Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Demons!)

Where we've been so far: dwarveselvesdrow and eladrinshadar-kai and the Raven Queenhalflings and gnomes, giththe Blood War and devils. Where we're going: demons.

"The Abyss is a vast wound in the cosmic order, a bottomless pit teeming with creatures that exist only to rend, tear, and destroy." That's a pretty mood-setting first line, and with that we're off to the races with D&D's demons. As we saw before, devils are true to their lawful natures: they win through right of conquest and pact. On the other hand, demons are a virus. They don't take your land or our soul, they change it. They're colonial, parasitical, and contagious on a metaphysical level: "If demons dwell in a place for a significant amount of time, the area starts to warp in response tothe abyssal energy that churns within it. If a demonic infestation is left unchecked, a portal to the Abyss is the result, and more and more of the essence of the Abyss pushes its way through. In time, a plane or a world could become a colony of the Abyss, overrun with demons and devoid of all other forms of life."

(Side-note: this is exactly the direction I went with my Cinderheim setting, so it's interesting to see it spelled out as the baseline for what demons are about in an official book.)

So what does it look like when a demon starts to corrupt the land around them? "During the first stages of an abyssal incursion, the natural world recoils from the demonic presence. Plants become twisted versions of themselves. Leering faces appear in leaf patterns, vines writhe of their own accord, and trees grow foul-smelling tumors instead of leaves as their branches wither and die. Bodies of water in the area become tainted and sometimes poisonous, and the weather might feature extremes of heat, cold, wind, rain, or snow that aren't typical of the normal climate. Living things in the area flee or are killed by the demons." One thing I'm really enjoying about the section on demons: the author or authors are clearly having fun and really givin'er. Was it Robert J. Schwalb? That dude loves demon lords.

If the viral demon-process continues, eventually a demon lord enters the world. This is, unsurprisingly, a Bad Thing. The demon lord gathers the demons already present into the world, forms them into a warband, and the apocalypse is now underway.

One thing that has always bothered me a tiny bit about Warhammer's Chaos Demons is that, despite the emphasis on chaos, they fit into a remarkably orderly taxonomy. The ones with their titties out fight for Slaanesh, the ones with the sores are declared for Nurgle, etc. Of course, this is because Games Workshop leans hard on brand recognition, so over the years they've crafted their figures to function like any other toy line. Similarly, D&D's demons fit into recognizable categories, but at least Mordenkainen's Tome tries to emphasize that you should modify your demons at will: "Although sages group demons into types according to their power, the Abyss knows no such categories. Demons are spawned from the stuff of the Abyss in a near-infinite variety ofshapes and abilities. The common forms that are familiar to demonologists represent broad trends, but individual demons defy those tendencies. For instance, a vrock might crawl out of an oil slick in the Demonweb Pits with three eyes and vestigial wings. A chasme might appear on the layer of Azzagrat possessing the ability to belch forth clouds of flies."

Demon lords aren't made through orderly promotion; rather, a demon lord is just a demon who has lived long enough to become a Big Bad. Apparently demon lordship is something even mortals can aspires to; all they need to do is travel to the Abyss, get warped by its horrid energies, and then stick it out long enough to "ascend" to power. Demon lordship is for finishers. (Side note: it looks like the Abyss has infinite layers now. Didn't it used to have exactly 666?)

All right, let's talk canonical Demon Lords. Baphomet is the Demon Lord for that kind of dickbag who believes in the ubermensch--that some people are better than others and therefore get to treat "lessers" like shit. With his emphasis on hunting his foes, Baphomet is the General Zaroff of the D&D multiverse. It's crazy that Demogorgon is now most famous for being referenced in Stranger Things, right? Anyway, if Demogorgon is left the only living being in the cosmos, his two heads have to duke it out for domination. Also, Demogorgon has a symbol that can instantly seduce mortals who look at it; I keep picturing it as Prince's symbol.

Fraz-Urb'luu has the dumbest name of all the demon lords. Since his portfolio is basically "Prince of Lies," it feels like a missed opportunity that they already used a Beelzebub name with the devils. Anyway, most of Fraz-Urb'luu's followers have been duped into his service, so I assume they are like the guys on Twitter who will fight to the death over Elon Musk's honor. Graz'zt is the Sexy Demon Bad Boy. Frankly, his Evil Seducer shtick seems more like a devil thing, but a sidebar helpfully points out that Graz'zt may have been a devil originally, and his "Seasons in the Abyss" warped him into a demon--which is actually a pretty neat way of underlining just how corrupting the Abyss really is.

Because D&D has slime monsters, I guess it needs a Demon Lord of Slime. Enter Juiblex. At least Juiblex provides an explanation for where oozes come from--but that's about it for Juiblex. Orcus is by far my favorite of D&D's demon lords, mostly because he looks like he belongs on a dope metal album cover. For the record, I prefer corpulent Orcus to svelte Orcus and I won't be swayed on this issue. The multiverse is too loud for Orcus's sensibilities, and he just wants to turn the cosmos into a place inhabited by tip-toeing undead, is that so wrong?

Yeenoghu is a bit like Baphomet but with an emphasis on eating his foes instead of just hunting them down. Yeenoghu made the gnolls, of course. It's odd that D&D views fungus as chaos, instead of a fairly orderly progression of natural growth, but Zuggtmoy is here for your fungal Demon Queen needs. Horrible name, absolutely stunning art in this edition. The art possesses a kind of regalness that doesn't really come through in her description, unfortunately. Her goal is to turn the multiverse into one fungal unity--so she's like a biological version of the Borg. And that's the running theme for the demon lords and queens in D&D: each one wants to be the single, solitary being left in a world that has succumbed to their whims.