A Paladin in Hell

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 53: A Paladin in Hell




A lot of the 1998-2000, pre-third edition AD&D releases feel a bit sloppier than what we’ve been used to. It’s hard to gauge exactly what was going on behind the scenes, but I have to assume there was a lot of pressure to get things out the door, perhaps so much so that there wasn’t enough time for the usual polish. Case in point, A Paladin in Hell has a hell of a lot of formatting errors, which is something we’re not too used to given the beauty of so much in the Planesccape line of releases. But then, that’s also a reminder that despite Monte Cook’s name on the cover and an adventure filled with planar content, this isn’t a Planescape adventure. The line wouldn’t truly come to a close until the very end of second edition AD&D, but at this point the end of Planescape was already being prepared for with non-Planescape, generic-brand planar adventures like this one appearing seemingly at random. Were it not for Planescape: Torment‘s release in 1999, we would truly be right at the finish line already in 1998.

Unfortunately, that sloppiness I mentioned isn’t reflected only in the layout of Paladin or its many, many typos, but rather the adventure itself’s logic. Perhaps this is a result of the speed at which it was made. According to the good Shannon Appelcline, “A Paladin in Hell was one of the first books to be developed by Wizards of the Coast in a purposeful move against the creative directions that TSR had focused on during their last decade of existence. It began with Wizards president Peter Adkison telling designer Monte Cook that they needed to get demons and devils back into the game—that they needed to put out a product now.” Paladin sure does include plenty of demons and devils (and even yugoloths, which are even noted as sometimes being called daemons), and features some wonderful planar content, but at the same time a few of its concepts are pretty half-baked. Players are going to have to just accept some strange explanations in order for its plot to make sense, but we’ll get there in a second.


The other thing I should note before we dive into this adventure in any depth is that Paladin is an insanely high level adventure, featuring enemies on par with what we saw in The Throne of Bloodstone. I’m not sure if it’s the highest level adventure designed for second edition AD&D, but it’s the highest I’ve seen, and while it was designed for “four to six characters of very high level—roughly 15th to 20th,” those 15th level characters are going to get absolutely demolished. Cook also notes, “A Paladin in Hell playtesters started with 1,800,000 experience points each to create characters. This turned out to be low; characters with 2,250,000 experience points had a better chance to accomplish the objective in the time allowed (and had a better survival rate).” By the end of the adventure, players will have dealt with not just a duke of Hell and a deposed archdevil, but also a fight with multiple pit fiends at the same time. I haven’t even gotten to the golem made of unholy symbols, or the multiple dragons, or the balor. Basically, if you want to experience super high-level second edition combat, this is the module for you. 

You see, he’s a Paladin, and he’s in Hell. And Hell is extremely splotchy. No idea if this is just how the PDF I have looks, as for once I don’t have a hard copy of this release.

The adventure drew inspiration from a drawing in the original AD&D Player’s Handbook, in which a paladin, uhh, fights in hell. That won’t actually happen until the end of the adventure, though, and I doubt many will make it that far, so it’s barely relevant. The real inspiration here seems to be making the most metal D&D adventure of all time, and I think Cook may well have succeeded. 

Ok, so why is everyone headed off to Hell anyhow? At the beginning of the adventure, a famous paladin’s funeral is interrupted when the entire chapel he’s in is dragged to Hell—to be more specific, in a strange nowhere land in Hell between its fifth and sixth layers. But in order to get there, the players need to ride a demonic ship through the Styx, and then battle their way through a devil’s fortress. Even then, once at the displaced chapel, the PCs need to do a bunch of random tasks in order to get it to return to the Prime Material Plane. It’s one long macguffin quest (with the macguffin in question being the chapel), which mostly serves to link together a few dungeons and act as an excuse for players to bash their way through as many horned skulls as they can. 

There are two main dungeons here, the first of which is, rather insanely, that demonic ship I mentioned above. The only person who knows where the chapel was dragged turns out to be an archmage friend of the paladin. And while he can’t be bothered to do anything himself, or to even attend his old friend’s funeral (reminder: almost all wizards really suck), he will lend you his boat to take you there. Which is, ummm, an absolutely batshit insane thing for him to do unless he is in fact pure evil, because his boat is a layer of the Abyss. 

The former archdevil Geryon fighting people and splotching it up.

No, I didn’t just mistype something weird, the boat Demonwing (again, it’s all about being metal as fuck) is an abyssal layer. It’s filled to the brim with demons, high level ones ready to destroy you, and the only way to leave it is to get past them because… wait, what? As I said, the logic of this adventure is nonexistent, and much of it involves this boat. Obviously the boat was an excuse to make this adventure involve not just devils but also demons, and making a layer of the Abyss a boat is a pretty sweet idea, but forcing you to cross through this dungeon in order to get to your location is the opposite of helping. Here’s how this basically goes down:


You: I need help returning your old friend’s soul back to this world, as well as all the attendees of his funeral.
Emirikol, the wizard: Sure.
You: Ok, want to come with me and we can go down there and solve this problem?
Emirikol: Oh hell no. Instead, I can give you a boat.
You: Ok… and how will that help?
Emirikol: It encloses a layer of the Abyss, and in order to get out of it you must defeat a balor and his legions of minions.
You: Is there literally any other way of getting there?
Emirikol: Nope. *pushes you onto the boat* Haha, it’s yours now, suckers!

And while I like the whole layer-of-the-Abyss-is-enclosed-within-a-boat weirdness, how Emirikol comes into possession of it is even stupider than his plan for rescuing the paladin. It turns out that Demogorgon managed this incredible task, and then just… gave away the layer?!?!!!!!!! Demogorgon himself only rules over one layer, The Gaping Maw, but he was just like, “Sup Emirikol, want a layer of your own?” And Emirikol was like, “I mean, sure, I guess so. Hell, why not.” And then Emirikl proceeds to give it over to you, just as casually?!  The adventure’s full explanation of how this came about is elided in half of one sentence, saying, “in some dark pact, Demogorgon traded the ship to the mortal sorcerer Emirikol.” So basically, what I wrote above.

I haven’t even talked about how easy it apparently is for Asmodeus to summon whoever and whatever he wants from the Prime Material Plane and drag it to Hell (one easy spell by a random follower brought hundreds of people and a massive church down to a plane of misery with no saves or chance of avoiding this horrible fate—cool). As I said before, the plot of this adventure is nonsense, and implies a lot of dumb things about both the planes and some of their major powers. 

In case you were unclear what the boat in the adventure looks like, this image makes it clear that it looks like a boat.

Weirdly, the most important part of the entire adventure is the less-than-a-page summary of what’s been going down recently in Hell. Later books would term this series of events The Reckoning, but essentially it serves to explain the current state of the archdevils. Here it is in semi-full, enjoy:


In the dim past the names of the rulers of each of Hell’s seven layers found their way into the books and scrolls of learned men. Those who studied such forbidden lore knew that a being named Asmodeus dwelt in the deepest pit of Hell and ruled over the other lords. They also knew that the lords of Hell, being diabolical and selfish creatures, warred amongst themselves. Normally these were wars of unspoken threats and subtle machinations rather than clashing armies, but devils are not reluctant to spill blood when there is something to be gained. Eventually two camps arose, built around the most powerful of the dukes of Hell. A devil named Baalzebul led one faction and Mephistopheles the other. Asmodeus, apparently, stood alone.

The standoff was too precarious to last. War erupted between the forces of Mephistopheles (with his allies, Mammon and Dispater) and Baalzebul (backed by his viceroy Moloch and abettor Belial). The arch-devil Geryon gave his support to Mephistopheles, but altered everything when he revealed his ultimate loyalty to Asmodeus. During the final, titanic battle of that war, at Geryon’s signal, the pit fiend generals of both armies turned on their masters and the arch-devils were defeated—not by each other, but by their own forces, who fought for (and were supported by) by the still-supreme Asmodeus. 

To consolidate his power, Asmodeus elevated the generals of the armies to be the new rulers of all devils. These eight pit fiends became the Dark Eight. Meanwhile, for reasons of his own, the Lord of Hell’s Ninth Layer sought out the fallen and outcast arch-devils. He was not yet through with them. As Overlord of Hell and the only clear victor in the conflict, the Lord of Nessus began making deals with the arch-devils to support their reinstatement as rulers of their respective layers. In this way, Asmodeus reshaped the political power of the arch-devils so it was more to his liking.

Some arch-devils took the opportunity presented by Asmodeus’s reprieve to fade deeper into the shadows of Hell, assuming more mysterious guises or different appearances. Many began calling themselves by their lesser-used names (for each such being has many names in many languages). Belial even placed his daughter in power over the Fourth Hell, where they rule together. The one exception to Asmodeus’s clemency was Moloch, the former ruler of Hell’s sixth layer, who was cast down and replaced by a female devil named Malagard. The design behind this is not clear.

For reasons no mortal observer understood, Asmodeus made no deal with the one arch-devil that showed loyalty to him. Geryon, the deposed duke (sometimes referred to as the Forgotten Lord), was ignored entirely and faded into ambiguity in Stygia, the layer he once ruled. Prince Levistus, a dishonored arch-devil who had lain frozen in Stygia’s ice for millenia, was awakened (although not released from the ice) and given dominion over the layer. As a final insult, Mammon, under the new identity of Minauros, even adopted a serpentine shape that resembled that of forgotten Geryon.

This explanation elegantly bridges the gap between the Planescape-era archdevils and the first edition AD&D archdevils. That being said, even this section has some weird plotholes when extrapolated to the adventure at hand, as it involves Geryon getting a chance to redeem himself by extracting an artifact from the now-hellstuck church for, well, no reason at all. Instead of just doing it himself, or commanding literally anyone else to do it, this is somehow Asmodeus’s master plan. Asmodeus, in short, is a moron. The hellish politics are fascinating and would become a lasting part of the planes, it’s just whenever they try to make some sense within the adventure things fall apart. 

For those keeping track (i.e., me), here’s how the archdevils are looking now, with parentheticals noting changes from their previous version:

1. Presumably still Bel? (Not mentioned one way or another, perhaps because Cook hadn’t decided whether it should be Bel or Tiamat and skipping him entirely was easier.)
2. Dispater (somehow has never changed)
3. Minauros (apparently just a new name being used by Mammon???)
4. Fierna/Belial (previously 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”)
5. Levistus (we now know why Geryon was deposed)
6. Malagard (now called a devil, and apparently now it used to be ruled by Moloch??? First edition originally had this as Baalezbul, and Moloch was his “Grand Viceroy.” It was always kind of a mess. Moloch will make his own appearance about a year later in The Apocalypse Stone, but I have no plan on covering that here.)
7. Baalzebub (formerly Triel)
8. Mephistopheles (formerly Molikroth)
9. Asmodeus (formerly a “mystery”)


The general uncertainty about the archdevils continues despite the attempt to clarity in Cook’s explanation, as there are hints that for instance Triel, Molikroth, and Minauros are simply renamed versions of Mammon, Baalzebub, and Mephistopheles, though only with Minauros is this for “certain.” Likewise, the lord of the first layer is missing entirely, but oh well. This version of devilish royalty still helps explain a lot about this weird part of Hell’s ruling class, and while I wish it were a bit more thorough, it does a good job setting things up for how Hell will look as of the game’s third edition. I also kind of love that after all the hard work that went into eliding devils/demons/demonic names for the past decade, Cook brings all of that roaring back into mainstream AD&D here with utter casualness. 

I have absolutely no memory of what this image is supposed to depict, but I assume it’s just as metal as what we’re seeing.

Perhaps the weirdest part of this whole release, considering it was written by one of the authors of Hellbound, comes in its final two paragraphs. If you recall, the big conclusion of that adventure meant that demons and devils could no longer teleport without fail, likely because the way rules worked for this were wonky and bad. Here, that’s retconned almost completely, and we’re told, “Dungeon Masters who have played the adventures in the Hellbound boxed set may remember that those events took away a special power from both demons and devils. In this adventure, assume that the power is restored for the demons on the ship by the heartlink and that Geryon made an agreement with the yugoloths to restore the power to his troops.” So yeah that super important, multiverse-altering event from not long ago? We decided to pretend that didn’t happen. Fun!

A Paladin in Hell is my least favorite of Monte Cook’s second edition releases, and I don’t think it’s just my Planescape bias showing through. The plot is a mess, and the book as a whole feels rushed. Part of my Planescape bias was always for the level of editorial quality, in every respect of the production, that we saw from nearly every release in that line, and here that’s just not the case. Given another few months of development, this might’ve been another success from Cook, but what we’re actually left with is a half-baked disappointment. Not that I would’ve ever run it anyhow, given its insane level of play, but the whole package is a bit lackluster even if that’s what you’re looking for. Maybe stick with Return to the Tomb of Horrors instead if you really need that high-level dungeon crawling, or Hellbound if you want that high level fiend-slaying. Paladin just can’t live up to its peers.

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