25 April 2022

Why and How I Would Run a D&D Campaign in the Hells

Dungeons & Dragons campaigns rarely begin in realms other than the Material Plane. However, if we Dungeon Masters would like to attempt something unique and daring, we might look to the worlds beyond the mortal to kickstart our D&D campaigns. We might be tempted by the Feywild or the Shadowfell, perhaps the streets of the great city of Sigil, yet in this article, we are exploring what a D&D adventure based in some version of Hell or the Nine Hells would look like. Specifically, how I would run it as a DM.

But why? Why would you run a D&D campaign in the Hells?

Because a D&D campaign in the Hells would be dissimilar to any other campaign you've run before. The characters would be immersed in exotic environments every step of the way, interacting with devils of all types from the opening moment. Evil would be all around them! Think of the characters they could play and get away with. A D&D campaign in the Hells is simmering with interesting characters and places, opportunities for the players to create unique, weird characters.

These devils by Tee Fu Yuan and Phantom mean business, infernal business.

The enemies they might face are countless; the Monster Manual alone houses a great number of devils, from the lowly lemure to the mighty pit fiend. Additionally, plenty of monsters can be reflavored to fit the Nine Hells. A bandit's stat block can easily become a troubled soul stat block, while a rhinoceros stat block can quickly transform into the statistics of an infernal war beast. A D&D campaign in the Hells is easily craftable.

How many groups do you know who've played a D&D campaign in the Hells starting from level one? Even if the campaign only lasted a few sessions, it'd be a story to retell for countless years. A D&D campaign in the Hells is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a wild ride waiting to be had.

This isn't Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus. This is a campaign that starts in an infernal realm, surrounded by vile souls, conniving devils, and dangers unlike any in the Material Plane.

One day, I'm going to run a D&D campaign that begins and is primarily set in the Hells, just for the raw experience. Once that happens, I'll be sure to let you all know!

Okay, now it's time to think like a devilish DM and worldbuilder. How would I run a D&D campaign set in the Hells?

The Initial Hook

To prep for a campaign like this, I'd need to construct a few blocks, modular enough to be swapped around as the campaign progresses. They're big in concept and relatively freeform, broad strokes with plenty of room for interpretation. This initial block, though? It needs to be compelling. Grabbing. Provoking. The players must latch immediately, bite our proverbial campaign hook and swallow it fully.

So, knowing the campaign will be in some sort of Hell (whether the Nine Hells of Baator, a place like Eberron's Shavarath, or my own version of the plane), I'd write out three or four hooks and present them to the players. They get to choose the one they enjoy the most.

Here are four initial hooks:

  1. Escape from the Hells, levels 1-12. Sinister devils commonly fish souls from the many streams into the afterlife and bring them to their domain to act as servants and slaves. You are one of these poor souls, taken from the peaceful end you deserved, now enslaved by a cruel devil. As an opportunity to break free arrives, you might be able to recapture your ultimate prize, though it will spark the adventure of a lifetime.
  2. Demons and Devils, levels 1-20. You bargained your soul to a devil for power in life and now you serve the infernal legions in death, eternally. However, when an invasion unlike any other strikes, the fate of the Hells and the multiverse itself hangs in the balance.
  3. On the Styx, levels 1-9. Life as a sailor on the River Styx is Hell, literally. Yet it's profitable for all involved, as long as you can stay sane, swallow your pride, and slay the most frightening foes imaginable.
  4. Citadel of the Damned, levels 1-20. No mere entity, devil or mortal, finds themselves in the service of the Archduke of the Hells. You, however, connived your way into one of the greatest citadels of the verse in the deepest reaches of the Hells. You won't just need strength to survive, political savviness is the best weapon here, especially as the Archduke's primary rival makes a play for his position.

Not all bearded devils need to be green and armed with a spear, as showcased by boudicca.

Levels 1-4

By far the most structured arc of the campaign, the level 1-4 block or the "starting adventure" is how we begin our D&D campaign. In Hell? Well, there are a few possibilities. For this block we need a villain, a few of their goons, a dungeon or two, and some sort of grand reward (on top of reaching fourth level).

Glancing over each prompt, I think the people I play with the most would choose the first one: Escape from the Hells

In the rest of this article, I'll lay out a general overview of what that campaign might look like from the outset, with the caveat that I always allow the players to change the course of the adventure based on their characters' decisions throughout it.

Even across four campaign ideas, this mighty maleficent drawn by nJoo can make an excellent villain.

Breaking Infernal Chains

The characters begin as downtrodden slaves to a sinister devil, out on an expedition in a remote landscape, perhaps a mine for infernal metal or a voyage across a boiling sea of lava. By their own smarts or the help of a fellow NPC, a revolt against the overseers of the resource excavation mission begins and the characters have the chance to break their chains. 

However, this act pits them against their former master, an archdevil of the layer/realm of the Hells they're currently on. I'd suggest a deeper layer such as Stygia or Malodomini if you're using the classic Nine Hells. Stay away from Avernus! We don't want this to be an "easy" trek out of the most sinister realms in all the verse. Anyways, Archduchess Zariel has seen enough action as of late.

Whoever this archdevil is becomes the primary antagonist of the campaign and they send a maleficent lieutenant to wrangle the characters. This NPC must drive a serious wedge between the archdevil and the characters, pushing the desire to not only escape the Nine Hells, but take out or seriously harm the NPC's archdevil master. For a detailed look at which archdevil's currently preside over each layer on the canonical Nine Hells, check out Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. If we'd like to be a tad precarious, we could even choose an archdevil not ruling a layer, adding an extra element to the story of our primary villain. They're aftet the characters for escaping their grasp and attempting to topple the current duke or duchess of their region of the Hells.

The characters must defeat or overcome this lieutenant and begin their journey out of the Hells, which concludes the first act.

Levels 5-10

At this point the characters are likely developed and pursuing their own interests in the Hells while advancing the "primary" plot. Remember, we always focus on the story driven by the characters, but they all must be united by one string. Many other strings may sprawl from this, side plots and character-specific goals, but they all weave into one masterpiece.

They're trying to escape the Nine Hells while outsmarting the archdevil antagonist. Generally, they should stick to the layer they're on for most of the act, with a hop or two to a different layer to make a key ally or recover a powerful artifact. If you haven't already, it's a great time to incorporate the River Styx, a waterway of bubbling souls and madness that connects each and every layer of the Nine Hells in typical D&D canon.

Underestimating the villain, especially if it's a devil like this one by nJoo, is usually a poor idea.

Connected to the Hells

While the core narrative moves and grows, each character should also develop their own story or side quest. An excellent way to ensure each character is connected to the events occurring in the Hells is to build them from the ground up with the Hells in mind.

The two characters below are tied inexorably to the Hells in some way. As the big story progresses, their own story will evolve too.

Phalia Morningstruck. When Phalia was forced to serve in the Nine Hells, she thought her life was over and she'd suffer eternally. However, she found comfort in another individual who was taken from their afterlife. In the rare times of silence, they'd stare into each other's eyes and mouth words of unlimited meaning. Even in silence and eternal work, they found strength and compassion in each other. Yet, this individual was taken mere days before Phalia broke her infernal chains. She wants to find this taken individual before she escapes the Hells.

Gordo. Contrary to the situations of the other folk captured and brought to the Nine Hells from their afterlives, it's no mistake Gordo is in the Hells. This giff traveled from beyond this verse on a mission to find and assassinate a being of supreme power, called an archdevil in this particular verse. The "coincidence"? It's the archdevil antagonist of the campaign. While Gordo must escape from the Nine Hells eventually, he cannot do so without the head, soul, talisman, whatever he needs of the archdevil pursuing the entire group.

Levels 11-16

Everything continues to heat up here and many character-specific arcs likely conclude. Ensure the characters confront the archdevil villain multiple times during this arc, whether in the flesh or through some form of long-distance communication. At this point, they'll also be able to escape the Hells through smarts or spells (depending on the party composition), but if you would like to hit sixteenth level with this campaign, you'll need to give them a reason to care about the conflict and characters in the Hells.

Whether it's by hatred or love, that's up to you.

Of course, you also have the option of running a completely binary campaign. If the group's primary goal is to escape the Hells and they escape, that might be the end of the campaign. That's totally fine! Move on to a new story, maybe a new set of characters, and reminisce about the journey through the fiery fields and blasted peaks of Baator.

Otherwise, draw them back in with some of the plot hooks below.

One More Hit of Hell

Once the characters escape from the Hells, the campaign might be over. However, if there's a compelling enough story remaining...sixteenth level is achievable with this particular campaign choice.

Here are four plot hooks to draw the characters back into the Hells once they've escaped.

  • The archdevil who initially pursued them captured the souls of their loved ones and will only make a bargain for them back in person, in their domain.
  • A power vacuum left behind by the group's actions spurred the rise of a new faction in the Hells that is causing more havoc than any organization in the past. Multiple parties beg the group to return and deal with it.
  • A complication in the verse causes the group to travel back in time to the moment of their initial freedom, with all their memories intact, as soon as they exit the Nine Hells. What happened?
  • Seizing on its rival's weakness, another archdevil tries to kill the group's primary foe, fails, but weakens the foe greatly. The group may have a chance to fully destroy this incarnation of pure evil.

A D&D Campaign in the Hells

That's why I'd run a D&D campaign in the Hells. It'd be unlike any campaign I've run before and challenge the players and their characters in new and interesting ways. They'd be surrounded by evil, the environments could always be absolutely wild & wicked, and it could conclude at any moment at the end of a barbed devil's tail.

Would you want to run a D&D campaign in the Hells? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below or somewhere on social media. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

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