Monster Manual II was my least favourite AD&D book, and I’m going to tell you why. But first, let me say this: I read it all over again on May 8-9, from cover to cover, and I noticed things that the teenage me didn’t see at all. Monster Manual II could very well have been given a different title, like Monster Manual of the Planes. This volume is a bold attempt at “Universe Building”. Gygax endeavoured to tie up many loose ends in his AD&D multiverse, and paint a clearer picture of the Nine Hells, Gehenna, Tarterus, Nirvana, and a few other planes.
When I was fifteen, one of my regular players contemplated DMing his first game, so he went and bought himself his own Dungeon Masters Guide. Having saved some more scratch he wanted to go and get monster manuals, and I remember telling him this word for word: “You still have access to my copies of Tsojcanth and Barrier Peaks so you don’t need Monster Manual II.” Passive aggressive, indeed; I guess I was a grognard already in ’85 and despised anything published after ’82 – hilarious! But there’s truth in there, isn’t it? MMII was nothing more than the S3 and S4 monsters bundled up alongside loads of crap like the Cat Lord, modrons, more useless dinosaurs, and almost 30 pages of lists and indexes. I myself rarely used this book and stuck to Monster Manual I and Fiend Folio and the S4 booklet.
But let’s get back to that Monster Manual of the Planes. Amidst all of those para-elementals, quasi-elementals, grue elementals, time elementals, magmen, and azers, some planes still come out on top. Gehenna and Nirvana are the big winners here, with Hell a close third. All three receive lots of coverage and development both political and sociological. Getting to know the natives of more Outer Planes is very nice. Some of these planes are still unpopulated as of yet; people die and end up there, sure enough, but nobody is born there, like the modrons are born in Nirvana or the slaadi in Limbo. We kinda know Olympus because of Greek mythology, and we have a pretty good idea of Gladsheim because of Norse mythology. But what’s really going on in those Happy Hunting Grounds?
Universe Building is a gigantic undertaking, it goes without saying.
Gehenna is a slope. Pandemonium is a tube. I too took lots of acid in the late eighties, and I saw my fair share of slopes and tubes also.
Slope or no slope, there are still thirteen habitable layers between Gehenna and Tarterus, and just two worthy rulers to fight over them. Anthraxus and Hades have lots of room to maneuver, if they ever decide to go at it.
Even the Abyss doesn’t seem crowded at all: Demogorgon and Orcus both rule several layers. With 666 of ‘em and only two dozen major demons, there’s vacancy somewhere, without a doubt.
But the Nine Hells are another story entirely: fifteen major gods or arch-devils crammed into just nine layers. These are the nine arch-devils plus the gods Set (Egypt), Druaga (Babylon), Hecate (Greece), Inanna (Sumer), Gruumsh (Orcs), and Maglubiyet (Goblins). In theory, each of these badasses command 60% of one layer. It’s packed all right, that’s for sure: Hell is literally hell – duh –, but it is hell figuratively also.
Real estate ought to be a bitch. Imagine Hutijin putting his palace up for sale, and all the other dukes of Hell and Inquisitors and Provosts trying to outsmart each other and buy the place...
Monster Manual II also introduces the “consorts”, the girlfriends of these squabbling arch-devils. Believe it or not, Asmodeus and Baalzebul are sharing a woman! I hope this Bensozia is twelve feet tall, but she certainly is one lucky she-devil, and I suppose she’s still trying to have a threesome – alas, Asmodeus is afraid to see Baalzebul’s junk.
Mephistopheles is with the classy Baalphegor. Moloch is with Lilith. Geryon is with Cozbi. Belial is with the gorgeous Naome. Dispater is with Lilis. Mammon is with sweet Glasya, daughter of Asmodeus (and Bensozia?) – or maybe not the daughter of Asmodeus at all – but how a fatso like Mammon scores a beaut such as Glasya is beyond me.
But what really broke my heart is this: Tiamat alone is without a consort! What the hell, Gary! She’s got the worst layer – the first layer, where all the damn interlopers and astral squatters come, and where most of the stench kows graze and poop, and she has to rule that dump without getting laid? Jeez, man, can’t you throw the lady a bone?
And you, Bahamut – yes, you! Come on, big doofus! You’re single too, aren’t you? Tiamat is evil, and you’re good, but who cares? The two of you could be great friends with benefits – just don’t talk politics when you get together...
What sort of adventures or quests happen in Nirvana? What secret dungeons or plots can there be? If you sneeze somewhere, Primus knows it instantly... If you’re lucky enough to locate even one monster hidden in a very remote hole far away in a sector of Nirvana governed by the laziest octon, as soon as it (the monster) awakens, Primus will know about it and send in an elite unit of pentadrones.
Three Indian deities also live in Nirvana: Varuna, Yama, and Rudra. They probably make fun of the monodrones in secret – but still, if they fart, Primus knows it...
The Chinese god Shang-Ti is head of the Celestial Bureaucracy; Nirvana is a perfect home for him, too.
But Horus, son of Osiris? What’s he doing over there?
The oinodaemon rules all of the Middle Lower Planes – so Tarterus, Hades, and Gehenna? Do Hades himself bow to Anthraxus the Decayed? And what about the shator nobility of Tarterus, are they plotting with this Bubonis guy to overthrow Anthraxus? I can picture a sick campaign there, easy!
Last Words on Universe Building
This is a short dialogue between Gary Gygax and Jeff Grubb. The exchange could have happened when Monster Manual II was almost finished and ready to go to print:
Jeff Grubb: “What’s next? Time Plane?”
Gary Gygax: “No way! After Nirvana, I’m drained. The Time Plane will be one vague paragraph and that’s it. I’ll mention that there are some ‘royal’ time elementals and also ‘other creatures’... Fuck me, why didn’t I stick to just Greyhawk?”