My brother and I just released a Gith Handbook on the DM’s Guild and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out. We’re both huge fans of the Planescape setting and while that hasn’t been approved for writing on the DM’s Guild there are plenty of topics that have been so we’re exploring the edges of things for use with D&D 5e. To that end, I thought I’d give a new generation of players what they need to start in on this amazing setting.
Planescape was in fact the first D&D setting that we played in after our cousins introduced us to the actual rules (I messed around on my own for a bit before that, as described in this post). At this point, though, Planescape hasn’t received official supplements in almost two decades. It was printed under Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the last product was printed in 1998. The site planewalker.com has kept the spirit alive (despite some technical difficulties) and my brother and I have been off-and-on involved there for a bit. You can also get pdf copies of pretty much everything straight from Wizards of the Coast right now. So let me make the case for why you should.
1. The Setting Is Infinite
This is the core conceit of Planescape and it’s not to say that there’s “lots of possibility” or that “stories can go in any direction.” Both of these are true like any well-written setting, but I mean that it’s literally infinite. Picture this: a plane of land stretching infinitely in every direction, including up into the sky and down into the earth. There are a infinite number of towns, each with their own inhabitants and histories and local attractions and magical secrets. Got that? Good, so that’s the Planescape equivalent of a county in other settings, some coastline or forest area where there’s enough to do but everything is sort of the same. Also, it’s not terribly important in the cosmic scheme of things.
Take that infinite picture and multiply it, if you can, to three or four different infinite spaces. This is what’s known as a plane and each of those infinite spaces is a layer, the number of which depends on the layer. Baator, for instance, also known as the Nine Hells has (surprise) nine layers to it: each is infinite and each is different from the others (a frozen hell vs. a burning hell vs. a swamp hell, etc) and collectively these nine infinities make up Baator… which is just one plane in a whole bunch. There are thirty seven of them: 17 Outer Planes made of belief, 18 Inner Planes of elements, and 2 Transitive Planes (the Astral and the Ethereal). All of these infinities together make up the multiverse since each of the layers in the 37 planes is effectively it’s own universe.
It’s big, get it? And that’s not the only super-sized part of this setting.
2. The Storylines are Epic
In D&D you can do many incredibly epic things from fighting centuries-old dragons to founding your own kingdom to traveling between continents through a magical teleportation circle. As you level up you take on more and more impressive tasks to the point where you might play through a powerful campaign arc like Tyranny of Dragons where you might actually fight a god!
In Planescape, those storylines are one hundred percent of what you’re doing. There’s no reason you can’t be caravan guards or investigate a murder if you really want to but the classic Planescape plots involve picking your way through the battlefield of a war that has raged since the start of time, stopping illithids from rewriting the history of the multiverse with them as undisputed masters, or stopping a dead god from killing every other deity to forge the planes anew in his undead vision. These aren’t the end-goals of long campaigns, mind you, they’re the different options that characters could easily tackle one after another.
Leave the training wheels at home, kids.
3. Even Familiar Things Are Different
Remember those infinites from point one? So each of those can seem a lot like a little world like Eberron or Faerun but that’s not really the case here. First off, they aren’t real. They are solidified belief, the belief of all the Prime Material “real worlds” out there, or primal elemental energies and either way that means things can be surprisingly different. For example, magic doesn’t always work how you expect and you might find your fireball snuffed out when in an elemental water plane, your magic sword turning to simple steel as you stray too far from its birthplace. You can also find yourself stymied by the land around you if you try to plot an assassination on an altruistic plane or try to leave a prison plane and find paths inexplicably doubling back to trap you.
Still, those infinities don’t even work like infinities elsewhere (still with me?) since knowing the secrets allows you to walk between them. You can cast a spell to jump between planes or use a naturally-occurring portal but the really slick thing to do is to use your skill or hire a guide who will show you just the right mountain pass, long cave, or compass bearing in an infinite desert that will let you walk out of one universe and into another. Does that make sense? Of course not, it’s total nonsense, but that’s the way things work like that.
Another way that things are different is that there aren’t really any countries and nothing is in a central location physically so no mega-metropolis is really any more important than another. None, that is, except for Sigil.
4. Your Home Base is Sigil
Ah, Sigil. The City of Doors, the Cage, the Center of All. Everyone has to wax nostalgic about this place even though it’s a smog-choked Dickensian hell… but it’s our Dickensian hell, you know? In a nutshell, Sigil is an isolated neutral ground where people have to generally play nice and there are thousands if not millions of magic portals to points all over the multiverse. It’s more than just a custom-built locale for PCs to be based, it’s your instant cure to the fistfuls of infinities that Planescape throws your way.
Like any good home base, you will come to love and appreciate Sigil as one of the best personalities in the setting as you leave for a bit, kill some deities, become religious figures on some backwater prime world, then come back to your run-down slum apartment in Sigil and your favorite bar down the street for some much-needed rest. As you traverse universe after universe of the bizarre and alien, this is an easy and familiar location that you can continue to count on.
As always with Planescape, of course, this isn’t your typical city. Setting aside the magical portals scattered literally everywhere, and the fact that your favorite bar is probably owned and operated by a thousand-year-old fiend and a quirky sea elf who fell in love, the city is built inside of a torus. This doughnut shape hangs in midair (at the top of an infinite spire of god-nullifying rock, naturally) and all along the internal side is the city itself. This means that you can walk the length of Sigil and end up where you started, that you can look up and see upside-down buildings above you, and that there is no neighboring land outside of Sigil. It’s a pocket dimension that is all city all the time.
The last thing to mention about Sigil is probably the most badass and crazy part of the setting: The Lady of Pain. See, Sigil isn’t a realm of anarchy and lawlessness (not all of it at least) since it has a ruler in the form of this metal-skinned, blade-crowned, floating, silent enigma. The Cage is hers and when she makes an edict (through her servants who only speak in rebus puzzles… don’t ask) then everyone listens and not only because her shadow peels the skin from anyone it falls upon until they die screaming. She’s also the one enforcing the cosmic no-PvP rules which keeps planar wars from spilling over into the city, gods from entering directly, or anyone from teleporting in. If your keeping score, yes that means she’s more powerful than gods but don’t let that go to your head because worshipping her is one of the quickest ways to be executed-by-flaying-shadow.
5. The Factions are Key
Alright, so if Sigil is the capital of the setting and the infinite planes are its landscape, what are the countries? You might have seen this one coming but they’re not what you expect. The role of “nations” in Planescape is actually filled by the factions that have unique and mind-bending philosophies. Like nations, the factions of Planescape fight wars (hot and cold) with each other, demand loyalty from people, and are major motivators or plot and adventure hooks. PCs usually belong to one or the other as well, though outsiders are certainly an option for players. They also claim territory, and like everyone else they are focused on Sigil and handle a lot of the day-to-day that the Lady of Pain keeps out of. If you bring an army into the Cage, for instance, you can expect to be ripped to pieces by the Lady but if you steal from someone in the marketplace it’ll be the factions who are coming after you.
So who are the factions? Well, there are fifteen of them (if you want a full summary, check it out here) and they all have deep-seated and incompatible philosophies. Most of these philosophies are concerned with the Big Picture and so you end up with people who firmly believe that the multiverse is a place of chaos and disorder that needs to be encouraged and unleashed in the same adventuring party as people who just as firmly believe that we are all dead and this is an afterlife about which we are all being lied to and should try to escape. Most people just go along with it (just like a Karrnathi and a Thrane could adventure together in Eberron without coming to blows over their nations’ differences) but some are zealots willing to bash in other people’s heads who won’t agree the world is one big solipsistic vision by the zealot.
6. The Planes Connect Everywhere
So, this is one of the best things about Planescape. What if you don’t want to be some street-rat half-angel who thinks the multiverse is crumbling to make room for something better and needs a big push to finish the job? Well, you don’t have to in order to play in Planescape. There are small towns just like every setting but you can also just make a character from your favorite setting and have them be new-comers to Sigil joining a party. Remember those prime worlds from points one and two? Well, plenty of those are blank slates you can just write something new onto but others are Eberron or Faerun or Oerth or Athas or Krynn… These settings exist as part of the super-setting of Planescape so you can step through a gateway in Waterdeep, end up in a market in Sigil, walk down the street to a tavern, and step through another portal into Sharn.
For DMs, this has a few powerful consequences. First of all, you can draw on all of those settings’ materials and use them directly without having to adjust things. The Red Wizards of Thay can show up in Sigil or the Knights of Solamnia can have a mountain stronghold in the heavenly planes and you have to adjust nothing from the background material. Secondly, you can take your game in the opposite direction for a bit as well: finishing up an adventure stealing into the heart of Hell to take a new job in the streets of Baldur’s Gate to retrieve a magic item, before heading back to Sigil afterwards. Everything produced for D&D is up for grabs.
7. There Are Rules
This is relatively minor in the scheme of things but there are fundamental rules in the setting that seem to undergird the fabric of reality. I’ll pause to let it sink in that this is a “minor point.” Back? Good.
So there are three rules often cited in Planescape books and the first is (appropriately) the Rule of Threes: basically, things tend to come in threes. If your players are presented with two bad guys they’ll expect a secret third. If they find a room with two exits, they will suspect a hidden door. This relates to everything from laws to gods to houses so you can use it liberally. Second is the Unity of Rings: everything tends to lead back to itself. The planes will (this is the Great Wheel cosmology after all) and deeds will so consequences can be a major plot point. Lastly is Center of All which is sort of a non-rule: since everything is infinite, wherever you are is the center of it all. This can be humbling (everywhere is the center of attention, kid) or empowering (just being here I am impacting my own patch of the universe!) or both at the same time.
These rules are fun parts of the setting, but also excellent tools for GMs to create truly memorable stories.
8. This Setting is For All Levels
Hopefully you’ve realized this by this point but Planescape is a fully-fledged setting and not something only good for one-off campaigns. This means that you can play it from level 1 to level 20 (and beyond?) and immerse yourselves in it from the beginning. This is important enough to underscore: Planescape is all about tangling with gods and dodging fiendish armies and you can do that even before you have a single experience point to your name. This doesn’t mean that you can take on a balor from the start of the campaign but you could certainly find your way to its home in the Abyss as a part of your first adventure. Partially this is due to scaled threats (there are demons and angels in the setting no harder to fight than goblins) but it’s also an access thing: you don’t need to be a high-level wizard to reach the planes, just a tip on a portal to where you’re going.
9. There’s a Lot of Lore
This is one of the downsides that might intimidate people getting into Planescape: there are a lot of bits of lore out there to the setting and it can seem overwhelming. In a setting like Eberron you can learn about the broad strokes and then focus in on the area where you’re starting the story. By the time you leave Korth (or wherever) you will have had time to pick up enough of the rest to stand your ground. With Planescape, though, you can jump anywhere at any time and all of those places are, of course, infinite! So does this mean you have to read every book and also have contingency plans in place? No, whether you’re a player or a DM you’ve got room to work in.
My take on this is that the infinite nature is actually to your advantage. If your players are expecting something when they get to Baator and you aren’t sure where to go with it you can just make up other stuff. There are literally infinite locales in Baator and they can’t possibly expect to know all of them. In the other direction, don’t feel like your character needs to know everything because there’s so much out there. They can be just as clueless as you without losing face!
10. There’s Room for Everything
Remember all those infinities? They’re also a big boost to creativity in the game and make it possible for literally anything to show up. If your players say they come from a town on Arborea where the principal form of recreation is juggling geese, that’s just fine and it messes up nothing since there are (and I feel like a broken record here) an infinity of locations on each of the plane’s three layers.
From a game mechanics stance there is also infinite possibility since everywhere is connected. If you’re like me your gaming group has players who are a real grab-bag of interests: one wants to play a Victorian-themed detective, one wants to play a crane-souled hengeyokai who is always making puns, one wants to play a dwarven barbarian with a necklace of ears, and the last wants to play a taciturn thri-kreen plotting assassinations. (This, by the way, is not a hypothetical: it’s a fairly accurate portrait of the range in my gaming group in grad school.) Your average D&D setting is a pretty flexible world but this still strains credulity… Except in Planescape.
In Planescape, this is a perfectly acceptable adventuring party that needs very little explanation. The detective is from a steampunk-esque prime world, the hengeyokai from the realm of a Japanese deity, the barbarian from a Dwarven strongholds on the planes or prime, and the thri-kreen found his way accidentally from Athas. None of these are even remarkable tales, really, so you might want them to work up more plot! It might feel a bit jumbled but you’ll find so much variety in the Planescape books and adventures that it will soon become just part of the background.