Demons. A word synonymous with dread, death and evil. In all forms of fiction and media they are a menace to life, seeking to kill and corrupt at every turn. It should go without saying then that in Dungeons and Dragons they live up to that title with enthusiasm. Born of the Abyss, a dreadful spiraling universe of infinitely deepening layers as twisted as its inhabitants, demons are unerringly evil and chaotic in nature. Mostly simplistic creatures, they desire one thing and one thing alone: the destruction of all other life. Their numbers are infinite, as is their bloodlust, and they are such a threat to existence that angels and devils (Lawful Evil fiends) have actually worked together in the past to combat them. In an endless war known as ‘The Blood War’, demons and devils battle one another with neither side ever gaining a definitive advantage. Demons killed in battle reform again in the abyss and combined with their endless numbers, defeating them ends up seeming a fruitless struggle. The only way to permanently kill a demon is to slay them in the abyss, but as one could imagine that is no easy task.
Such a destructive, diverse and deadly foe would make for a perfect enemy in your DnD campaign, however I urge you to avoid turning them into a simple monster or weak foe. While you can certainly drop a demon or two into a campaign they are unconnected too (after all cultists love to summon them), you do both them and yourself a disservice by not building an entire campaign around them. In 2021, a massively successful RPG, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous (which is a game I highly recommend), hit the stores of Steam. Based on the Pathfinder module (premade campaign) it was named after, it was a campaign centered around demons and is an excellent example of just how effective of an enemy they can prove to be when properly nurtured into the menacing creatures they truly are. While their nature is simplistic, their individual tastes, methods and ideals can be quite varied. You just have to know how to use them.
To help understand how to utilize Demons, we’ll be putting them into three categories: Brutes, Masterminds and Fodder. Fodder demons will make up the bulk of the demon forces, but that doesn’t mean they’re all weak. They are simply the soldiers that the party will see the most and many are quite dangerous in their own right. Brutes are the elite warriors, the menaces of the battlefield capable of breaking through hordes of troops single-handedly. They tend to be higher CR (challenge rating) and often lead packs of Fodder in battle. Lastly, Masterminds are the manipulators, the schemers, the planners and often the ones behind all the atrocities. Where Brutes tend to be physical powerhouses in battle, Masterminds often have potent magical, esoteric, social and subtle powers that make them just as deadly of foes. We’ll break down some examples of each foe and how to utilize them best. Note that there are a vast number of demons, so I will not be covering all in each category, simply giving you some examples to help you then understand where the others may fit into. Also note that we’ll be discussing demons from 5e, although the advice given can easily apply to other systems.
We will begin with Fodder, the type of enemy the players will interact with the most (at least knowingly). The cornerstone Fodder enemy is a Mane (CR ⅛). The results of chaotic evil souls dying and being sent to the Abyss, they are ugly, feral and covetous. Lacking any form of intelligence and having no sense of self-preservation, they are the perfect force to send at settlements for they will fight until they die and are incapable of fear or retreat. Their numbers are vast and while even a town guard may be able to defeat one, they often outnumber their foes 5-1. As a DM, they have two major roles they play: to show the savagery of the Demons and to let the players feel heroic. Their relentless nature means they will kill every non-demon in there path, women and children included. In a demon-centric campaign, they allow the players to feel heroic early on in their careers as they start out battling demons. Additionally, not much feels more badass for a party than to carve through an army of foes, so they can still be useful as the game progresses.
A small step above the Mane in strength but not necessarily in threat is the Dretch (Cr ¼). The Dretch is the lowest tier of natural Demons and their pathetic personality reflects that. They are self-loathing creatures, discontent with their life but incapable of elevating their station above that of a lowly peon. When not being sacrificed by higher Demons or being ordered around, they spend their time arguing amongst themselves and lamenting their lives. In combat, they use their naturally sharp claws and fangs accompanied by a horrifically grotesque stench to swarm and overwhelm their foes. While they are stronger than Mane’s, their weak mentality can often lead to complications when using them in battle. Unlike other Fodder, they are cowardly creatures that have a sense of self-preservation that can overcome their orders in times of crisis. This weakness is typically offset by the presence of a stronger Demon, whom their fear of punishment will motivate them to battle until death. Don’t let their cowardice fool you, they are still Demons that have no qualms eviscerating children and resort to distasteful tactics to win. Their roles in the story are similar to that of the Mane, however their horrific stench makes them dangerous even to high level players. Additionally, their cowardice can encourage players to find ways to break their morale and end the combat in creative ways.
Next on the chopping block are Maw Demons (CR 1). Their bodies are little more than giant mouths with claws and legs that devour everything in their path. Immune to feelings of fear and cursed with eternal hunger, they will never stop eating as long as they live and enter a frenzy upon killing. Favored by the Demon Lord of Destruction, Yeenoghu (CR 24), they were often summoned by Gnolls that worshiped him. Though small, Maw Demons are capable of devouring horse-sized meals in less than a minute. All food they eat is transported directly into the gullets of Demon Lords when they rest, leading to their permanently insatiable appetite. They are less numerous than the weaker Fodder Demons, but they more than make up for that with their much greater lethality. As a DM, they are great tools to showcase the utter brutality of Demons, as they chew through the flailing limbs of their defenseless victims. In my experience, it’s best to use them after the party has defeated a few groups of lesser Demons to really escalate the danger and to unleash them in the center of a heavily populated area like a town square. Their hunger and lack of intelligence will lead to them attacking the nearest target and as they slaughter innocents it can really set a dark tone for the party as they try desperately to get the Demons to go after them instead of the innocent townsfolk.
Bulezau (CR 3) are goat-like Demons that embody bestial brutality and primal fury. Their emaciated and gangly bodies belied a supernatural strength, with powerful legs that afforded them both increased stability and the ability to suddenly pounce up to 20 feet away from a stationary position. Their arms were capable of wielding weapons larger than should be possible for their size, typically polearms, which they gleefully use in conjunction with their powerful legs to charge into battle suddenly and violently. When unarmed, they boast a barbed tail, powerful claws and ram-like horns. Quite literally disgusting and vile creatures, their filth-covered skin are covered in maggots and festering boils. They use this to their advantage as their mere presence is enough to infect others with rot and decay and their tails could infect others with this very rot. Viewing every activity outside of battle as an utter waste, they are constantly seeking foes and are prone to violence against other Demons. Arguments quickly turn into violence and they often kill more Dretches and Manes than even the invaders they were battling. As a DM, they have a uniquely interesting balance of power that you can use to great effect. Their abilities benefit from higher numbers and they are quite potent combatants, but as the numbers grow so too does their penchant for wanton violence. Like a ticking time-bomb, clever players can instigate total carnage by provoking them at the right time and causing them to attack both friend and foe alike.
Next we have the vulture-like Vrock (CR 6). Untrustworthy Demons motivated by greed, they are flying foes with an appetite for human flesh and carnage. They have an almost paradoxical level of synchronicity with other Vrock, greatly benefiting from teamwork, though this loyalty is flimsy and easily shattered by the promise of cheap jewels. Prone to abandoning jobs they view as non-profitable and joining up with new masters, they are a difficult group to trust. Though greedy, they are not foolish and bribing one rarely works, for they enjoy human screams and flesh just as much as they do gems. They saw no reason to accept deals when they could simply kill the bargainer, eat his flesh, and plunder the treasure anyways. They possess strange abilities in combat, capable of letting out a shriek so loud it physically hurts others, summoning other Vrocks to join them in battle, and casting magic. Additionally, their wings possess toxic spores that burrows into the skin of nearby enemies and eats away at it.
These are all terrifying in their own right, but their most infamous and deadly ability is their Dance of Ruin: when 3 or more Vrocks are gathered, they link talons and chant ancient invocations. After enough time passes, their screeches fill the air and crackling energy would eventually explode from them, destroying everything within several hundred feet. Worst of all, they often do this dance from high in the sky, making interrupting it a difficult task. Depending on the level of the players, they can dance between the roles of a Brute and Fodder and can make for an interesting mini-boss. In the early game this can promote a sense of growth in the party as they become capable of defeating groups of them later on. As a DM, their strange abilities can make them a difficult opponent to deal with individually and the threat of their dance makes them a high priority target, even as the party climbs in strength and deals with stronger foes. They make for an excellent captain of the early game forces the party deals with and can be resolved in numerous ways, promoting creative thinking from the players. They can be convinced their efforts are wasted here and made to join up with a different group, they can be bribed into leaving if proper precautions are taken, or they can simply be slain.
Hezrou (CR 8) are practically the capstones of the Fodder formula. They’re everything a Demon Lord could want out of Fodder. Strong, ruthless, easy to manipulate and incredibly stupid. They are often given command of groups of Dretches in order to make them feel more important and raise their morale and devotion. It’s exceedingly easy to convince or trick a Hezrou to die for the cause, convincing the Dretches they command to do the same in the process. Too stupid to realize their expendability and lacking the foresight to create complex plots for more power, they are content with what they are given. All these factors make them the perfect servant for greater Demons to do simple tasks for them.
In battle they are rather simple combatants, utilizing their horrific stench to distract their foes whilst they rush in with their claws and teeth to brutalize the closest target. Boasting tough hides that are resilient to a plethora of damage types and possessing resistance to magic, they are tenacious foes that are difficult to kill. They may act as a pseudo Brute if the party is unfortunate enough to run into one commanding Dretches early, but they lack the power and agency of a true Brute. Their savage fighting style can often intimidate enemy armies as they rip apart the limbs of soldiers and messily devour them or use their fallen enemies as weapons. Their lack of intelligence means they are too stupid to know when they are beat, always fight to the bitter end and are thus impossible to intimidate. This stupidity should be fully exploitable and I highly encourage you allow clever parties to outsmart and trick Hezrou into accidentally sabotaging the plans of their masters and/or providing openings in combat to exploit.
And… that’s a wrap! Honestly I’d love to cover Brutes and Masterminds here, but as you can see, there is a lot more to demons than meets the eye, and I don’t wish for this article to be too daunting to read. Today we covered the lore of Demons, the ‘Fodder’ of the Demon world and some of the reasons they make for a great enemy to build a campaign around. Next week we’ll discuss the elites of Demon kind, Brutes and Masterminds, discussing the intriguing elements that may not be obvious when dealing with Demons, and how to structure your plot to fit them without feeling oversaturated or redundant. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it, and until next time, stay hatey! (but don’t actually)