"Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse."
(Dr. Weir, Event Horizon)
In the article Welcome to Hell I tried to review some ideas and concepts that should be taken into consideration when you sit down to design the netherworld of your campaign setting. In this follow-up article I'll try to present some ideas about the eternal punishment the damned must endure.
The classic Hell taken from our collective memory is a place where sinners are burned by brimstone and fire, but even our own hell is all about eternal suffering, we shouldn't suffice in such an unimaginative description. Even in the myths of our own world, hell is usually a mirror image of the collective fears of the culture that created it - the hell of a Nordic culture would be a cold icy wasteland where the damned cannot warm up, whereas the hell fashioned in a desert dwelling civilization would probably consist of endless planes of dry sand where furious winds crack the lips that will never feel a drop of water again.
But eternal suffering does not have to consist of physical pain or lack of comfort. Hell could be no more than an exact copy of our world, but without the touch of the benevolent god, and from which no redemption is possible. Such a hell may sound somewhat dumb to some, but for a devoted believer the punishment of eternal life removed from god's grace, with no chance for salvation could be a fate worse than death.
If we go back to the concept of eternal pain and take it apart, we'll find out that it addresses only one sense - touch. But why limit ourselves? Overloading other senses could produce interesting ideas for alternative hells, from a world where ever blowing winds deafen your ears and drive you mad like in the plane of Pandemonium, to a world full of grotesque imagery and overly bright colors, like an episode of Pokémon gone out of control.
On the other hand, you could always use the opposite side of the scale. Try imagining a world of total sensory depravation. A world as dark as the darkest night, and as quiet as a grave. A world where the air is always dry and scentless, and no wind ever blows. A world where you would float endlessly in space, without anything ever touching you, just so you could tell that you're still alive. Hell? Indeed.
And still, there's a limit to the amount of suffering the senses can inflict. To achieve a truly horrendous hell, we must venture beyond the senses, to the consciousness. You could, for instance, design your hell as an endless series of tests and challenges, with each one harder than last, and redemption supposedly waiting at the end. How long can the sinners keep this up, before they understand that after each challenge there is nothing waiting for them but a tougher challenge? When will they understand that there is no trophy waiting for them at the end?
An even crueler version of this concept is to occupy the damned souls in a completely useless, and yet, impossible to complete, task. The obvious example for this type of punishment would be Sisyphus from Greek mythology who was doomed to roll a bolder up a steep mountain, only to have it roll down the other side each time he reached the top. This is the origin of the term Sisyphean Task.
Up until now, we've discussed collective hells, which torture those doomed to live in them with harsh conditions, but ignore the personal sins of each damned soul. The other option is a custom made hell, where each sinner is punished according to his sins. Such a hell would require a fair amount of extra work from you, the GM, but could provide a sense of innovation to your hell, and make it more interesting for your players.
As a side note, even it collective hells it is not uncommon to find slightly different punishments for different sinners, but here the match is not between the sin and the punishment itself, but rather between the sin and the severity of the punishment. For example, in the classic hell where sinners are submersed in a pit of boiling sulfur, a sinner with a speeding ticket would be dipped up to his ankles, a bank robber up to his waist, a GM who ran a poor game at a convention up to his eyeballs and whoever was involved in the making of the D&D Movie would be completely covered in boiling sulfur.
The simplest way to punish sinner is, as noted, to somehow match the punishment to their crime, for instance, by exaggerating the sin he was guilty of when he was still alive. The GM must handle this with a fair amount of creativity, not to mention wickedness. A bully, for instance, would be punished physically somehow, whereas a gluttonous sinner could be punished with an insatiable hunger for mud, without a shred of a liking for the taste. I'll leave figuring out a punishment for an adulterer to your imagination.
A more innovative way of punishing a sinner is allowing his own mind to do the dirty work for you, and just helping it slightly. The conventional way of doing this is making the sinner relive painful events, either physically or emotionally, from his past. For sinners who aren't completely immoral, perhaps a better way would be to make them relive the sins of their past over and over again, until they cannot bare to witness the monsters they have become.
In addition, instead of constantly recreating the past, hell could also employ the future for its purposes. For instance, the sinner could be shown images of his friends and family, and how better their lives have become now that he is dead. An even nastier version of this trick is the hell of missed opportunities, where the sinner is sentenced to forever see what could have been had he made the right choices when he was alive, and what he had lost by making the wrong ones.
This article first appeared in issue #25 of The Orc.