Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Retrospective: Inferno

I've talked about my love of Dante in the past, which is why it's odd that I hadn't yet done a retrospective on the 1980 Judges Guild module Inferno. Written by Geoffrey O. Dale, the module is, in the author's own words, "based primarily upon the poem 'Inferno' by Dante" and offers up the first four of Hell's nine circles for use as a location for D&D adventures. The fifth circle was recently published in the pages of Fight On! magazine and there has been talk of the other circles appearing in the future, thereby completing a project begun more than three decades ago.

Inferno is most definitely a location-based module, as there is no "plot" or "story" laid out in its pages. Instead, Dale presents Hell as a place to characters who read cursed scrolls or who are victims geas or quest spells cast by irritated high-level NPCs. He also offers it as a "power base to the evil immortals in the campaign." Hell is thus a powerfully malign "wilderness" to explore, filled with foes, treasures, and even "dungeons" -- after all, what is Hell but Creation's most famous dungeon?

For what it is, Inferno is actually pretty well done. It hews closely to Dante in many places, even when this contradicts the conception of devils already in place in AD&D by 1980. At the same time, it's also odd when Dale decides to throw parts of D&D's own mythology into the mix, such as Tiamat's having a lair on the first level of Hell. The result is a strange melange that's neither truly Dante nor wholly compatible with "standard" AD&D (unlike, say, Ed Greenwood's articles on the same subject in the pages of Dragon). It's quite compelling nonetheless and I find it easy to be drawn in by Dale's presentation of Hell as a playground for D&D adventurers, even if part of me recoils at the liberties this module takes with its literary source material in places.

Ultimately, though, what sits least well with me about Inferno is that, like so much of Dungeons & Dragons -- and indeed fantasy generally -- it "steals a lot of bases" in its cosmology. That is, Inferno presents us a gaming version of an elaborate medieval imagination of Hell and yet does so without reference to the single most important source of this imagination: Christianity. Now, I understand why this is the case, but it doesn't make it any less problematic. D&D has long suffered as a result of Gygax and Arneson's personal scruples regarding the depiction of Christianity in the game. Much of the time, this isn't a huge problem and can easily be handwaved away. That's just not the case when you're dealing with Dante's Inferno, a work of art that simply doesn't make much sense if it's ripped from its proper context, as it is here. Consequently, Inferno feels very odd to me, like a modern production of a medieval passion play where great effort was made to downplay anything specifically religious and instead focusing primarily on the fantastic and -- especially -- the grotesque.

40 comments:

  1. I'd be very interested to see a second part to this piece discussing where the lack of Christianity makes the adaptation as a gaming setting fall down- is it just a disappointment of expectation owing to the familiarity of the source material? Or something more? My knee-jerk response is that works of art that stand the test of time aren't- perhaps cannot be- so tightly joined to the historical and cultural moment of their production that they don't make sense out of that context.

    I know we have somewhat different approaches to texts, but the most compelling part of this post is what lies behind your observation that "[c]onsequently, Inferno feels very odd to [you]". I'd be interested to hear more about that.

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  2. I wouldn't read too much into the lack of Christianity. Because pretty much all the major published settings were polytheistic, serving as a model for house campaigns, it would make more sense for the module to fit the AD&D cosmology than the medieval Scholastic one - differences in the details of devil races notwithstanding.

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  3. Then why use Dante's Comedy, an intrinsically religious work, as a setting at all? It would be like writing Ravenloft and excluding vampires.

    Count Strahd is an obvious stand-in for Count Dracula. The thing falls apart without him. A Christian Hell without Christianity is a hot mess: it is like Ragnarok without Loki and Odin: i.e. plain stupid.

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  4. To proceed from the premise that the Divine Comedy is "intrinsically religious" or "doesn't make much sense" without Christianity is to beg the question. That many D&D players have happily used devils in their games without an even vaguely Christian cosmology casts doubt on such assumptions. Even if you tried to emulate Purgatory and Heaven in D&D terms, the result would almost certainly be either unplayable (as D&D) or ridiculous:

    Caller: "We move forward into the Fourth Heaven, with the halfling and dwarf in front. The fighters have their bows at the ready, and the elf is ready to cast lightning bolt."

    DM: "You are suddenly surrounded by a circle of dancing, shining theologians. You aren't surprised, so roll for initiative."

    Caller: [groaning] "Two."

    DM: "The theologians get a four, so they go first. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains how Solomon really was the wisest mortal, even though Adam and Jesus were perfect in wisdom."

    Thief: "I disbelieve. [rolling] TWENTY, you big ox!!!"

    ....

    Anyway, as I was saying, based on the practice of lots and lots of gamers, I'd say devils work in a non-Christian context. (They certainly work a lot better than solars, planetars, et al. do.) It may not withstand rigorous logical scrutiny, but then a milieu with intelligent, flying, fire-breathing reptiles seldom does. If I had to speculate on why this is, I'd say a wargame-derived engine is far better suited to external conflict resolution (i.e., fighting evildoers) than it is to the inner moral drama of Christianity (confessing sin and receiving grace). (To leap to a related topic: it's similar to why the space opera genre is a colossal mismatch for a prequel trilogy addressing the theme of moral corruption.)

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  5. Daniel: I can't agree with your analogy (Ravenloft is to Vampires what Hell is to Christianity), and your subsequent comment is an unnecessarily antagonistic hand-waving of exactly what I'm interested in hearing about. Why is a Hell modeled after its description in the Inferno a "hot mess"? Or, if you like, at what point would a setting that depicted a cataclysmic war between supernatural entities become "plain stupid" unless you inserted Loki and Odin, and what do you mean by that? Can you have giants fighting gods without Odin?

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  6. Actually The Divine Comedy is not just a religious work (and this is particularly true of Hell which features a pronounced absence of God [although not of God's various agents]). It's also a political commentary and a comedy in the classical sense (in that it will be all right at the end).

    To properly capture the inferno in an RPG requires that it be just as reflective of the character's lives as Dante's hell was of his. This is the trick that made Niven & Pournelle's tribute, Inferno, work (and which the sequel regrettably missed). So they should see their friends who they failed and their enemies on their journey.

    Of course player-characters probably won't have the divine mandate that Virgil and Dante had on their journey to ease their way. And the guardians of that place (the demons and devils) should be concerned with putting the characters back in their proper place (and given that most PCs have shed enough blood to fill multiple Phlegethon rivers this is an easy location to dump them).

    It even functions quite well if there are no gods at all, as a limbo/purgatory of sorts where a dead spirit must purge what they must believe to be their "sins" before they can "move on" - or even be "brought back." The nine levels of sin are easily adaptable to whatever moral milieu you envisage (and more managable than say, the 10,000 Chinese hells...).

    Now if Purgatorio or Paradiso were ever adapted to D&D, that would be an entirely different matter (unless you played an awesome game of Battleship with Death to get to the Empyrean...)

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  7. I loved the Inferno supplement when it came out but then, as a kid, my reading of The Divine Comedy was incredibly superficial (Wow, cool stuff!!!)

    I'm not sure that it falls apart without Christianity but I think, any of the deeper meaning and context is lost (in any medium) without taking into account the political criticism that Dante was engaging in.

    Without the backdrop of Vatican (and secular Italian politics) one could argue that we're essentially left with only the "Cool stuff" whether a Christian ontology is included or not.

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  8. Reverance Pavane was posting as I was writing my post so I yeah... what RP said. ;-)

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  9. Insert any stodgy, lawful good, civilized, and political society in place of Christianity and you are all good. Most campaigns have that. Inferno would not be a proper hell for Asian or African style settings, but for most places based on any European flavor it will work just fine.

    As for disregard for "hot mess," City State of the Invincible Overlolrd, Tegel Manor, and other Judges Guild items drew freely from both real world and D&D sources for gods and other ideas, so somebody who would call it "stupid" is either a fairly modern gamer, or a Grognard with a stick up his ass about some kind of "realism."

    fyi - I posted about this the other year. Based on a comment to the post by Jeff Reints, I hooked myself up with a not so legal pdf of it (naughty naughty). I was karmically punished though. I printed it at the office, but the smaller printer didn't like it and shunted it to the mail room copier, where several people saw it. There was some 'splainin to do, Lucy! (I said it was from a website I was working on).

    http://templeofdemogorgon.blogspot.com/2009/11/inferno-go-to-hell.html

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  10. For a game which explicitly links itself to Christianity, along with several other religions, and is up front about it see In Nomine

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  11. Touchy, touchy! I didn't mean to offend virgin ears (eyes?) with my use of the coarse epithet "stupid." ;-)

    I'm a stick-free grognard, having played a few JG books in the day, but either I missed Inferno or it didn't appeal (we, for whatever reasons, hardly ever touched demonic planes except for the occasional minor conjure and insipid three-hour theoretical debates about how we might handle Orcus without ever actually, you know, playing the scenario out.)

    In any case, it does seem silly on the face of it: God's absence from the Inferno is not incidental - it is critical. Why force a supplement to hew so literally to the source material whilst grafting it on to D&D?

    At least in Dungeonland, the marriage of two unrelated metathemes was served up as a mash-up. Whether it was successful or not is debatable, but it certainly would have been less interesting if it had been "based on" Wonderland but exhibited none of its disjointed lunacy.

    Not having ever picked up Inferno, I can only go by James' description, but based on it, it sounds very much less fun than one that relied on the richer source themes or at least a mash-up attempt.

    Handwaving, incidentally, is a good thing. It is how I so effectively cast "persuade lesser mortals..."

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  12. There's no way this could we done "right" in a D&D context. The horror of inferno is not "there's so many of these things and they have so many damn hitpoints!" but all the people who have in effect created their own torments.

    Also, inferno is quite the exposition-heavy railroad, with Virgil as DM, walking Dante along saying "look at this" and "this is all because . . ."

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  13. I assume that when you write "and yet does so without reference to the single most important source of this imagination: Christianity" you are referring to Catholicism rather than Christianity.

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  14. I'd be very interested to see a second part to this piece discussing where the lack of Christianity makes the adaptation as a gaming setting fall down- is it just a disappointment of expectation owing to the familiarity of the source material? Or something more? My knee-jerk response is that works of art that stand the test of time aren't- perhaps cannot be- so tightly joined to the historical and cultural moment of their production that they don't make sense out of that context.

    My only point is that, devoid of its Christian underpinnings, Inferno becomes little more than a catalog of grotesque punishments. That's rather missing the point of both what Hell is and what Inferno is.

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  15. I'd say devils work in a non-Christian context.

    Devils do, sure. Hell might even work when it's presented as just some evil extra-dimensional place. That's not my issue. My issue is specifically with a vision of Hell based explicitly on Dante. I don't think that makes much sense outside a Christian context.

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  16. There's no way this could we done "right" in a D&D context. The horror of inferno is not "there's so many of these things and they have so many damn hitpoints!" but all the people who have in effect created their own torments.

    Indeed, which is why I prefer my fantasy Hells to deviate more from what's presented in Inferno.

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  17. I assume that when you write "and yet does so without reference to the single most important source of this imagination: Christianity" you are referring to Catholicism rather than Christianity.

    In the western medieval context, that distinction is largely meaningless.

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  18. I appreciate the retrospective. We re-released the original Inferno about a year ago with updated art and organization, so it is again available to everyone. I've found over the years that surprisingly few gamers have read Dante, they have nothing to compare the module against. I recall one email from an English professor who wrote to say he only became interested in classic literature after his high school gaming group was run through Inferno.

    Readers should remember that in 1978-79 (when Inferno was written) there were NO published settings for Hell, by anyone. Inferno was the first product of its kind. It was an obvious addition to the game, and Bob Bledsaw readily agreed. And if you are going to write the first published Hell, the obvious place to start was Dante.

    I spent a lot of time (in 1978) thinking about the Christianity aspect of Inferno. Inferno is written the way it is because a strongly monotheistic Hell wasn't commercially viable; it was the rare DM in 1979 who ran a monotheistic campaign (I didn't know any). Nothing prevented such a campaign from existing but the existant rules didn't encourage it.

    It was a delicate balancing act to be true to Dante's text while creating something DM's could run. It was impossible to write Inferno without liberties because Dante-as-written isn't always good adventuring locations. Tiamat's lair was put on the First Circle simply because the poem didn't provide any suitable high-level challenges in that area (she moves outside Inferno in the completed version, but is still in Gehenna). When Dante's placement of Devils conflicted with AD&D, I always stayed with the source material.

    Hell as a malignant wilderness was/is exactly what I'm trying to portray. Even without any devils the landscape is lethal. That will come across even more strongly in the complete Inferno and the forthcoming Gazatteer of Hell. Dante's descriptions are very linear, so the 1980 module emphasizes inward movement through the artifical device of impassible ridges; this restriction is lifted in the complete Inferno, allowing full circular movement (over something like one hundred thousand square miles). There is a great deal of weirdness and the fantastic there.

    I agree with Michael that Purgatorio and Paradisio don't really work in D&D terms. Both of these are mentioned in the completed Inferno but together only get two or three pages.

    Geoff
    Spellbook Games

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  19. I can't help but wonder why an Inferno without Christianity is any different from Elves without Norse cosmology, Medusa without Athena and Poseidon, or Tiamat without Marduk. D&D borrowed freely from all sorts of mythologies. That was part of its charm.

    It also seems to assume that a place of eternal torment is somehow a uniquely Christian concept. As a teacher and scholar of religions I can assure you it isn't. Nor are the sins in Dante only limited to Christianity. There are various Hells in all sorts of paradigms, and things like pride, wrath, envy, etc are moral taboos in places all over the world.

    Inferno works just as well in D&D as all the million other things the game has borrowed over the years.

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  20. Well said D, and thanks to Geoff for the extra insight about your fascinating old school artifact!

    I originally got into reading Dante long ago after reading Larry Niven's Inferno in my teens. I was not a huge Niven reader, but I had heard of Dantes Inferno and found the idea of an atheist going there (his sci fi writer character from that book) very interesting (maybe being raised by European Catholics helped with that - a real fear of hell being hammered in at an early age).

    So when your Inferno appeared at my local gameshop, I snatched it right up. At that time it for sure had a lot of bang for it's buck. I never once thought of it as somehow not being able to be fit into a more or less standard D&D world.

    I plan to use it in the not too distant future as a bit of a playground for some higher level characters from my games. Not a full exploration, but some higher being or power sticking them there for some purpose or another (to be determined).

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  21. I can't help but wonder why an Inferno without Christianity is any different from Elves without Norse cosmology, Medusa without Athena and Poseidon, or Tiamat without Marduk. D&D borrowed freely from all sorts of mythologies. That was part of its charm.

    For me, it's not a question an Inferno so much as the Inferno. That is, I can easily see many different interpretations of Hell that work just fine without Christianity but Dante's vision of Hell is a very specific one that, in my opinion, feels odd when presented outside its original context.

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  22. Geoff,

    Firstly, thanks for stopping by and providing some insight into the creation of this old module. I really appreciate that.

    Inferno is written the way it is because a strongly monotheistic Hell wasn't commercially viable; it was the rare DM in 1979 who ran a monotheistic campaign (I didn't know any). Nothing prevented such a campaign from existing but the existant rules didn't encourage it.

    Of this I have no doubt. Even now, monotheism is practically verboten in published fantasy RPGs, so I'm not at all surprised that it was no different in 1980. Still, I can't help but wonder if a book like Inferno mightn't benefit from some discussion of monotheism and what it means for a campaign.

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  23. So James, white guys from a lawful/good religion cannot be made to fit the Christian bill? There were plenty of depictions of clerics with crucifixes on their tunics or shields in early D&D/AD&D. Did the removing of these symbols later change the basic of what a good cleric from a large western was all about? Can't one simply say "OK, this is the hell for these guys?"

    Different hells for different folks, and this is just one of them?

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  24. FWIW, I did run a series of sessions putting the party through the first three circles before they all were bludgeoned to death. This was almost 30 years ago, and I was quite a bit younger then, so all I can recall are the endless series of battles and that the players seemed pleased with the experience. None of us were visibly offended by the fact that, as DM, I inserted plenty of references to Christianity. Then again, none of us were Christian.

    Running this location now would be a very different experience because I've grown so much as a referee and person over the decades. I'd definitely focus on the Christian roots to the locale these days and would have to tailor the module fairly extensively to make it meaningful enough to our current gaming group. Our current campaign, however, has a heavy and explicit dose of Christianity as part of the game world (and we do have one Christian in the group.)

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  25. I, and most of my players over the years, would be uncomfortable at having Christianity appear in our rpg's. I bought Inferno back in the day as an other-planar Hell for the paladins in my campaign to contend against. Pleased that I wasn't required to remove Christian references, I've read the original and Niven's homage. I find the product to be an enjoyable and useful supplement as it was released.

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  26. James said: "Still, I can't help but wonder if a book like Inferno mightn't benefit from some discussion of monotheism and what it means for a campaign."

    It might have, had I been prescient enough to think about it back in 1979. None of the areas explored in the campaign Inferno came out of were monotheistic, so I simply didn't give the subject much thought with respect to D&D (one of my college majors was Philosophy). I simply didn't have any experience with a campaign of that sort. Even now, any thoughts I have would be largely theoretical without much basis in actual play. I will think more on this for when the complete Inferno module is published.

    We provided some information about a monotheistic religion in an appendix to our RPG ruleset, 'Portal to Adventure'. The particular religion we describe takes a deity more like Jahweh than Christ, and tacked on a medieval monastic structure featuring militant knights.

    Geoff

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  27. Christianity has always been held back from D&D and rightfully so. It only seems fitting Judge's Guild would of done the same thing with Inferno( which has always been my favorite JG cover). Although it's never been mentioned, I've always believed that God is dose exists in the world(s) of D&D, but he's simply is the "one" that is never mentioned.

    With all said, I would dig to see all the circles of hell published into one book with some Peter Mullen and Sean Aaber artwork accompanying it ( paging James Raggi, paging James Raggi)

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  28. As far as I know, Judge's Guild would have published Inferno as readily with explicit Christian references as it did without. There was no particular intention there.

    I'm trying to get all the Circles published in one book, though its taking much longer than I'd like. I have to admit I have no idea who either Mullen or Aaber are, but we do have some outstanding artists (just come by our website and see samples of their work).

    Geoff

    PS. I never liked that JG cover art, since there is no similar scene in the module.

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  29. @James: You write "In the western medieval context, that distinction [between Christianity and Catholicism]is largely meaningless."

    True, but neither the Judges Guild product, nor this blog are operating in a medieval context. I only bring this up, because I have appreciated and continue to appreciate how adept you are at picking up on and magnifying often unnoticed distinctions in writings, rpg culture, etc.

    As someone who loves Dante's Inferno and has read it several times, it is simply more precise to speak of the influence of Catholicism on the poem. Not Southern Baptist Christianity. Not Calvinism. Not Mormonism. Each of these types of Christianity have very different tropes that have no bearing on the symbolism employed by Dante.

    Actually, now that I think about it, I would love to see a nice GURPS source book for the Inferno.

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  30. Is that cover supposed to be in 3-D???

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  31. I like Geoff's comments above. I got the online-Inferno or year whatever ago, after discussion here after James' posts led me to it. I'm glad I have it, but to me it does seem surprisingly linear, empty-ish, and incomplete (half of a full project).

    So Geoff's comments on the "completed" version are exactly what I was about to write I would've liked to see (full movement in diabolical wilderness context). I'd say be sure to have good, usable random encounter tables in there for sandbox usage (at least as extensive as OD&D Vol-3, say).

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  32. This doesn't answer the most important question: is it compatible with the world of the video game?

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  33. Geoff,
    If you need a new cover, call me.

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  34. It might not have Christianity in it, but surely it would be easy enough to put it back in? Or if it isn't easy to put it back in, then presumably they were right to take it out.

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  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  36. Daniel:
    "A Christian Hell without Christianity is a hot mess: it is like Ragnarok without Loki and Odin: i.e. plain stupid."

    The D&D world could be said to be the Lord of the Rings without Chrstianity crossed with the world of Conan without atheism.

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  37. My original D&D campaign was monotheistic. Although the church was focused on individual saints (rather catholic of me, I know), so the entire cleric character class were members of the Order of Mitra (aka Mitra's Fists). [Which eventually became the tail that wagged the dog.] In other words your typical village priest wasn't a cleric at all.

    It wasn't Christian. More akin to the Invisible God worshipped by the Westerners in Glorantha. Focus was on order/civilization and being anti-evil. [However it was a game where nobody knew what lay beyond death's gate (even the summoned dead couldn't speak of it - or gave contradictory answers), and where there was no visiting other planes). And this allowed it to not be the only religion as well - just the one that eventually took over the game world before collapsing in schism.

    Similarly another campaign had a more active monotheistic deity in the Goddess (she who is without beginning and end), which borrowed a more Orthodox Christian iconography (except with a ring rather than a cross and the fact that women were priests and men could only be temple servants.

    It's all very natural.

    What irritates me immensely, and this is particularly true of most D&D-style religions, is that people usually set up a competing pantheon of deities (usually based on alignment) and then the players are expected to
    worship one member of this pantheon monotheistically. Instead of the more historic response of worshipping all equally (even propriating the bad ones), and then asking specific favours of the appropriate deity when you need something. Such as making a special gift to Neptune before making a sea journey. Or perhaps raise a shrine to Eileithyia if your wife was expected to undergo a difficult childbirth. Very few campaigns will do this, and I find this particularly lacking.

    In most D&D games, if you were not a worshipper of Neptune this would be considered heresy - something which is so innately judeo-christian-monotheistic that it's not funny.

    So the problem I see is that most fantasy campaigns are inherently monotheistic - just with lots of little competing monotheisms.

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  38. Zak: I have a great cover already for the new Inferno. Its the interior art I lack. If you (or anybody) can help with that please contact us at spellbookgames@gmail.com.

    Delta: Thanks for buying Inferno 1980! You will probably like our Gazatteer, it is perfect for sandbox play in Hell. The Pit of Malebolge (Inferno) is about 380 miles across and 1 mile deep; we are mapping it in hexes between 1 and 3 miles/hex, starting at the center and working outward. The first installment will be circles 7 (Desert of Fire) through 9 (Frozen Cocytus). Each circle has keyed areas similar to the old JG wilderlands maps (circle 6 is done in 4 maps for a combined 300 keyed areas, at 2-10 lines per location). A post on our forum has location examples. Random encounter tables are provided for each individual circle.

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  39. That's great, thanks again, Geoff.

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