Planescape Campaign Setting
Planescape Campaign Setting Capsule Review by Julian J. Kuleck on 04/04/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A great classic AD&D setting, Planescape puts the "fantastic" back in "fantasy".
Product: Planescape Campaign Setting
Author: David "Zeb" Cook
Page count: 192
Year published: 1994
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Julian J. Kuleck on 04/04/02
Genre tags: Fantasy
Planescape is an odd egg.
Perhaps not on the level of On the Edge or Human Occupied Landfill, but for what it is (and the publishing date), Planescape definitely comes across as the odd egg of the old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) settings. It doesn't focus on the standard demihuman races, nor does it contain a old of the fantasy cliches - no major orders of holy paladin knights, wizardry schools, etc. Even the dungeons and dragons of the game's title are conspiciously absent. That isn't to say they aren't there, but they're extremely downplayed when they are.
Now, granted, Dark Sun and Ravenloft did this several years earlier, but they more altered and parodied the conventions of western fantasy instead of dispensing with them entirely. Of course, Planescape has more than its fair share of parody - one Planescape product comments on the Forgotten Realms with the line "Isn't where they have all those dungeons & dragons?" It's clear that they really wanted to do something different with it, and different they did.
In many ways, it's a product of its times; style over substance is clearly prevalent here, as it was in other RPG products at the time. It might be said that Planescape was an aping of White Wolf's style - indeed, many of the elements, from lavish illustrations and to "factions" that divided characters along the lines of belief systems - are reminicent of the times. An odd black scroll marks the borders and often enroaches on the text, epitomizing the style over substance as sometimes large areas of the page are covered by nothing more than blackish, stylistic splotches.
In any case, the Planescape boxed set contains three books (A DM Guide to the Planes, A Player's Guide to the Planes, and Sigil & Beyond). Furthermore, it contains lavish maps, a dungeon master (DM) screen, and a small collection of monsters unique to the setting. The price of $30 is very reasonable for the amount of materials, especially now. While not as stunning as more recent D&D supplements, a small amount of color (mainly browns and tans) gives the illustrations an odd feel, one that is only compounded by the exaggerated style of DiTerlizzi, the main illustrator.
The DM's Guide to the Planes introduces the setting. Oddly enough, a fair amount of setting-based lingo is used in what is essentially a reference work. While not as heavy on the jargon as the other two books, it's more than a bit jarring, especially as this is the first book a prospective Planescape DM is likely to look at. Oddly enough, a glossary is nowhere to be found until the very end of Sigil & Beyond. Personally, I think the "planespeak" isn't hard to grasp after a short time, but some people have found it obtuse and confusing. While this is obviously another stylistic decision, it seems that the DM should really have the skinny on the vocabulary used right off the back.
In any case, the introduction is good, establishing that the "planes" - alternate dimensions and worlds connected through the Planescape cosmology (the same cosmology dating back to earlier AD&D products such as the original Player's Handbook and Manual of the Planes) - are a huge, sprawling setting of vast possibilities. From there, it gets into a discussion of how magic and magic items work in this cosmology. An obvious shoehorning of the AD&D magic rules makes this into a morass of needlessly comprehensive charts and figuring. While it's obvious that some magic isn't going to work on some planes (a plane of water does not take to fire spells well, for example), the cosmology gets to the point where even magic items become less effective taken off their own plane, and one has to keep track of the amount of planes between the magic item's place of origin and the current plane it resides on. Needless to say, this is a very "crunchy" section, and it's likely some DMs will want to simplify it or even skip it altogether. However, it also leaves a number of handy DM tools lying around as well, such as spell keys and power keys, pesky methods and items required to make certain spells work on certain planes. Combined with the portal keys described later, Planescape has ample room for adventure mcguffins without them seeming overly contrived or artificial. At the same time, though, the cosmology weighs down what's already a fairly complex spell system.
Next comes a description of the Planes themselves, and how to get through them. To their credit, a lot of ways are provided to do this, but none are so simple that beginning characters can run around hopping from plane to plane. While this can lead to rather blatant "railroading" at points, it thankfully keeps the methods of travel firmly in the DM's hands... and given the size and breadth of the setting, that's a relief, especially considering the fact that some places are hostile enough to kill unprepared characters pretty instantly. The planes themselves are nicely varied... though they cling to a certain level of AD&D tradition - the "outer planes" focus around the AD&D alignment system, and the elemental planes are around the old fantasy standard of air, fire, water, earth - there's enough variation towards the exotic and surreal that the selection is fairly facinating. From planes of pure salt to the caverns of a psionic brain-god, the stops are essentially pulled out. It's here that Planescape can be noticed as a truly fantastic setting, with more than just magic, monsters, and heroics being the "fantasy" elements - here, the very laws of some worlds lead to fantastic elements in and of themselves, whether it's a world consisting entirely of machine cogs or a plane where gravity is simply what way you envision as 'down'. In addition, old AD&D setting material, such as cites of Djinn or the "Gith" races, are used to much better effect than they often have been in the past. The only unfortunate thing is that the planes are largely reduced to one-page summaries. While enough to give a DM a "feel" for the plane, additional boxed sets and supplements such as Planes of Conflict or A Guide to the Astral Plane are required if the DM wants any in-depth information on the planes in question.
The Player's Guide to the Planes is next. Once again, more jargon, with the glossary being left to what is ostensibly a DM-only book (Sigil & Beyond). There's a very simplified rundown on the planes and the "core" setting of Sigil and the Outlands, as well as some planar "laws" (or perhaps supersitions). Next follows a listing of races. While the standard AD&D races are present, they take a back seat to the featured races of the setting, from Bariaurs (goat centaurs) to Tieflings (humans with a smidgen of infernal heritage). The races are fairly well-balanced, though some abilities (like the Githzerai's magic resistance or the Tiefling's once-per-day-magic-darkness or thief bonuses) are prone to possible abuse. Details are given on playing both characters from the featured setting or from other AD&D settings, should the DM so wish it.
Next up for detail are the the factions of Sigil. The factions are similar to the traditions of Mage, clinging to a particular worldview in the interest of theirs winning out. Planescape includes the notion of belief affecting how the planes are structured, so there's a solid reason for the "philosophers with clubs" having such an entrenched existence in the setting. Each gets a single-page writeup - a good summary, though lacking in proper detail (the book "The Factol's Manifesto", however, would go on to give each of the factions beautiful writeups). These are the "kits" for the old Planescape setting - each provides benefits and drawbacks to modify a character's chosen class, and all of them are fairly flexible and interesting, with few "duds" to be found, and even duds for the character usage (like the rather unappealing Harmonium) serve a viable purpose of the setting. The game pushes heavily for th characters to be faction members of one sort or another, which is workable for characters from the setting, but is more of a trial for characters from outside the central setting. Combine this of having the standard trouble of people playing characters from directly opposing factions, and there can real trouble. Though the idea of having "splats" was very much a product of the times, for the most part this section plays to the strengths of splats - having archetypes, support, and goals for a character to draw upon - without falling too hard into the stereotyping splats can undermine a game with.
Sigil & Beyond is the third book in the box, detailing the focused settings of Planescape. Sigil is a interplanar city that's home to hundreds of portals or doors that lead from one plane to another, and the Outlands is the area surrounding Sigil, in a metaphorical if not a literal sense. The first part of the book contains tips for the DM on running a Planescape campaign. Though it's a bit odd to find this in the "setting" book rather than the "DM" book, the tips are fairly good, emphasizing ideas and odd settings over the tried-and-true AD&D plunder-the-baddies style of play. It's worthwhile noting than unlike either older or newer versions of (A)D&D, though gods ("powers") play a major part, they are not statted out; it's simply assumed that gods are simply too big for even "epic-level" characters to face, much less combat. Of course, one major difference in the setting is that since creatures like demons and devils are prevalent, civilized, and far too powerful and numerous for even the mightiest paladin to consider wiping out. In fact, Planescape was the major setting to bring back infernal creatures after the big satan = D&D scare removed them from the game, though they did it under names like "Tanar'ri" and "Yugoloth". Though it's a bit odd to see such a stat-focused, level-by-level programmed progression game like AD&D take this sort of approach, it is also oddly refreshing to see them take a stab at it.
The next section details the Outlands - the "neutral" outer plane, and home to numerous mini-realms from a dwarven land of the dead to "gate-towns" that reflect the nature of the plane they border up against. Most of these are interesting. Though, once again, descriptions are short, the places in question are small enough that quick writeups are much more usable. This is topped off with more magic rules for the Outlands in particular. While still fairly crunchy, these bits are bit easier to grasp than the overall magic rules listed in the DM's Guide.
The next section of the book (finally) details Sigil, the central location for Planescape. As such, it gets a lot more detail than the previous setting information... easily the majority of "Sigil & Beyond" is dedicated to it. A lot of basic facts and "flavor" is covered, and Sigil has a bit of a "British industrial hell-town" feel to it. The factions run things like political parties, and there's no real nobility to speak of, save perhaps the more well-to-do merchants. The setting is built with a surprising amount of logic and fantasy combined, with it using it's natural resource (dimensional portals) well and sensibly. Figures like the Lady of Pain not only add to the setting, but also ensure than the old AD&D "kill and take shit" impulse is of limited effectiveness. Sigil is well-defended against even dieties, so the likelihood of a character power-gaming his way through the city on his blade alone are infinitesmal. Rather, the politics of the city are a much more likely route for adventuring, and the dark setting keeps conflict between the factions (and between the interplanar creatures, servants of powers, etc.) as a ripe source of plots without making it overwhelming that it dominates the game utterly.
Sigil & Beyond finishes with two "quick-start" adventures. The first is just a basic idea to suck characters from one setting into Sigil, while the other gives characters already in the setting a good moral dilemma regarding the afterlife. Both are mainly just hooks, and will require further fleshing out for actual usage. Finally, the much-awaited glossary takes a bow, explaining all the jargon that's been used in the past three books, for better or for worse.
The monstrous supplement for the Planescape boxed set presents twelve creatures in the old AD&D fashion. It's a questionable grab bag of critters, only of which two are native to Sigil (the Cranium Rats and Dabus), with the others being everything from Spirits of the Air (monkeylike servants of wind deities) to the Barghest (demon-goblins). Though most of the creatures are fairly nice (and with full-color illustrations), I can't help but imagine a more focused listing of creatures geared to the Outlands and Sigil would be appropriate. Some of the creatures (like the Aleax) also aren't really appropriate for what is a "starting-out" set like this, and so the section seems like more of a teaser for the Monstrous Compendiums to follow rather than something strictly necessary.
Finally, there's a selection of maps - one of the Outlands, one of the Planes, and one of Sigil. While not deep on detail (which is forgivable considering that the maps 'alter' every now and then anyway), they are serviceable and well-drawn. Illustrations of Sigil and some of the realms in the Outlands are provided as well, along with a picture of all of the heraldry for the factions. The DM screen includes large listings of what gods reside where, as well as the makeup of the planes (and locations therein).
Overall, this was a very solid offering from TSR. While it is style over substance, the wealth of ideas contained within it is just overwhelming. To me (and this a strictly personal viewpoint) 'stock' fantasy has ceased to be fantastic; elves and dwarves and mighty wizards has been done so often that it has become mundane. Planescape is fantasy in a much truer sense of the word, where wonderous things happen because they happen and there isn't any greater explanation required.
While out of print, Planescape is available as an ESD (PDF download) for purchase on TSR's web store.
Planescape adapts to the newer d20 version of D&D with surprisingly little conversion (mainly in the monster department). While Planescape is no longer a featured setting for D&D 3e, it has been drawn upon for other books - the new Monster Manual, Manual of the Planes, Forgotten Realms, Monsters of Faerun, etc., all draw upon Planescape elements at one point or another. The adventure Lord of the Iron Fortress even features a gate-town and a faction - so it's clear that Planescape has been absorbed into other "core settings" like Greyhawk. While many of the monsters require painful and laborous conversions, a number have already been converted in other books, and the kits from Planescape have become prestige classes (as featured in Dragon #287 and at http://planehopping.tripod.com/). While heavy on the pocketbook, it would not be terribly difficult to use Planescape with the newer rules. In fact, given the way Planescape "feels", it might even be best to excise D&D altogether and use a much more rules-lite system like Risus or Big Eyes, Small Mouth.
In any case, I highly recommend this old gem. Though, as with nearly any game, it's highly reliant on supplements for further fleshing out, but the initial picture presented is quite solid. It can easily be used as a lark for characters in an existing game, a change of setting, or as a setting entirely on its own. Though it may have difficulty standing up to the crunchy quality of the more recent support for worlds like Forgotten Realms, it's an incredible fantasy setting without borders.