This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Forty Nine on 10th October, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Like so many things, Graz’zt is fine as long as you’re a man.
Graz’zt is a figure that can be very problematic in D&D. Certainly using him in a campaign in any way that’s true to lore and doesn’t just have him as an adversary to fight can raise some eyebrows or cause a lot of uncomfortable squirming in players.
The demon lord is not new, but he wasn’t there from the very beginning like Orcus or Demogorgon. Graz’zt was, however, a Gary Gygax original for better or worse. Gygax also said in an interview that “Graz-it” was the pronunciation, so sorry to everyone who liked the “grazt” version. The demon lord first appeared in a module for first edition D&D called “The lost Caverns of Tsojconth [SOJ-kanth]”. It was labeled as adventure “S4” and published in 1982, though the published version was a clean up and rewrite of Gygax’s original version created as a tournament adventure in 1976. In that module, Graz’zt served as kind of an end boss.
His presence in that module earned him a spot in the Monster Manual 2 for first edition, and he’s been present in one resource or another in every edition since. Usually he shows up whenever there’s a rundown of demon lords from the Abyss, however he was also the feature villain in a second edition adventure from 1998 called “For Duty and Deity”.
All of the descriptions of Graz’zt begin with the fact that he’s very attractive, at least by humanoid standards. His basic form is that of a lean, muscular humanoid male, nine feet tall, with glossy obsidian black skin. He has pupil-less pale green eyes, pointed ears, short black hair, and six horns, three along each side of his head, kind of like a crown. He also has six fingers on each hand. His signature weapon is an acid sword that looks like a snake with a fishhook point on the end.
As a fighter, he switches off between using the sword and a shield, or two weapons. He is also what could be called a control caster; most of his magic is geared toward shutting down other people’s spells, making it dark, or controlling other beings.
Graz’zt’s habits and mission are where things get uncomfortable really fast. His personality is probably what you get if you take Lord Byron, Dorian Grey, and Caligula, and blend them all together. While a lot of demons don’t focus on gender or sexuality unless they’re succubi or incubi, Graz’zt has taken the mantle of “toxic heterosexual male” and made it his brand. His worshippers and cultists are mostly women, and he is known to have sired a large number of demonic half-breed children with various witches, sorceresses, and unwitting women who didn’t know what they were getting into. Apart from generic power, his cult mostly focuses on themes of darkness and manipulative betrayal. Those betrayals usually end up with women ruined and in dire straits. Men mostly just end up dead.
His home most of the time is a location in the Abyss called Azzagrat [AZ-uh-grat], which spans layers 45 to 47 of the Abyss. Specifically he rules from a place called the Argent Palace, a building made up of sixty-six ivory towers. Inside the towers are hallways made entirely of mirrors where Graz’zt lets Bodak demons roam around for fun. He also maintains hanging gardens full of carnivorous plants. He always has two Marilith demons (those are the six-armed snake lady ones) serving as his bodyguards and an entourage of six or more lamias (half woman, half lion monstrosities) besides. He’s able to replenish his lamia guards at will because most of them worship him. His half-drow son Athux is the leader of his armies, and his cambion daughter Thraxxia serves as his personal assassin.
Orcus and Demogorgon trade off for the title of most powerful demon in the Abyss, but most people hold up Graz’zt as the most cunning and manipulative of all demons. He’s used that guile to maintain his status as the number three demon lord.
His history is mostly tracked through his relationships. His origin isn’t particularly unique at face value; he wasn’t one of the original demons like Demogorgon or Orcus, but he was definitely an early adopter and much more powerful than your average demon. He worked his way up in power and influence until he was directly challenging the big two for control of a significant portion of the Abyss. He was winning, too, and then he was interrupted by Iggwilv.
Known better to most as Tasha, she wanted to increase her own power and believed she could control Graz’zt. She did have enough power to summon and physically hold him and prevent him from attacking her. However, she didn’t count on him giving up on charm magic and just turning on the regular charm.
Accounts of that relationship are like trying to get the straight story out of two bitter divorcees; both of them claim that they seduced the other, they were always in control of the relationship, they never actually loved the other person, and of course they were the one who left the other in a miserable, pathetic heap of tears. Objectively, the two of them stayed together for 100 years to begin with, and the two of them still capture each other and hold each other prisoner for a few years at a time. After almost every one of those periods of captivity, Tasha is either pregnant or just bore another child. Also, if anyone else messes with either of them, the other shows up like a tidal wave of enraged destruction to get them out as soon as they hear about it.
So yeah, “it’s complicated” doesn’t even scratch the surface with those two. Fortunately(?) Graz’zt is not a one-woman demon. During the time of troubles (that was a period of unrest when several gods were forced into mortal form and magic was weird for a bit), Graz’zt was responsible for at least one god going missing.
The goddess Waukeen was supposedly trying to move through Graz’zt’s area of the Abyss and bartered for passage with him. He assured her safe passage, and then captured her anyway. He then sent agents into her temples and had them spread the idea that she was selling him pieces of her godhood because she was horribly in debt to him. That meant anyone worshiping Waukeen was actually worshiping Graz’zt, a movement called the “Harlot’s Coin Heresy.” She was eventually freed due to several adventurers intervening, but the heresy persists to this day.
One of his most consistent rivalries, ironically, is against Malcanthet [MAL-kan-thet], otherwise known as the Queen of Succubi. One of them made advances on the other, and they were shut down hard. Who was the asker and the rejecter of course depends on who you talk to. They aren’t in open warfare, but constantly try to sabotage each other’s place in the Abyss and disrupt each others’ cults in the material plane.
It should be noted that those are only the most well-known of his female associates. Graz’zt is like that guy at the office with an entire drawer to himself in HR; if a goddess, demoness, or female devil doesn’t know him personally, they at least have an opinion of him.
One thing about the “at face value” caveat to his origin. There is speculation about the nature of Graz’zt’s desires and existence. Graz’zt is very a-typical for a demon, most of whom focus on overall power and very extreme, direct activity. Even Malconthet’s subtlety doesn’t extend beyond seduction. Graz’zt is a schemer and plotter and many people point out that’s more how devils operate. In fact, multiple popular rumors about his origins claim Graz’zt was a devil who led a successful raid into the Abyss. Once there, he either got corrupted by the Abyss’s influence, or he voluntarily stayed and carved a kingdom for himself because he didn’t think working in the Nine Hells benefited anyone except Asmodeus.
An even more paranoid and quietly shared theory says Graz’zt actually never stopped working for Asmodeus, and he’s trying to win the Blood War for the archdevil as a double-agent. If that’s true, Graz’zt actually gaining the upper hand over Demogorgon and Orcus could represent a fundamental shift in the balance of power for the Blood War.
Introducing Graz’zt to a campaign is obviously something to be done with care. All of the stories and lore around him have him dismissing or trying to kill most of the men he meets. In contrast, he constantly manipulates, seduces, and destructively betrays women. His most successful relationship, with Tasha, is described as blatantly toxic in all respects. The only tiny speck of bright light in all of it is that he’s never described as forcing himself on anyone.
If you aren’t aware of this we’re going to educate you right now; if you have women in your gaming group or in your life, they will have feelings about men like this. Some of those feelings will be from personal experience. Many other people, regardless of gender, will know friends or family members with similar issues, or will have them personally too.
We very rarely say you can’t run a game the way you want, but in this case I don’t care. Do not randomly throw Graz’zt or his cultists into a game with people you don’t know very well, and don’t use them as a surprise reveal. Most D&D monsters are very fantastical and have little to do with the real world. There are real people like Graz’zt, and they inflict a lot of intense trauma on others. Be very up front if Graz’zt is going to be in your campaign, and make sure everyone knows what he’s about. And if someone says they aren’t comfortable with it, listen.