As creatures of chaos incarnate, demons have no unified culture. The only modicum of order that exists for a demon is the one imposed upon it by a more powerful demon, and the moment that a demon rises high enough to assert its authority on others is the very moment that rivals begin to subvert that authority. The title of Prince of Demons has been worn by numerous demon lords over the years, but none of the demon princes have managed to forge more than a temporary and self-serving order among their so-called subjects.
It is only by the whims of the demon lords that the Abyss is even partly tamed. By their will and their savagery, Demogorgon, Orcus, and the multitude of other lords impose a subtle form of order on an otherwise chaotic maelstrom of destruction and hate. If the demon lords were ever to join forces, the deities and other immortals of the Astral Sea might not stand against the onslaught. Such an alliance is all but unthinkable, and the lords of the Abyss spend as much time fighting each other as they do countering outside threats.
According to legend, when the number of demon lords reaches a specific and as-yet-unknown number, their wars against each other will intensify to the point at which only one will survive. That master demon lord will then become one with the Abyss, the will and power of that entire realm manifested within a Single entity. How powerful that entity might become remains a matter of dark speculation.
For a demon to become a demon lord, it must accomplish several tasks.
With chaos, everything is possible, including spontaneous demonic ascension. In times when the Abyss needs a new demon lord, it simply creates one, instantly advancing a lesser demon to that highest status. Even lowly heroic tier demons can ascend in this fashion, causing no end of consternation among the existing demon lords. When a demon suddenly rises to the peak of power, only the speaking of a true name is necessary to complete the demon’s transformation into a demon lord. The demon lord Turaglas, known as the Ebon Maw, ascended in this way.
True names do not reveal themselves readily, and most creatures never learn their true names. A demon must discover its true name and perform a unique and secret ritual of naming as part of the process of becoming a demon lord. If a demon is fortunate, the underlying sentience of the Abyss whispers its true name to it. Usually, however, an aspiring demon lord must learn its true name through arduous study or dangerous adventures.
A demon’s true name ritual exacts a further price, since a demon lord becomes vulnerable to any creature that knows or learns its true name. A demon’s true name allows it to be enslaved by another demon lord, or at the very least prevents its effectively seizing that lord’s own power. A creature that speaks a demon’s true name as part of the Summon Demon ritual can summon the demon from across the planes against its will. A true name can then be used to bind a demon or to inflict unspeakable suffering upon it.
The true distinction between a demon lord and the most powerful pretenders to that rank is control of an abyssal layer. To control a layer, a demon must bend the nature of the layer to its will, similar to the way in which a deity affects an astral domain. A demon lord changes the landscape of its layer, causes palaces to rise or crumble, and mutates the layer’s denizens. Demon lords cannot shape reality to the extent that deities can. Multiple demon lords can occupy a single abyssal layer, each shaping a local area of the layer as they fight for overall control.
A prospective lord that attempts to command a layer and fails is typically destroyed in the process. For its failure, it is absorbed into the layer, becoming part of the power that will someday resist attempts at control by other would-be lords. For this reason, a vast number of abyssal layers remain unclaimed, their resistance to control so great that even the most powerful demon lords fear to linger there.
A demon lord that wants to interact with creatures outside the Abyss most often sends an aspect to carry out its missions and enforce its will. An aspect is a physical embodiment of a portion of the demon lord’s life force, created to serve as a proxy on another plane. An aspect usually manifests in a demonic temple where the demon lord is worshiped. Although an aspect possesses Significantly less power than its progenitor, the use of aspects allows a demon lord to conduct business in multiple places simultaneously without leaving its home layer undefended.
The terrible acts of violence and depravity that epitomize demon kind are inspired in part by a strange, semi sentient quality that permeates the Abyss. This sentience whispers in the dreams and visions of every demon, calling it to dominate that dark realm layer by layer, and promising ultimate power to the one demon that can conquer the Abyss in its entirety. All demons respond to the Abyss’s calling, slaughtering and deposing one another in endless violence.