Demons lords are, to be blunt, gods you can punch. They’re top-tier monsters whose tendrils work their way into every part of a campaign. They’re impossibly strong, able to pervert the environment around them for miles just by existing. They’re nearly immortal, with lives long enough to have influenced centuries of history and texts, prompting myriad cultists to huddle in darkened caves and basements appealing to them for power. They’re capstones, the perfect way to end long-running campaigns with a satisfying villain whose shadow has loomed large over the story since the first minute. All stories are about conflict, and conflict with a demon lord guarantees an epic story.
Or, at least, that’s how they’re advertised. It’s a shame they rarely have the impact the designers clearly intended. For the most part they don’t affect a story, working only through cultists as loosely connected to the lord itself as a temp worker is to a CEO. They squabble among themselves in ways the PCs barely get to understand, much less experience. Their goals are all remarkably similar, usually some version of “destroy this thing I don’t like”, and a laymen could be forgiven for failing to tell them apart. They’re the literal Orcus on his throne, doing as little as possible until the campaign meanders its way into conflict with them.
This shouldn’t be the case. A demon lord should be a perfect villain, always felt if rarely present. It should have something that distinguishes itself from similar creatures. It should be able to affect the story or the PCs, and the PCs should be able to meaningfully challenge its plans before their levels begin with a two. Demons lords are real, statted-out creatures in D&D, and we can’t pretend they’re vague, mutable concepts we can bend to fit a campaign. Instead we have to approach them differently, really look at their strategies, and give them something to make them fun antagonists at all levels instead of just the scary picture on the front of the official published adventure.
Throughout March, we’re going to go through the demon lords D&D has to offer. We’ll describe them briefly, enough to cover who they are and what they do, and we’ll find ways to tie them to different types of campaigns with example plots and signature monsters. Our goal is to present them as recurring threats without relying on the same tired tropes or adventures over and over again. “Cultists are doing a bad thing” can only take a campaign so far, especially in a system where “cultist” is a specific CR 1/8 creature. By expanding the scope of a demon lord’s followers to more exotic people and creatures, and by looking at stories that leverage its powers or influence without its physical presence, we can use it as it should be used: as a consistent, invasive threat to existence.
But to really get into what makes demon lords special, we’re not going to limit ourselves to 5th Edition. We’re going to reach back into the vault, pulling forgotten or outdated creatures and concepts from previous editions to supplement their abilities. Each transition between editions removes material from the game by necessity, and that includes a lot of tools that give even veteran D&D players pause. Demon lords are supposed to be ancient, clever, and very powerful. They shouldn’t be stuck with the same limitations your average dragon or overlord has. We’ll give each demon lord at least one unique follower or power, something you can apply to your campaigns at multiple levels so you can introduce it no matter where you are.
And while we’re in the vault, I should point out that several demon lords didn’t make the cut for 5E. Foreshadowing.