Saturday, August 22, 2020

Basics for Play in Hell

"We've dug a million trenches and have cleared ten miles of ground.
and a meaner place this side of Hell I know has ne'er been found.
We've drilled in dust and scorching sun, in mud and driving rain
'till our eyes and ears and legs and arms were yelling loud with pain
but there's one more consolation, gather closely while I tell.
When we die, we're bound for Heaven, for we've done out hitch in Hell."
-From Frank Bernard Camp, "Our Hitch in Hell

Previously, we sought to imagine a setting in which the profession of dungeoncrawling was seen through the lens of gold-rushes, and extrapolated that setting to the apex of greed and danger, Hell. Ultimately, playing in such a setting would require robust journeying rules as the party competes with rival prospectors to arrive quickly at the palaces of Hell to stake their claim.
art by Wayne Barlowe

My current thinking is that the desired resource of the Hell Gold Rush should be literal gold. It just has so much thematic resonance. As for Hell's layout, I think the concentric circles model is appropriate, and that each circle should have one great city of demons that is basically suicide to enter. The deeper circles are natural more dangerous. Beyond those, there would be boomtowns, encampments, and caravans made by the non-demon residents. Scattered everywhere would be ruins of demons betrayed, damned souls scattered, natural mines, forgotten stockpiles from the war with Heaven, and the like.

PCs will have the option of heading to established sites, with names like "Hannibal's Find" or "Camp Busywork", and get reliable wages dungeoncrawling. The more lucrative, but risky, choice is true prospecting, heading into ruins and hoping there will be gold. Once you hit the motherlode, you'll have to fight hard to keep it. Many a prospector has struck it big, only to have their find stolen out from under them.

d6 ways a route to Hell was discovered
  1. Adventurers found an endless staircase down on the third level of a dungeon.
  2. Local bishop noticed a gentleman using a brimstone paperweight. Investigation showed a route starting a mile on.
  3. Old Scratch himself led an army into the heart of a nation. After they were rebuffed, the fleeing army was followed into Hell.
  4. A long expedition through the dinosaur-infested jungle under the surface world.
  5. After a failed coup, a drow noble house ruptured a seal against Hell to spite its enemies.
  6. Dwarfs dug too deep.
d6 Boomtowns
  1. Sacred, which has very fervent but very ineffective means of warding off demons.
  2. New Nidhgon, founded by nouveau riche xenophobically bullying anyone from outside their very specific corner of the world.
  3. Brimstone, which was briefly the wealthiest square mile in all Hell.
  4. Planted Flag, founded by slavers disguised as priests.
  5. Canoe, so named for the thousands of abandoned boats left here from a rush down the river Styx.
  6. Jale's Mill, which absolutely ruined the livelihood of the original residents.
d6 Places to Strike Gold
  1. Leadenheart, the site of a failed attempt by an alchemist to escape Hell with her great science.
  2. Hypocrite's Gulch, just off the road to Hell, where the good intentions are thin and virgin soil lies unplumbed underneath.
  3. Anomoly 7DS, a moleman's crashed spelljammer.
  4. Acererak's Nightmare, a dungeon designed as a punishment for a vanquished lich.
  5. Holy Shade, the section of Hell directly under the fantasy pope's palace. Where demons fear to tread.
  6. The Midas Wastes, the microsystem surrounding the punished King Midas.
art by Wayne Barlowe

By definition, Hell is full of all kinds of sinners. This includes the people who are supposed to be there as well as the prospectors who invade Hell to get gold. As such, there are hundreds of races, ancestries, and folk, but only three that gold-rushers frequently distinguish:
  • Surface folk. People who came to Hell by some wilderness trek. Acquainted with amenities that are foreign here, like sunlight and kindness.
  • The damned. People who died and went to Hell the old-fashioned way. Unable to ever fully hide themselves from the demons dedicated to punishing them.
  • Salamanders. The native folk of Hell who lived here before the first demon fell, called by the rushers Salamandrine Men. Possessed by a wrath that threatens to ruin the hard work of their lives.
In game terms, each of these fates is defined mostly by their drawback, which will be severe. But maybe you get some minor freeform ability to distinguish surface elves from surface halflings, or damned noble pagans from damned heresiarchs, or the Salamander of a given nation from the Salamander of an unrelated tribe. As for classes currently I'm imagining a collection that's a bit more complex than I usually do. Perhaps something like Baal's bone freaks or the Mighty Man.
art by Wayne Barlowe

Idol Punk (start with a holy book, grappling hook, a bronze idol, a betting pool on how you will die, and light armor.)
  • A: +1 Idol Dice. Spend dice to summon [sum] minor celestials (who seek to destroy all sinners, including you) or to cause malfunctions.
  • B: +1 Idol Dice. Spend dice to summon a [sum] HD major celestial (who seeks to destroy all sinners, including you) or dispel defenses.
  • C: +1 Idol Dice. Once a month, spend dice to summon a catastrophe.
  • D: +1 Idol Dice. You are invisible to celestial forces.
d12 Idol Punk Dead Pool (contribute 500 XP to next character if you die in this way)
  1. By water
  2. By fire
  3. By sword
  4. By beast
  5. By upheaval
  6. By plague
  7. By strangling
  8. By stoning
  9. In a lonely slip
  10. By barbiturate
  11. For your greed
  12. For your hunger
Mounted Salamandrine. Art by Wayne Barlowe

Salamandrine Guide (start with a hickory walking stick, dark garments that would fit over armor, 2d4 rations only a salamander would eat, and a charm)
  • A: When an ally hits a flanked foe, deal 1d6 damage. You get forewarning of random encounters. When wronged, test charisma or demonstrate your anger.
  • B: When sneaking outdoors, you are effectively invisible past 15 feet.
  • C: Through gesture and intuition, you can communicate basic concepts with any living being.
  • D: You may enter a Sulking state, in which you automatically perceive all encounters, traps, and obstacles and gain 1 fatigue for each perceived.

I imagine equipment costing a variable amount, to represent the amazing fluctuations of a rush-based economy. Notable absences: Martial weapons. I think I will eschew things like swords and spears, creating a gap between dual-function weapons like picks and amazing artifact swords recovered from dungeons.
  • Bloodstone 1d6 (create up to five gallons a day)
  • Dahlbusch Bomb 4d8 coins
  • Demonblade and chariot 3d6 coins per circle of Hell per week
  • Noble Pagan tutor 2d6 coins per Circle of Hell per week
  • Sled, hell-hound 3d10 coins
  • Steel toothed-shovel 1d6 coins
  • Velf's Gold-Dowse (essentially a metal detector) 5d12 coins


  1. Are we definitely here to find gold? Not, say, highly compressed sinners to fuel an industrial revolution up on the surface?

    1. I'm back and forth. The thing about gold is that it's already so deeply connected with greed. You couldn't conceive a a more greed-infused substance, even if they were extracting greedium.