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.