Posted by: NiTessine | January 9, 2012

Let’s Read Planescape: Tales from the Infinite Staircase

In the sixth installment of my Let’s Read Planescape project, I present to you a work released late in the setting’s run, in 1998. Tales from the Infinite Staircase is one of several adventure anthologies written for the setting, and though it’s not as famous as The Great Modron March, it is very interesting indeed. It’s a 128-page book with eight adventures tied together by an overarching plotline, written by Monte Cook, the lead designer of D&D 5E. It is also advertised as a tie-in with the Forgotten Realms adventure module For Duty & Deity (used to be available from WotC’s site as a free download). They’re not crossovers, Tales from the Infinite Staircase being a fairly low-level ordeal and For Duty & Deity for characters of 10th level and up. Naturally, the following post will spoil the living daylights out of Tales from the Infinite Staircase.

What makes Tales of the Infinite Staircase really interesting is its structure. Unlike The Great Modron March or a Paizo adventure path, it’s nonlinear. After the first adventure, the other seven can be played in any order, and include notes on how circumstances may change in each adventure depending on what the PCs have done in their preceding adventures as well as the point in time when they are tackling each adventure. Of course, they can also be used as standalones.

The obvious question here is “how the bloody hell do you make such a thing level-appropriate?” Eight adventures is a lot of ground to cover, and will easily result in a level-up or three. Well, most of the adventures are suitable for characters of levels 3-6. There’s not a whole lot of combat, either, in stark contrast to some of Monte Cook’s later work, like the nearly two-hundred pages of meatgrinder that is Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

The adventures are connected by the adventure’s plot and the Infinite Staircase itself. The Infinite Staircase is an extraplanar pathway rising from the extraplanar palace of Selûne, Toril’s moon goddess. As its name implies, it’s a staircase that stretches into infinity in the middle of a dark void, curving, forking and turning like something illustrated by M.C. Escher. There are landings on the staircase, and on the landings are doorways. The Staircase connects places where creative endavour takes place – pretty much anywhere there is intelligent life. In the module, it even connects to an illithid city and a formian hive, and neither of those species are known for their high cultural achievements.

The primus motor of the adventure, then, is a phenomenon known as the Iron Shadow. It falls upon places where there is creativity and kills it. It spreads through portals (though not through the Infinite Staircase, as the two are antithetical), and destroys inspiration, motivation, and the will to change wherever it lands.

The structure of the adventure, then, gives a set of locations where the Iron Shadow will land, and the timeline of events. There are eight tales in the book and eight stages of time. The timeline governs when and where the Iron Shadow spreads, as well as the movements of certain key NPCs that are likewise investigating the phenomenon for their own purposes or have been set in motion by its spread. For instance, there is the hound archon paladin Jazriul, who investigates the Iron Shadow, the formian queen Hvix’mnac who seeks revenge for the destruction of her hive, blue slaadi from Limbo and the kyton minions of Quimath, from the city of Jangling Hiter.

Stage 1 is always the first Tale, “Planewalkers”, and after that, each Stage is the completion of another Tale. There are no specific time measurements, but all of the scenarios look like they would take one or two days for the party to complete, with “The Dream Well” perhaps occupying them up to a week.

Interestingly, there is no origin given for the Iron Shadow. Nobody knows where it comes from or why, or who is responsible. It is merely described as “an evil, ultimately destructive manifestation of Order”, and that’s it. I do not know why this is. I could speculate that it’s just one more mystery of the planes, but it’s not explicitly spelled out as such, either. If I were to bet, I’d say the Iron Shadow is related to a metaplot piece that never saw its ultimate conclusion because the line was cancelled. There’s another piece like that in the book, in “A Devil’s Dream”, and it’s not the only loose end the setting left when they pulled the plug (the rumoured but unannounced sequels to Faction War being the most famous one).

Tale 1: Planewalkers

The first tale in the book is intended for characters of levels 3-5. It serves as an introduction to the Infinite Staircase and brings the characters into contact with the Planewalker’s Guild and the lillendi who hire them to look into the Iron Shadow, but what it is actually about is something completely different. Basically, it’s a search and rescue mission that gets sold to the party as a package delivery.

The lillendi, by the way, are the serpent-bodied women who guard the Staircase. They’re patrons of arts and veritable muses, and naturally antithetical to the Iron Shadow. They’re also fairly powerful in their own right.

“Planewalkers” contains a good deal of material about traversing the Staircase – suggestions on the appearances of doors to different places (which naturally reflect their destinations), random encounters, some notes about combat on the Staircase and about the functionality of magic. Falling off the Staircase will hurt, by the way. You may not fall all the way to the bottom, but you will eventually hit something.

The actual adventure is about finding the planewalker Oriam Trascalia, who has disappeared. The Planewalker’s Guild will direct the party to the general area of the Staircase where Oriam is located, but it has been taken over by a glabrezu, powerful tanar’ri, and his allies. The party must make their way past these adversaries to rescue the planewalker, who is stranded on a platform that got separated from the rest of the Staircase when the stairway leading there was broken. Plotwise, it is all very straightforward. Tactically, it gets very interesting.

The area, called Stairway of Desolation in the adventure, is composed of several landings and staircases that branch out. These share lines of sight and hearing, but getting from one to another is tricky. There’s some giant spiders, some manes (in D&D, the very lowest kind of demon) with a set of magical pipes, a human fighter that the glabrezu turned to evil, and the glabrezu himself.

The funny thing is that a glabrezu demon outclasses PCs of the intended level by so much it’s not even funny. To give an idea of the power discrepancy, the Pathfinder RPG version is Challenge Rating 13. In all likelihood, the group will not even possess a weapon capable of hurting one. However, the fiend can be talked with or avoided, or the PCs can try to destroy its lair. I like this. The glabrezu is an obstacle that theoretically looks like it could be fought, but in actuality cannot. You need to be intelligent and perhaps think outside the box to figure out how to deal with it. It’s a useful reminder that not all enemies can be slain – there’s always a bigger fish.

There’s also the planewalker Oriam’s ex-girlfriend, who got him into this mess – Shavanistra, an evil and quite insane wizard. She is hiding just on the other side of a doorway to Abstemious, a city of illithids. The PCs may also run into these. While Shavanistra, at level six, is not an impossible enemy at the assumed party level, illithids most likely are. Another case where discretion is the better part of valour.

In the end, once the PCs rescue Oriam, they are “rewarded” by the lillendi with a mission to figure out what this Iron Shadow thing is and given a list of seven doors where the lillendi know they can find answers. In an amusing twist, two of the doors lead to places that have not even been infected yet at this point in the story – their connection to the Staircase has allowed them to predict future events. Of course, they don’t actually know this.

After “Planewalkers”, the rest of the tales are found behind the seven doors and can be played in whatever order the party wishes.

It’s a funny thing about lillendi and manes… Back in AD&D, they still did irregular plurals. “Manes” is “manes” in both singular and plural, while the plural of “lillend” is “lillendi”. Not so in 3E and later products. Personally, I prefer the irregular plurals.

Tale 2: Lost Sovereignty

Behind the first door on the list is “The Queen’s Domain” – the formian hive city of Klictric on the plane of Arcadia. In “Lost Sovereignty”, the book also pulls off one of its more impressive feats and makes formians seem kinda interesting. I detest their role in 3E as the exemplar race of lawful neutral outsiders, usurping the place of modrons and doing it in the least interesting and blandest way possible. “Expansionist in the extreme, formians are dedicated to spreading their colonies until they have taken over everything and their order is unquestioned. To further this end, they attack all other creatures, usually to put them to work building and expanding cities.” Direct quote from the 3E Monster Manual. While ultimate Order can and should be unknowable, that’s just boring.

But I digress. The Iron Shadow has already fallen upon Klictric, resulting in a flood that has all but demolished the entire hive, when the workers ceased maintaining a dam. The queen of the city, Hvix’mnac, has left to seek vengeance and spread the Iron Shadow, accidentally, to the Spawning Stone of the slaadi [hey, another irregular plural!], in Limbo. Later, in Stage 6, the slaadi will invade Klictric in retribution.

“Lost Sovereignty” is one of the least interesting parts of Tales from the Infinite Staircase. The party can pick up the gnome Hannock Ringfinger, who’s a trader from Bytopia and can be helpful. Also, the module occasionally notes that should the party have Hannock or certain other NPCs with them, it may be appropriate to have them captured or slain at certain points. These NPCs are not explicitly noncombatants, but their stat blocks seem to suggest it (Hannock may be a 4th-level thief, but his Strength is still only 9).

There’s also a dragon, one of the few I’ve seen in Planescape. Talleax is a very young bronze dragon kept by the formians. I say “kept” because Talleax is… “special”. His Intelligence score is 5. Dragons are very rare in Planescape, and I am not entirely certain why. It may be just to distance the setting from the vanilla D&D. I’ve also read a theory of uncertain provenance that dragons, being the powerful and self-centered creatures they are, tend to shape the Outer Planes with the force of their belief quite easily, and tend to be hunted down or driven away whenever they are found (there’s always a bigger fish). I’m not too fond of that theory for a few reasons that should be obvious.

Also in Klictric is something resembling plot, a bariaur disguised as a formian, who plans to usurp the Chamber of Deep Magic, a location of power deep within Klictric (and presently underwater, which puts a certain… damper in her plans) and use it to become immortal. She’s not actually evil, though, and allowing her plans to come to fruition will not destroy the world.

Tale 3: Lord of the Worms

“Lord of the Worms”, then, is something far more interesting. The third Tale takes place on the demiplane of Maelost, which has worse weather than England, and the water that covers most of its surface has acquired an evil sentience and is called the Taker of Life. It preys on the human inhabitants of the demiplane, the Hanim. It is opposed by another being, the benign Dark Dweller, deep within the ridges of Maelost and can teleport beings from one place to another on the surface. A third form of life unique to the demiplane are the valgoss and slaiyith worms. The valgoss are tiny things that can be implanted in a person in a special ritual, much like the goa’uld worms of Stargåte SG-1. A valgoss grants its bearer some special abilities, and the Taker of Life ignores valgoss carriers. In another special ritual, the slaiyith can grant an implanted valgoss powerful magic that only works within Maelost.

I like Maelost. It’s strange, and dark, and foreign, and moody. Black, oily rain falls from the skies to splatter on sharp ridges of rock, making them treacherous and slippery to climbers, or in the deep, dark pools that are the Taker of Life. The native species are bats, bugs, leeches and ravens, with the occasional fly, black pudding or even death kiss beholder. The Hanim aren’t evil, but they lead harsh lives that the Iron Shadow has just made harsher still, and their local leader actually is evil. The Iron Shadow makes the valgoss leave their hosts, making them vulnerable to the Taker of Life.

“Lord of the Worms” is a sandbox. There’s a demiplane to explore and nothing really going on or plot to follow, though at later stages, a few slaadi will pop by and the hound archon Jazriul will make an appearance to wage a short and extremely futile war against the Taker of Life. The Taker of Life isn’t just a bigger fish – it’s the entire damn ocean. Literally. There’s a great deal to do in Maelost, such as meet the Hanim, become a host to a valgoss, investigate the Dark Dweller, slowly figure out that the Taker of Life can’t be killed, and so on.

A peculiar feature of Maelost is that it curves on itself. This does not just mean that the land area is spherical, but also that if you fly upwards long enough, you will begin to approach the surface again.

Tale 4: In Disarray

The fourth Tale takes place in Limbo, where Hvix’mnac has inadvertently brought the Iron Shadow to the Spawning Stone where the slaadi breed. Under the Shadow, they do not, which threatens the existence of the entire species if something is not done. Running around Limbo ensues, including an encounter with a dao slaver. The dao has a bunch of slaves of a species called the shad (apparently from Planescape Monstrous Compendium III), one of whom may join the party in their adventures. His name is Mulk, which would lead to endless hilarity in a Finnish group.

In Limbo, the PCs can discover one of the two things they need to dispel the Iron Shadow’s effect from an area – Navimas, hyper-concentrated essence of chaos. Chaos, apparently, looks like pinkish fluid in a bottle.

“In Disarray” has a few revelations about the nature of the slaadi. It has always felt slightly off that the exemplar race of chaos is actually strictly colour-coded into a caste system, but here we find out that the Slaad Lords Ygorl and Ssendam, in ages past, altered the Spawning Stone to limit the possible forms of the slaadi to the few that we know today, making them easier to rule and preventing the birth of a creature as powerful as they. Sometimes, though, the process fails, and a true slaad is born, and hidden away to a secret nursery.

We also meet Phlegamor, a former death slaad whom the Slaad Lords allowed to attain his true shape, but who then fell from favour and was bound within a magical carpet woven out of the stuff of space and time. The PCs will also end up taking a detour through the carpet in their quest for the Navimas.

Tale 5: Winds of Change

“Winds of Change” takes place in Blurophil, a floating city on the Elemental Plane of Air. It is populated by a people calling themselves the Riven. They are the descendants of those who were exiled from the prime world of Orthos after a powerful military might subjugated the world under one government. That military might was called the Harmonium, and Orthos is where they originally come from. Unfortunately, there’s no note on what the inhabitants of Blurophil think about the Harmonium nowadays. Nothing like a bit of faction persecution to liven up the day.

In Blurophil, the PCs should find Ghuntomas of Thorn, a former member of the Fraternity of Order and the author of the treatise Ever-changing Order, which is a philosophical musing on the complementary natures of law and chaos. The book is needed to figure out how to use the Navimas on different planes to dispel the taint of the Iron Shadow.

Ghuntomas and the Iron Shadow are but a side attraction, though, and the big thing in Blurophil is the serial killer Gasping Strangler. The Gasping Strangler is an air genasi elementalist who’s flipped his lid and started murdering outsiders to the Elemental Plane of Air – anyone who doesn’t belong, like humans, creatures of other elements, aasimar, tieflings, and so on. He’s also killing his way through the alignments of the Great Wheel – he started with a lawful good paladin, and by the time the adventurers show up, has worked his way through lawful neutral with good tendencies, lawful neutral, lawful neutral with evil tendencies, lawful evil, lawful evil with neutral tendencies and neutral evil. Next up would be neutral evil with chaotic tendencies. Only in Planescape…

I can actually see a chaotic good type group figure out the murderer’s pattern and find out his identity, and then wait for him to work his way out of the evil alignments before putting a stop to his rampage. Of course, if they have the shad Mulk with them, the Gasping Strangler might just break his pattern to murder a creature of elemental earth, which is antithetical to elemental air.

I’m not entirely happy with “Winds of Change” as an investigation module. Despite being surprisingly complex in structure, it’s rather too easy for the PCs and the ways of finding out the killer’s identity are too few (and traditional detective work is barely there). It would’ve benefited from an additional page or two of information and especially the fleshing out of the previous couple of victims.

Tale 6: The Dream Well

The sixth Tale takes the party to the Astral Plane and the githyanki city of TorNav’roc, which has just been demolished by an invasion of psurlons. The city is in ruins, and the building housing the portal back the Infinite Staircase will collapse soon after the party arrives. In the city, they encounter all kinds of stragglers, including a troupe of githyanki hunters, who are researching a magical location called the Dream Well.

When the PCs sleep in the city (as they likely will, with their means of escape buried under tons of rubble), they will be visited by strange dreams that repeat each night until they either manage a solution or fail definitively. If they solve the puzzle of the dreams, they will release Aeryv’nir, a githyanki wizard from times past, who managed to get trapped within the Dream Well. Interestingly, the wizard is level 16, and (at least according to Monstrous Manual), githyanki that reach level 12 have their souls devoured by Queen Gith to prevent them from becoming threats.

Adventuring in the Astral Plane is always interesting, since the characters Str score is replaced by their Int score, and their Wis replaces their Dex. It is the plane of the mind, which will pose its own challenges to the fighter who opted to dump Int.

Tale 7: Reflections

“Reflections” takes place in the Outlands, very close to the Spire, in the second ring. If the last Tale made physical combatants suffer, this one will prove problematic to spellcasters, since no magic will function. Here lie Sum of All, a city of the rilmani, and the Mirrored Library, where most of the action of “Reflections” take place.

The Mirrored Library was not built by the rilmani. In fact, it was originally made by a member of a race called kamerel. The kamerel dwelled in the Outlands long ago, when the multiverse was still young. They were xenophobic to the extreme and refused to even acknowledge the existence of other intelligent races unless they absolutely had to. They developed a subtle kind of magic utilizing mirrors that could be operated even this close to the base of the Spire. One of the kamerel, however, felt that the other races rising in the planes might be a threat, and developed a magic item to spy upon them. Hallonac was her name, and she built Timaresh, the Collection of Hated Lore to house the bindery of Hallonac. The bindery is a powerful magical item that captures the essence of any book, scroll or other written work meant to be read by others, anywhere in the multiverse.

That turned out to be quite a bit. However, with the kamerel mirror magic, Hallonac created a library of mirrors that reflects itself endlessly, creating a mirrored infinity of rooms to house the books. Of course, the other kamerel were revolted by the idea that other species could produce writing, so they locked up the place, placed guardians, and tried to ignore its existence. Enter the rilmani, who quickly realized the collection’s value and tried to take it from the kamerel. A war ensued, ending in the predictable defeat of the kamerel, who fled within the mirrors and stayed there.

Until now. The Iron Shadow has fallen upon Sum of All. The rilmani, beings of pure neutrality, are reduced to their essential salts, and the kamerel finally consider it safe to come out. At the same time, kytons from Jangling Hiter are exploring the library, trying to find Ever-changing Order. The party is assumed to also be after the book.

At some point, the rings of the Outlands will fluctuate, and the area will come under the antimagical effects of the first ring. This will dispel the Iron Shadow and bring back Sum of All and its inhabitants, as well as removing what little spellcasting ability someone might still have retained. So, an infinite library of mirrors, a kyton strike force, some kamerel patrols, a team of rilmani and their allies, and the PCs themselves. I foresee much fun with this – fallen shelves, broken mirrors, some good old violence (though the entire thing can actually be negotiated through).

The Ever-changing Order is the other half of the solution to the problem that is the Iron Shadow. It contains the guidelines on how to modify Navimas and apply it in the places affected.

Tale 8: A Devil’s Dream

Above the swamps of Minauros, the third layer of Baator, hangs the chain city of Jangling Hiter. The city is entirely made of chains – streets, houses, everything. Chains hold it suspended above the marsh below and prevent it from sinking. It is home to some seven or eight thousand inhabitants, most of them kytons. The city is afflicted with the Iron Shadow, and the home of the kyton leader Quimath, who is responsible for sending forth the other kyton forces that the PCs may have encountered. Quimath is the BBEG of Tales of the Infinite Staircase, but he is not the force behind the Iron Shadow. He cannot control it, nor does he entirely understand it. He just seeks to spread it, and will be greatly angered if the PCs manage to dispel it from Jangling Hiter. This, incidentally, requires a signed permission from the baatezu.

It should be noted that kytons, though they dwell in Baator, are not baatezu. They are lawful evil and sometimes allies of the baatezu (mostly because they understand that the baatezu could sink them into the swamp if they put their minds to it), but they are not the same race, nor do they share the same goals. The kytons hold power in Jangling Hiter, not the baatezu puppet ruler, Pollux Windscream. The Iron Shadow serves the kytons’ ends, but not the baatezu’s – kytons are hardly creative beings, but the affliction blunts the inventive edge of the baatezu plots and intrigues. There’s a quote from Quimath that goes: “The sooner that people realize that true order comes from imposed structure, the better off the multiverse will be. Strength, such as Baatorian strength, coupled with efficient leadership, such as Baatorian leadership, is necessary for survival. Innovation, individuality and creativity only threaten the necessary, enforced order. Such things are a danger to our beliefs, and our beliefs are the only truth. Therefore, the Iron Shadow paves the way for truth.”

In Jangling Hiter, the party will explore the fortress of Panos Qytel, Quimath’s base of operations. Deep within the fortress, there’s an imprisoned nupperibo. Nupperibo are roughly the lawful evil equivalent of manes – grossly fat little fiendlings, considered the very lowest form of baatezu, and very weak. However, this is wrong. They are not baatezu, but the larval form of a race far older than the baatezu, the ancient Baatorians. This is a metaplot element that was hinted at here and there in Planescape, but never really fleshed out in depth. In any case, this particular nupperibo has been developing for centuries and has already matured into something that is no longer quite a nupperibo as they are usually thought of. It has no particular relevance in the plot of Tales from the Infinite Staircase, but the implications of its existence in the setting and metaplot are tremendous.

Panos Qytel also contains a particularly nasty trap that will cut off your feet. Loss of limbs isn’t something that’s often seen in D&D, any edition.

In Conclusion

Tales from the Infinite Staircase is among the last products released for the Planescape line, and it shows. For one thing, it is not illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi, an affliction that mars much of the later Planescape products. The cover by rk post holds its own, but the drab, two-tone interior art of Hannibal King just doesn’t do it to me. Additionally, it feels to me like there is less Cant used in the book. The voice is still that of Planescape, but it’s not quite Michael Caine.

I like the adventure’s structure. Having stuff going on elsewhere in the world, independent of the PCs and their actions, goes a long way towards making the setting feel more alive. To me, this is one of the big things when I run campaigns, and the method presented here makes it pretty easy. (The best method would be to have ten thousand players playing their own games in the same setting and reporting the adventure results to a central authority who then ruled on events in the world and disseminated information about them, but I understand that such a campaign infrastructure is not always available.) It reminds the players that the though the campaign revolves around them, the setting does not, and gives the illusion that the NPCs lead lives of their own and are active even when not interacting with the party.

Does it work? Well, it’s hard to say without running or playing it. It reads like it would work, and if it doesn’t, I am certain it can be made to work with the suitable adjustments and tweaks. It entails a certain degree of work for the GM, but in the age of computers and campaign websites, it would hardly be difficult to keep track of things. I must also admit that in reading the module, I do get a certain hankering to fiddle with rules and conversions to Pathfinder RPG. It amuses me to no end that formians are among the very last creatures from Monster Manual that haven’t been converted in a Paizo product, and most of the rest are animals. I like to think that this indicates someone over there agrees with me.

My next book has been decided, but I am still taking requests.

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