A Walk Through the Planes – Part 31: Hellbound: The Blood War




The final boxed set for Planescape, and one of the last real boxed sets for all of D&D/AD&D1, Hellbound: The Blood War sits in an odd position. During 1996 and 1997, TSR seemed particularly keen on releasing adventures as boxed sets, and that’s really the centerpiece of this release. At the same time, you can sense within it a final attempt being made to draw general RPG and D&D fans into Planescape by putting out the most heavy metal product possible. For setting completionists, Hellbound draws on half a dozen prior, quite expensive and extensive previous products, but at the same time it’s really designed for new players. Factions aren’t a big deal here, neither is Sigil. This set really is all about demons and devils and watching armies of billions of them clash in endless battlefields. It’s a strong, thematically unified set that at the same time probably did just as much to repel a potential audience as it did to attract one. Are you primarily interested in the more philosophical, less combat-heavy parts of Planescape, the parts that can be dealt with even at first and second level? Yeah, then maybe this box isn’t for you. 

The titular Blood War was created in Jamie LaFountain’s Outer Planes Appendix, but despite receiving this entire boxed set devoted to it (which now regularly goes for upward of $300 on eBay), it wasn’t important enough that LaFountain even remembered why he created it. It mattered, but was only background to the setting, and likely wasn’t something players would become much a part of until now. Its central idea is that there is an endless war, predating even the existence of mortal races, between the devils and demons, i.e. the baatezu and the tanar’ri. Were this clash to end, it would be catastrophic, as either of these two armies is stronger than the combined might of the celestials, but at the same time this seems unlikely to happen because the devils and demons have such inherited hatred for each other. Due to the size of the conflict, it plays a large role on all of the outer planes, and even the Prime Material Plane, as the need for recruits and supplies is endless. It’s easy to make as much or as little of a Planescape campaign center around the Blood War as you’d like.


The actual Hellbound release consists of five books and, sadly, no more of Rob Lazzeratti’s fabulous poster maps. It’s a strange compilation, consisting of one book for players, one for DM’s, a book of three adventures, a small book of images to accompany those adventures, and a tie-in comic. If you can’t yet tell, the entire set is heavy on theme, playing up the violent imagery and hellish ridiculousness of the Blood War. At the same time, the actual content here  isn’t quite as voluminous as you’d expect, or at least it doesn’t contain as much new material. One of the oddities of Planescape’s releases is that while every one of its boxed sets is a lavish affair, in terms of actual content it generally feels like the series’ books do just as well, if not better. I like what’s here, and the heavy metal vibe of it all fits well with the war itself, but had this content been released as a bound book along the lines of Dead Gods I wouldn’t have been disappointed. 

I love this little guy. Adam Rex wins the set for this drawing.

“The Chant of War: A Player’s Guide” is split into three sections, and while they’re actually pretty equal in length, by placing the “Chant for the Clueless” section first it’s immediately clear what one of the goals of this product is. Given its relative obscurity 25 years later, I have to assume that Planescape and its weirdo cosmography were never an easy sell for your average RPG player. It’s not quite Steampunk, and it’s not quite traditional fantasy, and it’s on the whole a somewhat unique prospect for a setting. So in order to grow the player base, Hellbound seems like an obvious entry point, attempting to attract players who’ll jump at anything demonic. That TSR is still avoiding the actual D-words for these creatures makes that a bit weird, especially in concert with the title doing its best to attract the same Christian complaints their removal was intended to appease, but oh well. 90s D&D was just weird that way. 

So for those players looking to jump in and murder demonic hordes but with no knowledge (or, let’s face it, interest) in the planes otherwise, the set includes a quick primer on the fiends, as well as the five planes the Blood War centers around. For those with the previous boxed sets, none of this material will be new. This is followed by a somehow even-less-necessary section centered around why each character class might be interested in the Blood War, which I guess might be useful if your players are completely braindead. Sadly, the “Chant for Players” part for planar PCs isn’t much better, giving rather obvious information about the factions’ relationships with the Blood War, as well as some of the major planar races. The final section, “The City of Doors,” at least offers semi-new information about how the Blood War functions within Sigil, as well as a few NPC contacts players might want to meet with in order to learn more or perhaps get hooked into a plot, though they’re mentioned nowhere else in the box. In all, like the players’ books for the other boxed sets (except for the setting itself, which was weirdly vital), it’s kind of a waste. 

Lotta torture in this box. If that’s something you’re (rightfully) squeemish about, this isn’t the set for you.

“The Dark of the War” is much better, and my favorite part of it is the handful of pages at its beginning devoted to the Blood War’s history. As is typical for the setting, this is couched in uncertainty and rumors. The source for this information is the “forbidden yugoloth text,” The Book of Derelict Magicks, a 100% biased book that nevertheless is still the best we’re going to get. This allows the authors plenty of wiggle room to play with this founding myth in the future, and more importantly gives all of this an entertaining tone. Planescape is all about legends, and it’s clearly possible that the history of the multiverse is caused by people believing that this is how the Blood War began. Belief becomes real in the outer planes, as it’s always important to remember that they’re a physical manifestation of metaphysical concepts. History happened this way because it’s what people believe happened.

After this, information about the “major players” mostly serves to explicate the lower planes’ ecosystem. Much of this could be pieced together by any reader of the previous boxed sets, but having it in one place is nice, and this set really puts the spotlight on yugoloths, aka daemons, aka that third fiendish race that usually gets forgotten. One of the main gists of this entire set is that the yugoloths are actually pulling the strings behind the entire Blood War, causing it to go on endlessly for their own largely unclear reasons. Planescape, and in fact this particular boxed set, is really the only time yugoloths would ever have to shine, and while that’s understandable considering how much less flashy they are than their cousins, let alone how dumb that name is (I seem to be the only person who prefers daemon to yugoloth…), it’s still a pity. 

I’m a huge fan of this recruitment poster. Probably my favorite piece of art in the whole set.


Most of the rest of the book is pleasantly well-written, moderately informative flavor text about how the war is actually fought. This includes, for instance, a dozen pages on major “sites and skirmishes” of the Blood War, including three blow-by-blow accounts of past battles. These hardly seem useful to me, but it’s an interesting inclusion and entertaining to read. I’m glad not to have an entire book of these, but they serve their purpose well, and combine to give a sort of all-inclusive look at the Blood War, from both the top-down outsider’s perspective and that of grunts out on the field.

This book even contains that rarest of all Planescape additions: crunch. Well not hard crunch, but at least a few additional spells and magic items that may be of interest to players or DM’s, which is something that the setting tends to forget about. Part of why Planescape is so easily transferable to other game systems is because despite its plethora of boxed sets and adventures, the vast majority of its material is flavor. “The Dark of the War” feels quite complete with this inclusion, giving us plenty of the type of material that would’ve been nice to see previously in the setting and also plenty of details that simply make the world feel richer. 

DiTerlizzi’s art just seems too cartoonish for the monstrosities at hand here.

For all that it includes nearly 200 pages of other material, the main focus of Hellbound is in fact its adventures, which comprise two books awkwardly used in tandem. “War Games” is a 96-page set of three adventures, which while not necessarily required to be run in succession as a campaign it really feel like that’s the best way to do things. “Visions of War” is a squat, 24-page full-color booklet of illustrations and maps for the adventure, scenes meant to be shown intermittently to players whenever they reach certain points. This was probably a much cheaper solution to the question of how to integrate these full-color pieces of art, but due to the smaller size of the booklet and the awkwardness of the format (you’re only supposed to show a single page at a time usually, yet that’s not really how books work…) it seems much better for the publisher than for, you know, players. More about this later, when we focus on the set’s art. 

The first of the adventures is “The Field of Nettles,” which serves largely to introduce players to the Blood War and how all of its machinations function. Players are paid to look for a macguffin dropped in the middle of a battleground, the title of which should be obvious. There isn’t that much decision-making here, but it’s fine enough for what it is, and for a two-or-three session long adventure I can see having fun with it. Basically, players wander through a battleground and have to decide how to deal with various encounters along the way, none of which are that noteworthy but all of which are at least a bit harrowing. I think the main thing to keep in mind here is that as with the other two adventures in the set, there’s a lot more actual fighting (well, potential fighting, but sometimes that seems borderline impossible to avoid) in this set than in anything we’ve seen in Planescape prior. That’s not a surprise, but it is a bit different. Players aren’t going to solve a puzzle here or trick people into getting their way, instead they’re trudging across a battlefield and simply trying to stay alive. It’s not a dungeon, but it might as well be, so if that’s absolutely something you’re uninterested in with D&D, this adventure in particular should be skipped. 

Conversely, I feel that Adam Rex really gets how horrifying this shit really is.

The second adventure, “Strange Bedfellows,” feels a lot more Planescape-y. The same NPC who hired the players in “Field of Nettles” turns out to largely work as a weapons smuggler, and his shipment to the devils has been lost. Through investigating what happened to them near the gatetown Hopeless, the PCs learn that the weapons were taken by yugoloths, who want to stop celestials from interfering with the Blood War. This possibly leads players to the ultimate source of the weapons, an archon who believes he’s doing the right thing because, well, he likes devils more than demons and likes the two killing each other regardless. How players want to approach various parts here is more open, and I simply prefer investigations to macguffins when it comes to stories. Like the prior adventure, this one isn’t spectacular, but I find it interesting enough as a sort of second introduction to the Blood War—now that we understand what it looks like on the ground, here’s how the machinations behind the scenes have been affecting the situation. 


The main course here is “Squaring the Circle,” which takes up more than half of the book and is truly an epic adventure, even if some of its central conceits are sorta iffy.2 It again concerns a plot by the yugoloths, but here it isn’t just a little turf war over controlling armaments, it’s a plot they’ve been working on over eons to help gain control of both the demons and the devils. It turns out that the highly-annoying “teleport without error” ability possessed by all fiends (except for Gehreleths, both for reasons that make sense with this storyline when you read their backstory and because they’re canonically supposed to be the fiends who suck) isn’t an inborn ability like everyone thought, but was in fact due to a weirdo former celestial warped into a monstrous, Lovecraftian being known as Maeldur Et Kavurik. Whenever he learns someone’s name, they gain the ability to teleport without error through his general weirdness. The yugoloths want to dump him in the Styx so as to remove this ability from their enemies, then only tell him their names and the names of demons and devils who swear allegiance to them. 

A lotta demons in this book. Hard to pick images of them because they get a bit samey.

Most of my qualms with this quest come from the overall plot, which is, well, nonsense. The actual adventure itself is exciting, though it’s also by a vast margin the most difficult Planescape adventure to date. This makes sense for a path that visits Gehenna (kind of), the Abyss, and Hell, not to mention some gate towns in between, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get through. And unlike a lot of Planescape adventures, there’s many encounters it’s borderline impossible to trick or talk your way through. PCs are going to fight a lot, and what they’re going to fight isn’t just a bunch of basic goblins or something but a mass of creatures with loads of special abilities and spells and, of course, teleport without error. As a matter of fact, running this adventure in fifth edition might be easier because monsters are in general simplified. Conversely, for Pathfinder this is going to take a lot of work from a DM to run well. It’s probably worth it, but that won’t mean it’s going to be simple. 

What I like best about this adventure isn’t its central conceit, which I appreciate because teleport without error is stupid and I wish it really had been removed here (while most adventures in D&D modules seem to canonically be successful, here I guess the heroes failed miserably? At the very least, we never hear an inkling about the demons/devils losing this ever again and they sure keep this dumb ability today, even though fifth edition has altered it a bit). No, it’s that this makes the lower plains truly feel demonic and miserable. There are multiple setpieces here, including a fortress built largely out of the bodies of its captives and a city-sized tank. The plot also delves into the fiends who ruled the lower planes eons ago, both the baernoloth proto-yugoloths as well as the ancient baatorians. The original demons, the obyriths, wouldn’t arrive until third edition, I believe, but in general I find it interesting to have these hints at more weirdness going on in the multiverse than what most of its denizens realize. As with so much of Hellbound, there’s a sense that what’s known or assumed about the planes is only surface information, while the real dark is yet to be discovered. Unfortunately, the setting would end before a lot of this came to pass, but even the hints at more resonated strongly and have stuck with this universe, aside from whatever dumb nonsense is going on with fourth edition. 

Note how the art styles here just don’t mesh well.

Weirdly, there’s yet one more book to this set, though it’s far from a highlight. “The Bargain” is a short comic book written by Jeff Grubb of first edition Manual of the Planes fame (I guess), and drawn by a weird combination of Robh Ruppel, Tony DiTerlizzi, and the designer Dawn Murin. Its story, about a cambion who betrays the tanar’ri in order to pursue his beloved, a largely personality-free marilith, is fine but trifling. There’s not much there, and unfortunately while the design for the comic is excellent, reminding me more than a bit of Dave McKean, the weird combination of art styles is jarring. It feels slightly amateurish and unsure of itself, which I suppose the project likely was considering that producing comics is not exactly what TSR was about. I prefer its inclusion to not having it, but if it had never existed no one would miss it. 


And this seems like a good segue to talking about the set’s art as a whole, which is sadly not its strong point. Part of this, unfortunately, is due to DiTerlizzi. By now it should be quite clear that I’m a huge fan of what he did for Planescape, but he tends to be best at individual portraits, which is why the monster manuals he illustrated are so extraordinarily beautiful. And plenty of his work elsewhere in the setting has been great, too, don’t get me wrong. That being said, I’m not sure what it is about the illustrations he provided for “Visions of War,” but I found them generally uninspired and a bit uncertain. They feel rushed, and at the very least not like his best work. They aren’t terrible, but considering that they’re given their own little booklet, seemingly to highlight them, they’re definitely disappointing. All of this feels a bit tossed together at the last minute, whereas his previous work seemed obsessed over. I know nothing about the production timeline behind the scenes here, but it’s hard not to suspect DiTerlizzi’s heart, or at least his time, wasn’t in it. 

Here’s my favorite new work by DiTerlizzi for the set. It has a lot more detail than most of the “Visions of War,” and is one of the few worth reproducing.

Adam Rex’s interior work elsewhere is actually pretty decent and fits well with the setting. He has a sense of humor in his work, which I appreciate, and while maybe it’s all a bit too faux-heavy metal for my taste, it works well here. Likewise, Diesel acted as cartographer rather than the setting’s usual Rob Lazzeratti, but he did excellent work nonetheless. As a result of DiTerlizzi’s exhaustion (or rush, or whatever) and the rest of the work being the B-team, Hellbound is the ugliest of Planescape’s boxed sets, but that’s perhaps fitting. The Blood War is ugly, and what’s here feels cohesive and like a strong piece of world-building. And while it didn’t need to be a boxed set, at least the package all comes together well. It’s less necessary in my opinion than the outer planes-focused sets, but it still feels like a cohesive part of the multiverse.

Oh, and there’s one more flier as well, though it’s only kind of part of the set. Every copy of Hellbound came with a copy of the “Planescape Conspectus,” a weird advertising supplement that also appeared in issues of Dragon. This goes along with my theory that one of the goals of Hellbound was to try and bring a new audience into Planescape, and this serves to tell people what they might have been missing out on. TSR at this point in time was a mess and a half, and the conspectuses they produced for their settings seem like expensive wastes of time and money to me, but at least it looks kinda nifty. It’s not totally worthless, just, you know, largely so. 

A visual rundown, of sorts, of the relationships between races in the Blood War… except I guess the top dude is a celestial? Seems like the most evil-looking portrait here, but who knows.

Hellbound is strange and fits imperfectly with the rest of Planescape. The tone is a tad off, and the adventures are a lot more battle-focused than the the rest of the setting either before or since. At the same time, Planescape would be a lot less without it. The devils and demons are one of the things that make Planescape cool and exciting, and interacting with these individuals is something that needed more information and context. As with the rest of the setting’s boxes, it’s not an out-of-the-park success, but for those looking to run a planar adventure full of as much butt kicking as any old school dungeon tromp, this is a good place to look. A lot of people like both fights and roleplaying, and for once there’s an equal measure of the two here, which gives the set its own identity at the same time that it makes it a bit niche. It’s probably not worth the price it usually goes for on eBay, but it’s nonetheless a fine addition to the planes.

1. Once TSR died, the boxed sets that have made there way out into the world have all been just shoving a couple of books together and calling it a day. It’s a format that died at the same time they did. That being said, it sorta lives on in Matthew Lillard’s in Beedle & Grimm’s releases, which I have the utmost respect for while at the same time being far too poor to actually own. 

2. The yugoloths magically know the name of every devil and demon from the moment they’re born? Really? I mean… really? This plot hole goes completely ignored even though it’s huge and rather insane.  

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