Thursday, March 3, 2022

(Planescape) A Player's Primer to the Outlands

 I need to write this post while everything is still fresh in my mind. I just spent approximately an hour and a half listening to the Planescape audio CD and I have only a limited time to capture that feeling in words. Already, it's starting to feel like something out of a dream world. . .

 Let's just use this CD as a prop in our D&D game. See, it's like a mimir, a special magic item that takes the form of a floating skull. People store knowledge on it by telling it things, and then you can ask it questions, and if, at any point in the history of its existence, it was told the answer, it will repeat it for you. We'll simulate this by you asking me, the DM, a question, and then I'll play the appropriate track. Okay, you want to know about the Vale of the Spine? Let me just skip to track 31. Pleas be patient while I press the "next track" button 30 times.

For you young people who might be reading this blog, or for archeologists recovering the data hundreds of years hence, CD players in 1995 would not generally let you select a specific track. You had to press the "next" or "previous" buttons to cycle through the tracks one at a time. Also, the "previous" button doubled as the "return to the start of the track" button, and so you always had to press it at least one more time than the number of tracks you wanted to go back (a fact that caught me up more times than I'm comfortable admitting). 

Some of you might be precisely the right age to wonder why you couldn't just use a laptop (i.e. old enough to remember that laptops used to come with CD drives, but young enough to not understand why I'm shaking my head ruefully at the very thought), but that would have been a pretty out-there option for 1995.

In any event, assuming you were comfortable with the logistic hurdles inherent in this form of information-sharing, what would "the mimir" have to told you about the Vale of the Spine? Approximately 45 seconds of a perfectly nice lady adopting an inscrutable half-british/half nerd accent to scoff at the ludicrous concept that the ribcage shaped mountains surrounding the town of Ribcage could actually be the ribcage of some titanic ancient creature. She's sure it was the result of a "natural geological process" and never mind what that even means in a magical world that exists beyond the bounds of infinity.

However, I don't want to fall into the trap of roasting this CD, despite the fact that it is eminently roast-worthy (actual line of dialogue: "Just do it! [beat] Hm, that's a catchy phrase."). I have to assume that this is just an example of TSR blowing a bunch of money to do something fun. There are no credited voice actors anywhere I could find, and the likeliest explanation for that is that they just asked a bunch of people around the office.

That's the feeling I got, anyway - something amateurish, but done with a lot of effort. There were silly accents and sillier scripts, but also background music and ambient sound effects. They used some kind of distortion effect to make the Mimir sound more robotic. The only thing that was really lacking was expertise in presenting an audio drama. According to the CD cover insert, they did this a half dozen other times, with Karameikos, Mystara, Red Steel, and a few others. Maybe if they'd kept at it, they'd have gotten good at it, but I doubt the format would have ever gotten lucrative enough to make the investment worth it.

There were a few high points, though. Learning about the income inequality in Curst was a useful bit of setting lore, and the Hinterlands track was actually an effective campaign pitch. Apparently, beyond the gate towns, moving away from the Spire, there are "whole civilizations," some of which aren't even humanoid. It's a difficult area to explore, because the landmarks shift, but it's one of the few times where Planescape has really captured the feeling of infinity.

Which is as good an excuse as any to transition to the boxed set's accompanying book. Now, I've got to start this part with an embarrassing story - I managed to win this boxed set in an online auction for a surprisingly low price, and there was a period of about 5 minutes where I felt really good about myself. . . until I saw the item description and realized that the book was missing. I'm not mad or anything, because I can't say I wasn't warned, but it was disappointing enough that I went ahead and bought the pdf.

It's a real shame that the booklet is so impossible to acquire, because it's some solid setting work, and probably should have been a full boxed set on its own, instead of just a 32 page pamphlet included as a supplement to a weird, experimental CD.

Seriously, how weird is it that Planescape's only Outlands supplement is an ill-conceived multimedia project. Sigil and the Outlands - that's what transforms the setting from The Manual of the Planes to Planescape. They feature in very nearly every adventure, but this book is as good as it gets.

Anyway, we were talking about infinity. This book establishes that the Outlands' notional infinity is no barrier to travel. "A cutter can journey past Tradegate for a year and day, and still never lose sight of the spire behind him. Then he can turn around and be back in Tradegate in just a few days." So it's "infinite," but not, like, containing millions or billions of actual miles. Just indefinite, psychically determined distances. We get some actual numbers here. Adjacent gate town are separated by a random distance and take 3-18 days to traverse (and it's not necessarily the same distance each time). This is also the amount of time it takes to move from one "layer" of the plane to another (layers in the Outlands are determined by the maximum power of spells that can be cast, with all magic and godly powers being disable at the very center). Thus, the Outlands are a circle whose diameter is slightly larger than its circumference (18-step journey vs a 16 step one) and as a result it must be infinite in some technically formal way, but it's not going to feel that way to most travelers.

The practical upshot of all this is that we can now say with certainty that there are very definitely huge masses of prime material religious pilgrims and/or economic migrants in every case where prime-to-Sigil portal is not a major bottleneck. The worst case scenario, only having access to a portal that leads to the directly opposite gate town and having to walk to where you want to be, leaves you with a maximum journey of 144 days (although, this will most likely be around 84). The real world's Oregon Trail took 4-6 months to traverse. 

You might object that the presence of roving packs of fiends and slave-taking authoritarians in the lower-planes adjacent parts of the Outlands might be too much of a physical hazard for anyone to risk the worst case scenario, and I'd agree (though, honestly, this sounds like a much better mission for the Order of the Planes Militant), but it would also take an extremely perverse reading of the material to assume the worst case scenario is common. One of the 16 gate towns is called "Tradegate," for crying out loud. That strongly implies a steady stream of traffic in and out of town, otherwise, who would be doing all the trading?

Which means that the likeliest real worst case-scenario is prime-to-Sigil, Sigil-to-Tradegate, Tradegate-to-Ysgard. That's a 12-72 day voyage, but through the congenial upper-planes adjacent Outlands, and the only people who are even making this trip are people whose ultimate heaven is Ysgard and thus are inclined to view a brisk trek through the wilderness as part of where they want to be in the first place.

Also, there are infinite reaches of good, arable land in the region, and so even if you didn't want to live in heaven, you might still be drawn to the easily accessible homesteading opportunities. What does land ownership even look like in this setting? There's mention of a potential war between the adjacent gate towns of Rigus and Ribcage, but no discussion of the customs of sovereignty. It may seem like I'm being a nitpicking little twerp here, but this is one of Planescape's recurring things. It is very clear about following the Player's Handbook's outline of planar geography, and in its own . . . unique interpretation of the alignment system (From Excelsior, the lawful good gate town connected to Mount Celestia: "sometimes a strong paladin and his followers challenge the High Chancellor's right to lead. A challenge like that tends to be short and bloody, and all the paladin usually winds up with is a spot in the deadbook.") What's missing is any sense of politics or economics rooted in the actual needs and concerns of living people. 

It makes the setting as a whole feel slightly unreal. You can talk all you want about demons trying to subvert the town of Plague-Mort and draw it into the Abyss, but you just know that the worst part of living in a chaotic evil town is negotiating the tangled mess of its water rights.

I shouldn't single out this book for that, though. The larger culprit is the entirety of Planescape as a line, and even then, blame should probably go to the assumptions and priorities of the genre as a whole. Besides, I've actually seen what it looks like when you do focus on water rights, in lieu of cool fantasy stuff (specifically, the book The Emirates of Ylaraum) and it's hardly better.  I do, however, think Plansecape, specifically could use just a little more attention on these details. It wants to position itself as being about the jaded, cynical people who live on the doorsteps of heaven and hell, and it's somehow both more than you can possibly imagine and also not everything it's cracked up to be - and to really sell that, I think you need to show people actually living.

As far as this specific book is concerned, it's right in that strange, Planescape wheelhouse where its fantasy elements are a tier above "regular" D&D while also not being anything that you couldn't just do in regular D&D. In the town of Fortitude, they have a civic arena they call "The Confessional," and it's where they do all their civil justice. The whole town is the jury and they declare punishments by polling the mood of the mob. But strangely, it only seems compulsory for outsiders. The townspeople will go there voluntarily, confessing their sins and submitting to the judgement of the town in a ritual of social self-flagellation (one of the punishments is "simple verbal abuse" . . . from maybe 1000 screaming strangers). That's some fascinating speculative fiction shit there, but arguably, the connection to the plane of Arcadia weakens it.

Okay, maybe not. An idea I keep having is the notion of "Fallen Cities" that want to be in heaven, but slid into the Outlands for being insufficiently pure. A city on the threshold of heaven, where the citizens loathe themselves for not being good enough, and thus willfully and gleefully embrace these ugly and abusive civic "rituals of cleansing." Yeah, I can do something with that. Though, unfortunately, A Player's Primer to the Outlands can't, because it only gives itself one page to talk about the entire town, and its section of the audio CD is just the absolute worst (I seriously cannot do it justice, just listen for yourself. Content warning: fatphobia.)

However, the thing where some Outlanders live in castles that walk around on giant magi-tech legs? That is definitely something you could have been doing the whole time.

Strangely enough, though, I think we can blame this on The Player's Handbook. It all comes back to an extremely minor point that was nonetheless important enough to get a callout in the introduction:

The Outlands are known to the Clueless as the "Plane of Concordant Opposition." (Fact is, they get most of the planar names wrong, which is a sure way to mark a prime.) . . .


Another problem is that primes figure their out-of-touch universe is the center of everything. When they found the Outlands — a plane connected to all other Outer Planes — they had to cobble up a quick reason why it couldn't be the center of the multiverse. So they called it the "Plane of Concordant Opposition," the idea being that the Outlands are opposed to the other planes.
This is a just-so story that explains why Planescape contradicts the PHB, but is also subtly ridiculous world-building because it assumes that all the countless prime worlds are going to misname the plane in exactly the same way, for exactly the same reason. It just doesn't make any sense on even a basic level. These worlds don't regularly communicate with each other, so for this cultural meme to spread, it must originate in its common point of contact - either Sigil or the common multi-plane pantheons of gods. . . And there's no real reason why the Greek or Norse gods would have to promulgate this particular bit of esoterica.

What's going on, of course, is that all prime worlds are assumed to be the implied setting of the PHB (or largely compatible with such, like Krynn or Toril), and as we saw in On Hallowed Ground, that implied setting has its share of problems. It is largely an unarticulated codification of the first thing people thought to do with Dungeons & Dragons, that carries with it all the faults and limitations of the fact that the first thing it had to do was satisfy the preferences of a small clique of mostly white, mostly male, mostly Christian midwesterners from the 1970s.

This points to a rift that has been at the heart of D&D for a long time. What are the core books for? My view is that the ideal use of a PHB is as a fantasy worldbuilding toolkit. You want a superabundance of options, including options that a lot of people will never use, because what you're trying to do is allow different subsets of the core options to support dramatically different worlds. You may do "Tolkien-style" fantasy with humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings or gothic-style fantasy with humans and tieflings, or classic pulp with humans only, or anything else you can imagine. 

It was only with a series of long and bitter flame wars that I came to realize that there's an alternate position that has a longer history of support. The purpose of the core books is to be specifically Dungeons and Dragons, the classic 1970s metasetting with its own set of tropes. And thus, more options in the PHB isn't a superabundance of worldbuilding tools, but rather D&D not being D&D any more. 

I honestly think Wizards of the Coast aggravates things by trying to play both sides without acknowledging the rift, but I think TSR might have just been naive. It's the only way to explain Planescape. Both AD&D editions had core books that were strongly in the "implied setting" camp, but they kept releasing alternate settings that would play with the rules . . . culminating in Planescape, which by its very premise demands an "individual worldbuilding" environment. But instead of really embracing that potential, and despite having the example of all their (sometimes wildly incompatible) campaign settings still being Planescape canon, they just sort of cordon off the implied setting into the prime material plane. The primes are "Clueless," but they're all clueless in exactly the same way

And so, you're left with an outer-planar setting that, by virtue of being not-clueless, is free to do the individual worldbuilding stuff that D&D really could have just been doing the whole time, but it's stuck in a cosmology that's beholden to the implied setting. Tradegate is full of gnomes because gnomes are in the PHB, and thus most prime material worlds have gnomes who subsequently die and love spending their afterlives doing gnome things like craft and commerce. You can do something interesting with Tradegate's government, like making it into a plutocratic pseudo-democracy where any citizen is free to vote in parliament, provided they have "a nonevil alignment and at least 500,000 in gold" (how you're supposed to get both things at once is left a mystery), but you can't have the town inhabited by peaceful goblin merchants, because where would such beings ever come from?

Of course, once you start entertaining the idea that the prime material plane is infinitely diverse, you run into the problem that there's no real need for the distinction between planar and prime. In fact, the campaign premise probably works better if you didn't need to reconcile the physical proximity of the afterlife. That's just the paradox of Planescape, though. It's D&D attempting to explore the full potential of the fantasy genre, without explicitly acknowledging that there's a fantasy genre outside of D&D.

Anyway, the A Player's Primer to the Outlands book should be longer. Neutrality is such a bland alignment that it falls to the wayside almost immediately, and I have a feeling that if they were presented with more space to fill, they would quickly start to go even farther afield.

Ukss Contribution: You know, the more I think about it, the more I think The Confessional would make a memorable and creepy centerpiece to an adventure. I'll just have to think of a local eschatology weird and insular enough to do it justice (no pun intended, unless . . .).

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