Credit: Kentaro Miura
Note: direct Berserk comments towards Ben
The title says "demon" but I'm using this post to cover all the creatures that D&D calls "fiends." Demons, devils, and everything in between. Don't expect me to consistently refer to each thing according to D&D's taxonomy. To me they're all just demons.
I felt this warranted its own post in part because there's so many to talk about, but also because I view demons as a particularly important category of monster. They're one of those special creature types that's nearly universal across human cultures, in some form or another. You could easily throw out all other monster types and still have a rich and strange fantasy setting just by having the heroes face off against demons.
As I mentioned when talking about drow, I'm not terribly interested in using the bits of worldbuilding that are very specific to D&D's brand. I actually do quite like the demon vs devil distinction and the Blood War and all that. But, like, it's a really specific, unique bit of worldbuilding. Seeing it outside of Planescape would be weird. It would be like making a space opera story and inexplicably including the Force or Mandalorians even though the work is otherwise unrelated to Star Wars.
That said, I do have my own preferred way of categorizing fiends. As I see it, you have to begin by asking this essential question: classical, jazz and blues, or heavy metal? Everything else you need to know about your demons can be extrapolated from there.
Classical is your medieval and early modern demon. Mephistopheles offering you a contract, or the spirits summoned to Bald Mountain. The ones in the Ars Goetia. Old school. Fork-tongued.
Jazz and blues demons are sexy and cool. They wear a suit and tie, or maybe a smoking jacket or, hell, even a lounge robe. The devil who met Tommy/Robert Johnson at the crossroads is an obvious example. Also the demon from the musical episode of Buffy. Silver-tongued.
Heavy metal demons are obviously the hardcore, blood-and-guts DOOM-style monsters. In D&D terms, this one is the "demon" whereas the other two are "devils." Mostly. Giant slobbering prehensile-tongued.
But alas, we're here to talk about D&D's traditions
Here are the basic facts:
- Devils are, overall, better than demons
- The demon princes are, overall, better than the archdevils
- The weakest fiends and the most powerful fiends are definitely the strongest inclusions (imp and pit fiend for devils, quasit and balor for demons). It's the stuff in between that's a toss-up.
Everyone always jokes about how it's just a knock-off balrog, but it doesn't have to be. All it needs to be is a giant engine of murder-destruction. Open your heart to the possibilities.
Credit: Mike Mignola
I have a wizard PC named Tycho who always has a minimum of three pigs in rotation around him at all times, to serve as a meat-shield buffer defending him from assault. If all three pigs die, his contingency is to then use their carcasses as a material component in a ritual to summon a fiend to defend him. In 5E, the spell Summon Greater Demon can let you conjure a demon of CR 5 or less, so my go-to is a barlgura. Tycho actually summons the same individual barlgura consistently, as he knows its true name and can thus better control it.* The barlgura resents this, and would like very much to kill this turbulent wizard. Tycho has nicknamed the demon "bacon," since that's what it smells like after being conjured from a ritually-sacrificed pig.
Boschian fly demon should be a slam dunk, but this one has never really worked for me. Pathfinder has a way better fly demon called a "coloxus" that looks like this:
Credit: Dmitry Burmak
The lowly, foot soldier demon you cut through hordes of. A worthy demon type, to be sure. Ben likes the name "dretch" for such a wretched thing. I much prefer an old abandoned D&D monster called "hordlings," which are more like a hodgepodge of every sort of ugly demon body part you can think of.
Credit: Andrew Hou
This sucks. The picture says "giant thrashing anger monster" but the fluff says "intelligent, tempting demon." What the hell is going on here.
Nobody has ever gotten the little arms to look right. And not for lack of trying.
Ben and I have discussed the idea that you could take most Greek monsters and just make them a demon and suddenly you don't have any issues with flavor or tone or anything. Apparently D&D agrees... but they still have minotaurs. Ugh. This isn't as good as a Pinky from DOOM. Ben thinks they should be the size of a kaiju, which I'll admit is a demon niche we're still missing. Personally, I would give them a howdah carrying a bunch of hordlings or gnolls on their back. Oh, and they should have a skull head.
Inferior to the slaad.
This is the finest demon in the monster manual. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was a big influence on both Ben and myself so having the whole party team up to sword fight a single many-armed lady is like a core D&D fantasy for me.
This is… close. There’s yet to be a really good picture of one. That said, I like the idea of a corpulent, flesh-eating pig demon that dines with rusty cutlery. Why can't they just make it look like Ganon? Ben is also very attached to the pig-fly imagery from Lord of the Flies.
Making a demon equivalent of the imp is incredibly difficult. They did remarkably well. Doesn't infringe on the imp's signature vibe of cunning mischief, yet still believable as a wretched little assistant from Hell. Its main unique feature in 5E is a combat ability called "Scare." It's not a magical fear effect or anything. It can just freak you the fuck out by being creepy. I think that's funny.
This is the one you should treat like the demons from the Bible. The kind with no physical form, who need to find a victim to possess. Like the demon in The Exorcist.
I think vultures are highly underrated. They're often a far more interesting symbol of death than ravens are. More gruesome, more threatening.
"Slime-covered tree demon." See this is the kind of weird shit that more demons should be like. I am very curious why the text describes them as the "handmaidens" of Lolth. More of that.
Barbed Devil / Spined Devil
What... really? They have both?
The idea of a devil that is specifically characterized by its beard is funny. I've seen art that sells it. I've seen a lot more art that doesn't. They should be, like, 60% beard.
Alternatively, "bearded devil" could instead be a distinguished-looking "man in a red suit with a goatee" type of devil who's just there to swindle you out of your soul.
This is a very good devil. I've gotten a lot of use out of these over the years. Good artist or bad artist, the underlying design is just really strong. You get a really clear picture in your head of how it's going to torture you. The only way to improve on this is to make it constantly screaming, like the revenant demon in DOOM.
I'm usually pretty pleased with the artwork for these. "Chain mummy," basically. Ben is not. He thinks they need to take it way further. Fully-incarcerated demon of chains and locks, shackles for joints and swinging around a ball-and-chain flail in place of a hand.
Remember what I said before about just making Greek monsters into demons? 10,000 points to whoever was inspired to make the Furies into a demon type. A simple "fallen angel" as a devil type would be fine of course, but melding them together is just so juicy. Most other fiends are just combat fodder, so I especially appreciate one with a hook: a devil that hunts down PCs who break their oaths.
Just like with the bearded devil, if you want a devil that is distinguished by their horns, then the horns have gotta be fucking massive. Waaaay bigger. As it currently is, this is basically just a low-level substitute for the pit fiend.
Or, y'know, take it in a new direction. When you Google "horned devil," most of the results are for a type of caterpillar by that name. This is where I'd start.
This is a perfect devil. This is the standard against which all other fiend designs should be measured. So much better than having a "flame devil."
Ben is a huge fan of spellcasting PCs getting familiars, and especially special magical familiars. Skip the low-level cats and toads. Go straight to the imp and its cousins.
Credit: Akira Toriyama
Well it's better than the manes. The thought of your eternal punishment being "condemned to sludge" is true horror. But still too boring to earn a stat block. This is set dressing.
Don't run the game that WotC wants you to. Run the game that Bible-thumping evangelicals think you do. Don't be afraid to throw Satan in there. Give the squares something to be scared of.
Since D&D insists on its rigid taxonomical thinking, they need to fill out the "neutral evil" fiend slot. But if demons are chaotic destruction and violence incarnate, and devils are tyrannical tempters and lawyers, then what would the neutral fiend be? D&D's answer is "mercenaries profiting off of the Blood War." Not the worst idea, but it feels insufficient to me. Definitely not on the same level as the other two. Pathfinder makes them Armageddon-bringers. That's way better. In fact, can we just completely throw out the seven deadly sins and instead categorize demons based on the four horsemen of the apocalypse? I'm just so tired of the same clichés again and again and again and again.
Let me let you in on a little secret: all of the best fiends in D&D are the ones in the "miscellaneous" category. The ones that are neither demons nor devils nor yugoloths. I doubt that's a coincidence.
Of all the "evil hounds" of folklore, this is my own favorite. I don't know why it works so well for me. "Giant wolf with a goblin face." I've run a lot of goblin scenarios before and I've done a lot of goblin bosses. Fat goblin boss, ogre boss, David Bowie boss, etc. But for some reason the image of them being led by a big, scheming hound is really refreshing.
Ben doesn't like any of the artwork of barghests. He suggest they could just be giant hyenas. "Nature's goblin dog," if you will.
This is what tieflings should have been called. Again, I much prefer to pull from real-life medieval folklore when possible. Did you know that Merlin the magician was said to be a cambion?
The other main magical evil dog. D&D has often done a flaming skeletal dog, which definitely looks metal as fuck. But I kind of prefer a nice two-headed black hound. Obviously you probably won't ever use a hellhound as a monster on its own, but as a pet for some bigger enemy like a big demon guy or a fire giant or something.
"Demonic horse" is perfectly serviceable. It doesn't really need more than that. It just works. "Cool mount" is an important category of monster, and this automatically is a huge win even without a gimmick of any kind.
Credit: Frenzy of Exultations by Władysław Podkowiński
I really, really like the D&D rakshasa. Way too many DMs go for the lich or the mind flayer when they should consider this option. A perfect choice for the "evil mastermind BBEG," yet still fresh and full of surprises. Calculating, dignified, classy, utterly savage. They nibble a pipe while delicately examining a precious ruby. And when you refuse to comply with their threat, they snap their fingers (on their backwards hand) and have their goons go for you. I've long maintained that eating the heroes is an excellent and worthy goal for any monster or villain. If one of your PCs' top fears is "getting eaten," you're doing alright.
Also, immunity to all spells below whatever-level is an amazing trait for a major, long-term villain to have. The only shame is that they'll probably be spending almost all their time disguised as a human, with the animal form only being revealed during the big showdown.
The biggest problem is that this is not the rakshasa from Indian mythology. D&D has a long history of corrupting real life folklore and religion, but I'm not sure any monster has been bastardized worse than the venerable rakshasa. Rakshasa in actual Indian mythology are fucking bananas. Ten heads, drinking blood with their hands, invading the heavens with flying chariots, plagues of raining flesh.
I wouldn't want to give up the D&D version, though. So I would just have to rework it somehow. "The Facestealer Demon" seems like a good direction. Picture something like Princess Langwidere from Oz, an aristocrat with a collection of heads to pick from to make their disguise.
Credit: Yoshitaka Amano
Succubus / Incubus
D&D swapped back and forth between demon or devil for these until finally they just made them a generalist fiend. Again, I think this is really a promotion. All the best fiends get put in this category.
I talked about this basic trope in the entry on the dryad. It's intrinsically fraught with a lot of nasty cultural baggage about how people view women and sexuality. But I would by lying if I said that some element of this monster doesn't resonate with me. It's a horror monster first and foremost.
The scariest thing about the succubus / incubus isn't just the normal anxieties we have about sex. It's about the fear of trust in the thing we desire. That by allowing yourself to get lured in, to make yourself naked to someone, you expose yourself to them sucking out your soul and hurting you.
Of course, the potential for someone you love to hurt you does not alone make a monster. Every day people confront that fear by choosing to love anyway and every day people have their bravery rewarded by being loved back.
But there are demons out there.
The succubus is that deadliest combination of traits: beauty, intelligence, and narcissism. One of the most dangerous kind of people you could ever meet. The kind of person who's just magnetic, who's funny and attractive and cultured and knows how to use these things like a surgeon with their tools. They can craft social fortifications without anyone knowing it, cultivating followers and exploiting people's trust whenever something slips. They'll make you question yourself, make you think that you're the bad guy just for suspecting them at all.
Look back up through this post. Each fiend has its own method of getting its fill. Some of them are lawyers offering contracts. Some of them are hunters tracking you down. Some of them sit on your shoulder and whisper bad ideas into your ear. A lot of them are just going to try to tear you limb from limb. But the incubus hides in plain sight. He's found wherever the powerful are found. In every royal court, there's some favorite nobleman who charms and entertains, who always has an audience with the king, and who always has an excuse for anyone with a question. That's the demon.
Understand that their power rests entirely in their ability to shapeshift. It's the most dangerous spell in all of D&D. Just like in real life.
Credit: Eros III by Burton Silverman
Anyway, Ben says he would de-gender them and instead make the two categories top and bottom. That's pretty funny, too.
Fuck yeah. I would rather have this as a familiar than an imp.
*The barlgura's true name is "Ron Perlman."