There never was anything plain about Planescape
Recently I did a retrospective on Spelljammer. For a short recap, I think Spelljammer could have been so much more than it was. Instead of using the uniqueness of the setting, far too much was made of it connecting previously established worlds. As a rule, I think connecting established worlds never works. I wish Spelljammer would have had a bigger, bolder flavour.
The same cannot be said of Planescape. It oozed character. It looked amazing. It was bold in a way most TSR products weren’t. In short, it was a big, juicy steak.
The origins of Planescape can be traced all the way back to the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide (and real-world myths and legends) but mostly to the 1e Manual of the Planes. My own battered copy is a prized possession that I barely dare to open anymore, instead referring to a digital copy when needed. For its time, it’s a remarkable book and the demand for a 2e update was great enough that TSR hit on the idea of an extraplanar focused campaign setting. This required a bit more than simply updating previous materials. The planes were until then a mid or high level environment and despite the vast possibilities of the infinite planes and their infinite scope, the possibilities for campaigning really were quite limited without establishing the planes from a planar perspective.
So, what was required was highly unusual in a fantasy setting – making the spectacular mundane. Consider the planes. The elemental planes, a world of nothing but fire, water etc. The outer planes, realms of the gods and the most spectacular things imaginable. Or the Astral Plane, an infinite world of effectively nothing with a limitless view. Now imagine how to make this work for a native character, to whom this is perfectly normal. Until then, the planes were always seen from the perspective of the traditional adventurer, they were a challenge. Not your home.
David “Zeb” Cook was the lead designer of Planescape. Many elements were required to establish the world for native and low level characters and I have always thought that the team did a spectacular job.
First, there are the factions – fifteen organizations with very different philosophies that govern a large part of daily life for planar natives, from the Athar, who defy the gods, to the Dustmen, who believe that life and death are false, or the Mercykillers, who believe in justice and retribution above all. The factions are a great entry point for a beginning character to understand the flavour of the planar campaign, where the spectacular is mundane and how such as a character views the extraordinary. It also conveyed a sense of belonging. I have to admit that I always suspected that the factions owed a bit to the clans of Vampire the Masquerade.
Second, there is the city of Sigil which to me is one of the greatest inventions of (A)D&D. It’s a city situated within a torus that floats above an infinitely tall spire on an infinite plain (a plain on a plane, if you will). There are no physical ways in, but infinite ways to and from the city through gates. It’s the city of keys, where all roads lead – in and out. Absolutely anything imaginable exists there, apart from the gods who are strictly prohibited within the city. The custodians of the city are the dabus, floating and legless humanoids that “speak” in a string of symbols. The power in Sigil is the mysterious Lady of Pain – a physical entity that has absolute control over the city but rarely manifests it. It was never officially addressed who or what she is, and mercifully so. She is exactly the kind of mystery that should remain unsolved. The city is divided into districts, each with their own thematic flavour. This is not your common or garden fantasy city – demons can be shopkeepers, a city street may move overnight and a barrel of rainwater might be a portal to the elemental plane of water.
Third, there was a rethinking of the planes from a native perspective. While older material (especially the Manual of the Planes) had more to do with simply surviving, now we learned about the native creatures and how life (or lack thereof) functioned. Creatures were established as primes (visitors from the material planes), planars (natives) and petitioners (the risen souls of mortal primes, i.e. the afterlife) and that would colour the entire perspective of that character.
On top of that a lot of themes were established to prevent an infinite world with infinite possibilities from becoming a sprawling mess. There is the rule of three – things come or happen in threes. There is the unity of rings, things emanate from their beginning and can be traced back. There was the centre of all, wherever you are is the centre. Paradoxically, that also means there cannot be a true centre.
Planescape was well written and established, but its true triumph was visual. TSR had never made more beautiful material and to this day there are few RPG products that match the aesthetics and ambition of Planescape. A lot of the credit should and does go to artist Tony DiTerlizzi. Until his work came along, the tradition was fantastic realism (Larry Elmore) or the grotesque (David A. Trampier). DiTerlizzi’s work is so full of character and life and it perfectly straddles the line between the two styles. It’s not realistic and yet conveys a great image of the world. His monsters can be both terrifying and comical, sometimes at the same time, while his character portraits are beautiful – especially the eyes. When he left Planescape, his loss was felt. The products he didn’t work on lack the distinct character. I’m not knocking the work of others, it’s generally good to great – but nobody could replace Tony DiTerlizzi.
But he is not the only one who deserves credit. The entire art department did a fantastic job. The layout and graphic design are excellent – even the fonts are great, both the well known headline font and the interior text font.
There was even a specific lingo for the campaign, based on Victorian slang that added to the uniqueness. A lot of settings and systems had a word or two, or some terms unique to the setting but never before was there an entire collection of everyday phrases to colour the speech of characters – and players.
You may justifiably think I’m a Planescape fanboy but no, I’m not. I love its uniqueness and flavour but the earlier versions of the game made things far too complicated at times. Adventuring on the planes required you look things up far too often on both sides of the screen and that tends to ruin the flow of a game fast. This was not a problem in most other worlds. Later versions simplified this.
I have already made my feelings on connecting established worlds very clear – it’s a mess and dilutes what you have. That was partially solved by the lure of travelling the planes. Why go to a boring old prime world when the multiverse of the planes was at your fingertips? Another thematically similar problem was the mishmash of the gods of various worlds and pantheons, but that is easily solved – you can either simply boot a lot of them or even better, consider the gods (you want to ignore) simply unbelievably powerful planar denizens.
There were several Planescape products, most of them quite good, some not so much. The absolute king of the hill is Dead Gods, which remains one of the finest published adventures for any system. It seems ridiculous to think back on it, but the moral panic of the 80’s caused many of the greatest elements of D&D to disappear for a long time. Demons, devils and angels were called other names and the demon lords effectively vanished. Dead Gods was the moment those walls crumbled and the return of Orcus finally signalled bye-bye to prudishness.
Once Planescape’s production run finished the setting was never entirely abandoned. Sigil and the Lady of Pain get official mentions now and again to this day and the factions have been semi-revived in the occasional product.
I also have to mention Planescape: Torment for you computer and video gamers out there. In the unlikely case you haven’t played it or the recent remaster, you just have to. There is nothing like it. It is a true roleplaying RPG game, where character and decisions are far more important than abilities.
Finally, I have to mention the craziest campaign idea I ever had. I have played a lot of Planescape and I love it, but one time I went too far. I had the idea of effectively recreating Twin Peaks in a Planescape setting. It was a bad idea but it took me a long time to understand why – the lure of Planescape is the vast, infinite world and the endless possibilities. The endless possibilities were in my campaign but the main reason why Twin Peaks worked was because of the small town feel. Planescape can never be a small town campaign world.
The beauty of Planescape is that it requires very little conversion. If you missed it back in the day or would like to dip into it again, by all means do. The rules are not a problem and a lot of the work has been done for you.