(5e) Hell Prisons

By Filip Gruszczynski
Self Published
Level 5

Welcome to an infernal dungeon run by fiends! The devils are trying to tip the scales of the Blood War by establishing soul conversion facilities. These terrifying prisons are used to torment souls with an intention of creating more powerful devils and filling the battlegrounds of Avernus with powerful soldiers. Only brave adventurers can disrupt this horrifying scheme.

This 24 page adventure describes a three level dungeon, in hell, that is a prison run by devils. It has a nicely bureaucratic take on ell, and its devils, which adds a delightful aspect to the adventure. The map is simplistic, the read-aloud longish and the DM text could be formatted much better, to the point my eyes kind of glaze over. But, great room concepts!

Is there anything more conforming to our modern souls than seeing the concepts of of our lives exaggerated, just a bit, and then having the phase “it’s actually Hell. No, literally, it is Hell”: added to it? There’s a fine fine line here. You want to make Hell bureaucratic, and depict the Lawful evil nature of the devils and their corruption, but you don’t want to go all the way in to farce, depicting an actual DMV, for example. You’re taking the movie Brazil and then setting it in Hell. The scenes must be recognizable, approaching farce but not quite reaching that line. 

This adventure does that, and that’s what I mean by “Great Room Concepts.” It’s taking things we recognize of bureaucracy and power and just pushing it a little bit more, and adding Devils and Hell to it. The Devils, this being a prison, have a commissary. Plus, you know, this is Lord Mammon, greedy boy that he is, looking for some extra lucre. But no one figured that the prisoners would have nothing to buy with, so a bored devil sits behind the counter. Or, a torture device workshop, Mammon,getting the loewest price contractors to work on it, some slave Duergar … who ar enote particularly interested in attacking the party … unless there are dwarves present, of course. The devils in the barracks could not really care less about the party, being off duty at the time. There’s also an element of bribery involved with the devils … they always being willing to make a deal, well, generally, as long as its in their favor. You recognize this shit from your job. You recognize it from trying to get customer service from some megacorp, or dealing with some government bureaucracy.  It’s familiar, and therefore fun, with not pushed to the level of farce. Or, maybe not to level of a literal DMV in Hell anyway. This is a Hell, maybe the first one I’ve ever seen, that I can really get behind and see having fun running. The devils are their own worst enemies, or at least their LE nature is anyway. LE Hell finally makes sense. You can imagine an exasperated Cobra Commander …errr … Megatron … errr … Asmodeus, wondering why he just can’t get anything done. (Fun Bryce Fact, I own four action figures. Johnny Cage, who is not afraid to die, a giant Starscream, cause he’s the best, a giant Cobra Commander, cause he deserves better, and a giant Grand Moff Tarkin, cause he hold Vaders fucking leash. Yeah hierarchy!)

This is, though, the end of my compliments.

Read-aloud tends to be long, six or seven lines, and fall in to the common trap of over explaining. In the aforementioned Torture’s Workshop you see hunched silhouette gathere in the middle of the room loudly discussing a new contraction … and iron chair by the look of it. TMI! TMI! This destroys the ability of the characters to ask “what are they looking at?” Preceding the part I quoted is a pretty exhaustive list of things in the room, parts mostly, again, just adding words without depth. You want your read-aloud to be evocative but not to destroy the interactivity of the room, the back and forth.

DM text is then likewise long. Again, the torturers room, we get the backstory of the outsourcing vs unskilled labor thing Mammon has going on. That’s fun, but not really relevant to the actual play. (An aside or two like this during the adventure, for the DM, is ok; I’m not a total killjoy.) But, what’s missing, is WHAT they are talking about with the chair. Just replacing the Mammon stuff with a line about “Yes, but can we get the blood sausages any cheaper?” or some such would have added a lot and given the DM something to spring board from when the party asks “what are they talking about?” Better formatting, in general, separating the mechanics from the excellent fluff, could also be in order. It kind of runs together frequently and distracts. 

The map is simple, just a circle with rooms hanging off of it for each of the three levels. No real exploration. And there’s no real key. The rooms are “Bedroom” or “Barracks.” Please put in numbers. It’s almost always the right thing to do, a traditional key, in a dungeon like this. Some rooms have quite the screams coming from them, or steam pouring out. This is SOMETIMES noted in the section before the read-aloud, sometimes not, but it would also have been nice to note it on the map, letting the party know whet they see/hear/etc BEFORE, while looking/listening down the hallway. I always appreciate map queues to the DM.

The prisoners also tend to be generic. “Humanoids” appear a lot, without anything else. There is one small table of prisoners, but without personalities, just “warforged cleric of Bob” or some such. One page of good NPC prisoners would have gone a long way. Likewise, there are three examples of deals the devils will make, but a little table, or morse guidance here, would have gone a long way. It’s also doing this thing where “roll three times on the DMG table to see what magic items are for sale …” No. Just no. Put the magic item in the adventure. Just do the work ahead of time for us. It’s ok. We appreciate it. And, of course, there’s no level range on the cover or in the product description. Bad publisher! No “Regerts” for you!

A nice idea, but it needed more work to bring the ideas home in a gameable way. But, it knows what to do with the concepts, and that’s a far sight more than most genero plot adventures.

This is $2 at DMsGuild. The preview is three pages and all three show dungeon rooms. Yeah! You can see the sample NPC table, the expansive read-aloud, and messy DM text. Good preview.


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11 Responses to (5e) Hell Prisons

  1. You’ll never believe it, but my favorite Transformer is Starscream; favorite G.I. Joe is Cobra Commander. The voice has something to do with it. Not sure who Johnny Cage is.

  2. Thanks a lot for the detailed feedback, it’s great to get ideas how to improve!

    NPCs, Magic Items, Devils deals – Great points, I will think how to expand these sections.

    Boxed texts – I follow the approach outlined in: https://www.dndbeyond.com/posts/625-lets-design-an-adventure-boxed-text
    This is a feature that appears to be fairly well set in the D&D 5E and it was my belief that a lot of people running D&D 5E modules expect this. I am personally not a fan of boxed texts, as I don’t like reading stuff aloud. Natural conversation seems like more engaging to the players.

    Ideally, the module would support both approaches. What do you think about having a gaming aid at the end of the module that has a “room at a glance” information? A few evocative keywords, important information, monsters, traps, treasure. No fluff. Do you think that would be useful?

    Separately, I will also review boxed texts and see if I can edit it to reduce the wordiness.

    Map key – Can you elaborate a little how map key should look like? Maybe I can look at an existing module with what you think is a good approach? The rooms are not tied to the map, because I wanted to make it a toolbox for creating your own prison. Perhaps I should’ve made it more into a singular dungeon, rather than trying to make it a framework?

    Thanks again for reviewing, I very much appreciate information about what can be improved.

    • Dave says:

      Bryce has ranted about this before, but doesn’t spell it all out again in this review. You get 2-3 sentences of read-aloud before players tune out. So best practice is to stay within that length, while leaving something hanging for players to ask about. Then a back-and-forth that keeps the players engaged emerges when you answer their further questions about a room or scene.

      This observation comes originally from WotC. They watched some tables at a con and came to that conclusion. It’s disappointing they haven’t kept that knowledge alive themselves. The example you link, at four wordy sentences, is already too long.

      It’s good to see you’re in there swinging though. I like the adventure idea, and for Bryce to praise the room concepts actually means a lot. He’s a tough audience.

      • gruszczy says:

        Thanks a lot, Dave! 2-3 sentences – that makes sense, I will see if I can trim it closer to that.

        • Beoric says:

          Its not just about using fewer words, its about using better words. Choosing words where the connotation of the word adds meaning to the text. “Looming” rather than “large”, for instance.

          Also, choosing to describe the things that will get the players asking questions, so that information is conveyed by PC investigation (ie. active player-DM interaction) rather than by DM monologue. What top level clues (the first hint that gets smart players asking questions) do the players need immediately about the dangers that the situation presents, or what elements are present that are there for the PCs to investigate?

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Dave has done a good job here, but I just wanted to say … Holy Shit! That WOTC article is a good one! Shawn still writes a shitty boxed text, but the advice is good.

      I’ll offer more specific feedback on the boxed text tomorrow … I hope.

  3. Hi Filip

    I just purchased the Hell Prison from DMG and I would like to know if you have the maps available for donwload. Thank you

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