Monday 30 November 2009
The Worlds of D&D: Planescape
The History of Planescape
If there is one constant in these journeys through the Dungeons and Dragons campaign worlds, it is the apparent lack of the truly fantastical. Three of the settings visited so far are essentially secondary Earths, based on medieval Europe or other real-world analogues, whilst Dark Sun is effectively D&D interpreted by way of Mad Max. None of these things prevent these settings from being fun to play in or a viable setting for half-decent books, but at the same time we're not really seeing the truly fantastic on display here. D&D is sometimes used as a byword for 'bad' or at the very least 'unambitious' fantasy, and there is an element of truth to that description. However, hidden behind the Drizzts and draconians, there is one part of the D&D franchise that is truly interesting, original and home to some of the best stories ever told in the game.
The D&D multiverse developed over a long period in fits and starts. Gary Gygax wanted demonic entities, otherworldly beings and occasionally proud celestial warriors to show up who wouldn't reside on his campaign world, but would come from 'elsewhere'. This led to the creation of other dimensions and planes of existence. Over the lifespan of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition (1978-89), many different writers and game designers added their own planes of reality, until the whole thing became somewhat unwieldy. Various print editions of the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide attempted to streamline the confusing morass of parallel universes but it wasn't until 1987's Manual of the Planes, written by Jeff Grubb, that the D&D multiverse was finally codified.
Grubb developed the idea of the Prime Material Plane consisting of various realities which were the already existing Earth-like worlds, such as Toril (home of the Forgotten Realms), Oerth (Greyhawk) and Krynn (Dragonlance). Around this swirled the Ethereal and Astral dimensions, then beyond them lay the Elemental or Inner Planes (of fire, earth, air and water) and the sixteen Outer Planes, which formed a 'great wheel' cosmology. These Outer Planes included places of great good such as Mount Celestia and places of fell evil, such as the Abyss, home of the Dragonlance goddess Takhisis and the drow god Lolth, where the Blood War between the baatezu and tanar'ri raged for all eternity. At the suggestion of another writer, Grubb also introduced the Plane of Concordant Opposition as a sort of neutral meeting ground between the various planes of reality.
This set-up was maintained, fleshed out a little in other products, until around 1993. At this time TSR were looking to develop a new 'unusual' campaign setting, based on the success of the offbeat Dark Sun and the horror-derived Ravenloft settings, and the feeling that between Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and Greyhawk (then being briefly revived) the 'standard' fantasy setting was already well-covered. In addition the 2nd Edition of AD&D had been released in 1989, and a brief mention in the new Dungeon Master's Guide aside, no further development had taken place of the other planes of reality. Fan demand for an updated Manual of the Planes was strong. The need for more information on the planes and for a new game world naturally coalesced into an entire campaign setting revolving around the other planes of existence. Veteran game designer David 'Zeb' Cook was put on the job.
The Planescape campaign setting boxed set was released in 1994 and immediately caused a stir. This wasn't your traditional Dungeons and Dragons game. The game's artwork was like nothing seen before in the D&D canon, with muted pastels, striking imagery and unusual colours, apparently inspired more by Dave McKean's work on Sandman and Dr. Seuss than any of D&D's traditional inspirations. Opening the box proved likewise bemusing, with large maps of the entire multiverse and schematic diagrams showing the connections between the various dimensions. The books seemed to take delight in needling the player's incomprehension, referring to them as 'cutters' and 'berks' and that the secret of cracking this Planescape thing was 'getting a clue'. Being bewildered at the game's size and scope was natural and appropriate, as their characters would be bewildered and confused when torn out of their cosy Tolkien-lite secondary worlds ("Not that there's anything wrong with that,") and thrust into the teeming insanity of the cosmos. Whilst there was nothing stopping the players using traditional races like elves or dwarves, the setting strongly suggested using more interesting native races like githzerai, tieflings or bariaur was a better idea. Of course, this didn't quite work as intended, as more than a few players, after a few hours of struggling with the material, threw it under the stairs and went back to playing hunt the beholder in some dungeon instead.
For those who stuck with it, Planescape rapidly became the most rewarding and interesting roleplaying campaign setting ever published. The setting is literally infinite, with any type of game possible. Creative and offbeat DMs came up with some truly original and bonkers campaigns and gaming ideas. Groups of players, particularly those who favoured roleplaying and subverting expectations of the game and setting, enjoyed the game's unusual atmosphere and vibe and seized on the vast glossary of new phrases, colloquialisms and terms with glee. One of Cook's masterstrokes was to introduce the city of Sigil on the Outlands (the somewhat catchier new name for the Plane of Concordant Opposition), a neutral meeting ground where characters could meet or use as a base for their forays elsewhere in the planes. Sigil itself rapidly became one of the most iconic fantasy cities to emerge from the D&D game, to the point where players could spend entire campaigns taking part in intrigues between the factions of the city and ignoring the wider setting beyond.
In short, Planescape is D&D's answer to the New Weird, only it did it before China Mieville made it fashionable.
Planescape's fire burned brightly but also briefly. There was a gradual downturn of new material being released (not helped by TSR's financial woes) and in 1998 the final product, a third Monstrous Compendium book focusing on the setting's creatures, was issued less than four years after the original campaign setting was published. Whilst it had been an enormous critical success, winning multiple awards for both game design and its unforgettable artwork, it had not captured the hearts of the masses. It was perhaps too radical, too ambitious and too arty for its own good. Critics pointed out that whilst the planes were fun to visit for a break from orc-killing, you wouldn't necessarily want to live there, and a common complaint was that the 'infinite reaches of the multiverse' all too often meant lots of arguments between philosophy majors and not as much demon-crushing as might be desired.
Later editions of the game largely revoked or retconned a lot of Planescape material. In 3rd Edition the new Manual of the Planes saw something of a streamlining of the D&D multiverse and the confusing removal of the various campaign worlds into their own, independent cosmologies, which proved headache-inducing for those DMs who had previously been using dimension-hopping campaign ideas. 4th Edition increased this confusion with new dimensions introduced and old ones disappearing. However, 4th Edition has also given rise to hope that Planescape will be revisited, maybe not as its own setting, but as part of the basic setting, as the Dungeon Master's Guide II book and yet another Manual of the Planes feature information on several key Planescape locations, such as Sigil. Whether this will come to anything remains to be seen.
There is one ironic twist in this tale. One and a half years after Planescape was effectively dropped as a D&D campaign setting, a computer roleplaying company named Black Isle released Planescape: Torment, using the Infinity Engine which had proven so popular in the previous year's Baldur's Gate. Torment saw the player taking on the role of an amnesiac, immortal warrior and having to guide him through Sigil and various parts of the multiverse looking for his memories and his mortality, accompanied by a number of complex and multi-faceted companions. Following the advice of the campaign setting itself, there were no traditional D&D races, monsters or weapons. Characters including a burning man, a bodiless floating skull, a mobile suit of armour, a fallen succubi and a sentient clockwork robot. It was extraordinarily good, easily the closest computer games have ever gotten to achieving real literature, and is now commonly cited as the greatest computer roleplaying game ever made. Whilst not as successful as the Baldur's Gate series, it did do respectably well and could have generated much more interest in the Planescape setting, if it hadn't already folded by the time the game came out.
The Worlds of Planescape
The heart of the Planescape campaign setting and normally the first stopping-off point for visitors is Sigil, the City of Doors, also called the Cage. Sigil is located at the very centre of the infinite multiverse (which is both impossible and also accurate), floating above a spire of infinite height (also both impossible and also accurate). The city is located on the inner surface of an immense ring, several miles wide and several miles across, resembling an immense tyre lying on its side slowly rotating above the spire. The city's permanent smog thankfully hides the site of the ground, the constant presence of which which would probably drive half the populace insane through vertigo over time. The city's architecture is a mish-mash of a million different cultures and times from across the multiverse, harbouring as it does representatives from dozens of planes and thousands of worlds. Some of the buildings would give M.C. Escher a headache and make Hieronymus Bosch feel inadequate.
The city is home to sixteen factions, including the Bleak Cabal, the Dustmen, the Doomguard, the Mercykillers and the Harmonium, all of whom espouse different philosophical and ideological viewpoints. Most Sigil campaigns are based around the characters getting involved in disputes between the factions. A 'faction war', one of the few meta-events in the setting, later ravaged parts of the city and saw several factions outlawed or destroyed. Sigil is also home to many portals or planar doors leading anywhere in the multiverse. Some are well-known, marked and open for public use. Others are 'locked' and can only be used by those with a planar key. Some doors are hidden in plain sight (as a normal doorway, for example) and will only teleport those of a certain race, sometimes only on certain days, or on a whim. Mapping the planar gates in Sigil is a keen past-time for some scholars and mages.
The city is ruled by a bureaucratic administration who answers to the Lady of Pain, an inscrutable and completely enigmatic entity. The Lady is assumed to be a deity as her powers within the City of Doors are absolute, but since she refuses to answer queries and flays alive those who try to worship her, this question is difficult to answer. One theory is that if Sigil is indeed a 'Cage', the Lady is both its ruler and its prisoner. The Lady has a perpetually serene, untroubled expression on her face and travels everywhere by floating along several inches above the ground, and her head is surrounded by a mantle of blades. These blades have never been used directly (in the presence of anyone who has lived to tell the story of it, however), but occasionally beings trying to waylay the Lady have suddenly been torn apart by simply stepping into the shadow of the blades. The Lady normally does not favour this type of violence, however, and mostly simply 'Mazes' transgressors, banishing them to a pocket prison dimension consisting of a maze and various inventive and original traps. If the imprisoned one manages to escape, they are usually permitted to return to Sigil. The Lady can also bar, close or shut down any planar gate in the city at will, or open new ones (although she has never passed through one herself, or at least again not in the sight of others). The Lady's powers extend even to barring all the gods access to Sigil. In short, don't mess with her.
Beyond Sigil sits the Outlands, one of the seventeen Outer Planes. The Outlands are neutral ground where caravans of goods and travellers meet or simply pass through on their way somewhere else. At the 'edges' of the plane (although the Outlands, like all planes, are infinite, they also have an edge; go figure) are permanant trade towns and portals leading to the other Outer Planes: Elysium, the Beastlands, Arborea, Ysgard, Limbo, Pandemonium, the Abyss, Carceri, Hades, Gehenna, Baator, Acheron, Mechanus, Arcadia, Mount Celestia and Bytopia. These planes vary immensely in size (although they are all, of course, infinite) and composition. The Abyss is a vast chasm consisting of thousands of levels populated by various evil creatures, whilst Mechanus (also called Nirvana) consists of vast, thousand-mile-wide cogs and machines with cities and entire kingdoms sitting amongst gears and levers.
The Astral Plane, a sort of sea of unusual energy where the gods go when they die, links the Outer Planes to the Prime Material Plane, whilst the Prime Material Plane is also linked and surrounded by the Ethereal Plane, the home of various undead spirits and small demiplanes (the Demiplane of Dread, home of the Ravenloft campaign setting, is located in the Ethereal Plane). The Ethereal links the Prime Material Plane to the Inner Planes, which consist of various forms of energy and act as the power sources for spells.
The Planescape campaign setting eventually gave what a number of D&D fans had been asking for for a while: a truly original, fantastical campaign setting in which the traditional elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons were sidelined in favour of new (or previously-existing but lesser known) races and campaigns based around combat and levelling up were de-emphasised in favour of roleplaying and juggling factions and philosophical ideas.
It's both a good and bad idea. Good, because it encourages radical ideas and a different of gaming, and bad because unless the players are really into it, it can become a little gimmicky. DMs also tend to like the setting because they can take ultra-powerful player characters who are effectively the most powerful beings in their world and dump them in a situation where they are nobodies, whilst players are not always quite so keen on this approach. The setting's biggest problem is that finding and maintaining a coherent narrative plot strand in the vast infinity of the setting can be quite tricky, especially for an unwary or inexperienced DM.
However, for a party really in the mood for something different and a DM really willing to do something outside the box, Planescape is nothing less than the most impressive and versatile toolbox in the Dungeons and Dragons arsenal, and it is a shame it has been effectively on hold for all of 3rd and 4th Editions of the game. It'll be interesting to see if it does come back in a big way for 4th, and in what form it is when it does.