Inferno: Dante’s Vision in a D&D Context

Geoff Dale’s Inferno (1980) is a brilliant adaptation of Dante’s classic that I count among the best D&D modules of all time. The most amazing thing about it is that it’s still a work in progress. The module covers the first four circles of Hell; an online magazine published the fifth and sixth circles just a few years ago (Fight On, issue 3, 2008); and Dale’s full-blown Gazeteer of Hell will be released this year or next. I haven’t looked so forward to a gaming accessory since Gorgoroth (Mordor). Perhaps, after 33 years, Dante’s staggering work of the imagination will finally become the official basis for RPG Hell.

For it was not Dale’s module, but rather Ed Greenwood’s Dragon magazine articles in 1983, which provided the design for D&D’s Nine Hells. Inferno, like most Judges Guild products, became an obscure footnote. James Maliszewski applauds this move, mistrusting Inferno‘s reliance on Christian source material:

Inferno is a strange melange that’s neither truly Dante nor wholly compatible with ‘standard’ AD&D (unlike, say, Ed Greenwood’s articles on the same subject in the pages of Dragon)… It presents us a gaming version of an elaborate medieval imagination of Hell and yet does so without reference to the single most important source of this imagination: Christianity. Now, I understand why this is the case, but it doesn’t make it any less problematic. D&D has long suffered as a result of Gygax and Arneson’s personal scruples regarding the depiction of Christianity in the game. Much of the time, this isn’t a huge problem and can easily be handwaved away. That’s just not the case when you’re dealing with Dante’s Inferno, a work of art that simply doesn’t make much sense if it’s ripped from its proper context, as it is here.”

But Dante’s scheme of Hell can be easily modified so that it does make sense in a pagan mythology. Some tweaking of the infernal punishments is in order, and I’ll get to that in due course.

As I see it, three issues need to be resolved in order to make Dante’s vision of Hell “work” in a D&D context: (1) Which souls qualify for consignment to Hell? (2) How do the Christian-like sins (which are punished on each circle) relate to being so qualified? (3) Why exactly do the devils torment souls?

The first edition Manual of the Planes (1987), while a great product, doesn’t help much on questions regarding souls. It provides detail for creatures who are native to the Outer Planes (the Nine Hells being one of seventeen; click on the left diagram), only mentioning in passing that the Outer Planes are also a resting place for the souls of mortals who died on any of the Prime Material Planes. The fourth edition Manual of the Planes (2008), while on whole a terrible product, offers more helpful guidance. Discussing the Nine Hells in particular:

“Devils delight in claiming mortal souls… The Nine Hells are filled with the wretched spirits of mortals. Some deliberately gave themselves to the service of the Nine Hells in life, some did the devils’ work unwittingly, and some had the misfortune to fall under fiendish power. The damned appear much as they did in life. They are reborn in the Nine Hells in a form of flesh and blood, although they are gaunt and frail. Through the tormenting of the damned, devils harvest the power inherent in the mortal soul — power to fuel infernal rites, to animate infernal constructs, to strengthen archdevils, or to fortify defenses. Although most damned souls are imprisoned until expended, a scant few — those who served the Nine Hells with particular ability in life — are rewarded with transformation into lesser devils so that they may continue to serve the Nine Hells throughout eternity.” (pp 98-99)

This passage addresses our questions (1) and (3). Regarding the first, it is typically lawful-evil mortals, or other aligned mortals who behave (“sin”) excessively, or without repentance, in a way that devils approve, or other-aligned mortals who somehow unwittingly play into diabolical hands — any of these are Hell-eligible. So, many of the souls in Hell are lawful-evil oriented, though certainly not all. Good souls can also go to Hell, as we’ll see especially on Circle 1.

Question (3) may seem irrelevant. Surely the devils torment souls simply because that’s what devils do — they enjoy it. While that’s true, it’s not enough in a D&D context. Torturing your own population undermines your power base, and the devils are constantly warring against demons of the Abyss, the forces of Hades, and other powers. One would think that fashioning souls into shock troops or special servants would be more economical than subjecting them to eternal sadism. The passage above implies that the reward of being transformed like this is exceptional. But it also explains that torture has a pragmatic use, as if it feeds a dark magic that can be harnessed for devilish use. It’s a concept I rather like, and can be left vague enough to serve as a credible explanation for soul torture that occurs in any of the lower Outer Planes.

Question (2) is the murky one, and lies at the root of Maliszewski’s objection. In the D&D game, a soul’s “resting place” (or place of torment, in the case of the lower planes) is determined on the basis of alignment and/or allegiance to one’s deity (the above left diagram shows the alignment parallels). But in Geoffry Dale’s Inferno, as in Dante, souls end up in Hell for particular sins, some of which don’t make much sense in D&D’s pagan mythology. For instance (and now click on the diagram to the right), there’s a place on Circle 7 reserved for suicides and homosexuals; general lust is even punished on Circle 2, and gluttony on Circle 3. These “sins” obviously derive from a world shaped by medieval Christianity more than worlds taking inspiration from pulp fantasy, though I suppose they could align fairly in the pre-Christian Middle-Earth.

Circle 1 is to me the most fascinating. Unlike the other circles it isn’t a place of torment, but a state of shadowy bliss for virtuous atheists: “they are the just and good peoples from the Days Before the Gods and live in relative bliss and comfort” (p 21). That’s a wonderful translation of Dante’s Limbo (see again to the right), which is the resting place for the virtuous unbaptized — those who simply had the misfortune of not knowing Christ, such as righteous Old Testament figures who predated Christ, or noble pagans from any time. Dale’s version is basically the same thing in a pagan context, filled with souls who are so old as to predate the knowledge/existence of any gods, and perhaps even younger souls who consciously rejected any form of divine authority. People like Maliszewski may decry good-aligned souls being consigned to the Nine Hells, but frankly I love the idea, and the Noble Castle is one of my favorite parts of the Inferno module. There’s something incredibly haunting about this pocket paradise stranded in an ashen wasteland, with its own gardens, trees, clean water, benign wildlife, and music, and the benign hospitable souls forced to dwell here for eternity — happy for the most part, yet also aware that their fate is somehow blighted. Above all, it underscores how weird Hell is, unpredictable and (to us) unfair.

We can wrap up by saying that the Nine Hells implied by the classic (though obscure) Inferno module are the tormenting grounds for souls guilty of sins that gratify devils; many are lawful-evil oriented, but plenty are not; in life they were deemed Hell-worthy for either knowingly or unwittingly serving diabolical causes; in death they suffer for their sins to gratify devilish sadism and feed Hell’s power.

Ed Greenwood’s version of the Nine Hells is the one I knew and loved as a teen. It took at least some inspiration from Dante, and the circles were fleshed out with nasty and compelling environments. But Geoff Dale’s version, which I discovered long after my gaming years, is better — and far more harrowing. In depicting the torture of souls, Dale gave us Hell not only in terms of the way most of us think about the place, he was able to align it with a supreme work of literature, just as Ravenloft was made out of Dracula. The Christian baggage isn’t an obstacle to those (like Dale) who are willing to put some effort into the workarounds.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s