Thursday, December 2, 2021

(Planescape) Something Wild

I think Something Wild might just be a good adventure. It opens with an intriguing mystery - animals in Sigil are going berserk, and the city is haunted by nightmares of being stalked by deadly jungle cats. And then, to unravel this mystery, you have to travel to multiple planes, confronting demons and cultists and the ensorcelled spirits of the dead. And in the end, the PCs undergo a magical ritual that puts them up against a puzzle boss and their success or failure in this endeavor is crucial to resolving the plot. It's not even especially railroady, given it's only 64 pages long. The players can follow the clues in any order they like, backtrack as necessary, and it's possible to completely miss out on a couple of sub-plots. Everything I normally complain about in these posts is notably mitigated. Even the obligatory NPC-who-must-survive-or-else-the-PCs-can't-complete-the-adventure is presented more as a useful expert than a backseat protagonist. The PCs need her to cast the ritual, but if she dies, they can undergo a laborious sidequest to find another member of her order.

So if I can't complain, what do I have left? I guess we can talk about the metaphysical implications of this adventure. Though it starts with trouble in Sigil, none of the main actors or events actually occurs in Sigil. Instead, an evil god is trying to escape Carceri by meddling with the spiritual fabric of the Beastlands, and that's having a ripple effect that influences Sigil. Because, apparently, "The city is particularly sensitive when one of the Outer Planes starts to sour."

Don't get me wrong, that's a great idea, and a useful little fact to help set up a hundred more potential adventures, but it's also the first time I'm hearing about it (although, maybe it was actually introduced in one of the five Planescape adventures that chronologically precede this one, but which I don't currently own thanks to the absolutely ludicrous prices they fetch on the secondary market). It raises a lot of questions about Sigil and its role in the multiverse. 

Is this influence two-way? Could you use Sigil as a throne to rule the planes? How long has Sigil been the way it is? Did it become the "City of Doors" through some past event? Could it become something new in the future? And what of the planes themselves? What role do they play in the proper functioning of the multiverse? Is the chaos in Sigil only the beginning?

None of those questions are answered in the course of this adventure, but at least it doesn't seem ludicrous that they could be.

The other main issue this adventure raises is that of institutional accountability. One of the threads you can tug at to get to the main plot is introduced by an NPC Paladin, Blander Mul (and I just have to say, I love that name). Blander is a member of the Mercykillers, but he suspects that some of his fellow faction members might be corrupt! (Shocking, I know). Some of the prisoners in Sigil's prison have gone missing, and at first he thinks they escaped, but with the PCs help, he'll dig deeper and discover that prison officials have been selling them to the cult of a dark god, which ritually hunts them as part of their sinister devotions. Eventually, Blander goes missing. You find his body later on, in the realm of the god at the center of the plot. He was betrayed by his compatriots, sold alongside a batch of prisoners so that the corrupt Mercykillers could cover-up their misdeeds. In the end, you can use his notes to expose the conspiracy and "depending on the strength of the heroes' proof . . . the authorities either look into the charges or dismiss them as barmy rot."

Forget it, Jake, it's the Lady's Ward.

Nah, as much as that side-plot is a bunch of circular tail-chasing, I actually kind of like how noirish it feels. Sigil's not just the City of Doors, it is a big, grimy, reluctantly anachronistic metropolis all its own, and I'm intrigued by the potential for more modern, urban stories. It's the only place I've seen in D&D where you could plausibly do something like Chinatown, and I really wish the B plot had a supplement all its own.

The only thing that undercuts it is the alignment system. Technically, by the rules-as-written, Blander Mul is in violation of his Paladin oath by associating with these jokers, though of course this just validates the rant I made back when reading The Complete Paladin's Handbook that a corrupt hierarchy is, in fact, a Paladin's natural foil. But nonetheless, the events of the story really shouldn't have surprised him. He has "Detect Evil" as an innate, spell-like ability, and if he had used it even once against literally any of the antagonists, he'd have figured out the mystery a lot sooner -"OMG, the Mercykillers have been infiltrated by a bunch of cruel authoritarians who  are driven more by the lurid spectacle of revenge than high ideals of justice. Who could have seen this coming?"

I think maybe 1996 was just a far different time. A lot of this book's sections end with advice on what to do if the PCs decide to attack various harmless NPCs, which suggests to me that maybe the Mercykiller's credo of violent punishment for minor crimes was not as much of a red flag as it should have been.

Overall, I'd say that I really enjoyed this adventure. I think it might have less untapped potential than Harbinger House (which really could have spun off into its own campaign setting), but it's also much less flawed (in order to get that Harbinger House campaign, you'd have had to throw out much of the book's dismal plot and shaky worldbuilding). It's simply solid in a way that many stand-alone adventures aren't.

Ukss Contribution: I was going to pick Wemics, because they are one of D&D's most iconic weird creatures and they are explicitly called out inside the adventure (as being more susceptible than most to the effects of the Beastlands' corruption), but the more I think about it, the more it has to be Blander Mul. He's just such a perfect chump. Even after he's betrayed by his fellow Mercykillers, he winds up bequeathing his possessions to the faction "in hopes that the worthy may use them to drive out the unworthy."

I think it might be useful to have someone around who is so egregiously doomed.

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