Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Planescape Boxed Set

 Oh man, this is one of the big ones. A legendary campaign setting from AD&D's golden age. I have to say something really intelligent about it or my blogging credibility goes straight out the window. No pressure.

Here goes nothing - I liked it. It has potential. Wizards of the Coast should hire me to helm the reboot, because it really didn't stick the landing.

I feel bad for saying that, because it blew my mind as a teenager, and I can still see why it did that, but also, now that I'm older and have read approximately 200-300 more rpg books, I can see that it's all surface. It's attitude and the intimation of scope, but conservative in its structure (this book opens the planes up to low-level characters! and advises the GM to keep the low-levels "close to home") and half-assed in its worldbuilding.

Like, why is the city of Curst? No, really. Why is it?

I suppose I'm going to have to get deep into the weeds of Planescape setting details. I'll try to be quick - Planescape is about adventurers who explore the Great Wheel, a collection of 17 alignment-coded afterlife realms, each with its own distinct (ish) appearance and character. Sixteen of these realms are placed in a ring. You've got the Neutral Good realm at the top, and then going clockwise it's "Neutral Good with chaotic tendencies" followed by "Chaotic Good" followed by "Chaotic Good with neutral tendencies" and so on. In between this ring of 16 realms is the 17th, the realm of pure neutrality.

It's a structure that dates back to before AD&D 1e's Players Handbook (though the PHB quite sensibly puts the material world in the center, instead of some BS plane of neutrality), and you know what, it's a genuine meme. It's a transparent exercise in nerd-obsessive grid-filling, with half the entries existing only because something had to go in the slots, but for all that, it's memorable and fires the imagination. It's good . . .

As a start. Planescape is tasked with turning this thinly-sketched idea into a living campaign setting, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. One of the things it does is change the names and character of certain of the planes. The neutral plane, which as recently as the 2nd edition PHB was called "Concordant Opposition" is now "the Outlands" and it really should just be the material plane because the best thing about it is that it's a place where people can live relatively normal lives, and the worst thing about it is that it's still the plane of profoundly ridiculous take on the concept of neutrality.

I'll quote the book:

Ask a petitioner [ed note: dead soul] of the Outlands to do one thing and he does two. . . See, the petitioners there have this feeling that every action they take affecting the balance of good and evil (or law and chaos) must be offset by an equal action to the opposite side. . .

. . . if an Outlander petitioner smuggles a body away from the hunting fiends of Plague-Mort - a good act by most standards - then he's going to feel compelled to fix the balance. That same petitioner might raise the alarm as soon as the sod's out of town, or he might betray the next berk that's hunted by the fiends. A petitioner's balancing doesn't have to be done immediately. Pure fact is, most of them carry little tallies of their deeds, sometimes in their heads and sometimes in little books.
What in the everliving fuck is that morality even trying to accomplish?

Sorry, that's a diversion. We were talking about Curst. For that conversation, all you need to know is that the Outlands borders all the other planes, and mortal creatures sometimes live there in small settlements. If the settlement is close enough to the border that you can cross over to the other planes, it's called a Gate Town. One of those Gate Towns, close to Carceri, the "Neutral Evil with chaotic tendencies" plane, is called Curst.

Carceri is kind of a neat fantasy location. It's the "prison of the gods," a series of nested spheres, each one contain ever more terrible horrors, sealed away so that they may never again trouble the other worlds.

Curst is the town built just outside Carceri.

Bleak and dusty, Curst's little more than a collection of shanties perched on the edge of Carceri, where those exiled from elsewhere on the Outlands dream out their bitter lives . . .

Every sod in this gate town is here because of one reason: They've got nowhere else to go. They've been driven from power, cut off from those they one thought loved them, and stripped of all their vanities save ego. Now, the thing that makes the work's the collective desire to crush those unbanished.
And here's the thing. It's unthinkable that "they've got nowhere else to go." The whole book is filled with places to go. It's kind of the campaign's central conceit. Even if you're banished from other parts of the Outlands, the Outlands are huge. You could just have gone to some third part that didn't quite suck so much, because it's not as if your banishers are going to put the effort to track you down. If they gave a damn where you went, they'd have just cut off your head. There's literally nothing stopping you from just walking away.

Well, except the town guards. "Those leaving Curst, on the other are required to state reasons for wanting to go elsewhere and show proof they can make it." But it's not clear why they're doing this.

The guards are fellow exiles. The people commanding them are fellow exiles. There's no clear indication that any of the above have anything to gain by keeping people in town. It's an open-air prison, in a temperate location, where the prisoners are the guards and nobody's paying them.

Maybe it's spite? If the leaders can't leave, no one can. Except the leaders can leave. There's nothing keeping them there either, except their desire to return to exactly the place that exiled them and nowhere else. But you could easily plot your glorious return from anywhere, because it's not as if Curst has any great revenge-aiding resources. Just a bunch of bitter people nursing entirely different grudges.

So it's not clear why this town exists. I could think of a few reasons it might. If it was a large group, like a rebel army, that all got banished together, and they all shared the goal of going back to the exact same place, then they could have built a town while they gathered their strength, and the precise location of their landing is as good as any.

Or it could be a prison. Somebody in Sigil could be paying the leaders to keep people to prisoners, and the gate to Carceri is just a threat. Stay in Curst, where there is some distant hope that you might be released, or get tossed into the trap plane with all the monsters too dangerous for the gods. That could be a pretty chilling location.

Or maybe there's something that the inhabitants hope to get from Carceri. All these scary-ass monsters could be useful in getting your revenge, and the town of Curst is a magical research center devoted to getting them out.

But the book doesn't say any of that. I mean, Curst does have a mercenary market, but it's implied that the market followed the town, rather than the other way around (you are allowed to leave if you hire a bunch of mercenaries and plan on going back to exactly where you came from, apparently).

Now, I don't mean to single out Curst here. All of the Gate Towns are like this to one degree or another. You've got a plane in the Great Ring, and then a town that's like a watered down version of that plane. Outside the plane of Baator, the realm of ultimate law in service to ultimate evil, there's the town of Ribcage. It's a totalitarian dictatorship. Outside Ysgard, the rowdy Norse-flavored plane, there's Glorium, which is a town where people enjoy drinking and fighting and manly honor. In fact, it's so much like Ysgard that it's in danger of breaking off of the Outlands and drifting into Ysgard, a fate that the local inhabitants think is awesome.

This setting concept, that locations in one plane can drift towards other planes, is emblematic of Planescape's worldbuilding. At first glance, it's interesting and has a lot of adventure potential - this town is drifting, some people want to accelerate it and other people want to stop it, that's where the PCs come in. But dig even a little deeper and the necessary logistical infrastructure just isn't there.

Why should one plane care whether a town drifts into it or not? All the planes are infinite. And they remain infinite after the shifts in territory. Maybe the people in the town might care, but . . .

If the people of Glorium wanted to live in a town in Ysgard, they could have just built a town in Ysgard. That's allowed. In fact, it's more than allowed, it's suggested. In the section on portals, the book casually drops the bombshell, "a permanent portal might . . . land them in a field on Elysium, not far from a small keep they've built."

Holy shit.

"Mortal people, colonizing heaven and hell" is a fucking amazing campaign pitch. Heaven is a real, literal place, and you can physically go there, and you can build a house, by like, picking up rocks and shit, and you can live out the rest of your life in paradise. People have already done this. Nothing in my collection even comes close to the potential there is in this concept.

And yet Planescape doesn't quite seem to comprehend the scope of that potential. It pays lip service to ideology as a setting element, but doesn't seem to understand what ideology is for. There's a group called the Xaositects and the main thing we know about them is that they like to jumble up the words in their sentences ("annoying this not is") and occasionally they appear to be able to pronounce the wingdings font (at least, if the quotes where they use it are to be believed). How is this something that people are interested in participating in? 

There's almost no effort spent in grounding this setting in practical human concerns. The factions are all about the meaning of existence and not, say, the best way to get everyone food and shelter, or what to do with all this magic that's flying around, or even the fate of souls in the afterlife, an issue they are able to directly investigate by going to the afterlife and seeing what happens to souls.

I wonder what Planescape would be like if it did focus on those concerns. Cities slide into adjacent planes if they don't fit well enough into their home plane. People can build cities inside the paradise realms of the Upper Planes. I'm picturing a region of the Outlands called "The Fallen Cities," places that were originally Upper Planes colonies until they slid away, thanks to the inhabitants impurity and mortal frailty. What are these places like? Are they unusually holy, even in their fallen state, or have they curdled into bitterness and resentment? What is the regional culture like, among these people who have tasted heaven and been found wanting? Do they draw Outlands petitioners who might wish to piggyback on their attempts to reclaim their prior place?

Similarly, I'm picturing cities on the threshold of the Lower Planes. They would have the opposite problem. The demons and devils would want to have outposts outside hell so they can attract people who are obviously too smart to physically enter a hell realm, and prefer to safely deal with fiends from neutral territory. These outposts would offer infernal gold and underworld gems in exchange for captured souls and favors performed in the material world, but by their very nature they would stoke the greed and cruelty of their inhabitants, placing their wicked patrons in the ironic position of having to find ways of leavening their assets with imported goodness. What are the different strategies for achieving this result?

I've complained a lot about Planescape in this post, but I'm still prepared to say it's one of my favorite campaign settings. I think it's because all my complaints are "fertile" complaints. It's easy for me to see "solutions" to its "problems" and from those solutions indefinitely riff on all sorts of new adventure and setting ideas. Like, it's kind of weird and upsetting the way the character race list has been pruned down to humans and some completely novel fantasy creatures that TSR is now able to trademark. Don't get me wrong. I really like tieflings, and githzerai are kind of cool, and bariurs . . . well, I don't dislike them, even if I totally get why they never gained traction (weaker, less iconic centaurs who have sheep for their lower halves and have a frankly upsetting degree of gender dimorphism), but if Planescape is really the game it says it is, then there should be a hundred different options. Not just elves and dwarves, but really outre stuff like the kangaroo people from kangaroo world. Everything from every published campaign setting, plus a bunch of stuff that was never published. Dig deep, TSR, I know you must have said "no" to a few dozen pitches before you settled on Planescape.

But, like I said, this is easily solved. "The Complete Book of Humanoids is legal and you don't have to justify shit." You want to be a goblin paladin from a world where goblins are lawful good and dwarves are servants of the dark lord? Approved.

And I don't know, maybe it's wrong of me to give so much credit to a fixer-upper setting like this. A lot of what I'm enjoying about this campaign is stuff I invented for myself, but I meant it when I said this game blew my mind as a teenager. A lot of what I loved about it turned out to be superficial window-dressing, but that's okay because I was only able to appreciate it on a superficial level. The cant has a rhythm and music to it, makes the books sound like they're being whispered to me in a seedy bar. The razor vines and the cutting gaze of the Lady of Pain were both literally and figuratively edgy. You could get tattoos of that shit. It was an rpg book that was giving me permission to be weird and cynical, even if, in later years, I'd discover that it wasn't nearly as weird and cynical as it could have been.

Ukss Contribution: Also, there's a lot of stuff that's just really cool. We don't always have to be looking for the implications of things. Dead gods in the astral plane. Universe-sized lightning storms. Mysterious strangers who are just a little bit demonic. It's actually a bit hard to choose.

I'm going to go with Nic'Epona - they're rainbow colored horses who can travel between planes and who may be tamed with the power of friendship. They're not necessarily my absolute favorite, but Ukss already has talking horses and a region that has been corrupted by extradimensional color, so I've got a perfect niche for them.


  1. Good review. Hard to make a setting about the inifinite playable and engaging.

    Curst reminds me of Villain Pub on YouTube

  2. Someone once described one of the big problems with Planescape to me by saying that Sigil is a city of fantastic and impressive things, inhabited and narrated by people who are totally committed to being unimpressed by the angels and demons walking down the street.

    True! And yet I love it so.