A Walk Through the Planes – Part 99: Diaboli




While third edition’s Dragon and Dungeon magazines featured planar content more frequently than they did earlier in the publications’ histories, it remained a relatively rare event. Even rarer, though, was the decision for these issues to include non-canonical planar ideas1. Mike McArtor’s article “Diaboli” does just that, though, and feels like a stealth return of the second edition AD&D cosmology. Logically, nothing in this article is canon, as it includes references to both the Far Realm and the Region of Dreams in order to make sense of this obscure planar race; as much as it seems like they’re both properly part of the multiverse at this point, both were excluded from the game’s cosmology in the Manual of the Planes. However, it’s still an excellent article, and a strange little inclusion from the magazine that warrants notice for its uniqueness if nothing else.

The diaboli race were not created by Mike McArtor, but they were (and remain) an extremely obscure people to dredge up from the depths of the game’s history. They were originally introduced in Dungeons & Dragons‘ Immortal Rules boxed set from 1986, but there they received only a typical single-page monster entry. It’s worth noting that this is D&D and not AD&D that we’re talking about here, the version of the game sometimes referred to as BECMI (the Immortals set is the I). Despite the obvious confusion this has always caused, the two games are quite different from each other, especially at the extreme levels involved with this set. The history of this oft-forgotten game is quite interesting as a parallel to the more commonly known legacy of AD&D, but it’s also pretty far outside the scope of this series. What’s relevant for our purposes is that when TSR decided to end its BECMI line, they brought the campaign setting it used into the AD&D fold. Rebranded as Mystara, it never sold particularly well and died a quick death once the company went through its bankruptcy. Most people remember the setting today, if at all, for The Isle of Dread module or the Savage Coast campaign book, though in its heyday it was actually rather epic, and included (at least retroactively) Dave Arenson’s original Blackmoor dungeon, the Hollow World sub-setting (a particular favorite of mine), and Red Steel, a setting I know very little about except that it’s a fondly regarded niche that makes Planescape look like a blockbuster success by comparison. 

Second edition’s Diaboli was… umm… let’s say less than terrifying. Incidentally, this image was ripped from the Forgotten Realms wiki because I’m lazy.

The diaboli made a reappearance with the Mystara Monstrous Compendium Appendix in 1994, which mostly just made them much less weird by changing references to other dimensions into more traditionally fantasy-style planes. With this, they moved to the Demiplane of Nightmares (rather than the Dimension of Nightmares), but otherwise remained largely the same. I’m surprised anyone even noticed they were still around.


This leads to a follow-up question as to what the hell the Demiplane of Nightmares is, and the primary answer to that came from a very short, two-paragraph blurb in A Guide to the Ethereal Plane—even the Mystra Compendium only notes that nethalggu brai collectors and a handful of other nightmarish creatures originated there, and for the most part leaves this location to your imagination. AGttEP posits a relationship between it and the Demiplane of Dread, i.e. Ravenloft, but other than this brief mention and its infestation by a far weirder group of beings called the Night Parade (which first appeared in Dungeon #62, in an article illustrated by none other than Tony DiTerlizzi), very little is known about it. Until this random article, that is. 


McArtor draws upon the brief notes in AGttEP, but mixes this with some newfangled third edition cosmology first seen in the Manual of the Planes:


Called by humanoids the Demiplane of Nightmares, this realm borders coterminously with the Region of Dreams and the Ethereal Plane. Unfortunately for the diaboli and the creatures that share their frightening home, the boundaries between their reality and those of the Far Realm—a place that exists outside of reality from which pseudonatural creatures originate—seem particularly thin. As such, the maddeningly chaotic taint of the Far Realm constantly seeps into the Demiplane of Nightmares like a breached dam trickling water.

Now, I remain convinced that a dream plane isn’t a good fit for most campaigns’ cosmologies, as it only leads to numerous new questions and nonsensical answers. However, if you’re going to include one, the Region of Dreams is a pretty decent version to use. Conversely, the Far Plane remains fascinating, and the idea of it pushing against other planes in this way makes sense, more or less, and also seems like it could lead to worthwhile plots elsewhere in the multiverse. Ultimately, this Far Plane invasion is the problem being faced by the diaboli, causing them to leave their home and visit the Prime Material Plane despite their distaste for most people they find there. 

Whereas third edition’s diaboli look like fun dudes you’d want to chat with at a party.

The diaboli are not, despite their name and appearance, evil. They’re extremely anarchic, but otherwise they’re just the intelligent life form that happens to have developed in their miserable plane. McArtor fleshes out their society but sticks largely to the earlier texts about this race, telling us repeatedly that they’re a typical civilization like any other, with the somewhat amusing trait that they “fear most humans and humanoids they meet and find the forms of such creatures repulsive,” just as such people find the forms of the diaboli. In fact, most diaboli are peaceful and believe in letting others live as best they see fit, their society being based upon a benign sort of anarchistic freedom. There’s a sense from this description of the diaboli that the main aspect distinguishing their demiplane from elsewhere must be its relationship to the Far Realm—its inhabitants aren’t innately evil or destructive, but those infected by the Far Realm’s influence often become so. 


The entire article is just four pages long, including statistics for playing as a diaboli, plus sidebars on their publishing history in the game and how to fit them into Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, and even Mystara campaigns. Unfortunately, I don’t believe they diaboli ever cropped up again, but despite the short space given to this article, what’s included is well-considered and expands the multiverse in new ways. The entire race and its history feels properly planar, and is something I’d love to see return to the game once more.

  1. A reader of this column, Jim Finney, suggested I go back and include an article on the origin of ioun stones from issue #174 of Dragon, as it posited a quite good way of introducing them as originating from the quasi-elemental Plane of Mineral. However, given that this is couched in language about how this isn’t really canonical, just a nifty idea, I decided not to include it in this series. However, it is a surprisingly good article well worth reading if this is an idea you want to incorporate in your own campaign. 

    Relatedly, I’m always happy to hear from readers, as I’m sure there are other interesting bits like this that I’ve missed entirely.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest Exposition Break articles sent to your inbox.