The Design & Development article series premiered on the D&D website back in September 2005, and has been a staple ever since. With the approach of 4th Edition, and our designers and developers focused on the new edition, this column will be the primary vehicle for 4th Edition coverage. We’ll not only give you peeks at what’s forthcoming, but also the “how” and “why.”
Keep in mind that the game is still in a state of flux, as refinements are made by our design and development staff. You’re getting a look behind the curtain at game design in progress, so enjoy, and feel free to send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the real world, "demon" is synonymous with "devil." "Abyss" and "hell" have a similar relationship. D&D designers have struggled with these facts since 1977 when the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game depicted demons and devils, the Abyss and the Nine Hells. The original basis for the division was alignment. Aligned planes existed to provide a meaningful afterlife for similarly aligned characters, and a need to fill those planes with natives resulted in demons being distinct from devils. As the game evolved, the original division remained, but too many similarities persisted. The advent of 4th Edition lets us accentuate the differences between the two primary species of fiends.
Throughout demons' and devils' existence in the D&D game, resemblances between them have been stronger and more numerous than differences. Both species are extraplanar forces of evil that seek souls to supplement their numbers. Each breed has wretched and implike creatures at the bottom of the hierarchy and godlike archfiends at the top. Each member of both species has a wide array of similar (and often superfluous) supernatural powers. Most demons and devils are superior to members of typical PC races in every way, including incredible intelligence. Their purposes in the material world have always been similar.
In the original AD&D Monster Manual, Gary Gygax admitted that devils “somewhat resemble the demons both in their characteristics and abilities.” AD&D 2nd Edition kept the planar structure of the original game. Demons and devils became tanar’ri and baatezu, respectively, but little made them distinct other than their categorical names. Only a conflict called the Blood War kept them from overrunning the material world. However, this evil-on-evil fight didn’t expand the possibilities for typical D&D play. On the contrary, the Blood War brought the motivations and hierarchy of demons and devils closer together. The 3rd Edition of D&D retained so many of 2nd Edition’s concepts that it did little to clarify the situation until the release of Fiendish Codex I. 4th Edition changes all that.
In 4th Edition, the Nine Hells are an astral dominion among other deific abodes in the Astral Sea (more on that in an upcoming Design & Development column). The resident deity is Asmodeus, who as an angel in primeval times, led an army of his fellows against his celestial master and murdered that god. Although Asmodeus gained divine might from his foul deed, he and his followers also suffered their victim’s dying curse. Under the power of that malediction, all the rebellious angels twisted in form and became devils. Worse still, the murdered god’s words transformed Asmodeus's dominion into a nightmarish place and bound the newborn devils to it. To this day, devils plot to escape their prison, weaving lies and corruption to ensure their eventual freedom and to seize even greater power.
Asmodeus rules Hell with despotic pride, and all devils conform to his strict hierarchy or face destruction. Within the chain of command, lesser devils use whatever power they have to mimic their ultimate leader. Devils work to gain influence in the cosmos, especially among mortals in the world. They eagerly respond to any summons and readily form cleverly worded pacts. They plan and build to meet their needs, making and using all sorts of devices, tools, and weapons. A devil might be supernaturally potent, and it might possess incredible magic items, but its greatest assets are its shrewdly calculating mind and eternal patience. Devils want to impose a sort of order -- specifically theirs -- on the cosmos.
Not so with demons.
In the Abyss, which gapes like a festering wound in the landscape of the Elemental Tempest, demons teem, eternally divided among themselves simply by their insatiable lust for ruin. Legend says that the Chained God, Tharizdun, found a seed of evil in the young cosmos, and during the gods’ war with the primordials, he threw that seed into the Elemental Tempest. There, the evil seed despoiled all that came into contact with it (some say it tainted Tharizdun himself) and created the Abyss as it burned a hole in the very structure of the plane. Elemental beings that came too close to the Abyss became trapped and warped. Any desire they have turns to the longing to obliterate the gods, creation, and even one another. They became demons.
Most demons are savage and fearless engines of annihilation. Although sometimes driven by unspeakable yearning or by horrifying demon lords to gather in groups, demons have no real organization and no singular aim. Demons don’t negotiate, and they build nothing lasting. Most use tooth and claw rather than artificial weapons. They care little or nothing for souls. Even the mightiest demon lords manipulate other demons by using threats, direct violence, or the promise of more destruction through affiliation. Although the lords of the Abyss that veteran D&D players know and love to hate still exist, no monolithic hierarchy supports any demon’s influence. Although a demon might want to destroy another creature and take that creature’s power, success only results in the winning demon using and squandering what it has seized. Demons have no regard for the responsibilities of authority, and they care little for keeping what they acquire. They’re forces of unmaking, and a universe under them would reflect the horror that is the Abyss, if that universe survived at all.
What does a clearer distinction between the two major species of fiends mean for your game? If you need a devious fiend that cares about souls and works on long-term schemes, use a devil. However, wholesale slaughter, pointless suffering, and terrifying devastation call for a demon. A villain or even a player character might bargain with devils, but those who conjure demons do so only to wreak havoc on their enemies. In short, the unambiguous division of the fiends is another way 4th Edition makes the game easier to design for and to play.