A Walk Through the Planes – Part 113: Diplomacy




While I’ve covered a fair number of planar adventures in Dungeon, the number that I’ve actually liked has been rather miniscule. The main cause for this, I suspect, is simply that most of what the magazine tended to publish was extremely combat heavy, which isn’t what I enjoy either reading or playing. Not that I hate combat, it’s a part of the game like so many others, but when it’s the focus of things I tend to get bored. Once you’ve played through enough combat encounters, both as a DM and as a PC, they get pretty same-y, whereas roleplaying weirdo characters in new situations never loses its luster. Anyhow, by issue #144 of Dungeon (March 2007), I was pretty tired of trudging through the magazine’s planar adventures, as even the better ones were just not my type of thing. Much to my surprise, though, “Diplomacy” by Christopher Wissel is exactly the sort of adventure I was looking for, and though imperfect, it’s perhaps the most unique planar story to grace these pages since “Umbra” way, way back in second edition. 

The story’s conceit, for one thing, stays away from many of D&D‘s cliches. One of the most powerful janni groups on the Prime wound up with some extremely lucrative extraplanar real estate consisting of the largest known diamond vein ever discovered… that they’re also unable to make use of, because it lies in the Plane of Earth (if you’re using second edition/Planescape’s cosmology, it’d be easy to move this to Mineral). Their leader decided to sell this land to the highest bidder, the difficulty being that at this level of wealth it’s questionable what exactly that means. Money itself has limited value once you go beyond a certain point, making favors and magical power far more enticing. Eventually, the janni amir decides on six finalists, who he wishes to have compete through debate in a neutral grounds demiplane he’s borrowing from the rilmani, The Gloaming. The Gloaming itself is pretty dull, as it’s just a small area controlled by the amir’s thoughts to conform to what he wishes. But the interplanar conflict at stake is worthwhile as an adventure and involves a few of the more powerful groups in the multiverse. 

The best piece of art for this adventure is still pretty meh, but at least the tertian looks recognizably like a tertian.

The players themselves are brought in to represent the guardinals of Elysium, and though the justification for why this is the case is a bit thin, that’s easily adjusted to fit your own campaign. Perhaps more concerning is that this is going to mean that the party is good-aligned, but oh well, not all adventures are fitting for every group of adventurers. The five diplomats arrayed against the PCs include an arcanoloth working for Shemeska (with heavily adjusted stats for 3.5 so as to make them no longer a pushover, though the math behind this is missing from the article), a mercane secretly working against the better interests of even his own people, a ridiculous Prime military commander who’s in way over his head, a tertian speaking on behalf of Primus and the rest of the modrons, and a xorn who offers to profit-share with the janni—though really he just wants to eat a lot of diamonds for lunch.


While there will likely be some combat involved with this scenario, especially at the very end if the fiend loses and throws a hissy fit, much of how the adventure plays out involves roleplaying these debates. Also important will be subterfuge and the use of spying, double-crossing, and magic to gain various advantages. It’s one of the few high level adventures that doesn’t try to nullify divination, in fact it encourages it, the difficulty being that the janni aren’t going to necessarily believe what you claim the divination showed you. There’s two rounds to these debates, plus several other events (likely a duel), and while you may not want to include every part of this adventure, it’s easy enough to alter the scenario to fit how you want this situation to play out, or to add a few more rounds and participants to make the whole affair even more epic. 


Oh, and when I mentioned divination above, I meant the ridiculous, often gamebreaking stuff. While “Diplomacy” lacks a combat focus, it’s still an extremely high level adventure, written for characters at about level 18. This is mostly reflected in some rather insane skill checks, which are inflated to the ludicrous heights of 3.5/Pathfinder, but otherwise this wouldn’t be difficult to adjust to fifth edition at a lower level. Hell, given the weirdness of stat checks at this level of 3.5, it would likely make for a better adventure when converted, simply because it would be a far more playable scenario.

Rob Lazzaretti contributed the adventure’s sole map, and honestly it didn’t even need the one. I think its inclusion was a reaction to players’ increasing expectation to have battle maps for everything, which was one of the unfortunate trends from Wizards during this period.

Despite how fun and engrossing “Diplomacy” was, there are a couple flaws that keep it from being a true classic. One of these is that including a mercane representing Union into the mix means that, as with any situation involving that cursed location, nothing makes much sense when you think about it for more than half a second. For instance, a group of Union bouncers could likely wipe out the entire janni race on their own. Compared with a butcher from that dumb town, arcanoloths and hierarch modrons are less than kobolds to a normal party of adventurers. This is never addressed, but it simply wrecks any semblance of “realism.” The math of Union screws up every other aspect of the game so irrevocably that the only real solution is to massively alter the city (maybe it’s… a normal planar city, not filled with monstrosities who can accidentally kill Demogorgon when sneezing?), or to make the mercane hail from elsewhere.


The other, perhaps more difficult-to-deal-with issue is that “Diplomacy,” like so many adventures both in Dungeon and the history of all roleplaying games, doesn’t plan for failure. While Wissel does note the possibility of failure, and has a couple brief ideas for how to salvage this situation, ultimately the adventure doesn’t do well with the fact that most likely players can’t fully succeed in this endeavor. And when they fail, it wouldn’t be with a party wipe, but rather with just a loss. This ends up leaving a lot to the DM. If things move smoothly, there’s a ton of material here, but if not you’re going to have to invent wholecloth your own adventure to fit the scenario. This isn’t a particularly bad thing, as the best adventures are really jumping off points for your own imagination, but it does mean that this isn’t a readymade situation you can just open up and play through. It’s likely that a lot of extra work goes into making “Diplomacy” actually function, and what this entails is going to be different for every group. 


It’s also not Wissel’s fault by any means that his adventure looks dopey. There are plenty of great artists Paizo worked with, both back then and today, but unfortunately none of them were hired for this particular job. I’m not going to name the artists involved, as that seems mean, but wow is it… wow. Fortunately, Rob Lazzaretti was brought in for cartography, which is to say he drew the adventure’s single map, though as with a lot of his work during this period it has that computer-assisted plasticity that fights against his obsessive attention to detail. It’s still the loveliest part of these pages by a huge margin, but it’s also not his best work. 

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