What Tundale Saw in Hell
The Vision of Tundale is a 12th-century vision of Hell and purgatory reported by the Irish knight Tundale. Unlike in other visions of Hell, Tundale actually experiences many of Hell’s torments rather than simply witnessing them. Because Tundale isn’t just a spectator, his vision is better fodder for RPGs than, say, Dante’s Inferno. Much of what Tundale saw in Hell makes great encounters to add to your dungeons and extraplanar adventures. Let’s look at four.
Not long after arriving in Hell, Tundale encounters Acheron, a huge beast bigger than a mountain. Between its tusks, two giants stand like pillars, keeping the beast’s mouth open. Demons hover before Acheron’s flaming maw, shoveling in thousands of human souls. All those who were greedy in life must pass through Acheron’s belly. Tundale is no exception, and is devoured by the beast. In its stomach, Tundale “was beaten by evil spirits, his bones were gnawed at by hungry lions and his vital organs pulled out by dragons. Venomous snakes consumed his limbs. Fire burned him, then ice froze him. His tears stung his cheeks like fire. He was full of woe!”
At your table, having to pass through the belly of an enormous beast full of hungry lions, dragons, evil spirits, fire, and ice has the potential to be an awesome combination of puzzle (if you can figure out a way to get through unscathed) and combat (if you can’t).
Tundale later comes to a bridge that punishes thieves. It’s a handspan wide and two miles long, with iron and steel spikes set into it. The bridge spans a lake filled with hideous predators whose fiery breath boils the water around them. Thieves must cross the bridge barefoot and carrying their stolen loot. Here we learn that Tundale once stole a cow, so he has to lead a wild cow across the bridge while the monsters below thrash at the water, waiting for him to fall in. At the trickiest point, our ‘hero’ meets a soul coming the other way, groaning under the weight of a heavy sack of grain. The two men are certain they’re doomed, for there’s nowhere near enough room for either to pass. Fortunately, Tundale’s guardian angel whisks him away to dry land and heals Tundale’s ruined feet.
Having to cross a narrow, spike-studded bridge (perhaps even with a cow!) while someone else is coming from the other direction could be a delightfully cruel puzzle to throw at your party. If the PCs want to use safety ropes, they should be careful. The ropes might snag on the spikes, or even be sliced in half by them. (Note that if anyone in the party can fly, this puzzle is a lot less interesting)
Tundale soon comes to a frozen lake where unchaste monks and nuns are punished. A bird with black wings, red eyes, and iron claws and beak swallows these sinners whole. It roasts them briefly in a stomach like an oven, then shits them out on the ice. Once expelled, the monks and nuns discover they are pregnant with snakes and rats, which write and tear at the clerics’ insides. The verminous offspring claw and bite their way out of their parents’ body, each one emerging from a hole it had made “sparing neither flesh nor bones”. Then the vermin attack their parents with iron heads and barbed tails. And then the bird eats the clerics again.
Obviously, this is super gross. But it’s also a memorable fight! You probably want to make it so the bird is hard to kill, but has unimpressive claw/direct damage. On every turn, it tries to swallow a different PC. You can attack the bird from the inside while you’re taking damage for a round in its oven/stomach. And once you’re out, you can resume acting normally, except every round you take damage from your own children inside you, and eventually they burst out to join the fight!
Tundale’s guardian angel eventually permits him to flee Hell and temporarily visit purgatory. Here, the righteous rest in what’s almost-but-not-quite Paradise, as they wait for the Last Judgement, where they will be moved into heaven. Folks who were mostly decent lead mostly pleasant existences, but suffer temporary pain in penance for the sins they have yet to work off. One such sinner Tundale encounters is King Cormac MacCarthy of Ireland.
By the time Tundale meets him, King Cormac has already been purified of most of his sins. He only has two things left to do penance for. For twenty-one hours a day, he gets to hang out in a lovely palace with all his best friends. For three hours a day, he has to wear an itchy, painful hair shirt as penance for a particular murder, and he has his genitals set on fire as penance for having sex outside of his marriage.
Encountering an NPC modeled on King Cormac could be a really fun roleplaying encounter. Any good dungeon needs some NPCs to chat with (to break things up). Why not have King Cormac be serving his time somewhere in your dungeon? For twenty-one hours a day, he has a pretty relaxed ghost existence, and may help the PCs with local information if he thinks their cause is just. Then, halfway through the conversation, he announces “Well, time’s up. I have to go put on my itchy shirt and set my genitals on fire. Come back in three hours if still you want to chat.”
All images courtesy the Getty Museum, from Simon Marmion’s 1475 edition of Les Visions du Chevalier Tondal. The translation I used can be found here, by Richard Scott-Robinson