Monday, December 27, 2021

Hellbound: The Blood War

There's this idea that keeps cropping up in these Planescape books. To paraphrase - "the first thing the Clueless want to do when they reach the planes is go to hell." And every time it comes up, I have the same reaction - "what the fuck are you talking about?"

Not to be so shitty about it or anything, but maybe this is one of those situations where you can just take a beat and acknowledge that you're making a game and perhaps the PCs are not a representative sample of the population at large. Player characters want to go to hell because they are powerful adventurers who are either greedy and blood-crazed enough to want to take on the legions of the damned or are driven by such important goals that they are willing to brave perdition itself. So if you're sitting at the crossroads of all realities and someone like that comes up to you and says "which way to hell," maybe that's an unusual experience for you. And if it's not (and I'll admit, I am kind of amused by the idea of a Sigil that's just constantly seeing traffic from the half-dozen local apocalypses that are happening at any give moment), then maybe your stereotype of the Prime Material Plane shouldn't be that they're "clueless," but that they're "frightening beyond all reason."

"In my years as a guide to the portals of Sigil, I must have directed more than a hundred Primes to the lower planes. Sometimes they were fools, yes, but mostly they wanted something desperately - to save a kingdom or a world or a single soul. And all of them, even the fools, had the same look in their eye - a kind of manic need, balanced on the knife's edge between greatness and death."

I only bring it up because Hellbound: the Blood War is a book about ordinary people going to hell and getting mixed up in the politics there, in exchange for nothing more than some rather unremarkable sums of money. 

"Cross a cursed battlefield in the bleakest regions of hell, where billions of demons have died over the past ten million years, their blood staining the ground so that even the plants have a vicious hunger for the ichor of fiends, and retrieve from there the secret battle plans of a diabolic general."

"Ah, so that we may deliver them to the forces of light and ensure the safety of mortal-kind for generations to come?"

"Nah, the plans will be changed almost immediately, but they still retain a certain value on the secondary market. Your cut of the profits will be 5000 gold."

And that's the most well-compensated of the adventures. The more general campaign suggestions include couriers, mercenaries, and spies. In hell. For demons.

Oh, sorry, "calling the fiends by the d-words is no better than insulting any other group of people because of the way they look or act" according to one of the book's occasional bits of alignment-related gibberish. After all, if it were a human who was living in a giant tower made of sealed metal cages containing captives who were immobilized by razor-wire, but kept alive through the meticulous efforts of an army of servants so that their anguish could be prolonged for no reason other than an exaltation of degradation and pain, you certainly wouldn't call them a demon, would you? That's just judging someone based on the way they act.

Pardon the excessive sarcasm, but it does get to the reason why I didn't enjoy Hellbound very much. It's parked right in the middle of Planescape's worst element. Not the Blood War itself. That's something that's maybe too big and too old (there are repeated admonitions that the PCs should not expect to have any effect whatsoever on the course of the war), but it's an interesting texture. These celestial creatures are fighting over irreconcilable differences in ideology, and they hate each other more than anything else in the universe. It's a good way to inform the motivations of fiends who interact with the PCs. 

Rather, the problem with this book, and by extension the Blood War, and by further extension, Planescape itself, is the reification of AD&D's alignment system. Different factions of fiends fighting each other because they are incapable of compromise? Pretty interesting. Different factions of fiends fighting each other over differing beliefs about the best way to advance the cause of Evil? Please stop.

They are explicitly, in-character, marching under the banner of "Evil." As in, they could charge into battle with the rallying cry, "For Evil!" and that would be inspirational to them. The reason they hate each other is because each major faction thinks the other is not doing Evil well enough.

This is a conflict that may work in a more heightened reality like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (although, even then, just barely), but Planescape wants to be more nuanced. Angels and demons sharing drinks in celestial Casablanca and all that. "Like most evil folks, the fiends think they're doing the right thing."

None of the Planescape books come close to finding the right balance. You've got the fiends, who have their competing ideologies, and they're evil because they're willing to do terrible deeds to advance those ideologies. But then, on top of that, "Evil" is part of those ideologies, and so really they're . . . willing to do terrible deeds . . . to make he world safe for them to do terrible deeds.  This makes the whole conflict feel really gutless, because there is nothing on either side worth preserving or advancing, and thus nothing truly at stake. Either side winning would be equally bad, but only because they would then proceed to attack new foes who do have ideologies worth defending. Will the world end in fire or ice? That's what the Blood War is about.

It's a dour, unpleasant conflict that only really works when it's in the background, serving as a motivation for dour, unpleasant antagonists. Once you start recruiting PCs to do stuff like deliver messages or scout terrain, you're now tying the fate of your campaign in the players' investment in a story whose best possible outcome is an indefinite continuation of the status quo.

Needless to say, I didn't really enjoy this book. The most dynamic part was the big adventure that had PCs traveling through multiple lower planes to find the secret creature that gave fiends their teleportation abilities. It's a competently constructed adventure, a bit linear, but with meaningful choices that impact the difficulty of the final encounter, and it could, potentially, have a major effect on the Blood War, despite the rest of the book's contention about the impossibility of such ambitions. However, I couldn't bring myself to enjoy it due to it being a transparent attempt to introduce mechanical errata in the form of a narrative. Pre-Planescape AD&D gave all demons and devils, save the very least ones like lemures, the ability to teleport, at will, to any plane and that conflicts terribly with the setting's emphasis on the importance of portals, and thus instead of just including the retcon into a destined-to-be-controversial sidebar, they decided to make it into a destined-to-be-controversial adventure.

On the positive side, Blander Mul is back, this time in a margin quote "Just because I'm a fanatic doesn't mean I'm stupid." Oh, Blander, that is almost exactly wrong, but at least you have a sense of humor about it.

Overall, I'd rank this pretty low on the list of essential Planescape books. It had its moments, when it wasn't trying to convince me to take its central premise seriously, but I'm sorry, there is absolutely no way anything is ever going to get me to care about "a struggle for the control of evil itself, for the definition of what evil really is." Wake me up when you realize that you could have replaced the word "evil" in that sentence with "good" and had essentially 99% the same dynamic, but in a way that might actually challenge people.

Ukss Contribution: As usual, Planescape is best in the fine details. The Abyss section of the main adventure had plenty of creepy objects. I hesitate to call any of them my "favorite," but there is a magic wand called "The Despoiler of Flesh" (or, hilariously, the "Flesh Wand") that is made of sewn-together tongues.


But probably in a good way. It was a wasted opportunity not to give the wand therapeutic or transhumanist uses (it can reshape flesh, living or dead, but only cosmetically), but that's something I can rectify in Ukss. It's obviously got to go into the hands of a villain, but villains can do more interesting things than torture.

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