Welcome to Rule of 3, a series discussing the Planescape campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons. I’m Ken Marable. I’m a long time D&D fan (Red Box!), and a big fan of Planescape in particular. With Fifth Edition, D&D’s popularity has been soaring, especially among teens. Messageboard polls and discussions typically show Planescape as one of the settings fans most want to see return. However, I have also read some fans asking about Planescape since that product line ended long before many of them were gamers and even before a significant number of them were born.
So that is one of my goals with Rule of 3 – I want to help introduce Planescape to a new generation of gamers. Also, for those already familiar with it, I’m hoping to have some interesting looks at how to use Planescape in 5e. But first, who am I? I’m just a fan, and am in no way an official representative of Wizards of the Coast. Back in the early days of Third Edition, I did help run Planewalker.com, the Official Planescape Fan Site, but that was more Wizards of the Coast picking a primary location for fans of older settings to gather than really anything “official.” But I also did a smattering of freelance writing – as did a lot of fans back in the Third Edition era. However, I did manage to work up to updating the modrons in Dragon magazine and adding a bit to their lore.
However, I don’t want to claim any sort of authority here. I’m just someone who is so excited about a D&D setting that has been out of print for almost 20 years that I still want to talk about it.
WHAT IS PLANESCAPE?
So let’s start all the way back at the beginning. Just what is Planescape? It’s a world (or set of worlds, or planes, or whatever) for D&D adventures, like Ravenloft or the Forgotten Realms. As described in the Dungeon Masters Guide, there are the various planes of existence – like the Abyss, Mount Celestia, the Beastlands, Acheron, and so on. Planescape focuses on adventuring in these other planes. So rather than being based on one world, or even one region of one world, Planescape covers a whole myriad of worlds and planes of existence – and in some ways it covers the entire multiverse.
HOW IS PLANESCAPE DIFFERENT THAN JUST ADVENTURING IN THE PLANES?
So how is Planescape different than just having adventures in other planes of existence? Couldn’t you just take the list of planes from the Dungeon Masters Guide and set adventures in them and that would be Planescape? Sort of, but not necessarily. Planescape has a very distinctive feel to it – which can be good and bad, of course. This “feel” to a setting can be difficult to express, and much of this series will be an attempt to convey that. Something like Ravenloft has nice links to pre-existing ideas of classic vampire and werewolf gothic horror, and Tolkein inspirations on the Forgotten Realms and other worlds of D&D are pretty obvious. Planescape is something else, however, and I’ll do my best to try and convey that feel throughout this series.
One major area is that traditionally, before Planescape, and often even now, adventuring in the Outer Planes, where you are in the homes of the demons and devils as well as visit deities themselves, are seen as only suitable for the highest level characters. Planescape changes that. It is built in a way that makes exploring all planes of existence something that even a fresh-off-the-farm, not-yet-seizing-their-destiny 1st level character can do. The planes are not just populated with epic level heroes on mythic quests, but by farmers and merchants going about their business, and town guards just trying to stop the local thieves guild. But, in Planescape, maybe the farmers are tending crops of newly deceased souls in the fiery fields of the Abyss – or the “town guards trying to stop a thieves guild” are modrons trying to stop an invasion by chaotic anarchists hoping to disrupt a lawful town on a gear of Mechanus and shift it to another plane. (More on that in a moment.)
Many of the existing tropes of fantasy games still exist in Planescape, but are twisted and applied to extremely strange circumstances. It is not all epic paladins striking at the heart of Hades, especially since most devils, demons, and other fiends aren’t merely destructive monsters tearing everything apart until slain. (Well, maybe most demons are, but that’s beside the point.) If a PC comes across a powerful fiend, they are likely on some business and might not even notice the PC. Or if they do, they are more likely to try working a deal than just ripping someone apart. Not every monster is best dealt with by slaying it. Usually, there’s a more interesting story going on than “found a nice lair, thought up an evil scheme, and now waits for heroes to come slay it.”
Oh, there’s still plenty of chances for monster slaying, of course. It’s just that there is much, much more to Planescape than that. The biggest conflicts, in fact, rarely even shed blood. These conflicts are over beliefs. One fundamental fact about the Outer Planes that the Planescape setting is built upon, is that these planes are not made of rock and air and such like normal worlds. They are instead made out of belief itself. The souls of the deceased go to these planes because these planes are made from the same things as the souls. The greatest power in the planes is not magic or a powerful sword, but belief, because it can actually shape the reality of the planes. For example, as mentioned above, if enough people in an area share beliefs that conflict with the beliefs of the planes itself, then that area can actually be expelled to an entirely different Outer Plane. Just by shaping the beliefs of the residents, entire towns and regions can shift and slide between planes.
Belief and the conflicts that arise between those with different beliefs about reality are the central focuses of the Planescape setting. This is most clear in the Factions of Sigil.
SIGIL, THE LADY OF PAIN, AND THE FACTIONS
In future posts, I will go into far more detail on the city of Sigil, the Lady of Pain who controls it, and the various Factions who make Sigil their home (depending on when you set your campaign, but spoilers!). To keep it brief for now, Sigil (pronounced with a hard-G, rather than a soft-G like ‘sigil’ meaning symbol or rune, etc.) is a city with portals going everywhere and a mysterious being called the Lady of Pain has absolute dominion over Sigil. So even if a pit fiend were to enter Sigil, they would know not to disturb things too much or else the Lady of Pain will deal with them in a decidedly uncomfortable way. The means, however, that Sigil is a (relatively) safe city with connections to all of reality – making it a vital cosmopolitan metropolis.
Although the Lady of Pain is the ultimate power in the city, she is also quite hands-off in running things and typically only make her presence known in extreme situations. The main political powers of Sigil (at least during the main Planescape products) are the Factions. They are 15 organizations, each based around a certain set of beliefs about reality. They range from the Society of Sensation (aka Sensates) who think the purpose of existence is to experience as many different things as possible, to the Athar who think all gods are frauds, to the Believers of the Source who think we are all gods in the making! From chaotic, nearly insane Xaositects to rigidly lawful Fraternity of Order. The Fated who take what they can to the Bleak Cabal who comfort others because there is no meaning to life and the best we can do is comfort each other in our misery.
Sigil and the Factions were a primary focus of the Planescape products, and we will spend a lot of time exploring them – both what they were in the original products, what they could be in 5e, and other ways to make use of them if you like the ideas but not Planescape’s particular implementation of those ideas. Also, we will spend a lot of time away from Sigil exploring ALL of the various planes, interesting places and beings on them, and fun adventure ideas that really push the boundaries of the fantastic.
3 THINGS CAN USE TODAY
Lastly, to wrap things up, I plan to include in each post 3 quick things you can use right away in your games to introduce a touch of Planescape. In future posts, I will discuss particular older adventures and other products and how to use them in your current 5e games. But these 3 things are just quick bits you can incorporate without a lot of preparation right now.
- Foreshadow a major conflict (and May’s release of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes) but just from hints at the epic scale of it. In ancient ruins, have the PCs find warnings of the conflict. Just little hints, like a place they are exploring was once home to illithids millennia before the current residents. But some carvings (or even psychic memory stones or some such) talk of a dire threat that even the illithids fear. The only word they can make out is “Rrakma.”
- Have the PCs need to infiltrate an organization of powerful wizards, clerics, or other spellcasters. They will need more than just forged documents, but forged True Names (or forged Souls, etc.), and in researching just what they will need to do, this discover a reference to someone who traffics in counterfeit True Names that resides in this magical city called Sigil.
- Go ahead and throw a powerful baatezu devil at them (including minions) – far more powerful than can normally handle. The devil isn’t interested in killing them, but instead wants to bargain. Rather than something as mundane as their souls, this devil likes to sow misery by claiming their happiest memory and replacing it with something tragic instead. It will simply let the PCs go (and maybe even stop tormenting locals if the memories are tasty enough) if they will give the devil their happiest memory. That memory will be gone, forever, but that sacrifice might spare many others.
Thank you for taking the time out to read this, I hope find this series informative. Next time, I will look at the Great Wheel arrangement of the planes, both its history through the editions as well as alternatives for those who prefer something less tied to alignment. Until then, happy gaming!