Faces of Evil - The Fiends

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 40: Faces of Evil: The Fiends




It’s unfortunate that Faces of Evil: The Fiends was the last Planescape release Colin McComb would fully author before leaving TSR. Almost everything he’d written up until this point was really leading here, and the result is the pinnacle of his work for the setting. Through his contributions to Hellbound, plus covering the lower planes for Planes of Conflict and Baator in Planes of Law, he’d become something of a specialist on fiends and the Hellish domains of the multiverse. In addition, with his work in On Hallowed Ground he’d spent more time thinking about the overall Planescape cosmology than anyone. Perhaps most important of all, McComb’s view of fiends is almost anthropological in nature, seeing them not as menaces to be wiped out but simply foul societies, unique and as worthy of notice as any others despite their, well, overall horribleness. His version of fiends are just plain interesting to read about, and as with his other recent Planescape releases there’s a lot of care lavished upon these creatures, which results in making both the fiends and the planes feel a lot more real than they usually did prior til now.

Hearkening to Monte Cook’s approach with The Planewalker’s Handbook, Faces of Evil is theoretically a tome found within this multiverse. It’s compiled and edited by one individual, and written by a series of varying authors, each of whom is an expert on a specific topic of fiendish knowledge. While I can see some people finding this obnoxious, those people are also likely not Planescape fans, and also not the audience for this book at all, so who cares. There is not a line of crunch in the entire book, no statistics, no new spells or abilities to make for a more exciting arsenal. However, if you want to know what people within the Planescape multiverse know about the various denizens of the lower planes, then this book is nearly perfect. As it stands, it’s my favorite solo work by McComb, and in fact one of the strongest releases in the entire Planescape line.

Adam Rex was prescient enough to include an illustration of me writing this review, how kind of him.

After a brief introduction offering generalities regarding the nature of fiends and an even briefer introduction of the narrators, the book begins by focusing on the Baatezu, i.e. devils. This sets down the format used for the other fiendish races in that it tells the history of the race, how the varying beings within it transform through their ranks, their powers, etc. Some of this will be repeated from earlier sources, but because of McComb’s choice to voice these in-universe it still feels fresh. This decision is actually key in making the volume a joy to read all the way through, even though at this point the lower planes’ denizens are in fact one of the most covered parts of the setting. If you like reading about fantastic cultures, then this is a fine read regardless of some repetition and familiarity you might have from Hellbound or the earlier boxed sets. 


Beyond this, McComb continues changing up the conception of these fiends in small but important ways. Often, this comes from exploring some weird bits of inconsistency or quirks from earlier editions that never quite worked (i.e. made any logical sense) until now. This first occurs with the Baatezu, where McComb comes up with a fascinating and important explanation for the nupperibo’s odd “rank.” 

The lawful fiends put forth the lie that nupperibos are true members of their race, and that the bloated monsters are turned into lemures as punishment. Unfortunately, most lower-planar sages believed that story, having no good reason to suspect otherwise, until very recently, when chant purchased from the yugoloths revealed the truth. …

Nupperibos aren’t really baatezu at all, but the original, naturally occurring spawn of Baator.

One possible objection to this change would be that it’s a retcon, and this charge is easily made against not just this change but so many others from this book and the rest of Planescape. My answer to this lazy complaint is that limiting this type of retcon would be an extremely limiting way of designing a game or fantasy universe and ultimately a terrible decision. So much of this design was done by unknown individuals decades earlier, such that new things need to be possible. Plus, the way McComb couches this in uncertainty works well both in-universe and for DMs. You never need to consider this sort of thing strictly canon if you don’t want to. It’s a win-win approach that Planescape frequently uses, telling us that previous sources were unreliable, but then so are current ones, so it’s up to players to figure out what the reality of the situation actually is in their particular campaign. 

Every chapter includes information on summoning, and in each of them it basically boils down to “Why would you possibly summon a fiend, what kind of moron are you?”

Likewise, there’s a bit of change to the Baatorian royalty. Not only is the Lord of the Fourth layer of Hell now changed into a being of unknown gender—”some say that he’s a darkly handsome, red-skinned male, while others put forth that she’s really a woman of incredible beauty with fire dancing in her eyes” (later releases continued playing with what McComb meant by this)—he also returns noble devils to the multiverse:

For a long time, it’s been thought that there was no step between the ‘ordinary’ baatezu … and the Lords of the Nine. But my own painstaking research has rewarded me with the dark of the matter: An elusive group of baatezu exists above the rest of the race, nobles who directly serve the lords. Apparently, the lords shape them from pit fiends who’ve served the interests of Baator exceptionally well (and who’ve also managed to secure power for themselves in doing so). . . . It’s important to note that these noble baatezu actually rank above the Dark Eight in terms of status (and likely power).

Individualized, noble devils were a part of first edition AD&D, with their names included both in Ed Greenwood’s rundown of the Nine Hells for Dragon as well as the Monster Manual II, but they’d been missing entirely since the 80s. Their return enriches the possibilities for the setting, at the same time that it links what’s happening in Planescape even more with previous releases. Plus, it just makes a lot of sense. In a way, we can see McComb adding more of the traditional version of Hell back into AD&D after Lorraine Williams tried her best to strip this out of her properties for the past decade. 

Eating fiends is one of the few ways of making sure that they stay dead, but it’s still not recommended.

McComb’s work on the tanar’ri demons is similar. Topics are roughly the same as for the baatezu, with excellent explanations for all the weird ways these beings come into existence and how they more or less form a society. And like the addition of baatezu nobility, McComb brings a plethora of Abyssal Lords back into Planescape. A few of these had been introduced before, but many are completely new and strange. McComb flexes his imagination here and the result is excellent—it’s no surprise that many of these demons would only grow in importance in the game’s later additions. He also adds in the new concept of parasites of power, reminds us that there are also singular demons who don’t control a full layer, and spends a lot of time detailing just how confusing the tanar’ri hierarchy really is. Nothing is quite as notable as the nupperibo development, but it’s all quite well-written and entertaining.


Following this, McComb puts the spotlight on yugoloths, who at this point have to be considered clearly his favorites. Planescape really focused a lot on them, and you can tell that McComb and the other creators really loved the idea of the yugoloths as puppet masters controlling the role of evil throughout the multiverse. Since the line ended though, no one has really spent any time on them since then, and in fact this is the last time they would be given remotely as much space as the demons or devils. This section feels perhaps a bit less revelatory than the previous two, simply because so much of Hellbound was about the yugoloths, but the more than a dozen pages spent on them here do a good job of nailing down how different they are from their more commonly-known cousins. 


The rest of the book isn’t quite as thorough, though it’s no less interesting or enjoyable to read. The greheleths (demodands) receive six pages of detail, which honestly is enough. I like the race more than most people do, but let’s be honest, they’re just not that complex. Maybe if we were to learn more about the history of Apomps there’d be more of substance, but that sort of thing is left out here, and I can’t blame McComb for that. He also includes a smattering of pages on Hordlings and some not-quite-fiendish inhabitants of the lower planes, but what’s included here doesn’t do much to expand previous entries on them. The joy of this book is really the space spent on the major fiendish races, space they weren’t allowed in the monster manual books and appendices, but another half pages on, say, the Bodaks does relatively little to grow our understanding of them. 

The only additional part of the book is a page-long description (and accompanying map) of a new fiendish location for each of the three major races. These pages are completely unnecessary, and don’t fit in particularly well with the rest of the book’s content, but at the same time all three of these locations are pretty sweet. The baatezu’s City of Man is a creepy honeypot luring souls to their deaths, the tanar’ri’s Mal Arundak is a city ruled by a fallen archon, and the yugoloth’s Tower of Incarnate Pain is a nigh-unvisitable terror set to match their other two towers and help with their plan of ruling the entire lower planes. Both of the former sites seem like wonderful places to include in a campaign, and while the Tower of Incarnate Pain is… not so much (unless your party is made up entirely of 20th-level wizards), well, I at least really enjoyed reading about it. All three are excellent additions to the planes that I wish would’ve been explored more elsewhere.

The artists love drawing arcanoloths as much as I love seeing them.

But that’s just the book’s content, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about this book’s uncharacteristic form. As I mentioned earlier, each chapter is written by various “authors,” each of which has their own personality and agenda. For the most part, I wish McComb had taken this concept further, as some of the narrators aren’t distinctive enough for this to be relevant, but when he does embrace this, such as with Xanxost the slaad or the “unknown” narrator for the yugoloths (who is almost certainly a yugoloth doing subterfuge), the result is extremely entertaining, such that I’ve seen people still post online about fond memories of Xanxost’s sections. Had McComb taken this further, the way Ray Vallesse did with Uncaged, it might’ve risen to that book’s sublime level, but even as it stands this is one of the most enjoyable RPG supplements to read through I’ve ever seen. 


The presentation here is nearly as good as the content, with the exception being that like with A Guide to the Astral Plane this book is just saddle stitched (i.e. stapled together). All of the interior art is by Adam Rex, and while he’s not my favorite of the setting’s contributors, I feel like he usually does his best work when dealing with the lower planes, and this book contains perhaps his best work yet. Likewise, Roy Boholst isn’t my favorite of the setting’s cartographers, but it seemed like he had a good time with these over-the-top locations. The resulting package feels luxurious even with the cheap binding and relatively short length. It’s one of those cases where 96 pages of good work feels much weightier than comparable books I’ve seen that are a few hundred pages long but contain plenty of filler and slapdash content. 

No it’s not usable for actual adventures, but as a cool bit of lore for storytelling this tower and its map are a perfect addition.

Faces of Evil makes me a little sad that Colin McComb was already on his way out the door from TSR by the time this was released—only a little, because I know what the future would bring and I’m happy he found some fascinating outlets for his imagination after leaving. He’d really come into his own with the setting, and while I’m happy to see this book become recognized later as the gem it is; during its heyday it seemed to have a tiny print run and then go almost unnoticed afterwards. And this shouldn’t be a surprise I suppose, given how untraditional it was with its lack of additional gameplay elements, but is still disappointing. Oh well, it’s still around now, and is one of the setting’s releases I would really prioritize finding a copy of if you can for a reasonable price, even if that just means buying the PDF for $10.

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