Planescape has been my favorite Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting for decades. Despite the name, what makes Planescape what it is isn’t the planes – the ability to wander into the Elemental Plane of Fire or the Astral Plane or the Abyss predated Planescape and continued to be the usual cosmology of D&D long after Planescape was discontinued. What defined Planescape was the metaphorical center of the universe (the city of Sigil) and the centrality of belief and philosophy and mindset. Planescape took all of that cosmology of the planes and made it something you could really campaign in, instead of some hypothetical place you’d probably never visit, and even if you did it was only at the highest levels. Planescape made the mundane wondrous and the wondrous cosmic in scope.
Sigil, also known as both the City of Doors and as The Cage, was the ultimate cosmopolis, where characters low-level or high could rub shoulders with beings from anywhere, from elemental beings making political speeches to Fiendish generals taking a break from the Blood War to local street rats (both literal and metaphorical). It was located on the inner surface of a torus. There were the enigmatic Dabus groundskeepers, distinctive invasive flora and fauna, and watching out over it all was the Lady of Pain. It had an attitude, lingo, and visuals (especially from Tony DiTerlizzi) all its own. It was a thrilling place to use on its own and it was full of portals to everywhere so it could be a home base for any sort of planar adventure.
The importance of philosophy started, but did not end, in Sigil. The city itself, uniquely positioned and in the shape of a torus, physically embodied two of the setting’s central philosophical tenets – the unity of rings and the center of all (the third is the rule of three). Under the overall eye of the Lady of Pain much of the city’s organization was handled by the factions, who were defined by their beliefs about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Are all the gods fakes? Are experiences the secret to enlightenment? Is everyone really already dead and the world we’re experiencing now just a purgatory? Over a dozen major factions operated in Sigil, each with their own distinctive worldview, and it made player characters’ beliefs about these things matter.
The outer planes themselves also embody something of philosophy (in D&D it’s where you go when you die, and these petitioners can be found in the planes), but this was translated into a more relatable form in the Outlands. The Outlands were a great disc of indeterminate size. At the center of that disc was the Spire, and floating at the top of the Spire sat Sigil. Away from the Spire – effectively, if not literally, at the edge of the disc – were the gate-towns. There was one gate-town for each of the 17 outer planes, with a gate to that plane (duh) and an incredible influence from that plane. The gate-town for the plane of ultimate law (Mechanus) is quite a bit different from the gate-town for the battlefields of Acheron. The gate-towns allowed the setting to show off what made the planes distinctive in a more ‘normal’ setting – Bedlam is, for example, a lot easier to survive than Pandemonium proper. And these gate-towns had to be at least a bit different from the planes they connected to, or else they wouldn’t be in the Outlands anymore – if a particular place became very aligned with another plane, it could slide physically into being part of that plane. So, yes, Automata is very bureaucratic and rigid, but there’s still that lawless underbelly, which is why it’s still the gate-town of Automata and not just part of Mechanus.
And, as a bonus, the Planescape Campaign Setting spawned Planescape: Torment, my single favorite of the old school cRPGs (sorry, Baldur’s Gate) and one of the best video games ever. Also, Planescape really and Torment really made modrons shine.
I say all of the above because Planescape has finally officially returned to Dungeons & Dragons with the Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse box set. With me being so amped about old Planescape I’ve been breathlessly awaiting the 5E version and I am exceptionally excited to say that it is still great.
The new Planescape box set has four parts – a setting book (Sigil and the Outlands), a bestiary (Morte’s Planar Parade), an adventure (Turn of Fortune’s Wheel), and a DM screen.
Sigil and the Outlands is, as one might expect, the heart of the box set. And it brings back (almost) everything great about the setting. Sigil has the general cosmology, the Lady of Pain, the dabus, razorvine, cranium rats, portals everywhere, the six wards, the factions (some aren’t as popular as they used to be or have merged, but they’re present), who does what and what is where. For the curious, the major factions are:
- Athar – The Defiers believe that the gods are just powerful beings, and there’s a real singular Power out there.
- Bleak Cabal – The Bleakers believe that there is no great meaning to be discovered in the universe, only the meaning you give it.
- Doomguard – The Sinkers believe that the purpose of the universe is entropy, and that everything will crumble and decay eventually.
- Fated – The Takers believe that people are entitled to what they can take and hold.
- Fraternity of Order – The Guvners believe that law governs existence, and that people should both follow and exploit that law.
- Hands of Havoc – The Wreakers are anarchists who seeking to tear down rigid institutions.
- Harmonium – The Hardheads believe that the universe will be perfect and at peace only when there is unity, whether everyone else likes it or not.
- Heralds of Dust – The Dusters believe that everyone is already dead and that this “life” is just the next step.
- Mercykillers – The Jailers believe that justice is absolute and that no one should escape it.
- Mind’s Eye – The Seekers (a combination of the Believers in the Source and the Sign of One factions) believe that the universe shapes people, but that that people can shape the universe in turn and achieve godhood.
- Society of Sensation – The Sensates believe that the truth of the universe can only be obtained by having every possible experience, good or bad.
- Transcendent Order – The Ciphers believe in understanding the universe by unifying the mind and body so that instinct, not thought, prevails.
With almost half the book dedicated to the one city, there’s space to really flesh out what’s important and distinctive. The Outlands half of the book gives you two pages on each of the 17 gate-towns – the prisonlike atmosphere of Curst, the blissful puritanism of Excelsior, the hopelessness of Hopeless, the backstabbing of Ribcage, the party vibes of Sylvania, and more. Plus there’s a lovely pull-out poster map with Sigil on one side and the Outlands on the other. J’adore! Other than just wanting more, the one thing I missed was the cant. Sigil had a really colorful slang and attitude that gave the place extra flavor. Sigil and the Outlands leaves that out entirely, although the included adventure does include someone telling those player character berks, who will not stop rattling their bone-boxes, to pike it, which made me smile (I feel like “pike it, berk” is the single most Planescape thing one can say).
Sigil and the Outlands contains a few player options. There are two backgrounds, the Gate Warden and the Planar Philosopher. Go with Gate Warden if you want a tie to a plane (via its gate-town in the Outlands) or a Planar Philosopher if you want a tie to one of the factions. Like all of the recent backgrounds, these give you a feat (Scion of the Outer Planes), which gives damage resistance and a cantrip. That feat requires you to pick a specific outer plane, or the Outlands, and that choice unlocks one of five other feats. Most of those feats add extra damage a few times a day, although the Outlands Envoy gets misty step and tongues. There are also a couple spells and magic items. This is a second place I wish Sigil and the Outlands gave me a bit more – I would have liked to see more distinctive mechanical options for Sigil faction members. Instead they get linked to an outer plane, just like the Gate Warden does.
The bestiary, Morte’s Planar Parade, is the shortest of the three included books – many of the things one might encounter out in the planes are already covered elsewhere. The planar parade includes several more archons and guardinals, the bariaur (centaur-like beings from Ysgard, but with the body of a goat instead of a horse), a cranium rat variant, dabus, demodands (Carceri fiends), even more modron variants, and a few bigger dark beasties. Morte’s Planar Parade also includes instructions for making planar variants of ‘normal’ creatures, and also petitioners. But a lot of the pages are for sample NPCS for all of the Sigil factions, which is handy. Morte, if you were curios, is a chatty floating skull who appeared in Planescape: Torment, and he’s here to make snide remarks throughout. Not only is there some nostalgia flowing for Morte, but I like when the sidebars are snarkier or otherwise comedic; it makes a nice constrast with the usually more objectively-presented information in the main text.
Sigil and the Outlands is the setting, and it’s a great one, but for those who are new to Sigil they’re probably going to see Planescape first through the lens of the adventure Turn of Fortune’s Wheel. I’m not going to delve into the details here because spoilers, but in broad strokes I think that Turn of Fortune’s Wheel serves as a good introduction to Sigil, the Outlands, and the higher-level concepts of Planescape, which is probably exactly what I would want an adventure to do. In a clear echo of Planescape: Torment, the 3rd-level player characters will wake up in the Mortuary, where they will be welcomed by Morte and mostly not know who they are. Upon escape they will get the chance to tour Sigil, interact with the eponymous Fortune’s Wheel casino, tour the Outlands, interact with the casino some more, and then get involved in some cosmic scale hijinks. They will also fairly quickly learn that there is something glitchy about themselves (then did just wake up after being dead, after all) and get to explore what makes them them.
The adventure scales quite rapidly from levels 3 to 10, although the DM can slow that pace down if they want to create more content for the players to encounter around Sigil or the Outlands. Once the players hit the Outlands, however, I would probably keep things as tight as the book allows, however, as it will be quite apparent to the players that the main point of the adventure in the Outlands is to make sure they see certain cross-section of the Outlands. As it notes on the back of the book, there’s a jump straight from 10th to 17th level, which has the side effect of keeping most of the adventure at a level where the players are more manageable while still letting them do that whole cosmic thing at the end.
The weakest link here is, unsurprisingly, the DM screen. The Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated came out six years ago and is still as fully functional now as it was then. There’s always the opportunity for one of these more specific DM screens to bring something more helpful for a particular sort of adventure. And the Planescape DM screen does have some useful new bits, with about two thirds of a panel listing the gate-towns and their associated planes, the major factions of Sigil with their philosophies, the wards of Sigil with what you can find there, and a map of the Outlands. But it also has four thirds of a panel of random encounters and random portal destinations, and that’s just not something that’s useful to me on a DM screen (this is a common refrain of mine with the specialty GM screens). This has the Planescape-specific art, which is always a plus, but I wish they could keep the functionality of the Remastered Screen.
All told, Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse is a fantastic return for the beloved campaign setting. I love Planescape, the new box set does it justice, and I could not recommend it more strongly.
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