Wednesday, January 5, 2022

(Planescape) Uncaged: Faces of Sigil

 I don't know what you're doing as you read this, but I'm going to need you to sit down, relax, and prepare yourself emotionally for an absolute bombshell of a revelation that's going to change the way you see Planescape forever.

Are you ready? I hope so, because here it comes:

The Fat Candle is vanilla scented!

I don't know what to do with this. Every time I try to wrap my head around it, I start laughing uncontrollably. I'm not even making fun of it. This is something so weird and inexplicable that it's brought genuine joy into my life. In rpg terms, I feel like I've just gained enough experience points to advance in level, and I'm testing out my new powers for the first time.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, here's a quick summary. Sigil is the city at the center of the multiverse. It contains countless portals to every place you could possibly imagine, worlds of fire and ice, deserts and seas, even heaven and hell. The main industry is catering to adventurers, as people from a hundred different worlds come to seek their hearts' desires out in the infinite planes. As a result, it has inns, taverns, and hostels to suit every proclivity. One such tavern is called "The Fat Candle," and it is both figuratively and literally shady, as rogues, assassins, and bounty hunters make secret deals in a room lit only by a single, tree-trunk-sized candle.

And the candle is vanilla.

I don't have a joke, an observation, or even a comment. I just love it. The thought of all those rogues, coming back from their shadowy underworld meetings stinking of vanilla. . . it overwhelms me. 

It's probably wasn't a great idea to open with this little anecdote, because it's not really representative of the tone of the book, and I'm like 90% sure it wasn't even intentional. My theory is that a person writing in 1996, as part of a civilization where candles have been purely decorative for nearly a century, was trying to picture a plain white candle and they just assumed that vanilla scented candles were what happened if you didn't add anything special to the mix. It's an inadvertently apt metaphor for D&D as a whole, though - put a lot of effort into making something specifically vanilla, but at no point realizing that "vanilla" isn't the same thing as "default."

Ironically, though, Uncaged: Faces of Sigil is one of the least vanilla AD&D books I've read to date. It has a few moments where it threatens to teeter over into vanilla - one of the NPCs is a scholar of the Prime Material plane and he name-checks every active AD&D setting (minus Mystara), but literally nothing outside those. And with only one exception, every Prime character mentioned in the book comes from Toril, Oerth, or Kyrnn. But mostly this is a Sigil-focused book, and thus it gives itself permission to be weird in a way D&D usually isn't.

There's a half-angel that runs a spa. He hires four-armed mercenaries to give massages and a steam mephit to power the sauna. There's a bariaur who will taste-test poisons and potions, and is so enthusiastic about drinking anything put in front of him that he almost went to jail for quaffing an elixir of madness. A foppish demon, a foppish exiled titan, and a foppish shapeshifting ogre mage are all competing for control of the city's criminal underworld (fashion is apparently very important for would-be power brokers). This is a book that feels as diverse as Sigil is supposed to be.

And this is normally where I'd interject a caveat about Planescape's muddled themes, but honestly I think this book is as close as the line has gotten to ever getting it right. It's a bit enamored of the idea of celestial arms dealers trying to prolong the Blood War and the irony of a demon who wants to make peace, so as to better serve the cause of evil, but the actual characters involved are pretty interesting, so there's some appealing noir potential on top of the misguided 90s broad-mindedness. 

It also takes for granted that "the Clueless" is a meaningful category that players are going to understand and care about. There's a populist who spews "anti-Clueless" rhetoric and the aforementioned Prime scholar who is constantly seeking interviews with the Clueless. And at no point does it seem aware that it is taking about the vast majority of living mortals, and a huge part of Sigil's economy.

But like I said, these concerns are smaller here than they are elsewhere. Uncaged: Faces of Sigil is just a series of 41 bits of short fiction about the setting that includes forgettable NPC stats as a thin excuse to call it an rpg suplement. And that's great. Like most AD&D books, the weakest part is the stuff that is specifically and characteristically AD&D, and here the bulk of that weakness is helpfully separated out into easily skimmable sidebars (seriously, it's difficult to overstate how inessential these stat blocs are - Estavan, the Ogre Mage crime lord, uses almost exactly the same stats as a generic Ogre Mage, except that Estavan's stats correctly apply the ogre's strength modifiers to attack and damage, and incorporate the effects of a +2 weapon that most generic ogres don't possess).

Which brings us, finally, to the metaplot. This book does something that is a little goofy, but a lot helpful by giving us an appendix that summarizes the big plots and includes relationship diagrams so we know which of the various NPCs are involved (although, the charts themselves are little more than character names connected by inexplicable arrows that add virtually no new information).

At least one of these named plotlines ("The Blood War Plot") dovetails cleanly with a book I've already read (Hellbound: the Blood War) and most of the others sound like they could similarly anchor adventures. The one that intrigued me the most was "The Dead Gods Plot." Whether this has anything to do with the adventure Dead Gods will have to remain a mystery until the market cools down and people stop trying to charge 200 dollars for it, but assuming it does, it will be the payoff to something that has been teased since the original boxed set - the fate of Aoskar, the God of Portals.

So, Planescape has this weird thing with the Lady of Pain. She's the mascot of the whole line, but she's also pretty terrible in a lot of ways (anything that touches her shadow is cut, as if by razor blades, and this is not merely something that she is callously indifferent towards, but which she actively uses to hurt people who annoy her, such as the worshipers who gathered in the b-plot of Harbinger House), but also she's presented as this cool, confident, in control sort of horror. She decided there should be 15 factions in the city. She keeps the gods at bay, preventing them from taking control of Sigil. Sigil's portals open and close only with her consent.

It's a weird tension where this character is both awful and untouchable and it can sometimes get uncomfortable, like in The Factol's Manifesto, where it's flat-out stated that the Lady killed hundreds of thousands of people following the Great Upheaval. I like Aoskar because he feels like a counterbalance to this. There was a time when Sigil had an alternative, which means that it might have one again in the future. They don't have to be ruled by this murderous tyrant forever.

The one thing I'd change about this canon, though, is the implication that Aoskar attempted a rebellion and failed. That sort of implies that the Lady of Pain is an unalienable part of the city. My preferred alternative is that he was the power that she defeated to gain control of Sigil. Maybe Aoskar was the first, maybe he wasn't, but at least that way, there's something else the city can be.

Overall, I'd say that Uncaged: Faces of Sigil is one of the essential Planescape supplements. It's a much needed-companion to In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil and The Factol's Manifesto, and together, the three books actually do an amazing job of bringing the city to life (though their synergy does raise questions about their completeness as separate volumes). A lot of times, Planescape's worldbuilding can feel overly beholden to the extended AD&D canon, but Sigil is a standout exception. It's the one truly original thing in the setting, and the benefits of that care are fully on display in this book.

Ukss Contribution: So many options. The temptation to make the Fat Candle vanilla is almost overwhelming, but I don't have the audacity to pull it off. I think I'll go with Arcanaloths, the dapper, magic-using lawyer-demons who look like anthropomorphic canines. There are two major arcanaloth characters in this book, and they're both pretty great in their own way (the friendly, but vaguely sinister shopkeep and the vain, well-connected power broker). It'll be good to add cultural depth to my existing werewolves by giving them a more scholarly community.

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