oubliettes and climb out only to discover the reality they live in has only ever been a layer of the Abyss. One might run a campaign based on Lost and conclude it that way.

The other way out is to confront Oublivae herself. She can be found in the Fortress of the Forgotten or lurking amongst old ruins (I especially love the image of her holding court with adventurers, using a broken keep as her throne; I need to get someone to paint that for me) or in the middle of the desolate wilderness. While Oublivae is a vicious demon lord with hair trigger savagery and a penchant for sudden beheadings, wise creatures/adventurers generally have a far greater chance of escaping an encounter with Oublivae unscathed. Though she longs for the separation and destruction of all that stands together, Oublivae doesn’t go about it foolishly. Rather she suits her tools to the purpose.

Creatures that ask a boon of Oublivae—be it a lost fragment of historical knowledge or the path out of some desolate place or ruin—might receive aid from the demon queen if they swear a pact to obliterate another civilization or culture. Oublivae’s quests set natural enemies upon each other and she helps them to annihilate one another. She operates this way in the Abyss as well, lending support to demons seeking to overthrow their superiors or any emerging abyssal order and thus perpetuate the endless cycle of bloodshed, chaos, and slaughter at all costs. Because Oublivae thrives on the destruction of all order, she can be flattered into recounting histories of fallen places, and from these stories the wise might discern key pieces of lost or forgotten lore. Those who break a pact with Oublivae either end up lost and are never seen or heard from again, or they return home after long wanderings to find only skeletons and rubble and the destruction of all they hold dear—the price of betrayal is ruin.

The nature of the beast: Those exceptional few who have beheld both have—with a due sense of dread—compared the lustrous black chitin covering Oublivae's body to the black haft of Asmodeus's ruby-tipped rod: an object fashioned from a shard of the evil seed that Tharizdun hurled into the Abyss. The spiral reliefs across her body suggest endless winding into darkness and the patterns of the abyssal layers as they move. Is Oublivae an incarnation of Chaos? An avatar of the Abyss’s heart? Another angel that cast down its own god in the fashion of Asmodeus? A personification of the seed of evil? An unfathomable mystical entity akin to the Lady of Pain? An alien being from somewhere out in the dark void between worlds? The guardian of time’s secrets? A primal/fey spirit gone horribly wrong? The demoness smiles, exposing the sharp tips of her teeth, and that is all the answer she gives.

Final words: I’m extremely honored to have been given the opportunity to play in the D&D sandbox and to bring some of my own brand of flavor to the universe. Of the new creatures I’ve designed for D&D—amongst them bandherhobbs, painted ones, guardian demons, evanissu, and Oublivae—I think the Demon Queen of Desolation may just be my favorite. It’s not often that one gets to create a big bad villain for D&D. This was my chance, this was what I chose to do and why and how I chose it. Thanks to James Wyatt and Mike Mearls for the opportunity, and especially to Mike Mearls (again) and Brian R. James for being the best collaborators ever. It was an absolute blast working with such genius on this book.

Steve Townshend has designed content for Polyhedron, Dragon Magazine, and the Wizards of the Coast website. His recent design credits include Monster Manual 3 and Demonomicon. Steve completed the heroic tier as an actor and improvisor, but took the fiction writer paragon path. He lives with an elf princess and their familiar in Chicago, a Big City on a Lake.