Fiendish Codex II: Tyrants of the Nine Hells

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 109: Fiendish Codex II: Tyrants of the Nine Hells




I’m always entertained when multiple volumes of nominally the same series use massively different structures, and this pattern has long been a weird part of D&D. Planes of Law, Planes of Chaos, and Planes of Conflict may all focus on these respective planes, but what content they contain is weirdly variable. Likewise, Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss  and Fiendish Codex II: Tyrants of Hell were published less than a yeas apart, but their approaches towards devils, demons, and their homelands, while similar enough from a distance, are not exactly a matched pair. Fortunately, both volumes are good and it’s largely a matter of to what extent. Codex I may have earned an A+, but that’s in no way to say that Codex II doesn’t deserve kudos for its A-. It’s just baffling that no one behind the scenes decided to pair the books a little bit more closely. 

As with its predecessor, the Codex II is divided into five parts, which were written, “developed” (what does this actually mean?), and edited by numerous people, chief among the designers Robin D. Laws and Robert J. Schwalb. I’m uncertain whether Schwalb was at this point still an employee of Wizards, but Laws was a freelancer, which means there’s more than a bit in common with how these works were approached, at least from Wizards’ standpoint. Both books draw heavily from past works in a way that I appreciate, but with the devils there’s a bit more erasure, and the real spotlight is firmly placed on the multiverse’s present and future. This isn’t a book filled with hundreds of deep references to obscure texts, tying them all together in a complex framework. Instead, it presents a slightly altered and extremely usable version of Hell that’s easily recognizable to anyone familiar with the game’s mythology. The plane has changed a bit since the Book of Vile Darkness and Manual of the Planes from half an edition ago, but not radically so. 


Part of the problem may be that, unlike with the Abyss, Hell has had quite a bit of documentation. Aside from the many works focused on this location in Planescape, there was also Ed Greenwood’s two-part (plus an epilogue, so really three-part) series in Dragon, and more recently Guide to Hell from the very end of second edition. In addition, despite its theoretical infinitude there is still a finite number of layers and individuals here, and fans would likely be unhappy were nearly any of them missing from the book. It’s almost natural that writing about the Abyss allows for a certain amount of freedom and creativity, whereas Hell’s orderly and readily documentable nature causes issues for anyone attempting to change the landscape.

Devilish ecology and hierarchies are altered, but the horrors of its promotion process remains the same.

Oddly, it’s the very late second edition Guide to Hell that Codex II chose to both echo and completely revoke with its beginning. In place of the older work’s introduction story about the “Serpents of Law,” here we receive a preface titled “The Pact Primeval,” explaining a completely different origin story for Hell, the shape of the multiverse, and most of all Asmodeus himself. I do appreciate that this story is noted as a legend: “As is the case with any myth worthy of the name, the following tale is true—whether or not it actually happened.” However, the pact itself is revealed to be a definite object that can be visited, which for the most part completely contradicts the idea that this origin may or may not be true. This new origin story supercedes and replaces the earlier one, such that I don’t believe that the Guide to Hell‘s version has ever cropped up again, even obliquely (despite how it deeply influenced the shape of Nessus). As for me, which version do I prefer? To be honest, I like both versions, and while they have plenty of contradictions between them, I consider them both more-or-less canon. Of course, to a large extent it simply doesn’t matter which version is true, as this is mostly a point of trivia given how little it affects the multiverse or campaigns. In addition, let’s not forget that both of these versions contradict Hellbound‘s origin story, which offers credit for the creation of both the baatezu and the tanar’ri to yugoloths. Any and all of these origin stories could be worked into a campaign, and it’s up to an individual DM to decide which they like, as they all center around events so long ago that the truth of the matter is largely unimportant. I miss Asmodeus’ second edition plot to propagate atheism, as I found that rather clever and fascinating, but the Pact Primeval version of history rings more true to what we know of devils and the hellish ecosystem they exist within. 

Once that’s out of the way, rather than FCI‘s fancifully titled first chapter “Demonic Lore,” here the same content is filed beneath “All About Devils.” Why try for elegance when you can just say what’s happening and be blunt, I suppose. There’s no in-universe text to help explain things, no narrative voice beyond the edition’s typically officious tone, but at the same time this chapter offers up answers to the key question: who are devils and how do they spend their time? This is more important than the corresponding section in FCI, largely because unlike that book an explanation is needed as to why devils are all about damning souls. Demons just kill things because they’re like that, but devils have a motive, which requires a lot of justification in order to make sense of, which is something that Planescape never quite worked out. Robin D. Laws, who wrote this chapter, did an exceedingly good job with this tough task, and for the first time in the game’s history it only seems natural that devils would do whatever they can to obtain souls, since their power draws directly from ripping them from mortals.

…the soul shells [petitioners] undergo an awful program of torture, the gruesome details of which are best left to the imagination. While slowly peeling away every last iota of the petitioner’s individuality, the process releases magical energy, which flows to the local lord as specified in the Pact Primeval. Torture teams composed of chain-slinging kytons and masked pain devils mercilessly terrorize and mutilate the souls of the damned until every scintilla of extractable magic has been wrung from them.

In order to make all of this work, Laws needed to create that Pact Primeval backstory. I commend him on how well the logic of this whole system functions, and ultimately most other parts of the race’s economy, ecology, and history flow naturally from this source. Everything that devils do ties back to their desire for souls and the power they can draw from them, such that while Laws does elegantly detail how this affects their interactions with mortals, their conflict with demons, and their love for deals, it all makes enough sense that this is barely even necessary. 

The chapter ends with many pages about running devils in games, but this is much shorter than what we saw in Fiendish Codex I, and despite the inanity of charting levels of damnedness and corruption in a literal chart, I found this material mostly inoffensive. Essentially, the back half of the chapter is one of those bits that clearly isn’t for me, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

Most of cartographer Mike Schley’s work for this book is quite good… but its overall picture of the nine Hells is uninspired.

The highlight of Codex II is its second chapter, “The Nine Hells,” which is a counterpart to chapter 5 of Codex I. At 44 pages long, it’s also the meatiest part of the book. Each layer is detailed in the same manner, divided into sections on: the layer’s lord, its other residents, important locations, divine realms (which are somehow their own thing and not “important”?), and then three sample encounters for players to run into (except for Nessus, which only gets two clearly for space reasons). The most worthwhile parts are the important locations, as these are given a fair amount of depth, often half a page or more in length. This chapter was also by Laws, but he had quite a bit of past lore to build from, and so most of the locations are just as familiar as the archdevils, at least at the beginning. However, these locations become more interesting as the chapter continues, as lower layers received less detail in second edition (their lords weren’t even revealed in Planes of Law), allowing Laws to flex some creative muscles and add new twists to this familiar plane. 

The biggest alteration between this book and what came before is that there’s a new lord for the sixth layer, Malbolge, which came to pass due to the horrific death of its prior night hag ruler. Her body has now become the landscape, despite this making little spacial sense, and it’s now ruled over by Glasya, Asmodeus’ daughter and longtime background player in Hell ever since her appearance in the Monster Manual II. While there’s a missed opportunity to explain exactly how this came about—my personal headcanon has it that in order for Asmodeus to trick Malagard into becoming ruler of the layer, he had to promise her that he would never remove her from Malbolge under any circumstances… which he never did, as killing her in that manner transformed her essence into part of the layer itself—it’s still a wonderfully hellish development that makes sense of what had been my least favorite section of Hell. Prior till now, Malbolge had been rather dull, in that it seemed largely like just another part of Gehenna since its gimmick, that it featured no flat ground, was shared by the entirety of the adjoining plane. The layer was neither unique nor very usable, and the hag countess also never made much sense and I think was a weird remnant of Planescape’s writers trying to give night hags a bigger role in the lower planes’ politics, an idea that never really caught on. 

The new Malbolge is this book’s highlight, even in the artwork.

The new Malbolge is horrific and hellish in unique ways. Its hair forest is perhaps the best new location in the entire volume, while its lakes of bile offer a nice spot to visit for any rogues looking for additional sources of poison. Glasya’s appearance also does a ton to shake up the devilish status quo. Dispater is now terrified of something similar happening to him, while Fierna is emboldened by having another “archduchess”(night hags don’t count, I guess) and is pushing back against her father/lover Belial. In fact, her return has implications on every one of the layers, and makes for a more tense political situation. Speaking of which, just for those keeping track, here’s the latest  in our surprisingly lengthy series of archdevil rundowns:

  1. Bel – Still chilling here, though perhaps not for too much longer. His siphoning of power from Zariel is mentioned again, which has big implications for the future.
  2. Dispater – Now paranoid about losing his position, he’s even more encloistered within his iron tower. 
  3. Mammon – His scheming changes in response to the promotion of his ex-lover. He wants to win her back, though it’s also possible he wants her dead. Who are we kidding, he definitely wants both.
  4. Fierna & Belial – She’s starting to rule in more than just name, and looks to be pushing daddy out. He’s trying to hold on, but how much longer can he last?
  5. Levistus – He’d been planning on taking Malbolge for himself, somehow, but now he’s given up on that dream. For whatever reason, I’m starting to find him dull, perhaps because he and Stygia don’t seem to be changing as much as the rest of Hell.
  6. Glasya – She’s back and sexier than ever… by which I mean that the one piece of art showing her is glossy in a way that makes me think she’s covered in slime. 
  7. Baalzebul – Same dude, same plots. Looks like he’s starting to give up hope, though, which is interesting if not exactly devilish (think Hades). I do like his Palace of Filth, and I appreciate giving him more of an identity than just another schemer.
  8. Mephistopheles – Though he may seem old hat, his new development is that he’s been developing a usable version of “hellfire,” which is a purified essence of Hell that can even burn fiends. He’s also really been developing his cult on the Prime. Unfortunately, I don’t think anything cool comes to pass from all of this due to the next edition nuking the setting so soon, but there’s definitely potential here, and it’s nice to see some changes happening unrelated to Glasya’s promotion.
  9. Asmodeus – Yawn. I kinda preferred him as a secret serpent, but maybe that’s just me. 

All of these tiny changes add up into an overall narrative about how Hell has tried to move on from the Reckoning. By the time you hit Nessus, whole layers are receiving almost entirely new descriptions, as nothing before quite fits with what Laws is doing anymore. I also appreciate that even here, the Guide to Hell cosmology and features such as the Serpent’s Coil are worked into the plane. I suppose this isn’t a surprise given that everything mentioned in the third edition Manual is expanded upon here, but it seemed quite possible that this location in particular no longer had a place in the altered cosmology.

My main quibble with this particular version of D&D Hell is that it’s not infinite. Or at least, the land mass there isn’t infinite, I’m rather unclear about the space around the plane… which didn’t used to even exist. I consulted the third edition Manual to see what it said about this subject there, and like with the Abyss it did change the plane’s scope, just not in a way that I at all understand.

Now, I consider myself a relatively intelligent person. I’ve got a bevy of higher education degrees from fancy schmancy schools, and have spent much of my adult life teaching undergraduate and graduate-level English. You’d think that I would understand a simple size description in a roleplaying game supplement… but instead I find myself wondering what the hell a “ledge-layer” is, and how it might extend infinitely but also have a circumference that’s finite? What does any of this actually mean??? I refuse to acknowledge this paragraph as making a single lick of sense. The authors of FCII seemed to say that there’s a black void outside of Hell’s layers (“Diabolical scholars speculate that the layers exist in a featureless void of pure law and malice, but such an outer region is undetectable from anywhere within Baator.”), and that as such the layers themselves are pretty big but by no means infinite, which answers my questions but in a completely unsatisfactory way. Whatever, all of this is a dumb retcon, but oh well. Let’s move on and pretend this isn’t the case.

A hellbred who wants to tell you about his favorite emo band.

One thing I rather love about FCII‘s organization is that its third chapter is just called “Game rules.” That’s right, all of the nonsense crunch that anyone uninterested in playing a third edition D&D game wishes to skip is all tossed together in one ugly heap. This also means that it’s a chapter filled with the type of content that was handily excised entirely from the FCI, which helps explain why, despite the same page count, that book had a great deal more content. Some people were were unhappy about the decision to focus it so heavily on lore, and while it definitely improved the book in my eyes, there’s nothing wrong with including some gameplay additions, even if they’re not the type of thing that really sets the world on fire. 


Although there are a few new concepts contained within this chapter, such as devil-touched feats and investiture spells (don’t ask), none of this is interesting enough to really warrant notice. Likewise, the book’s four new prestige classes are… four new prestige classes, as if the game really needed more of those at this point. The one exception to this snooze-a-rama is a new race of sorts, the hellbred, who are the reincarnations of souls who tried at a last minute repenting in order to skip out on Hell, but didn’t quite make the grade. “The lords of good and justice, suspicious that the condemned soul merely seeks escape for selfish reasons, instead reincarnate the individual to give him one last chance at salvation. In exchange, this newborn creature, called a hellbred, gains impressive powers to better thwart the minions of Hell and maybe—in some way—prove his worth to the gods of good to gain clemency.” Because as we all know, goodness is all about suspicion and refusing forgiveness. 

The main draw of this new race is that, due to their fringe case-heritage, they can use spells or items with the evil descriptor without actually being evil. They also pick some infernal manifestations as a result of their body or spirit being infernal-ish. Essentially, they’re even more edgelord than tieflings, but without any of the fun since they’re dour, mission-based people akin to tiresome paladins. Now that we’re down to it, are they even really a race? Grudgingly, I concluded that yes they are, by which I mean are any of the “races” in D&D? Fifth edition says no, and I’m definitely inclined to agree (it’s such a messy, ugly subject that addressing this in any real fashion would require more words than this entire overwritten article), though in some cases such as this one they’re also not really much of a species. In any case, I’m fine that the hellbred went forgotten, as they’re an odd footnote that only makes much sense given this particular version of the multiverse’s cosmology, which only existed for a little more than a year. 

A kalabon, one of many surprisingly good new devils from this book… who will likely never make another appearance in the game.

The “Devils” chapter is a bit odd in contrast with FCI, because while the earlier book created two new demonic subtypes, this one removes one from devils. Much to my disappointment, Ancient Baatorians don’t receive so much as a mention here—and no, it’s not that the designers didn’t know about them, as is clear from their promotional interview with Wizards. Perhaps this was because they now seemed too similar to obyriths, which is fair, but still unfortunate, as they were a fascinating but underdeveloped part of Planescape.


The chapter is instead filled with a combination of third edition devils converted to 3.5 with fuller write-ups (at this point in the edition, Wizards had expanded its monster template, which meant that a lot more information would be given for each monster, especially in terms of lore), one devil from even older editions brought up to the present, plus a handful of entirely new creations. Abishai return from Monsters of Faerûn, Amnizu and Malebranche from the Monster Manual II, Narzugon and Spinagon from the Manual of the Planes, Xerfilstyx and Paeliryon from the Fiend Folio, and Nupperibo make a surprise first appearance since second edition. The Nupperibo also have a completely different backstory from what we last saw, which is no surprise given that they were previously linked with the Ancient Baatorians, but I suppose this gives you an alternative origin for them if this one is more to your liking. 

Several of the new devils are actually quite cool. I like the ayperobos swarm for filling in a unique niche, and think legion devils have a thematically perfect special ability. Pain and pleasure devils are far less exciting, but the hellfire engine, with its links to Mephistopheles’ current plots, is both deadly and unique. Likewise, the kalabons feel like a needed addition for Malebranche’s current state of torment. In all, it was a surprisingly good and useful chapter, especially with the additional lore about some of the older monsters, though at the same time the creation of all these new devils sure causes issues with the hierarchy of Hell and its supposedly rigid ways. When I went to check which of these devils reappeared in later editions, I stumbled upon this hilarious passage in the Forgotten Realms Wiki entry for the “Orthon,” which says:

The rank and caste of many baatezu given in the Fiendish Codex II: Tyrants of the Nine Hells conflict with a multitude of early sourcebooks and is not even self-consistent.

For example, on p. 10, an erinyes is called a lesser devil, yet on p. 158, it is called a greater devil, and the descriptions throughout the book sometimes imply both stations.

An even more telling example is the orthon, which has two separate listings in the Devils by CR table on p. 158. (It is not the only devil with two listings either.) An orthon is said on p. 10 to be the same rank as a bone devil, and both are listed as greater devils on that page, yet on p. 158, in the alphabetical listing of devils, an orthon is lesser, while a bone devil is greater. Malebranches, too, are said to be the same rank as both orthons and bone devils (p. 10), yet in the Society section for their entry on p. 125, they are said to serve the greater baatezu, not be a part of them, and the alphabetical list on p. 158 calls them lesser devils. The table on p. 10 also says that malebranches can only be formed through demotion, yet the Ecology section on p. 125 says that they can be formed from elevation.

The text reads on p. 9 that the Infernal Advancement Path table on p. 10 does not include every kind of devil but is meant “to give an idea of the basic rank structure.” For this reason, and because of all the inconsistencies, this wiki will generally prioritize information from 1st and 2nd edition over 3rd edition when describing the rank and caste of baatezu. (This differs from our usual policy and only pertains to the issue of baatezu caste and rank.)

Glasya just looks greasy to me, like she could really use a bath.

The book’s final section is “The Lords of the Nine,” though its coverage is more than a bit wanting. The biggest draw here is that each archdevil’s aspect receives stats, which may or may not be used as the devils themselves depending on your needs. As is typical at this point, the aspects are essentially avatars in all but name. In addition, each archdevil receives a piece of art and a few quick paragraphs on their servants, enemies, and goals. However, almost all of this information was already covered in the earlier section on layers, and as such is largely redundant. It’s quite obvious that this section should’ve been folded into that one (it probably wasn’t due to authorial reasons), and as a result of its focus on crunch and repetition the only thing this chapter really adds is some new art. And to make it even less useful, another swathe of these same aspects was also released as an online supplement for the book. Finally, the appendix at the end of the book is just a single page long, riddled with errors, and questionably useful. 

I do quite like the FCII, but it’s hard not to compare this work with its predecessor. I’m reminded a bit of A Guide to Hell in that this work somehow feels less than encyclopedic in scope. While FCI offers glimpses of the entire history of this world, FCII feels more like a simple snapshot at a point in time. For instance, while there are a handful of references to The Reckoning, there’s never actually an explanation of what this supposedly momentous event actually was, which is particularly weird because no book in the entire third edition ever actually spells this out. The second half of the book also doesn’t live up to the first due to its attempt to be more useful for a game edition that was already on its way out the door. I definitely still recommend this work, it’s just not quite the masterpiece that FCI was, especially since its version of Hell barely lasted a year and did so with absolutely no additional support in the form of adventures or other content from Wizards of the Coast or Paizo.

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