Welcome to Table Top Terrors! In this monthly series we’ll help you recreate some of the terror, tension, and fun of scary stories by examining what the world of tabletop gaming has to offer horror fans. We’ll look at boardgames, card games, pen and paper RPGs, and miniature war games. We’ll offer reviews, insights, and tips on how to create an immersive and awesome game night.
Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D for short) is currently the go to gaming system for fans looking to experience a collaborative and deeply immersive fantasy story, but that doesn’t mean the widely popular tabletop RPG has nothing to offer horror fans. In fact, horror can be a key element in almost any D&D game because when you move aside the fantasy trappings of wizards, elves, and dragons most D&D stories are about exploring the unknown and confronting the hidden horrors that lurk there! Those monsters are often classic horror archetypes too like vampires, mummies, and lycanthropes. Plus, D&D has an especially cool take on hell and the devilish creatures that reside there, making it a perfect fit for Nightmare on Film Street’s current Hot as Hell theme, where us writers plumb the depths of the infernal realms for heat and demonic based horror.
So, dear reader, come be my Dante and I’ll be your guide, Virgil, and together we’ll explore the ways Dungeons and Dragons current Fifth Edition can be used to create immersive tales of infernal horror that will find players battling devils, bargaining with them, and even descending into the various levels of the infernal plane. We’ll look at the the game’s three core books, take a deep dive into the recently released Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus campaign book, and offer up our usual thematic drink, food, and music suggestions to help you create one HELL of a game night.
D&D’s offerings for fans of infernal horror begins with the first step of any roleplaying game, character creation. The Player’s Handbook, the “core” book that explains how players create their characters and the mechanics that govern what they can do, has a couple of options for players looking to add some demonic horror elements to their game. The first is a player can choose for their character to be a Tiefling, a race of demonic looking humans. Players can also choose the Warlock character class, which gives their character magical abilities endowed by pacts with otherworldly beings. These patrons can be demonic in nature, which means a character’s journey will be a dark one of temptation and corruption.
The second D&D core book, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, offers the person tasked with the titular role, a number of resources for building memorable worlds for players to experience. Those resources include elements of horror that can be added to a game like rules for implementing horror and fear checks. The most useful though is a breakdown of the Multiverse of realities you can work into a game. Among those is an outline of an infernal dimension known as “The Nine Hells.”
5th Edition D&D’s third core rule book, The Monster Manual is the most useful resource for Dungeon Masters who want to run a horror campaign. That’s because it contains stats and profiles for all sorts of classic monsters, but more importantly it explains a twist that makes the idea of infernal horror especially fascinating in the world of D&D; the fact that devils and demons are embodiments of two very different faces of evil. Demons are driven by a chaotic need to crush, kill, and destroy, while Devils are obsessed with using rules and law to dominate everyone and everything. Their opposing natures means demons and devils are constantly at war with each other.
Their conflict, which was given the gloriously heavy metal moniker, “The Blood War,” serves as the backdrop to the campaign book, Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus. It’s a tome designed to make a Dungeon Master’s life easier because it contain’s an epic series of adventures that could fuel several months worth of infernal horror themed game nights. The campaign takes players from a city under siege by sinister cult, to another city being lowered into the hellish dimension of Avernus, and then into Avernus itself. Once there, they’ll have to navigate a rich cast of demonic power players in order to foil the machinations of the realm’s overlord, a literal fallen angel named Zariel. Then, finally they’ll need to find a way out of the hellish dimension.
The creators of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus really went above and beyond to craft a fully realized vision of hell that’s both classic and unique. That’s because Avernus is a desolate, blasted, wasteland that reeks of brimstone and burning tar. It’s a place of abject misery, scheming, and war that’s littered with the bones of combatants that have fallen in the Blood War. What makes Avernus unique though is it’s not a place where evil deeds are punished. It’s a forging ground for greater evil; where the infernal powers that govern the realm reward selfish and cruel acts. So, as characters travel across the land they’re not only battling hostile creatures, they’re also contending with a reality out to tempt and corrupt them.
Traveling across Avernus will take some time too, because the designers have mapped the infernal realm out in great detail and populated it with a whole host memorable denizens. Player Characters can cut down on travel time though with the introduction of one of the campaign’s coolest ideas; infernal war machines! These are hell forged, Mad Max style vehicles bristling with weapons that look like they belong on a heavy metal album cover. How do these machines run in a fantasy world where the combustion engine hasn’t been invented? Simple, their engines run on the souls of the damned!
Characters will also learn a great deal about Avernus’ compelling history on their quest through the realm. It won’t be a linear story though. That’s because players are given quite a bit of freedom as to how to pursue their goal. In fact, later chapters have multiple branching off points that allow player characters to blaze their own path through hell.
Dungeon Masters are also given plenty of storytelling tips on how to inject a feeling of infernal horror into their story. There are rules for hellish pacts that allow characters to gain power by bargaining with Avernus’ devils. There are suggestions for how food should taste and how magic might become tainted by the realm. There’s even rules for demonic ichor coated weapons which can warp the flesh of damaged targets!
So, if you’re looking to tell a collaborative story of fantasy tinged, infernal horror Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus is a must buy. The writing team has created an epic story and a world rich with detail. It’s also an invaluable resource for Dungeon Masters looking to create their own hellish stories and worlds because of all the new rules and monsters.
The food and drink characters consume in Avernus might be supernaturally tainted, but that doesn’t mean the refreshments you give your guests have to taste awful. If you’re looking for a drink that’s both tasty and thematic try this Blue Devil cocktail courtesy of Flour on My Face. For an appropriately sinful snack you can try Taste of Home’s recipe for Devil’s Food Cookies
Music is also essential to creating a memorable night of infernal horror, and to help you set the mood we’ve got two albums that you can put into heavy rotation during your player’s time in Avernus. The first is Christopher Young’s score for the 1988 film Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The other is Black Aria, a 1992 instrumental album by punk/metal musician Glenn Danzig, which is inspired by John Milton’s classic, epic poem about Lucifer’s rebellion, Paradise Lost. The album is out of print and unfortunately unavailable streaming, but you can find in its entirety on YouTube.
The final thematic tip we have is for Dungeon Masters that want to see what some of the elements of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus might look like in action, and balanced with some humor and levity. If that intrigues you you’ll want to seek out IDW’s comic mini-series, Dungeons & Dragons:Infernal Tides by writer Jim Zub (Who worked as a story consultant on Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus), artist Max Dunbar, and colorist Sebastian Cheng. Four issues have been released so far, and the fifth and final issue will hit stores on Wednesday, August 12th.