Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 105: Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss




Despite my many complaints about what came of D&D‘s cosmology since Planescape’s unceremonious end, there have been a handful of quite good planar releases in D&D‘s third edition. Bastion of Broken Souls remains a favorite of mine, and the blowout coverage for the “Lich-Queen’s Beloved” was something really special. More recently, Paizo’s Demonomicon of Iggwilv series has been enlightening, as has their version of the long running “Ecology of” series for Dragon. We’ve even had a surprising amount of faction content in the Planar Handbook and several Dragon articles, which helped by at least keeping a little breath left in the setting’s still warm corpse. However, it’s not until the Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss that I feel there’s a truly necessary planar work in this edition. This is a book every bit as good as the Planescape works that preceded it, in fact it’s better than many of those, and at least thus far it’s the single best bit of planar writing for the edition. Yes, it really is that good, so let’s explore what exactly it did so very right. 

The book is divided into five, unequal main parts, plus an appendix. I say unequal not because of their varying lengths, but because the quality here isn’t exactly universal, though that’s only to be expected considering that the book had three authors and four editors. Although its somewhat complicated lore remains surprisingly consistent throughout, you do get the sense that this was a manuscript written in a piecemeal, divide-and-conquer style, though fortunately the most important parts seem to have been left to the Paizo writers. Not one of the chapters is completely skippable, which is a feat I consider impressive because even in the better third edition books this is usually the case. My main knock against the work is that I would’ve been happy for an even longer tome on the subject, but for that we fortunately have the Demonomicon of Iggwilv series in Dragon. And frankly, had fourth edition not come so soon afterward and wrecked the joint, I suspect we would’ve seen more in this vein as well—as it stands, I’m happy this project somehow made it out the door before the schism between these two companies made that impossible. 

Gruesome, but in a good way. I appreciate the detail, even if I understand not wanting to see it. Too late for you, I guess.

The book’s first chapter is “Demonic Lore,” and it begins by immediately introducing us to a new artifact that will grow in importance throughout the book, the Black Scrolls of Ahm. These scrolls contain the bits of knowledge compiled by a demonologist, and serve as the metatextual source for much of the information within the Codex. That being said, this book also notes that the Scrolls frequently conflict with information from the Demonomicon, i.e. earlier canonical works. In this, we have an in-universe explanation for why the game’s lore has changed or sometimes contradicts itself, one that functions well and also feels a bit like Planescape in that we’re told that new information is legend, not hard facts. Despite the plethora of alterations, everything here is still subject to dungeon master approval, which I appreciate, though ultimately the new lore wraps so well around what had been previously developed that this is pretty much unnecessary. FC1 doesn’t really qualify as a retroactive continuity fix to me because ultimately it embraces the old and just completes the story—everything we learned from Planescape  and elsewhere still feels relevant, it’s simply that this wasn’t the whole story of the Abyss. And considering that Planes of Chaos was a bit lacking, it’s hard not to agree with this assessment, the only pity being that no other outer planes besides this and Hell ever received such lavish treatment. 


Following this introduction as to where our new lore comes from, we’re filled in on theories about the origins of demons and their physiology. What this reminds me of are the second edition splatbooks focused on races such as the illithids, and even the grisly image of a demon being vivisected for analysis seems of a part with this. Really, I would’ve enjoyed having all of this introductory fluff expanded, as it is a bit cursory at times, though the relative brevity is also understandable, since despite being the same “race,” tanar’ri are all radically different from each other. Generalizing about their anatomy can only work to a certain extent, and even so the answer to most questions tends to be “because they’re magical demons.” 

Thomas Baxa does some good work in making the obyriths grotesque but not quite full Far Realm incomprehensible.

The rest of this chapter is, however, the one part of the book that I only skimmed through, and I have no regrets about this. “Demonic Roles” focuses on running demons in your campaign and the different types of villains they can play as, such as assassins, corruptors, brutes, etc. I’m sure some people really loved this type of advice, but it’s the type of non-lore, non-crunch filler text that absolutely puts me to sleep (thus why the DMG‘s tend to sit on my shelf gathering dust). Being told how to run a game of D&D is simply not what I’m here for, though fortunately this material is easily skipped. Following this is a reiteration and slight expansion of what we learned about demonic possession from the Book of Vile Darkness, which seemed fine enough but is also just not something I care overly about.

This 15 pages is the only part of the book I would’ve excised were I the editor, and things get good again as soon as we enter chapter two, which is aptly named “Demons.” Here, we’re immediately introduced to two new types of demons, loumaras and obyriths. The loumaras only include a handful of beings drawn from one particular layer of the Abyss, and on the whole aren’t too interesting. Two of them are detailed in this chapter, and I believe only two others entered the game before the end of the edition (if the race has reappeared since then, I’m yet to hear of it). Far more important was the addition of the obyriths, who much like the baernoloths and ancient baatorians revealed in Planescape are the older form of fiends from this plane. They’re far more grotesque and Lovecraftian than the tanar’ri, such that they can cause madness through their very presences. Obyriths aren’t quite as nutso as beings from the Far Realm, but they’re rather close—oddly moreso than anyone from Limbo—and in some cases, such as with the new demon lord Dagon, are straight ripping off those texts. 

The demon family strikes a pose.

The book’s demon listings are a combination of returning beings, such as armanites, bar-iguras, chasme, and molydeus, and new creatures, such as the lilitu, dybbuk, and sibriex. Not all of these additions to the demonic hordes are even obyriths and loumaras, either. Each demon’s write-up receives more attention than they would’ve in the Monster Manual, and details always match up perfectly with other references within this book or even from earlier editions’ D&D books. Relatedly, one of the appendices at the end of FCI includes a full list of demons published in all Wizards books up until now; while this doesn’t include new monsters featured in Dragon and Dungeon, it’s still an impressive and useful list, though it does really highlight how much of a clusterfuck third edition’s organization was at this point, given its dozens of official splatbooks all featuring similar content (in order to include all demons from this list in a campaign, you’d need to be flipping through 12 books… and before this edition ended a little more than a year later there were two additional monster manuals published. What a mess.).

Of the new demons, I quite like the broodswarm because they fill in an obvious gap in the demonic hierarchy that always seemed weird to me before. I also like bringing dybbuks into the game because I find them to be a neat concept, and prefer demons who specialize in possession to just making this a random thing other demons do on occasion. On the whole, obyriths are more interesting as demon lords than creatures, but I do like sibriexes as simply something strange we haven’t seen before. I believe that fourth edition continued playing with the obyrith concept and added more to the game, but my knowledge of that era of D&D remains foggy and confused at best, so we’ll really be finding out what’s in store for these subraces in the future together. My guess is that the metaplot gets real dumb, which isn’t really a guess at all because I’m yet to open a fourth edition text and not feel that way, but I could be wrong and obyriths don’t play a huge part in the edition’s wonky storyline after all. *shrug*

A surprising number of succubi are kinda hideous, but Malcanthet isn’t one of them.

The most controversial chapter of FCI at the time of its release was “Demon Lords,” though not, I would argue, for any remotely good reasons. The chapter includes full profiles of 14 demon lords, only five of which saw a similarly lengthy write-up in the Book of Vile Darkness. Which is not to say that all seven other lords are new, either—even Obox-Ob is drawn from page 35 of the first edition Monster Manual II. However, with the exception of Malcanthet (who’s metatextually referenced as a particularly new lord), all of these demon lords were drawn either from that list or other early sources. One of the book’s designers, Erik Mona, noted in an interview for, how much these early texts fired off his own imagination:


Many of the twelve RPGA tournaments I’ve written deal with demons and the Abyss. Ever since reading the original Monster Manual, and especially after reading Monster Manual 2 (1st edition), I’ve been obsessed with them. I think it was the list of undefined demons more than anything else—the names seemed to have a lot of imagination-conjuring power, and the idea that I could do whatever I wanted with them was very appealing. That’s one reason this book includes so many throw-away references and so much information on demons that are not covered in full. My hope is that the list of Abyssal layers and demon lords will inspire a new generation of readers to work up their own demonic stories that will eventually make it into the game some time around ninth edition. 

Unsurprisingly, most of the demon lords included here received longer write-ups by James Jacobs in The Demonomicon of Iggwilv column he wrote for Dragon (I suspect he also wrote this chapter as well, though there’s no hard evidence of this). However, he only had time to write nine of them up, plus the apocrypha, before Paizo lost its rights to the magazine. That means that for those nine demons, these profiles are only partial in scope, and if you’re really interested in what you read here then it’s well worth seeking out the even longer explanations of these demon lords in that series. However, Obox-Ob, Pale Night, and Orcus never received the full Demonomicon treatment, meaning that this is the fullest write-up of them you’ll find in third edition. Given Jacobs’ other work, it should come as no surprise that the writing here is excellent, and the demons’ stories interweave perfectly with each other and the game’s history as a whole. 

Arnie Swenkel does excellent work with this pseudo-map. He also does the chapter sketches like he used to with earlier third edition books.

The main thing people complained about with FCI was its new statblocks for demon lords, as they’re weaker than the versions in either the BoVD or the Demonomicon. The reasoning for this is that weaker demon lords means that non-Epic parties can actually fight against demon lords at the end of a campaign, which makes sense to me and seems, well, good. There’s a section about how to easily level them up for stronger parties, and all of the Demonomicon entries also include stronger 3.5 versions of the demon lords, so I don’t in any way consider these complaints relevant. Frankly, I think that this was the right choice for the book, as people who don’t want to make them fightable, like myself, can just make them into full-on gods, while people who do want to fight them in an epic campaign are, well, probably wankers anyhow because they think the game is worth playing at that level. 

Chapter four, “Trafficking with Demons,” is the only part of the book that’s particularly catering towards player characters rather than DMs. However, it’s immediately differentiated from a thousand other third edition splatbooks by refusing to add more prestige classes to the game, a choice I rather love given that there are at this point a bajillion of them already. New feats and spells are much more interesting, particularly ones for “abyssal heritor” creatures descended from demons. There’s even some new vile feats, which I don’t think anyone was really clamoring for, but I appreciate when established parts of the game don’t go completely neglected by later releases. I didn’t find any of the new spells particularly noteworthy, though the domains of entropy, ooze, and temptation are all rather flavorful and do add a nice way to individualize characters. If I had to pick one new spell to single out, it would be Abyssal Rift, simply because of how juicy it is to open a rift to the Abyss filled with fiery tentacles, but given that it’s ninth level I’m guessing it’s only ever been cast a handful of times since it was published. 

This art of Tasha and Graz’zt embracing is a bit overused, but that’s just because it’s so good.

The chapter’s highlight is its later section on the “Black Cult of Ahm,” which is a cross-planar organization devoted to collecting these texts and studying demonkind. Essentially, it’s a Planescape-style sect in all but name, and really the fact that it’s not called one is simply because that setting no longer existed. Guidelines for advancement are included, as well as basic lore about the group and ways it might feature in a campaign. What I like so much about the black cult is that despite its name, it’s not evil. For the most part it’s about fighting against demons, using the knowledge learned from these scrolls and other research in order to pursue this end. However, studying demons can often lead to corruption, so despite its largely altruistic aims many members are led astray. This is followed by three-and-a-half pages devoted to the scrolls themselves as a series of artifacts. Like most well-designed artifacts, the scrolls are the type of thing you’d want to center an entire campaign around, and fortunately there are enough tools here to make that a reasonable thing to do.

If all that this book entailed was the first four chapters, it would be good, and I would recommend reading it, but it wouldn’t be great. It’s really the final chapter, “Into the Abyss,” that elevates the entire work. Fortunately, this chapter consists of 50 pages, making it by far the longest in the book, and for the most part it offers up what we all wish had been part of the Planes of Chaos boxed set. It even uses a Planescape-esque format, beginning with background lore on the Abyss that serves to clear-up how the tanar’ri rose to power and the decline of the obyriths. While this has been alluded to many times throughout the book, here it’s told in a linear and readily ingestible fashion. More than just the obyriths, this also manages to tie together the rather dopey Rod of Seven Parts storyline. All of this is done without forgetting about the rest of the multiverse’s storylines, either—ancient Baatorians and baernoloths come into play as well. While this backstory seems like an easy fix, I found tying all of this together extremely impressive, and you can tell that the writer(s?) of this section, which according to an interview was largely Erik Mona, loves Planescape and the game’s history and wanted to make it all fit together well, even when it ultimately doesn’t. 

The books maps come from two cartographers, and their quality varies more than a bit. I’m only featuring the ones I actually liked—the others look rather computer-generated and dull.

Also like with Planescape’s books, it then continues by detailing the roles played by various groups in this plane: tanar’ri, obyriths, loumaras, mortals, petitioners, and deities. As with the history, this section continues to acknowledge what’s happened before in the Abyss, and not just in this particular book. The Doomguard with their chaos ships receive a section, as do the Dustmen, Sensates, and Xaositects, as all of these factions maintain large populations in the Abyss. Issues with petitioners are explained away as readily as other contradictions, and even a non-Wizards deity, Kali, sneaks in a mention (presumably because of her role in Tales of the Outer Planes, but even so I found this particularly surprising given how much third edition had done to excise real world mythologies from its fantasy). The Infinite Staircase receives the better part of a page, ships of chaos get a full mini-section, awkward portions of the Abyss such as its Ocean and the Grand Abyss (a weird layer) are smoothed out. The idea that this plane may be alive or even sentient comes to the forefront with the idea of the cacklestorm, and Mona and company even write around some dumb parts of the edition’s multiverse such as the erasure of most of the Inner Planes, largely by ignoring this and for instance describing what would’ve been the Plane of Vacuum as “a realm of airless void between the Elemental Plane of Air and the Negative Energy Plane.” That being said, mysteries aren’t explained away, and as a whole the Abyss now seems to be a bigger, stranger place than ever realized before. In most books, this sort of overview section is just filler, but here it offers a huge reimagining of this plane that shapes not just this entire book but also the conception of what this world’s ecosystem and history entail. It’s a monumental achievement done with the utmost casualness, and should absolutely not be skipped. 


After this introduction, the rest of the chapter is taken up with extremely lengthy descriptions of the layers Pazunia, Azzagrat (well, three layers), The Demonweb, and Thanatos, plus shorter but still long by typical Planescape standards descriptions of The Grand Abyss, Twelvetrees, The Iron Wastes, The Wells of Darkness, The Gaping Maw, Hollow’s Heart, Shedaklah, Yeenoghu’s Realm, Androlynne, Shendilavri, and the Endless Maze. Whew! Every one of these descriptions is good, and whenever these layers were even mentioned previously what’s contained matches up with that content perfectly, though oftentimes it also does a great deal to grow it as well. For instance, Twelvetrees barely received any description in In the Abyss, let alone a map, but here it receives a full write-up and encounter table that make it a worthwhile place to visit rather than a sidenote for when an adventure went horribly wrong. Curious how Thanatos has adapted to Orcus’ return and whether Kiaransalee still has armies based there? Don’t worry, this chapter has you covered. Wondering whether Rule-of-Three is still working with Graz’zt, or what happened to his children and Ztefano following their failure in For Duty & Deity? Don’t worry, Adams has your back here too. No detail from the past seemed to be too small to catch his notice, and the result is far and away the best description of the Abyss and its many layers ever officially produced for D&D. Even if you’re not a fan of the source material, which is how I feel towards Queen of the Demonweb Pits and the many drow-based adventures that both followed and preceded it, you have to admire the dedication here, as each description is filled with easter eggs that somehow feel like natural parts of this otherworldly realm. 

The fortresses on Pazunia finally receive a decent explanation, plus a map for general use in in running adventures here.

The biggest change, and I’m not 100% sure it is one, is that layers of the Abyss are no longer all infinite. That was certainly the case in the original Manual of the Planes, which notes that it’s an “infinite number of infinitely large planes,” but after searching through a pile of Planescape texts from second edition and the more recent Manual of the Planes from third edition I was unable to find a direct mention that the planes are all infinite in size (the more recent Manual says that well-known realms are “bounded,” but realms are not the same thing as layers, even if their meanings can get pretty foggy down here). In any case, now they’re far more differentiated, with some layers infinite, but many of them finite, sometimes in strange ways. Pazunia used to be the “Infinite Plain” because it was an infinitely large plain, duh, but now this infinitude is simply because it loops in on itself like a video game, such that once you hit an edge you arrive at the other side, though it’s not because of a physical shape like with Sigil but simply due to magic. I actually quite like this development, as it means that the layers are able to be weirder and more differentiated, i.e. more chaotic. This was toyed with a tiny bit in A Paladin in Hell with its layer-as-ship idea, but given how dumb that overall concept was it was hard to consider seriously (we all pretend none of that happened). Here, it just feels natural, and distinguishing the plane’s infinity as one of depth rather than breadth makes it a more unique part of the multiverse. 

The only truly new layers detailed are Shendilvari, where Malcanthet rules, and Androlynne, the realm of Pale Night, though I most appreciate how the Wells of Darkness are greatly fleshed out and features many adventure hooks, not to mention that it’s an easy location to use for your own ideas. These aren’t the only new locations, either, just the ones that receive full write-ups. A favorite of mine is the creation of layer 92, Ulgurshek, which takes an obscure monster from BECMI’s Immortals set (the draeden) and turns it into an entire layer. However, for this detail, or information about the ongoing war for the souls of many cursed eladrin stuck in the Abyss (that the demons seem to be losing), or an understanding of Pale Night’s odd relationship with Baphomet on his layer, you’re going to have to read through the entire chapter. There is a hell of a lot of information here, and somehow pretty much all of it matches up with Planescape and previous D&D references. Goddamn it’s good.

I’m glad to get updated on Thanatos. Too bad we never received a full adventure that returns here.

The last few pages of the book proper are given to its appendices. Aside from the monster one I mentioned earlier, there’s a pair on Lords of the Abyss that includes everyone from within this book as well as many included as simply names from earlier works, plus every known layer of the Abyss, which fits perfectly with the ones from Planes of Chaos. It’s a fitting end to the book’s encyclopedic project, and I only wish that it were able to also encompass all of the wonderful material from Dragon and Dungeon as well, particularly the Demonomicon series, which acts largely as an expansion of this book. 


Art and cartography aren’t quite as consistently good as the prose, but it also never drifts into the realm of mediocrity or amateurishness. It’s not DiTerlizzi-era Planesape, but then what is? And converse to so many other third edition books I didn’t find a plethora of weird errors and typos. There are probably some in the statblocks that insane people criticized back in the day, but I couldn’t care less, and on the whole this seems like a weirdly cohesive and well-edited work. Sometimes third edition’s splatbooks struggled with their identities, often feeling like a few shorter books sloppily shoved together without an overarching vision, but all the way through the lore and tone feel consistent here. 

Gotta love a map of the Abyss that doesn’t make everything look utterly miserable. The plane’s diversity is so much of its charm.

In addition to the book proper, there were also two web enhancements published for FCI. The first, and more known of these, is a piece on fiendish aspects by Robert Wiese, which can still be found at the TSR Archive. As I’ve noted before, demonic aspects are now more like avatars, so perhaps use these for those as well—I had no interest in this article, but I’m sure it’ll be useful to someone. Far more enjoyable was a selection of cut pieces from the book itself that was published as the “Lost Anals.” This is credited to all three of the book’s authors, though that attribution seems a bit unlikely given the division labor behind its chapters. Anyhow, while the first part of this is just a fairly typical new water obyrith (yawn), the other pages includes a full write-up of the layer The Woeful Escarand, plus brief blurbs about eighth other layers which are all still lengthier than the information we’ve received about them previously. I can see why these were cut from the final product, but would’ve much preferred them to the couple pages of ads that actually end the book, and consider these to be just as relevant as what’s in the hard copy. Anyone enjoying FC1 should definitely give the “Lost Anals” a read, and marvel at how they complete the already complex picture of the Abyss from before. 

If I were asked to recommend to a fan of planar lore who missed out on third edition to purchase a single book, Fiendish Codex I: The Abyss would be it. There’s still at least one more great planar book on its way in this edition, which might even be just as good (I’m only going by hype—I’ve never read it, as it appeared at the end of my time in college and I was simply too busy to play much D&D then, let alone read about it), but this work felt like such an obsessive love letter to the game and its history that I can’t help but think that this is the pinnacle. It’s everything I wished we received about each of the planes from Planescape itself, and I’m extremely happy that this somehow made its way to publication. Do yourself a favor and read it, use it for campaigns, and be inspired by its creativity. You won’t be disappointed. 

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