Every time I read one of these big boxed sets I always run head-first into the paradox of Planescape - it is a version of D&D that is empowered to be as big and as out there as anything you can imagine, but it is almost completely unaware of the audacity of its own scope.
They actually start a section with the words, "The sole greater Power to make his home on the Beastlands . . ." The sole greater Power? What does infinity even mean? How are we looking at a book with six different universes, that are themselves composed of anywhere between 2 and 6 different sub-worlds, which are each of them infinite in size (except, inexplicably, Gehenna, where the volcanoes are "merely" hundreds of thousands of miles tall) and then, when it comes to the inhabitants of these places, getting only a small set of familiar characters.
Oh, I wonder if this next god is going to be from Toril, or maybe, if they're feeling daring, Krynn? And wow, Bytopia is full of gnomes, you say? And what are the odds that this diverse trading town has bariaurs, githzerai, and tieflings? And for fuck's sake, why are there so many real world deities wandering around? You realize that you've made the actual, flesh and blood, existing in the history of our own reality, Celts into D&D canon, right? Plus the Chinese, the Greeks, and Norse, and a bunch of others, which might add some much-needed diversity in the game, except they all come from a single world.
The thing that frustrates me about all this is that I feel like either I or the game am on the verge of understanding something important here. And the question at the center of this is - "What, exactly, is fantasy?"
Sometimes I feel like I'm being excessively hard on these books for not having the advantage of my 20 years of hindsight. They're at the beginning of a process whose end I am the beneficiary of. I often find myself going "yes, aannd . . ." like I'm somehow going to be able to coax the next step out of book that was out of print while I was still a teenager. In the Beastlands, there is an area called "The Forbidden Plateau." It's a giant, flat-topped mountain with a jungle on top that is home to a self-contained ecosystem of dinosaurs.
And they are so close to getting it. It's the Beastlands, the animal-themed afterlife. Dinosaurs are animals and so they are in the Beastlands too. That makes perfect sense. So why is the narration surprised by this?
Nobody's go the dark of why the plateau, the dinosaurs, and the beastmen are here. Once chant says that the Beastlands wanted to preserve these animals that've died out on many prime worlds. But if they're all in the dead-book, why do they exist on the Beastlands? Dinosaurs must still exist somewhere or they wouldn't need a place to call their own on the Beastlands?Now, I'll admit, I did have some sarcastic fun with this - "dinosaurs, in the afterlife, but they're extinct?!" But I want to focus on a specific line that kind of sums up the flaws in Planescape's world-building. Dinosaurs "have died out on many prime worlds."
This is where I start to think that maybe I'm the problem. Because it's an innocuous enough line, but I keep turning it over in my mind and I can't even begin to understand what they were going for. In our real world, where dinosaurs existed, they didn't just "die out." There was a specific triggering event that led to their extinction. So, do these "many prime worlds" all have their own versions of the Chicxulub impact? Is there some cosmic force that is driving this parallelism between worlds? Is that why there are so many real world gods everywhere? There are thousands, millions, perhaps even infinite prime material worlds out there, and on most of them, there is a Greece and a China and the dinosaurs once lived, but now they're extinct.
I don't think that's what they were going for. The feeling I get is one of groping in the darkness, and taking things for granted that really should have been questioned. Dinosaurs are ordinary animals. Indeed, if you define "ordinary" through a process of picking a random animal from a random time in the history of life on Earth, dinosaurs are about twice as ordinary as almost any other type of animal living today. So it's not surprising that they're in the Beastlands. It would be more surprising if they weren't.
And once you realize that, the next step is to realize that you have permission to have dinosaurs in your worlds. They can fill the same niche as contemporary animals. The author, Besop, has written his famous fable "the oviraptor and the grapes" and it's kind of proverbial in Sigil because that particular prime world is at the end of a particularly accessible portal. You don't have to assume that our world is typical. Or that your previously published campaign settings are somehow generic. Our world is the result of specific events. And Toril and Krynn are the result of specific decisions. What Planescape gives you is the opportunity to explore different decisions. Indeed, because it is infinite, it actively cries out for you to make every decision, at least once.
There are times when Planes of Conflict captures this feeling. The Gautiere are a species who built a glorious monument to their god, one so impressive and so beautiful that the other gods became jealous and moved to strike them down. When the god they loved so much abandoned them, to hide from the wrath of his fellow gods inside the very temple that drew their ire, the Gautiere cursed his betrayal, trapping him inside the glorious structure until the end of time. Now, they are a broken and forsaken people, a shadow of their former selves, condemned to the prison plane of Carceri for daring to hold the divine accountable.
That's a whole damned epic that's just tossed out in the description section of a two-page monster writeup, and it's kind of awesome. But why isn't more of the book like that? The only thing in the actual plane descriptions that comes close is "The Abomination's Lair" in Gehenna:
The creature hails from a prime world called Aebrynis, and more specifically from the continent of Cerilia. It's one of that world's awnsheghlien, or abominations. It was once human, but in its blood runs the power of a crushed god of evil - and the abomination can increase its power by absorbing the strength of other creatures that have godly essence in their own veins.And I just screwed up. My point was going to be that this was some amazing economy. Just tossing out a campaign world we've never heard of and giving it a plot hook, to demonstrate that there are interesting things happening everywhere and they don't have to all be so solicitous of TSR's trademarks. Except, it turns out that Aebrynis is merely a campaign world I hadn't heard of, and that this is, in fact, a reference to the Birthright™ boxed set. I had a hunch and googled it after pulling the quote and am thus quite disappointed that one on of my favorite original things wasn't actually original after all.
Still, before I found out how wrong I was, this was an example of what I'd consider the ideal Planescape writing. You sell infinity by dipping your toe into concepts that could support entire boxed sets and you do it often enough that you convey the idea that you are allowed to have wildly divergent cosmologies and ecologies and societies and they'll all fit because the amount of space available is limitless.
You are allowed to have cannibal demigods and mortals who defied their creators. You are allowed to have inns that rest in the branches of giant treant and wander around the countryside. You are allowed to have city-sized mimics that aspire to become major trading hubs due to the valuable crafts created by its person-shaped pseudopods. You are allowed to have villages where the people store their memories in elaborate magical tattoos that can detach from their bodies and fight independently against dangerous fiends (at the risk of falling in combat and being lost forever). You are allowed to have dinosaurs.
And maybe it sounds a bit churlish and condescending for me to be saying that, because all the things I just mentioned were in this book, and thus something the writers knew they were allowed to do. Except, this is also the book that will enumerate the gods in an infinite plane and then explicitly state that these are all that exist. This is also the book that keeps going back to the two (or three, apparently) worlds we've seen before. This is also the book that confidently states that "the vast majority of petitioners on Bytopia are gnomes."
Resolving this contradiction has proven to be the most challenging part of reading these Planescape books. From my perspective in 2021, I keep thinking "they obviously know it's possible to go big, so why do they so often insist on staying small," but I wonder if maybe that wasn't actually that obvious in 1995. Maybe everyone knew what fantasy was supposed to be - elves and dwarves, wizards and orcs, kingdoms and medieval technology, and a tacked-on religion loosely modeled off of Christian misunderstandings of classical polytheism. And because that's what everyone knew, then every move away from that must be justified. When you add things like dinosaurs, you aren't just doing fantasy, you are actively risking a break in the genre. So you put the dinosaurs on a high mountain in the middle of the animal afterlife and act really surprised they're there, to reassure people that most of the Planescape setting is normal fantasy.
It's sometimes hard for me to remember that Planescape is one of the things that opened my eyes to the possibilities of the fantasy genre. So much of it seems timid to me now, but in 1997-1998, when I first started getting into it, I was shocked to discover that you could play D&D in a way that wasn't just a Tolkien fanfic. The setting's conservatism didn't even register with me. This is some of the boldest, most original setting work AD&D ever did and it's not entirely clear where I get the nerve to ask for more.
Ukss Contribution: I've already mentioned most of my candidates, and I'm inclined to pick something specific and weird, but the more that I think about the book, the more I realize that the truest tribute would be to go broad and break my own habits. So I'm going with dinosaurs. It's a bit of a fad to include dinosaurs in a fantasy setting as ordinary animals, but that's exactly why I should do it. I'm usually predictably quirky with these Ukss choices and it will do me some good to get back to basics.