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Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Pillar of Skulls and Other Planescape Hell Stuff

(Excuse to post Tony DiTerlizzi art)
We continue to explore D&D Hell! There's quite a bit of good information spread out through many books. Maybe someday somebody can take all of the printed material and compile it into one hardcover definitive book.

This time out we're going to go through another Planescape book - Well of Worlds. It is an adventure anthology which includes one adventure set in hell. I ran this back in the 90's as an add-on to my Rogue Mistress campaign (which I declared one of the best adventures of all time). It went over very well.

This is one of the Planescape books loaded up with Tony DiTerlizzi art. That means I get to bedazzle you, the reader, with some of his most awesome work. His art is so good that it really fueled my desire to run these adventures, and made me especially excited to run the encounter with the pillar of skulls. The adventure in question is the first one in the book, entitled "To Baator and Back". Remember, Baatezu = Devils!

1. Avernus
My favorite depiction of the Lady of Pain
We actually kick off the adventure with a lengthy description of Avernus. The sky is dark red and the screams of the damned can be heard in the air. "Random fireballs burst furiously from the ground, weave about the landscape, then flare into brightness and explode in a rush of heat and energy." I prefer fireballs falling from the sky but this is a cool description.

Our heroes check out an abandoned wizard's home and stumble through a one-way portal to hell. Love this sentence: "You're lying supine within a glowing lattice." That's right up there with James Jacobs' "Heaving birthflesh" and Ed Greenwood's "Blood of the Lady!".

There is a lone devil guarding this area, who they can question and/or pummel. Time to wander and hope to find a way home. Here's some of the cool stuff PCs come upon:

- River of Blood: A red sluggish stream with images of tormented faces springing up in the foam. In deeper sections, there are giant bloodworms. They latch onto PCs and suck their blood. They are up to 20 feet long and may try to drag the PC down under the blood.

- Hexla the Mad Witch: She's got white hair and red robes. She got to hell by a magic accident and is stuck here. She knows the "spell key" for the plane. In Planescape, planar portals are activated by keys. Often, the "portal" is just some random door, but when you carry the key through it (which is usually some random item like a skull or a piece of razorvine) poof - you're through.

The Spell Key for Hell: A chunk of obsidian from an exploded fireball.

- The Pillar of Skulls: A 20 foot tall, 10 foot wide column of living heads of humans, dwarves, elves, etc. They argue among themselves constantly. If the PCs address it, all heads fall silent. Once the PCs speak their piece, each head tries to win the favor of the heroes.

The Pillar is an eternal punishment for mortal sages who cheated their customers in life.

The pillar can... absorb people. If someone is pressed into it, the victim is covered in digestive juices and is consumed over the course of 10 minutes. There's a few heads high up in the pecking order:

The Ogre Head: It calls the shots unless the PCs knock it unconscious
The Elf Head: More sensible
The Chubby Head: Likes to devour people
The Gnome Head: Wants to know things, like what the spell key is.

It's pretty much impossible to "kill" the pillar. If a head is destroyed, a new head emerges from the interior. If the whole thing is destroyed, it reforms in 100 days. The severed heads roll back into position.

Bel's Keep: This is the home of Bel, who these days rules Avernus (In Ed Greenwood's article it was Tiamat, but it has changed over time).  There's a 30 foot high fence topped with howling skulls. It is teeming with lemures, abishai and an aura of "dark ecstasy". Well..!

This scenario all boils down to the PCs pulling an obsidian brick off the Great Avernus Road (I prefer "The Road of Good Intent" from Fires of Dis). 50 abishai (dragon-devils) notice and chase our heroes.

The adventurers run to the place where the portal is - a cool, weird rocky hill depicted in a truly awesome piece of art. There's a lone guardian and a kind of lame bit where he'll let the PCs go through the portal (the portal goes to the extra-planar city of Sigil) if they take an orb of his with them. The guardian thinks the orb will mess with Sigil, but he's wrong. It crumbles to dust as the heroes arrive.

A really fun adventure! To me, it's all about the Pillar of Skulls, one of the coolest details I've found so far in Hell.

Here's my other blogs on D&D Hell so far:

The Nine Hells by Ed Greenwood - Ed has been so sharp for so long
A Paladin in Hell - Monte Cook's under-appreciated classic
Fires of Dis - With the most annoying encounter area ever

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