The Thousand Hells

WW 2902 $17.95 May-99
Written by Kraig Blackwelder, Tim Clancy, Geoffrey C. Grabowski, and Lindsay Woodcock, with Jack Norris and Richard E. Dansky

Review by Derek Guder (21 Jun 1999)

Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

Kindred of the East is that split-off line of Vampire: the Masquerade that just seems like it can do no wrong. Great writing and ideas and wonderful production value and art, the line draws even those fed up with what they see as the stifling angst of main-stream Vampire. The Thousand Hells is certainly no exception. The book reminds me of everything I loved about the evil TSR's beautiful and lamentably crippled Planescape game. This is how Umbra: the Velvet Shadow and The Book of Worlds should have made me feel. The latter came close, but only The Thousand Hells gave me butterflies in my stomach while I read it.

You would think a sourcebook about Hell would have been short and overpowering, but such is not the case. From the beautiful writing style that keeps the text flowing (and can be seen in even stronger force in Wraith: the Great War, many of the authors worked on both projects) to the often inspired artwork of Mike Danza and Guy Davis (Melissa Uran does quite nice work, but while her anime-styled work brings atmosphere, it doesn't carry the same force as Davis'), The Thousand Hells rings when you read it.

The opening story, Descent of a Soul: a Cautionary Tale, was refreshingly short and really surprisingly powerful. It really emphasizes the tainting mood that the Yomi World is supposed to bring to bear.

The Tapestry of Yomi is the first chapter, and it details the history and evolution of the Yomi World and the Yama Kings, rulers of hell. It talks about the fall from Heaven's mandate and the rebellion of the Yama Kings and about the August Personage of Jade's apparent lack of concern about them. The history is very good, and the overall layout of the hells comes through. A description of both the Scarlet Path and the Ebon Road, the Yang and Yin routes into the Yomi are included, and both are interesting enough to spawn chronicles in their own right. Rereading the section now for this review, I am reminded at just how dense much of the text is. I missed a great deal of inspiring detail on the first read through.

The next chapter, The Map of Damnation: Geography, talks about a few of the thousand hells, as well as the hells in general. Giving descriptions of landscape and denizens, the brief sections inspire trainloads of thought and ideas, in much the same way as the best parts of Plansecape and The Book of Worlds do. Kakuri,, the Night Realm; Lanka, Demon City of Rakshasas; The Hell of Being Skinned Alive; The Wiked City; The Hell of Boiling Oil; The Hell of Burrowing Maggots; The Pit of Salt and Iron; The Hell of Seven Burning Seas; The Hell of Upside-Down Sinners: all are given brief and inspiring synopsis. I was filled with ideas reading these passages. The constant urge to include it all in the games I run had to be fought, it was just too good. As examples of other hells, Puelekos, The Hell of Eternal Castration, The Hell of Those Who Sell Their Children, The Feverish Hell of Tou Shen, and The Hell of Being Cut to Pieces are given one-sentence mentions. This section of the book, more than any other, made me want to run a Kindred of the East or other Asian World of Darkness game, just so I could transport the party to the Yomi World. The Hells reminded me of the surreal and sheer possibility-laden realms in the previously-mentioned Planescape and The Book of Worlds. The Yomi World, however, can retain its awe and splendor much better, I think, because of its essential sparing nature. Most chronicles using the Yomi will feature a trip to hell as the climax of the game, not filler.

The third chapter is about the Yama Kings itself, and it is one of the best dealings with such unimaginably powerful beings that White Wolf has put to print yet. The Yama Kings are given dimension and personality, as well as history. They retain the mystery despite being well known and almost easily accessible. The only problem I had with the section was there frequent references to other beings and events, many of which I didn't recognize, despite having read nearly all other Year of the Lotus releases. I admit that many Asian names can be difficult to remember, but there were mentions to events or catastrophes that were not expanded upon, whether intentionally or not. What happened during Ravana's down-fall? Who was Shua-yar Han and what did that Yama King do? What realm did Pika Don rule? Questions like that plagued me while I read it, and they were distracting. The chapter is still excellent, however, especially Emma-O and Haha no Fukami, in my opinion. The writers did an excellent job giving peeks into the Yama King's psyches. The short discussion on the Akuma seemed almost out of place, considering the Appendix dedicated to them.

The next chapter is all about how to use the Yomi. How to get there and how to run a game involving it, as well as what things to consider when creating a realm or a Yama King. I was very glad that no point system was involved, as with organizations in The Quick and the Dead and chantries in The Book of Chantries. Instead, guidelines and considerations are mentioned, and it works much, much better.

Systems of Yomi deals with just that, the systems governing surviving and traveling in the Yomi. From rules on Chi to rules on how Disciplines are affected (including many Kin-jin Disciplines), the chapter covers most of That Which Must Be Known. For the most part, I was very pleased with this section. It really emphasizes the tainting nature of hell. Going in and coming out is not a simple Sunday drive, by any stretch. Those who enter are often marked in a very spiritual manner. In addition, the chapter also looks at what is needed to escape from hell (even for the souls rightfully there) as well as some of the Yama Kings' servitor. Once again there is an odd and brief mention of the Akuma, seemingly out of place.

Finally, there is an appendix dealing with the Akuma, describing how to become one and what happens after that. Very, very thematic and "moody," the Appendix is quite well-done, if I don't entirely like the system for investments given. The discussion on the various forms of deals made with hell is excellent and provides for more role-playing than it might in the West. In addition, the infamous Akuma described were quite interesting. Unfortunately, the Appendix shows one of the major problems with The Thousand Hells, being a Kindred of the East book, it deals almost exclusively with the Kuei-jin, almost ignoring the hsien and hengeyokai, something I find very regrettable. Also, the apparent misprint in Land of Eight Million Dreams is continued here, calling those Yomi-aligned hsien Okuma, which is the name of the extinct Asian Gurahl. Some more information on the shifter servants and the Kura Sou would have been very useful.

Overall this book is excellent and a sign of the quality of product that White Wolf can put out. This is definitely a must-have for those with any interest or need for spirit worlds or any kind. Hell, those who just like art should buy this, Guy Davis' work is so frustratingly good - frustrating because my walls are not plastered with his work. He really managed to grasp the essential nature of the Yomi in his full-page panels. The pseudo-story that develops along them had me flipping back and forth when I should have been reading the book, the art was that good. That is exactly how I envisioned hell, and it made me think back to the images that floated in my head when I read Planescape or the World of Darkness spiritual worlds or much of Wraith: the Oblivion.

Yet another superb book for the Kindred of the East line, The Thousand Hells surpasses its predecessors in quality and inspiration.