Back when I started this project, I said that Planescape Campaign Setting is the beginning. Only, that’s not really true, is it? Before there was Sigil and the Lady of Pain, before there were factions, there was Jeff Grubb and Manual of the Planes. In fact, even before that, there were things like Ed Greenwood’s articles on the Nine Hells in Dragon. The idea of going out to meet gods and kick the asses of demons on their home turf was hardly a new one with Planescape.
I’m not going to talk about Manual of the Planes. It was not included in the set of books I received and though I own a PDF copy, I think it’s rather dry. I may make a post comparing the AD&D 1E, 3E and 4E Manuals of the Planes at some point in the future, but not for a while. Today, I will talk about the module OP1 Tales of the Outer Planes. It’s a 96-page scenario anthology published in 1988. Its ruleset is still 1st Edition and it is apparently meant to give DMs something to do with their Manuals of the Planes. It is emphatically not Planescape, which was still years in the future. It does a number of things the Planescape box explicitly advises against. However, it also shows some of the ideas of Planescape put in practice before there ever was a Planescape, and this is how it becomes interesting.
Let’s take a look.
The book opens up with “A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded”, a scenario for characters of levels 1-2. It starts in Arabel (Forgotten Realms), and the World Serpent Inn. In the beginning, they’re tricked by a jester into taking up an errand for their mistress. They need to get something for her, from someone who will give it to them gladly if they first get something for him from someone else who also needs a thing from someone else, and so on, until it becomes a full circle. The Unity of Rings, baby!
Not that anybody had thought up the Unity of Rings at this point in time. Also, the jester’s mistress is Hecate, and the other stops in the adventure are the Wild Hunt, the Raven, Enki, Tlazolteotl & Xochipilli, and finally Lliira. That’s four deities and one near-deific figure that the characters will meet (the Aztec deities are more in the background). At levels 1-2.
I would, at this point, turn to a piece of advice given in Planescape Campaign Setting – the deities should be mysterious, and not met by just anyone. They are powerful, for all intents and purposes omnipotent within their realms, and prefer to work through intermediaries, without necessarily even revealing their involvement.
“A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded” wouldn’t be a bad intro to the Outer Planes, structurally speaking, but its use of the powers reduces them to the mysterious stranger handing out quests at the tavern, except without the mystery. While I appreciate how the adventure brings together several different mythologies, showing how they’re all active within the same multiverse, it lacks finesse. However, there’s actually stuff for the PCs to do here. There’s another Planescape adventure in another book showcasing the Unity of Rings that essentially reduces the PCs to a spectating role. I’ll discuss that when I get to it.
The second adventure in the book is “Castle at the Edge of Time”, a 2nd-level adventure that is meant to follow from the last one. There is no plot connection as such, but the PCs are hired for their experience in planeswalking, and the module references a magical weapon they acquired in “A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded”.
It’s a middling railroad disguised as an investigative module that doesn’t really have an ending. The PCs are hired to escort a negotiator from Arabel to the fortress of the Sapphire Mage, in the Ethereal Plane. The negotiations are about the purchase of Arabel. The Sapphire Mage wants to buy a city. However, the negotiator is on the Zhentarim payroll. Hijinks ensue, she attempts to sabotage the Mage’s summoning circle without any apparent motive. If the PCs do not figure out that she’s guilty earlier, the module ends with a deus ex machina. See, the villain must not succeed, even if the heroes are too stupid to catch her. There is also an interesting negotiation subsystem here, but nothing is really done with it.
We are also introduced to the Demiplanes of Electromagnetism and Time.
The third adventure in the anthology is “The Brewing Storm”. 3rd-4th levels, and the characters must rescue a jann amir from the grues before they eat him. No bullshit. In D&D, grues are evil minor elemental creatures.
There’s a nifty map of an area of the Elemental Plane of Air and the module itself isn’t bad. Nicely open.
“The Voyage of the Nereid” takes a group of 3rd to 4th-level PCs into the Elemental Plane of Water (making it the third adventure in a collection called Tales of the Outer Planes that doesn’t happen on the Outer Planes). The party must here rescue the crew of a submersible craft from a sea hag before they are handed over to Olhydra, the Princess of the Sea (the ruler of evil water elementals – every element has a good and evil ruler). It looks like a short and easy adventure, if a bit straightforward. I might actually see myself converting and running this one.
The next three adventures are called “Through the Fire”, “The Missing Kristal” and “Into the Astral”. Guess if any of them go to the Outer Planes, either.
“Through the Fire” is a smash & grab into the Elemental Plane of Fire. The PCs’ task is to fetch a statue made of fire from an efreeti’s treasure chamber. It’s a pretty straightforward gig, but also offers noncombat solutions to problems, which I appreciate. In fact, I think it is possible to complete the adventure without a single combat roll. Unfortunately, it lacks a map.
“The Missing Kristal” takes the party into the Elemental Plane of Earth. Simple rescue mission to rescue the daughter of a Prime duke from a dao, an earth genie. Again, no maps included, but the adventure seems to be a decent way to highlight and bring out the weirdness of the Elemental Plane of Earth.
“Into the Astral”, in turn, takes the PCs… guess where! In there, they storm a githyanki fortress to grab a magic item.
None of these three are particularly interesting on their own, but I think that if the DM plays up the setting, possibly with the aid of the relevant Planescape sourcebooks, they might be worthwhile to run.
Then, we come to “An Element of Chaos”, a scenario by John A. Nephew that takes place in a celestial citadel that has been corrupted by the presence of a slaad lord. This is a clever piece of work that foreshadows many of the themes later present in Planescape. There’s a mad agathion who wishes to arrange the furniture in a room to symbolize the ultimate ambiguity of existence, and the idea of changing the planes by belief is also touched upon. The insane inhabitants of the citadel are creatively mad in interesting and different ways. There are a few who are just axe crazy, but interaction is possible in a variety of ways, and the tone of the adventure is suitably chaotic, ranging from whimsical to sad to horrible as the PCs explore the citadel. Also, this one comes with a map.
Following that is “A Friendly Wager”. It’s another “meet the deities” adventure, but I think it’s rather more elegant than “A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded”. All the deities involved hail from the Greek pantheon, and what they’re up to is… pretty much in character for how they’re depicted in the myths, actually. They’re a petty and vindictive bunch of tossers, concerned with their own amusements and meddling with mortals. Indeed, the central plot thread of the adventure is Zeus lusting after a nymph princess, and the PCs are manipulated into involving themselves by Hermes. Because he was bored. The module emphasizes well the point that even though Olympus (or Arborea, as the later editions know it) is chaotic good, that doesn’t mean it’s in any way safe. It’s also amusing what a difference context can make – what in your ordinary D&D game would be an ornery NPC sending you on a number of quests to prove your worth is here transformed into an echo of Heracles’ deeds merely by dint of being set on Olympus.
Then there’s “The Sea of Screams”, a tour of the Abyss in search of the goddess Kali. I really didn’t like this one. The characters are sent to accompany a cleric who claims to have killed Kali, except he really hasn’t, he just thinks he has. No explanation is given of how he came to be under this misapprehension, except that Kali’s cultists have quieted down, which is actually the result of the goddess enacting a huge ritual that may or may not amplify her power. It goes on to explain that in truth, no mortal can even hope to hurt Kali and the cleric’s work against her cultists hasn’t even been noticed. However, the characters manage to disturb the ritual merely by going to the right layer of the Abyss and shouting out her name. Weak. Nevermind the fact that apparently the module starts somewhere in the Forgotten Realms, where Kali has no presence, and there’s no attempt to explain why an evidently western-themed fantasy setting has suddenly experienced a binge of Thuggee murders or an attempt to explain how the different cultural sphere affects the worship of Kali (which is actually an interesting question in a wider context, and something I must discuss later). Also, this ritual is just background crap that the PCs have no way of finding out, and in the end things return to status quo. It’s like a particularly bad episode of Star Trek.
Wrapping up the adventure portion of the book is “To Hell and Back”, which is just bad. Not only does it overuse deities, it even features Sekolah as what amounts to little more than a random encounter to be fought (and he really can be fought off). It features the archdevil Baalzebul openly commanding the PCs to undertake a mission for him, in the middle of the taproom of the goddamn World Serpent Inn. In the end, his plans aren’t even foiled by the PCs, but by a bunch of devas who also happen to be drinking at the same time and go off to warn their bosses – way to go, you genius plotter, you. In the climax, Tyr and Osiris show up with a divine host to kick ass. If the PCs have behaved like good-aligned and brave adventurers during the scenario, Tyr will buy them a round in the World Serpent Inn after the battle is done. So much for experiencing the numinous. I’m not sure I could write something this banal if I tried. Geh!
Finally, the book is wrapped up by a bunch of lair writeups. These are something that showed up in a bunch of late AD&D sourcebooks, most notably the Forgotten Realms accessories Book of Lairs and Lords of Darkness. It’s a one-page writeup of an encounter area and adventure seed for a certain monster. We get lairs for archons, babau, berbalang and basilisk, dao, efreet (using the Battlesystem rules), farastu demodand, githyanki, githzerai, grey slaad, ildriss, kuei, marid, modrons, planetar, p’oh. spined devil and ultrodaemon. Some of them can be utilized as parts of an adventure, others are just excuses to fight weird things. Overall, I am not unhappy that the lair writeups died out in short order.
Tales of the Outer Planes isn’t much of a book. I’m not a fan of the short adventure format, and few of these really capture the wonder of being on another plane of existence. Others seem to actively fight against it and prefer to be as unmemorable as possible. It’s a far cry from Planescape. However, the book is unmistakably a forebear of the setting, even if it is visible in only a few of the adventures.
It lacks voice, though, both in the sense that it doesn’t yet have Planescape’s distinctive slang and in that there is no editorial voice. It’s debatable if the editor actually did anything beyond proofreading, actually. The adventures are not even presented in an uniform format, which feels rather sloppy. Overall, I felt the book was rather uninspired, which contributed to the fact it’s taken me this long to get this post written – I wrote half of this hot off the tail of having finished up Planescape Campaign Setting, and then I sort of stalled. Though it does have redeeming and redeemable features, Tales of the Outer Planes is more of a historical curiosity than anything you’d want to use at the game table.
Next up, as Eero Tuovinen wished, Tales from the Infinite Staircase.