In the last post, we covered the contents of the box other than the books. Now, we will embark upon the books themselves, the introduction into the setting that is Planescape.
I will be doing a fair bit of explanation here that will seem obvious to people actually familiar with the setting. However, as it turns out, the last Planescape product came out in 1998 and there are gamers out there and even reading this blog who don’t have an inkling. Therefore, this study of the basic box will also endeavour to serve as a sufficient introduction to the setting that once I turn to the more involved products I can take it for granted that everybody knows who’s Tony DiTerlizzi, what’s a Godsman and where you can find Khin-Oin.
Let’s see if we can get through this with less than the page count of the book itself…
A Player’s Guide to the Planes
The first book (or booklet, really – they’re all stapled softcovers) in Planescape Campaign Setting is titled “A Player’s Guide to the Planes”. It’s 32 pages and seeks to offer the newbie a rundown of what makes Planescape special. It’s a fairly involved setting, so this is really needed. If you have a player who’s read the Player’s Handbook, you can pretty much drop him in a Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Golarion or Dragonlance campaign cold and he’ll find his feet in no time. Planescape is different.
The first thing that strikes the reader is the graphic design and the art. Planescape had its own, unique look. The gold-coloured title font (Exocet, for those keeping track) and the strange strands of razorvine that creep across the pages and break up text blocks make it instantly recognizable. This is coupled with the inimitable art of Tony DiTerlizzi. While there were other people doing art for the setting (such as Robh Ruppel and Dana Knutson), it’s DiTerlizzi who is best remembered, and with good reason. There is a uniform look to the books that I feel most of the other settings lack. It does help that the designs are very distinctive at the conceptual level, so that a Planescape illustration by pretty much anyone is instantly recognizable as Planescape, instead of, say, a Forgotten Realms illustration that just happens to depict the planes.
The second thing that hits you is when you start to read. The setting has a strong voice of its own. The tone of the text is chatty even in the rules bits and is delivered… not entirely in-character, but almost. It’s a lively style, and I like it. Of course, then there’s the Cant.
The Cant is the slang of Planescape. According to 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, it was David “Zeb” Cook’s idea. He had these books, Cony-Catchers and Bawdy Baskets and The Elizabethan Underworld, which served as the base for the odd vocabulary that is sprinkled throughout the books. Personally, I could get the hang of it pretty much immediately and don’t consider it intrusive in the slightest. Rather, it enhances the voice of the writing and the feeling of being elsewhere. It emphasizes the difference between Planescape and the other, more standard fantasy settings. Of course, some didn’t like it. Me, I always found it helpful to imagine the text read in the voice of Michael Caine. Here’s an excerpt from the start of “A Player’s Guide to the Planes”:
Welcome, addle-cove! Welcome to the worlds beyond your world, the great wheel of the cosmos. This is a great place! Where else can a poor sod mingle with mighty minions of the great powers, or sail the astral ocean, or visit the flaming courts of the City of Brass, or even battle fiends on their home turf? Hey, welcome to the lands of the living and the dead!
The book kicks off with an introduction to the three core philosophical concepts of Planescape: the Center of the Multiverse, the Unity of Rings, and the Rule of Threes. These themes really do carry across the setting material in many ways. It’s interesting to analyze the stuff in their light.
The Center of the Multiverse is a lesson in subjectivity: there is no centre to the multiverse. It’s infinite, so it’s all a matter of where you stand. Primes (people from the Prime Material Plane) often call their home world the centre of the multiverse. Many planars consider it to be Sigil. The Sign of One, one of Sigil’s factions, has this as their core philosophy – the individual Signer is the centre of the multiverse. No place can be said to be the most important, either.
This applies to other things as well. In Planescape, things are rarely absolute and it is all a matter of points of view. I must say that introducing the idea of subjectivity into a setting where literally the land itself is based on an absolute, objective system of morality is one of Planescape’s greatest feats, and the setting pulls it off with style.
Then there is the Unity of Rings. A ring is a thing without a beginning or an end, and things in Planescape come in rings. The Outer Planes form a ring, the Inner Planes form a ring – three rings, in fact – Sigil is a ring… Rings are also how powers think, circles upon circles of logic that go nowhere.
There is one interesting omission here – the multiverse is not a ring. From the Inner Planes to the Ethereal Plane to the Prime Material Plane to the Astral Plane to the Outer Planes… but nothing takes you from the Outer Planes to the Inner Planes. I am aware of a fan work that addressed this issue, but I do not remember if the exception to the rule was noted in any official material. I guess we will see in the months (years!) to come.
That circular logic thing is an interesting point that I had not thought of before. Let’s keep an eye out for it, shall we?
Finally, there’s the Rule of Threes. It means that everything comes in threes – alignments along both axes, prime, planar and petitioner, the Inner, Prime and Outer Planes (but again! not a third one to complement the Astral and the Ethereal!) and so forth. Also applies to core philosophical concepts of the setting, I assume.
If I am allowed a moment of intellectual speculation, it might also mean that there’s never just two sides to an issue. A coin has two sides, and an edge… Or take the Blood War. It’s an endless and eternal conflict that has been going on between the baatezu (the devils) and the tanar’ri (the demons) since the beginning of time. They kill each by the millions and turn the Lower Planes into an eternal battlefield. However, there’s also a third party to the war (several third parties, depending on how you look at things) – the Upper Planes, the good guys, the angels and devas and powers of Good, in whose interests it is to keep the war going on and encourage the embodiments of evil to off one another. Another third party is the yugoloths (daemons), the neutral evil fiends, who hire out as mercenaries to both sides of the conflict and manipulate events to their own ends.
The point is that it’s never black-and-white, never just two sides. Never simple.
Ten the book goes into short descriptions of the makeup of the planes and the multiverse. It’s pretty much the same stuff I covered when I discussed the map posters in the first post, so I’ll skip it here. We’ll see a lot of detail about those when we get to the sourcebooks about the planes themselves, believe me.
The next chapter is called Denizens of the Planes. It starts by defining the five hard P’s.
First is Primes. Primes are people who are born in the Prime Material Plane. They’re the humans and elves and dwarves and Elminsters of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. They’re people who have come to the planes from the outside (hence, one of the less complimentary titles for them is “Outsiders”, which is funny ’cause in D20, “outsider” is a rules term for the denizens of the planes…), and who often don’t quite get the planes. The locals often look down on them, and they’re seen as kind of country bumpkins, though it’s also noted that just anyone doesn’t get from the Prime to the planes and anyone who’s made the trip is probably moderately powerful in their own right.
The prejudice against the primes is also a nifty way to handle racism as a game theme, since it is so inclusive. It does not cast a specific race or culture as an oppressed minority, which can often be tricky because of real-world analogues. The only thing that counts is where you’re from, and that “where” is an infinitely large place. This way, the Aryan barbarian, the hobbit and the dark-skinned adventurer from the southlands are all subject to the same prejudice. It is an interesting theme to explore for any DM who cares to pick up on it.
Then there’s the planars, the other type of person suitable as a player character. These are the people who were born on the planes – the humans, elves, dwarves and Elminsters of Sigil, basically. Except the book doesn’t actually present the options of a planar elf or dwarf. Oh well.
There are also differences between the primes and planars in how they react to certain spells. A lot of this only applies to AD&D, though – primes aren’t susceptible to protection from <alignment> spells or holy word, and planars can be yanked away by a monster summoning spell (which I don’t think I’ve ever seen happen or ever heard of happening, or even seen the rules for it happening). In D20, this would probably be a good place to slap the extraplanar subtype.
The third P is the petitioner. They are the souls of the dead who go to the Outer Plane of their alignment and take a corporeal form. They look like they did in life but have lost their memories (and class levels). They are mainly motivated to achieve unity with their deity or the plane itself. They’re the 1st-level Commoners of the Outer Planes, basically. If slain outside their home plane, their essence is permanently destroyed, so they hate leaving it. When they do, it is usually as a soldier in an army commanded by their deity.
The fourth one is the proxy. Proxies are divinely imbued agents of the powers. Each one is unique, most of them are very powerful, and they work to advance the agendas of their powers.
Finally, there are the powers, or the gods. They are mostly aloof in the planes, being more interested in the Prime Material Plane where the bulk of their worshipers reside. Since they derive their power from worship, this is smart. That’s only “mostly”, though.
After that, we get to the character creation options. Prime characters can be anything in the Player’s Handbook and pretty much anything optional from a Prime Material campaign. I understand this was taken by some groups as permission to go wild with The Complete Book of Humanoids, which is never a good thing. For planar characters, the options are human, half-elf (the offspring of a planar human and a prime elf, since apparently there are no planar elves), or one of the three new races: bariaur, githzerai and tiefling.
Bariaurs are like centaurs, except goat instead of horse. They tend towards chaotic good alignments, tend to be prissy about their appearance and exhibit an unusual amount of sexual dimorphism: the males and females get different bonuses. Males get +1 to Str and Con, -1 to Wis and Dex, plus a horns they can use to butt enemies. Females get +1 Int and Wis, -1 Str and Dex, and some save and initiative bonuses. Personally, I am not a fan of this approach. It makes the sex of a character significant from a rules point of view, which I consider a bad thing. Eh. This would be so much easier to do in Pathfinder, with some racial feats and traits.
Bariaurs are described as carefree people with a strong sense of wanderlust and few permanent communities. Most of them are found in the chaotic good corner of the Great Ring, in Ysgard, Beastlands, Elysium and Arborea. They are noted to be fierce fighters and especially hostile against giants. All bariaur are herbivorous.
Githzerai, then, are the other offshoot of the gith race, the flipside of the coin from the githyanki (now, I wonder who or what is the edge of that coin…). Githzerai are serious, humourless, lawful neutral, monkish types who live in the plane of Limbo, the primordial soup of chaotic neutral. They have iron discipline and practice the recreational genocide of mind flayers, who enslaved the original gith people millennia ago.
Third, there are the tieflings, plane-touched humanoids, people of human (usually) stock who have a drop of some other blood running through their veins. It is interesting to note that though later on “tiefling” came to mean someone with the blood of specifically evil outsiders, here that connection is not explicitly spelled out. The flipside of this coin is usually considered the aasimar, the angelic halfbreeds, who are notably absent from this book. Another missing fan favourite player character race is the rogue modron. It is interesting that these were not part of the setting from the beginning.
A bit of speculation: The omission of the tiefling’s fiendish heritage is probably for the same reason that devils and demons became baatezu and tanar’ri, which is the Satanic panic of the 80’s, the Pulling and Egbert cases and Mazes & Monsters. TSR was still trying to clean up their act.
After the races comes a short note on how different classes are viewed on the planes. After the regular PHB core classes it goes on to describe the reactions to some setting-specific classes: psionicists are considered just another type of mage, the Red, Black and White wizards of Krynn are pitied because their powers are tied to some distant moons somewhere in the Prime, the elemental clerics of Athas are viewed as confused and ignorant. Dark Sun’s defilers are hated in the Upper and loved in the Lower Planes, and vice versa for preservers.
And then we come to the halfway point in the book, where the factions begin. They end at the back cover.
All that I’ve been explaining about the makeup of the planes and the multiverse are for Planescape the “where” of the setting. The factions, in turn, are the “who”. It is sort of an implicit assumption that most, if not all, planar PCs in a campaign are affiliated with a faction. The factions are fifteen ideological or philosophical groups that hold and vie for power in Sigil. None of them are what you’d call “real-world philosophies”, but someone who has studied philosophy can probably find at least echoes of real-world philosophers in their thinking. (For my part, I think there is something of Spinoza’s rejection of Cartesian dualism in the Transcendent Order, but this may just be me feeling smart.) Of course, your average D&D character just lives by Nietzsche’s “that which does not kill you makes you stronger” – ’cause then you get XP and level up!
The leaders of the factions (where applicable) are called factols. Most of these are quite interesting characters, but alas, we only get their names at this point, along with an inspirational quotation.
I think the factions are one of the most fascinating aspects of Planescape. They are D&D philosophy, ways of thinking that evolve in an universe governed by the laws implicit in a roleplaying game ruleset. It’s a lot like Eberron in that respect, except whereas Eberron considers the impact of magic and monsters and dragons and gods on economy, infrastructure and military matters, in Planescape they delve into how people would think in such an environment.
Man, I would love to see what someone who’s actually studied philosophy could get out of these.
We will delve deeper into the factions and how they work in later entries, especially Factol’s Manifesto, but here’s a short rundown.
- The Athar, Defiers, the Lost. These are as close as you will get to atheists in D&D. You cannot credibly deny the existence of the powers when they’re right there, but you can deny their divinity. The Athar claim that since the powers need worship, can be slain and are not omnipotent, they are unworthy of worship. Anybody can wield magic, the powers just have more of it. According to the Athar, there must be some power beyond the deities, something omnipotent, omniscient and unknowable. The Athar want to part that veil and discover the secret behind everything. So, basically, they worship the Dungeon Master. They are based in the Shattered Temple in Sigil. The Shattered Temple is the last temple of Aoskar, the god of portals, who was slain by the Lady of Pain.
- Believers of the Source, the Godsmen. These are… also kinda atheistic, really. The Godsmen believe that anybody has in them the potential to become a deity, to join the ranks of the powers. Everything in life is a test of one’s character and ability, and if you succeed, you may get higher in your next life, until one day you or a future reincarnation will attain godhood. Interestingly, Godsmen cannot be raised from the dead or resurrected, but they can be reincarnated as a player character race (I assume automatically). These, then, I suppose are the guys whose XP track goes up to level 30 or 40, where you’re supposed to become a deity. One day, far in the future, all have ascended the ladders of existence and become powers, and that is the day the multiverse has fulfilled its existence and can finally end. I like the Godsmen. Their philosophy is fundamentally positive.
- The Bleak Cabal, or the Bleakers. To these merry fellows, the meaning to life, the universe, and everything is… absolutely nothing. It’s not even a cruel joke, because even that would be a meaning. They are saddened that others fail to see this and prone to fits of melancholia and depression (Every day, a Bleaker rolls 1d20. On a 20, they are depressed and overcome by the futility of existence, and they must be philosophically convinced to do anything. Such as saving a party member from certain death). This probably does not make them an overly popular choice for player characters. One thing that strikes me is that the description here does not tell what the faction actually does, since they are actually active and in a very interesting way. We will see about that later. Their headquarters is the Gatehouse, the largest insane asylum in Sigil. Personally, the closest I’ve ever come to depression was some four or five years ago when for a few weeks, I felt like I understood the Bleaker philosophy. Symptom, not cause.
- The Doomguard. The Doomsmen are big on entropy. In the end, everything goes away. People die, houses fall down, rocks erode, stars go out, and one day, nothing will be left and the multiverse has reached its endpoint. This, to them, is a desirable end. However, they do not seek to speed it up, just to make sure that it happens and that nobody meddles with the natural progress of things, whether by trying to end it all before entropy has reached its natural conclusion or by trying to hold it back. They are the self-appointed guards of the process. Theirs is a grim philosophy, but they are not evil (none of the factions are outright evil or good, though the extremes of law and chaos are found). The Doomguard has its headquarters in Sigil’s Armory, where they practice swordsmanship like a proper Will Turner. They even get bonuses with swords.
- The Dustmen. “We belong dead.” In fact, the Dustmen say that we are already dead, and are now experiencing an afterlife. The reasoning goes that if we were truly alive, there would not be misery and pain in the multiverse, making this existence but a mockery of true life. They idealize the walking dead, who have been purged of passion and sense. The goal of the Dustmen is to take explore this so-called “life” and understand the present state of being to the fullest, purify the self, before moving on into True Death, the ultimate goal of all beings. As can be expected, they are cheerful as a wake. Also, their factol is Skall, a lich, and their headquarters in Sigil is the city’s Mortuary, and they take care of disposing the city’s dead. They also have one of the more interesting faction abilities, the Dead Truce, a pact between the Dustmen and the powers of undead from long ago. Undead will not attack Dustmen unless attacked first. They often work with zombies as a result.
- The Fated, or the Takers. These blokes are the might-makes-right group. They believe that the multiverse belongs to those who can take it and hold it. Like the Godsmen, the Fated teach that everybody has the potential for greatness, but they have to be strong to take it. It must be earned through work and the sweat of your brow. Nothing comes for free. However, you can’t take everything by force. You can’t get respect by force, or happiness. They have to be earned as well, but it takes, and I quote “kindness without weakness, compassion without cowardice”. They are the ultimate social Darwinists (with more than a hint of Objectivism, yeugh!), but presented in an interesting fashion. Still, the way they’re often depicted amounts to political commentary – along with the Doomguard, and the Mercykillers, the Fated are pretty often left with the villain ball in the setting. In Sigil, their headquarters is the Hall of Records, where the ownership of all things important is recorded.
- The Fraternity of Order, aka. the Guvners. The Guvners know that everything has laws. Laws of men, laws of nature, laws of the planes, magic, everything. If something has laws, those laws may be learned. If one learns all the laws of the planes, he can use them to his advantage, find the loopholes, the secrets that nobody else knows and through those, the path to true power. They are not concerned with the meaning of the multiverse, the why. To the Guvners, it’s the how that counts. Of course, they must all be lawful. In Sigil, they oversee the City Courts as one of the three factions who take care of the day-to-day business of law and order. I might also point out that what these guys are essentially trying to do is rules-lawyer the cosmos.
- The Free League, the Indeps. The Free League is not a faction. It is an informal group of people who think alike in that nobody should be telling them what to do. They also maintain that the factions’ search for the meaning of the multiverse is foolish, since their goals are mutually exclusive and they cannot be all right. Therefore, some of them are wrong, and when and if things are found out, someone is going to look pretty stupid. They have no factol, no organization and no proper philosophy, but they do have a lot of influence in the Great Bazaar. Welcome to libertarianism, D&D-style.
- The Harmonium, or the Hardheads when they’re out of hearing range. According to the Harmonium, peace is preferable to war. Peace is attained when everybody has the same views and agrees on everything. The way to this universal harmony? Join the Harmonium! When all beings in the multiverse are in perfect harmony under the leadership of the Harmonium, a new golden age can begin. So, their philosophy is essentially a codified form of Lawful Stupid. Indeed, they tend to be the ones holding the idiot ball in the setting. In Sigil, they serve as the city watch and have the City Barracks as their headquarters. Harmonium, fuck yeah!
- The Mercykillers, or the Red Death. Justice is everything. Image is nothing. Obey your Mercykil- sorry. Anyway, to Mercykillers, justice really is everything. It is a pure ideal, something untouchable. The guilty must be punished according to the law, and there are no such things as mercy or extenuating circumstances. Everyone gets their due, nothing more and nothing less. Of course, justice must also be applied correctly so that the innocent do not get punished by mistake. Of course, the Mercykillers merely enforce the law, they do not make it. If they happen to break the law in the course of punishing a criminal, well, it’s their job, isn’t it? The Red Death also runs the Sigil Prison and takes care of executions. They also often work as bounty hunters. Personally, I cannot help but feel that the Guvner-Hardhead-Mercykiller trio really is meant as political commentary on… certain issues. Everyone can consider what those might be, in the early 1990’s United States.
- The Revolutionary League, or the Anarchists. They’re the terrorists of Sigil. They believe all the other factions are rotten and self-serving sacks of crap, and must be taken down. Before something like the truth of the multiverse can even be sought, the corrupt old order must be brought down. Power to the people, man! They have no factol or headquarters, operating in independent cells with little awareness or knowledge of other Anarchist operations. The cell structure, incidentally, has historically been popular with terrorist organizations. Even if one cell is caught, they cannot reveal what they do not know and other operations can continue unimpeded. The Anarchists are also the masters of undercover operations, and an Anarchist PC can automatically pose as a member of another faction without being detected.
- The Sign of One, or Signers for short. These are your solipsist philosophers. The world exists because the mind imagines that it exists. Without the mind to imagine it, the world ceases to be. Every Signer is the centre of the multiverse. So, to every Signer, the multiverse is actually something that they’re constantly imagining into being, and thus everything in it is a product of their imagination, from the powers to the rest of the players characters to the planes, Sigil, and Lady of Pain herself. Others may disagree, but who can really tell? Of course, Signers have huge egos, but they are also hard to fool with illusions. Also, in Planescape, belief really is power, so they may be right. There is a suggestion here that they may have thought some of their enemies right out of existence. (This actually happens, in a way, in Planescape: Torment, except there the character logically argues another person out of existence.) In Sigil, they hang out at the Hall of Speakers.
- The Society of Sensation, the Sensates. The Society of Sensation believes that the senses are the proof of the existence of multiverse. Without experience and sensation, there is nothing and only through the senses can the universe be known. The goal to their existence is to experience the whole multiverse, all its sights, sounds, tastes and smells. They are not mere hedonists – this applies even to negative sensations. They savour the intensity and explore the complexity, and learn to not only tell apart Arborean and Ysgardian wine, but their vintages and all the details down to the hand of the vintner. This philosophy does have some personal appeal to me. Not trying new things leads to mental stagnation, which is not a good state to be in. Also, you can’t say a book sucks with any authority until you’ve read it. Their headquarters is the Civic Festhall of Sigil.
- The Transcendent Order, or the Ciphers. These are the guys I mentioned earlier in conjunction with Spinoza. The Ciphers believe that in every situation in the multiverse, there is a right action for the right moment. If one stops to think, the moment is lost. Doubt will lead to blundering. This does not mean they should stop thinking, but to train their mind, instincts and body into taking the correct action at all times. The mind and body must be one, the hand moving before the thought reaches it. This way, the Cipher is in tune with the multiverse. They are quick to act and never hesitate, though sometimes inaction may be the correct action. Their base is in the Great Gymnasium of Sigil.
- Xaositects /keɪˈəʊsɪtekts/, or Chaosmen. The multiverse is chaos. Order and patterns are illusions or momentarily imposed on the multiverse by fools. Only by embracing the chaos and randomness in all things can you appreciate the multiverse as it is. By gazing upon chaos, you can appreciate its sublime intricacies, and thereby learn the secrets of the multiverse. Surprisingly, the Chaosmen actually have a headquarters (in the Hive, Sigil’s slum) and a factol (one Karan). They are commonly played as Chaotic Stupid and may be the most annoying type of character in whole of AD&D, after kender, gully dwarves and tinker gnomes. They even speak with words out of order. This is one of those things that makes sense only if you consider Chaos a distinct force in and of itself.
And that’s them. As you can see, they are not created equal and some are very obviously wrong in their logic, others just plain annoying. Different things in the factions will, of course, apply to different players. Many of their philosophies contradict each other, but somehow they get along without breaking into open warfare on the streets of Sigil.
That’s also all there is to “A Player’s Guide to the Planes”, in a post that’s about three thousands words longer than it was supposed to be. I’ll probably have to plan ahead what I’m going to write about the other books, otherwise I’ll have a boxed set’s worth of commentary when this is all over… Anyways, next week we will be tacking “A DM™ Guide to the Planes” and “Sigil and Beyond.”
Fortunately, once we’ve covered the basic box, I no longer have to explain every basic thing and these posts may be shorter.