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

We come to the third and final book of the campaign setting box, “Sigil and Beyond”.

I actually meant to have this post up on Tuesday, but my laptop died and went to… wherever it is that dead laptops go. Mechanus, I suppose, though if there be any justice in this multiverse, this particular laptop’s destination was somewhere in the Lower Planes. Carceri, maybe, to reflect how trapped I felt during the year when my only computer was a slow Acer laptop that some wanker had installed Windows Vista on without bothering to check if the damn thing actually had the processor speed to run both its operating system and perhaps another program at the same time. Waiting five minutes to start up the fucking word processor got old real fast, let me tell you. Good riddance, damned machine. I know I’ll miss having a laptop eventually, but this particular one I am just happy is a goner.

But I digress. Anyways, this is the setting book of the box, mostly. It actually opens up with a chapter of advice on how to DM Planescape, and how to bring together motivation to adventure, the setting’s innate sense of wonder, and the themes of Planescape. As usual, the advice is pretty basic in the eyes of an experienced DM, but it does point out a few ways in which Planescape differs from your standard AD&D. It especially highlights the use of the factions, and coins the phrase “philosophers with clubs”, and how belief really is power in the planes.

See, in the Outer Planes, if you get enough people who believe something in one place, you can cause actual, physical change just by the force of that belief. The gatetowns are a prime example. A gatetown is a town in the Outlands that has formed around a fixed gate to a specific Outer Plane. They’re at the edges of the Outlands, where the plane starts to take on the features of the bordering planes. The gatetowns, then, very strongly reflect the planes their gates lead to. For instance, Bedlam, the gatetown of Pandemonium, is run and inhabited mostly by the criminally insane, and Glorium, Ysgard’s gatetown, is a small collection of longhouses on the shore of a fjord. However, they’re still in the Outlands and Bedlam isn’t quite as bad as Pandemonium would be, or Glorium as wild as Ysgard. If the gatetowns go far enough in that direction, though – say, Bedlam’s criminal madmen squish out the Windlancer militia who tries to maintain balance by upholding law and order in Bedlam – the gatetown will slide through the gate and into the other plane. There’s an example of this in Planescape: Torment with the gatetown of Curst.

Stuff like this is why philosophy and belief are important matters in Planescape. Thinking is doing.

There is also some advice on handling the size of the multiverse and the use of portals, the tone of the campaign setting (cynicism and arrogance, in case you were wondering), and how to avoid the campaign becoming a megamonster hunt. (“Hey, how much XP do we get for Zeus?”)

After these, the book moves on to describe some choice locations in the Outlands (really, a more accurate title for the book would be “Beyond and Sigil”). It’s not a full gazetteer of the Outlands – just a couple of realms and gatetowns. For a fuller description… well, you’ll have to wait for it. A Player’s Primer to the Outlands is one of the more peculiar products of the game line.

But I digress again. What we do get here is first a general overview of the Outlands – short, one-paragraph descriptions of major realms such as Semuanya’s Bog, Tvashtri’s Laboratory, the Palace of Judgment and others. The strange thing here is that some, such as the Dwarven Mountain, Ilsensine’s Realm, and the Palace of Judgment, are covered in more depth in a later chapter, resulting in duplication of information. It’s not much, but it’s mildly irritating. We also get a description of what petitioners in the Outlands are like.

Turns out that they’re the weirdest kind of classical True Neutral (and the only place I’ve ever seen where it makes an ounce of sense) – their every action seeks a balance between good and evil. If they do someone a good turn, they must later balance this by doing something bad to someone else. Some of them actually have little books where they keep track of their good and bad deeds. Apparently, the petitioners of every plane have their own unique quirks. This is theirs.

There’s also a description of how magic behaves in the Outlands. The plane’s layers are arranged in concentric rings, centered on the Spire. The Spire nullifies magic, and the closer you get to the Spire, the weaker magic gets. Out in the Ninth Ring, everything goes. Then, one by one, spell levels cease to function. In the Fourth Ring, poisons become inert. In the Third Ring, demigods lose their powers, followed by lesser, intermediate and finally greater powers as you get closer and closer to the Spire. At its base, no magic works, no magic at all. This makes the inner circles good places for parley between really powerful types, such as deities.

Then it’s on to “Features of the Outlands”. It’s a selection of more detailed descriptions of a selection of gatetowns and realms, 1,5-2 pages each, starting with Automata, the gatetown to Mechanus. An interesting point of note is that pretty much all human clerics in this and the Sigil chapter follow deities of ancient real-world mythologies, not D&D gods. One of Automata’s ruling council is a cleric of Lei Kung. There’s a tiefling cleric of Sung Chiang in Ribcage (the gatetown of Baator; also, I have no idea who Sung Chiang is supposed to be), and the two most powerful factols in Sigil are clerics of Diancecht and Heimdall. The book makes a lot of reference to Legends and Lore and Monster Mythology, two earlier AD&D sourcebooks on different deities. I like this, though I think they might have thrown in a cleric of Hextor or something else originally D&D.

In addition to Automata and Ribcage, the chapter goes through the gatetowns of Bedlam (Pandemonium), Curst (Carceri), Glorium (Ysgard), Plague-Mort (The Abyss) and Xaos (Limbo). Curst is interesting to players of Planescape: Torment, because Tovus Giljaf is mentioned as the local mayor even here. Apparently, he also used to be a factol of Athar. Now he is bitter and plans his revenge on those who kicked him out, which is an ongoing theme in Curst. Nobody is in Curst if they can avoid it. As Carceri is a prison plane, Curst is a prison city, except the people are their own jailers. People stay here out of bitterness and fear, nursing their grudges on those they perceive to have wronged them. The captain of the guard is even collecting a company of mercenaries to help him retake his old barony on some prime world. When the last inhabitant of Curst loses hope for atonement and forgiveness, Curst will slide over into Carceri. Also, there are a couple of wizards here who make heartwine, a beverage made of razorvine.

Razorvine is a plant that grows in Sigil and the Outlands. It’s like someone crossed kudzu with razorblades, and apart from barricades, heartwine is the only useful thing made from it.

In addition to gatetowns, we get the realms of deities, such as the Court of Light, where the triune naga goddess Shekinester broods and puts everyone who strays into her realm through tests of courage, heart and morals. An adventurer can find out a lot about themselves here, and come out purged, a stronger man. They can also be found wanting and die.

There’s also the Palace of Judgment, the realm of Yen-Wang-Yeh, the Illustrious Magistrate of the Dead. All followers of the Chinese pantheon go here after their death to be sorted into the proper afterlife by the divine bureaucrats. Because of this, it is also the second-largest concentration of gates in the planes after Sigil, which makes it handy for those who can persuade the local bureaucrats that they should be permitted through. Once a year, Yen-Wang-Yeh leaves to present himself before the Celestial Emperor, and without him, the bureaucrats get lazy and careless, and mistakes get made. Petitioners are misfiled to the wrong afterlives and worse.

Then there are the Dwarven Mountain and the Caverns of Thought. These are both close to the gatetown of Glorium, and the three locations interact to a degree. The Dwarven Mountain is the realm shared by the dwarven deities Vergadain, Marthammor Duin and Dumathoin, while the Caverns of Thought are the realm of Ilsensine. The realm of Gzemnid, which is not detailed, is also located nearby. Together, these form quite an interesting mini-setting. The inhabitants of Glorium want to live in peace (relatively speaking) and perhaps have their town slide into Ysgard sometime soon, while Ilsensine and Gzemnid both want to take over. Ilsensine also has a spy in the Dwarven Mountain, where the dwarven deities and their petitioners prefer to be left alone, except in the topmost halls, where Vergadain’s proxies oversee the gambling halls and kill cheaters on the spot.

Finally, we get to Sigil. The City of Doors is open to everyone but the powers, and in its bazaars and marketplaces you may find nearly anything. In Sigil, there’s a place for everyone and their opposite. It’s Charles Dickens’ London, as described by Milton. It’s a weird and wonderful place.

Sigil is ruled by the Lady of Pain. Well, “ruled”. Protected? She is a mysterious figure who never speaks and has no palace, but occasionally appears in the streets of Sigil to kill troublemakers. With her shadow. Good ways to get killed are murdering dabus and worshiping her. If she is feeling lenient, she may also chuck a body into the Mazes, demiplanes of imprisonment that she whips up. She is the power that keeps the powers out of Sigil, and she slew the god of portals, Aoskar, millennia ago. Really, nobody knows anything about her except that she is close to omnipotent within Sigil and you do not want to piss her off.

The actual ruling of Sigil is performed by the factions, all fifteen of them. They take care of the day-to-day business of the city and each and every one of them has an important place in the big picture, even the Anarchists, who are outlawed. The factions also keep each other in check in a precarious balance of power and terror called the kriegstanz. Nobody wants the Mercykillers to enforce the laws, and they are charged with dealing punishment. Enforcement itself is the business of the Harmonium, who would dearly like to get their hands on the weapons in the Armory – which they can’t, because it’s in the hands of the Doomguard. After the Harmonium arrests you but before the Mercykillers cut off your head, you are brought to the courts overseen by the Fraternity of Order, the judicial branch – but not the legislative, which is in the Hall of Speakers, overseen by the Sign of One, where the members of the Council draft and pass the laws of the city. Xaositects and Anarchists provide the opposition for the government, the Free League makes sure that competition is fair in the markets, the Bleak Cabal takes care of the insane and the impoverished, the Society of Sensation encourages culture, art and entertainment so that creatures of a hundred species don’t get bored, and so on. I hadn’t actually realized this dimension of the faction makeup in Sigil before, and it was very enlightening reading. It’s a huge Mexican standoff, and when someone pulls the trigger… well, you get a Faction War.

We are also given two-page writeups of two of the most powerful factols, Erin Darkflame Montgomery of the Society of Sensation and Duke Rowan Darkwood of the Fated. They’re politically opposed to one another, but both are good-aligned, which is especially interesting given Darkwood’s later actions in what passes for metaplot around here, and the general style of his faction. He is still apparently a good man who cares for people, but very driven.

The actual gazetteer of Sigil is rather brief, which is understandable given the size of the city. In any case, it only seeks to describe the generals of each of the six wards, a couple of landmarks, and what kind of stuff can be found in each ward. Faction headquarters, the Temple of the Abyss (extremely ecumenical people, here), some sample businesses with their associated plot hooks.

The section on Sigil wraps up with a couple of short adventures, “For the Price of a Rose” and “Misplaced Spirit”. The first is a rather too brief overview of a situation that can get a bunch of prime adventurers to Sigil, chasing after a band of brigands. I don’t think this is too interesting, since the description sort of drops off after the PCs reach Sigil, and there’s no real flow to what is suggested to happen next. “Misplaced Spirit” feels much better. It takes that situation from Yen-Wang-Yeh’s realm described above, where a petitioner has been misfiled and managed to escape into Sigil. The petitioner wants to stay in town, a clerk from the Palace of Judgment hires the PCs to go after her, the Dustmen are interested in a talk with her, the Mercykillers see her as deserving punishment for her escape, and the Bleak Cabal have found her and are now planning to use her to their own ends. A proper potboiler, with a variety of possible solutions and introductions to several of the factions in Sigil. This is more like it! I might even see myself writing it out and running it myself.

Finally, at the end of the last book in the box, we get… a glossary of the Cant, that strange slang they use. A splendid place to put it, really. Well, like I mentioned before, the slang doesn’t bother me. It’s pretty intuitive and the vocabulary they use fits on two pages.

And it’s a wrap. Over the last four posts, we have gone over the first boxed set, Planescape Campaign Setting. While I’ve already decided on the next book I’ll cover, you are free to suggest what I’ll be reading after that. Now that we have covered the basics of the setting, we can start really digging into things.

1 thought on “Let’s Read Planescape: The Planescape Campaign Setting, Part IV

  1. Read Tales from the Infinite Staircase, I’d be interested in your take on it as practical gaming material. This is mostly because I read it in detail myself a while back.

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