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

We come to the second book of the campaign setting box, “A DM Guide to the Planes”. Yes, instead of a genitive suffix, there’s a tradermark symbol. The booklet clocks in at 64 pages.

This is the rules supplement for the DM, guidelines and advice on how to run the setting, and short descriptions of all the planes. Short, because as the introduction to the book states, the planes are too big to be all covered in a single product. Then it goes on to mention that Planes of Chaos will be coming out later in 1994, and “[o]ther expansions will focus on the Lawful Planes, the Neutral Planes, the Elemental Planes, and the Demiplanes”. Those would be Planes of Law, Planes of Conflict, The Inner Planes, and… vaporware, respectively. No sourcebook specifically on demiplanes ever materialized. Ten pages in A Guide to the Ethereal Plane was their eventual destiny. I do not recall such a guide even being ever announced.

The introduction is by far the most interesting part of this book, because it is pretty much the only part that didn’t get its own sourcebook later on where these things were explained in more detail and developed further.

First, we have some basic DM advice and then a discussion on how the setting can be used in a campaign. Sigil is the ideal campaign homebase – it’s got everything, it’s a good place to return to, and you can get anywhere. The setting itself  assumes that the DM is running a planar campaign where all the PCs are based in Sigil, even if some of them are primes. This is the default: one campaign, one setting. The makeup of the multiverse in Planescape offers some other possibilities, however.

There’s the possibility of using Planescape as a temporary adjunct to the main campaign, wherever that is. The characters can occasionally stray into Sigil or the other planes, while the focus remains on the main campaign world. It also states that in this style, Planescape will lose some of its mystery, which is an assertion I disagree with. Indeed, merely getting the occasional glimpse of the worlds beyond their own world, if run properly by the DM, should heighten the mystery instead of dilute it, even if that mystery is not the focus of the game. Especially Sigil, if described with proper vividness, should elicit real “whoa” reactions from the players if they are transported there from their cozy Western European fantasy worlds.

The third model presented is plugging Planescape on an ongoing prime-material campaign, where the characters head to the planes and new, planar characters can be created as desired. In this way, Planescape becomes an integrated expansion to the campaign world. Especially some of the late-2E Forgotten Realms products felt like this was the default for in-house production…

Personally, I’ve mostly run Planescape “pure”, but even in the other settings, I’ve always held on to the assumption that the planes and Sigil and all that exists somewhere out there, even if the PCs never see any of it. I like the concept of a unified multiverse and was annoyed to no end when the 3.0 Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting ditched the Great Ring in favour of that tree model of theirs. Fortunately it was simple and easy to ignore it and use the old model. With settings like Eberron and Golarion, it takes some tinkering. This sense of an open, large and unified multiverse is one of the things that attracts me to the old D&D settings in general and Planescape and Spelljammer in particular.

From here, it moves on to the tone of the planes. It explains how the setting is about ideas and philosophies, the meaning of the multiverse in a world where it is not just a question but a way of life. You don’t just ask the question, you live the answer. It is also a world where you can go see your final rewards in afterlife by your own eyes, and even physically meet his own god. It is a cosmopolitan setting, where you can meet demons, angels, devils and other powerful beings in the same bar. All of this breeds a cynical worldliness in its inhabitants, who have seen it all. Planars think and act different from the primes, and their actions are motivated by the philosophies of the factions they belong to.

To me, Planescape is about all that, and its own quirky sense of wonder. The lens of the books is cynical, yes, but once you look beyond that, your characters can still literally walk in the Seven Heavens. I think that in this aspect, Planescape tugs the strings of escapism, because while RPGs in general can be used as vehicles of empowerment and wish-fulfillment, the Upper Planes of Planescape are one of the few that could serve an escapist purpose to the reader as himself, not just a player character. Few of us would like to actually  go down into a dungeon with a sword in hand to kill some orcs, but an afternoon among the olive groves of Arborea? I’ve heard of worse vacation spots. It’s not that there aren’t places like that in other games, but Planescape truly dwells on them and gives them the same pagecount as the Nine Hells or any of the other places where you go and test your steel. The evocative writing really brings it home.

Then there’s one thing in the book that I don’t care for at all. It’s the second chapter, “Magic and the Planes”. It is an overly complex set of rules for how magic works in different planes, how certain spells or spell schools are diminished or enhanced in effect, and how the plane you’re on affects the kind of creatures your monster summoning spells conjure up. While I can get that fire spells in the Elemental Plane of Water will probably fizzle and vice versa, I think this is just too much bookkeeping and stuff to remember, even with the spell keys, which are widgets you can use to bypass these rules. Something simpler and more elegant is called for. Fortunately, that’s all AD&D and I don’t have to care. Also, the functionality of magic items would depend on the plane of their origin and how far removed they are from it. Clerics’ caster levels are affected by how far they are from the home planes of their gods.

No. Just… no. Too many rules just to gimp the PCs if they want to go somewhere interesting.

The rest of he book is a treatise on the various planes of the multiverse, starting with a chapter on travelling between them, via elemental vortices, astral conduits, the Ethereal or Astral Plane, and portals. Portals are at the very core of Planescape. They’re the most common way of getting from place A to place B in the setting. Sigil is full of them. Any doorway or arch can have a portal anchored to it. They are activated by specific keys or words, but also actions and even thoughts. A typical Planescape adventure features at least one sequence where you try to find a portal to wherever the hell it is you want to go, then find out what kind of key it needs, and after that hunt down the key itself. Properly executed, it can be great fun. It is Sigil, after all.

Another way to get from one plane to another, at least in the Outer Planes, is the variety of planar pathways. There is the World Ash Yggdrasil, which grows on the plane of Ysgard and extends roots and branches to the Gray Waste, Pandemonium, Elysium, the Beastlands and Limbo. There is the River Oceanus, flowing through the Upper Planes, and its counterpart in the Lower Planes, the Styx. There is Mount Olympus, rising from the plane of Arborea and reaching the Gray Waste, Carceri and Gehenna, as well as the Prime Material worlds where the Greek pantheon is revered. Using these pathways is often an adventure all in itself.

I will not describe the planes here in detail. Suffice to say that the Inner Planes are all precisely what it says on the tin: the Elemental Plane of Earth is a mass of stone where it is very hard to get anywhere, the Elemental Plane of Fire is a sea of fire, the Elemental Plane of Water is an infinite ocean with no surface or bottom, and so on. All of them are more or less (usually more) inhospitable to mortals, but they are all inhabited, if however sparsely.

Then there are the Outer Planes, the real meat of the setting and the main stage of its varied stories. I’ll just give you a quick rundown. Clockwise around the Great Ring, starting from nine o’clock…

  • Mechanus: Lawful neutral. A plane of humongous cogs, gears and clockworks that are all part of the same cosmic machinery, clicking away. An utterly ordered place. Inhabited by modrons, the clockwork beings.
  • Arcadia: Lawful neutral (good). A perfectly ordered, peaceful land, where even the thieves’ guild is lawful. Fields are perfectly geometrical, rivers flow in straight angles, and evil beings are attacked on sight.
  • Mount Celestia: Lawful good. Also called the Seven Heavens. An infinitely tall mountain rising out of an endless ocean. Constantly bathed in the golden light of good and justice. Home to the archons.
  • Bytopia: Neutral good (lawful). A plane of industry and hard work. The two layers of Bytopia are stacked on top of each other, supported by tall mountains that connect at the peak. You get from one layer to the other by climbing the mountain until gravity reverses.
  • Elysium: Neutral good. A beautiful place of peace and quiet, the plane of pure good. The River Oceanus winds its way through all four layers of Elysium.
  • The Beastlands: Neutral good (chaotic). The place of pure, wild, unsullied nature. The petitioners of Beastlands are talking animals. One of its three layers is in a constant state of noon, another a permanent twilight, and the third a perpetual night.
  • Arborea: Chaotic good. The plane of passion, where the mountains are high, the gorges deep, the trees tall and the parties wild. Both the Greek and the elven pantheons make their realms here.
  • Ysgard: Chaotic good (neutral). A plane of rock flows, where people live on so-called “earthbergs” that move with the rivers of earth. Over here, the Norse pantheon lives in their halls of Valhalla, and the petitioners who fall in glorious battle are resurrected anew the next day.
  • Limbo: Chaotic neutral. The soup of pure chaos, a plane in a constant state of flux. A strong will can force the primordial matter to take on a shape, such as solid land. The githzerai dwell here in their fortresses raised by pure will, as do the froglike slaadi.
  • Pandemonium: Chaotic evil (neutral). The plane of madness, an endless cave system where winds howl and nobody lives if they can help it. Loki of the Norse pantheon is one who can’t.
  • The Abyss: Chaotic evil. The infinite layers of the Abyss, home of the demons and demon princes. Every layer has its own horrors. Here you can find Graz’zt, Orcus, Demogorgon, Juiblex, and all the other demon princes, as well as the tanar’ri.
  • Carceri: Neutral evil (chaotic). The prison plane, six concentric infinite spheres nested within each other. This is where the Titans were banished, the prison of the gods.
  • The Gray Waste: Neutral evil. A malicious place that bleeds out your will to live. A plane of pure evil. This is where the yugoloths, formerly known as daemons, dwell.
  • Gehenna: Neutral evil (lawful). Four infinitely tall mountains that peak at both ends, floating through the void. One is covered by acidic snow, another one is in a constant state of eruption, one is extinguished, dead and cold, and they are all terrible places.
  • Baator: Lawful evil. Or Nine Hells, as it’s also known. The home of the devils, the baatezu, the seductive and tempting bastards you never, ever want to make a deal with. Nine layers of hells, from the fiery hot to the icy cold, and at the bottom you get Asmodeus. No, he’s not Satan. Satan is different.
  • Acheron: Lawful evil (neutral).  A plane that consists of humongous cubes that clang against one another. On their sides, armies of petitioners face one another in pointless battles. The orc and goblin pantheons are engaged in their own eternal war here.

And we’re done. What a trip! Except…

  • The Outlands: True neutral. The centre of the Ring. Plane of neutrality, in the centre of which the Spire rises.

Almost forgot that one. Mind you, it’s not in the listing in the DM guide, either. I have not yet read it, but I assume that the last book of the box, “Sigil and Beyond” will go into more detail on the Plane of Concordant Opposition. And that’s the next post.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Read Planescape: The Planescape Campaign Setting, Part III

  1. Hey, I’m really enjoying reading these. It’s interesting to see what Planescape looked like at the beginning of its run.

  2. Pingback: RPG News from Around the Net: 1-JUL-2011 | Game Knight Reviews

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