This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty Seven on 4th September 2019.
Lennon: Ostron said he was in the Candlekeep annex?
Ryu: Yeah, he wanted-…um
Ryu: Yes, we can see you have a book
Ostron: Just take the book, it’s easier.
Lennon: Right, thank you…what was that about?
Ostron: That’s Libby.
Ryu: I didn’t know the research beholders started sharing their names?
Ostron: That’s what Gath and I call it. A couple of weeks ago we noticed it was always in the annex. If you aren’t holding a book or a scroll when you’re in here it gets agitated and brings you one. Also if you keep one for more than an hour it brings you a different one and takes that one away.
Ryu: Right, yes…oh hey this one’s on dragons!
Ostron: Yeah, that’s why we haven’t done anything; it’s really good at finding relevant resources. I mean, it never puts the books back on the shelves, but there’s another beholder that seems to take care of that, so we just run with it. Makes research a lot faster.
Lennon: Does that mean you’ve finished that primer on the nine hells?
Ostron: Take a look.
Descent into Avernus, and previously Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, focuses a lot on the concept of the Nine Hells in D&D. Since not everyone has the time or the wherewithal to read through that information, we thought it might help to provide a quick summary.
One thing that a lot of people immediately get wrong is equating the Nine Hells to a popular judeo-christian version of hell, and casting Asmodeus as a stand-in for the Devil, with all evil souls ending up there.
The actual operation of the nine hells is a lot more complicated. First we’ll touch on the souls thing. There hasn’t been an official 5e resource to reinforce it, but in most incarnations of D&D, all souls went to the so-called “Fugue plane” which is sort of the baggage claim for dead souls. If a soul is dedicated to a god, representatives of that god would pick up the soul and spirit it away to the appropriate domain. Anyone who wasn’t dedicated to a god had the option to petition a god if they actually believed they would be recognized, or they just hung around until they became part of what’s called the “wall of the faithless”, sort of like how it worked with the flying dutchman in Pirates of the Caribbean.
However, waiting in the wings are any number of devils willing to offer the faithless souls an alternative; come work for the hells rather than be absorbed meaninglessly into the wall. But that’s more the hells’ side gig; most of their souls come from contracts with living mortals, and those people’s souls go directly to the appropriate level of hell upon death, where they become one of the various devils that inhabit those places.
Another common misconception is when the more literary minded hear “nine hells” and immediately think of Dante. Now, the comparison here is a little more apt; there’s certainly a lot about the nine hells that borrows heavily from Inferno, but there’s a whole lot that’s different too. First; fire and brimstone do not feature on most of the hells’ levels. We’re going to quickly cover what is on the the different layers and who’s in charge, in order.
There’s a lot of information about Avernus and more coming out thanks to Descent, but in short, it’s full of ruins. Cities, fortifications, the landscape, everything is rubble, and the few intact structures are usually fortifications put up by the devils to prepare for when the next incursion of demons sweeps through, because Avernus is constantly the front line of fighting in the Blood Wars, a topic we’ll discuss another time. Again, as everyone knows, Zariel is in charge due to a fairly complex story but she’s only really interested in the fighting. Devils are supposed to be all regimented and tactical, but Zariel herself operates almost like a barbarian, leading the charge directly into the heart of whatever fighting is going on.
Of course, before we move on, I have to remind everyone Avernus is where Tiamat lives. Wizards has still been very close-mouthed on why exactly Tiamat is banished to the hells, but she lives on a mountain with a lot of chromatic dragons, and in general both the devils and the demons are fine with that. The last couple of times either group tried to attack, Tiamat just went “lol, noobz” and everything that wasn’t a dragon died, so her mountain has a semi-permanent “We’ll deal with this later” notation for the armies of hell.
Spiraling our way downward, the next level is Dis. As one might expect from an area constantly on a war footing, Dis is where all the weapons, war machines, and technology comes from, so the plane is a contiguous collection of factories, foundries, mines (both kinds) and testing areas. The ruler, Dispater is constantly on the lookout for new information and techniques for making weapons, and is hyper paranoid of anyone getting his secrets or breaking in to use his weapons.
Below that is Minauros, which is the airport terminal of the hells. All new devils come through this level and are either assigned to whatever devil negotiated their presence there, or they’re put up for sale by the level’s master, Mammon. A cheapskate of the highest order and only interested in something based on what’s it’s value is in gold, Mammon spends almost none of his vast wealth on maintaining Minauros so the whole plane is essentially a run-down shantytown where it’s inhabited at all.
Phlegethos does actually conform to common depictions of hell; volcanoes, lava rivers, and molten lakes where everything is on fire, and the fire actively tries to attack people. However, the fire doesn’t affect the devils of hell, and the co-rulers, Fierna and Belial have set up the Nine Hells’ version of Las Vegas. Devilish bars, theatres, casinos, and other places of relaxation and pleasure are available at this level. The two rulers have an odd rivalry; Fierna is a master manipulator and charmer while Belial is a rigid planner, preparer, and organizer. As such, while Fierna keeps the parties going, Phlegethos is the center of the Nine Hells’ judicial system under Belial, which both sentences devils who violated the Hells’ inordinately complex legal code and oversees devils who are promoted to higher devils.
Below that you have Stygia, a literal polar opposite of the plane above it. Stygia is entirely made up of frozen water, either a complete ice sheet or open water with multiple icebergs floating in it. The current ruler, Levistus, upset Asmodeus somehow and is encased in one of these icebergs, which is constructed of nearly impenetrable ice. That’s good for Levistus in one sense because another archdevil, Geryon wants to take over the plane, but can’t get to it’s current lord to attack. Stygia actually has a number of mundane creatures inhabiting it, such as Mammoths and Frost Giants and it hasn’t been converted to devilish use at all, so some believe Stygia is a more recent and non-native addition to the hells, brought in as some sort of bargain gone wrong.
Malbolge is the Nine Hells’ prison colony; anyone who got convicted of something up on Phlegethos does their time down on this plane. The whole landscape is a steep mountain with constant rockfalls. Imprisoned devils are hung in cages from platforms that keep the devils protected enough so the rockfalls aren’t lethal while still allowing them serious harm. Glasya, the ruler of this level, is actually Asmodeus’ daughter…though no one’s sure how that works because devils don’t breed. She is considered a master of the Nine Hells’ legal code in that she’s able to bend it almost into a circle without actually breaking any laws. She also forms the most complex and unfair contracts of any of the Archdevils.
Maladomini is the server farm of the Nine Hells; all of the bureaucratic information for the hells is stored here, although they don’t use computers to do it; it’s all scrolls and books and parchment. It’s also all underground. There used to be very nice storehouses and buildings on the surface until the devil in charge, Baalzebul shirked his duties in sending troops to support the Blood War. The other devils retaliated and turned Maladomini into a wasteland.
Cania is another level playing against type. Like Stygia it’s frozen, but where Stygia is “I need layers and a sweater under my coat” cold, Cania is outer space cold; unprotected creatures die to the elements in seconds, and the ruler, Mephistopheles makes sure to keep blizzards and storms going constantly. Partly this is because Cania is the last line of defense before reaching Asmodeus’ realm, but also because Mephistopheles is the original antisocial wizard in the tower; he does magical research constantly and it’s said even being able to watch him or his minions work on things can advance most people’s magical knowledge by leaps and bounds, not to mention all of the magical artifacts and tomes available.
Finally, we have Nessus, home of the big guy himself. Asmodeus is concerned with the bigger picture; he doesn’t much concern himself with the activities of the Nine Hells itself, instead planning cosmic domination and trying to outmaneuver the various gods and demigods that he’ll have to deal with when he invariably wins the Blood War. As such, his level of the hells has almost nothing going on in it and is a barren wasteland of cracks and pits. The idea is that if something does happen it’s immediately noticeable and Asmodeus can respond well before it becomes a threat. His fortress in the level is in the deepest pit there and is nearly impossible to get to.
Hopefully this summary will be helpful when more and more conversations about the hells invariably start because of Descent into Avernus.
Lennon: That does seem to cover all the basics
Lennon: What is this? “Scrying When Your Intelligence is 3″…hang on-
Ryu: Oh I get it! Time to go to the Scrying pool and see what the listeners have to say. Libby does seem quite clever.
Ostron: That’s what I’ve been saying. Glad you’re on board.
Lennon: My intelligence is not 3!