This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Thirty-nine on 28th October 2020.
Lennon: Darn it…yes?
Ryu: Well, for one, you failed your stealth roll. For another, why are you heading toward the workshop with a blackjack?
Lennon: I…need to use ROSTRO and Ostron’s in the workshop.
Ryu: Okay, so there are so many things wrong with what you’re doing I just…can’t…even…but why do you need to use that…thing?
Lennon: Well, I’m not exactly sure how to summon Asmodeus and I was hoping ROSTRO could help.
Ryu: Oh…I thought you were in the workshop?
Ostron: No…why were you yelling?
Ryu: Can you explain to me why Lennon has decided he needs to summon Asmodeus?
Ostron: No…whenever he’s doing something odd I assume it’s a British thing.
Lennon: Hang on, you’re not pushing this off on me, you were the one who gave me the research assignment.
Ostron: I said I needed a few notes on Asmodeus, I assumed you were going to ask Libby or something. What, you were going to get it from the source?
Lennon: Well it’s the quickest way, isn’t it?
All right, why don’t we see what you’ve got and what Ostron’s already gathered and then we’ll see if we need to do more research or not.
People who haven’t studied the lore of D&D usually assume Asmodeus is basically analogous to the Judeo-Christian devil, and in broad strokes they aren’t completely wrong. The very very short version of his (and in almost all cases Asmodeus is given a masculine gender and portrayal) history is that he’s in charge of the Nine Hells, all the devils of any rank report to him, and he just wants to gather as many mortal souls as possible and win the Blood War. But if you dig a little deeper, there are some nuances that emerge. Unfortunately there are also a lot of contradictions.
Most of the lore that now exists about Asmodeus was published during D&D’s 2nd edition; other than 4th edition all the lore about Asmodeus and the nine hells have been reprints or summaries of info published back then. 4th edition took the lore in a different direction, but all of that has been retconned as of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes so we’re not going to cover it here.
One thing that most sources agree on is Asmodeus’s physical being. Apparently the true form of Asmodeus is a several hundred mile long scaled serpent suffering from multiple bleeding wounds. This form exists in a pit on Nessus, the lowest layer of the nine hells. This form is obviously inconvenient for conducting normal business so when most beings encounter Asmodeus, it is in the form of one of his avatars. Those avatars generally appear as a red-skinned humanoid 13 feet or 4 meters tall with glowing red eyes, horns, and a well trimmed beard, generally dressed in very expensive clothes colored red or black. In general beings find him attractive, charming, and very persuasive as long as he is making an effort to behave that way.
One interesting misnomer that tends to remain constant in the lore is while Asmodeus is the leader of the nine hells and is classed as a fiend, he is not actually a devil himself. In reality he is more often considered a diety, albeit one with a very different job profile.
Because of that, fighting him is a dubious proposition at best. Usually Asmodeus has access to a large number of known spells, particularly those themed around fire, and more spell slots or casting ability than mortals have access to. In come cases he is able to cast any known spell given the right circumstances. In addition to the spellcasting, Asmodeus is generally immune to most damage, trying to use mental abilities on him is pointless, and he is able to instill fear or domination on most beings without undue effort.
The other thing primarily involved in combat is his Ruby Rod, which appears in form to be a large ruby shaped as a scepter. To attack, the rod can shoot beams of acid, electricity, or a cone of cold at range, or Asmodeus can simply hit someone with it which, in addition to doing physical damage, immediately casts an inflict wounds spell on the target if hit. Defensively, the rod can project an aura which renders people unwilling to attack Asmodeus, it can create a wall of force on command, and it can project a field that acts as both an antimagic field and a cleansing aura, restoring health and curing diseases. All of Asmodeus’s avatars come with the rod, for reasons we’ll explain in a moment.
While most of the information about Asmodeus’s form and behavior are consistent, his origins are not. There are three conflicting stories in lore, and each explains some aspect of Asmodeus. By the way if any scholars of mythology and religion recognize some familiar themes in these stories, well…you’re right. But so far none of the gods involved have sued for copyright infringement so…
The first story relates to his true form, the giant serpent. This origin posits that Asmodeus was one of two strongest lawful dieties of creation, then called Ahriman. He and the other diety, Jazirian, wanted to impose order on the multiverse so they bit each other’s tails and thus formed the ring that would define the Great Wheel. However, the gods disagreed on where the center of the ring should be; Jazirian wanted Celestia, Ahriman wanted Baator. They eventually bit through each others’ tails and Ahriman had no wings so he fell, forming the crater his body now sits in and inflicting the multiple wounds he still suffers from. The Asmodeus name just happened at some point.
Story number two is the one Asmodeus and the devils more often tell when asked, possibly because it portrays Asmodeus and his followers in a more positive light. In this version of the story, the demons were constantly fighting the gods, but the gods wearied of the fighting and created angels to do it for them. Asmodeus was, of course, the best at his job but he and his lieutenants had somewhat “gone native” in their efforts to combat the demons and got annoyed, but Asmodeus counter-argued that they’d followed the intent of their orders. The gods were unable to come up with an effective, legal counter-argument. The story recycles that theme a lot, with the gods generally falling prey to Asmodeus’s legal interpretations around punishment of mortals, using souls for energy and magic, until eventually the gods got fed up with him and threw him out of Celestia, literally, again resulting in the falling and the pit and the wounds that don’t heal.
Story number three is one of the less popular ones and it relates to the magical ruby rod. In this version Asmodeus is a powerful being in service to an unnamed god in the Abyss simply called “he who was.” This god was apparently the ultimate micromanager and Asmodeus rebelled and killed him. In the process he grabbed one of the Shards of Evil the god guarded at the center of the abyss and used it to create the rod of evil, then eventually just set up the nine hells thing. Most people think that while all of the above happened, since the god in quesiton did exist, is now dead, and the ruby rod was definitely formed from a shard of evil, it isn’t Asmodeus’s origin story.
Asmodeus’s motivations and ultimate goals are also something most people misinterpret. The first misconception is Asmodeus just wants to take over everything because power and he wants all the souls from everyone because more power.
In reality he wants to take over because he honestly believes he would do a better job at controlling and running the multiverse than the beings currently in charge. Obviously there’s some differences of opinion on that.
The second thing is the souls bit. Interestingly Asmodeus is not interested in acquiring a vast amount of souls or worshipers; his power and abilities don’t increase based on the number of adherents he has because of his unique status, but he’s also not a devil, so he doesn’t need to use souls for energy since he himself is a divine being. However, he still has all those wounds from (apparently) plummeting through Baator. In order to cure those, he needs souls of avowed atheists, and in a world where gods grant their followers obvious divine powers and occasionally show up to say hi, those are hard to find. It’s rumored that’s why some cults of Asmodeus seemingly fail on their own; Asmodeus allows it to happen in an effort to get some of the followers to swear off religion completely.
Apart from that, Asmodeus is a connoisseur. He only really pursues souls belonging to angels, massively powerful mortals, or other such rare beings, and usually his end goal is to make them a lieutenant or some sort of active agent rather than simply trapping them down in the Hells. His successes to date include Tiamat (though that’s debated), an archon named Triel who’s now known as Baalzebul, and Zariel.
The other misconception is that he’s desperately focused on the Blood War to protect existence from the demons and ensure the Devils don’t get overrun. In reality, that’s propaganda so Asmodeus can argue that he’s being altruistic. Asmodeus barely pays the conflict any attention and when he does, it’s for one reason; the rest of the shards of evil at the center of the Abyss. Rumor has it that if Asmodeus gains control of them, he also gains dominion over all the demons. so obviously he doesn’t want to eliminate what he sees as his future reinforcements. It could also explain why the side that has an actual god on it hasn’t already won, especially because, if you believe one of the origin stories, he’s won the exact same war in the past.
As far as what he does or has done there are a large number of conflicting stories and examples, but a few major incidents are generally agreed upon. One of the earlier ones has been made into a play in the material plane called the Trial of Asmodeus. This follows along the same theme as Asmodeus’s “servant of the gods” origin story, in which the angels accused Asmodeus of wrongdoing and got the chief Modron, primus, a perfectly neutral being, to mediate. Asmodeus presented his case, stating everything he’d done was within the letter of the agreements. The angels en masse tried to shout their examples and objections until Zariel (still an angel) tried to punch her way to the front and started a brawl. Primus lost his patience with the angels, declared no wrongdoing, but decreed that Asmodeus would always carry the ruby rod to serve as a symbol of the decision.
The other major event that all the devils cite as evidence of Asmodeus’s brilliance as a manipulator is known as the Reckoning of Hell. It started when two separate alliances of Archdevils started working to overthrow Asmodeus. The first was led by Baalzebul, who had Belial, Moloch, and Zariel on his side, the other was headed by Mephistopheles, who had Mammon, Dispater,, and Geryon with him. All of them wanted to overthrow Asmodeus, but disagreed about who should be in charge, so they went to war with each other. Asmodeus just sat back in the lowest level of hell until he told Geryon, who was still loyal, to move. See, he had made sure the pit fiends in all the armies were still loyal to Asmodeus, so on the signal, they all rose up and basically ruined the armies of all sides. So Asmodeus put down two rebellions simultaneously and didn’t really have to do anything himself.
Prior to the reckoning, Asmodeus had a consort named Bensozia, which is where his daughter Glasya came from. However, when Levistus tried to get Bensozia to turn on Asmodeus, she rebuffed him hard and he killed her in a rage, which led to his imprisonment in the ice in Stygia. It was only after the reckoning, when Asmodeus decided Geryon needed to go for some reason, that Levistus was returned to consciousness, though he’s still stuck in the glacier.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, Asmodeus seems to make an effort to enhance his own reputation as someone who can maintain control and outsmart anyone he needs to. At this point most people in the know assume there are multiple layers to everything he does. For example, the demon lord Graz’zt used to be an archdevil, but apparently switched sides after Asmodeus sent him into the Abyss on a mission. But did he actually switch sides, or does Asmodeus have an inside man in the abyss now, closer to his goal of the evil shards? He’s also credited with freeing the duregar from mindflayer control in exchange for their pact to always fight the forces of Lolth, and of course he made the tieflings what they are today, but were those just the results of simple pacts or is there a larger game he’s playing. And what exactly is his deal with Tiamat?
These are things that remain unknown, at least officially, and that’s something that has to be considered at a player and DM level. Much of the information presented here about Asmodeus has been confirmed in lore, but from characters’ perspective in-game it would be either myth or rumor unless they were infernal scholars. For example, in lore, anyone other than an archdevil who’s seen Asmodeus’s true form has died within 24 hours. Not because of some curse or mystic spell; he just sends a whole lot of devils to kill them. So no one other than an archdevil would be able to confirm that. The reason Levistus is locked in ice is also, officially, a mystery. So if Asmodeus is a main feature in a game, be sure to recognize which information is stuff you know, and what are things your character would be aware of.
Lennon: No, you know, I get it, but I just…I can’t deal with more uncertainty in my life right now. I have to go through with it.
Lennon: Hey, how’d you get that from me?
Ryu: You’ve heard of sleight of hand? Actually given your performance earlier you probably haven’t. Oh, and take it from me, Asmodeus won’t answer questions, no matter how fancy your hat.
Ostron: But we still have to, so let’s get to the Scrying Pool!