This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Nineteen on 27th July 2022.
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.
Where the Nine Hells have the archdukes of The Hells, if you sail down the River Styx you’ll find a similar but different situation at the other end.
That’s assuming you make it, of course; the River Styx is terrible and there are murderous demons on every side and sometimes floating by on other boats. Have we mentioned going to the underworld is a bad idea? Anyway, when you get to the Abyss you will find a much looser hierarchy, but there are several beings that fill much the same role as the archdukes. Those are the demon lords. Now practically speaking there is no demon lord that fills the same role Asmodeus does in the Nine Hells, but Demogorgon certainly acts like he has the job.
Calling himself the Prince of Demons, Demogorgon has been around in D&D since its start, or close enough. Demogorgon was given a name, stats, and a brief history and personality in the “Eldritch Wizardry” supplement for original D&D, pre-first edition. For the time, that was a lot; most of the monsters only got stat blocks and a basic description of what they looked like. The fact that Demogorgon had an actual story meant he was supposed to be a boss-level threat, and that has continued through the years.
Demogorgon has received a stat block and lore description in every edition of D&D. After the original edition, He was included in the main monster manuals for first and second edition, and the fiendish codex for 3rd and 3.5 edition. The Fiendish codex was a resource specifically devoted to the Abyss and the demon lords. In 4th edition he was the cover model for the Monster Manual 2, and in 5th edition his stats and story were in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes until Monsters of the Multiverse supplanted it. Fortunately(?) Demogorgon’s stats made the transition.
Physically, Demogorgon is supposed to be terrifying in a variety of aspects. To begin with, he’s eighteen feet tall, or just about 5 and half meters for those of you in sensible countries. To start off the weirdness, Demogorgon has two heads, both of which look like a mix of baboon and mandrill, the with bright blue, red, and grey coloring of the latter.
The heads sit atop snake like necks, though they aren’t very long and quickly broaden out into a large humanoid torso covered in a mix of hair and scales. Two arms come down from the shoulders, but where most humanoids would put the elbows, the arms split into two tentacles each. Demogorgon’s legs are lizard like, with reptilian feet. Finally, he has a scaly, barbed tail.
A brief note about Demogorgon’s gender. Physically, Demogorgon is said to be hermaphroditic, meaning all the equipment is available. However Demogorgon usually presents as male; the title “Prince of Demons” was Demogorgon’s choice, and most of the time people use male pronouns when they aren’t using his name. Or just, you know, screaming a lot.
Despite the physically imposing body, Demogorgon doesn’t actually like direct physical confrontation. That’s not really a problem for him because he has access to a *lot* of magic. In most versions of his stat block, he’s able to cast several powerful illusion and charm spells with basically no effort. He also tends to send hordes of demons at intruders that they have to wade through before making it to him, meaning they show up weakened anyway.
If someone does make it into close combat, he’s definitely no slouch. First of all, his mere presence tends to invoke fear, and if both heads focus their attention on someone, they generally end up charmed or otherwise confused. His arm tentacles are physically dangerous, and the tail is not only equally as powerful, but drains energy and life force from whatever it hits. His position as a demon lord also means that if he kills you, it’s very likely your body, soul, or both are going to end up destroyed or in some sort of state where resurrection is very difficult, if not impossible.
Demogorgon’s lore has actually remained pretty consistent through the editions. A few stories or sources have added pieces to his lore through the years, but usually they don’t contradict each other. That said, one major point of confusion is Demogorgon’s actual origin.
One origin story deals with the conflict between demon subspecies. Though it’s largely removed from the lore in fifth edition, demons used to be subdivided; obyrith [OB-uh-rith] were the demons that existed before time was a thing, simply existing in and enjoying the uncontrolled chaos of pre-existence. Once order started entering the multiverse, the tanar’ri [tan-AR-ree] showed up. Most of the demons in D&D are of the tanar’ri type.
Side note; in real life, the tanar’ri thing was borne out of the 1980s satanic panic. To avoid using the actual words “demon” and “devil”, TSR came up with “tanar’ri” and “baatezu” [bah-TAY-zoo] respectively.
One of the origin stories is that Demogorgon was one of the original tanar’ri that rose up when the obyrith were being generally beaten and annihilated by the gods at the time. They were more than willing to fight the gods, but only after the obyrith were put in their place. By the time they finished that, the Abyss had already formed to contain all the demons. Demogorgon was simply one of the strongest of the tanar’ri to emerge, along with figures like Orcus and Zuggtmoy.
Another origin story is basically the same, except instead of the obyrith wanting to maintain total chaos in the face of the gods, it was the primordials. It pitted the primordials into a two-pronged war, but since the demons were a lot less powerful than the gods, the primordials were able to sort of sequester them off in the Abyss and then refocus their attention on the gods.
Separate from either story, taking a critical hit from the god Amoth is supposedly what gave Demogorgon his two heads.
In the Abyss, you stay in charge by forceful domination of anything around you. Demogorgon basically declared himself to be the prince of demons and then let anyone who disagreed try to oust him. So far, no one has succeeded, although arguably a lot of the demons in the Abyss probably don’t care if they’re the Prince or not.
Two people who do seem to care are Orcus and Graz’zt. Orcus is probably the most constant foe who gives Demogorgon a run for his money, with Graz’zt coming in a close second. One of three things usually interrupts any of the attempts to get the better of Demogorgon. First, one or both of the participants will vanish from the Abyss. Being demon lords, they can be summoned, and also they would much rather conquer and take territory in the much less hostile material plane. So if the opportunity arises for them to leave, they usually take it immediately. Sometimes that also delays them for a while (such as when Graz’zt was summoned by Tasha, and that resulted in them “getting in trouble” in a whole different way).
Distraction number two would be the Blood War. Any inter-demonic conflicts are usually put on hold any time the devils of the Nine Hells actually make progress advancing into the Abyss. So if Orcus and Demogorgon are fighting about who borrowed the other’s lawnmower, they will let bygones be bygones so they can use the lawnmower to mow down the encroaching devils. Note in this case the lawnmower is probably a multi limbed, toothed, and clawed demonic monstrosity.
The final problem is that Demogorgon usually self-sabotages. The two heads of the demon lord are each individuals. The left head is named Aameul [AH-meh-yule] while the right is called Hethradiah [heth-RA-dee-ah]. Aameul is more shrewd, preferring careful planning and manipulation, while Hethradiah is impulsive, often going with brute force solutions. Neither one can override the other completely, so situations where Demogorgon is faced with multiple problems at the same time, he can effectively paralyze himself with indecision, like when players have to choose a race for their character. As with many entities in the lower realms, some people theorize that if Demogorgon weren’t constantly messing up his own plans because the right head doesn’t know what the left head is doing, he would have a real shot at taking over the Abyss.
As it stands, he rules the 88th level of the Abyss, called the Gaping Maw. It’s a landscape of briny water, rocky bogs, and one continent with thick, dense jungle. No one’s sure if Demogorgon shaped the layer or he adapted to the layer when he conquered it, but Demogorgon is all about aquatic and reptilian creatures and demons. A large number of the creatures that follow him are kuo-toa, krakens, and demonic manta rays called ixitxachitls [iks-it-ZATCH-it-ul]. He also seems to have an affinity or influence over many types of fish, lizards, and dinosaurs.
He’s also something of an innovator. Demogorgon is credited with the development or creation of several creatures, including Retriever demons, berzerker humanoid lizard creatures called Khaastas, and the Ettins.
He also may have worked with the demon lord Zuggtmoy on the creation of a few plagues that persist in the Gaping Maw. Demogorgon gets along with the queen of fungus, possibly because a lot of their territories of interest overlap. His comfort and familiarity with water also mean he and the lesser god Dagon often conspire.
He has also taken lovers, though the only ones that anyone knows about have been succubi. He was attached to one named Shami-Amourae for a while until her manipulations of him were discovered and he had her imprisoned in a portion of the Abyss. He was also attached to the succubus queen Malcanthet, who was just as manipulative toward him but apparently better at hiding it.
The relationship with Malcanthet actually produced offspring. Socothbenoth [so-KOTH-ben-oth] became another unremarkable demon lord in the Abyss, but their first born Adrenagrost [ah-DREN-ah-grost] made more of an impact. Appearing as a gigantic three-headed lizard with a mass of tentacles for a body, Demogorgon initially banished it because it was too hideous to look at. Eventually, however, it proved its worth as a berserking engine of destruction in conflicts and Demogorgon gave it a lair on the Gaping Maw.
As far as cultists go, Demogorgon doesn’t have anywhere near the numbers other demon lords have, and the ones he does have usually don’t have well thought out goals. He can boost magical power, but Demogorgon’s only real interest is sewing chaos and gaining power for himself. He’s very much one of those people that makes a four step plan where step 3 is a bunch of question marks, and his followers mostly follow that creed. Chaos doesn’t promote a lot of cooperation long term, so cults of Demogorgon rarely get large or effective enough to be considered a real threat. They do pop up when cities, groups, or civilizations start falling apart, but people always debate whether the cult got big and then caused the chaos, or if the chaos started independently and people just jumped on the chaotic bandwagon, so to speak.
The usual threat with the cultists is that they’ll try to summon Demogorgon, but it’s very rare that any group will have enough power or influence to actually summon the demon lord. More often what they end up with is an “aspect” of the real deal which is dangerous but less powerful. In Demogorgon’s case, his aspects also come out uneven; the personality of one of his heads will tend to be more dominant in an aspect, though which one takes precedence is never clear until the aspect manifests.
Using Demogorgon in a campaign is both easy and hard. The Demon lord is a convenient signal flag that lets players and characters know “yes, these people are evil, and they are not interested in a lot of philosophical discussion on the topic.” Also they are unlikely to have far-reaching plans and complex plots meant to subtly undermine and manipulate a large number of people, so they can pop in, raise havoc for a while and then, when they’re disposed of, that can be the end of it.
On the other hand if you need a longer-reaching, more complex plot, that’s not totally out of character. As we mentioned, Demogorgon’s left head Amaeul is crafty and cunning, so a devotee who follows that aspect of Demogorgon can develop further reaching plans. Also, if someone actually wants to summon Demogorgon for whatever reason, that can involve a bunch of disparate, wide reaching adventures as the people involved try to gather artifacts, rituals, and power to make it happen.
If the statted creature ever lands on the table, however, people are going to start dying, and Demogorgon is deceptively lethal. Most of his magic is subtle; he doesn’t start flinging fireballs or lightning bolts around. What he does do is start melting brains, but unlike a lot of manipulative magic users, he has a solid AC and a pool of hitpoints on par with a lot of ancient dragons.
So the fighter and the barbarian can charge in and start beating on the demon lord, then when he finally hits one of them for significant damage, they turn to their allies for support. That’s when they see the bard cowering in a corner, the wizard playing with rocks on the ground because they literally have the same intelligence now, and the cleric walking toward them with spirit guardians that are NOT excluding them from the damage.
As an aside, if you don’t want to build your own campaign around him, Demogorgon is also one of the few “god” level creatures that features in an official D&D 5e adventure. The module “Out of the Abyss” directly involves Demogorgon in most of its story.