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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Let’s Read Planescape: OP1 Tales of the Outer Planes

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.

Final Verdict

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

The Factions

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.

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

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently received the entirety of the Planescape campaign setting – books, boxes, posters and CDs, everything and a little extra.

It is quite a treasure. Going by eBay prices, its current monetary value is in the quadruple digits, and this is all mint condition. I feel it would be wrong to just sit on this wealth of material. While I am familiar with most of it already, it can stand a re-read, so that is what I will do. Also, I will blog about it. I will describe what’s in there and give my own observations on the material, how it has aged, and how it appears to my eyes, two editions and thirteen years later. These won’t be reviews as such, though there will be elements of that as well. It will probably take me a long while to get through all this stuff – there are maybe thirty books, plus six boxed sets and a computer game, but we’re not in a hurry. The campaign setting first came out in 1994 (and the last book came out in 1998). It’ll keep a few more years. By the way, there’s a pretty damn good fan site for it, Planewalker.com. Personally, I will mostly refrain from commenting on the actual rules here, since it’s been over ten years since I last ran 2E, and it’s not a rule system I am overly fond of in any case.

Now, I’ve never made a secret of my love of game worlds, and especially the settings of AD&D 2E. They are lavishly illustrated, filled to the gills with evocative material, the works of creative minds that took the core concepts of D&D and saw how far they could take them. They came up with the Gothic horror of Ravenloft, the kingdom-building of Birthright, the post-apocalyptic fantasy of Dark Sun, the 1001 nights of Al-Qadim, the weirdness of Spelljammer… and the dearest to me of all, the philosophical, quirky, infinite and simultaneously very human in its scope – Planescape.

Planescape is one of the two AD&D settings that attempted to tie all the other settings together in one unified whole. The other was Spelljammer, which is about spacefaring between the fantasy worlds and was pretty explicit about its connections with the Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms settings. It had this charming way of taking the entire science of astrophysics, deciding it’s unnecessary and boring, torching it and then dancing around the bonfire. Crystal spheres, phlogiston, geocentric systems, everything having its own air envelope in space… lovely! And the giant space hamsters! I need to write about those, one day.

Anyway, Planescape took the view one step further away. It connected every setting, the entire multiverse of D&D. It centered on the Outer Planes, the heavens and hells and all things in between, and Sigil, the ultimate fantasy metropolis. The scope of the setting was not so much infinity as infinities. The setting arguably takes the core conceits of D&D the farthest of all, and creates a multiverse where the alignment rules make sense, where they are even explicitly spelled out as something within the setting. Then, it goes on to explore their implications. For instance, all the gods of different D&D settings dwell in the Outer Planes, in their own realms. All of them. As well as all the mythical pantheons of our world. We will have such fun when we get to On Hallowed Ground

Now, I am not claiming that everything in Planescape was superb. They released over 30 products, so there’s plenty of space for stinkers. They’re there, and we will come to them in time. However, they are few and far between, and for the most part, this is the good stuff. I will even make the claim about one or two products that they are the best of their kind among all games that I am familiar with. We will come to those as well, when it is their time.

But enough preamble. Let us begin.

The Planescape Campaign Setting

And what other place to begin than the beginning? This is the core box that explains the setting for player and DM alike, and does it well.

The first thing that strikes me as I explore the contents are the production values. This is quality stuff. Durable covers and lots of content. The 90’s were the Age of the Boxed Set, and TSR knew how to use them. While I know that putting out such huge piles of stuff with such high product values killed TSR in the end, I can only say that they left a damn fine-looking corpse.

First of all, there are three books. The first of them is the 32-page “A Player’s Guide to the Planes”, the second one is the aptly named “A DM Guide to the Planes”, and the third one is “Sigil and Beyond”, the setting book. Under those comes the really interesting stuff. There’s four posters in this box, plus a DM screen with the image of the Lady of Pain from the setting’s logo on it. It is certainly a pretty screen, but it feels flimsy. This is one thing where we’ve come far – the GM screens of our day are sturdy stuff. The Pathfinder screen is made of the same stuff as hardcovers! This thin cardboard cannot stand up to that, though I would say that it looks better, with the inscrutable, stern face of the Lady of Pain staring down the players.

The posters, then… The first one to come up is titled “Sigil, City of Doors”. It’s a rough map of the city, split into two, much like over here (not the same map, though – I think that one is from In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil). It’s a bit plain but shows what’s where, even if I do think there’s rather too much empty space on it. It should be more cramped. I guess it’s not to scale, though. At least, no scale is given. That format of the map, by the way, split into two oblong pieces… it’s because the city actually occupies the inner surface of a huge torus that may or not be at the top of an infinitely tall mountain called the Spire. In Sigil, if your view isn’t obscured by the smog, you can see the city streets curve above you. Most dizzying. On the flipside, there’s a black-and-white illustration of the city by Dana Knutson. This is more like it! It shows how the buildings are tall, the architecture is angular, even spiky – no direct visual analogues with the real world here – and the streets are narrow and twisting. They aren’t in perfect repair, either, with roof tiles missing here and a window broken there.

The second one is titled “Outer Planes”, and it displays a rather cluttered diagram of the makeup of the planar structure, and not just the Great Wheel that the seventeen Outer Planes make up. Actually, it’s this image here. Here, you can see how things work. There are the Outer Planes – the planes of belief and morality, which all represent the different alignments – in the fore and centre. Then there’s the Astral Plane, a conduit between the Outer Planes and the Prime Material Plane. The Prime Material Plane is where the action happens in pretty much all the other AD&D settings. It’s where the crystal spheres and planets are. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Birthright, Dragonlance, Spelljammer, those all happen over there. The Prime Material Plane is in turn connected to the Inner Planes by the Ethereal Plane, another conduit (as a minor detail, the one other setting that isn’t in the Prime Material is Ravenloft, which is a demiplane floating in the Deep Ethereal). The Inner Planes are where the material building blocks of the Prime Material come from. They’re the elemental planes, but they’re not only fire, water, air and earth. There’s also the paraelemental planes that form where the four traditional elements merge with one another. You can see them there – ooze, magma, smoke and ice. Then there are the Positive and Negative Energy Planes, and between them and the four major elements form the quasielemental planes, eight in all.

So, we’re up to… 34 different planes. Remember that they are all infinite.

Also, note what is missing – there is no conduit between the Inner and Outer Planes. That is because the Outer Planes are made of belief and have no need of such mundane building materials.

On the flipside of the “Outer Planes” poster, we get the Cosmographical Tables, which lists all the 17 Outer Planes and their layers (because infinities can be split up into more easily handled pieces), as well as some important locations within them, such as the realms of some deities. Useful.

Next up, the poster map of the Outlands. Outlands is the plane at the centre of the Great Ring and is also called the Plane of Concordant Opposition. It’s the Outer Plane of True Neutrality. In its dead centre (as much as anything infinite can be said to have a centre) rises the Spire, and above it is the torus of Sigil. Around its rim are the sixteen gate towns to the other Outer Planes, and between the Spire and the Rim there’s the real meat, the local hotspots. On the left-hand side, there’s the River Ma’at flowing through Thoth‘s Estate and Thebestys, disappearing a bit before it would reach Tir fo Thiunn, on whose northern bank lies Tir na Og and whose southern shore becomes the fetid Semuanya‘s Swamp. On the right-hand side, we have the divine realms of Sheela Peryroyl, Tvashtri, and Chronepsis.

On the flipside, black-and-white illustrations of four Outlands locations – the gatetowns of Torch and Bedlam, Sheela Peryroyl’s realm and the Mausoleum of Chronepsis. I like these. They give an instant feel for the places. Sheela Peryroyl’s realm is a place of woodlands and halfling burrows, nice and welcoming, while Torch and Bedlam are locations of great evil but not necessarily openly hostile. The gatetowns, by the way, are towns that have formed around permanent gates to each of the Outer Planes, formed in a ring around the Outlands. Each town reflects the character of the plane its gate leads to. Torch is the gatetown of Gehenna and Bedlam’s gate leads to Pandemonium. I won’t start exploring the Outer Planes in great detail quite yet, but you should be able to tell by their names what kind of places they are.

The final poster has all the symbols of the fifteen factions (we’ll get there, don’t worry) of Sigil, in living colour. I like the designs. They are visually uniform, yet distinct enough that you can easily tell them apart. On the flipside of this poster are lists of powers by plane – “power” being Planescape’s parlance for “deity”. For instance, we can see that in Baator (the lawful evil plane) are the realms of Bargrivyek (a goblin deity), Hecate (Greek), Kurtulmak (kobold), Sekolah (sahuagin), Set (Egyptian), Takhisis (Dragonlance) and Tiamat (dragon). No Finnish powers apart from Mielikki and Loviatar, who are listed as deities of Toril. Aw, disappointment. Well, no matter – we will get there yet. There’s that On Hallowed Ground haunting us again…

We’re finally up to the last non-book item in the box…

The Monstrous Supplement

D&D has always loved its monsters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of different monsters published in all its incarnations reached into the quintuple digits. Now, here we have a “monstrous supplement”. Many of the boxed sets have these. It’s a 32-page booklet with no covers, detailing a bunch of monsters. Me, I like monsters, and I especially like how they were presented in 2E – at least one page per monster, lots of information about habitat, society and ecology along with the combat data. Also, lavish illustrations, at least in the Planescape books.

First up is the aleax. The aleax is an agent of divine vengeance, sent by a god to punish those who have strayed from their alignment or sacrificed insufficient treasure or whatnot. Its only goal is to slay its intended victim in single combat, and its stats are actually an exact duplicate of the victim. Nobody can help the victim in the fight, and if the target defeats the aleax, he has sort of passed this trial by combat and will no longer be attacked for the particular offense that provoked the sending of the aleax.

The aleax is a quintessential plot device monster and honestly, its rules makeup is such that I am very happy about the template mechanic in D20 System. Makes using creatures like these much easier. I believe the aleax first appeared in 1E, in the original Fiend Folio. Zak over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars has reimagined it over on his blog. Its D20 incarnation can be found in Book of Exalted Deeds.

Then there is the astral searcher, a sort of a ghost that forms in the Astral Plane as a side effect of concentrated or traumatic thoughts by prime-material characters. They seek to possess physical bodies, destroying the psyche and identity of its victims in the process. This monster also has all sorts of adventure hooks built within, such as a person possessed by an astral searcher returning home to live as a mental invalid with their family until years later someone knowledgeable realizes the truth. I think this is the first and likely only appearance of the astral searcher. Correct me if I am wrong.

Third up, the barghest. Everybody knows the D&D barghest. It’s a fiend that can shapeshift between goblin and worg forms that send their whelps into the Prime Material Plane to eat living beings and grow strong. There’s one as a villain in the third book of the Dark Elf Trilogy, Sojourn, incidentally. The barghest has been statted up pretty much everywhere, including the 3E Monster Manual and the Pathfinder Bestiary. It’s a good boss monster for lower-level parties, I feel, or a miniboss at bit higher levels. I figure that it’s a leader type, or at least a strong henchman. Having a group of barghests just wouldn’t feel right.

Next up, the cranium rat. Here’s a Planescape favourite. They are neutral evil rats that inhabit the city of Sigil and form a hivemind. The more cranium rats you have in one place, the smarter they get, reaching up to Intelligence 20 in a large enough pack. They’re a part of at least one plot thread in the later life of the setting, and may or may not be agents of the mind flayer deity Ilsensine. We may also remember them from Planescape: Torment, as well as the 3E version of Fiend Folio.

The dabus! One of the weirdest things in the setting. The dabus are the caretakers of Sigil, the mysterious agents of the Lady of Pain, who repair, clean, build and maintain the city of Sigil according to their own mysterious agenda. Unlike the Lady of Pain, however, the dabus do speak. Except they speak in rebuses. There is an entry for roleplaying the dabus (who are fortunately rather aloof most of the time). If the DM knows the party will be interacting with a dabus, they can prepare some rebuses beforehand, but if there is a need to improvise, they can say “the dabus spits out a string of rebuses” and pantomime the message. Great stuff! I’m just not entirely certain how rebuses would work in Finnish.

Then there’s the magman, which looks to be a forerunner of the magmin, as seen in the 3E Monster Manual and pretty much nowhere else after that. Small, mischievous lava gnome, essentially.

After that, the minion of Set, an elite warrior of the lawful evil Egyptian deity Set. They are the elite commanders of his troops, imbued with shapeshifting ability. They’re tough customers, and a very interesting find in the Planescape Campaign Setting. They never did much with Set in the rest of the game line (that I can remember), and I have the feeling that these guys are here to emphasize the inclusiveness of the setting. All the deities have their realms in the planes, and you can have a paladin of Tyr and a cleric of Heironeous fighting side by side against the minions of Set.

Finally, we come to the modrons, another one of the most interesting and intriguing creatures in the setting. They are the race of lawful neutral outsiders, a hierarchy of clockwork creatures that are utterly ordered and lawful, and come in a myriad of geometrical shapes according to their rank. They are completely logical and completely incomprehensible. They come in fifteen ranks, from the spherical, two-legged and barely sentient monodrone to the Primus, the One and the Prime, who is essentially a god in his own right. Also, since the modrons are beings of logic and order, and some of the planes are anything but, sometimes a modron springs a gear, so to speak. Malfunctions. They go rogue. Rogue modrons are usually captured and executed by the other modrons, but some get away, such as Nordom in Planescape: Torment. Strangely, Planescape Campaign Setting does not have the rules for rogue modron player characters. I wonder when those were released. I guess we’ll find out. Unfortunately, all of the modrons were never statted out for 3E For 3.0, all the modrons except for Primus can be found in the Manual of the Planes web enhancement. They were never all converted to 3.5, but the lower ranks of monodrone, duodrone, tridrone and quadrone were in Dragon #354, along with the rules for rogue modron PCs, and the hierarch modron tertian was in Dungeon #144, in the adventure “Diplomacy”.

Then there are the plane-hopping nic’Epona horses, the spirits of the air (minions of wind and air gods), the air elemental vortex which may or may not even be a living creature, and the marraenoloth. The marraeonoloth is one of the yugoloths (aka. daemons), the race of fiends that are to neutral evil what the modrons are to lawful neutral. The marraenoloths are the boatmen on the River Styx, a major planar passageway along the Lower Planes (those are the evil-aligned ones). They are mercenaries with a monopoly on Styx boat traffic, and if you harm one marraenoloth, they will all know of it and will request higher payments or betray the clients. You don’t piss off the unions, man. The River Styx, incidentally, drains the memories of those who happen to touch its waters. Dangerous stuff.

Also, holy crap this is long. I had intended to go over “A Player’s Guide to the Planes” in this post as well, but that will have to wait for the weekend. We should get into the real meat of the setting with that.

News, Updates, Self-Aggrandizement

There are many things afoot right now in the local gaming scene.

For one thing, Ropecon is approaching, and the Game Master signup is open.

New Releases

Also, there are intriguing new game releases on the way. The Society for Nordic Roleplaying finally announced that book of theirs, Unelma Keltaisesta kuninkaasta ja muita tanskalaisia roolipelejä (“Dream of the King in Yellow and Other Danish Roleplaying Games”). The link is in Finnish, but even if you don’t understand the lingo, the cover image is worth the click. It’s a collection of 12 one-shot roleplaying games from the Danish convention of Fastaval, translated into Finnish. There’s high fantasy, there’s drama, there’s Lovecraftian horror, a few things that are apparently inspired by Warhammer, and two of those weird games with a designed goal of making everyone involved feel terrible, The Journey and Fat Man Down.

I proofread The Journey’s translation. Even that was an experience I could’ve done without. I discussed the game and its ilk back when the first issue of Playground came out, and, well, damn.

But it’s far too easy to focus on the negative or the weird. Most of the modules in the book are (probably) excellent and suitable even for people whose tastes run to the more traditional. There’s Guernica, a romantic action game about the Spanish Civil War. There’s The Ark, an epic fantasy scenario, and there’s a Warhammer murder mystery set in a community of halflings.

Okay, there’s also a Warhammer thing called Slaaraphenland, where there’s apparently some sort of cake-eating mechanic to simulate the corruption of Chaos. As in, the players eat cake. I have not read the scenario myself, but I am very curious about this one.

While we’re on the subject of weird things, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Grindhouse Edition came out. I have not yet studied it in depth, but the art… man, the art! It is a beautiful game in its own quirky, off-putting, face-eating way. I understand the production values are also higher than last year’s Deluxe Edition, but I cannot comment yet as I only have the PDF. There’s also a minor contribution from me in this work, a short essay on H.P. Lovecraft and his works in the Tutorial booklet.

Also, according to Burger Games, the English version of Stalker is on the way. Has been on the way for a while now. Might even be out at Ropecon. Who knows? Some other Finnish games that may or may not come out during 2011 are the fantasy RPG Bliaron – Kalthanien perintö (“Bliaron – The Legacy of the Kalthans”), a sci-fi horror game from Myrrysmiehet called Vihan lapset (“Children of Hate”), something really strange-sounding from The Society of Nordic Roleplaying named Tsernobyl, rakastettuni (“Chernobyl, My Beloved”), another fantasy game called Noitahovi (“The Witch Court”), a third fantasy game called Generian legendat (“The Legends of Generia”) from Ironspine, and finally, Punaiset hiekat (“Red Sands”), a sourcebook for gaming in Somalia. There’s also a rumour from last year that an English-language version of the Finnish penguin roleplaying game Ikuisuuden laakso (“Vale of Eternity”) is in the works somewhere. I reviewed it for Roolipelaaja back when it came out in Finnish and quite liked the game. Four stars out of five, that one. If they ever get it out in English, I’ll translate the review and post it here.

Of course, this is the RPG industry and a handful of the above have already missed one release date. I’ll believe it when I own it. As a consolation to any dejected game designer, if you publish a Finnish RPG, the only ways I won’t buy it is if I get a complimentary copy or they sell out before I can get my hands on it. And I’ve got one of the 18 extant copies of L.G.D.S. I’m good at getting my hands on games.

Me Looking Foolish on Camera

The worst has happened. Turns out that Tracon last year filmed their presentations and panels, including that one about horror in RPGs that I was involved in and posted about. The videos are now in YouTube. There also appears to be another presentation about interactive programs at conventions from Concon a couple of weeks ago that I am also involved with. It is a small blessing that they are in Finnish and none outside our borders may comprehend my shame. However, there’s also good stuff for those who grok the lingo – a presentation on managing con workers, another on managing con security and a one from Tracon about politics in RPGs. The practice of recording convention program is a good one, I think, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any English-language con programs on YouTube. Does anyone know better?

Planescape

Also, it was my birthday recently. I got Planescape. I mean all of it. There’s a largish cardboard box in my game room at the moment, which contains six different boxed sets and roughly 30 sourcebooks and adventures (everything released under the setting’s label plus a few extra, like Warriors of Heaven and Die, Vecna, Die!). Mint condition. some of the modules are still shrinkwrapped. Only things missing are the Blood War trilogy of novels and Pages of Pain, which I figure I can survive without. There’s also a first-release copy of Planescape: Torment, which makes it my third or fourth copy of that game.

I’m mostly telling this to brag, but will likely discuss some of the material in the coming months. It remains one of my favourite settings, even if my feelings towards the system of AD&D 2E itself are rather cool.