Planes of Chaos

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 12: Planes of Chaos




For obvious reasons, most roleplaying game supplements are only useful for the game they’re written to, well, supplement. They’re full of crunch, numbers that tell you how their new rules alter gameplay, and often focus on adding options for players or game masters in the form of new tables. They layer on complexity by growing game mechanics, and with this are only of interest to truly committed players, the type of people who make role playing into their primary hobby. Conversely, what I love so much about Planescape’s many supplements is that aside from its adventures (which even so are usually quite different from adventures from the 70s and 80s, given their focus on character and story rather than dungeon crawls), they’re almost the exact opposite of this. Tables and rules barely enter into Planes of Chaos, instead we’re given hundreds of pages of lore and worldbuilding, the basic building blocks of adventures largely agnostic as far as gameplaying systems are concerned. Like the setting itself, you could use Chaos with practically any RPG system, as it’s not about tables or character skills, it’s about exploring the setting. 

As a result, the outer planes box sets that are perhaps the flashiest part of the official Planescape line are well worth reading regardless of disinterest in playing AD&D‘s somewhat janky second edition. If you’re into worldbuilding or fantasy, Chaos is simply a fun supplement to read through, especially if you’re into roleplaying games, with ideas and locations easily adaptable into almost anywhere. AD&D‘s second edition was a golden age for players interested in putting roleplaying first in their roleplaying games, and few releases show this off as much as this one and its later siblings. It’s not my favorite boxed set in the setting, but it’s still a lovely package filled with wonder and ideas. 


As detailed on the back of the box, its contents consist of:

The Book of Chaos, a 128-page guide for the Dungeon Master to the places, creatures, and special conditions of the five Chaos Planes;

The Travelogue, a 48-page player’s guide to these planes, profusely illustrated with full color maps and illustrations;

Chaos Adventures, a 32-page adventure book containing 3 adventure outlines for each plane—that’s 15 adventures in all!

Monstrous Supplement, a 32-page booklet detailing 15 new monsters, including new tanar’ri, the inhabitants of Yggdrasil, and the ever-changing creatures of Limbo; and

Five fully detailed maps of the realms of Chaos.

I appreciate breaking the set up into manageable-sized books, but really this set is more something to read through like a novel, not so much a reference while playing. There’s not much reason to ever bring it to a night of gameplaying, as it’s more a set of planning documents to be used by the DM. But at the same time, what a joy it is to read through. Let’s get to the bottom line early: it’s completely worth the purchase, even though like the base setting it will mostly sit on my shelf gathering dust, as it’s quite possible to run an entire Planescape campaign for years without going to any of these planes, such is the sheer scope of the setting. 

Admittedly, there is a decent amount of repetition between the books, sometimes at random, particularly between the “Travelogue” and the “Book of Chaos.” Since few will read these back-to-back in short succession the way I did, this isn’t much of a problem though. Really, the set’s main oddity from what readers might expect is that it feels both massive and a little bit skimpy at times, given that it focuses on so many planes, including the infinite infinities of the Abyss. Each layer, let alone plane, is infinite, not to mention that areas within these layers are subjectively large or small. Compared with something like the boxed sets on The Forgotten Realms, there’s a sketchy feeling to the set, a sense that each one of the planes could easily have filled this many pages on its own, and as such the unknown looms large even in the resources just for dungeon masters. 

This picture is worth five infinities-worth of words.

Of the set’s books, the “Travelogue” is the most beautiful (full color!) and also the best read, while the “Book of Chaos” is the most detailed. But really, all of them feel like pieces of a package (a set even, fancy that), such that it’s a little difficult to separate what appears in them by book and kind of defeats the point. It feels far more natural to write about the planes themselves, their five brands of chaos with wildly varying levels of creativity between them. There’s a reason this is how one of the later sets divides up its material, but there’s no reason why we can’t do so now.

The Abyss is probably the most famous plane here, and it’s one we’ve covered before in both Queen of the Demonweb Pits and The Throne of Bloodstone. What appears here lines up well with what’s come before, aside from removing Orcus from the mix for reasons we’ll discuss more below. My favorite part of the set’s details on the plane is the list of layers as discovered by the Fraternity of Order on the back of the Abyss’s map, which covers not just a bunch of the usual greater demons’ planes, but also plenty of other unholy hellscapes. This offers not only plenty of examples creative DMs can take a cue from, but also some sublime worldbuilding. For example:


LAYER THE SECOND, called the “Driller’s Hives,” discovered in the fifth year of the reign of Clarille, factol of the Fraternity of Order, by the good and loyal followers of the faction now resting in the Fraternity’s hospice.

Only the Lord-Provost’s group has returned from its journey, at half its strength and half-mad with tales of a plane of gargantuan insect hives eternally at war with one another. The bodies of the returning members are riddled with wounds drilled deep into their flesh by these insect creatures. The air of the plane of the Hives transformed the flesh of many of Carolan’s company into insect creatures themselves, though paladins seemed immune. Sir Carolan has accepted a commission to oversee the Order’s affairs in Mechanus. 

This is the type of storytelling I absolutely devour. While there are some attempts at making the Abyss (or at least its first layer) hospitable enough compared with its appearance in Throne, for the most part it seems to be just the hellscape anyone would hope for. As with the rest of the set, there’s enough dangling adventure threads for anyone interested in running something here, but at the same time the Abyss is far too capacious for even the most learned sages of this world to understand. The immensity of this chaotic evil feels overwhelming, as it should. As with Hell/Baator, this is a plane that would see a lot of future support, both through Planescape and many later Dungeons & Dragons settings. That being said, this is the first time that what’s written about it feels definitive and truly lasting. Queen & Throne offered us glimpses of what the plane offers, but it’s not until here that the full scope of the Abyss feels evident. 

Conversely, while the goal with The Abyss is to create an area that’s deadly but at least slightly survivable by low-level characters, with Arborea the set really has its work cut out for it in making this area remotely interesting to adventure in. Previously known as Olympus, Arborea is the plane of pure chaotic good, and hosts both the elven and Olympian pantheons. Both of these are, at least to me, incredibly boring. The second layer isn’t much better, with just an ocean of goodness peppered with the somehow even-more-dull water elfs, but at least the designers came up with something interesting for the third layer. Drawing on the solitary sentence describing Pelion in The Manual of Planes, it’s “a layer of sand and dust, where nothing grows, and is rumored to contain only dead gods.” This layer is barely described here too, given just a few paragraphs in comparison with dozens of pages nattering on about elfs, but at the same time it offers a place to actually adventure out here. Does the layer make much sense as a part of the plane of pure chaotic good? Not really, but that’s less important than imbuing this world with something of interest to those of us who find these pantheons dull. 

A Lillend from Ysgard, one of the few elements of the plane not drawn from Norse mythology and, accordingly, not crazy boring.

With Limbo, the set offers up what is essentially an elemental plane of chaos. The entire world is composed of a formless, chaotic “soup” (admittedly, I don’t totally understand the description…) which can be turned into a livable space through mental effort. It’s an idea that works well in creating a completely new type of space for players to visit, an environment never really seen before in roleplaying games and perhaps in fantasy at all, and at the same time the set does its best to explain places of note beyond this morass of chaotic nonsense. People live here, and while it’s weird, there’s a logic to its chaos that makes it seem livable. I’m particularly enamored of the halfling town Barnstable, which maintains its existence by enlisting its entire population to take shifts in concentrating on keeping the city from dissolving into the chaotic soup that surrounds it. I don’t find the Githzerai terribly interesting, nor the slaad (they both seem too violent and unchanging to be of much interest), but I appreciate showing us how other societies might be built out here. I’ve never taken an adventure to Limbo, but Barnstable is the type of place that makes it worth considering. 

My least favorite of the planes in the set is Ysgard, likely because, again, I don’t find adventuring amongst real world pantheons very interesting, or at least not western ones. That being said, the entire plane seems like a terrifying place since its petitioners return to life every day, and as such they tend to attack first and ask questions never. Sadly, all three layers of the plane are largely devoted to this mythology, and my eyes really glaze over when reading about all of this. That being said, the plane’s second layer, Muspelheim, is largely inhabited by lawful evil fire giants, despite that making absolutely no sense for how the whole great wheel is supposed to work. As a whole, Ysgard’s sections were the only parts of the set that I occasionally skimmed. I just can’t force myself to care about Norse mythology, even in this context. Maybe this section is good if you really care about what Thor’s longhouse looks like or that sort of thing, I have no real way of judging, but for me it makes for perhaps the only outer plane worth skipping entirely, and I don’t just mean in this set. 


The sole bright spot in Ysgard for me is the Infinite Staircase, but at this point it’s mostly a hint of good ideas to come, and it would be years before these would really come to fruition. We’ll come back to this one day, as for now this is just a solitary cool idea surrounded by a bunch of Norse nonsense.

Pandemonium, on the other hand, is a joy to read. The plane was given less than a page of writing in the Manual of the Planes, meaning that Lester Smith and Wolfgang Bauer could really do largely whatever they wanted with the place. Their decision was to make the plane not just a place of wind and sound, but one of madness. Everyone here is insane, and it’s only a question of just how bad it’s gotten for them. The set introduces us to The Harmonica, an area clearly designed but long since deserted by its original inhabitants, and the fleshing out of Agathion, a layer consisting entirely of small bubbles inside infinite solid rock. Pandemonium is unique and original, a perfect place for adventurers of all levels, and a place where DMs’ imaginations are free to run just as wild as the writers. While it’s supposed to be the least inhabited of all the outer planes, its structure of small villages dealing with a frightening but not-overwhelming wilderness means it’s actually an excellent place to run a campaign. It’s probably the most hospitable of the lower planes to low-level adventurers, and its endless ruins feel like an easy way to create semi-plausible dungeons. 

I always interpreted this to be the Wand of Orcus.

It’s also in Pandemonium where we find the biggest metaplot hints about what would eventually come to pass in Planescape. It’s noteworthy that Orcus’ name is never mentioned in this set, despite his plane Thanatos being given a couple pages of detail. This layer of the Abyss is now being ruled by Kiaransalee, a drow goddess of vengeance and the undead,who “recently wrested this plane from the former Abyssal lord of the undead. That lord’s name is never spoken now, as Kiaransalee has decreed that it must be struck from each monument, slave band, and scroll.” Her realm, Naratyr, matches up quite well with what we’ve seen from Throne, and so old players are clearly meant to understand what happened here. At the same time, we have the section on Pelion discussing other dead gods, and this highly suspicious image that appears both in the “Travelogue” and the “Book of Chaos” when Agathion comes up, an item that’s clearly supposed to at least remind players of the Wand of Orcus. The return of Orcus is one of the biggest storylines in the setting, and already it’s being heavily foreshadowed. 


As I said, this isn’t the best boxed set for Planescape, in fact other than the incredibly weird one on the Outlands it’s the worst. Part of this comes from the planes themselves being mediocre at times, more based on real mythology than creative new ideas, but there’s also a lot of dreck in the “Chaos Adventures” book. Unlike the other three books, the collection of single-page adventures was a slog to read through, and many of the suggested ideas felt forced or otherwise poorly thought out. As the setting was still quite new here, we really did need examples for what players should do out here, but this just isn’t a good collection. Case in point, I finished reading these just a few days ago and have trouble remembering a single adventure prompt. 

Useful as a map? Hardly. Useful as a feeling? Hell yes.

And pulling this whole set together is the design and art, much of which is by Tony DiTerlizzi, though “Chaos Adventures” mostly features work by Dana Knutson. The real treat here, though, is the cartography. “Wow!” is an understatement here. Most of the set’s maps, including the posters, were by Rob Lazzaretti, who had the unenviable task of figuring out how to illustrate a multitude of infinities. While these aren’t perhaps the most useful supplements for actually getting around these planes, the set’s many maps do a stellar job depicting the tone and ideas of these planes. The result is that while you may have difficulty conceptualizing how Ysgard’s earthbergs actually look when you read about them, there’s no way of seeing these maps and not understanding how an adventure there is supposed to make players feel. Every one of these is a gem. 

Despite all of my criticism, this is still a vital and completely necessary set for any fans of the planes. What’s more, these boxed sets would only get better from here, as this was TSR’s first time creating one of these so they hadn’t quite figured out what worked best yet. Even better, future sets will hardly mention the Norse pantheon at all, leaving us to spend more time with D&D‘s home-grown weirdness instead.

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