Monday, December 13, 2021

(Planescape) The Planeswalker's Handbook

 With The Planeswalker's Handbook, TSR has made the curious choice of essentially re-issuing the original boxed set, in a barely condensed form. Seriously, the descriptions of the individual planes are cut from a full page to a half page, but the first chapter runs through all of them, incorporating material from the three main boxed sets along the way. It doesn't go into detail about Sigil, and that's a pretty big loss, but it makes up for it by including dramatically more player-facing material - new equipment and spells, new planeswalker-specific kits, and a few new PC race options, including the soon-to-be-iconic aasimar and genasi. A DM is going to need more information, but for players, it's probably the best available entry point into the setting.

Maybe that's why they did it. Players don't read boxed sets, but they do read the "Handbook" series, and the MSRP is 10 dollars cheaper, so it's less of an ask. Nonetheless, it's a ridiculously good value and could well be a full campaign setting in its own right.

And it's here that I have to get myself under control and refrain from going off on my usual Planescape tirade, because The Planeswalker's Handbook really does a great job of embodying the setting - for both good and for ill. I think we can get away with summarizing the gist of it - Planescape pitches you the idea of infinity, uses that pitch to creep a little bit outside the "standard fantasy" mold, and often stops short just when it's starting to get good. Also, it only intermittently thinks through the implications of its own themes and the AD&D mechanics are not up to the task of presenting the setting authentically (for example - the "planar creatures" campaign option, where you play as aasimon, modrons, or genies is actually an excellent idea for a game that would be a nightmare to try and run using contemporarily available AD&D books).

You've heard all this before, so I don't have to get into it again . . . except . . . There is this one passage that completely deconstructs the setting's premise in a way that is nearly impossible to recover from, and it's mobilized in service of . . . actually, I'm not sure what, precisely. I'll let you judge for yourself.

Elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and the like are scattered around the planes like the other races, but a canny berk'll notice a common theme -- most of the time, they're found only in the realms of their deities. The planes have been around since the beginning of creation, just like the Prime Material Plane. Millennia ago prime demihumans adventured to the realms of their deities, decided they liked it there, and stayed to establish homes and raise families. Communities of planar demihumans are born, live, and die in the specific areas that their gods have established as realms. Few ever leave; if a body lived in the perfect home of her god, her people's idea of heaven, would she bother to go adventuring around the planes? Probably not. Only a trivial number of planar demihumans live outside the realms of their gods.

. . . And that's why you can't play an elf, dwarf, halfling, or gnome as a planar PC. No, really, that's where this ends up: "A player considering a planar elf from Arvandor (for example) ought to offer the DM a darned good reason why that elf's left the home of his gods."

I did the long quote because the whole section left me with mouth agape. It's such an incredibly irresponsible thing to put into print, and I don't understand what it's trying to accomplish. I mean, on a literal, tactical level, okay. You can't be an elf from the planes. . . But you can still be an elf. You just have to come from a prime material world. What is going on? What is the point of all this?

I think it must be to justify the books' focus on the new lineup. Githzerai, tieflings, and bariaurs are everywhere, filling the same niche as demihumans, and so you need to explain the absence of elves and dwarves and halflings and gnomes, because you can't just put a githzerai into an elf-shaped hole. Except that you can. You don't need to justify shit. You can just do things differently. The elf-shaped hole isn't real.

Which, ironically, means that the planar elf should be okay. That's what "infinity" is all about. The things that are common on a prime material world, or even a half-dozen prime material worlds, don't necessarily dictate the demographics of the crossroads of all possible worlds. Githzerai come from Limbo, which means that they could easily span an area greater than Oerth, Toril, Krynn, Athas, Mystara, and Aebrynis combined. If so, then it's hardly surprising that you're more likely to run into them in Sigil.

The Planes of Conflict boxed set featured an NPC I really should have mentioned at the time - an Illithid merchant hanging out in one of Bytopia's trading towns. Such a specific and unlikely character, totally at odds with his species' presentation up to that point, and my thought at the time was not outrage or confusion that such a rules-breaking creature could exist, but rather a sort of ecstatic enthusiasm. At last the setting was starting to live up to the hype. Unfortunately, he was a one-off, and I forgot about him until just now, but he goes to show Planescape's potential. It did not break my immersion to see an illithid on the planes. If anything, it was the opposite. Seeing a creature notorious for sudden and frightful violence interact peacefully with these gnome merchants did a great deal to sell me on the breathtaking scope of the world. I didn't need an explanation for why it had to be an illithid instead of a halfling.

And I didn't need an explanation for why the "standard" fantasy races weren't ubiquitous on the planes. Divide a finite quantity (the number of demihumans currently alive at any one time) by an infinite quantity (the size of the planes), and the result is basically zero. Whole lifetimes could go by where you'd never see an elf.

But, apparently, someone needed an explanation, because we got one in the quoted passage. And the explanation in question drives a fucking bulldozer through the heart of the setting.

It is possible to physically attain heaven. It's a place and you can get there by moving. All you have to do is find your god's address and then arrange transportation. Once you do, you and your band of religious pilgrims can plot down and set up shop, and you and your descendants will know perfect contentment . . . forever. We know this is possible, because the elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes have already done it. That's why we never see any of them around.

I feel a kind of dizzying existential horror just thinking about it. This isn't the first time we've encountered this concept, of course. Much of my very first Planescape post was given over to contemplating the concept of physically colonizing heaven, sparked by an off-hand mention that PCs could build a stronghold in Elysium. However, at the time I thought the unexplored implications were an oversight. In their rush to make the planes into a gameable setting, they forgot that these places have religious significance. Except here it is, the religion is out in the open - live your life like a planar elf and you can bodily ascend into heaven.

So why aren't humans doing this? Why aren't bariaurs? Why is Sigil not constantly flooded with a stream of Prime Material religious pilgrims, ready to pay anything, to do anything to find the pathway to their gods.

And why are the gods letting them in when they get there? Isn't there something in their religious doctrines about needing to prove yourself worthy (or, at the very least, be purified by the sacrament of death) in order to get into heaven? Are you not implying that all of "demihuman" culture is nothing but elaborate preparation for a successful suicide? The reason we see humans, tieflings, githzerai, and bariaurs is because they've not yet mastered the eschaton and thus are condemned to live? Is this really the sort of game we're supposed to play?

Obviously not. But you've got to explain the absence of elves.

It's a kind of mental barrier that keeps popping up in these old TSR products. It's like they forgot that they invented the genre they're currently working in and that, having invented it, they could go on to invent something else. Or maybe it's a downside to success. They had achieved market dominance doing a particular thing, so the smart play would be to keep doing it until it stopped working. When I rattled off a list of Prime worlds earlier ("Oerth, Toril, Krynn, Athas, Mystara, and Aebrynis") that wasn't just me being extravagant. I was listing all of the Prime worlds specifically mentioned in the text (except Ortho, homelworld of the Harmonium, which only exists in backstory form) and not coincidentally, all the worlds that have elves, dwarves, and halflings (gnomes are absent from Dark Sun and, apparently, Birthright). Don't get me wrong, there's an admirable diversity of gameplay experiences here, but it's a little weird the way these same guys just keep popping up.

And Planescape is sometimes frustrating because it repeatedly bumps up against that mental barrier, but it can't quite grasp that certain things are "normal" only because twenty years of D&D have normalized them. Even as it's downplaying the "standard" demihuman races, it's panicking about their conspicuous absence, so much so that it's advancing apocalyptic nonsense to explain it. The key insight its lacking is that it's okay to just be its own thing. You really want to be the campaign setting that explores the infinite, all you have to do is learn two little words: "it's allowed."

It always seems so arbitrary what AD&D decides is a bridge that cannot be crossed. Canonically, Earth Genasi can become Paladins, a rare move in 2e's rigid class system. That's why "DMs may decide that genasi paladins are best limited to NPCs."

What is this bullshit? A PC has somehow managed to qualify for being a paladin, despite playing a race that gets penalties to Wisdom and Charisma, and you're encouraging the DM to veto the character because they're "extremely rare?" Rare like an 18 attribute roll, maybe?

As often happens when I read AD&D books, I feel like I'm grappling with something invisible here, some kind of social convention that, were I plugged into it, would make all of this make sense. Earth genasi paladins are a thing that exists, and you make them sound kind of cool, so much so that I, here in the year 2021, am thinking of homebrewing a whole elemental paladin class, but then, one sentence after inventing them, you imply that players wanting to play as this cool new thing is somehow suspect. 

I think what I might be missing is a sense for the virtue of normality. TSR isn't trying to micro-manage my game from Lake Geneva. Rather, they are warning me that when I bring my Earth Genasi Paladin to a new game, I am doing something Not Normal, and that the DM might have the perfectly reasonable reaction of not wanting my Not Normal character messing up their perfectly Normal game. That's why they made the effort to come up with an extremely fatuous explanation for the absence of the Normal PC races, so that the DM would have time to adjust to the fact that Planescape has declared a new batch of races to be the Normal ones.

Or, at least, that's one theory. It doesn't quite explain The Planeswalker's Handbook's dismal selection of kits, however. Each class type gets its own "Planeswalker" kit (e.g. Planeswalker Warrior, Planeswalker Wizard, etc) and "It's recommended that if native planar characters wish to use kits, they stick to these." Why that should be the case is unclear, though, because the kits are uniformly bland ("what if you had the regular class, but gave it a special ability that is useful on the planes"). You're telling me that if I grow up in Sigil, there's nobody around who can teach me to be a beggar thief or a swashbuckler fighter?

What's really frustrating is that they follow this section with an "alternative" system of "Kits Based on Location," that has some really interesting and flavorful kits, like the warrior who's worked as a mercenary in The Abyss or the wizard who learned to fly a glider in the elemental plane of air. And I'm looking at these and thinking, "how can this section and the previous section exist side-by-side?" You did a mediocre job and then immediately after started doing a good job, but then instead of using what you learned from the good part of your work and going back to fix the mediocre part, you just left them both in.

So I don't know, fucking AD&D, am I right?

Eh, maybe that's too harsh. I always feel like such a grump after writing a Planescape post, because I always fall into the trap of focusing on what can be improved. I really need to get better at conveying my love for these books in a way that's more obvious than simply the fact that I went out of my way to own them at all (I ask you, sincerely, is paying 35 dollars for the Planescape audio CD the act of a man who doesn't love the setting?). If it helps, I don't think of what I do as writing reviews, I think of them more as written reactions. What I write isn't an overall judgement of the work, but rather what I most want to talk about right after reading the work. What The Planeswalker's Handbook is is an abridged and condensed version of the setting so far, supplemented with more player-facing material than we've seen in the rest of the line combined. That's a really good thing to be. You should just ignore the part about the DM banning Genasi paladins. Ignore the part about only using the bland kits (which, admittedly, do have a niche for players who don't want to use a more character-defining kit) and just use whatever kits you want. Ignore the part about planar demihumans hiding away in heaven (either that, or make it the central theme of your campaign, where your party of intrepid PCs attempts to bodily ascend into paradise, threatening to throw the whole balance of life and death out of whack, which would definitely be a pretty epic D&D campaign). 

I think, the real barrier to Planescape reaching its potential is just the rift between pre- and post- internet. There has been an explosion of creativity and diversity in the 25 years since this book has been printed. Even Wizards of the Coast is now printing supplements with owl-folk PCs and Paladins of every alignment. And I think that rather than leaving Planescape behind, there is instead an unprecedented opportunity for a reboot. What this particular book most needs is to get in the habit of saying "yes" and the hobby as a whole has shifted to make that stance the default.

Ukss Contribution: Veddish duBran has a shop where he claims to sell keys for every lock in the multiverse. I absolutely love it as a concept. Very magical. Very eccentric. By default, only borderline useful (which, of all the thousands of keys in this shop is the one I need?), but with the potential to be a crucial plot point. What can I say, I can never resist a weird, magical shop.

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