Back in November I wrote about a new RPG campaign that I had cooked up, a game that I’ll refer to as For The King! for lack of a better name. If you are currently playing in or are going to play in my 5th edition D&D campaign, you might want to be careful with reading this post. If not, feel free to read this early-concept campaign overview. I’ll avoid saying things here that could be too spoiler-y, but I plan to explore the nature of magic, demons, devils, and other such inimical forces. Your character might or might not have access to this information.
Based on the first few sessions that I ran for my brothers, I already know that the setting allows for angels and fallen angels, though the latter are more like Remnants from In Nomine, powerful supernatural beings from other planes who have had some part of their greater nature stripped from them by intent or by accident.
Angels and their derivatives are all essentially moderately self-willed fragments of the god they serve, and might be thought of as something like having a god let its fingernail clippings (or maybe severed finger?) go off and do its bidding in the world. A bit like some kind of overpowered intelligent celestial dandruff, I suppose. But I don’t know off the top of my head how to make demons and devils work, and I don’t just want to sign on to the metaphysics presented in the 5th ed. Monster Manual without some editorial input. I’d much rather doodle in the margins and make their setting fluff more thoroughly my own. So read on for sweet lore!
I’ve already altered the basic understanding of magic laid out in the Player’s Handbook in favor of the description of magic from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, so I feel no need to stick faithfully to the rest of 5th ed.’s metaphysical baggage. In case you don’t know LotFP’s description of magic, here’s the relevant bit:
Magic is art, not science. Each work of magic, from casting a spell, to writing a scroll, to creating a potion, is something that must be done from scratch each time. Merely replicating what has already been done will never work.
A spell is a fairly standardized effect that has been repeatedly created by many Magic-Users. While every Magic-User must use a spellbook to store his magical knowledge—mortal brains are not struc- turally designed to hold this information—there is no set “formula” for any particular spell. Take the spell Magic Missile, for instance. It is a very common spell, especially for traveling and adventuring Magic-Users, but if you looked at the spellbooks of one hundred Magic-Users which all contain Magic Missile, no notation of the spell would look the same. Each spell notation is a combination of reference notes, philosophical debate against the universe, and gibberish, scribbling, all of which serves one purpose: To trigger a dream-state understanding within the Magic-User’s mind. Nothing contained in a spellbook is a “how to” guide so much as an individual recipe for self-induced hypnosis.
It’s certainly possible to learn spells from other people, or from scrolls, or spellbooks, or what-have-you. But the learning process involves deciphering the mental end-state that the original caster was trying to achieve and then creating your own set of guidelines for reaching that same state. It’s not just a case of picking up a new tool for your toolbox.
This also implies that specific, difficult-to-achieve mental states are conducive to rampantly altering reality in potentially terrifying ways, with spell-per-day limits in place due to the mental exhaustion involved. It is theoretically possible for someone to do magic without spending large portions of their life training themselves in the necessary schools of meditation or autohypnosis or whatever you want to call it… but successfully creating a desired effect without said training is vanishingly unlikely. Casting magic may also be highly dangerous, given that a slightly different mental state could have a wildly different effect, and as such magic can be scary. Very effective, and very much appreciated, but scary. I haven’t decided what it would look like yet, but spell failure could have some very interesting results.
Magic granted by the gods is far less freaky, since it is essentially a local state change (or a worldwide one, but that’s rare) that is granted / imposed by a higher and more competent power. Scary gods are still scary, but at least they’re unlikely to sneeze in the middle of blessing you and accidentally blow you to bits instead.
Moving on, I like that demons in 5th ed. are all basically misshapen incarnations of chaos and destruction, like what might happen if the entropy of the universe oozed out of a crack in the world and congealed into a semi-solid mass. I can even get behind having demons congregate in the Abyss; fluids tend to settle to their lowest potential energy state, so in some twisted way it sounds right to have demons all coalesce in the lowest, most chaotic realms of the local planar universe. This also explains why summoning a demon is energy intensive, since you have to do all the work of bringing all that figurative water up the figurative hill: carrying the incarnate chaos up into a slightly better ordered section of the world is difficult. It also explains why you have to work hard to keep a demon from running off and doing whatever the hell it wants to, as metaphorical waterproofing is important! I’m not sure that this is the actual reason for demons being the way they are in this setting, or whether this is more like the best understanding of demons that demonologists have, but either way it sounds good to me.
Now, that metaphor gets a little soggy around the edges when you start dealing with demons that have their own goals and motivations beyond “create chaos and destruction.” Why, for example, would a misshapen incarnation of chaos care one way or the other about larger events? Perhaps more powerful demons are accretions of chaos solidified around a central driving will? As manifestations of chaos, they should be inherently unstable. In order to hold onto greater power and grow in experience they must sacrifice some of their inherently chaotic nature to gain enough stability to maintain themselves; by focusing their desire for chaos into a narrower band, and by either creating or taking something to form their core or central tenet (this could include the worship of those in a more ordered section of reality), some demons are able to stabilize themselves to some extent and establish themselves as a more permanent presence in the planes of existence. This would also mean that, once established, they’d be likely to abandon the deepest sections of the Abyss in order to protect themselves from the unbridled primordial chaos which can be found there.
Similarly, other beings that aren’t (or weren’t) demons might choose to use some of the chaotic power of the Abyss, whether that means harnessing it through magics or killing someone else who has already condensed some of its power and then taking their stuff. In this way you can have higher tier quasi-demons that are naturally somewhat more orderly, ranging from powerful individuals who decided to drink from the firehose, to gods who were cast into the Abyss and decided to survive there, to other mysterious entities who felt that the chaotic primordial soup that is the deepest parts of the Abyss would make a fine meal. Of course, once you’ve started mainlining chaos incarnate it’s hard to give up the habit, and you tend to go a bit demon yourself.
I like that, and I think I’ll leave it there for the moment. Reading through the Monster Manual, it looks like I’ve simply managed to re-skin what was already there. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I definitely feel like I have a better feel for how demons work in the setting now than I would have if I’d just read the Monster Manual description.
Devils, then, are something different. 5th ed. has this elaborate hierarchy of devils and the planes of Hell, and I don’t want to risk tossing out the baby with the bathwater because I like some of what they’ve got going on there. But I don’t feel any real need to keep the whole set of devil nobility, given that I feel like that adds an unnecessary complication to the world that I’ve already created in For The King! I like having devils be lawful and evil beings, instead of the incarnate chaos of demons, but…
What if devils were simply augmented corrupted souls? That’s basically what the Monster Manual suggests they are to start with, and I’m down with that for many if not all devils. But I think some devils, the higher and more powerful ones, are actually servitors (read: angels, fragments of a god, without the implicit goodness) of the most powerful devil. Here’s where my backstory fluff starts to diverge, I think.
At some point, the most powerful devil (named Asmodeus in the MM, but that name has been done to death) splintered off a huge number of servitors, to the point where it actually ended up weaker than it had been before. Usually gods are able to do that without weakening themselves at all, so the event had to have been pretty scary. Maybe it was a huge godly showdown, maybe it was a moment of mistaken hubris, maybe it was something else. Regardless, the most powerful devil (who might have been more than that prior to the event) fled to the realms which would become the planes of Hell (again, the MM refers to them as the Nine Hells and has names for them already, but I’d rather change them). The most powerful devil (MPD) used the relative safety of the Hells to heal, but they were unable to simply reabsorb the fragments which had broken off of them, meaning that they now had a large group of servitors of varying power who were in need of orders.
Since they were unable to regain their power by reabsorbing their fragments, the MPD instead set about building up an even larger army, using the resources of the Hells to their advantage to create soldiers and infrastructure. This is probably all intended to provide defense against whoever the MPD was fighting before (at the start of the whole ruckus), and may also be intended to allow the MPD to restart whatever war they had been fighting, at some future date on their own terms.
The problem, of course, is that once the MPD started creating soldiers from the souls that already resided in the Hells, they had a growing cadre of unreliable troops (or not uniformly loyal ones). There are many servitors mixed in amongst the much larger number of empowered souls (devils), but the MPD hasn’t been able to maintain perfect loyalty or obedience except through very careful rewards, punishments, rules, and secret police work. The servitors are of course still obedient, and the created devils play along (and maybe some of them really are loyal), but the MPD has created this new source of power for themselves only to also have it be a tremendous source of risk. It’s worth noting that the MPD has also done its best to make the empowered souls indistinguishable from the servitors, to better enable its servitors to infiltrate and report on the plotting of the empowered souls.
All in all, that’s a very similar structure to what you can find in the Monster Manual, but I think it’s more interesting this way. Now I need to figure out what the name of the MPD is, who they were in a tussle with / why they splintered off those fragments, and what it is that they really want! Devils, of course, will continue to behave like devils from the Monster Manual, because souls are a currency of power in the planes ruled by the MPD and can be used to make or empower all kinds of things (and beings).
This also raises the possibility of a portfolio shift for the MPD, from whatever they had been in charge of / worshipped for before to whatever they’re in charge of / worshipped for now. Furthermore, some of their fragments from prior to the portfolio shift might feel torn allegiances, as they god that they were part of has now fractured, and the largest surviving part represents something which they don’t feel like they’re a fragment of. In fact, it might be that very shift (and the fracturing of the MPD’s former self) which makes it impossible for the MPD to reabsorb its servitors. All of which raises the possibility in the MPD’s mind that some of its secret police, and its supposedly most loyal followers, may actually be working with outside forces for their own ends, against the MPD’s interests. Paranoia and distrust galore!