Friday, November 22, 2013

The Gazetteer of Hell: Fire and Ice

Before getting to the content of this long-awaited product, it's worth reflecting on its title. A gazetteer is usually understood to be a keyed map of a known geographical region. This is distinct from a module, which in my day (read: the Golden Age of D&D, '77-'83) was a more detailed layout of a site located "off the beaten path" so to speak. Modules were something you could pick up and drop easily into your own setting. They came with recommended locations in Mystarra or Greyhawk, to be sure, but you could ignore that advice and put the Caves of Chaos and the Tomb of Horrors wherever you wanted. As most of us did. That was the whole point of modules -- they were modular, which means based on a concept of interchangeability. Gazetteers were different. They sketched the larger fixed regions of cities, territories, and kingdoms.

In my day, the only D&D products that were actually called "gazetteers" were the domains of Mystarra. But the regions of Middle-Earth were also gazetteers. Iron Crown Enterprises called them modules, but they weren't. There's nothing modular about Southern Mirkwood and Rohan, nor even sites within them like Dol Guldur and Helm's Deep. They're name locations, and everyone played them as such. We sent our D&D PCs to Middle-Earth; we certainly didn't bring Goblin-Gate to Greyhawk, or plant Rivendell in a Mystarran valley.

With this in mind, Geoff Dale's Fire and Ice is a gazetteer in the proper sense, covering the entire region of lower Hell (Circles 7-9), and keying general descriptions of every encounter area -- a whopping 434 of them. This is different from the classic Inferno module, which zoomed in on select encounter areas in upper Hell (Circles 1-4) with painstaking detail (and could pass as a module, even though it's still the "fixed" plane of Hell; Outer Planes can be easily inserted into a Prime-Material adventure via gates, special portals, etc). Both formats have their strengths, and what I like about Fire and Ice is the huge sandbox approach. There's no plot, no railroad, no script slavery, just a massive sprawl of geography and encounter sites that fire the imagination. It does what the old-school D&D modules did on a lower scale, leg-working architectural design and leaving DMs the complete freedom to plot adventures as they please.

As expected, Fire and Ice is faithful to Dante's vision. Circle 7 is the Fire -- the desert of blasphemers. Here vertical jets of flame erupt from the sand, a steady rain of fire pelts down from above, and the temperature gets up to a smoldering 125 degrees. Sodomites are also punished here (running across the burning sands), and I'm glad this wasn't omitted for sake of modern sensibilities. We're enlightened enough to know that homosexuality is fine, but the Inferno isn't about our moral compass. It's a particular vision that should seem rather alien and perversely unfair. Morally good atheists don't deserve to be in a place like Hell, but that's why the Noble Castle in Circle 1 is so effective and haunting.

(If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned the River of Boiling Blood and the Wood of the Suicides, it's because Dale puts them in Circle 6, not 7. See Fight On #3 for his superb module of the fifth and sixth circles.)

Skipping down the bottom, Circle 9 is the Ice -- the frozen swamp of Cocytus encasing all breeds of traitors and backbiters. It's a constant 15 degrees, with winds blowing up to 80 miles/hr, and where white fogs obscure vision and black-cloud thunder makes normal speech impossible. Lucifer is confined at the pit's center, a grotesque invincible terror at 750 feet tall, and unfortunately the only ticket out of Hell for PCs. That's assuming they can get this far.

The in-between of Circle 8 has always been my favorite, containing some of Hell's most creative torments. This is how Dante's second bolgia, for instance, translates into gaming terms. It's the punishing ground for the flatterers, who live in a pit of shit since that's all they spoke in mortal life:
"A noxious mix of sewage, offal, and other liquid filth fills the Pit to a height of 7 FT, and clouds of buzzing insects (Flesh Flies, Poison Gnats, Giant Mosquitos) swarm above the liquid. Mortals swimming across the filth contract 1d3 disease each from the contact. Determine diseases from 1d12: (1) Dengue Fever, (2) Tuberculosis, (3) Diptheria, (4) Tetanus, (5) Malaria, (6) Elephantitus, (7) Yellow Fever, (8) Dysentery, (9) Smallpox, (10) Typhoid Fever, (11) Tapeworms, (12) Bubonic Plague; see Codicil of Maladies for details. An encounter occurs to mortals swimming the muck... (1) Mud Snakes, (2) Giant Slugs, (3) Giant Leeches, (4) Type 8A Devils. Mortals flying above the muck are attacked by Type 8A Devils." (p 64)
Over the entirety of the eighth circle are dark clouds with black streamers draping to the ground like tentacles, red flashes lighting up the sky every 10 minutes, and a foul stench (presumably emanating from the second pit just cited) that causes PCs to suffer rude abdominal cramps. It's great stuff, and the kind of atmosphere we've come to expect from Dale.

In terms of aesthetic, Fire and Ice leaves something to be desired. The cover isn't impressive, and the font makes me think of an old-fashioned typewriter. The other Inferno products (Inferno Beastiary, Codicil of Maladies) have a great aesthetic, so I'm not sure what happened here. For me, however, this isn't a serious strike. Some of the best old-school modules were primitive looking too.

The hex mapwork is satisfactory. Circle 7 has a 20-mile width ending at a 1500-foot cliff to Circle 8, which has an 8-mile width ending at a 1200-foot cliff to Circle 9, which has 6-mile width ending at the centerpoint of Lucifer -- the only means of escape from Hell. (Actually Circle 9 has a 12-mile width, not 6, since it's the bottom and thus a complete circle without a "doughnut hole".)

Keyed on these hex-maps are the 434 encounter areas, which include devil towers, palaces, legion headquarters, oases, toxic pools, perverted shrines, unexpected treasures, and strange surprises you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in Hell. But again, per the gazetteer approach, none of the actual structures are mapped out. If that's what you're looking for -- an analog of what Inferno did for Circles 1-4 -- you will have to await future products. So far the plan includes Diabolic Palace (the home of a devil prince), Oasis of Koessa (a desert oasis on Circle 7), and Samael's Tower (the fortress of the Devil King on the inner rim of Circle 8), but I suspect there will be even more. And there will eventually be gazetteers like Fire and Ice for the other six circles. When the entire Inferno project is done, it will be the best old-school sandbox, eclipsing even The Lost City and Vault of the Drow. That's something I never would have dreamed possible.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.


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