Throne of Bloodstone

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 6: The Throne of Bloodstone




By 1989, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons would go through a colossal change as it headed through its second edition, a revision that would last more or less until 2000. As such, the prior year had only a few releases, including the one we featured last time, as well as the notorious, “satirical” Castle Greyhawk adventure, which seemed largely to be a way for the company’s new owner, Lorraine Williams, to stick a big middle finger at the company’s (mostly) beloved founder Gary Gygax. This wasn’t the only big, end-of-an-era adventure the company put out though, the other being H4, The Throne of Bloodstone, which was the culmination of the company’s high-level line of modules that also tried to tie-in with the somewhat janky and largely forgotten BATTLESYSTEMTM format the company produced for large-scale battles. Weirdly, though, this last module barely involved BATTLESYSTEMTM (ok, I’ll stop that, but every single time it’s mentioned in any supplement this is how TSR formatted the game’s name, and so after reading it enough times it’s impossible to see this word in anything but all-caps with an annoying trademark at the end), and instead decided to take a gloriously messy journey down to the Abyss. The goal: to kill Orcus, perhaps the most powerful demon prince in all of the multiverse, in his own layer. The plan: …what do you mean plan? 

Needless to say, The Throne of Bloodstone is wonderfully, wonderfully stupid. In online write-ups, I saw it described as both the most metal adventure ever written, and also the most mental, and both analyses are 100% correct. I can’t imagine playing it in a million years, but I also had a blast reading through it. If you want an explanation for why, I think a zoom in on one small detail from the cover will probably suffice for all anyone needs: 

No, that’s not a typo. Throne is intended for characters of level 18-100. What’s that, you say, AD&D doesn’t even go up to levels after 30, let alone all the way to 100? To this, the module’s designers write, “Well what if it did?” and then said fuck it. I don’t know how any of this got approved, but it did, so let’s dive into it before we wade around in the utterly ludicrous adventure they made to accompany this dumb premise. After all, the book comes with a selection of pre-generated level 100 characters, which is the type of stupid you can’t ignore because it’s got neon lights blazing over every inch of its gaudy, ill-considered self. 


As such, the book begins with advice for how to run super-high level campaigns, which is certainly necessary given that this breaks about every rule in the game, as well as ignoring common sense. Then again, this was the era of playing as ultimate characters within D&D, as the game’s basic version had recently come out with its own supplement, the Immortal Rules, which is a weird and fascinating read for what it might be like to play as demi-gods in a roleplaying game, though at the same time it’s if anything even less playable than this book. The thing is, these game systems really break down at high levels, both from a sense of realism and also from a simple rules lawyer perspective. They are not meant to function at a certain point, and everyone who made them advised that even trying to do so was a bad idea. Nevertheless, to solve this problem, Throne leaves us with three words of advice, as well as longer explanations for what they might mean. 

1. 100th-level characters are not 10 times more powerful than 10th-level characters

2. Apply all the rules strictly

3. Never give a 100th-level character an even break

Let’s go through these one at a time. Rule #1, for instance, may sound kind of true at first, but is also complete nonsense, at least in the case of wizards. The authors say that all of those progression tables based on impossible-to-miss patterns don’t actually go up to infinity, rather they end right where the books end—i.e., wizards don’t get more spells past 29th level, fighters don’t get better attacks or saves past level 17, etc. But first edition AD&D was never the most balanced thing in the first place, and this is especially true for mages. Where later editions would start adding soft and hard caps to spells, back in the 80s a spell like fireball was based strictly on level such that instead of being capped, a level 18 fireball does 18d6 damage while a level 100 fireball does…. 100d6 damage. So yes, while a level 100 fighter is a lot like a level 18 fighter with a bajillion more hit points, a level 100 wizard can nuke a city with minimal effort. 

As for the second point, there’s a particular irony to the idea that the game’s rules are perfect and engraved in stone given that in just a handful of months they were about to be tossed out completely with the second edition. AD&D was always a mishmash of interconnecting, often contradictory rule sets in the first place. And while rules-lawyering is one of the most tedious parts of roleplaying and something I rather loathe, here we’re told to go whole hog with it. Rules lawyer until the entire game is bogged down in confusion—that’s what high-level play is all about.

The AD&D game is very carefully balanced. It may sometimes seem to you (and has sometimes seemed to us) that some tiny little rules are unimportant nuisances, but we have discovered that those ostensibly unimportant rules turn out to be extremely important after all. Especially when running high-level characters, it becomes vital to apply all the rules strictly and precisely.

Yes, a lot of the balance for the game up until third edition and its descendants was due to tedious bookkeeping, but this is also the opposite of fun. Sure, those wizards can nuke the city, but it’ll take them dozens of hours of studying to remember how to cast their time stop spell chains again. Be strict about encumbrance and how much their fortune of gold weighs, don’t identify magic items for them in case you can get them cursed, and keep in mind all of the tedious rules about magic on the outer planes. All of this leads to the last dictate, which I’ll summarize below in one sentence:
Be a dick.

Or, as they put it:

Let’s say that you manage to trap a party in a vat of boiling acid, and they take a mere 100 hp of damage apiece. They shrug it off, perhaps using a few heal spells. But then you insist that they make a saving throw for each item in their possession. The magic user’s spell books save at a 10, the cleric’s pearl of wisdom saves at an 11, all scrolls in the party save at a 14, etc. 

Challenging a party of high-level characters is often a matter of attrition.

Sounds like a lot of fun, right?


So how do you  run a super-high level game of AD&D? Be a complete rules lawyer and make sure that no one is having any fun. Lovely. Yet for some reason this supplement is generally reviled and is an experiment the game never tried again, I wonder why that might be……..

Speaking of which, enough about those absurd power levels, let’s get to the adventure itself. I’ve never played the previous four adventures in the H series, and find the summary of what’s become before largely nonsensical, but in essence you did some things in the past and now people want you to kill Orcus. The adventure is divided into five chapters, beginning with a somewhat typical (though by normal standards insanely difficult) dungeon run through the “Citadel of the Witch-King,” which ends with a portal to the Abyss. Sure, there’s the charming librarian demon you meet along the way and, at the end, an unexplained demi-god from the state of Texas (as in actual Texas, with his sigil being the Yellow Rose and the One Star and dialogue where he describes Orcus as “the meanest dude this side o’ the Pecos”), but it’s nothing too surprising. But once the PC’s decide to enter the abyss, that’s when the adventure goes full-on dumb. 

By now, the Abyss and its denizens have been described both in the Manual of the Planes and through the demons’ descriptions in the two Monster Manuals1. As such, we know more or less what to expect, but actually setting an adventure there (and not, like in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, a specific part of it) is pretty different. The players  arrive in Pazunia, the Abyss’s top layer which is filled with conduits to all the other parts of the plane, and have absolutely no idea where they should head. And when I say no idea, I mean truly clueless, with not a hint as to how any of this might lead to Orcus. As such, they’re expected to start jumping into random layers until they find him, which is wonderfully open-ended I guess, if you’re into a true sandbox, but also a terrible way to actually run a campaign. That being said, this also means that the next 15 pages are spent on descriptions of abyssal layers, which I had a great time digging into, and did a lot to shape what this world would become. It’s nigh-unplayable as far as the adventure is concerned, but everything here also feels like it remains more or less canon for the plane.

Throne offers descriptions of 25 layers aside from Orcus’ one, which vary from several pages in length to just a short paragraph saying to go check out the Demonweb adventure for more information. Some of these layers aren’t particularly inspired or interesting, with just a miserable desert or barely-described pit of endless ice for players to visit, yet even this is telling for people interested in adventuring through the planes. While the Manual offered vague information that these layers were alien hellscapes, that’s different from even a few paragraphs detailing dozens of them. Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson weren’t necessarily creating the world’s most playable adventure, but that isn’t to say that this book isn’t loaded with ideas, and a whole lot of them are loaded into this chapter. 

Why does this need a grid? Or even a drawing?

The particular highlight here are the many, many layers ruled over by the various evil gods and demon lords from the Monster Manual, who had been stated for a decade or even longer, yet until now had probably never actually been visited by players. This includes layers ruled by Demogorgon, Yeenoghu, Juiblex, Urdlen, Baphomet, Zyggtmoy, Graz’zt, Fraz-Urb’luu, Kostchtchie, Feng-Tu, Kali, Laogzed, and Vaprak. Some of these are so recognizable you might have even heard of them, whoa. The actual descriptions are a bit sketchy and short, despite many of them being accompanied by maps, yet they’re also evocative. As far as adventure resources go this chapter is absolutely terrible, as it’s both incredibly open yet so sketchily described that wherever the PCs venture will need to be made up on the spot, but for a person simply interested in reading about the ecology and society of the Abyss it’s the best material yet written. 


Each layer is its own, special hell, exactly as it should be, but the variety on display is what makes this section stick out. Really, this chapter barely functions as an adventure, and is more simply a supplement on the Abyss, a shorter version of the type of write-up that would become normal for Planescape with the boxed sets. I find the maps to be the most fascinating part of this section because they seem like they required quite a bit of work to create, yet they also seem largely unusable. Each layer is infinite, so why does describing, say, a small section of Graz’zt’s infinitely sprawling palace help anything at all? Best of all is a “map” that illustrates Yeenoghu’s mansion from the side rather than from above, yet still lays this all down upon a grid. This chapter is messy, miserable to use, possible for players to skip entirely or conversely become stuck in and never get past, but I love it all the same. 

If the party somehow, randomly finds their way into the conduit that leads to Orcus’ layer, they’re also gifted with a much more detailed area to explore, though it’s still more than a bit questionable considering it’s just a small sample of this world’s infinity and it wouldn’t take much effort for players to go off the map (admittedly, this is a somewhat unsolvable problem that would remain for practically all planar adventures, but then again that’s true for the prime as well to a certain extent). So what, then, does a more fleshed out plane of the Abyss look like? Well it’s if anything even more miserable, and somewhat infamously so. On their way to stealing Orcus’ scepter, players can easily go the wrong direction and end up in the lair of a 100 glabrezus, a tarrasque, a city inhabited by 100 liches, 12 demiliches, and 12 death knights, or a city of 10,000 (seriously) zombies. Now none of these encounters needs to be fought, and for that matter probably shouldn’t be, but at the same time if the DM is truly following by that opening paragraph’s invocation to be a dick, it seems like this should also be inevitable. 


Inside the fortress itself are also required encounters with the demon lord Baphomet, several ridiculously deadly and obtuse mazes, Orcus’ demon-lord lieutenant, and an extra-large Abyssian red dragon by the name of Fyrillicus. Also, perhaps, a super extra powerful Orcus, since this is his home layer and so here he is, for all intents and purposes, a god. This is the point where even those 100th-level characters feel like they might be a bit overwhelmed. I’ve read posts online from people claiming to have beaten this adventure, and I’m sure at least one of them is telling the truth, but from both a player and a dungeon master standpoint all of this sounds like a miserable slog pretty much the whole way through. 

Somehow, that doesn’t even end the volume. The final chapter requires players to visit Bahamut in heaven, have a quick chat with him and his Texan right hand man, then go into Hell to fight Tiamat and her five suitors. Why? Because that’s the other big entry in those manuals that players read about but never actually encounter, so might as well throw her into things as well. 

Throne is not a good adventure, but at the same time it feels more alive to me than almost all of Tales of the Outer Planes. It’s endlessly creative and foreign to a normal campaign, which is what a planar adventure should be. At the same time, though, like every other planar adventure so far it emphasizes, in fact doubles down upon, the idea that in order to adventure out here PCs need to be nigh-godlike themselves. Its Abyss feels a lot like it would in Planescape, yet this could also never be a Planescape adventure because of how much emphasis it puts on fighting rather than roleplaying. While actually punching Orcus isn’t suggested, there’s no way of getting through things without more than a few slugfests, and these truly dungeon-y parts of the module don’t do it for me because, especially considering the context, this is just not a good game for that sort of thing. 

He’s Texan, see? By which I mostly mean he looks pretty lame.

Before we move onto AD&D‘s second edition (I swear we’re almost at Planescape itself—just one more little essay before we get there, I promise), I wanted to note a couple other big things that set this adventure apart from what would come. For one thing, this is the last book to feature demons and devils, which were removed from the game due to the satanic panic and Williams’ general dislike of controversy. Just a few months later, these would transform into the baatezu and tanar’ri we’d all learn to… tolerate and be marginally confused by. Likewise, Orcus himself was about to disappear as well. Although this adventure wasn’t the canonical reason why he was destroyed, it still feels like a part of the meta-plot that came to dominate the end of Planescape. As such, I would almost say that you could run this as part of a campaign that later included Great Modron March and Dead Gods… but really that’s about the worst idea I can think of. Better to just consider this adventure something that happened in the distant past, an apocryphal legend barely remembered, or be like AD&D‘s designers and largely pretend none of this ever existed. 

1. If I’d wanted to, I could’ve easily spent ages reading through every Monster Manual and talking about how the descriptions within would soon become part of Planescape, etc. But that seems both tedious, both to read and to write. For people who are interested in this, I recommend in particular reading through the Monster Manual II, which has a great deal of planar material and is pretty strange and interesting. It’s probably my favorite 1st edition AD&D book.

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