Welcome to Hell

What is hell? And how to construct one for your campaign setting?

“Even the dead cry
Their only comfort”

(Nightwish, Wishmaster, Kinslayer)

Hell. Purgatory. Gehenna. Hades. Tartarus. Feng Du. Naraka. A really long Abba music video. Almost every religion and every culture have their own version of hell. In this article I’ll attempt to guide you through designing your own personal hell for your campaign setting.

Like any other part of your campaign setting, before designing your hell, the first question you should ask yourself is how the cosmology of the world is constructed. What is the structure of your pantheon? Is in monotheistic or polytheistic? Is there a strict classification of “good” and “evil”, and if there is, are they opposing forces, or just two halves of the same whole? The answers you provide yourselves will guide you as you write.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume that only one pantheon exists in the campaign world, to which all the cosmic events such as birth, life and death adhere to. However, all the ideas and concepts in this article could be easily adapted to a multi-pantheon campaign, as I demonstrated in the article The Gods Go to War

The classic mythical hell is a place of eternal suffering where souls of the evil are punished for the sins they committed when they were still alive. But what is evil, and how does your campaign setting define it?
In a monotheistic campaign, the definition is simple – the almighty god is the embodiment of all that is good, and whoever doesn’t believe in him and doesn’t follow his laws is a sinner, and must be punished in hell.
In a polytheistic campaign which is polarized between the good gods and the evil gods, the situation is still simple enough to avoid philosophical discussion, but far more complicated than the situation in a monotheistic campaign. If the campaign is truly polytheistic, and the evil gods are not just a creation of the good gods designed to test their mortal followers, then it won’t be up to the good gods to determine who is a saint and who is a sinner. This point opens a world of personal interpretations, from territorial wars between gods over the souls of deceased mortals to interesting oddities such as a mortal who prayers to more than one god, or a complete atheist.

There are two conventional ways to resolve these kind of situations in polytheistic campaigns.
The first one is to define that each god controls his own version of heaven where his followers are rewarded and his own version of hell where he can punish sinners who fall under his influence.
The second method claims that there is but one hell, ruled by one god, the God of Death, if you will, but each and every other god has the right and the power to condemn sinners to this hell.
Naturally, these methods could be combined in various ways, like deciding that there may be only one hell, but each god may have his own heaven, or that the said common hell is divided into sections where sinners are punished according to the god they have angered, and so on.
A final twist on this idea might be that every god commands his own heaven. Hell, on the other hand, is not an independent plane of existence, but the heaven of an opposite deity. Thus, for example, the souls of the devoted believers of Nocturnos, the God of Night would share the same plane with those who have sinned against Solana, Mistress of the Sun.

Another issue to take into consideration is the identity of the demons and devils occupying the hell (or hells) you have created. Here too there are several options, which are heavily influenced by the structure of the pantheon of your campaign world.
The first possibility is that the demons have their own existence as the manifestation of evil. In such a world, the forces of hell would most probably be locked in an eternal struggle with the forces of heaven over the souls of mortals. The minions of evil would do everything in their power to turn more and more people over to evil’s side, whereas the followers of good would focus on the redemption of those future sinners.
The second possibility is that the demons are also the servants of god, ones who simply have a different role than most – to torture and punish the souls of the sinners. Such a hell opens up a world of possibilities for celestial intrigue (not to mention the scenarios and adventures such intrigue could create), as the angels compete amongst themselves over the prestigious duties, such as patronning saints, handling prophets’ revelations and guarding the girls’ locker-room.
Another possibility is that the demons themselves are imprisoned in hell, sharing the fate of the sinners. Such a possibility would probably create a situation reminiscent of a typical prison from a television drama, where hell is ruled by a simple hierarchy of power, and ambitious demons are scheming plans of controlling it, or simply escaping it. A different twist of this possibility is that demons are no more than fallen angels, evil only by their betrayal, not by nature.
In a polytheistic campaign worthy of its name, there is one final possibility. Hell could simply be a separate plane of existence, different from our own only by its harsh environmental conditions and creatures, not by any special relation to evil. Eons ago this plane was conquered by some god, who now uses it as a prison for the souls of those who sinned against him. This possibility could create interesting tensions between the three factions of hell – the sinners condemned to eternal suffering, the angles stationed there as guards and wardens, and hell’s original inhabitants, the demons.

Once we’ve outlined our own personal hell, we can move on to answer The Question – “what the hell are we supposed to do now?”, literarily.
Usually, heaven and hell will serve only as background details, part of the campaign setting’s religious tone. However, it’s much more interesting to turn heaven and hell to actual parts of the campaign, which could be done in several ways.
The most typical way to use hell in the campaign is to send the characters down there to rescue the soul of a friend or relative imprisoned in hell, whether justly or not. As if the dangers of such a journey weren’t enough, it’s hard to imagine that the local devil would give up his victims too easily. Characters brave enough (i.e., stupid enough) would try to trick him, while smarter characters (i.e., still too stupid) would try to strike a deal with him.
A more interesting use for hell in a campaign could be to throw the characters in the middle of a conflict between the forces of hell and heaven, or between different factions of the hell, or any other conflict presented in this article. Such scenarios could range from scenarios where the characters are pawns in the hands of powers beyond their understanding to scenarios where the characters are powerful enough (and again, stupid enough) to try to consciously affect the celestial balance.

This article first appeared in issue #24 of The Orc.