Gamers will be thrilled by the release of Inferno: Journey through Malebolge, by Geoffrey Dale. It’s the long-awaited completion and revision of his classic module and a historic moment in RPGs. If I had any doubts about Dale’s Ivy League status, they’re gone now. In the designers hall of fame, he ranks with the best — Gary Gygax, Tom Moldvay, Jennell Jaquays, Roger Moore — as a rare genius of the old school, and punishing in the extreme. I don’t play much D&D these days, but rest assured that’s about to change. I have every intention of convening my last group of players and making their lives a literal living hell.
You sure get your money’s worth. Inferno is a three-book package, totaling 300 pages (346 if you include the “denizens” appendix). The first volume covers Circles 1-6 (more on these numbers in a bit), the second Circles 7-8, and the third Circle 9 plus the escape route from Hell and an overview of Purgatory. There are maps of the circles, and layouts of major sites (usually two or three per circle); political and geographical synopses, so that we know which devils rule each circle, where their fortresses are, who their earls and generals are; how many miles wide each circle is, the outer and inner circumferences; the atmosphere, lighting (if there is any), weather (usually foul, often deadly); how movement proceeds over terrain; and random encounter charts.
Revamping the Original
As great as the 1980 module is, it has limitations. It’s a half-module for starters, covering only Circles 1-4. Second, those “circles” aren’t even really that, because they presume movement along a single radius, with encounter areas hedged close to the bee-line. That doesn’t leave much room for exploring the actual circle. And third, strangely, none of the encounter areas play on the circle’s theme. The exception is the Noble Castle (one of the best D&D encounter areas ever designed), the country-club prison for virtuous atheists who either denied the gods or lived before they came into being. But there are no analogous bastions for the sins of lust, gluttony, and greed.
All of these deficiencies have been rectified. Circles 5-9 are now unveiled. Each circle is really that, a toroid with encounter areas populating the surface area (see left). Supplementing even this are the separately released gazetteers, which detail every square mile of the Inferno and literally hundreds of encounter areas on hex-maps. Taken together, the gazetteers and module package leave little leg-work for the DM. PCs are no longer confined to march along an artificial radius. The entire world of Hell is there to explore — months worth of gaming if you can survive it all.
Most importantly, there are now sites like the Noble Castle which relate to the sin being punished: the Garden of Lust on Circle 2 (where sex devils invite you into their tent pavilions and suck the life out of you), Glutton’s Hall on Circle 3 (where you gorge on enchanted food and turn into a hell-pig), and the Temple of Greed on Circle 4 (which gods help you if you’re stupid to rob). These areas are brilliantly inspired and steal the show from the main features: Minos’ Villa, Cerberus’ Lair, and Plutus’ Hoard, which have been impressively worked over from the classic.
The result is that Inferno now exudes Dante in the way it should, and allows exploring as it should. The prefaces to Circles 1-4 are also hugely expanded upon. There is the wilderness entry to Inferno from the Prime Material Plane, which serves as an entire adventure itself. As for the Vestibule, it’s now an actual circle, Circle 0, technically not part of Hell since it’s for souls who couldn’t decide about their moral allegiance, but practically a part of it since it’s a punishing ground. The Tree of Good and Evil is a nice touch — a huge 130-foot tall pomegranate tree, with fruit that has healing properties, but also compels you to act contrary to your moral alignment.
Beyond the Original
Minor complaint: Dale’s partitioning of Circles 5-7 deviates from Dante’s. In the classic poem, Circle 5 is for wrath (the River Styx), Circle 6 for heresy (the City of Burning Tombs), and Circle 7 for three levels of violence — against neighbor (the River of Boiling Blood), self (the Wood of the Suicides), and the divine (the Desert of Fire). In the module, Circle 5 is Dante’s 5 & 6; Circle 6 is the first two parts of Dante’s 7, and Circle 7 is the third part. The classic grouping by theme is appropriate, so I don’t care for the re-designations. But it’s a trivial criticism on my part; DMs can number the circles however they wish. Throughout this review I stick with Dante’s numbers, so that those who know The Divine Comedy will know the regions I’m referring to.
The rivers of Hell bear mentioning; each is fleshed out in its own vile way. The Archeron (Circle 1) is filthy brown, reeking of spoiled fish, and swamped with bloated bodies. The Styx (Circle 5) is oily black, stinking of rotten eggs, with wrathful souls tearing at each other. The River of Boiling Blood (Circle 7) is just that — red human blood, with souls of the violent screaming in 180-degree agony. The rivers introduce the upper, middle, and lower circles respectively, and could potentially connect to other planes (though the module doesn’t suggest this) in order to benefit shorter campaigns that don’t involve every circle. What better way to enter Hell than on the waves of a foul deluge?
Circle 7 is truly outstanding. I mentioned the River of Boiling Blood, but the Wood of the Suicides and Desert of Blasphemers are the module’s most impressive parts after Circles 1 and 9. The wood is a horror show of diseased trees — the souls of suicide victims whose faces appear contorted in the trunks, and who warble like mindless birds as they are being torn apart by harpies. I love the Tree of Despondency, located in the southwestern region, that bears fruit causing either depression or suicide (depending on how your saving throw goes), though I suppose PCs might be driven to slit their throats anyway by the forest’s quavering lullabies. The Harpodrome (see right) is the wood’s main feature, an open-air theater used for gladiatorial combat, obviously modeled on the Hippodrome of the Byzantine Empire. The harpies of the wood assemble here to revel in theatrical carnage, presided over by an ultra-sadistic Grand Matriarch. Underground prisons contain people and creatures who have been captured for the entertainment, perhaps including PCs.
The Desert of Fire gets heavy attention, which it deserves since it’s so iconic. Temperatures range from 110-125 degrees, and fire rains down from the sky, but also shoots up from the sand in vertical plumes. If that doesn’t kill you, dehydration might, while mirages cripple your morale. Mortals who die here probably go out copying the poor souls who lie on their backs cursing the gods. The sanctuaries are both a reprieve and death zone: ten oases, with temperatures down to the 80s, each ruled by a mummy king. One of them, the Oasis of Ezrabah, is fully detailed, and consists of a funerary temple, a ruined well (a wonderful homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Well of the Souls; hordes of snakes guard a passage to an “Ark of the Covenant” equivalent), the underground tomb of the mummy king, and a large multi-level Sphinx consisting of horrors and treasures warded by riddles. These dungeons are saturated with the old-school vibe, and Dale clearly put a lot of work into them.
Circle 8 is somewhat of a comedown after this, but to be fair my expectations were way too high. It’s always been my favorite part of Dante’s poem, especially pits two and nine, which depict the flatterers swimming in shit, and the sowers of discord getting their stomachs cut open — or in the case of one, decapitated then carrying around his head like a jack-o-lantern. In high school this imagery left a mark on me. Dale gets the atmosphere right, describing black clouds with tentacles snaking all the way down to the ground, and toxic vapors oozing out of the pits. The type 8 devils are abhorrently serpentine — perfect tormenters of the fraudulent. The dungeons, however, are a bit redundant. Each pit has a complex of about 10-12 rooms, hiding an artifact pertaining to the sin being punished. Don’t get me wrong, Circle 8 is still very good. My reservations about it are probably my own problem more than the module’s.
Circle 9 is a ripper. The Frozen Swamp of Cocytus encases the souls of traitors, gives off a nauseating stench everywhere, and completely saps the will. The atmosphere is a constant 15 degrees, with hurricane winds so loud that speech can’t be heard, and death by hypothermia a serious threat. The souls get a pretty raw deal on this level — up to their necks in the ice, while polar-bear devils strike their heads with mallets, flay their skin, and pour wine over the wounds. The cost of treachery.
Lucifer is at the center of this miasma, his lower half imprisoned like the souls, his upper half free to thrash about in fury. It’s worth citing the description:
“Lucifer is a 750-foot winged, multi-headed humanoid figure. The ice holds and confines him like a tightened belt from which he cannot escape. Huge ice worms, 30 HD, 12 feet in diameter by 40 feet long, burrow through the ice, frequently biting his entombed haunches and filling their wounds with poison. Lucifer continually shakes and twitches, and his muscles clench. Each head cries out with an inarticulate pain with every bite on his body and as his wing muscles strain to lift him out of the ice; the bellows are so full of hopelessness and despair that listeners are driven into dark depression and insanity by the sound (range 1 mile, 3d12 hours of torpor, checked every quarter hour).” (Book Three, pp 1-2)
Lucifer is a fascinating paradox in Dale’s module, because he’s both powerful and impotent. He reigns as supreme lord, but suffers torments as the worst sinner and traitor against the gods (unlike the devil princes who rule unambiguously from the comfort of their palaces). He’s imprisoned, but his presence radiates everywhere, pummeling mortals with despair. Is he to be worshiped or scorned? Does his authority supersede those of the devil princes, or is his supremacy a farce — even a heresy? Perhaps the cults of Inferno fight over these issues, and no one really knows the answers. It’s a wonderful enigma that DMs can exploit in all sorts of ways.
Those who dare (or who are even able) to come within a mile of Lucifer can explore his Sanctum, a domed building made entirely of translucent ice. There’s powerful stuff here, and plenty of artifacts (many cursed), but one outrage that bears mentioning is the room rigged in a tempting way that can trigger Lucifer’s freedom. PCs who are either stupid, thoroughly demented, or “faithless” (the room is designed as a test of faith), can unleash him on the cosmos which he will attempt to subjugate. The Sanctum is a brilliant last encounter before the escape from Inferno, which involves, yes, climbing down Lucifer’s obscene body.
And on that note, I’m delighted by the brief overview of Purgatory provided at the end. If Dale wants to make that his next project…
The Bottom Line
Here are my summary rankings of the module’s circles. They’re all terrific, but my top-half choices are inspired beyond words.
Circle 1. Still the best after 34 years. The Noble Castle haunts my imagination in a way that no other D&D encounter has ever matched. It shows how unpredictable and unfair Hell is, to the extent that good souls can be “kidnapped” upon death and confined in an afterlife where they don’t really belong.
Circle 9. Reeking of cold, moral ill, and Lucifer’s poison. His dual nature is what freaks me out most: Is he the supreme devil or the vilest sinner? Mighty or impotent? The paradox reinforces that Inferno is a mystery as much as a horror show. The greatest horror comes in the Sanctum, where Lucifer can be unleashed on the cosmos.
Circle 7. A river of burning blood (hideous screams), a forest of despair (discordant screams), and a desert of blasphemy (profane screams). But never mind the drama, Inferno’s best architectures are found here. The Harpodrome and the Oasis of Ezrabah are some of Geoff Dale’s most inspired work. He outdid himself here.
Circles 2 & 3. Lust and gluttony have equally amazing potential. If you have The Book of Unlawful Carnal Knowledge — which describes x-rated D&D spells like seduce, strip, lust, sex slave, nymph’s beauty, eternal ecstasy, and power word castrate — you can run wild with the Garden of Lust, and make it the true hell it deserves to be. And I’ve already come up with outrageous menus for Glutton’s Hall.
Circle 8. As I said, my expectations here were unreasonably high. The atmosphere is perfect, but the dungeons are somewhat redundant, though still very good. I’d play this circle for mood especially, as the punishments are so varied and ghastly.
Circle 4. What’s fascinating about greed is that it’s the very basis for D&D: PCs advance levels by acquiring treasure. Even a morally upright cleric is a tomb robber. It’s hard to make greed seem evil in this game… but the Temple of Greed succeeds remarkably.
Circle 5. It’s all the River Styx, though there are pocket islands like the Petrified Grove that for whatever reason reminds me of the hedge animals in Stephen King’s novel The Shining. The wrath that rubs off on you in this grove would put Jack Torrance to shame.
Circle 0. I like that the Vestibule is its own circle, and while it’s mostly just a huge stretch of barren darkness, somehow the fact that it’s larger than the other circles (except Circle 1) seems appropriate to Inferno’s top-heavy weirdness.
Circle 6. The City of Burning Tombs is rather standard fare compared to what the rest of Inferno offers — open grave pits, above-ground coffins, sepulchers, mausoleums, lots of undead — but it’s still a wonderful celebration of the macabre.
I can’t remember the last time I was so excited about a gaming product. Perhaps it was 19 years ago with Dol Guldur (which like Inferno was a revamping and expansion of an earlier module). All I know is that this product is awesome, and represents an unprecedented marriage between literature and RPGs. Plenty of modules have been inspired by works of fiction. The Lost City evokes the Conan pulps, Castle Amber the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, Ravenloft is basically Dracula, and Beyond the Crystal Cave plays on Romeo & Juliet. But Inferno is the Inferno, making no attempts to paper over Dantean elements that could be construed as awkward in D&D. The Christian theme is reworked into a pagan context, but that’s about it. I’m ready to play.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5.