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Howling Tower: Plight of the Demon

Howling Tower: Plight of the Demon

"St. Anthony plagued by demons" by Martin Schongauer

Demons and devils occupy an odd position in the pantheons of most fantasy RPGs. For the most part, those terms are just two more names in a long list of monster classifications, not much different from fairies or talking animals. They’ve been stripped of their terrifying spiritual implications.

That’s a shame, because their unholy aspects are what make demons and devils so fascinating in our collective, churning imagination. Reducing them to scaly super villains deprives our fantasy campaigns of some fascinating potential. Sadly, the same affliction cripples most RPG “gods,” who are diminished to the status of remote, somewhat apathetic super heroes.

D&D’s cosmology throws more oil on the hellfire by pitting devils and demons against each other instead of uniting them in a mutual war against Heaven.

Traditionally, the Devil is the personification of evil. He/she/it leads the infernal host in its opposition to the reign and agenda of God, whoever he/she/it might be. Their battlefield is not some remote plane of existence. They wage war in the everyday world over the souls of mortals like you and me.

Demons are the footsoldiers of evil in this war. They tempt mortals toward sin, test their faith, drive wedges between mortals and their gods, and generally spread suffering and torment for the hell of it (you knew it had to be said; now it’s out of the way).

At the heights of human superstition, demons were assumed to be everywhere. Everything from natural calamity to minor bad luck to out-of-wedlock pregnancy could be blamed on them. Whether 500 people died from a flu epidemic or a clothesline snapped and dropped fresh laundry into the dirt, snickering demons were high-fiving each other in the Pit.

The war between Heaven and Hell supposes something that many RPG campaigns lack: an afterlife. Without an afterlife for mortals’ souls to aspire to, a supernatural war to claim those souls makes no sense. Without a tug-of-war over mankind’s eternal spark, demons, devils, and gods lose much of their traditional role in the world.

Fantasy religions tend to differ significantly from the Abrahamic traditions most Western roleplayers are familiar with (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Some percentage of DMs and players—no one can say how many, though I would love to know—are uncomfortable with anything in their games that smacks of real-life religion. God is a sensitive topic.

If a GM wants to restore some of the demons’ traditional purpose, could it be done without violating the game’s carefully erected wall between church and d8? What changes would need to be made?

Chiefly, the setting needs a hard-fought conflict between good and evil, deity and demon, Heaven and Hell. Mortals are more than caught in the middle; they are the reason for it, the football at the core of the scrum. The question is, why? What is it about mortals that the divine and infernal sides in this war value so highly?

Souls. Call it the soul, the spirit, or the eternal spark. It’s that slice of the mortal that is immortal. Good wants to reward souls and give them a place of eternal peace. Evil wants to torment them, chain them to the oars on their barges of forsaken dreams, or at least frustrate Good’s desires. If the free will of mortals can affect the outcome, then demons have all the reason they need to butt in and try to rig the game.

Positive and negative emotions. Gods and demons might feed on the positive and negative emotions of mortals. “Feed on” is a bit clichéd. They could as easily draw simple satisfaction from their favorite emotions, gain access to the world by traveling along the threads of dominant emotions in the weave of reality, or just enjoy seeing their favorite emotion on the rise while their foes are getting the smelly end of the stick. This assumption offers unique opportunities for demonic special abilities, if their chief purpose is stirring negative emotions.

Belief and prayers. The notion that gods, devils, and other supernatural beings draw power from the prayers and rituals of mortals, or even from simple faith, has a long heritage. It was one of the foundation stones of the Planescape setting. Like emotions, this principle doesn’t require souls or an afterlife, in case those concepts make someone uncomfortable. If the furnaces of good and evil are fired by devotion, the competition for it is guaranteed to be fierce. Unlike emotions, which can be manipulated squarely in your face, winning over people’s beliefs calls for more subtlety and intrigue, if that’s the type of game you prefer.

17 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Plight of the Demon”

  1. Not sure. The original D&D editions were borrowing very heavily from the Abrahamic religions, but 3.0 ed. of D&D and onwards appeared to have severed this connection for good. If you want the ‘wall’ to be brought down, maybe you should turn back to the original edition classics, for a start, and then, maybe, release a series of adventures (via Dungeon or not) that are founded at least partially in the afterlife, which is the outsiders (not just demons and devils, but angels’ too) domain. That’ll probably create the desired effect (at least partially).

  2. GeraintElberion

    I only play Pathfinder now. They have revised some of these elements in ways which may suit you.
    1. No more Blood War, demon, devils and daemons are no longer at each other’s throat. Instead they are free to tempt and corrupt mortals.
    2. Assumes an afterlife: all mortals are judged by a goddess, Pharasma, and sent to the relevant afterlife.
    3. Souls are precious commodities: daemons try to steal them as they travel to Pharasma’s Boneyard to be judged while angels and azatas shepherd them to safety.
    4. Devils wish to corrupt and enslave mortals, Daemons to destroy them and Demons to turn everything into the Abyss.

  3. I agree with you 100%. It’s always bugged me how demons, devils, daemons, demodands, and what not are, paraphrasing you, just more monsters. The Blood Wars was an idiotic concept which further increased the distance between “real” demons and devils and the ones found in RPGs.

    And the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions are a very touchy subject in a lot of games. My primary group is mostly agnostic, and at best indifferent. We currently play with a mix of Egyptian deities, Lovecraftian entities, and a system of “paths” by which clerics draw their powers from a philosophy and not a deity. I am toying with the idea of introducing a fantasy religion that includes a lot of the Abrahamic traditions, in particular the very early Christian church (with touches of the other two thrown in) to see how it flies.

    I’d like to see this topic explored further. And as always, great article!

  4. At the risk of promoting one of my favorite freelancers, I’ll point out that Ryan Costello Jr has written a Monsters of Sin series that addresses some of this by returning some Abrahamic elements to the PC’s foes.

    It’s not for everyone, of course, but any game with clerics and paladins might benefit from seeing Avarice, Envy, Greed, etc embodied as monsters with both spiritual and physical dimensions.

  5. I’d argue that it goes back to Planescape and the even earlier desire to seperate D&D from the occult that led Devils to become Baateza and Demons to Become Tanar’ri. There’s nothing wrong with the Blood War – it was very innovative for its time, it made Planescape new and exciting, it was a fantastic backdrop that made evil less monolithic, which at the time was perceived as a good thing.

    I’d also argue this has nothing to do with editions or rules. It’s about ambiance. Van Richten’s guide to Fiends is probably the best place to look for ideas on how to add the Early Modern feel to demons. This is frankly more what people think of as medieval (just as with magic), since demons in the Middle Ages were probably less scary than you’d think – you had the saints to help you before the Reformation.

  6. Charles Lee Carrier

    Please tell me this is just a teaser for a whole series of articles! Please please please, I want more! I think it would be *great* if D&D/PF demons and devils could return to their roots.

    Y’know one of the things that sold me on converting my game from 1E to 3.5E? An advertisement showing a cleric with a snide look on his face, saying “What the hell is a Baatezu?” That’s *exactly* how I felt about the name change in 2E.

  7. @Wolfgang,

    I’m having to save my gaming pennies at the moment (fixed income and all that doesn’t come with it). But I definitely plan to pick those up.

  8. There’s some excellent advice on adding religion back into your pantheons in Peter Adkison’s _Primal Order_ (Wizards, 1992), and related follow-on books (Pawns, Knights, and Chessboards). Well-worth digging up if you haven’t cracked it open in 20 years.


  9. The various uses of devil and demon are just playing with definitions and flavor text. There is nothing more valid about Abrahamic* versions of those supernatural beings than the standard fantasy cosmology or the Planescape portrayal, especially when it comes to fantasy RPGs. The concept of devils and demons predates those real religions and other religious traditions have entirely different interpretations of similar ideas.

    The reason to move away from a direct representation of major real world religion was a good one at the time. I can find no fault with that, especially given some modern reactions to these sensitive topics.

    Even then, Planescape’s take, or most standard fantasy cosmologies for that matter, utilize similar conflicts and themes (souls, corruption, good vs evil) with regards to devils and demons as their famous real world Abrahamic interpretations. The Blood War was one conflict in one setting (with some bleed over to other settings). This did not preclude the traditional good vs evil conflict, but rather enhanced the stakes and scale. Evil had the resources to war with evil AND good.

    Devils had Arch-devils and legions of foot-soldier devils to fill in for the real world “The Devil” and demons. Likewise Demons had Demon Lords and hordes of lesser demons. In a way, due to the function of the game, these terms are monsters, just as the servants of deities, or deities themselves, are monsters.

    If we stuck to a stricter or literal interpretation, devils and demons might manifest more as possessions or hauntings like in the Exorcist, semi-tangible supernatural influences. Though, if devils and demons solely manifested in those forms, are we dealing with a heroic fantasy game or another genre of RPG entirely?

    * Or more precisely Judaic or Christian or Islamic, because there are differences even within their sects let alone major branches.

  10. Allan, I was lucky enough to game with Peter not that long ago, as a guest NPC in a sort of one-shot deal.

    Demons and devils definitely came up, and Peter definitely gets what makes them interesting in Chaldea. I think grounding them more firmly in real-world traditions gets really good results in terms of evoking player reactions–though I also remember the very real letters of concern that TSR used to get from non-gamers.

  11. Richard Briggs

    As a DM almost ALL of my groups had a lot of people that had abused by Christianity at a young age. So, I have only had Christian themes where they where appropriate. With 1st ed with Greyhawk, Judges Guild and the like, there was no concept of Christianity beyond that was what Clerics and Paladins acted like. In Living Greyhawk, I ended up in the Theorchy of the Pale where Christianity was the obvious model for the Pelorian faith. The campaign was a revolution against the Pelorians so Christianity was the villian.
    In other game worlds – where the Christian mythos is a part of the world – TORG, Ars Magica, d20 Modern, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, World of Darkness, Stalking the Night Fantastic, Star Gate and the like – it was sometime better accepted. However, I still noted that for the most part Christians where either fools, adversaries, the enemy of my enemy, or allies because they where rebellious. Even when I brought Christian allies in with the best of intentions it usually at least concerned people.
    Note: I have played with basicly all faiths and only Jews and Muslims seem to have the same issue.

    In Planescape, souls, the afterlife, and demons and devils capturing souls where there as elements. Gods got their power from the souls of their worshippers. The became petitioners that inhabited their realms and eventually became a part of their god. (There was the lame aspect of they forgot their previous lives – Boring!!! – so out it went). Souls where the money of the planes. It was not Christian. It was a free for all soul brawl. However, I had some good adventures that focused on the afterlives of characters – including a whole campaign of “Dead” Vikings in Valhalla. The Power at the top of Mount Celestia was pretty close to God-ish. It would be easy to shift the focus on Planescape to a soul collecting focus. But, that was clearly not the main point of the setting.

    In 4th Ed, the issue of souls, afterlife and the Devil being after them is a part of the core story. While the Primorial War is the Big Story. The Raven Queen guides the souls of the dead to their final reward. Pharasma and the Raven Queen are basicly the same person in two different game worlds. There was an entire Adventure Arc in 4th Ed on the extremely hostile takeover of the Soul Guiding Market by Orcus. When one of the party died in that campaign and saw just what was going on, before the Raise Dead Ritual – let me tell you – the characters started worrying about their souls! Asmodeus finally really became the Devil in 4th Ed. His whole backstory is his plot to capture souls and rule the planes. Better to rule in Hell… Every teifling that has playing my game has felt the hot breath of Master of his Fate on his neck.
    Even Dark Sun, with soul going to the Gray has an afterlife that can be brought into adventures.

    3rd Ed had some 3rd party books that had some good world that where literally based on Christianity and one (at least) on the Biblical Period called Testament.
    I don’t think that it would be that hard to create a Christian based 4th Ed. But, it would be easier with an earlier edition because there was on one flavor of Cleric and Paladin – the Christianesque version.

  12. The Recursion King

    I was looking through my old second edition players handbook last night on an unrelated topic when I noticed that there are rules there for customising the cleric based upon pantheon. Unlike third edition, where the deities are set in the rule books, it actually says the DM should come up with these for his own world. When I next run a second edition campaign, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Abrahamic elements will be out the window and a set of specialist clerics will be in.

  13. Wolfgang: I’ve talked with Peter about republishing the TPO books, and he’s amenable for .pdfs, but not print (when last we talked about it). Theyre are fabulous books that really should be brought back into print….

    The game sounds like fun, and about what I’d expect from Peter’s games, given TPO as a baseline :D


  14. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who’s run a campaign that used the three Abrahamic religions in realistic terms in a campaign. That was the setup on Yrth in the original GURPS Fantasy book from 1986 (the only edition I have). Real religions played a role in Ars Magica and Pendragon, but since no one played clerics AFAIK in those games, it wasn’t as big a deal. We danced around Christianity quite a bit in the AD&D historical sourcebooks from TSR. I’ve always wanted to delve into this in a historically themed game, but the opportunity has never presented itself. There are just too many campaign themes and not enough campaigns to try everything on my list.

  15. Most of my games have been set in something that you can see the real world if you squint or if you turn back the clock or something. (World of Darkness Games, Deadlands, whatever) So in most of them the existence of real world religions is assumed. We don’t tend to shy from religious themes at all actually. Although we are just as likely to be suspicious of heaven as to trust it, it seems.

    In my Victorian Supers game the Robot who was way more moral than any other member of the team was eventually informed by an angel that he had been granted a soul, and (years before Requiem came out) the origin of Vampires in that world was that Longinus (who pierced the side of Christ) was transformed into the first vampire. He eventually renamed himself as Le Comte de St. Germain.

    My dark modern Supers game got cut short, but the upshot was that the world spanning conspiracy had been started by an early mutant, Yeshua bar Miriam, whose healing powers had allowed him to ressurect himself. He was still alive in 2007.

    I ran an Angel RPG (as in vampire detective) game where the characters started out as members of the secret demon fighting branch of the Vatican, though they eventually broke off from that.

    I ran a lot of Steve Jackson Games’s In Nomine where the players were literally Angels.

    My current Dresden Files game is much more centered on Indian and Central Asian religion than on religions originiating in the “Near East” One of the PCs is Tibetan Monk armed with the power of his faith in the Dharma, and the powerful magic of the Buddhist Tantra.

  16. Charles Carrier

    In my 3.5E game world I’m still using the deities from the old 1E Deities & Demigods. The principal faith of the “civilized” nations is Olympian. Twelve centuries ago the military might and organizational skills of the Pax Aurum (Golden Peace, i.e. the Roman Empire) spread it across the continent and transformed it from a loose set of rural beliefs into a highly structured and codified religious system (equivalent to the Roman Catholic church). Around the edges of the former Pax Aurum can be found the Norse Religion, the Gods of the Keltoi, and of course the Pantheon of the Great River in the desert kingdom of Kemet.

    About ten or twelve years ago my players were confronted with a little-known desert deity making a bid to move in on the Olympians. My players were all running epic level characters at the time, and they ended up fighting along-side the gods to defeat the misogynistic upstart. He had already done terrible damage to the Sumerian pantheon, robbing many deities of their god-hood and transforming them into demons. It was a hell of a hard fight, but the good guys finally won.

    Yes, we killed Jehovah. (And yes, my players knew exactly who they were fighting, even though he kept his name concealed behind tetragrammaton letter puzzles.)

  17. Steve—

    There have definitely been a few d20 books that covered RL Christianity, IIRC. I haven’t played or run games using these, but I believe these all deal with the topic on some level:

    – Testament @ http://www.greenronin.com/store/product/grr1019e.html
    – Eternal Rome @ http://www.greenronin.com/store/product/grr1410.html
    – Hamunaptra @ http://www.greenronin.com/store/product/grr1407-hamunaptra.html

    Of them, I remember Testament being pretty well-received (it’s written by Scott Bennie). I thought that there were some other books that more overtly dealt with all three “people of the book” religions, but can’t think of them now.

    WRT Ars Magica, I think there were rules in the White Wolf 3rd edition era covering divine PCs, in _Pax Dei_, but I was pretty dissatisfied with that edition of the game, and could be remembering wrongly the scope of play offered by those rules.


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