... now with 35% more arrogance!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Demonic Appearance

There's a forum thread about the quality of demon design in D&D material. Basically, some of us don't like the more ridiculous mash-ups. For me, Demogorgon and the Type III and Type IV demons go too far in the direction of "just a bunch of random bits stuck together", and the Type I (vrock) is borderline. Later publications get worse and worse, with crazy-quilt-looking demons. And it's not just appearance; some of the powers unique to demon varieties seem kind of random.

I'm a fan of random tables for designing new game elements, but I have a problem with this kind of randomness. Why? I've thought about it, and my conclusion is that there's a difference between incoherent and coherent randomness. The ideal for me is to roll on some tables for inspiration, but try to integrate the results so that they seem to fit together. Why does this creature have the ability to create light? Why does it also have the eyes of an insect? And the tail of a snake?

Medieval demons, lurking deep in our shared cultural background, were incarnations of bestial qualities and pure sin. They tended to be mostly human or mostly animal, with just a few incongruent features, and those features tend to come from a small pallet with symbolic resonance. You see a lot of goat/bull horns or bear tusks or serpentine/draconic features, if not actual goat heads, bull heads, boar heads, dragon heads, and serpents for hair or a tail. This is because of the negative connotations of those animals: the goat is a creature of lust, the boar of rage or gluttony, the serpent or dragon is Satan incarnate. You also get a few wolf/dog features, plus the bat as a creature of the night, or toad or rat as disturbing, unclean creatures. And, on occasion, the monkey or ape, as a mockery of humanity. Many demons pass for human or animal, only revealing their true nature with careful observation; the more obvious hybrids mostly occur in artwork as part of a moral lesson.

Fantasy writers -- mostly swords & sorcery, since other fantasies usually stick to talking animals, fairies, and classical mythology, instead of demonology -- abandoned the heavy moral emphasis, but stuck to the same design criteria, mixing just two different creatures at most. Thus, in one Dilvish the Damned story, Zelazny described a demon that looked like a jaguar or leopard with snakes sprouting from its shoulders. Very simple design that feels about right. Some stories, for example at least one Elric story and a couple Clark Ashton Smith stories, use toad-things, humanoid creatures with toad heads, which surface in D&D as Type II demons. Ray Harryhausen invented a half-woman, half-snake creature with multiple arms, not really a demon, but it becomes the Type V demon.

All of these feel right. Lovecraft and some other Cthulhu Mythos writers might be cited as an opposing example, but even there, the design criteria may have changed, but it's still coherent. You get lots of half ape, half rat, half serpent, half fish, or half amphibian humanoids. You get some nearly indescribable creatures -- Lovecraft literally skips the details -- that are mostly just incoherent masses of material with crustacean, insect, or mollusk extrusions. And there's a handful of truly weird creatures, like the Great Race and the Mi-Go... but even there, the focus is usually on one or two recognizable features on a basic shape.

I have some ideas on designing more medieval demons, but I'll save that for a later post.


  1. have read a few things like that - hace been looking at art of 1500 for campaign and i was gonna do a medieval demon table - very different to a warhammer one. Too many things in dnd a species and not unique is a problem. DnD chimera upsets me a bit too. I like consistent devils in orders while demons should be more random and weird and unique

    1. Konsumterra, please make that table.

    2. I've got a post with some die rolls for random devil/demon generation written up, but it's scheduled for tuesday, because I already had a post scheduled for monday. I might move it up to monday afternoon, because I have a companion table I need to write and that can be scheduled for tuesday instead.