Let’s Read Planescape: The Planescape Campaign Setting, Part I

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently received the entirety of the Planescape campaign setting – books, boxes, posters and CDs, everything and a little extra.

It is quite a treasure. Going by eBay prices, its current monetary value is in the quadruple digits, and this is all mint condition. I feel it would be wrong to just sit on this wealth of material. While I am familiar with most of it already, it can stand a re-read, so that is what I will do. Also, I will blog about it. I will describe what’s in there and give my own observations on the material, how it has aged, and how it appears to my eyes, two editions and thirteen years later. These won’t be reviews as such, though there will be elements of that as well. It will probably take me a long while to get through all this stuff – there are maybe thirty books, plus six boxed sets and a computer game, but we’re not in a hurry. The campaign setting first came out in 1994 (and the last book came out in 1998). It’ll keep a few more years. By the way, there’s a pretty damn good fan site for it, Planewalker.com. Personally, I will mostly refrain from commenting on the actual rules here, since it’s been over ten years since I last ran 2E, and it’s not a rule system I am overly fond of in any case.

Now, I’ve never made a secret of my love of game worlds, and especially the settings of AD&D 2E. They are lavishly illustrated, filled to the gills with evocative material, the works of creative minds that took the core concepts of D&D and saw how far they could take them. They came up with the Gothic horror of Ravenloft, the kingdom-building of Birthright, the post-apocalyptic fantasy of Dark Sun, the 1001 nights of Al-Qadim, the weirdness of Spelljammer… and the dearest to me of all, the philosophical, quirky, infinite and simultaneously very human in its scope – Planescape.

Planescape is one of the two AD&D settings that attempted to tie all the other settings together in one unified whole. The other was Spelljammer, which is about spacefaring between the fantasy worlds and was pretty explicit about its connections with the Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms settings. It had this charming way of taking the entire science of astrophysics, deciding it’s unnecessary and boring, torching it and then dancing around the bonfire. Crystal spheres, phlogiston, geocentric systems, everything having its own air envelope in space… lovely! And the giant space hamsters! I need to write about those, one day.

Anyway, Planescape took the view one step further away. It connected every setting, the entire multiverse of D&D. It centered on the Outer Planes, the heavens and hells and all things in between, and Sigil, the ultimate fantasy metropolis. The scope of the setting was not so much infinity as infinities. The setting arguably takes the core conceits of D&D the farthest of all, and creates a multiverse where the alignment rules make sense, where they are even explicitly spelled out as something within the setting. Then, it goes on to explore their implications. For instance, all the gods of different D&D settings dwell in the Outer Planes, in their own realms. All of them. As well as all the mythical pantheons of our world. We will have such fun when we get to On Hallowed Ground

Now, I am not claiming that everything in Planescape was superb. They released over 30 products, so there’s plenty of space for stinkers. They’re there, and we will come to them in time. However, they are few and far between, and for the most part, this is the good stuff. I will even make the claim about one or two products that they are the best of their kind among all games that I am familiar with. We will come to those as well, when it is their time.

But enough preamble. Let us begin.

The Planescape Campaign Setting

And what other place to begin than the beginning? This is the core box that explains the setting for player and DM alike, and does it well.

The first thing that strikes me as I explore the contents are the production values. This is quality stuff. Durable covers and lots of content. The 90’s were the Age of the Boxed Set, and TSR knew how to use them. While I know that putting out such huge piles of stuff with such high product values killed TSR in the end, I can only say that they left a damn fine-looking corpse.

First of all, there are three books. The first of them is the 32-page “A Player’s Guide to the Planes”, the second one is the aptly named “A DM Guide to the Planes”, and the third one is “Sigil and Beyond”, the setting book. Under those comes the really interesting stuff. There’s four posters in this box, plus a DM screen with the image of the Lady of Pain from the setting’s logo on it. It is certainly a pretty screen, but it feels flimsy. This is one thing where we’ve come far – the GM screens of our day are sturdy stuff. The Pathfinder screen is made of the same stuff as hardcovers! This thin cardboard cannot stand up to that, though I would say that it looks better, with the inscrutable, stern face of the Lady of Pain staring down the players.

The posters, then… The first one to come up is titled “Sigil, City of Doors”. It’s a rough map of the city, split into two, much like over here (not the same map, though – I think that one is from In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil). It’s a bit plain but shows what’s where, even if I do think there’s rather too much empty space on it. It should be more cramped. I guess it’s not to scale, though. At least, no scale is given. That format of the map, by the way, split into two oblong pieces… it’s because the city actually occupies the inner surface of a huge torus that may or not be at the top of an infinitely tall mountain called the Spire. In Sigil, if your view isn’t obscured by the smog, you can see the city streets curve above you. Most dizzying. On the flipside, there’s a black-and-white illustration of the city by Dana Knutson. This is more like it! It shows how the buildings are tall, the architecture is angular, even spiky – no direct visual analogues with the real world here – and the streets are narrow and twisting. They aren’t in perfect repair, either, with roof tiles missing here and a window broken there.

The second one is titled “Outer Planes”, and it displays a rather cluttered diagram of the makeup of the planar structure, and not just the Great Wheel that the seventeen Outer Planes make up. Actually, it’s this image here. Here, you can see how things work. There are the Outer Planes – the planes of belief and morality, which all represent the different alignments – in the fore and centre. Then there’s the Astral Plane, a conduit between the Outer Planes and the Prime Material Plane. The Prime Material Plane is where the action happens in pretty much all the other AD&D settings. It’s where the crystal spheres and planets are. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Birthright, Dragonlance, Spelljammer, those all happen over there. The Prime Material Plane is in turn connected to the Inner Planes by the Ethereal Plane, another conduit (as a minor detail, the one other setting that isn’t in the Prime Material is Ravenloft, which is a demiplane floating in the Deep Ethereal). The Inner Planes are where the material building blocks of the Prime Material come from. They’re the elemental planes, but they’re not only fire, water, air and earth. There’s also the paraelemental planes that form where the four traditional elements merge with one another. You can see them there – ooze, magma, smoke and ice. Then there are the Positive and Negative Energy Planes, and between them and the four major elements form the quasielemental planes, eight in all.

So, we’re up to… 34 different planes. Remember that they are all infinite.

Also, note what is missing – there is no conduit between the Inner and Outer Planes. That is because the Outer Planes are made of belief and have no need of such mundane building materials.

On the flipside of the “Outer Planes” poster, we get the Cosmographical Tables, which lists all the 17 Outer Planes and their layers (because infinities can be split up into more easily handled pieces), as well as some important locations within them, such as the realms of some deities. Useful.

Next up, the poster map of the Outlands. Outlands is the plane at the centre of the Great Ring and is also called the Plane of Concordant Opposition. It’s the Outer Plane of True Neutrality. In its dead centre (as much as anything infinite can be said to have a centre) rises the Spire, and above it is the torus of Sigil. Around its rim are the sixteen gate towns to the other Outer Planes, and between the Spire and the Rim there’s the real meat, the local hotspots. On the left-hand side, there’s the River Ma’at flowing through Thoth‘s Estate and Thebestys, disappearing a bit before it would reach Tir fo Thiunn, on whose northern bank lies Tir na Og and whose southern shore becomes the fetid Semuanya‘s Swamp. On the right-hand side, we have the divine realms of Sheela Peryroyl, Tvashtri, and Chronepsis.

On the flipside, black-and-white illustrations of four Outlands locations – the gatetowns of Torch and Bedlam, Sheela Peryroyl’s realm and the Mausoleum of Chronepsis. I like these. They give an instant feel for the places. Sheela Peryroyl’s realm is a place of woodlands and halfling burrows, nice and welcoming, while Torch and Bedlam are locations of great evil but not necessarily openly hostile. The gatetowns, by the way, are towns that have formed around permanent gates to each of the Outer Planes, formed in a ring around the Outlands. Each town reflects the character of the plane its gate leads to. Torch is the gatetown of Gehenna and Bedlam’s gate leads to Pandemonium. I won’t start exploring the Outer Planes in great detail quite yet, but you should be able to tell by their names what kind of places they are.

The final poster has all the symbols of the fifteen factions (we’ll get there, don’t worry) of Sigil, in living colour. I like the designs. They are visually uniform, yet distinct enough that you can easily tell them apart. On the flipside of this poster are lists of powers by plane – “power” being Planescape’s parlance for “deity”. For instance, we can see that in Baator (the lawful evil plane) are the realms of Bargrivyek (a goblin deity), Hecate (Greek), Kurtulmak (kobold), Sekolah (sahuagin), Set (Egyptian), Takhisis (Dragonlance) and Tiamat (dragon). No Finnish powers apart from Mielikki and Loviatar, who are listed as deities of Toril. Aw, disappointment. Well, no matter – we will get there yet. There’s that On Hallowed Ground haunting us again…

We’re finally up to the last non-book item in the box…

The Monstrous Supplement

D&D has always loved its monsters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of different monsters published in all its incarnations reached into the quintuple digits. Now, here we have a “monstrous supplement”. Many of the boxed sets have these. It’s a 32-page booklet with no covers, detailing a bunch of monsters. Me, I like monsters, and I especially like how they were presented in 2E – at least one page per monster, lots of information about habitat, society and ecology along with the combat data. Also, lavish illustrations, at least in the Planescape books.

First up is the aleax. The aleax is an agent of divine vengeance, sent by a god to punish those who have strayed from their alignment or sacrificed insufficient treasure or whatnot. Its only goal is to slay its intended victim in single combat, and its stats are actually an exact duplicate of the victim. Nobody can help the victim in the fight, and if the target defeats the aleax, he has sort of passed this trial by combat and will no longer be attacked for the particular offense that provoked the sending of the aleax.

The aleax is a quintessential plot device monster and honestly, its rules makeup is such that I am very happy about the template mechanic in D20 System. Makes using creatures like these much easier. I believe the aleax first appeared in 1E, in the original Fiend Folio. Zak over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars has reimagined it over on his blog. Its D20 incarnation can be found in Book of Exalted Deeds.

Then there is the astral searcher, a sort of a ghost that forms in the Astral Plane as a side effect of concentrated or traumatic thoughts by prime-material characters. They seek to possess physical bodies, destroying the psyche and identity of its victims in the process. This monster also has all sorts of adventure hooks built within, such as a person possessed by an astral searcher returning home to live as a mental invalid with their family until years later someone knowledgeable realizes the truth. I think this is the first and likely only appearance of the astral searcher. Correct me if I am wrong.

Third up, the barghest. Everybody knows the D&D barghest. It’s a fiend that can shapeshift between goblin and worg forms that send their whelps into the Prime Material Plane to eat living beings and grow strong. There’s one as a villain in the third book of the Dark Elf Trilogy, Sojourn, incidentally. The barghest has been statted up pretty much everywhere, including the 3E Monster Manual and the Pathfinder Bestiary. It’s a good boss monster for lower-level parties, I feel, or a miniboss at bit higher levels. I figure that it’s a leader type, or at least a strong henchman. Having a group of barghests just wouldn’t feel right.

Next up, the cranium rat. Here’s a Planescape favourite. They are neutral evil rats that inhabit the city of Sigil and form a hivemind. The more cranium rats you have in one place, the smarter they get, reaching up to Intelligence 20 in a large enough pack. They’re a part of at least one plot thread in the later life of the setting, and may or may not be agents of the mind flayer deity Ilsensine. We may also remember them from Planescape: Torment, as well as the 3E version of Fiend Folio.

The dabus! One of the weirdest things in the setting. The dabus are the caretakers of Sigil, the mysterious agents of the Lady of Pain, who repair, clean, build and maintain the city of Sigil according to their own mysterious agenda. Unlike the Lady of Pain, however, the dabus do speak. Except they speak in rebuses. There is an entry for roleplaying the dabus (who are fortunately rather aloof most of the time). If the DM knows the party will be interacting with a dabus, they can prepare some rebuses beforehand, but if there is a need to improvise, they can say “the dabus spits out a string of rebuses” and pantomime the message. Great stuff! I’m just not entirely certain how rebuses would work in Finnish.

Then there’s the magman, which looks to be a forerunner of the magmin, as seen in the 3E Monster Manual and pretty much nowhere else after that. Small, mischievous lava gnome, essentially.

After that, the minion of Set, an elite warrior of the lawful evil Egyptian deity Set. They are the elite commanders of his troops, imbued with shapeshifting ability. They’re tough customers, and a very interesting find in the Planescape Campaign Setting. They never did much with Set in the rest of the game line (that I can remember), and I have the feeling that these guys are here to emphasize the inclusiveness of the setting. All the deities have their realms in the planes, and you can have a paladin of Tyr and a cleric of Heironeous fighting side by side against the minions of Set.

Finally, we come to the modrons, another one of the most interesting and intriguing creatures in the setting. They are the race of lawful neutral outsiders, a hierarchy of clockwork creatures that are utterly ordered and lawful, and come in a myriad of geometrical shapes according to their rank. They are completely logical and completely incomprehensible. They come in fifteen ranks, from the spherical, two-legged and barely sentient monodrone to the Primus, the One and the Prime, who is essentially a god in his own right. Also, since the modrons are beings of logic and order, and some of the planes are anything but, sometimes a modron springs a gear, so to speak. Malfunctions. They go rogue. Rogue modrons are usually captured and executed by the other modrons, but some get away, such as Nordom in Planescape: Torment. Strangely, Planescape Campaign Setting does not have the rules for rogue modron player characters. I wonder when those were released. I guess we’ll find out. Unfortunately, all of the modrons were never statted out for 3E For 3.0, all the modrons except for Primus can be found in the Manual of the Planes web enhancement. They were never all converted to 3.5, but the lower ranks of monodrone, duodrone, tridrone and quadrone were in Dragon #354, along with the rules for rogue modron PCs, and the hierarch modron tertian was in Dungeon #144, in the adventure “Diplomacy”.

Then there are the plane-hopping nic’Epona horses, the spirits of the air (minions of wind and air gods), the air elemental vortex which may or may not even be a living creature, and the marraenoloth. The marraeonoloth is one of the yugoloths (aka. daemons), the race of fiends that are to neutral evil what the modrons are to lawful neutral. The marraenoloths are the boatmen on the River Styx, a major planar passageway along the Lower Planes (those are the evil-aligned ones). They are mercenaries with a monopoly on Styx boat traffic, and if you harm one marraenoloth, they will all know of it and will request higher payments or betray the clients. You don’t piss off the unions, man. The River Styx, incidentally, drains the memories of those who happen to touch its waters. Dangerous stuff.

Also, holy crap this is long. I had intended to go over “A Player’s Guide to the Planes” in this post as well, but that will have to wait for the weekend. We should get into the real meat of the setting with that.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Read Planescape: The Planescape Campaign Setting, Part I

  1. Excellent, always fun to see Planescape discussed. Look forward to reading more. There is so much good material in the Planescape setting.

  2. 2e is awesome. I’m getting ready to run a 2e game next weekend. It will be the first time I’ve played with those rules for at least 10 years. I’m pretty excited.

    I’ve been re-reading the books to make sure I still remember the rules and I can’t believe how simple they seem. Back when I made the transition from 2e to 3e, it seemed that 3e made everything so much easier. But now that I look at 2e with a decade or so of 3.x, Pathfinder & 4e games under my belt 2e seems so simple. Part of that is due to the things that are not only still alive in Pathfinder and 4e, but in some ways have become more complex. Proficiencies, which aren’t that hard to understand, are now Feats, Powers and Skills. There are so many more to keep track of now than there was back then. Spells are easier in 2e.

    Granted I still think Thac0 is kind of silly, but over all I can completely see us sticking with 2e for quite a while. Besides 2e had some of the best support material of any RPG, ever. Pathfinder is running a close second, but their stuff is primarily focused on their Golarion campaign setting. 2e had tons of great setting neutral books for the DM and Players alike.
    I’d love to get my hands on a reasonably priced complete set of Planescape or Spelljammers products to use in my upcoming game/campaign.

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