Thursday, September 23, 2021

(Planescape) Planes of Chaos

This book was really good . . . just not at what it set out to do . . . but what it set out to do was misguided . . . but the most misguided thing about it is its unique audacity. . . 

Almost every part of this boxed set is peak D&D. It does exactly what you hope a new fantasy setting is going to do and presents unique, well-drawn locations that incorporate distinctive and memorable magic while serving as an apt backdrop for character-driven adventures. It's some of the best setting work I've seen for AD&D so far, and it has the absolute best version of  the "slay rats for an innkeeper" quest I've seen in any rpg, tabletop or otherwise.

(The rats in question are actually intelligent Cranium Rats and they're getting revenge on the innkeeper by stealing his rat poison and feeding it to his customers)

But why is it in the planes?

A fantasy world can have giant treetop villages. It can have wind-swept caverns, carved by a vanished, ancient civilization to sound like the wailing of grief. It can have forests where the branches of the trees are venomous snakes. You could even put them all in the same world and have it be a place of romance, intrigue, and adventure. Or you could put them in a number of separate and distinct alignment-themed worlds, sorted by how bad each idea made you feel.

And look, on some level I get that this is just me nitpicking. These locations might not be in the same "world," but they are in the same setting, and there's not much practical difference between "Zrintor, the Viper Forest lays many hundreds of miles south of Grandfather Oak. You must travel to the nautilus town of Elshava, on the Ossa sea, and follow the coast to the fortress town of Broken Reach, from whence you may venture into those tainted lands" and "There is a planar conduit near Grandfather Oak that leads to Ossa, the second layer of Arborea, where you can find a portal between Elshava and Sigil, and then, from Sigil to Broken Reach, on the Plain of Infinite Portals, where you can find passage to Zrintor . . . if the price is right."

These are still locations which have a geographical relationship to each other. You may hop from one to another through magical doorways that bypass the normal rules of time and space, but there's nothing inherently virtuous about geographical continuity. Those long journeys between named locations would just have been handwaved away with downtime anyways. It's just weird to me the way these things feel sorted, as if, in a regular fantasy setting, you had "The Continent No One Would Ever Want To Visit" and "The Continent No One Would Ever Want To Leave" (separated, of course, by "The Ocean That Will Atomize You If You Ever Try To Cross It").

To be fair, the Chaos Adventures book indirectly addresses this.

The adventures here should put to rest any mistaken idea that the Lower Planes are where all the fun is, that the Upper Planes are simply too good to be of much interest to an adventurer. If it hasn't become obvious from reading through the rest of this boxed set that the Upper Planes are every bit as dangerous and exciting as the Lower, a quick read through these adventures makes it exceedingly clear.

Not mentioned is the Lower Planes chilling the fuck out for five damned minutes, but I have to assume it's implied. Both these agendas are accomplished in more or less the same way, though - by making the Planes more like an ordinary world where people can be expected to live.

The Lower Planes has towns now. Sure, they're violent and filled with treacherous scum, but you can buy things there, and even stay the night with a rational expectation that the locals will not cut your throat in your sleep.

Likewise, the Upper Planes have commerce. Arborea is "the breadbasket of the planes." The crops they grow are unnaturally large and delicious and they are sold to merchants for a good price. As adventures, you may even find good work in protecting said merchants from the monsters that lurk in the wilderness.

The monsters.

Now, I don't like to think of myself as a total rube. I get that this is all for the good of the game. The peaceful farmers of Peaceful Farmtown need your help! Owlbears have been spotted, and the local militia are worried that they might pose a threat.

Okay, that's a good adventure. Find the source of the monsters, eliminate the threat, save the town. Real hero business. Except, Peaceful Farmtown is literally in heaven. That's what put the "plane" in "Planescape." These places are the lands of the dead, the final destination of mortal souls, and pure emanations of the fundamental building blocks of the soul.

So what we've got is a situation where someone has lived an entire life in the material world, but not just any life, an exceptional life, one in which their actions exemplified not just a benevolent regard for the well-being of others, but also a principled commitment to freedom and personal autonomy. And this is not just a "closest fit" sort of scenario. There's an entire separate realm for "people who mind their own business, do what they want, but are mostly okay." You are Good with a capital G. And your afterlife is one where you work on a farm (and it's explicitly established that "petitioners get the blisters" when the Greek Gods refuse to upgrade their land's tools to iron) in exchange for money and there's a real possibility that your soul may be devoured by a monster, never again to exist in any form.

I feel like maybe the metaphysical implications of this were not entirely thought through.

Of course, the obvious next question is what I'd rather have in its place. What am I going to do, put my foot down and say "no monsters in heaven," and then have exactly the sort of boring game Chaos Adventures went through such trouble to refute? "Why yes, I do agree that the Upper Planes are too good to be interesting, as it should be."

I mean, I don't entirely agree with the solution, but I can see the designers' dilemma. I guess the best way to articulate my problem is to invert the question - what's the point of the Prime Material Plane?

It's kind of a big deal. Its inhabitants are "the Clueless," the ones who don't know much about the afterlife because they were just regular alive, in the place where living things usually come from, and which is the only place in the universe that's not "the planes." There has to be a contrast there, otherwise the Prime characters' ignorance of the Great Wheel would just be ordinary ignorance, every bit the equivalent of the Planar characters' ignorance of the Prime Material plane. Like, maybe everybody is "clueless" about places they've never been been before. . .

Okay, okay, sarcasm aside, it's not clear exactly what criteria go into making a world one of the Planes of the Great Wheel and what makes it a Prime Material world. My inclination is to say that the Prime Material worlds are, um, material. They have the sort of environment that can support the metabolic and reproductive processes of various mortal species. You can travel to the Outer Planes all you want, but the food you find is like Persephone's pomegranate or the feasts of the fair folk - you eat it and you lose at least a small part of your life, becoming tied to the otherworldly realms. Except that's not it, because people grow all kinds of food in Arborea, and not only is it safe to eat, it's better than regular food.

My other thought was maybe the Outer Planes were more abstract than the Prime Material, that they represented pure ideas and the realm of forms that gives the material world its fundamental shape. They can sometimes seem like that, and I'm pretty sure that's more or less exactly what they were, pre-Planescape, but also, the realm of Chaotic Good has deadly monsters.

I can think of a couple of ways to resolve this. I had an idea that maybe you could split away half the awful stuff from the two lower planes and half the great stuff from the two upper planes, shuffle the eight halves together and get four pretty damned great alternate primes. Planescape then becomes a kind of fantasy Sliders (and no, I don't have a more timely reference for you, what do you want from a guy doing in-depth critiques of 25 year-old rpg supplements) where you hop between different variant campaign setting, but none of it has special religious significance. 

The other way to go with it is an ecological approach - the Outer Planes are these abstract realms of fundamental meaning, but they are also capable of supporting mortal life, and thus mortals are doing what mortals do - expand into any remotely available niche and exploit it for all it's worth. I think this is the general approach that Planescape is going for, but I'm not sure any of the books I've read so far realize how fundamentally weird a premise this is, and they especially don't lean into the weirdness and try to explore its possible implications.

Like, okay, one thing we understand about Arborea is that its magical life energy means that crops grown there are unnaturally abundant, nutritious, and delicious. And that's economically valuable for obvious reasons. But why are the crops being grown by dead souls? "Welcome to free-spirit heaven, let me direct you to your completely mundane 9-5 job." The book is somewhat ambiguous about this point, and there are indications that the main trade cities are populated primarily by mortal transplants, but it's tricky to discern because the transplant cities mostly fit into the general tenor of the plane.

And it's not clear why this should be the case. It actually seems pretty obvious to me that there's not a great deal of overlap between the sort of person who would be admitted into Chaotic Good heaven and the sort of person who sees Chaotic Good heaven and thinks "I bet I could make a shit ton of money if I chopped down that magical forest and used the land for raising crops." And maybe, if we're exploring this line of reasoning, then we could neatly reconcile the "the Upper Planes are too good to be interesting" problem with the "why the fuck are there soul-destroying monsters in the Upper Planes" problem and have the central conflict stem from the unnatural presence of an invasive Lawful Evil agribusiness in the Chaotic Good afterlife.

We could even bring the monsters back into it. Maybe the monsters hitched a ride with the mortals. Maybe they're created out of the psychic dissonance between the intruders and the plane. Maybe they're the plane's immune system, lashing out at an irritant. Maybe the dead are so outraged by the mortals' exploitative practices that they're falling back on their old Chaotic Good virtue to wage a guerilla campaign, using the fantastic creatures of the Outer Planes as both weapons and allies. Maybe it's all of the above.

The mortals don't even have to be evil for many of these plots to work. If they're Lawful Good, then the dangerous paradox monsters may be a natural consequence of their actions, even as the inhabitants of the plane are reluctant to escalate the conflict to open violence.

The main canonical obstacle is the tendency of planar locations to shift out of unsuitable planes and into more compatible locations. There are any number of ways to solve this problem, however - from magical rituals, to simply having a business model that incorporates the cost of resettling every few years to just not having a bit of canon that preemptively shuts down the most interesting types of conflict.

Planes of Chaos is a marked improvement over the main Planescape boxed set, but ironically, it lacks the radical edge necessary to challenge its own received AD&D legacy. The structure and purpose of the planes were inherited from a game that made some very specific assumptions, and aside from some peripheral noodling that amounts to little more than retconning a few of the more religiously fraught names (they're not "demons," they're tanar'ri) the setting isn't actually allowed to mess with those assumptions (like what the hell is even the point of "planar layers" - can't we just allow heaven to have three different types of terrain). The need to remain compatible with the other campaign settings is holding Planescape back from being its own thing.

Don't get me wrong, though. There's a lot of good stuff here. It's just good stuff that's also careless about the metaphysics, doesn't take advantage of the available scale, and which weirdly shoehorns in the Greek and Norse gods, despite not being nearly Greek or Norse enough to do those characters justice (and, conversely, being in constant danger of losing the plot when it does dip into culturally specific themes - the Greek dead have slaves in the chaotic good afterlife realm . . . don't look at me, I don't know either).

Sometimes I'm struck by an overpowering sense of bemusement when I survey the landscape of the tabletop rpg-derived branch of the fantasy genre. Dungeons and Dragons looms so large here, but what D&D is is a countless number of very talented people playing inside of a sandbox built out of Gygax's peculiar obsessions and half-assed first drafts, but then because they're so talented, they manage to build some really cool shit inside that sandbox (and for all that he's become a problematic figure, I don't want to completely dismiss Gygax either). And the result is these huge snowdrifts of ideas that have just accumulated over the years and sometimes they have enough weight to crack the boundaries of the sandbox, but even as the ideas rush to fill in the genre's newly expanded borders, you still get these weird throwback stowaways that pop up and barge their way into places they have no business occupying (seriously, how the hell are Greece and Noway canon in AD&D - the books may be coy about it, but "on a certain Prime Material world" isn't fooling anyone), and then you get new generations who have never even read the primary sources talking about "generic" campaign settings, and basing whole new settings off of rebuttals to reactions to things that were never really meant as a coherent statement because they've had 30 different authors spread out over 25 different books, written over 15 years.

And then Plansecape exists as bridge between half a dozen examples of this, while also being an example of it on its own, and this is what I'm choosing to critique as "the AD&D afterlife setting." So, I guess what I'm saying is that I have no idea where I get the absolute fucking gall to say that I wish it hung together a little better, but I do, so ball's in your court, Wizards of the Coast, about hitting me up about that remake.

Ukss Contribution: The thing I most appreciate about the "planar" setting is the way it allows the creators to invent magical things that aren't necessarily tied to a magic system. Thus, you can have something like Evergold, (Arborea's improved name for the fountain of youth), without having to imply the existence of a "restore youth" spell. My favorite example of this is Howler's Crag. If you climb up to the top of this cliff, you can shout a message to anyone, living or dead, and they'll hear your words as a voice in the wind. It's just a weird magic rock in the middle of the hell of wind and darkness, but it's such an un-AD&D type of worldbuilding. There's a romantic legend that just happens to be true. You can find it and be a part of it. My absolute favorite type of fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. You never have to apologize to me for a Sliders reference...