Guidance – Storytelling 101: Adventures in the Nine Hells

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about adventuring in Hell.

Here we are, folks! The final article in the Know Direction Network’s One Hell of an August special event! And what better way to end the event then by talking about Hell?

Again.

For the empteenth time.

Wait! Come back! Its DIFFERENT this time! How, you ask? Because today, for the Ultimate Article in Know Direction’s One Hell of an August, our topic is all about taking the fight to Hell by adventuring in it.

A Hellish Infinity

There are two important facts that one needs to know before adventuring in Hell: first, the plane commonly known as Hell is comprised of Nine subplanes, or layers. Second, all nine of those subplanes are infinite in size and scope. At first glance, many assume that something like “nine infinities” is a nonsense number, but quantum physics actually backs up Pathfinder a little bit, believe it or not. In Quantum Physics, there are essentially two types of infinity, a theory that actually goes back to the mathematical works of Indian mathemation Surya Prajnapti: asamkhyata and ananta. So, what do these two Indian words mean? Asamkhyata effectively means “countless” or “innumerable” while anata means “endless” or unlimited.

So its pretty difficult to actually figure out what these two types of infinity are, so let me try to help you: the sand on every beach on the planet is countlessly infinite while the number of numbers in existence is endlessly infinite. Basically, if I were to gather every grand of sand on planet Earth and ask you to count them all for me, technically you could. But it would take you, your children, your children’s children, and their grandchildren so long to do so that the number of grains of sand on the planet are countless; they’re infinite in the sense that counting them is impossible. Numbers, on the other hand, are endless. If I took the number ‘0’ and the number ‘1’ and asked you to count for me every number between the two, you wouldn’t know where to start. Should you start at .00000000001 or .000000000001? In both cases, there is an infinite number of numbers that are still between those numbers, which makes counting the number of numbers in existence simply impossible.

In terms of its size, Hell is the first kind of infinity; it is countless in the sense that counting it would take so much time that is effectively impossible for mortals. For outsiders and gods? Probably not, but remember that mortals are the lens upon which the players view reality, to an average character’s perspective, Hell is infinite. This is good for both GMs and PCs because it means that there is an infinite number of adventuring locations in Hell alone. With that said, every plane in Hell has a “theme,” so to speak, so that’s the place that we’re going to start in our description of how to adventure in Hell.

Name of the Plane

Obviously, I’m not going to be able to tell you EVERYTHING that exists in Hell, but I can give you a brief overview of the layers of Hell. Remember that if you want to know more, its worth checking out the following products: Book of the Damned, Vol 1: Princes of Darkness, Guide to the Multiverse, and Hell Unleashed.

Alright, let’s get cracking.

  • Avernus, the First: This plane is a volcanic wasteline where souls assemble, are judged, and are sent off to other layers of Hell. This is the iconic “fire and brimstone” version of Hell and ironically, it is also something of an infernal waiting room for evil folk. Now, many of you might be asking why Hell judges souls when that’s sort of Pharasma’s job. Well, in short, Pharasma decides where souls go, and once a soul goes to Hell, its up to the denizens of Hell to determine how “worthy” each soul is. Souls that lived life in pursuit of Asmodeus’s goals are quickly promoted into powerful devils while less worthy souls are transformed into lemures and likely shipped off to other planes to be used as mortar, fuel, or whatever else the devils use a goopey, useless devil for.
  • Dis, the Second: Dis is a massive, infinite city like Axis that is the crux of “pure Law,” in the sense of, “Law the way Asmodeus likes it.” Dis provides soldiers for every other layer of Hell, so chances are you’re going to be getting into a scrap if you go to this layer of Hell.
  • Erebus, the Third: Believe it or not, but the sewers of Hell are so massive that they’re basically their own plane. That’s Erebus. Ironically, Hell’s fortunes are listed in Erebus, as well as its supplies (including armories). Its basically a massive provisions depot in addition to being a sewer. Gross, right?
  • Phlegethon, the Fourth: Phlegethon is basically a massive soulforge that transforms unsuitable souls into something “more fitting to the Infernal eye.” I don’t think I want to know what that means.
  • Stygia, the Fifth: Temples and libraries dedicated to every sin and heretical act imaginable comprise Stygia, the fifth layer of Hell. Specifically, devils are sent to Stygia to learn the art of temptation so they can further the ranks of Asmodeus’s servants.
  • Malebolge, the Sixth: Malebolge is a souldering forest where damned souls go to be hunted down for the sport of more powerful devils.
  • Cocytus, the Seventh: The buildings and features of this plane actually float atop frozen glaciers. Damned souls here are forced to watch devils feast for all eternity, so it’s basically a massive torture plane.
  • Caina, the Eighth: If you though Cocytus was bad, Caina is worse. Anyone brought into Caina is brought there to be tortured by more hands-on approaches: suspended in steel cages surrounded by inpenetrable darkness. Literally, it is just an endless jail.
  • Nessus, the Nineth: This is the heart of Hell, its most important and heavily guarded layer. Asmodeus dwells here, and the entire plane is his palace.

Features of Hell

As you can see, Hell is pretty geographically diverse, but there are some common features to keep in mind while you’re traveling there.

  • Hellfire: Endless burning, even without fuel, this unholy fire is a hallmark of the plane. Be careful: its as unholy as it is hot!
  • Hellsmouths: Portals to other places in Hell dot the fiendish landscape, usually in the form of bleeding orifices, wounds, or devilish faces. Hellmouths are also usually guarded by powerful devils and can occasionally connect to Axis (Lawful Neutral city-plane), Abaddon (Neutral Evil daemon realm), and the Abyss (Chaotic Evil demon nesting ground).
  • The River Styx: Famous from Greek Mythology and Dante’s Inferno, the River Styx flows through six of the nine planes of Hell: Avernus through Dis, Erebus, Stygia, Malebolge, Cocytus, and Cania. After there, it passes into other planes. Aquatic fiends roam the river, and that’s not even the worst part: souls that enter the water quickly lose their memories in the form of negative levels.

What to Do in Hell

So, you’re going to Hell. What do you do?

  • Rescue a Damned Soul: This is probably the most famous troupe in the book; going to Hell to save a damned soul. If the soul is newly damned, chances are that its in Avernus, waiting to be judged. If its an old-timer, it could be pretty much anywhere if it was transformed into a devil. That said, damned souls can also be in Stygia and Cania as prisoners, or perhaps the soul tried to swim for it in the River Styx and lost its memories. An investigative mystery in Hell is definitely the start of a powerful story, however; especially if the soul is one close to the PCs.
  • Sneaking Through Hellsmouth: Portals connect Hell to virtually every other Lawful or Evil plane in existence, so the idea of having to trek through Hell to get someone else is a good one.
  • Looting Hell: Hell has a huge stash of goodies from all over the cosmos on Erebus. Perhaps the PCs need something that was traded to the devils eons ago as part of a deal, so in order to get it they have to sneak into Erebus and either barter for it or steal it.

Whatever you plan, the amount of adventure that you can have in Hell is nearly infinite!

And that, as they say, is that. What do you think? Have you ever adventured (or ran an adventure) in Hell? What did you do? What tips or advice do you have for GMs looking to run a game in Hell, or for players who are thinking about traveling to Hell? Leave your questions and comments below, and make sure to check back throughout September for more of our regularly-scheduled articles, and stay tuned as Know Direction goes Occult during Occult October! Catch you then!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

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