Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Cities of Fantasy: Sigil, the City of Doors

The multiverse is dazzlingly infinite, a multitude of dimensions and planes coexisting across all time and space. Travellers can step from technologically-advanced worlds to worlds of choking fog to planes of eternal fire or water, all in an instant. It’s a confusing, dizzying morass of nestled realities, jaw-dropping wonders and horrific obscenities.

Sigil is where planewalkers go to get a beer and information, or buy exotic goods, or sometimes just to find a better way of getting from A to B when A and B are located in different universes.
Sigil is the City of Doors. It lies at the precise centre of reality, according to the marketing, equidistant from all other points in the entirety of creation. People with too much time on their hands argue that this is piffle and indeed codswallop, since the multiverse is infinite and cannot have a centre. They then get into lengthy arguments and send angry letters to one another. The inhabitants of Sigil don’t really care.

Sigil is not pronounced like “sigil”, for sign or badge. It is instead pronounced “Sig-ill”. Getting this wrong will immediately identify you as a newcomer in the city, or “Clueless”.

Physical Description               
The city is located on the inner surface of a curved torus six and a half miles in diameter, one-and-a-half miles thick and twenty miles in circumference, located many thousands of feet above the Spire, a massive mountainous structure (tens or hundreds of thousands of feet high) located at the heart of the Plane of Concordant Opposition (please don’t use this name in public), or more colloquially, the Outlands. The torus floats freely on its side, so gravity in Sigil is slanted ninety degrees to the world outside. To avoid metaphysical confusion and/or vomiting, it is not possible to see the outside world from within Sigil, thanks to a sort of grey-brownish haze that permeates a lot of the city. This also frequently blocks the view of the far side of the city directly overhead, which can also be disconcerting. Flying creatures can fly from one side of the city to the other, but cannot fly out of the city and down to the ground (given the titanic height and the thinness of the air immediately outside, this would not be recommended anyway). Nor can people “fall” out of the city from one side or the other, nor can flying creatures enter the city from outside. Any attempt to do any of these things results in the entity in question being teleported to another part of the Outlands, or sometimes another plane altogether.

The torus, or “tyre” as some describe it, is curved on its inner sides, meaning that walking down the street on a relatively clear day when the smog and haze is light, a traveller will see the streets rising up ahead and behind her, as well as on either side, giving the impression of being at the bottom of a bowl or valley at almost all times. Looking straight up across the centre of the torus, the opposite side of the city can be seen several miles away, with its ribbon of streets and landmarks clearly visible. Simply walking around in Sigil can be an unnerving experience until travellers acclimatise.

The city is divided into six major districts or wards. The Lady’s Ward is home to the city’s administrative offices and its most exclusive and rich estates. Adjacent to that is the Lower Ward, the industrial district clogged with smoke from foundries and the portals to the Lower Planes. Beyond that lies the Hive, a slum where the poor and dregs of the city can be found, along with a thriving black market. Those criminal enterprises that are permitted in Sigil are usually centred here. Further along the ring lies the relatively affluent Clerk’s Ward, which is home to the city’s lower-rung bureaucrats and administrators. The small Guildhall Ward lies beyond, which is home to many craftsmen and artisans. They in turn sell their goods in the neighbouring Market Ward, the commercial wing of the city and arguably its beating heart. Just beyond the Market Ward, the Lady’s Ward commences again, and a traveller has completed one circumnavigation of the ring (and is probably very tired and thirsty).

Sigil as it appears in Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. Artwork by Jason Engle.

The city of Sigil is a way-station for people travelling across the planes. At any one time it is estimated that well over three million sentients are within the city, but most of them will be transients. The permanent population of the city is much harder to gauge, with estimates ranging from half a million to one million. The Lower Ward and Hive are crowded and jam-packed with rickety buildings, whilst the Lady’s and Clerk’s wards are home to more spacious, sprawling estates and are relatively quieter. The Market is bustling and rowdy. The city’s population also consists of every species imaginable from the multiverse: humans (who tend to get everywhere) are reasonably common, but so are tieflings and other more adventurous of the planar species.

The Doors
The only way in or out of Sigil is through interdimensional portals, often called “doors” in the city. Some portals are clearly and publicly marked, and people can freely pass through them. Other portals open and close at random in the city, ready to snare the unwary; some portals are only passable through one direction so cannot be used to return to the city. Yet other portals, usually those leading to more exotic, dangerous or unstable parts of the multiverse, can only be passed by those who have the correct key. The difficulties of accessing or leaving the city have occasionally led it to being nicknamed “The Cage”, although other sources for the name have been proposed.
As a result of the doors, the city is home to almost every species imaginable in the multiverse. Tieflings and elves from Toril mix with demons of the Abyss and half-dwarves from Athas and kender from Krynn. Normally hostile species – such as beholders, dark elves, devils from Baator and even the occasional smaller chromatic dragon – may be found peacefully engaged in uncharacteristic pursuits, such as shopping in the Market Ward or visiting the Brothel for Slating Intellectual Lusts. Violence in Sigil is certainly not unknown, but large-scale riots, civil disorder and conflict simply do not occur.

The Factions
The city is dominated by fifteen political factions, each one of which pursues a moral or thematic philosophy. The fifteen factions are the Athar (who deny the divinity of deities); Godsmen (who believe in the potential divinity of all living beings); Bleak Cabal (who believe that there is no metaphysical reality imposed from without and only physical laws and individual action matter), Doomguard (who believe in the inevitability of entropy and the eventual annihilation of everything); Dustmen (who believe that life and death are false states of existence and strive for a balanced existence of emotional denial, the True Death); the Fated (who believe that might makes right and the strong are allowed to profit from the weak); the Guvners (who believe that knowledge is everything and are experts in both scientific and judicial law); the Indeps (who believe in absolute individual freedom and reject the notion of the factions altogether); the Harmonium (who believe in power, stability and control through authority and discipline); the Mercykillers (who believe that mercy is for the weak and the merciful should be punished); the Anarchists (who believe in anarchy); the Signers (who believe that everyone is the centre of their own personal reality and they should strive to make the most of their individual existences); the Sensates (who seek to experience that all can be experienced to make the most of existence); the Ciphers (who seek “oneness” with the multiverse to achieve transcendence); and the Chaosmen (who believe that truth is only revealed in uncertainty and discord, if not outright chaos and mayhem).

The factions are powerful and influential in the city, although they are also dangerous. Travellers passing through Sigil are advised not to let themselves get caught up in their political webs if they do not plan to stay long. Conversely, those who plan to make a home permanently in the Cage will have little choice but to pick a side. The factions engage in philosophical debate with one another and conflict in the city, particularly between the factions whose philosophies are not in conflict, is often limited to high-minded (if often spirited) discussions in the city’s many taverns.

However, some of the factions are diametrically opposed to one another. The Harmonium, for example, has little to no time for either the Anarchists or Indeps, and frequently comes into conflict with the Chaosmen. But widespread violence in the city is limited by the true ruler of all Sigil and her word of law: the Lady’s Peace.

Her Serenity the Lady of Pain as she appeared in the Planescape Campaign Setting Boxed Set (1994). Artwork by Tony Diterlizzi.

The Lady
The true ruler – or guardian – of Sigil is known only as the Lady, or occasionally (and not in her hearing), the “Lady of Pain”. The standard form of address is “Her Serenity”. The Lady is an extremely tall humanoid female with a piercing gaze. She is always clothed in immense robes and floats above the ground, never touching the street. Her head is surrounded by a mantle of imposing blades. She has no castle, manse or known abode, appearing and disappearing in the streets at will. She also never speaks. Instead, the Lady is always accompanied by her minions, the dabus. The dabus are humanoids with yellow skin, white hair and goatlike horns, likewise floating slightly above the ground, who communicate through visual written communiques, floating hieroglyphs known as rebuses. Over the centuries most of the inhabitants of Sigil have come fluent in what these symbols mean, which is essential because they are ignored at mortal peril.

Those who threaten the Lady’s Peace are “mazed”, disappearing into pocket dimensions consisting of mazes. These mazes may be physical obstructions, or conjured out of the nightmares of the individual, or form some kind of existential paradox challenging the prisoner’s very beliefs and self-identity. Those who escape their maze may return peacefully to Sigil, but very few ever do, having usually been exposed to sights and ideas that haunt their waking and sleeping moments alike for the remainder of their existence. Being mazed is considered a mild punishment compared to the alternatives, however.

Those who transgress further, by inciting faction wars or riots, may find the Lady’s Shadow falling on them. The Lady herself maintains a clam demeanour at all times and certainly never engages in physical combat or spellcasting. Instead, the merest touch of the shadow of her mantle of blades will result in maiming, dismemberment, or instantaneous flaying alive. The Lady is immune to all forms of physical coercion or magic.

Indeed, the Lady’s very presence appears to warp the standing field of null-magic on the plane. The Outlands are notable as magical effects disappear closer to the centre, and at the base of the Spire magic simply becomes unusable. The Lady appears to reverse this field and allows magic to be used within the confines of Sigil. Many mages theorise that the Lady’s presence also allows Sigil itself to exist. If someone were to somehow kill the Lady, it is possible Sigil would plummet out of the sky to its destruction seconds later.

The Lady’s true name, origins and nature are all utterly unknown. It is known that the only time she was ever even slightly challenged was when the god Aoskar managed to gain entrance to the city to strive for dominance. The Lady destroyed him without drawing breath. This has led to the widespread belief that the Lady herself is either a goddess, or has the powers of one within Sigil. Some have theorised that if Sigil is the Cage, then the Lady may be its gaoler or, more disconcertingly, its prisoner.

Behind the Scenes
Sigil, the City of Doors, is arguably the single most intriguing and compelling city ever created for the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. A bizarre city where ideology and philosophy determined a person’s circumstance and wars were fought with ideas and arguments rather than swords and magic, it was the New Weird a good few years before the New Weird even existed. The fact that it came from the game that was arguably the very definition of “stock fantasy” was even more remarkable.

Sigil originated in the Planescape Campaign Setting boxed set, released by TSR, Inc. in 1994 for the 2nd Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The idea behind the Planescape world was to take the long-standing different planes of reality established in previous D&D products, most notably Jeff Grubb’s Manual of the Planes (1987), and flesh them out into a full setting.

Veteran and well-regarded game designer David “Zeb” Cook took charge of the project. Early on he realised that the planes were too vast and remote a concept to easily explain, so he created Sigil and the Outlands as a way of presenting the planes in miniature and concentrating the ideas in a smaller area of space. Sigil also conveniently provided the players with a home base, somewhere they could use to range out to other worlds on adventures, but also vast enough in itself for entire campaigns to play out in its streets and on its rooftops.

Monte Cook (no relation) and Colin McComb fleshed out the Planescape setting over numerous expansions, but the setting didn’t really take off in popularity the way TSR had been hoping. The final Planescape roleplaying product was published in 1998 and the setting faded out of print afterwards. However, the adventures and materials related to Sigil had proven quite popular so Sigil lived on. When the 3rd Edition of D&D was released in 2000, Sigil was referenced in the rulebooks and the Manual of the Planes, new editions of which were released in 2001 and 2009 (for 4th Edition). The city has been referenced in the current 5th Edition of the game, with the hope it may be the focal point for a future setting or adventure.

However, the pen-and-paper game is not the real reason for Sigil’s popularity. In late 1999 Black Isle released a computer roleplaying game called Planescape: Torment, created by Chris Avellone and Colin McComb, who had worked on the pen-and-paper game. The game, almost fully half of which was set in Sigil, fully embraced the setting’s ideals and gripped the imagination of hundreds of thousands of players as they grappled with the fate of the mysterious “Nameless One” and his growing crew of damaged and strange friends. The game has often been hailed as the single greatest CRPG ever created, in no small part to its vividly strange setting.

In terms of fiction Sigil has appeared in only a handful of novels, most successfully Pages of Pain by Troy Denning which attempted to fill in some of the backstory of the Lady of Pain without actually ruining the character. It was an arguable success. However, the cessation of the Planescape campaign line in 1998 meant that the fiction line was cancelled as well.

Sigil stands as one of the weirdest and most interesting cities created in the history of fantasy, owing more of a debt to Moorcock and Harrison than Tolkien or Leiber. It’ll be interesting to see if it returns to prominence in future D&D products, especially with a new line of movies based on the setting in development.

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