A Walk Through the Planes – Part 11: Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix




I know, it feels like we just did this, and that’s because in a way we already did. As noted before, MC8 Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix featured 71 monsters who carried over into Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix, and while their stats have been reworked a bit and experience values in particular have been adjusted, from a purely mechanical standpoint this book isn’t really necessary for anyone who owned the earlier work. Even the explanation on the book’s first page agrees that this is largely a reprint, describing its interior contents as “Being a Guide to Multiplanar Creatures from a Prior Monstrous Compendium—most notably the Outer Planes Appendix (MC8)—and other Sources.” We’re still in second edition and just a couple years removed from Paul LaFountain’s work, so in some sense the book really needs to justify its existence. 

Fortunately, it does so quite well by taking a completely Planescape-focused look at largely the same creatures. Let’s compare how the two books’ first entries read, as they’re for exactly the same “monster,” the angelic Aasimon. Here’s how OP8 begins:


Whereas Gehenna, Hades, and the NIne Hells are populated by fell beasts as terrible and evil as their planes, the upper planes are home to powerful beings of goodness and light. The stewards that attend the needs of these good entities are called the aasimon. They are powerful and dangerous creatures, but are tempered by kindness and compassion. Though they dwell primarily in the outer planes, very far removed from the affairs of mankind, aasimon are often called upon by those they serve to intervene in mortal causes to support the causes of goodness there. 

Now here’s Planescape MCAI:

Danis Twelve-Fingers, an inebriated scribe in the Indusium tavern in Sigil, tells (to anyone who passes his spot on the floor) his experience as chronicler of a battle on the slopes of Mount Celestia. Several legions of baatezu scaled the slope from the Gray Waste to Arborea. A wizard who learned of the conflict hired Danis to record it. Danis did not leave Sigil; instead, the wizard let him survey the field clairvoyantly.

“Awful, awful,” he says now. “First th’ fightin’, naturally, an’ then of a sudden I heard this call like a trumpet. Deafed me, it did. All th’ fiends turned, looked ’round, couldna see nothin’. Above sudden came this huuuuge light from nowhere! It burned ’em! It burned ever’thing! It burned my brain!” He hiccups and adds, “Come on, basher, buy a bub for a good ol’ sod, ‘ay?”

Most who know Danis call him an addle-cove and discount his story. But there is a vertical crater 200 feet tall carved from the slope of Mount Celestia, like an enormous bite. 

This kind of dangerous magic is wielded by the aasimon, proxies of the powers of good on the Upper Planes. However, their magic is tempered by kindness and compassion. Aasimon answer the calls of their masters to intervene in mortal causes throughout the Upper Planes.

Admittedly there is something to be said for concision in the first version, but in the revision we’re left with not simply all of the original language but also an attitude and view on these creatures. There’s editorializing, and myth-making, and I’m particularly fond of the fact that many discount Danis Twelve-fingers’ story entirely. Yes, the tonal difference is obvious, but this comes from the overall view the books have towards their audiences. LaFountain’s MC8 is written for an audience of readers from the prime material plane, being introduced to these creatures and this world. Conversely, the Appendix, like so much of Planescape, is written by insiders for other insiders. The same basic information is there, if you look for it, but it’s secondary to keeping the book’s readers within this world. 

I, uhh, definitely didn’t have a crush on the Cat Lord when I was younger, why would you possibly think that?

Some of the actual prose from the original reappears in the Appendix, with LaFountain’s exact language of “tempered by kindness and compassion” appearing in both, and after this his descriptions for the society and abilities of Aasimon are the same. But to say that this revision adds little would be to miss the point entirely. Planescape is fundamentally more about ideas, tone, and theme, then it is about smashing monsters, so if we’re going to require a book focused on monsters nonetheless, then it makes sense to give these parts of the listings the spotlight. Aasimon are supposed to inspire awe and fear, so how do we get that across to readers without saying literally, “make sure your players feel awe and fear when these holy warriors arrive”? The answer is to describe their appearance in just such a way. 


Not all of the book’s descriptions are created equally of course, and some of them are complete misfires, but the level of creativity on display throughout the book is extraordinary. There are quotes like the one above, but also poems, songs, snippets of ancient legends, traveller’s tales, and probably other formats I’m forgetting that the book’s authors, which seemed to include the editor Allen Varney as well as the “compilers” David Cook, Dori Hein, and David Wise, chose to include. The illustrations are often made to look as if cut out and pasted inside the book or sometimes drawn directly onto the pages, and are frequently accompanied by pull-quotes. The result of all of this is to keep the book inside the world, as if it’s a found object perhaps compiled by planars for their own use. While it functions perfectly well as a reference book for dungeon masters, I would argue it is written more so for people to read straight through and enjoy. 


The other reason to buy this book would be the art, which aside from the weirdly terrible cover art from Jeff Easley (what were they thinking???) is entirely by Tony DiTerlizzi. I’ve written a bit about his work before, as it’s one of the defining and most noticeable parts of the campaign setting, at least at the beginning, but let’s return to it now, as this book is the first real tour de force from him, with 96 pieces of individual art1.  Taste is subjective, so of course there are some people who won’t like DiTerlizzi’s work. Those people are wrong.

The molydeus, which is a demonic wolf-snake army recruiter/police officer wielding an axe. Damn, it’s like the setting reached straight into my nightmares.

I am no art critic, and can only describe what I see here in the broadest of terms, but what I find so compelling about his work is its combination of whimsical cartoonishness with dark realism. There are plenty of demons in this book, really that’s about a third of it, but they’re all somewhat goofy oddballs. At the same time, DiTerlizzi’s average citizens don’t look particularly happy, and there’s something grimy about the messiness of his linework. There’s a refusal to have neat, geometric structures that hearken to an idealized fantasy world, instead the sketchiness of his work hints at age and entropy, which fits perfectly with the setting. Characters’ armor is cobbled together and mismatched, and no one’s hair looks like it’s seen a barber in years if ever. His beasts all feel mythic, larger-than-life yet still somehow grounded like the feuding polytheisms that rule over this world. I’m certainly not the first person to say this book is worth purchasing for the artwork alone, and I also won’t be the last. 


Like the descriptions, the artwork varies pretty wildly in quality, but overall it’s an extraordinary achievement. I may not care much for the farastu talking in a bad cockney accent or the bodak’s cartoonish googly eyes, but these are quibbles, and also help emphasize that the book wasn’t written for me, necessarily. Quality control almost feels like it would cut a bit against the overall package, as much like the rest of the setting the pages here are often overflowing, whether with voice or image or ideas. The artist and designers are experimenting all throughout the book with what you can get away with in a fantasy-themed roleplaying game supplement, and either you find that exhilarating, in which case this is a great campaign setting for you, or you don’t care for it, in which case you should probably skip Planescape altogether. 

1. That’s right, I counted. 

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