So, the theme for this blog for the past couple of months has been planar creatures and dimensional weirdness. Nothing embodies both better in my opinion within the realms of D&D than the Planescape Campaign Setting. While I’ve enjoyed other AD&D settings like Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance; Planescape has remained special to me. It’s a strange and cosmic fantasy where imagination is truly the limit! You want to fight insane mechanical cubes with ray guns? You can! You wanna gamble with a Devil with an Angel by your side? It’s possible! You wanna get flayed by a giant lady for treating her like a God? PLEASE DON’T DO THAT! But I digress, Planescape is a high concept setting with endless amounts of play and content to explore. For the reasons above and the many reasons below, I hope the full flavor of Planescape returns to D&D 5th Edition. So far, it’s my favorite incarnation of the rule set (and I loooove AD&D 2e, albeit mostly for the vast library of settings.) While they more or less have the Great Wheel, it feels much of the shadow of its former self like in the 3rd Edition of the game. I want the vibrancy, the absurdity and the wonder of those wonderful weird planes. Digressing from that, I’m here to address another question… How does one do a Planar game in this setting? Why, I’m glad you asked! Here’s a few humble suggestions from yours truly!
Now, I know what you’re thinking… “Doc! Didn’t you write about the planes on your other blog?” Yes, I did. However, I think now is a good time to revisit that post, especially now that I’ve been creating content revolving around planar travel and alternate dimensions. Plus, cosmological models and jumping between worlds has been one of my favorite aspects of D&D as a whole! With that, let’s chat about campaigns within the planes.
For starters, you might also ask me something; “Hey Doc! Aren’t there more cosmological models than The Great Wheel a la AD&D?” And you would be right! Especially since 3rd edition, new models have popped up. The Portals and Planes D20 Book (a rare title, if I may add) had heavily versatile options for truly forging your own planar realms. Pathfinder modifies the Great Wheel and adds to it in simply awesome ways (with help of Todd Stewart himself!) Eberron has an orrery based system where some planes overlap at the material plane at points in time. The World Axis is a duality between the Gods above and the Primordials below. That said, the Great Wheel remains my personal favorite of mine. To be fair, it’s where I had the most adventures within the planes themselves.
Welcome to the Cage.
We’ll assume you are a lower level adventurer for those early adventures across countless realms. You’re a primer addle-cove who doesn’t know the dark on the multiverse! So, where do you go? Why to the Cage (Sigil), of course! With a little jink jink and the tenacity of many a basher, you’ll do just fine. Sigil is a central hub for urban adventure, where aspects of the many worlds around you converge for whatever reason. Here, you can still learn about Blood War politics, you can witness the philosophies of the planes manifest in factions, you can find meaning within the bounds of reality itself (or non-meaning in the case of the nihilistic “Bleak Cabal.”)
As mentioned, Sigil boasts a wide variety of games and playstyles. As far as urban campaigns go, this is among one of the best. It’s a living and vibrant city with eclectic taste and tons of “guilds” to interact with. Each is driven by very extreme takes on various ideals throughout reality. And thus, depending on your viewpoints and actions, they can either be excellent allies or horrible foes. Beyond that, there’s tons of room for mystery and intrigue. It’s almost impossible to understand Sigil by itself, it’s quite simply too weird. Plus, something new tends to pop up with the help of the ever busy Dabus, endlessly working servants of the Lady. In some instances, the city itself might rebel and spawn items of its own. To be fair, the computer game adaptation involved the main character helping an alleyway “give birth” to new structures. Have I mentioned that this setting is quite weird?
If skulking around a cityscape isn’t quite your thing, perhaps the varied politics of Sigil is. In a sense, Sigil is a meeting space for the planes to talk about things. These talks can go many ways of course. The catch is that Gods themselves aren’t allowed to enter (as that much power in the hands of deities could unravel the multiverse… again.) Devils lounge in clubs in hopes of coaxing some berk to join their side on the Blood War, Modron attempt to analyze the illogical spaces around them in hopes of one day correcting them, the Gith try to seek harmony within themselves while observing all that reality offers. And that’s not bringing up the conflicts over the Factions. While the “Faction War” (that caused their removal from the city) is in a canon-Limbo of sorts, it’s safe to say that these groups continue to be part of the meat within this mini-setting. Beyond politics, Sigil is a great way to explore the cosmos beyond without leaving a centralized hub environment. In almost every corner, an aspect of countless planes manifests in one form or another; whether it being a planar creature or a faction that feels inspired by them.
One of my favorite moments within the City of Doors is probably when my team was tasked in stealing warmachines from the Doomguard, in effort to support a mysterious benefactor. The heist didn’t go so well and we were treated to a Ra’s Al’Ghul style speech from one of the higher ups within the faction. After accusing us of siding with Harmonium or Fraternity of Order. We responded by trashing both factions, as the possible-Factol was getting impatient with us. One of our characters, a rogue working for the Anarchist, then proceeded to taunt the Doomguard (chaotic stupid?) before he raged at us and we began to hightail it. Lucky for us, we bumped into Xaositects, who we also pissed off. They babbled nonsense as we babbled nonsense back, while spouting Doomguard propaganda. Needless to say, we pitted both of them against each other and it was glorious. Only when we got to the merchant district, our benefactor was revealed to be “A’kin the Friendly Fiend”, an arcanaloth (jackal headed daemon) who wanted to keep the weapons in safe storage… away from everyone else. Only in Sigil can such glorious weirdness happen!
In many ways, some are similar while having their own unique traits. Ysgard is a realm of high heroics and epic combat, while Acheron is a realm of warfare and strategy. One is filled with the idyllic dungeon romps and arena, while another is an endless battlefield where warriors prepare for endless campaigns. Arborea is a chaotic plane of ideal nature. Anarchic celestials known as the Eladrin watch over the embodiment of living free in bountiful groves. Meanwhile, the Beastlands is also based on nature… but more so the raw savage beauty of it. Here, beasts are intelligent but hunt only to support their strange new existence. At the end of the day, the predator and prey hold no malice for each other. The planes beyond always offer some form of truly unique adventure. Gone are generic dungeons filled with run of the mill baddies. Instead we have torn apart Hellscapes populated by the literal incarnations of entropy, nihilism and totalitarianism breathing down your necks. Or you have the embodiment of the absurd chipping away at the logic in your mind. Or maybe you have a bunch of stuck up goodie goodies who come to hate your definition of “Good”, going full fledged “Ordo Exterminatus” as a result!
And that leads to another thing fascinating about the planes. Sure, each plane manifests its respective alignment in some form. However, each plane is quite complex beyond that. Angelic beings pay off Daemons/Yugoloths to keep the dreaded Blood War going, in hopes that other fiends will remain busy fighting each other instead of the multiverse at large. And just because a Celestial is good doesn’t mean have to like you. As I mentioned above, some definitions of Good can and will result in you being declared as an enemy. Quite a bit different than you’d expect an interaction with angels to go, huh? That’s right, goody-two-shoes Paladin, that Planetar might have an issue with your take on Law and Good… and they may or may not be willing to debate over it.
Now, let’s say the party is still made of murder-hobos who love to dungeon hop and little else. At the very least, they’ll still have that here. However, instead of the generic fantasy, they have plenty of flavors to choose from. So, they can storm wretched wastelands while being caught in a Fiendish battle royale. They can challenge the essence of nature itself in the ultimate hunt. You can bring a bit of chaos to places dictated by absolute law… or visa versa. Attempt to liberate slaves caught in the City of Brass (within the Plane of Fire.) There’s tons of fun tactical and combat scenarios to be had in the Inner and Outer Planes.
An example of an awesome moment within the planes beyond is when I played a Paladin devoted to technology and order by technocracy. More or less, he was a little bit Brotherhood of Steel and a little bit Starship Troopers. No matter, everything in his journey across the planes made sense when the team made it to Mechanus. To him, this was a holy pilgrimage. He was filled with such immense wonder, he was dumb struck. There is a place in the planes dedicated to absolute order and innovation, literally moving in clockwork. As the campaign was coming to a close, the paladin decided he wanted to move to the Gate-Town of Automata to make petitions and arguments for technological advancement within the town. He more or less established himself as an orderly advocate for pragmatic technological advancement. Or rather, he works with the ruling Council to make sure technology advances forward somehow.
Schools of Thought.
One of the greatest things about this type of game is that the planes shift with the power of ideas. The planes aren’t some megadungeons to romp through, but manifestations of thought that you can help shape. Limbo is literally an ever changing realm that’s been slightly molded by powerful psionic creatures called the Githzerai; orderly beings who find solace in an otherwise chaotic plane. In other senses, you can gain influence within factions, you can use that power in belief to modify planes themselves! You can shift a plane from its aligned status to the more neutral Outlands and visa versa. If your influences adds too much chaos within Mechanus, it could shoot a piece of that plane into the Outlands and collide with the Gate Town of Automata. And in less world changing ways, your beliefs can alter the course of reality too. You can be the liberator of souls damned to fight in the Blood War. You could help solve the conflicts between the lawful Devas and the chaotic Eladrin. Your respective beliefs can be expanded and shape into reality through respective planes as well. The Dustmen feel that all things must come to an end. In that regard, the Negative Energy Plane is a rightful source of empowerment; that which embodies their desire for “Final Death.”
To put it another way, what are the views of your character? What can they do to alter the course of existence around them? What matches their views and how can it affect them? These questions and more completely changed how I saw D&D. It wasn’t just about dungeon romps or sacking insane wizards in towers. To me, it felt like there was more. I could shape the course of reality, for better and worse. My ideas were just as powerful as my actions! To me, Planescape is one of those campaigns that either opens the player up to new ideas and inspires them to take bold new steps… or to be scoffed at as Prereq Philosophy courses crammed into a pretentious mish-mosh. But, there’s nothing that wrong with “pretense”, as you show admiration for something and do whatever it takes to reach the same greatness as whatever you’re drawing inspiration from.
As before, I brought up interaction with the factions. While I wasn’t a part of the factions during the PS game where we pulled a heist (I played a Warforged Artificer from Eberron who just wanted to learn about the multiverse), it was fun to see all sorts of things unfold. Many of the characters were loosely connected to a group. There was the Anarchist from before, a wannabe Hardhead (Harmonium) and a Sensate. The bickering the team had over all sorts of issues was quite amusing, to say the least. Outside of Sigil on other material planes, philosophical beliefs took over alignment in creative ways. In one instance, the Anarchist wanted to rob and drain a Nobleman in charge of a small town. He felt that smashing the economy of this noble would free everyone else, regardless of consequences. The Hardhead thought that was stupid, saying that the only right way is petitioning the Noble for fairer treatment of his people, lest he try to bring in recruits to force it. Meanwhile the Sensate was divided, but intrigued by the heist’s insane implausibility. So, while I hopped alongside the Hardhead (split the party), the others went off on their crazy scheme. Needless to say, neither really worked out. In the end, the Hardhead was as thick headed as the noble… who ended up turning violent after the Harmonium-to-be made commentary that was more inflammatory. Needless to say, the Sensate and Anarch got their loot as the Hardhead and his automaton friend became hailed as heroes… not that they wanted to be thought of as such.
The Ultimate Plot Framing Device
Wanna take your game into another reality with a believable handwave? Planescape is perhaps one of the best means of transitioning a game from one setting into another without feeling like a flick of the hand from the DM. This multiverse acts as a plot device to help players hop from destination to destination. To cite one of my favorite non-TTRPGS, one of my favorite video game franchises took a look at uniting multiple worlds to tell a story. BioShock Burial at Sea did this with the two settings of Rapture and Columbia in a variety of creative and generally fascinating ways. While other great settings such as Spelljammer were designed to help players jump between dimensions as well, they never truly caught on to the same degree as PS and the Great Wheel. If one material realm isn’t doing it for you, it’s possible to hop to another one. Let’s say you’re not enjoying your time in The Forgotten Realms setting (and that’s understandable for many people), with the proper planes-based plot seed you’re off to the magitech filled political landscape of Khorvaire or perhaps a different landscape ruled by dragons in a Council of Wyrms. That way, the game feels fresh and can take a bold new direction if one so chooses.
If you’re not going with a sandbox, then it’s possible to use other worlds as a means of connecting your plot. Wanna continue your undead-heavy campaign but players wanna try something else? Establish a planar portal to the 4th Edition version of Thay or Eberron’s own Karrnath. Let’s say you have a cloak and dagger plot dealing with all sorts of sinister factions. Who says the Zhentarim wouldn’t find some common ground with the likes of the Scarlet Brotherhood or the various criminal syndicates of Sharn? It would certainly like for an interesting story. Perhaps you can create a mystery involving the impossible. Your characters have somehow gotten in/out of Ravenloft’s Mists/Dark Sun’s locked off deserts of Athas. Both scenarios are supposed to be nearly impossible, but a means of getting through the barrier could make for an interesting campaign.
Let’s say you have a plot involving fiends bubbling up from the Underdark (E.G. the Out of the Abyss module from Wizards of the Coast). Sure, you’ve pushed the Demon Lords out of Abeir-Toril in addition to punishing the dark denizens who caused this atrocity. Perhaps you want to take it a step further, taking the fight into the screaming eternal horror that is the Plane of the Abyss itself! Perhaps your anti-demon crusade could lead into you aiding other Material Planes as well. You could jump to the Empire of Iuz in Oerth, in hopes of thwarting Furyundy’s oldest foe! Maybe you want to join the Wrath of the Righteous against the Demonic Wastelands in Golarion, acting as the turning tide against a chaotic evil apocalypse! Instead of being a main means of adventure, it can act as a glue that holds many different worlds and plot points together and quite well I could argue!
In fact, one of my favorite adventures using the Pathfinder system went on this model. The adventure that we dubbed “Set Wands to Warpdrive” was an exploration through the D&D/Golarion (but mostly D&D) multiverse. We had a diverse cast over the course of the game, encompassing many realities: a steampunk gunslinger (we settled on them being from The Weird West), a wizard from the Realms (me), a ratfolk alchemist from Eberron, a rogue from the Scarlet Brotherhood, a Chaosman barbarian, a Tiefling witch and a Tinker Gnome from a futuristic Greyhawk. We hopped across space and time to investigate a conspiracy tying into The Blood War; Iuz, Technomancers, Vecna, Lolth, Cheliax, The Demiplane of Dread and more. This blender of settings and mini-plots was brought together through an overarching story. In the end, an Ultroloth was playing us much like they were playing Devils and Demons throughout countless realities, finally gaining the powers needed to help make Sigil a new Grey Wastes/Gehenna! Sadly, the campaign ended before we escaped our prison and took our battle back into the planar hub. We can assume the Lady of Pain kicked their arse.
In Which The Writer Sums Things Up
And there you have it, that is my rambling about the Planescape setting and reasons why I love it so much. The title for my outro is a reference to how PS modules were written, after all. A mix of genuine enjoyment, nostalgia and general RPG fun. Stories like these and explanations like the above are some of the reasons why Dungeons & Dragons are so popular and beloved by many. The Planes are by no means an exception! Here, you have ample opportunity to explore the game in a new light, explore the ideals of your character, travel through a fascinating hub world and unite several worlds into one story. Even if you prefer the D&D 4th Edition based “World Axis” cosmological models of the World Axis or another setting’s take on the cosmos (like Eberron, 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms or a setting outside of the D&D Roleplaying Game), you can’t help but deny that this classic model is still ripe with plenty of ideas and aventure. But, no matter what you prefer, it’s a vast multiverse out there and it’s certainly worth exploring! The game has been and always will be what you make of it; so get some dice, invite some friends over and experience storytelling games of the imagination!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Never thought I’d write a long blurb on this page rather than my other one. But, here it is! More or less, me sharing my love of AD&D’s planar model with all of you! Since the beginning, the planes was one of my favorite parts of the game. And by all means, it’s still a major part of what I like from the game today.
That said, my planar themed “month” is coming to a close. As much as I love the planes, it’s not my only favorite part of the game, speculative fiction as a whole is much more diverse than just a single topic. Perhaps I might focus on another topic or hone in on another aspect of the game. But, come the next couple of posts, the Planar Theme will be closing its gates until next time. Also, stay tuned for some exciting announcements! In other words, if people liked this rambling on the setting and my recommendations for using it (in addition to brief recollections of old game sessions), I’ll happily do it for other settings! (I’ll do stories for settings I’ve played, of course)
IMAGE CREDITS: Lady of Pain – pseudooctopus, Sigil – barmyberk, Outer Planes – FRWiki, Morte and Nordom – LPArchive, Shieldstorm Cavern – Ironshod