Content Warning: Discussion of Body Horror, Demons, Devils, Hell and Religion.
If there’s one thing that is found all throughout popular media, be it modern or ancient, it’s the eldritch mystique of Hell and its denizens. What inspires more terror, and yet more art, than the pits where torment is eternal and ceaseless – governed by alien creatures that are both torturers and prisoners? I’ve always had a fascination with what creativity can be found within the greatest depths of moral depravity that the human mind dare dream – and this grim intrigue finds itself well-nestled into the world of TTRPGs; the only scenario as common as a battle with a cave of goblins or a fearsome dragon is a fight against villainous cultists worshipping an evil from the infernal depths. But whatever hellspawn summoned from that candles-and-pentagram circle could be more than just a horned beast with innumerable Hit Points – these embodiments of sin provoke questions that the celestial radiance of Heaven doesn’t incur. Why are we so appalled by the visage of a winged figure with red skin and cleft hooves? Why would a cultist, or indeed any individual, take a deal that will surely leave them damned? Today I seek to answer these questions with examples of the infernal across popular media to help you create a truly fiendish entity in your game. We’ll be looking at the horrific villainy that fuels combat against the greatest odds – as well as the roleplaying opportunities brought on by the nuances of the devilish in the form of infernal contracts and temptation. I’ll also be recommending some reading material to assist in the endeavours of anyone wishing to include fiends in their games.
Before we start, however, it’s important to note that this can be a touchy subject. The infernal is irreversibly intertwined with religion – a subject that some players might not want featured in a game. As well as this, Hell itself also oft involves the worst fears of an individual running rampant. Some players might be fine braving darkened depths filled with shades whose innards are being eaten alive by ravenous spiders – but a severely arachnophobic player might not. It’s a good idea to hold a session zero beforehand and to employ the use of safety tools, such as lines and veils as well as the ‘X’ card, to get an idea of what people are comfortable with. We’ll also be touching on the subject of Body Horror which, while it can be a wonderfully macabre method of creating an atmosphere, could be harmful to people with actual bodily differences and might reinforce negative stereotypes of such people. I’ll give advice on how to avoid that in the segment, but it’s good to be aware and always be respectful.
Now, let’s dive on into the subjects of nightmares and see what we can ascertain from the eldritch countenance of eternal flame.
Hell and it’s Subjects
Though the word Hell derives from words that mean merely ‘to cover or to conceal’ or ‘the grave’, Hell today is synonymous with ‘torture’. Hell is the very idea of torment as a location – if loose concepts of pain and sorrow could be a place. This vague notion of Hell makes it a sandbox for twisted creativity – as horrors beyond the wildest inspiration can be interpreted in many a way. I’d argue it’s why Hell is more fascinating than Heaven; both are vague concepts, yes, but Heaven is an end point – eternal peace. It’s not a good place for the body of a story to take place. Hell is all conflict, all drama, all the time. To get to Paradiso, we must first brave the Inferno. I love the excuse for primal creativity brought on by such a place – it’s like a most depraved form of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, a world of purely twisted imagination.
As such, there are many great interpretations of Hell to take inspiration from, both past and present. One modern one that you may be familiar with is Vivienne Medrano’s series Hazbin Hotel, which portrays Hell as a post-apocalyptic wasteland where torment is brought on by your fellow sinners rather than the environment. It also has some metropolitan aspects and the fact that sinners become demons when in Hell allows some wonderfully macabre character design. Going back a century, another great reading of Hell is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, where Hell is a mixture of swampish bureaucracy and dictatorship where a single mistake, a single soul that slips from a demon’s grasp and escapes to Heaven, damns a Tempter forever. Further back than that, we have the true classic, Dante’s Inferno by Dante Alighieri. This is the book that established the concept of Nine Circles of Hell and attached the symbology of the Seven Deadly Sins to Hell. It’s also one of the best displays of souls being tormented with evil of all elements; whilst most associate Hell with fire, The Inferno showcases lakes of pure ice where sinners are encased, as well as the crumbling cities of Limbo and Dis. The punishments are also designed to fit the crime – and we see this with how Fortune Tellers are condemned to wander with their heads twisted backwards or how the Avaricious are damned to roll boulders at each other for all time like a thousand screaming Sisyphus’. The people and environment of Hell are so stupendous for creation that even a single denizen of the realm can cause dysfunction in the material world. The merest imp can terrify in sentiments and visage.
Now if you do want to embrace this macabre creativity, as I’ve said you want to make sure your fiends and tormented sinners aren’t designed in a way that’s actually harmful to people with facial and bodily differences. A sensitivity reader could be an option, particularly if you’re writing RPG content to sell, but a good rule of thumb is to make something completely alien or involve animalistic appendages. The D&D Sourcebook Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes well demonstrates this with a table you can roll on to add random features to demons, with my favourite being the idea of demon’s bleeding wasps which is both whimsically gruesome and mechanically pertinent. Another good source would be I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison ,where what happens to the narrator in the end is so beautifully twisted that, despite the book not being about the demonic, it serves as a great stimulus for creating Hell.
However, the creativity possible with the Infernal surpasses the eldritch horror of eternal torment. Indeed, much of the intrigue around Fiends comes from the archetypical Faustian Bargain; the concept of one selling their soul to a devilish entity in return for great fortune on Earth. This is the apex of demonic temptation – where most tempting done by devils in popular media is encouraging little acts of evil to cause the slow downfall of a person, the soul contract secures damnation. This poses the inevitable question, and a fantastic roleplaying stimulus; why would someone sign off on something that will surely doom then? One answer is hubris, someone missing the forest for trees, but there’s also the fact that someone is desperate or has been tricked. The Faustian Bargain is a trope that’s ripe with opportunity for allegory and complexity – a devil could be a remorseful thrall, like Mephistopheles from The Tragical History of Doctor FaustusÂ – or they could be a suave trickster who holds all the cards. They could be an adventuring patron, or the big bad. They could be a necessary evil or a side antagonist whose antics aren’t the greatest current threat.
I think the aforementioned The Screwtape Letters does a lot with this (Despite not directly showing any devilish deals). The entire devil society is built around new discoveries in ways to tempt people and the orders issued by the ‘Lowerarchy’. Demons are actually encouraged to keep their ‘patients’ out of harm’s way, as they want to keep people alive for as long as possible to secure their souls. It’s some interesting dimension that could easily be placed into the devils you wish to tempt your players – with such temptations perhaps becoming key character moments that can really immerse and engage your PCs. Not every group will be partial to the moral quandaries proposed by infernal temptation, but those that are can really get a kick out of you leaning into such contract offerings.
It would be remiss as to not mention the further breadth of morality offered by the denizens of Hell – not all demons are bound to scourge and temptation. Don’t think that just because a character is a devil that they can’t have emotional dimension – they can have aspirations, fears, quirks and even virtues to complement their vices. Though perhaps counterintuitive, it’s the nature of human empathy that we so often find sympathy for the Devil. A great example of this is, quintessentially, Lucifer from Paradise Lost; perhaps the original example of a demon we can have remorse for, whose desire to reign in Hell rather than to serve in Heaven is one that could apply to a number of things, even your players. Another great demonstration of infernal complexity is Mephistopheles from The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, who asks Faustus to reconsider before selling his soul, being perfectly and openly honest. A devil who has second thoughts about their industry could be a great NPC that might even find redemption should your players decide it. Even the demons in The Screwtape Letters have a vast range of stipulations – their apprehension about leading their ‘patients’ into physical harm could make an interesting antagonist if applied to your devils (And could act as an easy get-out-of-TPK-free card).
I hope I’ve been able to interest in you in new and unique ways you can apply your creativity to demons and devils. Fiends can truly encapsulate more than just raw evil, and even that evil can express itself in numerous ways. To conclude, I’ve listed below the numerous books I’ve mentioned throughout this post. The content warning at the top of the post still applies to these recommendations, and some are quite archaic, but I think if you’re interested in the infernal then you’re really going to enjoy these:
Dante’s Inferno By Dante Alighieri: A true classic-a simple road-trip through the Nine Circles of Hell, each with new characters, terrains and conflicts. If you can get your hands on a copy that comes with explanations for all the obscure 14th century Italian references, I’d recommend that because it can be hard to parse at times, but it’s a good read either way.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream By Harlan Ellison: Not exactly a book about demons and devils, but it’s post-apocalyptic setting is very close to Hell, and it practically is for its few denizens. If you have the stomach for what is an invariably depressing read, it can give you a good idea of something that truly fits the definition of Hell.
Paradise Lost By John Milton: This is the only one of these books I haven’t been able to complete, for its prose is truly archaic in that you need double-take every line when you read it. However, it’s iconic depiction of Lucifer and his fellows in Pandemonium is one that makes the oblique verses worth a look.
The Screwtape Letters By C.S. Lewis: My favourite all time book – every line of prose oozes charisma, wit and insight from the perspective of a Demon. It has brilliant chapter structure with some surprisingly fantastic worldbuilding. I don’t agree with all its sentiments, but if it’s something that catches your interest I cannot recommend it enough.
The Tragical History of Doctor Faust By Christopher Marlowe: This book is the archetypal display of a Faustian Bargain, and it does not disappoint. Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles are marvellously dimensional characters and the book itself is a great read from start to read. If nothing else, it’s taught me the word ‘Exeunt’ – which I now insist on using ad infinitum.
Have you used fiends in your game? How have you portrayed such bastions of the infernal? What would you do to portray Hell-should your players ever travel through it?