Thursday, November 16, 2017

Demons in Early D&D, Part 1

A demon from Eldritch Wizardry

There were plenty of demons in early Dungeons & Dragons (1974-1979). Not only were there many kinds of demons, but demons could be summoned by spells, they could possess people, and characters could even make "pacts" with them, perhaps involving human sacrifices. All of this was described in "official" TSR sources such as the rulebooks and supplements or semi-official outlets such as The Dragon magazine.

There was plenty of red meat for Christian fundies who worry about that sort of thing to get worried about.

But of course that only tells half the story.

While demons existed, they didn't exactly dominate things. In essence they were simply an additional kind of monster introduced to make things more interesting. Back in the day I never used demons in my campaign, and I can't remember ever running into them in the three or four other campaigns that I played in.

For my campaign this was not because I had any particular religious objection to them (unless it was unconscious), but rather because demons just seemed too complicated. In the Monster Manual their descriptions went on forever (or so it seemed to me). They didn't seem Tolkienish enough (a big consideration for me at the time), and they were too high-level for my campaigns. Also I resented the imposition of the complicated and arbitrary (again, so it seemed to me) metaphysical architecture or geography that went with them - all of the hells and planes and so on and so forth. Demons were just too much fuss.

For all I know there were other campaigns that made a fetish of demons. One thing the anti-D&D people never seemed to quite understand is that Dungeons & Dragons, especially in the early days, was what you wanted to make of it. (Of course, logically, this wouldn't have completely disposed of the worry.) Could it be a gateway drug to actual cults or covens? I suppose some people might have played it to make it look that way. But I never saw it.

But the other part of the story is that while demons would eventually stake out their demonic place in the universe of 1970's D&D, they didn't exist for at least the first two years of the game.

This is a companion piece to my earlier post on witches. Witches sort of burst out (at least implicitly) and then fizzled. But demons, while they took their time making an appearance, would by the end of the 1970's be featured all over - again not because they were the raison d'etre of the game or anything like that but simply because they had become an accepted member of the monster canon, along with Unicorns, Dragons and everyone else.

Dungeons & Dragons (January, 1974): The "three little brown books" contained no demons. The Balrog would later become a demon (before having the "Balrog" part of the name deleted for copyright reasons), but he wasn't a demon then.

Greyhawk (March, 1975): No demons.

Blackmoor (September, 1975): Technically, the first use of the word "devil" in an official Dungeons & Dragons publication was in this supplement. And fittingly (for Blackmoor) it was aquatic-related. The evil creatures called Sahuagin were described as "Devil-Men of the Deep."

The Strategic Review (April, 1975 to April, 1976): The first appearance of demons in D&D occurred in the second to last issue (Vol. II, no. 1, February, 1976) of this predecessor to The Dragon. Both demons and devils were featured on the first of two charts in an article by Gary Gygax discussing the D&D alignment system - an article which heralded the apparent evolution of alignment from what had seemed to be a two- or three-point system to a five- or nine-point system.

I imagine that this chart might have been confusing to many. It named four sorts of creatures or beings - Saint, Godling, Devil and Demon - and diverse places - Nirvana, Heaven, Elysium, The Abyss, etc. - none of which had appeared in Dungeons & Dragons before. They came from varying religious or mythical traditions but were all meticulously placed on a chart that seemed to represent some sort of deeper metaphysical or supernatural truth. Why were "Saints" (were these just really good people?) "Lawful/Good" and "Godlings" (whatever they were) "Chaotic/Good"? And why was The Devil on the other side of the chart from a Demon? Were Hell, Hades and the Abyss different places? Why was the Law side of Neutrality Buddhist but the Chaos side of it Catholic? And so on.

Some of us are so used to the religious cosmology of AD&D that we may not fully realize that it was Gygax and D&D that first made a distinction between "devils" and "demons" as two separate but similar evil supernatural beings. In Christian or European tradition, demons were usually equated with the fallen angels (they may also inhabit people and be cast out, etc.). "Devil" was used as in "The Devil," to denote the first fallen angel or leader of them, or was employed as a sort of slang term to describe demons or supernatural monsters in general or even just very bad people.

I'm not claiming that there's anything wrong with Gygax patching together his own novel cosmology out of many different sources, mashing them together and redefining some of the terms - after all, this is essentially what he did with the entire monster canon for D&D - only that it must have seemed a bit confusing to some at the time, especially since it came with little explanation. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons would of course fully flesh all of this out, but at this time, AD&D was still 1-3 years away.

Eldritch Wizardry (May, 1976): Here is where demons not only made a grand entrance but positively exploded into the game, in all their myriad and numbered types. There are 94 mentions of the word "demon" in this booklet, and 4 of "devil." Nine types of demon are given statistics and described - six types simply numbered "I" to "VI" (although VI is also called "Balrog", which was still listed as a "monster" in the then available printings of Monsters & Treasure), Succubi, and the two "demon princes" Orcus and Demogorgon. Various demonic magical items and artifacts are described. Demon psionic strength is explained. And demons now appear in the encounter charts alongside everyone else from Lions to Lycanthropes. Indeed, in many terrain types you suddenly have a 1 in 20, or sometimes only a 1 in 12, chance of encountering a demon if your monster check comes up. This might have been annoying to wilderness adventurers. Interestingly, in Eldritch Wizardry demons are not given a specific home. They're said to "roam" the astral plane, but they appear to actually live in or on some other plane or planes. These are not named. The explicit populating of Hell, Hades and other such places is still months in the future - although, as we saw, it was telegraphed in that The Strategic Review article.

Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes (July, 1976): There are numerous and varied demons mentioned as part of many mythologies. Their use here is quite nifty in my opinion, and it's of a completely different flavor from the sterilely labeled numbered types in Eldritch Wizardry. This would herald a trend in which some of the coolest treatments of D&D demons would be, so to speak, ethnic.

Here is a description of the Rakshasa, which had earlier been introduced in the "Creature Feature" section of the The Strategic Review, and would appear again in the AD&D Monster Manual, though not explicitly as a demon in either of those texts:
Armor Class: — 5, Magic Ability: (See Below), Move: 18/36, Fighter Ability: 15th Level, Hit Points: 200, Psionic Ability: Class 6 
These demons constantly fought man and Gods alike. Many of their leaders were so powerful that the Gods were forced to call a truce at times and give them concessions. All Rakshasas have these powers in common: shapechange, fight invisible except against Gods, all regenerate as a troll, crave the taste of human flesh, and cannot refuse a gambling bet. Some of the more powerful ones have complete control over forces of nature.
That sort of short but evocative monster description, lumping together such diverse considerations as invisibility (though not against Gods), regeneration, favorite cuisine (people) and a weakness for gambling is in my opinion one of the defining virtues of early D&D. It would soon be lost. 

Next (Part 2): The Holmes Basic Set, the AD&D Monster Manual and the AD&D Players Handbook. 


  1. "Could it be a gateway drug to actual cults or covens?"

    The only encounter I ever had with a D&D player who claimed such a connection was in the late 80s. I distinctly remember him spinning tales of an earlier D&D group he'd been in that was united in a love of evil, spell-casting, demon-worship, and double-dealing. I thought he was nuts.

    It was only later, when I actually read the Chick tract, that I realized he'd cribbed the whole thing.

  2. In the first D&D games I played in the Arduin Grimores were considered as canonical as Blackmoor and Greyhawk. Arduin was full of demons and hells. I would not be surprised to learn that people who claimed D&D was demonic or cultic were reacting more to Hargrave than Gygax.

  3. Makes me want you to talk about Demons vs "Deevils" in Palladium Books' megaverse.