Earlier this summer, Wizards of the Coast released a book called the Demonomicon. Either the angry religious parents’ groups are as far behind on their RPG reviews as I am, or the world’s attitude toward RPGs has changed a hell of a lot in 30 years.
It’s easy to forget that there’s a whole era of D&D where demons are completely absent. Oh, some of them sneaked in here and there under different names, but the weird backlash against RPGs had a very strong effect on the hobby and the industry. This game was going to turn kids on to Satanism and witchcraft, teach them to cast real spells, send them scurrying around sewers and caves and end up submerging their true personalities beneath that of their character as they eventually became unable to spot the line between the fantasy game and the real world. I’ll admit that the term “Dungeon Master” sounds pretty sinister and unsavory, but come on.
So the fact that Wizards of the Coast was able to release a book with the word “Demon” on the cover, and in the dreaded “Nomicon” variation no less, is pretty amazing. We’ve seen gaming and nerd culture move into the mainstream, so there’s a greater public understanding of what gaming is and isn’t. There are still religious goofballs who rend their shirts about this stuff, but most people are at least educated enough these days to roll their eyes and carry on.
We got our demons back. Are they any good? Yeah. This is a really solid book with a bunch of interesting ways to incorporate the residents of the Abyss into a campaign. It’s much more than a Monster Manual full of demons. That part is in it, too, and there are some really good demons to choose from. But it has a lot of other demoney goodness. It is, essentially, an epic tier campaign guide focused on demons.
Unfortunately, the book starts out with the weakest section, a history of the Abyss and an ecology of demons. It’s not that it’s poorly done, I just think this kind of approach doesn’t suit demons well. One of the guiding, defining rules of effective horror is that what you don’t show is much scarier than anything you put on screen. When you get to the point of defining the value of a soul larva in gold pieces, you’re pretty much putting it all on screen. Demons need to be mysterious, unkown, half-hidden and lurking in shadows and nightmares. They shouldn’t be mere animals.
The section that maps and describes some of the Abyssal planes suffers somewhat from the same problem, but also another pervasive flaw in any RPG “hell” dimension. One monster is scary. One million monsters is boring. The very scale of the Abyss makes it mundane. Demons are constantly generated, ascended, killed and reincarnated. They die by the tens of thousands in the infinite wars between demon lords. The planes are thousands of miles across, littered with an unimaginable number of corpses, pits, portals and whatever else you want to throw in there. Starbucks. McDonalds where they never, ever get your order right. The Iron Wastes have like 70,000 of those.
Contrast that to the old Ravenloft demiplanes. They were gloomy, oppressive and you were trapped in them, but they were finite. There was one main bad guy you could try to defeat, one mystery you could try to solve. There was a point to adventuring there. What is the point of adventuring in the Abyss? Coming up with lyrics for new Slayer songs?
Assuming you’re willing to ignore the overly detailed family trees and information of demonic dietary needs, and don’t plan to write any adventures in which the PCs must fight through 50,000 derghodemons before scaling the 10,000 mile tall Tower of Repetitive Torture, there’s a lot of good stuff to be found in the Demonomicon. There are rules for summoning demons if you need to ask one a question — fun, but dangerous. If your party is being hassled by lesser demons allied with a specific demon lord, you can apply some great new demonic themes to them to add flavor and give the players a little surprise. You’ll roar with delight as Zuggtmoy’s minions infect the PCs with a choking fungal rot disease.
Interestingly, there are powers you can grant to certain demons who have been summoned and bound to a master. I know you’re thinking, “Wow, that would be a really cool thing for my sorcerer, to bind a demon and gain some fun new powers!” But the book is very careful to note that, “Regardless of their alignment, player characters cannot bind demons to permanent service.” For game balance reasons, right? Right. I guess Wizards has their limits when it comes to demons.
DMs also gain some nice demonic traps and hazards, a skill challenge for stopping the evil cult’s ritual, and a suggested campaign arc involving the Obyriths, pre-Abyss chaotic deities from another universe who, for the most part, remain appropriately vague and mysterious and thus make ominous big bads.
The stats for a wide variety of lesser demons round out the book, along with stat blocks for many of the top ranked demon lords of all time. I find myself drawn to their more insidious and subtle demons, like Zuggtmoy and Oublivae, rather than the demons who are just really violent and angry and send 10,000 Balors after you.
One thing that really struck me about the Demonomicon is the art. Although some of it is recycled from 3rd edition, it’s all really excellent. The demons are fierce and colorful, with a wide variety in shapes and styles, but without resorting to the seemingly random assortments of fangs and eyes that plague some books of this nature.
I’m generally a sucker for anything with “Nomicon” attached to the title, and the Demonomicon did not disappoint, despite a few flaws.