We Talked to James Ohlen About D&D Going All to Hell in ‘Chains of Asmodeus’
James Ohlen, lead designer of Baldur’s Gates 1 & 2 and Knights of the Old Republic, wants you to go right to hell. For the children.
If high school English class taught me anything, it’s that Hell is other people. And while Sartre might be right about the real world (just spend some time working any customer service job, you’ll see what he means); in D&D, Hell is actually nine different metaphysical planes of reality, each one ruled by an ever more powerful archdevil, inspired by a different book that you read in a different English class (possibly later, depending on how cool your teacher is).
And it’s this latter, Dante’s Inferno-inspired Hell that James Ohlen, lead designer of some of your favorite games, including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age: Origins, and of course the Baldur’s Gates and countless others at Bioware, wants you to go to. You know. For the kids.
Because one of the best new D&D books right now, Chains of Asmodeus, by Ohlen and author Adrian Tchaikovsky (not related to the Tchaikovsky you’re thinking of, but he did write the Children of Time and The Final Architecture series), will send you to all nine of D&D’s Dante Inferno-inspired Nine Hells. And going there might risk your character’s immortal soul, but it will benefit children because all proceeds of the book go to Extra Life.
The book came out not long ago, and it’s easily the belle of the ball at the moment. Chains of Asmodeus makes some big swings and even introduces a stat block for the biggest of D&D’s big bads, Asmodeus (well, sort of, he’s tricksy) as well as the rest of the Archdevil gang. In fact, this book is as much a campaign resource as it is a high-level adventure, and that’s exactly how Ohlen hopes you’ll use it.
At least, that’s what he said when we sat down to talk with him about the new book.
Interview With James Ohlen
As Ohlen tells it, the book began as a creative outlet that wouldn’t be tied to the often lengthy production calendars and timetables that come up when making video games. And he’d know, having not only helped define that BioWare magic, but also now heading up WotC’s Archetype Entertainment, which is hard at work on a video game set in a brand-new IP. But, as Ohlen says, “a book is easy.” Especially when you work for WotC.
But why the Nine Hells? As Ohlen puts it:
“I thought about what area hasn’t really been developed. There was Curse of Strahd and Wild Beyond the Witchlight, but there hadn’t been that Dante’s Inferno style adventure. Although it’s really Dante’s Inferno meets Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now.”
Don’t worry, we go into why it’s like that. But from the outset, Chains of Asmodeus was intended as a dual-purpose sourcebook.
“It’s a chance to see every level of hell. So you can run the adventure or make your own adventures in hell. We go all out: here’s every level. Here’s adventure areas that are even more detailed. Here are monsters you can use.”
Ohlen wanted to present a book that was as much a sourcebook as it was an adventure. And it’s true.
Chains of Asmodeus features not just the archdevil statblocks. But it also has three different group patrons. It details adventure areas that you can either flesh out or use as inspiration for your own ideas. And in true Arcanum Worlds style, it adds some mechanical benefits to joining up with a given group.
Ohlen takes some inspiration from the other D&D adventures and then makes it a little more meaty. You could be a Hellrider of Elturel, for instance, and get specific perks just for picking them as your group patron, which includes abilities like being affected by the Greater Restoration spell when resting in the Nine Hells, knowing Phantom Steed as a Ritual while there, knowing a ritual to rescue Celestials.
These are great additions to the game. You can play with them in your own campaign, without even needing the Nine Hells.
But you’ll definitely want a group patron for this adventure, because as Ohlen puts it: “Asmodeus is out to get you.”
Chains of Asmodeus – The Nine Hells in All Their Glory
Tackling the archdevil of archdevils is no small feat. But Ohlen expressed an undeniable belief in and enthusiasm for his team.
“I just have access to so much talent. The book was originally going to be much smaller. But I could draw on Drew Karpyshyn (Mass Effect), and the whole Art Department. And Adrian (Tchaikovsky) joined up just to write the Nine Hells stuff. Every level has an area I call the ‘Adrian zone’ and you’ll know it when you see it.”
According to Ohlen, any one of the ‘Adrian zones’ could be its own adventure. Which is what he hopes for, “I want DMs to find the tools for their sandbox.”
That sort of infectious excitement about other DMs as well as his team and D&D in general carries over through the rest of the book. We talked about being bitted by the miniatures bug hard when COVID hit and we all went into lockdown: “I had to do something not to go crazy,” said Ohlen, casually gesturing to a “small” (only about enough to fill a couple of cabinets) miniatures collection that he keeps “just in [his] office” with others secreted throughout the studio. All are fully painted, of course.
How he has the time for running D&D, making books like this one, and developing games is anyone’s guess. But, there’s a sort of unbridled joy in the book.
“We wanted to put in a Black Market where you could buy anything. Not anything, anything, we had sensitivity readers to make sure we didn’t cross any lines. But you can find some stuff in the Nine Hells. For a price.”
You might find magic items. Assassins for hire. Even forbidden delicacies like candied spider eyes or worse. And depending on the specific background you can pick, you might even have the opportunity to try and buy back your own soul.
Ohlen and his team created 18 specific backgrounds for this adventure. Each one of them gives you a very personal stake in the adventure. A very specific reason for going to the Nine Hells. This was, to help as Ohlen puts it, help deal with some of the biggest problems of writing High Level Content.
High-Level Play, High Risk, Higher Reward
When asked what the challenges of writing for high level, Ohlen spoke pretty frankly.
“There are a ton of challenges. Probably the biggest challenge is the spells. They change how everything works—the whole party is basically the Avengers. They’re just devastating, especially with experienced players.”
And players who have Avengers-level powers tend to want Avengers-level threats. Which is one of the big draws of working with every level of Hell.
“Once you hit 11th level, a smart party can handle almost anything you can throw at them. So we wrote this knowing that players are likely to have access to these powerful tools. We wanted to make it feel epic enough for high-level players”
The other big part of the challenge in writing high-level adventures comes from the party itself. Ohlen pointed out that with low-level adventures, especially the more popular ones that start at level 1 and go to wherever—you know exactly where the characters are beginning.
“At level one, even if you don’t know the classes, you know the party is coming together to do adventure things. And you can tell ’em, go here, explore this dungeon, save this person, and because they’re ‘new adventurers’ they’ll do it. But at high level, they could be almost anything.”
High-level players could be running kingdoms. Or guilds. They could have their own responsibilities that might make it weird for them to go running off on your adventure. Once you get past level 9 or so, there’s no real “common ground” for what an adventurer might be in the setting of whatever world you’re playing in.
But Ohlen’s game design background lends a certain strength to this kind of design. If you’ve played through Arcanum Worlds’ Odysseys of the Dragonlords you might have experienced it. Ohlen knows that players want to feel like the “Luke Skywalker or the Aragorn of their story.”
Which is why the backgrounds tie in so closely with the adventure. They don’t just give you a reason, they give you an objective. For instance, you could be a damned soul, whose great sin was Pride. And as a result, they have to find their soul, which is bound in a Phylactery, somewhere on Dis. But that’s only the beginning.
Getting your soul (or whatever your objective is), is step one. After that, you have to deal with Asmodeus.
The Devil is in the Details
Details like that drive the adventure. And make for a resource that is full of hellish details. There are new monsters to play with. Mostly devils. But some intriguing NPC statblocks as well. You’ll find new dragons. New monstrosities. And of course the Archdevils, who have powerful lair and regional effects that no DM will want to ignore.
Chains of Asmodeus is already a hit on DriveThruRPG and the DM’s Guild, where it’s one of the top new products. But, the book being out isn’t the end. Ohlen spoke tentatively about the future for Chains of Asmodeus, stating that, while there was no definite date yet, the team at Arcanum Worlds wants to figure out Print on Demand very badly. They know that people want to have copies of this gorgeous book on their shelves.
He also said that the team may have another surprise or two in store. But more than that, would be breaking his infernal contract. So we’ll just have to wait and see.